Token Tales

Just a warning: brace yourself. I have a lot to say.

I’ve spent most of my adult life traversing in mainly white spaces.  This was true in college. It was true when I moved to Indiana for law school. It’s never felt more pronounced than now. I’m a lawyer. You don’t need me to tell you the demographic breakdown of the profession. As I close in on nearly a decade of working, I don’t think much about it anymore and have grown used to being the “only one” in a meeting, deposition, court room or in my own office. In fact, I expect it.  The place where my real frustration has come to a head is in my personal life.

When it comes to race relations, I have a motto: “Is this the hill I want to die on?”  What I mean by that is simple. Do I have the energy and time to speak up about this particular injustice, microaggression, or situation? (Don’t know what a microaggression is? Click Here. PLEASE. JUST DO IT. Your brown and black friends will thank you.) Many factors go in to this analysis.  Who is the audience? A kid. A partner at a law firm. A bro from Old Town. In the long pantheon of racial injustices in this country, where does this one rank? Stick with me now. Are we talking racial discrimination in employment or are we talking about your white friend who just got home from the Bahamas with “island braids”? I’m not a fan of cultural appropriation but, more than anything, no white person in the history of ever has looked good after getting “island braids” during a vacation.  So who am I to throw my oil on that dumpster fire?

In case you’re wondering, this is a weekly, if not daily, mental analysis. Because these things (racial discrimination, bias, microaggressions, etc.) happen on a daily basis. Here are just a handful of examples: I’ve been pulled over by the cops for no reason before. I’ve had a cop get up to my car window and start trying to piece together reasons why he’d pulled me over. I haven’t been served at restaurants before.  Earlier this year I watched as a bouncer let in five of my white friends and then asked me for I.D.  I told an acquaintance I grew up near Oakland to which she replied, “I’ve visited Oakland. I actually felt quite safe there.” (OH-KAY.)  A few weeks ago, I was at a jewelry store with a group of white women and when I broke off from the crowd to look at a necklace, a sales associate followed me like a hawk. And, in most cases, I let it go. I do a quick analysis in my brain. What would be the benefit of starting this conversation? Would the oppressive person finally have an epiphany, stop acting on their racial bias and actually use a modicum of self-awareness? Would my reasoning fall on the deaf ears of a person who had already made up their mind about me being an “angry black woman” before I opened my mouth? Is this person making a flippant comment because they’re a white person from a sheltered community who has never come in contact with any black people who were not: homeless, a doorman or on television?

Again: “Is this the hill I want to die on?”

I tried to pinpoint when I began to utilize this analysis in my head.  When was the moment that I stopped trying to stand up to every form on oppression or ignorance, no matter how small? I can’t think of one moment but I do know that age and experience makes you tired. And if I spoke up every time something offensive happened, I’d be talking about it all day, every day. And….who has the time or energy?

I don’t remember when things changed but I do remember when I had the energy to fight. I was 15 years old. I grew up in Hayward, California (it’s a midsized city in Alameda County near Oakland and part of the San Francisco Bay Area).  I had spent my entire life going to public school and, like most kids who were raised in one city, had had  many of the same classmates throughout my life.  I endured the “normal” amount of bullying. I was tall so I got teased A LOT for being tall. As a result of being tall, buying clothes was difficult so often times my mom bought me clothes from places she shopped or I had to wear men’s jeans because, at the time, no brands made tall pants for women. Near the end of my freshman year, my mom informed me that she was taking me out of public school and I needed to start studying for the Independent School Entrance Exam (the standardized entrance exam used by independent schools across the country) because I was going to private school. It was not a discussion. It was a fact. I studied and I did well.  I went to four or five schools for in-person interviews. Then eventually settled on a private K-12 school in Oakland with a tiny student population. You may be asking: It’s the Bay Area, it must have been a diverse student population, right?  And I’d say to you: actually I wouldn’t say anything, I’d just start laughing until tears filled my eyes. My sophomore class was 75 people and had approximately 5 people of color.  Two or three weeks into my tenure at private school, the entire student body was ushered into the school auditorium for a presentation. Apparently the school had been working with a private consultant about diversity and how to create a more diverse environment at the school.  As part of the assembly, there was a video presentation about how welcoming, tolerant and diverse the school had become. Some genius thought it was a great idea to get student feedback on the presentation and asked if anyone had questions or comments. My hand shot up. I was called upon, I stood up and unleashed.  I explained that as a black student who just started the school and I didn’t feel welcomed at all. For all the talk of diversity and inclusion, the students needed to employ some self-awareness and think to themselves “How would I want to be treated if I was in this circumstance?”  You’ll be shocked to learn that my comments were not greeted with praise from the student body. I spent my next three years as a loner with a handful of loyal friends and a nearly non-existent social life. That said, I didn’t care. I stood up for myself. I made my voice heard. And, if given the chance, I’d do it again.

That was nearly 20(!) years ago and I find myself in wholly different surroundings now.  Growing up in California, it wasn’t hard to find like-minded people.  While my private high school was annoyingly monochromatic, there was diversity everywhere else. It never crossed my mind I would live somewhere when I didn’t see a Filipino every single day. It didn’t seem possible I could go weeks without hearing someone speak Spanish. It never occurred to me that I would spend my weekend nights in bars where I would be the ONLY person of color. But here in my mid-30s, this is my life.

I’ve spent much of the last few years being silent for the sake of not creating waves among my friends.  If you’ve ever read this blog, you’d know that I’ve been single for about 2-ish years and it’s the first time in my adult life that I’ve been alone. I moved back to Chicago from D.C. as a single person and made it my goal to find friends.  That said, I’ve begun to do some self-evaluations.  Being alone, gives you space to think.  Who am I surrounding myself with? What I am doing with my time? Is this where I want to be? Frankly put, this year has been awful. I was looking for softer language but I’m tired of being soft and comforting with my language. The murders of black men and women by police officers. The murder of police officers in Dallas. The incendiary racist and xenophobic language of a certain candidate for president. (And as an aside, don’t debate me on this. He uses racist and xenophobic language and undertones as a way of stoking already existing divisions and fear within this country. There are people who hate people of color and immigrants and he plays into those fears. It’s mean spirited, it’s gross and it’s un-American. It makes me disgusted and makes me feel unsafe in my own country. So there. Don’t @ me. Thanks).  It’s been a tough time to be black in America. And, frankly, as a black women working in a majority white office with a lot of white friends in one of the most segregated cities in the country, I feel like I’m suffocating.

In June, after the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile followed by the murder of five cops at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, I felt drained. The Friday after the killings in Dallas, I sat at my desk in my office in silence most of day.  I spent hours vacillating between reading social media, listening to music and fighting back tears.  It seemed unbelievable that people could be working.  It was inconceivable how normal everyone was behaving. I closed my door, sat quietly and attempted to work. I called my mom who asked, “Have any of your friends asked you if your doing okay?”

I laughed and answered, “They’d never ask me about that. They don’t see it. They don’t feel it. And it must be nice. And, to be fair to them, they may see it but they may not know how to speak to me about it.”

I felt empty and lonely. I surround myself with smart and nice people. But a majority of them weren’t someone I could talk to about how I was feeling. I knew for many of them I was there one black friend. There was a lot of heavy crap happening in America and I didn’t want to be the first person to engage any of them in discussion about race. I didn’t want to be the one to explain that “Black Lives Matter” is not an insinuation that all other lives didn’t.  I didn’t want to be the one to explain that I get tired and exhausted being the one person of color in any given social setting.  I didn’t want to be the one to explain that I deal with discrimination, microaggressions and, just general, BS every day of my life and I take it all and keep moving because if I fought every battle, I’d spend all my time fighting. I didn’t want to be the one to explain that just because I listen to rock music, wear J. Crew, eat a lot of Kale and go to Whole Foods doesn’t mean that I somehow am not like “other” black people and am somehow magically not affected by tragedies in the black community.  I didn’t want to be the one to explain that black people are not a monolith and it would be crappy and unfair to expect me to be the representative for all black people because I’d never demand the same from you.

I grew angry and thought: “What’s the point of even having friends, if you can’t talk to or don’t feel comfortable talking to them?” I can’t cuss out a sales associate for following me around store like I was really trying to steal $75 dollar earrings. (GIRL PLEASE) Or, rather, while I have the desire to do so, I certainly do not have the energy to do it. But, I should be able to say to a close girlfriend over a drink, “And that white lady following me around the store? That was insane. Like I was going to steal her trash jewelry anyway? Sometimes, I get so exhausted of this BS.” And that friend would laugh and say, “I’m sure you do.”

I realized what the problem was. I felt like that 15 year old girl looking around her school’s auditorium pleading with people to see what she sees. She didn’t want sympathy and pity. She wanted to be heard. She wanted to be believed. She wanted to be acknowledged. She didn’t want to live in some color blind society when people thought they were being nice by saying “I don’t see race”.  She wanted to be surrounded by people who say: I see you. I acknowledge you. I hear you. I believe you. I may not always know what to say or how to say it, but I respect and care enough about you to listen and I actually want to listen.

I haven’t written much this year because I didn’t know what to say. I have wanted to say this. I didn’t care about talking about the pointlessness of dating apps. I didn’t want to talk about how I’m really tall and that makes dating really hard (which is true). I didn’t want to talk about ex-boyfriends or bad dates. I didn’t want to talk about music or clothes.  I wanted to talk about this.  But I was scared. I was scared of making people uncomfortable or losing friends. But I realized that there isn’t a point to having a voice, if you don’t use it. So I decided to use it and to just let the chips fall. I decided to just put it out there and see who sticks around.

3 thoughts on “Token Tales

  1. divastyle40 says:

    Great blog post Lauren!

  2. Natalie Glover says:

    Lauren,this is such a poignant blog. It truly gets tiring at times. We just always must be true to ourselves. Every now and then we have to breakdown to folks who don’t comprehend that racial injustices have never gone away. Bravo to you!!!

  3. Beverley says:

    This is every ambitious black person’s experience when you try to excel among people with narrow minded background. I clearly remember an experience I had when I first started my career working in a white dominated field. Not only was the environment ALL WHITE but it was also Predominantly WHITE MALE. I would get sarcastic smiles, under their breath GM because I’d say GM first. The quick uturn in the hallway was always the funny one. An idiot fm W VA would get red in the face each time he saw me and I swear he would swell up like a bull frog. Then one day I went to the accounting dept, and everyone started shuffling in their seats and gave me the sideways look. I would put on my Jamaican charm and speak as boldly as I could so they would acknowledge my presence. After a few of these encounters and exchanges one day one of their nincompoop said to me “you’re not black” Yes the micro aggressor was in my space. This individual proceeded to touch and stroke my very pecan colored dark arm. He must be color blind I said to myself. Why are you touching me?

    We live in a society that no matter what our achievements we will never be completely accepted. The injustices that our young ones face each day is designed by these very people whom we mingle with as the token at work or the black friend at a bar.
    Keep your consciousness to the fore and don’t be afraid to speak up even at the risk of being labeled the ‘angry black woman.’

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