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On Being the Other

When I was in Thailand, I was met with a lot interesting stares from children. They hid behind their mother’s skirts and looked at me like I was the first black person they’d ever seen. I’m sure it was true.

They probably didn’t run into very many women who looked like me. I was tall, verging on hulking. I was dark skinned compared to them and I wore interesting western clothing. I dug that. I even thought it was amusing.

But here in the states, specifically Normal, IL, when I see children who act like the Thai. . . I am a little disturbed.

Today in the Coffeehouse, I drank tea with my friend Evan when a family of three small white girls sat down near to us. Evan gestured at one of the little girls saying, “I think she likes your head wrap.”

I looked over to see one of the little blonde girls staring at me, unabashedly. She finally waved and gave me a smile. I waved and smiled back, but felt odd about it. Her parents ignored us completely and that’s how their lunch continued. The little girl staring at me, unable to eat or go about her business and her parents pretending that wasn’t happening.

I felt like “the other.” And I suppose that’s what you have to deal with when you’re in a small Illinois town looking the way I do.What with my “flamboyant” and clearly “ethnic” head wrap. What felt normal to me, was completely out of the norm to others and it reminded me of what it felt like not to assimilate into popular culture.


What do you do?

You just deal with it, I guess. You pretend to go back to what you were doing, forcing the stares out of your consciousness. Or you snap on little kids and go: “WHAT?”

I see how difficult it is for women to go natural. It’s a lot work to carry your head upward and proudly, ignoring all response to your look. It’s much easier to assimilate, to go along to get along. I must admit, there are days that I leave the house wondering: “Is this too much?” And by too much, I mean too ethnic.

For those who straighten their hair or take out their piercings or wear longs sleeves over their tattoos, I understand why you do it. I don’t malign you at all. Just know that you are more than welcome to take a break from being “the other” and tomorrow you can go back to doing your thing. It’s our prerogative to be ourselves, isn’t it?


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Accurate or Offensive?

I first saw a video through a friend and had mixed feelings about what Shit Girls Say. I’ve definitely heard women speak this way, I’ve even been known to drop an unsolicited “Shut UP!” Are videos like this simply criticism on human behavior or kinda offensive? My friends and I swapped emails about it after viewing the “white girl” version of this video and came to the same conclusion: This could be damaging to women.

And then I saw the “black girl” version by a comedian named Billy Sorrell:

I thought to myself: Bummer, now we have to have this conversation. Is this funny? It is a little humorous! That’s what makes me a little uncomfortable. Making fun of women can be a hairy situation, making fun of black women seems acceptable. I don’t know if I like that.

I also don’t know if I like men doing this. Tyler Perry has built an empire on cross dressing and telling black women a thing or two about themselves. It doesn’t seem like it’s hurting anyone, but the image of black women is a precarious one. And when men feel as though they’ve figured us out enough to mock us like this, it hurts my feeling

I’d like to think that I’m slightly more nuanced than what Sorrell has illustrated. I’d like to think you are too. You can’t sum up all black women in one three minute video. If you have issues with your image as a black women and you fight hard against defying stereotypes, please check out yesterday’s book review for Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America.


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Are You a Shifter?

Standing at the bank I keep my hands out of my pockets and stand still. I wait until I am called by a teller before approaching an empty space at the counter. When she asks what my business is, I tell her in a clear voice,
“I would like to cash this check, please.”
No one hears what happens but I do.
I shifted my voice. The teller, “Jennifer” doesn’t know it, but I’ve had changed my voice for her.

“And you have an account here?” she asks me.
“Yes.”
She can’t find me in their computer. She’s going to need an ID.
I calmly tell her that the bank had misspelled my last name when they opened the account and it was never corrected. She nods and counts my money out to me.

The whole exchange lasts no longer than five minutes but by the time I leave, I finally feel like I can breathe. I get into the car with Noah and joke about robbing banks. We laugh about that and I notice I have shifted back. I’m using my “normal voice” with Noah because I’m relaxed. But with Jennifer, I used my high register, nothing-but-professional voice. In other words. . . my white voice.

I learned how to use my white voice from my mother. Mary was all professional when taking care of business on the phone. I could hear her in the next room sorting out a phone bill flub and using such a high register, I had to do a double take. Who is that talking? Not my mother. My mother was born and bred in Arkansas and uses African American Vernacular English (AAVE) with her family and other blacks. But when she wanted to be taken seriously, she shifted.

I learned to shift too. At an early age, I knew not to say “ain’t.” I grew up not telling a white friend things like: “I’m tired of foolin’ with Debbie, she’s so triflin’.” I knew in order to be taken seriously, I had to pronounce all of my “ing’s.”
 I learned to go along to get along.

Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America finally put a name to the performance I was forced to keep up all my life. Authors Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden unveils the balancing that black women in America do everyday in their professional and personal lives. Through a vast survey, Jones and Shorter-Gooden interviewed black women all over the country, all ages and socioeconomics backgrounds and found some startling and validating results.

I learned that black women have many myths to defy. High on the list were these:

  • We are always strong. We are apparently very solid and stable and we can handle anything that comes our way because we have to. We have God and family. We are not tired or depressed by this at all.
  • We are full of attitude. It’s difficult to deal with black women because we’re hot-headed and mouthy. 
  • We are promiscuous. We are very sexual being, known to be loose and cavalier with partners. Which would explain all of the babies we have out of wed-lock. The opposite of this myth is our asexuality based on old fashioned Mammy characters of slavery narratives.
  • We are incompetent. Black women are not educated and can’t be trusted to do the simplest of tasks like find jobs, raise children, ect. A black woman’s manner of speech is obviously evidence of this.
  • We are criminals. In the welfare and out-right shoplifting sense. That’s why we should be followed around department stores.

The constant vigilance to debunk these myths is exhausting. Jones and Shorter-Gooden write that because black women are always trying their best to assimilate in white culture, it’s wreaking havoc on our mental and physical health. This stress leaves us feeling depressed and anxious, but unable to share our feeling because we’re too strong for that. This stress leads to physical ailments like heart disease, diabetes or insomnia. But we shrug them off and keep moving because these are simply ailments that generally effect the black race anyway. We learn to live with it.

I worry about this sort of thing at least once a day. Everyday perceptions of other people effect me greatly, even though I’d like to think they don’t. I watch the way I dress when I go out. Nothing too revealing or youngish or over-ethnic. I’m careful about the words I choose when I’m trying to take care of business, just like my mother. I try not to talk about race relations when I’m around certain whites. If I’m forced to, I’m very vague and indifferent.

Shifting reveals that all black women are unpaid and unappreciated ambassadors of their whole race. Few other groups in America are under such pressure. The stories told in this book are so alive with emotion, I found myself nodding in agreement to almost all of them. These were candid stories that I had already lived. I knew what it was like to propositioned by white men (and black men) I didn’t know solely on the basis that I was black, female and obviously ready for sex. To them, it was widely known fact, perpetuated by media and history. It’s just one of many myth, I have to fight tirelessly against.

All throughout my college career I had doubts of my own intelligence because I was taught that I would have to work doubly hard to be seen as smart and professional. When professors told me I was “so unique.” I was instantly suspicious. Was I special because I wasn’t like the black woman image they had in their minds? Was I so eloquent because they never met black women who spoke the King’s English? I doubted my work and it’s value because I believed one day, some one would find out what kind of fraud I was.

Looking over your shoulder at every turn and covering your tracks are hard things to do.

I thought I would share this book review with you because I feel like black women experience very similar issues. The sad thing is that we can’t talk about it. The fear of exposing our magic trick seems fatal. If people knew what kind “fakes” we were, it would destroy us. But, if people knew what kind of torment we lived in on a daily basis, it could save someone else’s life. Speaking up could lighten the load we feel.

I suggest you read this book if you feel like you’re under pressure from an entity you can’t name. It’s might be called Shifting, and it might be wearing you down. Talk about it with a sister.


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Depending on the Kindness of Strangers

Sometimes I feel like this young man
While we were waiting on our chicken gyros at Pita-Sub yesterday, I was telling Noah about my day when I felt his eyes wandering up to my hair. Without a word, he quickly grabbed a napkin and got up from the table. He plucked something from my afro and threw it in a nearby trashcan. He looked as if he had averted a minor crisis. “You don’t want to know what that was,” he said as he sat down.
I didn’t. 
I appreciate it when my husband removes stowaway insects from my hair. When I find them, it is a minor crisis. I thought about it and realized that strangers and friends alike are usually quick to extract things from my hair. It’s usually noticeable leaves, flower petals or in the case of yesterday. . . errant critters. 
When we were spending the weekend in  Atlanta, GA, Noah and I were sipping coffee at a sidewalk cafe when a gentleman passed by. He took one look at my full-on-fro and said, “Let me get this for you.” He pulled a flower from my hair with the grace of a birthday party magician. “There you go.”
What could I say aside from thank you?
That’s just one of many experiences I had where people have behaved like our chimp cousins, grooming without hesitation, as if there is nothing unusual picking through a stranger’s hair to retrieve debris. I thank them all. Without them, I walk around with unintentional hair accessories. 
With hair that’s a foot away from my scalp, I never know what’s going on without looking in a mirror. I don’t have the time to examine my hair in a mirror every minute of the day, so it’s nice to have a community who’s diligent about keeping me fly.
My many thanks to you, The Pickers.