The Burdens of Being a “Credit”
Today I saw a clip of Dr. Myrna Lashley doing an interview with CTV News about racial profiling. As a part of the interview, Dr. Lashley spoke about being the first Black Dean at John Abbot Collage, and mentioned being, “… tired of having to carrying that burden from both sides”. This made me mentally promise her a hug when next I see her .
When I say I stepped off the path folks had planned for me, this is the kind of thing they had in mind – the whole be a credit to my “race” thing.
I have to tell you, from my parent’s point of view, and probably that of a significant section of the elder Black Community, I am an underachiever. It is not so much about what I have done, as it is about what they know I might have done. Truth is that at 10 I wanted to be Prime Minister; and I probably could have done it too, if I didn’t have an aversion to lies and lying drilled into me. While the outer world might have missed it, my people saw the spark of fire and intelligence in me early.
Even though I have achieved great things with my life, for the most part, I have kept my light under my bushel within the Black community, and acted up just enough, that I could not be made the poster child of anything. Don’t get it twisted, I am not one to dumb it down or diminish myself; I just tend to be guided more by fate and faith than ambition.
It’s funny, but I never had such qualms when I was made representative for the voice of youth, or when held up as a positive example for my gender, and I have even taken up the mantle of Black activism by choice. Yet it always felt like the leadership within the Black community was a club I was ill fitted to.
Here is the thing, just like I am not representative of the entirety of my community, so too is some of what some of the members of my community do, not representative of me. When I was young, every time someone suggested I had greatness in me, it came with the implicit message that the entrance fee was conformity.
I remember once, early in my career, I got a call, out of the blue, from a Black community leader. He had seen some press stuff I had done and called to berate me, saying that I while I was clearly on the ball, I was a disappointment because I worked for, “a White organization.”
The organization I worked for was an employability project that, at the time, was under the YMCA umbrella. What he had not bothered to find out, was that the project focused on assisting immigrants and visible/ethnic minorities to integrate into the labour market and build sustainable careers. Moreover, he did not know our organization was headed by an ethnic minority, our staff was 90% Black, and the pay was the highest in the industry. Best of all, he was not calling to offer me an option, just his biased opinion.
The subtext of his call is what bothered me most; what he was in effect saying was “you’re one of us, what are you doing with them? It’s beneath you.” Needless to say, this pissed me right off. This was the same bourgeois bullshit I had been fighting all of my life.
In my opinion, the bourgeois Black is more interested in upholding an image of the community, than they are invested in helping members of the community to self-actualize. Every time I have worked with them on community development programs I have come away with a bad taste in my mouth. There was the anti-racism committee I left, when I realised that my son would never be welcomed in their ranks because he was too fair skinned. Then there was the time I worked to help set up a new community organization, only to realise that when it came to hiring practices, they would institute the same ridiculous standards that kept Blacks from getting jobs in other institutions.
What many of these people don’t get, is that they have been indoctrinated into a way of thinking that had them internalizing racism and perpetuating it the name of building community. To understand this, check out the work of Atkins and Sue:
Moreover, I often found it difficult to come to agreement with these folks because they refused to look at intersectionality and how their way impacted the whole of us. So for instance, I found that as a woman in this slice of the Black community, I was expected to do the grunt work so some man can stand on my shoulders and take the credit. I was also expected to distance myself from anyone who they felt was not up to snuff – to bad these are the same people I’ve committed my life to helping be who they are.
Best of all is the hypocrisy that ran through this crowd; holding people to standards that they themselves do not uphold. Montreal is a small town; just cause no one says anything about your philandering, addictions and double dealing doesn’t mean we don’t see you. As I am not the type to pretend for anyone, it is safer for all that I go my own way.
Thankfully, I found other elders in the Black community who feel the same; who welcomed me and supported me in my need to be a my own proud Black woman and be of service to my community in a way that allowed me to maintain my integrity.
I was reminded of this recently when I attended a function that was also attended by a dignitary of the Black community. As the person came in, there was much fuss. While I appreciated their accomplishments as communicated in their introduction, I held back, waiting for a sense of the person. It did not take long; they looked me over, caught a gander at my candy-apple blue nail polish and gave me the fail. Not long later, they overheard a conversation I was having, and realised that I was not who they thought I was. I fell into conversation with them, but it was not long before my outsider perspective ran up against their bourgeois notions. Yet they could not simply dismiss me, because although I clearly understood their world, I was drawing different conclusions. This confused them, and I could sense them prodding me to try to figure me out. Here however, I got a sense of appreciation rather than fear and disgust. I am not sure what did it; that I showed the courage of my convictions, or that I was no sycophant.
Less you believe that my only challenge comes from within the Black community, the fact is that my refusal of the protection of bourgeois status has cost me dearly in terms of the support one gets in putting up with living in a racist world.
When not out having to make a living, most of this crowd spends its time with each other; they attend the same events, belong to the same clubs, and share the same causes. There is comfort and safety in surrounding yourself in this way.
I on the other hand, often find myself in rooms where I am the only person of colour; which means not only do I confront bigotry, prejudice and all the isms more often, but I do so without back up or validation. In confronting it, I also have to be careful that my reaction is not such that it just feeds into those preconceived ideas.
Needless to say, I spend a lot of time at home, because like Dr. Lashley, I get tired of the bullshit from both sides.