Your intentions don’t matter to me. No, really…they don’t. I don’t care if you ‘meant’ to be complimentary. That is not a compliment. I don’t care if you think what you are saying or doing is perfectly acceptable. It’s not. It’s offensive and racist. To hell with your intentions. Because frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Here are a few things that happened to me in the last 3 weeks.
1) A friend and colleague of mine was nominated for an award by a local arts council (she is a professor of theater and dance). Three of us went to the event to support her nomination and to enjoy some time away from work. We meet at her house and get dolled up for the event. We arrive at the event and are clearly the best dressed people there (this isn’t saying much. The bar for fashion in this city is lower than dirt). Oh, I should mention that my friend group is comprised like this: 2 black women, 1 brown woman, and 1 white woman who is often mistaken as Latina or Asian. There were three other people of color in the room of about 200 people. Three times during the short evening (we left halfway through the program) people asked all or some combination of us if we were ‘a singing group’.
Riiiiiight, because a group of women of color dressed up are clearly here to entertain you. Please hold while I shuck n jive right quick.
2) At the same event, we sat down in the middle of a table set for 10. There were already 2 older white women at the end of the table but the remaining 8 seats were open. 10 minutes after we sat down, a party of 3 (two white women, one white man) claimed the remaining seats at the table. We were still in the cocktail hour so the line for food was long. We chose not to get in line so we were sitting and enjoying lively conversation. I suddenly feel someone standing behind me to the left. I look up and it’s one of the ladies in the trio. She is just hovering and clearly attracts our attention. When we are all looking at her, she asks (in a meek, timid voice): “you aren’t going to steal my purse are you?” Then she paused to hear our response.
Hmmm…lady, I don’t want your Ross purse.
3) A colleague knocks on my office door, enters without waiting for a response and sees I am meeting with a student. She slowly backs out but I ask her if she needs anything immediately. She comes into the office and hands me something small enough to fit in the palm of my hand. She tells me to open it. It is bronzer in the shade of ‘sun kissed’. She tells me it’s ‘beautiful’ (3 times) and exclaims about how much she knew I’d like it. Yes, please give me lots of bronzer so that I may continue to paint myself in black face every day.
Newsflash: my skin is brown. I don’t need bronzer.
4) A Masters student sees me for the first time in about a month. My hair is different now: I’m wearing it in its natural state in all its afro glory. This is what she says: oh wow! Your hair is awesome like that. It was nice before, but that…that is POWER hair. It makes a statement. You should wear it like that all the time. How’d you get it like that?’
Oh, I just woke up and started the process of creating miniscule curls packed densely together. And I did it because I wanted to make a statement.
5) It is 8am and I am meeting colleagues at a local bagel shop to have a meeting. While I wait for my colleagues to get their food and join me at the table, an older white woman approaches me and says: “You are gorgeous. I love that color purple you’re wearing. It really pops against your skin. It would make me look drab but if I had skin like yours, I’d wear purple every day!!!”
If you had skin like mine, you would know that brown skin has far more severe influences on life than fashion decisions.
After numbers 3 and 4 happened today, I was done. I debriefed with a colleague who ‘gets’ these issues. She was rightfully annoyed and angry and she posed the following question: whose responsibility is it to educate these people?
I don’t know. But today, they don’t pay me enough to explain my skin, my hair, nor my presence in the context of white life. And I don’t *intend* to explain this tomorrow.