Wednesday, April 13, 2016

That Time I Was Black-shamed at Work

So there I was...

I work at a a part time office job. I don't have a lot of other Black coworkers, which doesn't really bother me because that's been my life and I know how to blend. I'm very Suburban. I've stopped saying that I have “White” traits, and instead I have Suburban traits. I realized recently (it shouldn't have taken me this long) that being Suburban is not tied to being White, and I should do stop perpetuating that line of thinking. There are plenty of Black people from the Suburbs, there are entire towns of Black Suburbs. You should see my Whole Foods!

So like I said, me and this girl rarely work together, but every time I do work with her she always has something slick to say about our backgrounds. At first I thought I was imagining it, but I soon realized that 1. there was definitely shade coming out of her towards me every shift, and 2. she had no idea she was doing it. First there was the religion talk; she's very religious and talks about it fairly constantly. When I told her I wasn't religious, there were judging looks, but I let it go. I thought we should be friendly, and I'm not about workplace drama. Then there was the day she was talking about her lineage. She knew all about her background and ancestors. She stated to me, repeatedly, how HER family were NEVER slaves. I said I don't know much about my family past my great grandmother. She was incredulous that I didn't know more, again repeating that SHE was NOT descended from slaves. I told her that it seemed like she was judging me about that. Even my White coworker said something about her insistence on that point. She denied it. I let it go.

Yesterday was the last straw. I go in, friendly as can be to everyone, including her. Again, I try to foster some kind of office-civil relationship. I was looking through Facebook and saw a funny Color Purple meme (the details are irrelevant, but trust me, it was Hilarious.) and I show it to her. She laughs, I laugh. Pleasant moment right? She then proceeds to explain TO ME the joke that I HAD JUST SHOWN HER. She literally asked me if I knew that it was from “A movie called The Color Purple.” At that moment I had a moment of clarity where I realized she had been what I can only call Blacksplaining* things to me from day one. She was constantly explaining Black culture to me, a Black man. I told her point blank to stop doing it. She didn't feign ignorance; her ignorance was quite genuine.

I make jokes about being White all the time, but they're MY jokes about ME. That is not license for others to do so unless we are good friends; me and her are definitively not friends. When other people make inferences or statements about my Blackness I get REAL serious REAL quick. She kept laughing and smiling and saying she was sorry. I told her she wasn't sorry and that I was offended. I said it three times, and each time she said “Ohhh, don't be offended.” I was clearly offended, which she should have recognized because it's not a common feeling I feel in my feels. It's incredibly hard to offend me, so when I am, I don't let it go. Still, she was laughing and asked for a hug. I told her to back off. I told her she's been doing this from day one, trying to make herself feel like the Superior Black Person at my expense. Her apologies were both condescending and belittling at the same time. She kept trying to explain herself, and I had to, again, repeatedly, ask her to stop because she was just digging the hole deeper.

First she said that she thought she had to explain to me the joke I had just showed her like I was one of our White coworkers. I asked her why she would think that. She said because I have worked in places with a lot of White people. Like the place we were currently sitting and talking in. The job she had actually had longer than I have somehow imparted Whiteness onto me and not her. She was flustered by now, and kept laughing and said something about me growing up in the Suburbs. She is from Philly, and I grew up in Woodbridge, NJ.** I guess that made her more authentic than me. Except for right now she lives a town a few miles from me IN A MUCH NICER AREA THAN I LIVE IN. At this point the irony was strangling me. She kept trying to convince me that it was all a misunderstanding, a joke. I was not laughing. Kept asking if I was offended, and I kept saying yes. Kept saying it wouldn't happened again, and I told her that it would because she had no idea that she was doing it and, I believe, did not even understand what she was doing wrong. The condescension in her eyes was still there. After several more insulting comments she left, but the insult stayed with me. It's still with me today.

It is ironic that as I am writing this there is a discussion on Twitter about Black nerds being bullied in HS. I was never bullied, but I was, I guess mocked is the best way to describe it. I was mocked by White kids, but it didn't matter because I felt intellectually superior to most other kids. Their words meant nothing to me. Yeah, I know how it sounds, but it saved me years of therapy. When I went to school in a different town were there were other Black kids, the mocking was more hurtful because I was so happy to be around more kids who looked like me, and they were not happy to hang around me. Yeah it hurt, which is probably why I'm still sensitive about the subject. Thankfully as I got older I met more Black people who accepted me for who I am, and I thought that part of my life was over. Imagine my surprise when now, at the ripe old age of 38, I still have to deal with judgment and people policing my Blackness. It had become so rare that I thought maybe I had imagined it, maybe I was being oversensitive, but no. This is a real thing and it has to stop.

I've seen that some people deny this happens, or tell people to just get over it. Having core pieces of your identity questioned by the very people you identify with is not something one just gets over. In fact, it's time we as Black people and American culture in general stops blowing off other people's feelings and experiences. I'm not saying spill your emotions all over the place, have some dignity for God's sake. I'm kidding mostly, but invalidating the feelings of someone who is opening up about a subject important to them is a major dick move. As I've said, this is a sensitive subject to me, but I can't imagine any Black person would respond positively to this treatment. Likewise, blaming everyone for the actions of a few is weak as well. In fact the reason this is bothering me so much is that I thought I was done with having to deal with this stuff. I don't really have a point, or a conclusion or anything. Just, don't be the dick that does this to other people.

*I looked up the internet definition of “Blacksplaining” and was horrified. For the purposes of this essay “Blacksplaining” is when one African American condescendingly explains a part of African American culture to another African American.

**Exactly what it sounds like. A collection of the most average suburban sprawl towns you could imagine.