At a recent awards banquet for a group of medical professionals, I sat in the back of the room where I could observe the proceedings of the night, take notes, and not insert myself too much into the affair.
One server seemed confused by my presence. She leaned over me with a concerned look on her face and asked, “Who are you here with,” seeing that I wasn’t mingling with other guests and my table was empty. I assured her that I was in the right place and that I simply wanted to sit in the back because I was reporting on the event and didn’t know anyone there particularly well.
She walked away, unsatisfied with my answer, and came back a few minutes later to say that she thought I would’ve been sitting up front, but not to worry, she would take good care of me anyway. In her next run by my table, she proceeded to share her work history with me, noting how she’d waited on President Obama for an event in that very room and how much he said he had enjoyed her, along with other public figures and celebrities who’d paid her similar compliments but neglected to repay her for her excellent service: “If I was so great, they should’ve taken me with them when they moved on up, OK.” (Insert stereotypical black woman high five.)
A male server, sensing that the woman had outworn her welcome, or was speaking at a level that was too loud for what she was saying in that setting, lightheartedly scolded her and told her to leave me alone, while yet another waiter came by to add her two cents. And still one more woman came by with a bread basket, asking,”Hey, you want some.”
It had begun to look like a black family reunion with me at the center of a host of servers, and I quickly found myself annoyed each time they made their rounds. Although I was appreciative of the friendliness, I was keenly aware of how others in the room must have perceived not only me, but also them.
Just a month prior, I was attending a luncheon with colleagues from my office and heard a man yelling “Hello” a million times from a distance. Who is yelling, why is he so loud, and why won’t anybody answer him, I thought, as I tried to figure out where the sound was coming from. I finally realized the greeting was directed at me as I saw a man waving his arms from the security desk several feet away. “How you doing,” he asked when I looked in his direction.
I thought the look on my face as I tightly mouthed, “Fine” would have been enough to tell him that this was not the place and certainly not the time; however on the way out, he yelled “Bye” about as many times as he had when he had greeted me on the way in, and just as loudly. “When you coming back to see us,” he shouted once I finally acknowledged him. I then turned to be confronted with confused, please-explain-what-just-happened/do-you-know-him looks on my coworkers’ faces. I shrugged and shook my head. I had no explanation.
I’m accustomed to being called sistah`when I encounter a brother of a similar hue, and I’ve learned to laugh it off when black cashiers will try to offer me special discounts, making assumptive remarks like, “You know black folks a’int got no money.” But when shared skin tone seems to trump the rule that there is a time and a place for everything, leaving me in an awkward position among my professional peers, I find it difficult to handle.
In the first instance, it seemed as though the server didn’t quite know what box to put me in. Her comments suggested that initially she thought I “belonged” at the event, but once she realized that I wasn’t really a part of the crowd, it was ok to treat me like a home girl, rather than an honored guest, and be lax in her professionalism. And, oddly, there still seemed to be an element of a need to impress me with her experience as though I was a black woman who had made it.
Ol’ boy literally hollering at me the way he did was simply an embarrassment to me and to himself. It wouldn’t have really mattered whether my colleagues were white or black, his approach was wrong on so many levels, but because my coworkers were in fact white, I felt an extra twinge of humiliation.
Amidst these feelings, though, I was also somewhat ashamed that I felt embarrassed. I was experiencing W. E. B. Dubois’ concept of double consciousness first hand and didn’t quite know what to make of it. I’ve never been one to separate myself from other people in any sense as though I am better, and I questioned whether that was where my discomfort lay. It wasn’t. What I needed was a clear understanding of boundaries. An awareness of who was around us, not to make us all feel like lowly negroes who can’t congregate or speak freely in public, but to be mindful of the settings in which we encountered one another and the type of comportment those places warranted.
Yes, in many ways we may share a common racial history, skin tone, and cultural experience—and there is comfort in that—but in many other ways our class distinctions may be just as pronounced as the differences between us and members of another ethnic group, and the behavior which those distinctions sometimes manifests itself can be unsettling. It’s not that I need to be called ma’am or treated as though I am somehow special, but being black doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve the same type of treatment that everyone else receives either. Nine times out of ten the racial idioms and cultural references can be avoided, I just want to be served like everyone else, and if a particular person wouldn’t behave a certain way with a person who wasn’t black, it’s probably safe to say they shouldn’t act that way with a person who is either.