It’s a typical Tuesday morning at work. I recently joined the medical group at the hospital as a junior medical faculty. I love my job. But as I round the corner on my way back to my office to start my busy but fulfilling day of seeing patients, I am cornered by a white female colleague and asked a rather uncanny question: "Are you happy?" I stand there, puzzled, back against the wall and feet stuck to the ground. Partially constructed words, poised in response to the question, instead lie dormant in my throat. I am not sure how to respond. The individual from whom this question arose is not a close friend nor is she someone to whom I have confided anything of a personal nature. She is merely a colleague who in a given month I see only once at our mandatory staff meeting. Furthermore, as I stated earlier, I love my job. My patients and staff respect me. To my knowledge, I have given no cause for others to suspect, nor do I ascribe to, feelings of unhappiness at work. And as I stand there, frozen, I am haunted most by the way her eyes bore into mine, not with the concern one would expect her question would engender, but with a more sinister suggestion. Therefore, on that Tuesday morning, with sun spilling through the windows above our heads giving us halos we didn’t deserve, her question seemed misplaced, too intimate and meddlesome.
I may have overlooked this awkward encounter had I not been reminded of it weeks later by the perpetrator, amidst other colleagues, who laughed in jest at my seeming misinterpretation of her intentions. Had I not been victim to prior renditions of this type of micro-aggressive behavior, I may have walked away feeling silly, fearful of being labeled ‘too sensitive.’ Whereas, in their circles, the latter may still have occurred, the claim I am making is substantive and shared by many women of color, many of whom are close friends. Make no mistake - this colleague’s remark was antagonistic. It was teeming with untoward inferences while donning the veneer of sincerity. This miscalculated approach had the effect of making me more guarded and leery of my interactions with her. It also dented my naturally amiable demeanor with uncertainty about my self-worth in the workplace. And perhaps, ultimately, this was her intent.
Oftentimes, the interaction with white women is a fearful experience for many black women - one that is approached and cultivated with caution. This is because the social construct that spawns and protects the fragility of the white woman does not similarly safeguard the experience of the black woman. So, there is a certain power that is proffered to white women that allows them to assert certain micro-aggressions onto the black woman without the fear of their actions being perceived as denigrating or inimical. And if these actions are rightfully met with resistance, then, this power also affords white women the right to fall back into safe zones created to remind them that they are the victims in situations they typically instigate. This ‘weaponized sensitivity’ is an example of a privilege that capitalizes on the feelings and experiences of the white woman, while neglecting those of the black woman.
Society’s characterization of the white woman as an embodiment of a “full” being, equipped with the range and complexity of human emotion and expression, are powerful reminders to many black women that our parallel struggles in the current white-male hegemony do not intersect. While white women fight for equal pay, black women fight society’s depiction of them as “half beings,” lacking in dynamism -- capable only of binary emotions of anger or extreme happiness. While white women advance in social circles even with their perceived common oppressor – the white male – black women fight off labels that cache them as ‘aggressive’ or ‘divisive,’ labels that are oftentimes couriered by white women.
Being black in white spaces is a concept many women of color learn to adopt early on as a means of social survival. It translates to hiding oneself in plain sight, or ‘being less’ of oneself in order to be accepted. But more than social acceptance, the intended goal is to be seen as a less threatening version of oneself. When it translates to day-to-day interactions, it means bearing the difficult task of mitigating the impact of their misconceptions and insensitivities about your experience as a black woman. It means keeping silent when their actions miniaturize your struggle as a black woman – which feels akin to selling your soul to the devil, the latter taking the form of career advancement.
This sense of loss of one’s identity is never more highlighted than when we talk about modern day feminism – to which this individual ascribes - as a collective and uniform movement of shared ideas and goals.
On the morning of January 21, my Facebook newsfeed was riddled with exclamatory posts of women friends who participated in the march in various capacities– holding flamboyant signs with provocative inscriptions meant to jolt our awareness of the jocosity surrounding laws, made by men, that aim to govern our private parts. Some were humorous, some were more thought provoking. But what was intended to be an inclusive movement still felt somewhat isolating. It felt similar to being left behind in obscurity, told that my struggle for racial equality would take a back seat to the struggle, first, for gender equality. It felt foreign because I, as a black woman, feel the weight, most fiercely, of being black than I do of being a woman. This is because being black means I serve two oppressors simultaneously – the white man and the white woman. Being a black woman means I constantly fight for an identity separate and distinct from the white woman whose struggles society perceives as being paramount to mine. And as I imagined looking across the sea of white faces, of women who claimed to carry on my battle against the male hierarchy, I felt an indescribable solitude.
I write this to say that I matter; that I am a human being disappointed by a society that judges me fiercely yet leaves me no recourse to regain a sense of self when I fall. Our perceptions of one another must be corrected to bring us to a position of parity from which a common mission can be forged. White women must acknowledge that before negotiations about gender equality can be discussed, racial equality must first be met. Black women must first be provided a seat at the table – a move, which only highlights the privilege enjoyed and taken for granted by white women. Only then can our shared goals and vision reach a state of actualization.