I was thinking today about how often I have to justify my existence. I am not talking about my right to exist, but more my qualifications to be where ever I happen to be standing or sitting. In my job as an internet architect, it was as if folks just assumed that I wandered in from the street. Other times I would get the "secretary?" looks or the "cleaning staff?" looks. In stores, folks have often mistaken me for the sales staff, as in "she couldn’t possibly be a customer".
I find myself constantly on the defensive as I get older, which is odd. For awhile it seemed as if the need to justify myself had begun to shrink only to now suddenly explode back to the surface. This all reminds me of my childhood and has me asking questions on how much we claim that things have changed.
In my all black parochial grade school, light-skinned girls were always listed as top students. It was the fair skinned girls with straight hair who were accorded the highest attention by the white nuns and given the prime seats in front of the class. Although I was relegated to the middle of the room because of my coarse hair, I still attracted the attention of the teachers because of my fair skin. Girls with dark skin and all the boys were placed in the rear of the class.
I started doubting myself at an early age. I was always on the honor roll, but so where all the other fair-skinned girls. As the straight A report cards piled up and my mother lavished praise upon praise, I wondered out loud if I had actually earned the grades at all. My older sister, who struggle for every grade, responded in a surprising way. She grabbed me by my shirt and hiked me a bit off of the ground. She got in real close and what she said I would never forget.
"Never let those sons of bitches EVER make you doubt yourself like that." She hissed. "Of course you earned those grades. I saw you do your homework every night. And memorize all those words for the spelling tests. Hell, I taught you every thing I was taught years before you even started school." She was right of course, I could add, subtract and multiply before the first grade.
And although it took me years to figure it out, my classmates apparently had always known that my high grades had been earned. So while my fellow students always treated me with deference, the favored girls were avoided or mistreated at every opportunity.
At my elementary school graduation however, it was the parents who decided to suppress my top student honors and instead only announce two smaller awards. One for my dark skinned friend Gina who came in second and another small award I had earned. The parents, unlike their wise children, could not imagine I had legitimately won the top student award. They assumed it was because of my skin color. Later when the award was presented to my parents in our living room, my mother was livid. I cried bitter tears as the reality sunk into my young psyche. I learned that no matter how hard you work and no matter how well you perform, your accomplishments could always be questioned by strangers in positions of authority.
It was training for adulthood when so many people would believe that I had been promoted because I was a token black. In job after job, folks would react with shock and surprise when it was learned that I not only had the credentials but often I was over qualified. The "golden haired" boys so often glorified, often did not even have the experience nor the education. However none of the glory boys seemed to ever have to show their credentials.
If this was not hard enough, another strain continues from my childhood. I am still plagued by the assumptions of those black parents from long ago. What little success I have achieved is still viewed by some as if they are the spoils of the color clash. In my own family I have come face to face with the unspoken belief that my achievements were at the expense of my darker siblings. I remember a brother's shocked expression when I mentioned that I had never received money from our father since I reached adolescence.
"But your car, your apartment, and now your house?” he stammered.
"I paid for it all myself.”
This was followed by stunned silence. As I watched the multitude of emotions playing out across his face, I suddenly realized the source of the tension between us. This realization silenced me. All my brothers had at one time or another received money, at times fairly regularly, from my father till his death in 1992. It had never occurred to them that I had instead earned everything on my own. They collectively had assumed that, as the "pretty" one, I had somehow received more.
This illusion plays itself out again and again amongst my childhood friends. They too think I have had it easier because of some special coddling or opportunity denied them. It is the flip side of the same coin, denying me credit for my accomplishments.
So on one hand there is a small class of individuals who think I succeed because I am light-skinned. While a much larger society believes I could not have achieved anything and question my very right to even walk in the realm of the successful.
So I always have to defend my right to be who and what I am -- mildly successful. My credentials, experience, abilities, skills, and status are always and everywhere in dispute.
I am perpetually on the witness stand. Strangers daily interrogate me. And I am constantly asked to justify my existence. Who are you and why are you HERE? It is insane.
I have had store clerks tell me that there were no job openings when I attempt to make a purchase. I have had a room full of people with no legal training whatsoever ignore my recitation of the rules of evidence which I read from a document that we had all just received. My judgment based on years of technical research has been ignored in the face of pure conjecture from a man with a MBA and no technical training. I have seen a white man with nothing but a high school diploma promoted over myself with a MS and another black woman with a Ph.D. due to his promising to start college at some future date.
I have had my ability to speak as a woman, a black person, a city dweller, an engineer, a scientist, and a middle-aged person questioned just in the last week alone! I am simply not credible!
As a result, I am losing what little is left of my sense of humor. Here is a brief list of things I no longer find amusing:
- When folks find it remarkable that I can use consonants, as in “You are so articulate!”
- When taxis attempt to drop me off at the employee’s entrance at hotels.
- When waiters “forget” to bring me water, eating utensils, drinks, or bread. Or when they somehow miss offering me ground pepper, grated cheese or other complimentary items.
- When anyone reacts with surprise that I own a house, have an advanced degree, was never on welfare, never used drugs, and can pay my own way.
- Whenever anyone is shocked that I ask for the manager, the supervisor, contact a government or other policing agency to complain about inappropriate behavior or policies.
So today, like so many days before, I may be forced onto the witness stand. But today, they had better be prepared for a hostile witness.
(C) 2000 Katrina Hopkins,Katrina Messenger