I spent a Saturday morning at a stranger’s house for a Lean-In circle once. It was a professional, yet friendly, gathering of female military Officers. I was invited by the moderator and knew her and one other woman there.
The topic was something along the lines of dealing with stress at one’s work. After an icebreaker round of introductions two of the women shared their stories of stress and strategies that they’d learned to cope with it.
I listened intently to the second woman’s story because she was discussing her life in Italy, and Italiophile that I am, I was steadily composing a list of questions to ask her afterwards. Her stressors at work seemed to revolve around being different. She was the only female in a very aggressively male environment and she was pale-skinned and unlike the others in her office. I didn’t focus too much on her story. As I said before, I was completed engrossed in the I lived in Italy and I speak Italian fluently thing.
The sharer soon reached her coping strategies and the moderator asked her some probing questions while I nodded my head in affirmation along with everyone else, thinking I wonder if she’ll teach me Italian. I think I may have been writing down a list of questions to ask her when I realized that everyone was looking at me. The moderator had asked me a question. I don’t remember hearing it – I just remember all those eyes. But my subconscious must have caught it because it dawned on me that she’d asked: how do you deal with being the only one?
I was the only black woman in the room. I am pretty sure I was the only woman of color in that room.
That question was the equivalent of my seven-year-old nephew throwing me a high underhanded pitch. It should have been an easy home run. I should have succinctly and efficiently explained structural inequality, racism, invisibility and injustice in an insightful, yet friendly, chat that didn’t offend anyone, improved everyone’s knowledge on the subject, and lasted less than five minutes. That’s not what happened.
I stammered. I coughed. I probably touched my hair a couple of times and did a nervous giggle or two. I tried to explain what it’s like to always be different. To live at the intersection of stereotypes and prejudice. I tried to explain what it was like to be a lightning rod for blatant racism masking as insanity and how bystanders constantly deny that it is happening.
I can’t tell you what I actually said because I honestly can’t remember. I probably rambled. Actually, I’m certain that I rambled because the moderator kept asking me probing questions. She kept trying to get me to a point. I could feel her exasperation as she prodded me to talk about how I dealt with being the only one of my kind in so many words. I think I eventually gave up with a shrug and an I don’t know.
The conversation moved on, but I think everyone – including me – was surprised by the racism detour that we’d just found ourselves on. I felt mostly ashamed . Like, I’d told an inappropriate joke or passed gas in church. I had mentioned the unmentionable. I had said that I, pretty black girl, actually experienced racism. Out loud. To a group of non-black people. And, I had done it poorly.
I’ve relived this conversation over an over in my head these last 6 months, turning phrases, sorting through the jigsaw of terminology and sociology, trying to figure out the most succinct and elegant way to explain what is happening to me. I blamed my poor phrasing on the out-of-the-blueness of the question and my lack of skills at extemporaneous speaking. But, I don’t think that’s quite it. Even now, 6 months later, I think I would answer the question in the same halting, stammering way.
I still can’t sum up in a pithy, beautifully rendered, tactile way-that-you-can-relate-to how I cope with being Black in America. I haven’t been able to do it in 2 years. This blog bears witness to that fact — I’ve averaged one post a year since 2012.I think that’s mainly because what she was asking me — maybe even what I was asking of myself — was impossible to answer/do.
Being Black isn’t a temporary stressor that I will one day move away from (not this side of heaven any way). Going for a jog or taking a hot bath will not help me explain to my black nephews how not to get shot by the cops. Yoga cannot help when I am assaulted at work or have to deal with abusive and racist work environment. There are no five easy steps to deal with injustice and structural inequality. There is no life hack for being Black.
I’ve been looking for one though which is why I’ve had such trouble writing this blog. I wanted to be an expert on this topic. I wanted to find an easy, pat way to educate people without alienating or offending them. I wanted some easy way to explain all of this. Except all of this is. My. Life. And if I am to understand it, then I have got to grapple with it and wrestling is not a pretty event. I will not get everything right. I am no expert. People will be offended. Maybe I’ll get hateful comments. Perhaps, I’ll lose friendships over it.
But I’ve got to do it.
It’s taken me three years to get here, but in the words of Alain De Botton, “Work finally begins, when the fear of doing nothing exceeds the fear of doing it badly.”
Let’s get to work.