Turns out Jessica’s Mother was able to take a good look at me in our class photo. Me, with my hair neatly combed in a pony tail and tied with a beautiful red satin bow. Me, in my dark navy sailor dress with red trim that matched the bow just so, new saddle shoes and red socks. My dress, I might add, came from the local department store – and cost more than the clothes Jessica wore in an entire week.
You see, Jessica’s family was poor. Jessica didn’t live in my nice neighborhood; she, her two older sisters and her younger brother and her parents lived in a trailer. Her Mother had to work – Jessica said she was a waitress at a pancake house. Her Dad wasn’t in the Army like mine was – he’d never been in the service. He worked in a Western Auto store and did handyman work on the side to make extra money.
Jessica told me that her Mother asked a lot of questions about me after she saw my picture. She wanted to know where we lived and asked if Jessica knew anything about what my parents did for a living. She said her Mother even showed the picture to her Daddy when he came home, and that they said, “Look at how clean she is.”
“Mama said your dress cost a lot of money,” Jessica said. “She wanted to know if you dressed like that all the time. When I told her you did, she didn’t say anything. I told her you were the smartest person in our class, too. This morning before I we went to school, she told me that I could sit with you.”
I didn’t know what to say. I thought about all the things Mama and Daddy said to my brother and me that night. How they made sure we always looked nice when we went to school, and why it was important that we be on our p’s and q’s at all times, to never give the teacher any trouble and to always make good grades.
They told us how some White people didn’t expect Black people to look and act the way we did. How when some people looked at Black people they always expected the worst. They even told us some Black people thought the same way! The important thing was for us to always remember who we were and what we had been taught.
“Be true to yourself,” my Mama said.
“Remember, you’re a Matthews,” said Daddy.
Mama and Daddy were right. I didn’t look the way Jessica’s Mother expected me to look, so once she saw me, then I became “all right” in her eyes. I understood what happened because my Mama and Daddy had explained it, but it still didn’t make sense.
And it still wasn’t right.
And, worse than that, based on what Mama and Daddy had told me, it wouldn’t be the last time.
I’m an adult now. I came into my own; proud, self-assured and fully competent.
I can certainly attest that the profiling I experienced at the hands of Jessica’s Mother wasn’t the last time. As a young Black girl . . . teenager . . . young adult . . . woman, I have faced multiple instances of profiling, prejudice and discrimination.
I have learned how to manage it, and I have learned how to navigate in varied academic, professional and social situations.
I have learned that people are individuals. No ethnic or racial group is a monolith; each person must be assessed and accepted or rejected in my life based on personal merit.
I have also learned – painfully so – that life’s not fair, and everyone won’t respond to me with the same level of fairness, respect and acceptance I extend to them. I have learned that my skin color would cause some people to prejudge me without bothering to get to know me. I have learned that others would hate me on sight because my skin color differs from theirs.
I have learned that prejudgment, discrimination, profiling and injustice can come from a person of any race or ethnicity.
Yet, despite the profiling, the negative experiences, and even the hate, I am thankful that I have learned to appreciate the diversity that encompasses the human race – so much so that I freely welcome and desire a life partner whose race or ethnicity is different from mine.
I have learned that profiling doesn’t define me – the only person who can define me – is me. And you know what? I. love. me!
Jessica and I remained friends for the remainder of the school year. We moved to another state at the beginning of the summer, and I never saw her again.
And yes, I won our book competition. I read every book in our school library – and finished three weeks before she did.
Join in the Fray: Who or what defines you?
Copyright © 2013 Michelle Matthews Calloway, ASwirlGirl™, The Swirl World™, All rights reserved.