“If you kept your hair straight, no one would know you were black.” said my white colleague.
“If you kept your mouth shut, no one would know you were stupid,” I retorted.
My colleague’s racial socialization supposed that everyone aspired to the Anglo-Saxon standard of beauty – alabaster skin, blue eyes and straight blond hair. She assumed I would want to camouflage and deny my blackness.
When I told this story, I was cheered and applauded by family and friends for my witty answer. At a young age, I was encouraged to answer back, stand up for myself. Very often, I chose to respond to acts of racism with a snarky, sarcastic answer.
At an earlier time in my life:
I was working at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, CA in the late 1960s. I applied for a promotion but didn’t get it. I failed to understand why, as I met all the advertised requirements. Later, I ran into a white former college acquaintance in the restroom and she unwittingly told me how she got her job. “My grandfather is the civilian hiring officer. I just completed the application and boom, I got the job.” She was completely unaware that she was talking about the job I applied for and was denied.
I conferred with a colleague who was a member of the Mare Island Original 21ers, a group of African American men working at Mare Island who were engaged in employment rights activities on the base. Upon his advice, I filed an employment discrimination grievance. The supervisor was infuriated. Co-workers, black and white, warned me that I was embarking on a dangerous path. Many supported my action but others told me I should be quiet or I might lose my job.
At the grievance hearing, the supervisor was asked why she chose not to promote me. In her best “I’ll show you I’m not a racist tone” she said, “Well, the employee I hired has some college.”
I quietly responded, “Well, that employee and I attended college together. I graduated. She didn’t.”
The room became deafeningly quiet. After a few more rather insignificant innocuous questions, the hearing was over. Within days, the hearing officer notified me that I had won my grievance. I received a promotion on paper, but not the job. I soon left Mare Island knowing that the grievance would always be a footnote in my personnel file. Management would forever label me as an employee who dared to question and challenge – an employee to avoid.
At another time in my life:
“I’m in a special reading group at school.” said my third grader. Why was my child, who devoured books, in a special reading group? I knew immediately that a parent-teacher conference was necessary. Up till then, her reading grades were excellent. Our Friday evening treat for years was to go to the library and spend time browsing the stacks and selecting books for her to check out and read at home. We were such regulars that the librarians often saved new books just for her.
When I arrived at the school, the teacher and I quickly dispensed with our niceties and reminiscences about my time as a teacher in the district. I then asked, “Why is my child in a special reading group?”
“Oh, all my little Negro students are in the group. I realize they are culturally deprived and probably do not have books at home.” the teacher replied.
I was stunned. In a calm, quiet voice, I asked, “What do you mean? This child is a voracious reader; we have books in our home, both owned and library loans. Her reading scores are above average. Let us be clear; I do not want her in a special reading group because you perceive her to be culturally deprived. I want her back in the regular classroom immediately. The only reading group she should be in is the advanced readers’ group.”
I walked out of the meeting simmering, thinking of all the nasty things I could have said and questioning myself about why I didn’t say them. I should have set that teacher straight in no uncertain terms or, as they say in my community, “I should have laid her soul to rest.” What does she mean by culturally deprived? Our home is full of books, art and music. She exhibited a blatant act of stereotyping. She had never visited my home nor, as I later learned, the home of any of her “Negro” students. Did she assume my child was culturally disadvantaged because she lived in the only all-black neighborhood in our city? Did she think my child was inferior? Was she being deliberately obtuse, still using the term Negro in 1973? Did she not know that moniker was fast becoming socially unacceptable?
These are but three examples of my vastly different situational responses to racism. African Americans routinely make choices about how to respond to both microaggression and macroaggression. Should we confront it or call it out? Conversely, should we let it go, hold our tongues or take the high road? How do you navigate life, practicing grace and honoring your race?
Grace is an intentional personal value embracing elegance, refinement, , politeness and thoughtfulness. It is the ability to stare adversity in the face and deciding to continue to walk straight with your head held high.
Issues of race are a constant in the life of an African American. The manifestation of over 300 years of cultural, economic, physical, legal and political discrimination based on skin color is played out in the African American community every day. We go through our days fending off a constant barrage of intentional and unintentional bias, making on the spot decisions about responding to the insults and assaults. We become tired and weary of the continuous barrage of race-related indignities and inequities. We want the world to see our hearts and souls before seeing our skin color and judging our merit.
Ultimately, you choose to make purposeful progress by standing up for what you believe in and for which you are willing to take a risk. The response is situational. You ask yourself, “What am I trying to accomplish here? Which course of action will cultivate mutual respect and understanding? Which strategy will protect my spirit?” Some days you vent real anger and frustration with a snap-back answer. Some days you dig deeper and find the response that is measured and dignified. You make a deliberate, thoughtful, intentional choice to honor yourself and your race with grace every day.