It’s time for my professional association’s conference banquet.
An old college buddy has invited me to be her date. I’m excited. I used to attend these kinds of professional networking events all the time in college and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I wash my hair and leave-in conditioner it up. I blow dry it using a diffuser so the curls stay just right and don’t frizz when they come into contact with the humidity and the thunderstorms of the night. Then I carefully part it down the middle and smooooooth it down followed by gelling my edges with a toothbrush.
My make-up is modest. (That’s my go-to for my professional events.) A little foundation, highlight, natural blush, bold mascara and a bright red lip. I put on a sensible, pointy, low heel with a cute black and white pattern that pairs wonderfully with my black, faux sweetheart neck, A-line dress. One final lip blot, the pairing of my outfit with my graphic printed wristlet, and I’m ready.
I stop by my office to pick up some business cards – it is a networking opportunity after all. Then I’m off, ready to be back in the world I’ve missed so much. I’m kind of a dork so I enjoy professional conferences, networking with those who enjoy the craft as much as I do, and learning more in general.
When I park my car in the garage and walk to the elevator, I receive compliments from the other passengers on my professional appearance.
I get off the elevator and call my friend who I hadn’t seen in a year as I walk into the ballroom. I notice her, hang up, and walk toward the table with my happiest smile on. It was as I approached the table and felt the atmosphere shift, as I saw the exchanged side-eye glances between crisp, clear, white wine glasses, as I saw the whispers that snapped back into a cheshire smile, the unhidden glares, along with those who wore genuine, friendly invites that I realized my mistake – I showed up to this event Black.
Not just black, mind you, but proudly Black, on clear display.
Dang it! Not again! When was I going to fix this?
There were three more black people here. I didn’t scope them out it was just, you know, easy to see. A man who had brought his wife, and another well put-together Black lady who I made note to ask where she’d gotten her dress. We were like four sore thumbs. Not because we didn’t get the correct memo, but because that was the energy the room gave off.
It was as I approached the table and felt the atmosphere shift, as I saw the exchanged side-eye glances between crisp, clear, white wine glasses, as I saw the whispers that snapped back into a cheshire smile, the unhidden glares, along with those who wore genuine, friendly invites that I realized my mistake
– I showed up to this event Black.
I’d messed up.
I’d forgotten that it wasn’t the ones screaming NIGGER in my face that were the most terrifying and hurtful, it was the ones who were visibly shocked that I was so well-spoken and knew which forks to use (because I’d been taught this from the age of six).
It wasn’t the ones who asked me to go back to a country I’ve never seen, it was the ones who tried to sneak pictures of me as I poured my wine in my glass, appreciated its coloring, and wiffed it before sipping in order to get a fuller taste.
The one’s who scare me the most are the ones who say things to me like, “You’re one of the good black people. I’m glad to have you as my black representation.”
These people who were shocked that I knew all the words to the Beetles as the cover band played, these people who don’t view me as another human but as BLACK.
BLACK is something besides me.
BLACK is something different.
BLACK isn’t a human being.
BLACK is not special, just something very interesting.
BLACK is the separator that I can’t and won’t see.
BLACK is the fact of life that takes away one’s right to live.
You may think it’s like being exotic and a celebrity – and you’re right.
Inasmuch as that feels to a monkey in the limelight.
A tiger in a zoo. A flamingo by the sea. An elephant you rescued.
BLACK is demoralizing.
BLACK isn’t me.
I am a person. BLACK just happens to be my coloring.
So why are these people terrifying?
Because they just don’t know.
You can’t correct what you don’t believe to be wrong. You can’t correct what you don’t know you don’t know and refuse to learn about.
We all know the first step is to recognize the problem.
I am a person. BLACK just happens to be my coloring.
The first step, is not to dismiss my ancestry but accept it and celebrate it. It’s to realize that the fact that my ancestors came from Africa (really only God and ancestry.com knows where all they came from) is no more important than the fact that yours came from Europe.
Then, talk to me like I’m your professional colleague.
Talk to me like I’m a person not a collective. Talk to me like someone whom, within herself, offers a diverse set of beliefs and values, likes and dislikes, instead of talking to me like you have met the personification of TV’s diversity.
Approach me with the idea that you just met a brand new PERSON and, when you do, you might just find that to be true.
Will I attend another one? Of course. Will I experience the same things? Probably until the day I die, yes. Why do I continue to go? Simple really:
your refusal to accept me as a human being does not nullify the fact that I am one. Therefore, you will not stop me from achieving my full human experience.
In between all of the confused stares, I met some genuine smiles, made some great contacts and some huge strides within my professional community and that is what I was there for.
The dehumanisation and classification of me as the limb of a full group – much like the Borg in Star Trek – does not make it less true that I am, in fact, an individual.
You will not silence my existence even with your quiet racism.
I will not become a “they,” I will forever be