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“But you don’t even sound Black…you’re like the whitest Black person, I know.”
My white coworker stopped and waited for a response. And, I took a deep breath.
As a Black woman working in a Predominately White Institution (PWI), I was familiar with aggressive behavior like strangers and coworkers touching my hair to micro-aggressive comments like these.
On any other day, I might have let the comment roll off my shoulders. But, I was exhausted, genuinely curious, and a little angry. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“I mean, you sound so…eloquent,” she sputtered. “Like, I wouldn’t know you were Black if I talked to you on the phone.” Her voice cut off before adding “I meant it as a compliment.”
Maybe you can relate.
While this particular incident happened a few years ago, I have yet to forget it.
This wasn’t the first time I have heard a white person attempt to pay me a “compliment” by decentering my Blackness through the rigorous insistence and normalization of respectability politics.
When I wear my natural hair in weaves or braids, I have been told that I look professional as opposed to when I wear my hair natural.
When I wear large earrings or especially bright colors, I have been told I look “ghetto” rather than when I wear neutral colors and pearls.
To be fair, the “ghetto” remarks have been few. But, the concept remains: Blackness is equated with unemployment and unprofessionalism.
This sum zero insistence of Black Ebonics and narrow understanding of Blackness as standard for Black authenticity is rooted in supremacist ideology and yet permeates much of (white) corporate America.
two year study conducted in 2016 by Stanford University which concluded that when Asian Americans and Black American’s “whiten” their resumes, they are more employable than Black and Asian resumes which left ethnic details intact.
Blackness shows up in a variety of multiplicities. To counter the stereotypes, Black Twitter has created hashtags like #blackgirlmagic, #blackboyjoy, #blackgirlswhocode, #becauseofthemwecan and #blackexcellence to remind America that Black people are educated, employable and showing up in corporations and institutions around the nation.
As someone who has worked in predominately white spaces, I have observed how easy it is for people with limited access to racial diversity to assume and perpetuate damaging stereotypes.In fact, I have done it too. How we learn and commit to fail forward is critical to allyship.
It’s easy to relegate others to stereotype when you don’t know them. It’s even easier when the prejudice is backed by historical and structural precedent.
I wasn’t particularly offended by my coworkers’ comment…mostly because I had experienced worse and know that I will probably continue to experience worse.As a Black woman in an interracial relationship, peers and coworkers have relentlessly inquired about my husband’s sexual preference: was he as good as a Black man, is he only into me because he has a fetish for Black women? Strangers have spit on me while others had followed me in their vehicles while yelling profanities. And, I’ve been docked professional points during past reviews for my appearance.
So sure, while this particular incident may not be as big as others, the fact remains that her words were fundamentally inappropriate and offensive.
Even though I’m not sure that this particular coworker meant to insinuate that Black people are incapable of speaking in Kings English, the incident has stayed with me, nonetheless.The impact of her words and actions mattered more than her intent.
Here is what I have experienced and observed: when Black employees are hired in PWI’s, Black employees are often relegated to roles which also include being tokenized commentators. In PWI’s, we become the token Black friend. The one that proofs company articles for racism. The one that is always in company stock photos. The one that is always “best suited for the job” when dealing with black or brown clientele. The one that is expected to do all of the emotional, mental and educational labor into differentiating racism often without support, corporate backing, compensation or institutional power.
And, being the only or one of a few Black.opportunities often means being the target of gaslighting tactics. When there is only one or a few, it is easier for companies to deny wrongdoing. Starbucks isn’t racist, it is just that Jamal has an attitude issue and takes things personally.All of this shit is exhausting. And yet this shit is also painfully and nauseatingly normal.
In my opinion, microaggressions are everywhere. And, in my experience, tackling microaggressions is particularly critical in traditional educational spaces, spaces of worship, and places of employment.Primary and secondary educational institutions are charged with providing an education which foster a welcoming and safe environment for everyone.
Places of worship often (albeit not nearly enough) utilize slogans like all are welcome.
Places of employment are required to provide EEOC and, for some, D&I statements. And, campaigns like I Too Am Harvard and satirical pieces like Insecure, Dear White People, A Black Lady SketchShow and She’s Gotta Have It attempt to illustrate how microaggressions amplify already alienating environments.
In Simba Runyowa’s 2015 Atlantic Article “Microaggressions Matter
”, Runyowa points out: “microaggressions point out cultural difference in ways that put the recipient’s non-conformity into sharp relief, often causing anxiety and crises of belonging on the part of minorities. When your peers at a prestigious university express dismay at the ability of a person of color to master English, it calls your present in that institution into question and magnifies your difference in ways that can be alienating. It can even induce imposter syndrome or stereotype threat…”
Living in spaces which force you to defend your existence and right to take up space is exhausting.Maybe you can relate.
And, all that shit can causes stress. A lot of it.
For me, part of existing in predominately white spaces means arriving solidly in my body and being ready for any number of microaggressions to bodily violations. Strangers touch my hair. Coworkers touch my body. For many Black people in white spaces, having body autonomy is a privilege rather than a right. I imagine that women and persons within in the LGBTQIA community also know what that is like. Maybe you do as well.
And yet our refusal to give up through our insistence on showing up and taking up space is a testament to our courage and a testament of our vow: we are here, we deserve to be here, and we rise, we rise, we rise.