All coaching advice is not created equal. If you want to work with some that truly sees you because they have felt the pain of not being seen, hire a black coach.
Like all kids growing up in the 90s, I watched a lot of Oprah. And many, many episodes have stuck with me through the years.
I still hear “never let them take you to the second location” in the back of my mind whenever I feel a sense of danger.
I learned that from Gavin De Becker, a security specialist and guest on Oprah.
I remember the season Oprah went on tour with Tina Turner while rocking a Tina Turner-style wig. And I still have the gospel according to Oprah, aka The Path Made Clear, at the ready whenever I’m facing a particularly challenging life issue.
That book sums up all of the lessons from Oprah’s 25 years of shows, so there likely is an answer to all of life’s problems somewhere in that book.
My point here is I’m basically an Oprah Show historian. So when I made the connection between an Oprah episode from the early 2000s and a pattern I see in the coaching industry today, I immediately went to YouTube to check out my theory.
As I watched clips from the show online, my suspicions were confirmed.
The episode was part of a series about families in debt. On the show, a financial coach outlined her framework for debt freedom and then worked directly with families in crisis who were invited guests of the show.
One of those guests was an African American family named “The Bradleys.”
As part of the family’s new financial plan, the financial coach insisted that Mrs. Bradley cut out her weekly trips to the hair salon. The coach thought the expense was excessive, unnecessary and that the Bradleys could save a lot more if she just did her hair herself.
As you can imagine, Mrs. Bradley wasn’t having any of it.
She disagreed with this well-meaning, white woman and told the financial coach that there was no way she was cutting out her trips to the salon. So the expert brought the issue to Oprah and the studio audience for their perspective.
Given the series’s theme, you might expect Oprah to immediately side with her expert and tell Mrs. Bradley to cut out her trips to her salon.
But Oprah sided with Mrs. Bradley. Oprah explained that going to the hair salon for a black woman isn’t a luxury. It is a necessity that must be factored into every black woman’s budget.
As soon as Oprah told the financial expert this, every black woman in the audience (and every black woman at home) cheered and laughed in recognition.
To the white financial coach, the hair salon was an impractical luxury and frivolous expense.
To black women, hair care goes much deeper than superficial beauty. It’s the starting point for claiming our beauty and self-worth in a culture that continually says everything about us is unattractive and unworthy.
You might be thinking, What’s the big deal? Mrs. Bradley decided against the expert’s advice and planned to continue to go to the salon anyway. So no harm, no foul, right?
Not so fast.
The problem with this interaction isn’t in the production of the Oprah Show or in Mrs. Bradley’s response.
The real issue is that the coach didn’t seek to understand her clients’ values or culture before giving advice. It wasn’t until Oprah Winfrey weighed in from her position of power and influence that the financial expert relented and modified the family’s financial plan.
It’s not uncommon for people who hold authority and power to dismiss the lived experience, opinions, and preferences of black women. We know that trauma intimately.
But when a coach dismisses the lived experience of her clients, as the Bradley family experienced on Oprah, she calls into question their values and overrides their agency.
By questioning Mrs. Bradley’s expense so vehemently and bringing the debate to the Oprah show, that financial expert was saying, “I don’t value you what you value, and therefore, your values are wrong.”
When Oprah laid down the law, from her position of power, having built a media empire, she effectively restored agency to Mrs. Bradley. She let everyone and Mrs. Bradley know that her values were sound and needed to be taken into account.
As a coach myself, I wonder how many women, particularly women of color, are in relationships with coaches who do not see, listen, or understand their needs. Often the black women I speak to are paying coaches who don’t invest enough time in really understanding their lives.
Like the financial expert on Oprah, these coaches tell their clients to stop spending money on fancy photos and websites and to instead invest in marketing.
If those coaches understood how harshly people of color are evaluated on everything they present publicly, they would side-eye the standard advice that “you don’t need a polished website to launch your business” like I do.
For black business owners, those decisions aren’t that simple.
As a coach, it’s natural to reach for our manifestos and dogmas to reinforce the beliefs that we teach. But we’ve all seen examples of those coaching tenets fall flat through the professional critiques of gurus like Byron Katie and Tony Robbins. But the problem of not really seeing your clients, reaches down to coaches at every level.
As a woman of color and coach, it takes daily practice and dedication to reach first for understanding before judgment and mantras. So when I coach my clients, I make a conscious choice to see my clients first and then to walk with them on the path of success that they choose.
I also choose not to buy into those traditional coaching models that promote transformation and healing without reckoning with the harmful effects of racism, sexism, homophobia, and oppression on everyone.
You can’t see someone if your response to that type of oppression is “change your thoughts, change your life.” That’s not helpful or empathetic. There is nothing transformative about shallow quotes or B.S.
So this is my work as a coach. Coaching changed so many things in my life for the better. Still, the more I am immersed in this industry, the more I understand that clients in marginalized groups need advocates and leaders who care about their whole lives, not about dogma.
And because of our experiences in the country and the amount of work we had to do become coaches and entrepreneurs, black coaches have the 20/20 vision needed to see someone today while holding a vision for what is possible in their future.