***Part One here***
In the movie version on this scene from my life I am being played by…Raven-Symone. The professor seated at a desk a few feet from me is played by Sigourney Weaver. “Who’s coming in this weekend for your graduation?” “Everybody,” I/Raven say/s, looking up for a moment from the stack of papers I/she am/is grading. “My sister and her son, my mother and grandmother, father and stepmother.” “That is wonderful,” Professor ____/Sigourney says, a wistful look in her eyes. “I know exactly how you feel. I was the first person in my family to graduate from college, too.”
In real life, I wasn’t thrown until that “too.” The shared fact of first generation college was supposed to be, I guess, the bond that united the two of us women across age and race. The only problem was that I was not the first person in my family to go to/graduate from college. In fact, of the folks coming to see me graduate, everyone except for my grandmother and baby nephew had all graduated from college. Three of the adults, in fact, had advanced post graduate degrees. Before this interaction I had never said anything to the professor who made this comment about my or my family’s history and our college-going experiences. So why had the woman assumed I was The First in my family to graduate from college?
You can, I am sure, guess the reason why.
I am Black.
If I am Black, I must be a first generation college-goer. Or so was the assumption of this very liberal, White female college professor.
I could tell that I lost some of my realness in her mind that day. I understood that day for the first time that a large part of why she liked me, why she felt a bond with me, why she treated me more like a colleague (or at least a graduate student) than like an undergrad, was because she assumed that I was a certain kind of Black woman. A real Black woman. And then she found out that I was not.
…The Authenticity Game. Are you Real or are you Memorex? Draw a card and take your chances. If it’s a Real Black Card, proceed to go and collect your money. If it’s a Fake Black Card, go directly to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200….
I get annoyed when I have to play this game with White people. It is 10 times more annoying when I have to play it with other Black folks, especially other Black women.
If this scene from my life were a movie, I would be played by Sanaa Lathan. The Black woman from work/school/the gym/the PTA meeting I am meeting for the first time is played by Angela Bassett/Victoria Rowell/Vanessa Williams/Jada Pinkett Smith. “So,” says Angela/Victoria/Vanessa/Jada, “where’d you do your undergrad?” Me/Sanaa: “___ College.” “Oh, ___ College?” “No. I went to ___ College. It’s a small woman-only liberal arts college in New England.” “Hmmm.” Angela/Victoria/Vanessa/Jada now looks a little concerned, but then brightens. “So, what’d you pledge?” “I didn’t pledge anything,” I/Sanaa mumble/s.
[I/Sanaa draw/s the Fake Black Card from the top of the deck...]
A conversation I have had numerous times. (And, one that my husband has had with new Black female colleagues about me as they are trying to figure out if I am Black or White. Another story.) I usually let the interaction stand. The relationship between me and whatever Black woman will either progress past and despite my initial failure in Blackness, or it will not. In the former case, we will likely eventually discuss our initial assumptions about each other and share a laugh. In the latter case there will likely be no relationship, or at least not one that is positive. But I have largely decided that there are too few breaths allotted to me to waste them trying to authenticate myself for others.
Yeah, right. I wish I were so baddass.
The truth is that I do care—at least with other Black women—how I fare in the Authenticity Game. I keep playing even though I know the rules are stacked against me. No. I did not attend an HBI. No. I did not pledge a Black (or any) sorority. No. I do not have “natural” hair. No. I did not grow up in the ghetto or with a single parent. Yes. White folks seem to get along with me, like me. Yes. I fit in easily and fairly effortlessly in majority White environments and this comfort level shows in my achievement. Yes. I am often perceived as a “safe” Black person by the White and other non-Black people I work with.
How do I win against those odds? How did I get to this point—all these years after my diverse experience in my 60-40 high school—where the space for Real Black Womanhood has grown so constricted?
…In this movie scene I am played by Tracee Ellis Ross. My new boss is played by Denise Nicholas. She is appraising me, my new employee file folder open on the desk before her. “So, your husband is an officer?” “Yes,” I/Tracee say/s. “Hmmm, the Army paid for his ____ school, I bet.” She laughs and looks back down to my file. Tracee tries to decode the laugh as good-natured or derisive. “And you have a Masters degree from ___.” “…Yes…” “You know, I’ve had many spousal hires like you come through here,” my boss/Denise says, whipping the glasses off of her face and looking me/Tracee in the eyes. “Never worked for DOA a day in their lives, fancy degrees from White schools. But anybody can buy a degree. What matters is experience. Knowing the Army culture. That you can’t buy. Well, don’t expect some sort of ‘training program.’ You’ll get what I got when I started as a GS-09 administrator like you: a book of regs and a key to my office. If your Masters program was as good as it looks on paper, you should be able to figure it out for yourself. I did.”
[I/Tracee back/s out of the office, cradling office keys and a huge three-ring binder filled with papers in one hand and my/her Fake Black Card in the other.]
My first job with a Black female boss. How hard I worked in that job. Not only did I have to prove myself as a “real” Black woman, but as a “real” Army community member. I was there at every meeting, served on every base committee. I updated every SOP and regulation. I instituted a newsletter. I developed relationships with the MPs, the base CO, the JAG office, and the base fire marshal. I ordered new supplies—the first time anyone had bothered to do so in years. I learned to recognize rank insignias and laugh at military jokes. I adapted myself to the pace of our weekly meetings with the other two Child Care Services administrators—also, both Black women. I took my ribbing as a “college girl” in stride. I walked the tightrope between fit-for-duty and not-showing-out.
But then I received a special commendation and prestigious coin from the base commander—something that was rare, apparently, for civilian employees on this base. My coin says, “PRESENTED FOR EXCELLENCE.” My framed certificate says, “Your professionalism and dedication reflect great credit upon you, the ____ Base Support Battalion, and the United States Army.” Back in Denise’s my boss’s office following the awarding of this honor my first Black female boss said, “Well, looks like this new commander just gives those coins away. Our last commander only gave them out for special circumstances.”
If this scene from my life were a movie, all three of us would be dressed fabulously…we’d be walking side by side in slow motion…a funky soundtrack would be playing loudly in time with our steps. The heads of the White colleagues we pass in the halls would literally turn as we glide by. (Well, actually that would not be artistic license, as in real life the heads really did turn; conversations really were halted. But back to the movie version.) I’d be played by Gabrielle Union. To my right would be Queen Latifah and to my left would be Halle Berry. Though previously suspicious of each other—each for our own reasons, based on our own backgrounds—we are now, after cafeteria wilted salads and stale sandwiches, united in a powerful front. There is no stopping us now. The powerful White folks watching us pass in the hallway are defeated. Their efforts to play us off against and keep us apart from each other have failed….
In real life, the day that the only three Black women in my department came back from our first lunch together was a little less dramatic than my movie version, but no less meaningful to me. I could almost see the thought bubbles floating above the heads of folks as we passed by. What had we been doing at lunch together for so long? What had we been talking about? Were we dissatisfied with something in the department? Had the carefully planned diversity efforts somehow gone awry? Was the department not being welcoming and inclusive enough?
No. Three Black women just wanted to have lunch together. And, hopefully, get to know each other. Really get to know each other. Some kind of way we had decided to see past the misconceptions and the assumptions…to move beyond the past burn marks each of us had suffered at the hands of other Black women…to risk each of our statuses within the department (the Acceptable Approachable One, the Caretaker One, the Young Cute Bubbly One…) in order to be all of our selves—at least to and for each other.
I suppose in the movie we’d have to do something symbolic as each of us, finished with our baddass hallway strut past gape-mouthed White colleagues, opened our respective office doors and returned to our work day. Maybe each of us in the privacy of our offices would take out our Fake Black Cards to see them vanish to nothing in our fingers. Then the music would swell and the credits would roll….
I know that here in real life my next experience with other Black women in the workplace might take me back to square one with the Authenticity Game. I might have to answer the “What’d you pledge” question for the umpteenth time, might have to go for weeks or months harboring inaccurate assumptions about my Black female coworkers and them about me. Perhaps the ending will be happy but just as likely, it will be another disaster.
But this is my movie. And I like the vanishing fake Black cards ending.
***Part 3 (of 3) here***