A few days ago one of my closest friends posted this on a social media site:
That feeling you get when you are around a White person who doesn’t interact with Black people socially, ever, and you have to represent for the entire free, Black world.
Can we talk about it?
I posted the following response:
That happened to me at least once a month for the ENTIRE time I’ve worked in nursing homes. It was worse when I became an Administrator. When white people who only interact with black housekeepers, landscapers, child care providers, direct care workers (CNA’s and LPN’s) and other people in positions that they believe are “fitting” they don’t know how to react to a black woman in authority, especially if they perceive that person as “young.” They don’t want to submit to that authority and believe they have the right (or in some cases the responsibility) to put that person in her place. They become irate when that person refuses to be checked and then professionally calls them on their crap and documents the conversation either on the patient’s record or the grievance report that they filed. People really couldn’t believe that when they were unreasonably upset with a black or brown staff member and they finally got to complain to the boss, it was me, that “young” girl with those “braids” in her head. Leading a team of caregivers to create the best possible long term care outcomes while representing for every Black woman who dared to enjoy her natural hair while living in North Carolina and Louisiana was exhausting and depressing.
For the first time I realized that I haven’t only suffered from caregiver burnout. I’ve also suffered from black woman representing for all of us burnout.
My friend responded to my post:
How did you keep yourself from sliding into a Mammy’s voice with broken English while shuffling your feet around on the floor in soft shoe?? Cause you know how ignorant we both can be when people go there…
I was usually too focused on the issue to think of anything sarcastic. The more ridiculous their behavior, the more indignant and determined my reactions grew. I was literally clutching my pearls and speaking with such deliberate eloquence and knowledge about my work that they often struggled to respond. Honestly, I drew a rather sick pleasure from watching them recoil in shock or turn red with embarrassment as I clearly reiterated my points. I often imagined that’s how lawyers felt when cross examining ignorant witnesses are or making closing arguments. I didn’t give it much thought while interacting. I only thought about how they spoke to me, looked at me and treated me after my adrenaline and heart rate returned to normal. Sometimes I locked my office door and cried. Sometimes I called Thad and vented. I often wrote all the things I wish I could have said (but would have gotten me fired) in my journal. I had to let it out somehow so I could keep going. In hindsight I was probably clinically depressed but they got every Black Julia Sugarbaker speech I could give.
Elsewhere in the thread, one of my friend’s white friends posted, “Sounds exhausting…” To her, I replied:
Yup. It can also become depressing. It feels like you’re constantly being tested and if you fail, everyone that looks like you gets an F on all future tests because they’ll all be compared to you.
Later that day, as I thought about my friend’s post and the ensuing comments, I thought of all the times I felt the responsibility to be an ambassador for Black women. I remembered being very young when my mother warned me that I better behave myself no matter where I was because I represented her and she had eyes everywhere. I grew to understand that in the eyes of people who had limited meaningful interactions with Black women, I represented all Black women, and those limited eyes are everywhere.
I could shirk this responsibility, but when other people’s limited perceptions can place Black women in life or death situations, presenting myself (and all of us) in a positive light seems like a small request. The constant gaze can be stressful, tiresome and annoying, but sometimes it’s funny. Sometimes I really do smile or laugh out loud at the incredulous stares and unfounded comments from people who are determined to categorize me (us). Sometimes I wonder if they have any clue how silly, sad, or sorry their behavior makes them look. I’m almost certain they have no idea what I, and other Black women, are thinking when we find ourselves in such uncomfortable situations.
If you’re curious about those thoughts, or you just want to cosign on this post, keep reading. Maybe you’ll recognize yourself, a friend, a peer, or a neighbor. Hopefully you aren’t the reason a Black woman finds herself having to represent for all of us.
Oh! You were serious when you said that. You actually believe that! Ok. Now how do I politely explain why I’m laughing? Do I even feel like getting into this?
I’m smiling to keep from embarrassing you with commonly known evidence of your total ignorance on this subject.
I know that you know I can hear your ridiculous conversation. I’m simply ignoring you because I have things to do and I will not become your designated angry black woman.
Please don’t start with me. Today is not the day and I don’t have the time or the desire to educate you right now.
Did I graduate at the top of my class and climb every corporate ladder in stilettos for this? Is he really standing there and saying this to my face? It’s time for an exit strategy. I did not come here for this.
So you think I’m stupid. That explains a lot. Now how should I say this?
Lord, please give me the words and demeanor to make my point clear without offending or frightening this person in a way that could threaten my position here. Or, just let me go off and guide me to a better place to work.
I’m smiling so I don’t cry or curse you out. Please get away from me.
The ancestors survived the middle passage. I can most certainly survive another casually demeaning remark about my hair.
Did she just say…?
Yeah. I heard it too.
They better be glad my son is here. In fact, I’ll just ignore them and give him my undivided attention.
So, is any of this familiar to you? Tell me what you think.