“Oh, so you wanna go to grad school? What do you wanna study?”
I had just started volunteering for a special opportunity at a university I was visiting over the summer. The professor in charge didn’t know me and decided to start up some small talk. When I answered her question, she asked,
“We have that program here, have you looked at our school?"
Cue the awkward silence.
"Yeah, I did..."
I was hesitant because I didn't know how to politely tell her that I wasn't interested. Just as I took a breath to answer, she cut me off and ended the conversation with, “So you’re not sure.”
I was sure, actually. At that point I’d spent years researching potential grad schools and one thing I definitely knew was that her program did not fit my goals.
I wish I hadn’t been polite.
I wish I would’ve unapologetically told her that I did review their program and was not impressed by its lack of depth in discussing cross-cultural competence, especially for a human services field that typically serves marginalized communities. I wish I would’ve talked about how it makes a sad attempt at “diversity” and “social justice,” all squished together into one out of sixteen classes but never explicitly mentioned again in the curriculum. As a Black woman who’s been taught to value things like intersectionality and identities other than my own, their insufficient coverage on these topics was the main reason I wasn’t even considering their program.
I found it insulting to my intelligence and hard work that she automatically jumped to me being unsure, but I guess that’s what I get for trying to spare her feelings instead of speaking my truth.
And why didn’t I? What was I afraid of? I couldn’t help but ask myself these questions as I unconsciously tuned her out. Aside from the struggle of realizing that I’m a young adult now and it’s okay for me talk to legit adults with the confidence of a 20-something, I have a sort of anxiety around White people that’s all too common among many people of color, namely, fulfilling some stereotype about my race in their presence. Because of this I have a tendency to walk on eggshells to avoid confirming negative perceptions. It’s the reason why I didn’t always ask for help from White college professors when I needed it. It’s the reason why I wasn’t straight up with this professor when she asked about my grad school interests. With her, I didn’t want to confirm the Angry Black Woman stereotype. I was afraid that she would somehow credit my resolute, unimpressed conclusions about her grad school program as “attitude,” and in doing so, amplify the awkwardness of our already cold interactions. I was afraid that no matter how politely I gave a dissenting view, my approach would be labeled as irrational or dramatic. But instead of creating a safe space from stereotypes, that fear did nothing but pressure me into silence and make me refrain from showing up as my full self in more than one circumstance. Solange gave voice to that frustration in A Seat at the Table. It hit home for me in the sixth track, “Mad,” featuring Lil Wayne. In it, Solange said,
You got the right to be mad / But when you carry it alone you find it only getting in the way
She was right. I was so upset with that professor that I unintentionally blanked out from the rest of our conversation because I couldn't stop thinking about how bothered I was by her comment. I should've just followed Lil Wayne's advice and "let it go, let it go, let it go!”
I really vibe with that album; a lot of us do for reasons that have been said in many ways over the past month or so since its release. The opening track, “Rise,” resonated strongly with me. When Solange said, “Walk in your ways so you can sleep at night,” I took it as a call to stand in my power. Her lyrics, along with being fed up with myself for tolerating this stuff for so long, encouraged me to start speaking my truth and letting the chips fall where they may, even in high-risk environments.
Make no mistake about it, the anxiety behind this type of freedom is merited. The fear of being judged, stereotyped, and misunderstood for reasons that others would be celebrated — like speaking up about injustices and microaggressions — is justified. The experience of our thoughts being dismissed in discussions and meetings as “too much” simply because we’re passionate and/or knowledgeable happens everyday. Ruchika Tulshyan of Women at Forbes writes that Karima Mariama-Arthur, a Black woman who founded WordSmithRapport, has been in many scenarios where she spoke up in the workplace but her requests were considered too bold, or her language too intimidating. Mariama-Arthur continued on to say that she's had "countless scenarios" where her “assertive responses to offensive behavior have been met with contempt (2015)." Many Black women can unfortunately relate to stuff like this happening in both personal and professional settings.
We have a reason to believe we must be cautious, but I’m tired.
I'm tired of making myself clam up every time something insensitive happens because of how I might be perceived. I’d rather be labeled angry and speak my truth than repress what I know to be real because of a stereotype. Of course I realize that this won’t always be an option, but as much as I’m able, I plan to make a conscious effort to no longer allow that fear to inhibit me from asserting myself when it matters. I’m learning that walking on eggshells isn’t any less awkward for me than speaking up. The only difference is that nobody learns anything if I remain quiet in these instances, so trying to play it safe with silence is essentially a lose-lose situation.
I’m going to start taking small steps towards speaking up more. The only alternative is to be voiceless in a world that already tries to silence us, and that’s not an option. I will forever appreciate Solange for giving a melodic beat to my struggles as a Black woman, and encouraging me through her beautiful voice.