“My supervisor (of six months) just the other day ‘acted out’ a phone conversation she and I had last week. I disagreed with her statement and told her so; she took offense with me ‘challenging’ her and called it insubordination. I had no issue with her hearing the words I’d said in a different tone. What I took issue with was the rolling of her eyes, shaking her head from side to side in concert with her pointed finger as if Winona Brown had jumped out of the television and into her seat. Anyone who knows me, knows that I am not the head shaking, finger pointing, rolling eye sister girl she was portraying, but I had somehow, over the phone, given her that impression. The very impression, mind you, I’ve spent my life trying to disprove as the typical black woman’s reality. I had to stop her and say, ‘But please, can you do me a favor? When you hear me speak, try not to see that (head-shaking and finger-pointing along with her to emphasize my point). I’m not THAT girl.’ Can clothing really change the images ingrained in one’s psyche?”
I posted this comment on Facebook last month along with a video that ABC’s Nightline ran earlier this month [https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152886158212801], which told of a father’s decision to only allow his sons to wear “proper” clothing; athletic gear is appropriate only when they are “obviously” participating in a sport activity. The comments I received and those seen on other posts spoke volumes.
A friend I’ve known since grade school reasoned in his remarks, “Honestly, I do see two sides. On one hand the ‘proper’ dressing may help those who judge with initial prejudice to ‘give us a break’ but those who fall into bigotry/racism will always act the same no matter the package! My humble opinion…”
One of my mentors, Mia K. Wright, is the executive director of an international women’s conference and an American woman of “apparent” Afro-Caribbean descent who has raised three sons. Pastor Mia offered a statement as well, “Wow – the video really saddened me mainly by realizing that WE are the only race of people who have to go to this extreme just to keep our sons alive. It’s such a disproportionate life for African Americans. I do think some of the things the man insists upon for his sons may make others ‘feel’ less threatened by their presence, however, it won’t eradicate it. To your question – can clothing really change the images ingrained in ones psyche? Perhaps to a degree when there are huge gaps in the clothing (casual vs business) But in your case, you wear business clothes to work. That’s all she’s seen you wear. Her mental image was of what she perceived happening even though it wasn’t happening. Bottom line is that you could wear Ralph Lauren to work as a uniform and she’d still have her mental image of you talking. Try to avoid phone conversations with her and request to meet in person.”
I thanked them and told Pastor Mia I would definitely heed her wise advice when I interact with this supervisor. I would be lying if I didn’t reveal the one concern I still considered: which “identity” would my supervisor remember when handling my evaluation only days away? (I’m pleased to announce my evaluation was fair and uncompromising. I didn’t get what I wanted in the way of my review; but I felt it was her honest opinion.) My hope is that I am equally as fair in my thoughts when preparing to meet with her independent of others. After all, she deserves the opportunity to exist free of my bias if I expect the same in return. Additionally, it is now my unspoken duty to help her form a different opinion of me and all other women who in her view look and act as I do; because I, like Shirley Chisholm, “am, was, and will always be a catalyst for change.”
I don’t have any new answers for the constant struggle with racial identity and the problem of how America sees our sons. I sympathize with the father Nightline profiled but I don’t agree with his method. His sons are learning to live in fear, as I suppose so many are today; and he has added even more pressure on their poor burdened souls.
Forgive me, please, but I am very passionate about this. I may seem overly-sensitive to you; and I am often accused of reading more into things. But there’s a good reason I think we should continue fighting to negate the negative portrayals of black people and especially black males that are liberally ingrained into societal thoughts with common imagery and symbolism. And that’s the point: it’s so overwhelmingly obvious that it seems unreal. Black men and boys are no different from white males in their pain and outrageous hormones-in-overdrive youth, but they are constantly and consistently seen in a different light. We are all guilty of preconceptions we carry around like accessories, pulling them out to judge those we aren’t familiar with. But it’s time we all own up to the actions accompanying those judgements. If I have an opinion of black men based on the movies I watch, the advertising in the sports magazine left in the lobby at my doctors office, and the lyrics to the only gangster rap song they play on the Top 40 radio station I listen to as I’m driving in to work each day, my coworker of Afro-Caribbean heritage is the exception to the rule; and I tell him so — every chance I get. You’ve heard the saying, “art imitates life.” I believe the opposite is equally true; life imitates art. The confusion lies in which was true first.
The comments I received on my Facebook post triggered a memory I think I must have repressed long ago; but I can see it all so vividly with my older, wiser eyes; and it hurts more than I believed anything ever could, simply because what I know now could have quite possibly produced an alternate outcome. No, I’m not blaming myself; I just wish my younger self could have known me now! Brace yourselves; because this is a long story, I’ll need to post a “Part 2.” Trust that each word is necessary and each part of the story is integral to the next.
Dialogue initiates action. I’m looking forward to your (and your friends’) comments; hope you’ll stick around for the rest of my story.