Topic #7. Cicily's "Job"
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1. Cicily's Job
Wed, Sep 15, 1999 - /EST
Tonight, Cicily said that she feels like it's her job to re-educate the people she meets at Colgate, but that she doesn't want this job. And of course she's right to feel this way. Whenever I meet people -- not just white people -- who have never met black people, I feel the same pressure and the same desire to walk away from that role. It cannot be completely ignored, however. The simple fact is, if I am the only African American this person is going to meet, their impression of me is likely to be their impression of *all* African Americans ... whether this is right or wrong, it's true. I work in a community where there are many women of color who are nannies and housekeepers. When people on the bus, or clerks in shops choose to chat with me, invariably the subject of the family I work for comes up. Clearly, regardless of the fact that there are plenty of women of color who are neither nannies or housekeepers (and despite the fact that many of them live in NYC), the images these people hold onto doesn't include other possibilities. If I am a casually-dressed black woman standing on the corner of 84th and 3rd, I must be someone's servant. Like Cicily, I don't want the responsibility of teaching these people that their perceptions of black women are wrong. If I don't make the effort, however, who's going to? The stereotyping spreads too quickly and too easily: I cannot count how many times children have asked me questions about "my little girl," when they mean the child they assume I am paid to care for. It makes me angry -- as it clearly makes Cicily angry -- but we are a *long* way from not needing to do this "job."
2. This subject really made me think...
Wed, Sep 15, 1999 - 2:00 AM/EST
We lived in Michigan for a year while Chad was in the Coast Guard, my husband spending much of his time on a boat, or in port somewhere else, where he would go out drinking with his friends. I should say that the make-up of the town where we were living was only about 3% black..possibly less. It was so difficult for us both while we were there because of the isolation we felt at being such an oddity to everyone there. But I know he went through much more than I did, as the well meaning white people he met in these many and mostly white towns would come up off the street and shake his hand, just so they could say they once met someone black and were nice to them. He came home after one trip just really frusterated, telling me he felt like a 'fucking museum.'--sorry if I can't use that word here. But at the same time, he would never think of being rude--unless having a really bad day, because just as Ethie's girl, he knows that he may be the only roll model for a black person they ever come into contact with--wow, this has really brought up a lot of feelings for me, of thinking how hard he always tries, and how some people still don't see the real and wonderful person that he is...I can't imagine even how that must feel.
3. I quit
Wed, Sep 15, 1999 - 2:50 AM/EST
I used to feel like Cicily, that I had to enlighten people about the diversity that exists within the black community, but not anymore. It's a frustrating and never-ending task. And instead of making me feel more comfortable in my environment, it only makes me feel more different. Also as I get older (I just turned 34) I find that I am impatient with people when they say insenstive things.
A quick story to illustrate my point: I take my dogs to the park almost every day. And every day I see and talk to the other dog walkers in this largely white community. Just when I was feeling comfortable, "just me," one of the people who had always been friendly to me started to make some offensive comments about black people. When I objected, saying jokingly that I had to stand up for my people. She informed me that the only thing black about me was my skin, everything else about me was white.
Without hostility (but with some irritation) I urged her to examine exactly what she meant by that comment, it turns out that I was too well traveled, too well educated and too, well, middle class to fit her stereotype of black people. And to add insult to injury, in her own way, she thought that she was giving me a compliment.
I asked her,"since I am probably the only black person that you know fairly well, why am I the exception and not the rule?" That was the best I could do. And I could do it every day and I am afraid that nothing would change. So, I figure, why get myself all work up about.
Please save me from my growing cynicism.
4. Ethie's Girl, Bethanie and Jacqueline
Wed, Sep 15, 1999 - 10:42 AM/EST
Jacqueline, that experience sucks. But this attitude is not unique to white people. Black people also probably think that the only thing that makes you black is your skin color. I have had black people call me an "oreo", tell me that I am a "wanna be" (black or white?) and tell me that I "talk white". I think that real difference comes in when you are talking across socioeconomic lines. That's when I find that I have to teach people. Upper class whites and blacks do the same kinds of things, go to the same kinds of schools and entertain themselves in the same ways. Three quarters of what Cicily spoke about did not seem to be race but socioeconomic status. But if her family were also rich then the gap between Cicily and her white school mates would have been smaller.
Ethie's Girl- I know that it must be frustrating for you to deal with these people. Isn't it funny that you are probably better educated than half of them and yet they take you for a domestic worker.
Whenever someone does this to me (I was asked by the husband of one of my organzation members to get him a red wine at a party--He then snapped his fingers and turned away) I come back with what I hope is a witty retort. I think that I told him that slavery was over and that he could get his own wine. Then I smiled and asked him to get me one also. He almost choked and then proceeded to say that he was sorry about 20 times. But I wouldn't let him off the hook. I brought it to his attention that I was wearing an evening gown, had a glass of wine in my hand and looked every inch the Junior Leaguer. I also asked him a couple of times "what about me made you think that I was one of the domestics"? He just did not know what to say. But he understood.
to be continued
Wed, Sep 15, 1999 - 10:43 AM/EST
But Bethanie, I understand what your husband is saying. Because although I felt that I had "won" by being articulate, cool, and pleasant, by the time I arrived home I was shaking. With fear, anger and just general indignity. You don't want to feel like you are always on display or are some special collection. (Tell your husband that I really like his museum reference). But your husband is lucky that you are cognizant of what he is going through. That makes it so much easier.
Okay, enough for now. Have a great day guys.
6. It should not be anyone's job
Wed, Sep 15, 1999 - 3:34 PM/EST
No one should feel he/she has to "explain" his or her culture or race, but sadly many feel they have to and eventually grow tired, as Cicily indicated in last night's episode.
Assumptions about people are hard to counter. To some extent I too am guilty of assuming things. But these are not focused solely on racial issues. I think many of us, yes even in this group, have preconceived ideas about people based on observations only. We strive to overcome our racial prejudices and ignore other prejudices we may have.
Ethiesgirl, I understand what you mean when you said people ask about your daughter, not thinking you are her parent. The same thing happens with my sister-in-law when she's at school functions, etc. with her adopted daughters (Columbia and Guatemala). The older girl is 8 years old and has dark complexion and curly, referred to as "frizzy" haid and looks nothing like her adoptive mother. The younger girl is 5 years old with straighter hair and lighter features. Strangers will assume their mother is caring for the older daughter. I think this could impact my niece, perhaps negatively. My sister-in-law firmly corrects people in their misconceptions.
7. a quick clarification
Wed, Sep 15, 1999 - 8:10 PM/EST
When I said people ask about "my little girl," I didn't mean that I actually have a child with me at the time. Children seem to assume that I must be on my way to or from taking care of some child. (I don't have any of my own.) It is true, however, that when I am out with my nephew or niece (both of whom are *very* light-skinned), people *do* assume that I am their babysitter, not their aunt.
Like Robbie, I try to respond to adults in a way that makes them think carefully about what they've assumed about me and why. Whenever people give me what they think is a compliment -- "Oh, you speak so *well*" -- I always say, "Thanks, so do *you*!" It's usually an easy-enough way to help them see what exactly they are saying. I can't do this to children, however.
And please don't misunderstand: If I were a nanny, I would be equally upset to have people assume that I'm a nanny just because of my skin color.
Thu, Sep 16, 1999 - 4:11 AM/EST
So many stories! Reading all of this makes me feel so sad. It's a shame that as human beings on the verge of the 21st century, we have come so far. And, yet it seems as if we haven't accomplished much at all. When I see someone on the street, I look at the person as an individual. Not as a cardboard cutout of society's representation of a person...
I never realized that people still seem to run in this prejudiced way of thinking. I really had no idea. My uncle is VERY prejudiced. He proudly announces to everyone his opinions on race and so on. I thought that he was just a bad example of a time gone by. (He's 75.) Robbie, when I read your story,all I could do was shake my head in disgust. I guess everyone is entitled to their opinions, but why do people find it necessary to share their opinions with the world? Like in Jacqueline's case in the park. It makes me want to go up to other white people and shake them!
I agree with Dorothy that everyone assumes things. It's just who we are as humans. Because I am a tall,white, blond girl people tend to assume that I'm stupid. That used to be insulting, but now I just laugh. What else can you do in the face of ignorance but laugh?
Personally, I think that you all seem like wonderful women: strong, independant minded! I wish that I saw more of that in myself!
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