written by Love Isn’t Enough contributor Myla
I’m a visible minority. What does that mean really? For the most part, it means I live in a world where the majority of people in my overarching culture do not see themselves reflected in me. It means the color of my skin brands me in a way that my choice of religion, sexuality, or political party does not.
I envy my husband. He’s the crème of the crème. You don’t get any higher on the hierarchy ladder when you are a white male. He is automatically paid more than I am for doing the same job. Apartment rentals are offered to him, whereas moments earlier, they were already rented to me. He has the power to complain about his racist colleague and be taken seriously. No one questions whether he was admitted to his graduate program due to Affirmative Action. When my neighbors encounter my husband, he is greeted each and every time with a handshake, while my friendly gestures are ignored (and I baked cookies for these people!). It took 2 years (and lots of goodies) to get the neighborhood children to approach me when some semblance of normalcy rather than staring. Though he is proud of his Honorary Black Person status (by association and proximity), when he leaves for work every morning in his suit and tie, he also leaves his family behind and joins the majority population. I know my husband has not changed in ANY way. He is still the same man I fell in love with, the same person who has tirelessly fought against racism in our lives. Together, we have thumbed our noses at the world and the supposed taboo that would prefer to keep us apart. After all, when you are a visible minority, you are supposed to “stick with your own kind”. While he hasn’t changed, the world around him closes ranks and welcomes him, arms opened wide, back into the fold.
Yes, I envy my husband. I wonder what it would be like to live in a world where the cashier would actually place the change IN my hands as opposed to the counter (even when my hand is held out). My spouse and son make fun of me because I am a bit of a fanatic when it comes to exposing our home life to the outside world. My children’s hair needs to be done, the house should be neat, and the garage straightened. Every Tuesday is trash recycling day and my son lifts the garage door, exposing the contents of the garage with bright glaring lights into night. I am without a doubt, HORRIFIED, at what our neighbors must think of the mess that lies within. Some of you may think me overly vain, others may recognize themselves in me, and still others may have a good therapist they could recommend. I am neither vain, nor in need of help (well, not for this particular problem). My grandmother taught me the significance of appearances. My mother ingrained in me the concept that as a Black woman, I would need to work twice as hard to make my way in the world. These lessons I learned at an early age and they have continued to serve me AND my family quite well, thank you very much. It’s now my turn to pass them on to my own children because the world we now live in has not changed so significantly where I can now laugh these things off. You see, the world my grandmother, mother, myself, and children live in, still sees people of color, African Americans as being unkempt, dirty, and lazy. I refuse to play into that stereotype, and it is, in fact, true that in refusing to accept the stereotype, I fall prey to a certain hyper vigilance . How nice it would be NOT to care or worry about whether some anonymous entity viewed me (or mine) as LESS. We don’t have that luxury though, do we? Each encounter we have with members from the dominant culture carries the weight of ambassadorship. Fair or not, I will always represent “my people”.
Over the years, I have come to understand what it means to represent my people. Though this responsibility was thrust on me the moment I was born, my awareness of what the role entailed has been a work in progress. As a child attending primary school, I learned what it feels like to be that token Black child. Perhaps 2 or 3 other students shared this role with me and we clung to each other during recess and supported each other amidst our peers. Our goal was to blend as much as was physically possible. Our parents patted each other on the back, having found a school that was apparently much “better” than the one in our neighborhood, which was coincidentally primarily Black. Whether we were better served is a subject for another debate. Yes, we received a quality education but it came at the price of learning we would never fit in. The good grades, honor classes, perfect attendance, the “right” clothes, overly polite and apologetic, none of the effort we put in would be the great equalizer. Instead of seeing our individual merits, we became “different”, not like those “other” Black people. This was supposed to be a compliment yet it felt like a condescending pat on the head.
By the time I entered high school, fitting in was the least of my concern. The responsibilities that came with being Black had increased tenfold. I was called upon by my teachers to “speak” for my people when I thought I was speaking for myself. The pressure to stick with my “own kind” was further cemented now that I was aware of the invisible line separating the Black students from the rest of the school population. Naturally a friendly and open person, it was quite painful to learn I, along with many other people of color, was in fact invisible to the mass majority of people I encountered over the course of the day. We became visible if we were track stars, deviants, or if we had something someone else wanted. I was amazed how often, when walking through any store, I would be approached in a haughty manner to perform some service.
My arrival at college coincided with pressure to join “Black” organizations. I resented this need to prove I was “Black” enough from the very people I was called upon to represent. My lack of interests in various Black organizations stemmed from a desire to not be defined by my “Blackness”. It seemed like everywhere I turned, someone was reminding me of the ONE thing I couldn’t avoid even if I so desired. I could no longer pretend not to notice the White women clutching their purses when I sat next to them on the Metro. I wondered to myself, what real threat I could possibly present to others? Suddenly, I had become an adult and I was ill equipped to deal with the world that found ME (the woman who escorts spiders out of the house) threatening. I took an African American Literature class and my understanding of myself and the world I lived in was transformed. Like many American kids, I had been exposed to the great accomplishments of Harriet Tubman or Frederick Douglas. I watched Roots with my family and knew that our country’s history with slavery still affected Americans today. In other words, my knowledge was very basic. My family’s history is very broken and fragmented. We know next to nothing of our origins. Sitting in my African American literature class reading the works of Malcolm X, Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, Nora Zeale Thurston, Ralph Ellison, and Langston Hughes , felt very personal; I recognized my family and myself in their words. In some small way I was learning more about myself than I had ever learned in my own living room. I got angry, really angry. I don’t think anyone can read the accounts of Richard Wright and not feel something. How can you feel ambivalent about a lynching? That anger was later transformed into a burning desire to make my dreams a reality, regardless of the invisible ceiling working to limit my progress. Each book we read helped me realize what big footprints I was following and made me question how I could leave footprints of my own.
I wish I could say the many years I have spent as a Black person have afforded me some sort of advanced wisdom on race relations. However, I am still just as confused as I was as a child. I can spend more time with people who look like me and “get it”. I can be enlightened and educated about the historical and cultural contexts that have contributed to this strange world of racial preference. I can embrace the benefits of my hyper pigmented self and enjoy the blessings evolution has afforded me. However I’d be lying if there were not mornings when I woke up and wanted a break. How nice it would be to walk into a store and be greeted instead of followed. What I wouldn’t give to not have to immunize my children from the mind numbing affects of racism they will also inherit. How nice to be able to walk away from a job interview and not wonder if my race will be an unspoken disqualification. However, there is never an escape; I can’t shrug out of my skin for a reprieve. I work towards contributing to a world where my children or their children will not feel this desire but will just BE.