Since the start of the fourth grade, when my family moved into a neighborhood where I would become the minority in a verifiable way for a child I have often been “the elephant in the room” so to speak. On occasion there were other black kids in my class, but as we moved deeper into suburbia that number varied sometimes singling me out. I slowly became accustomed to white people wanting to touch my hair and other weird things that people do when the only knowledge they have is of themselves. I went from being declared as gifted and talented to being considered average, (even though the kids in my class weren’t the brightest) and I eventually slipped into the stereotypical trouble maker (ie. bored black kid). For the most part, I just did my work, but I would be remiss to say I never felt like some of my teachers resented me. It was almost as if I didn’t have the right to be this intelligent.
I found myself in the midst of an unknown identity crisis. I had never before questioned my beauty, but now I no longer fit into what was the norm. In order to fit into white standards of beauty I needed to wear my hair straight, dress a certain way, but that was only the surface. I also had to fit the stereotype of who white people thought that I was as a black girl. This meant simple things like I couldn’t be smart and a good dancer, because in the age of Steve Urkel, of course that could not be possible. It also meant I had to have an attitude, know at least one gang member, know where the hood was and what it was like and so on and so on.
I, of course knew and still know none of those thing except where the hood is. The first time I heard a gunshot it was because I fired it in a controlled setting. I have no idea what it sounds like from the other side of the gun. I did develop and attitude though and a propensity towards the famed “angry black woman syndrome.” How could I not eventually develop an over-reaching rage at the notion that I can be everything but who I say and feel I am. I am naturally a smiley person. Even when my life was pure HELL I always had a smile, except when I was truly weary and considering being done with it all, but that’s another blog on another day.
Fitting into the white standard of beauty had its consequences; the first of which was my hair. It ran for the hills like lemmings off the cliff of death as I tried desperately to maintain the look of my new white friends. This, of course lead to years of torment from my few black peers because we just love to call each other bald-headed and regulate a large chunk of a woman’s value to the length of her hair. I started shaving my legs, completely and painfully unnecessary. I’m just not a hairy person. I changed the way I dressed, which was an extra expense for my cash strapped mother, and I began to learn to be the bitchy expectation.
Once I reached HS, I began to realize that a lot of how people treated me really swarmed around who they wanted me to be based on their knowledge of black people, courtesy of prime time television and MTV. I was fortunate enough to develop friendships with a diverse group of young women who thought outside the box and gave me some space to be myself. It wasn’t until then that I could see some of the damage the stereotypes were doing to our community, and what they had done to me as a young woman. I was still a teenager though and still subject to peer pressure and the need for acceptance.
Halfway through my HS career we moved back into a majority black school’s boundaries, and once again I was subject to an “I don’t fit in culture shock.” Now instead of not fitting in with just the white kids mostly, I didn’t really fit in with anyone, and I began to wonder if bitchy black women were really a stereotype. It took me longer than expected to make my first friend, and it was not any of the females. My class selection still had me singled out to some degree, and so I remained the elephant in the room.
It would be that way through much of my college experience, and I began to grow tired of being the representation for all black people. I mean I would like to be able to have a bad day without sending all my people to hell in the eyes of these individuals who will preface their next interaction or even their willingness to have that interaction on their short term dealings with me. The stress and pressure to maintain public perfection is strenuous. The way I speak, walk, dress, talk, and respond to any type of adversity or conflict is always all on center stage.
In my professional career I was often the only or one of a few. The only positions where there seemed to be greater numbers of us (blacks) were in low level, dead end positions, which I am now certain is how they define the diversity of the workforce at larger corporations. As I increased my skill sets and moved into other positions, it seemed as though anytime there were two or more of us in the same department there was a concerted effort to separate us. The black workers I found carried a consistently higher burden. They performed more of the workload but were highly scrutinized by co-
workers and managers as lazy. If one of us were having an off day and not quite as cheerful but still successfully meeting the requirements of the job it was an issue. When we stand up for ourselves, however, we are aggressive instead of assertive.
At 36 I am okay with being the only black woman in the room and being the example or the scale at which you will weigh the likes of all black kind; most days. I am not okay with being subject to various levels of disregard or racism and expected to grin and bare it because it is common place in my life. I no longer have the capacity to be silent for fear of falling into the angry black woman stereotype, or the desire to always wear my hair straight so you won’t think I am one of those radical black people. I am one of those radical black people. I want to be seen! Like, actually seen for who I am and what I have to offer! I want to be heard without ill-conceived notions, and I want to be respected without fear from falsely perceived aggression. I want to be able speak my mind without being labeled as “angry.” Because that honestly makes me angry! The complete callous disregard for the fact that I am a woman, a black woman, a fearless priceless individual who is proud to be representative of the wonderful kings and queens from whom I descended, but I am tired of being treated like the elephant in the room. The one everyone sees but refuses to acknowledge or even address unless it shape-shifts into a mouse.
Originally published 2/10/2016