I went to a meeting today. A meeting full of people, some of whom I have known for a long time. A meeting in which all of those people were going to listen to a handful of speakers share information. There would be opportunities to ask questions. There would be some back and forth and some clarifying and perhaps even some obfuscating. These meetings have been going on for years. They aren’t always smooth. They aren’t always contentious. They are usually cordial.
At one point Speaker Man was sharing some information. That some people in the room weren’t thrilled with that information was clear in the sort of quiet, grumbly way that people can let you know they’re not buying what you’re selling. Audience Man raised his hand and, when called on, made a comment. Facilitator Woman stepped in and added what I’m sure she thought was a helpful, clarifying statement. Audience Man assured her that he had checked her numbers … and they were lacking. Speaker Man told Audience Man that, if he wanted to do something, he’d need to send his concern in an email:
“In a nice way. This isn’t the 60s where we beat the tables.”
There was a collective drawing back in the room and some very audible sounds of displeasure. Audience Woman 1 spoke up and voiced the same concerns as Audience Man and in much the same way. Speaker Man thanked her for her comment. Audience Woman 2 spoke up a few minutes later, much more forcefully than Audience Man or Audience Woman 1 had, lodging a complaint about the issue. Speaker Man thanked her for her comment.
I couldn’t be sure how others were feeling about what we’d just seen, but I was angry. For Speaker Man to attempt to shut Audience Man down with that scolding comment wasn’t okay. Silencing people, maybe especially in a forum that’s supposed to be open and collegial, isn’t okay. Maybe that was why people drew back after Speaker Man’s comment. Maybe that was the cause of those audible sounds of displeasure.
But maybe, the “why” was that Audience Man was the only Black person in that exchange. That was certainly the trouble spot for me. White Speaker Man had no problem hearing dissent from White Audience Woman 1 or White Audience Woman 2. But when Black Audience Man spoke up, he had to be slapped down.
I’m going to give Audience Man a name: Edward.
Silencing Edward was about shutting down a voice of dissent. Of course it was. But the “In a nice way,” was about policing Black anger. To say that the perfectly professional way Edward had expressed himself wasn’t “nice,” felt like a slap, like code to tell us that Edward wasn’t nice, wasn’t polite, respectful, deferential, aware of his place. So Speaker Man needed to put Edward in his place. If he had done the same with both white women who spoke, I’d still be angry, still be offended, but for different reasons. But the white women who spoke up were met with no censure, no request that they speak “nicely” — that indication of the need to learn how to behave was reserved for Edward alone.
I was surprised and not surprised. Although I have known Speaker Man for years, he isn’t someone I know well enough to have formed any kind of opinion as to his feelings about or skill in interacting with people who aren’t white. I know he has met me on numerous occasions and has often confused me with another Black woman who works in our field (and looks not even a bit like me). It would not have occurred to me that he would be someone who a) would automatically visualize a black man as angry or aggressive or b) be tone deaf enough to say things out loud that would make that perception clear to others.
We were in a professional setting, a setting in which Edward has standing, in which he meets regularly with these colleagues. We know him to be smart, fair-minded, passionate about his work, and a skilled advocate for the people he serves. It’s unlikely that any of us will now think less of Edward or differently about him because of this microaggressive comment.
As Gazi Kodzo said in his excellent video about Giuliana Rancic and Zendaya’s hair, an apology means nothing — and in this case, there was no apology, and I doubt there will be one. An apology means nothing because the damage is done. Now, when intelligent, caring Edward speaks, it’s more likely there will be people in the room who question whether he sounds too angry, whether he is speaking respectfully (nicely). How much will this casual undercutting impact the relationships he has with his colleagues?
After the Pantaleo grand jury chose not to indict, I began writing, began to be more vocal in my anger, my frustration, my distress. A few weeks ago, a friend asked if I’d had more negative experiences centered on race since that failure to indict. And she was surprised when I told her no. “But it seems like every day you have some ugly experience about race,” she said.
In fact, it doesn’t just seem that way, it is that way. Every day there is some ugly reminder of the way race is an issue in this country. But this isn’t true because a jury on Staten Island didn’t think Eric Garner deserved to have his murderer charged with his killing. This has always been true. The only thing that has changed is that now I am drawing attention to the ugliness regularly, rather than only when my pain reaches critical mass.
Still, I don’t share every ugly moment. If I did, I could be on this blog several times a week. There would be days when I was posting six, seven, fifteen times. This stuff — these tiny moments that are born of a history of hatred, denial, and devaluation happen all. the. time. ALL. THE. TIME.
Edward will move on from this morning’s true-colors moment. He may be so skilled that he was able to move on from it immediately. I find ways to move on, too. If I couldn’t, I would have lost my mind years ago.
Edward will move on, but why does he have to? Why does he have to face moments like this? Why has he had to face so many of them that he has learned how to let them wash over him, that he was able to maintain his composure this morning? When will it stop?
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