In response to Erica Joy’s article.
I believe that every Black woman has felt what Ms. Joy felt at some point in her life. As an African-American woman, who was raised in a predominately white neighborhood, attended a predominately white school and later a predominately white college, (which at one time used to pay to send the Black students to other colleges), I can safely say that I know how Ms. Joy feels.
Most of us who have been immersed in white culture since the day we were born have struggled to assimilate. As a young Black girl in a white environment, I had to struggle every day just to feel significant. I overcompensated for being different by becoming the class clown. I was the “chubby, funny black girl.” Of course, I did have a circle of people who I would consider real friends, but there were times when I was forced to recognize that I was different than everyone else.
The first time that I remember was when I started school and my Grandmother took me to Toys R Us to pick out a doll that I had dreamt about for weeks. When I went to pick out the doll with my grandmother, I was faced with making a choice between the Brown, kinky-haired version of the doll and blue-eyed, blonde version of the doll, she was the version that had been promoted in all the television commercials. I automatically selected the white doll, only to be told some months later, by a white classmate during show and tell, that this couldn’t be my baby doll because she was white. A time later, I would carry the same blonde, blue-eyed baby doll as I toured a slave plantation (my mother thinks it was Monticello, though I can’t recall the name). I will never forget walking down the dirt path as slave cabins surrounded me and clutching the blonde, blue-eyed doll to my chest.
The times came again when I was invited to my white friend’s country club one summer to go swimming. We ate curly fries, we swam and laughed. I didn’t really put much thought into the fact that I was the only Black person there. It wasn’t until later that I realized that the absence of Black people was by design. Black people weren’t permitted into this privately-owned, elite country club. Those who ran the club just screened them out. Rarely did they even have Black guests at the club, I guess I just “lucked out,” when my friend brought me with her.
I was reminded of my otherness when I attended the school dances in Middle and Ninth grade and watched my white female friends get asked to dance time and time again and I sat on the sidelines, wondering why I was condemned to be a wallflower.
The time came when I had to sit in my class and listen to a white male classmate gripe about why we had affirmative action and I had to sit silently and listen as he ranted about “why we had to have a Miss BLACK America, when we don’t have a Miss White America?” He talked as if I wasn’t even there and I didn’t say anything. I couldn’ tell him that every day was Miss White America and MR. White America too at that.
The time came many times when I had to deal with my white friends touching my hair and cooing over how “cute” I was even though I was 16 years old. Don’t get me wrong, I made some good, true friends and they were the ones who saw me as a human being and not a stereotype or a plaything, but I felt the otherness again and again, but I didn’t recognize it to be otherness for the longest time. I was in denial and I always found excuses for why someone might have felt that it was okay to make a Black joke or why it was okay that people pet my hair like I was a puppy. The really sad thing was, I had relaxed my hair to make it more like my white friends and I still got petted and patronized. So all I got was a burnt scalp, broken-off hair and more condescension no matter how hard I tried to assimilate.
That is the thing, you can try to assimilate as much as you like, most likely you will still be seen as “the other,” at the end of the day.
I think we all go through a phase of denial and assimilation, only to have our “last straw.” Just as Ms. Joy mentioned that her last straw came when, ” [a coworker] not so subtly hinted that my connecting with the few other black techs in other offices (who happened to be male) was anything other than professional,” I had my last straw when I went to inquire about a job at a local pharmacy where my [white] friend worked. When I got there, the manager said that they weren’t really looking to hire any graduating seniors. I took him for his word. It wasn’t until some time later when my friend nonchalantly mentioned that her manager “kept hiring all these seniors for two months before they go to college,” that I realized that I had not once seen a Black person working in that pharmacy. I asked around and it turns out there was one Black person who had worked there years ago, but nevertheless she was the token.
It wasn’t until college where I found refuge in my African-American women’s studies course that I really came to appreciate who I was and that learned not to be ashamed of my identity.
Today, I usually am still the minority at my jobs, but it’s gotten better. I am currently at a nonprofit organization where there are about 4 Black women, including me. But, I am sure as I go throughout life, there will be many times when I’m “the other,” once again.
So, I think we can all identify with Ms. Joy’s feelings of isolation. It’s a shame that some people will never understand the impact that the constant othering and degradation can have on a person’s spirit though.