I was on the train one day, dressed in one of my favorite gray sheath dresses and a neon beaded necklace. I had my headphones on and was deep into Frank Ocean’s “Super Rich Kids” when a black woman tapped me on the shoulder.
She said a few words but I didn’t take my headphones off. There are only a few things a black woman could stop you for on the train. Maybe I needed to tuck in my tag. Maybe my cardigan, which had been resting on my shoulder, had fallen to the floor. Neither are big enough for me to stop daydreaming that I’m hanging out with Frank on a rooftop, so I didn’t bother to pull my earphones out and listen.
She got off at the next stop. And then I was tapped again. This time by an older gentleman. “That was my daughter,” he said. “She was trying to tell you she liked your necklace.” Really? I was surprised at first. Then, beaming. It’s rare that another black woman, a stranger, would compliment my look. So I knew I must have looked good. I strolled to the office with an extra pep in my step, my spirit soaring with positive energy. I smiled at folks who walked by, held doors and let people pass by me to walk into the elevator. Being praised by another woman of color was an anomaly, a thrice-in-a-lifetime occurrence I was happy to experience.
I was much more familiar with standing in front of a black woman seated on the train and feeling the heat of her disapproving glare. She’d look me up and down before settling on a missed button, a wrinkle, or a chipped nail, and then deducing that I’m not all that I think I am. Then, she’d turn her attention away with a satisfied smirk, leaving me feeling disrespected, angry, and hesitant to open up to the next black woman I encounter. The interaction is poisonous because it’s based on the assumption that tearing someone down will make us feel better, when in fact it just perpetuates a cycle of negativity. Giving a compliment to someone never takes away from our power; it adds to it.
I take great joy in complimenting beautiful, confident, style-savvy women of color on the train. When I see their guarded faces melt into a smile and their eyes sparkle as they mouth “thank you” and go back to their regular routine with heads held a little bit higher, I feel a jolt of positive energy. And then I pass it onto someone else.