I was enjoying lunch at a restaurant one day when I was disheartened to find a bug floating in my broccoli cheddar soup. Not one to enjoy the taste of insects, I politely called over the waiter to point out my little problem.
“Excuse me, but there seems to be a little something in my soup,” I said and pointed at the critter swimming inside the bowl. I expected the waiter to blush with embarrassment, or to apologize, or even to send for the manager so he can comp my meal. Instead, when I looked back at the waiter, his eyes were wide with fear, like a deer’s seconds before a car collides into it with its bright headlights leading the way.
Mr. Waiter tightened his lips and stuck his hands on his hips, a move that’s frustration was only rivaled by the brightening of his cheeks. “I didn’t know that was in there,” he said in a tone that was way more defensive than it was apologetic.
I raised an eyebrow, ignored that remark, and told the man and his flushed face that I’d like another bowl of soup.
“OK, just calm down,” the waiter said and put his hands up in front of him as if that would be enough to protect him if I really went as crazy as he expected.
I played my request over in my head when he said this. Just as I suspected, there was no hint of maliciousness or even increased volume in my voice that suggested I need “calming down.”
I repeated my question again, just as pleasantly as I did the first time, and added a little smile for good measure. “I just want another bowl of soup, please.”
Now that wasn’t the first time a non-black person was intimidated by me just because I expressed a grievance. There was my neighbor in college who backed away from me when I asked if she could please turn down her music. Or the professor who threatened to remove me from her class when I challenged her about my grade. Then there was the time I approached a coworker about an error she made in a report. She was courteous enough to skip all the dramatics and just cry.
And I’m positive it’s not because of how I approach these individuals. I don’t yell. I don’t argue. I don’t neck swerve or finger wag or deliver any other threatening motion that my stereotype suggests I would.
Instead I’m naturally congenial and polite, soft spoken even. And I purposely exaggerate these qualities when I approach someone to express any kind of concern. Like a pre-emptive strike on the defamed character that precedes me.
I know some people expect me to be sassy or combative, and they react accordingly before I even have the opportunity to prove otherwise. Sorry to be disappointing, but I’m just not the Angry Black Woman they are anticipating. I’m a pleasant and totally non-confrontational black woman living in the midst of a bad reputation.
Now dealing with a fussy waiter at a mediocre restaurant is one thing, but what about more important situations? What about expressing our concerns about a problem at work or in our communities? Or maybe even in our own romantic relationships?
Because this is more than just the issue of being prejudged. It’s having our grievances taken seriously and addressed accordingly. If someone has automatically dismissed me as being an angry black woman just for having a complaint, then they have probably dismissed my complaint as well. Our grievances become illegitimate and nothing is done to address them adequately.
Have you ever found yourself acting passively just to avoid appearing like a stereotype? If so, how do you navigate the fine line between self advocacy and being perceived to be angry?
How do you express your concerns vigilantly while still being taken seriously?