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?
I’m blogging every day in the month of July in Blogher’s NaBloPoMo Challenge. Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment!
Copyright © 2013 Michelle Matthews Calloway, ASwirlGirl™, The Swirl World™, All rights reserved.
That was my goal, to make her think carefully before speaking to me. You have to set boundaries with some people especially people that have no boundaries.
A Swirl Girl says
Eugenia, I’m realizing more and more that some people just NEED a wake up call! No, we don’t check everybody on every little thing. But as you said, there comes a point when enough is enough. I’ll bet she thinks twice from now on – which is part of the problem! They do/say stuff without bothering to THINK (except to think other people should just be ok with whatever they dish out). SMH
You’re right the usual thing is that you’ve let ppl slide on a bunch of stuff. Trying to be nice and thinking that they are clueless. But yes, I’d had enough. Yes, all of sudden everyone is plays dumb that they actually did something egregiously offensive. There’s not much I can do about other people’s ignorance. There’s no requirement for me to accept it or engage with them.
A Swirl Girl says
You’re right – this HAS been cathartic. After this past weekend’s events I felt all those feelings from WAY back in second grade bubble up – and I had to “get this out.” Lord knows there have been many other instances I could discuss, and I’m sure things happened before this incident, but this was the first incident I could recall where *I* had to deal with profiling/racism face to face.
I LOVE the list you gave your boss (I’m a “list” person, too!), and I LOVE the fact that YOU had a clear sense of what defined you and who and what you were – and it wasn’t based on your complexion. The more you think about that concept – using the color of someone’s skin to “define” them, the stupider it becomes. Insecurity and the desire to dominate drove that concept, and now unfortunately millions of people of all complexions buy into it. Thank God for being blessed to possess a TRUE sense of personhood!
I appreciate you and Eugenia’s comments and input. They mean much!
A Swirl Girl says
Thanks so much for reading! You’re right – I was blessed with WONDERFUL parents and we had a loving, supportive and stable home. We had that “Leave it to Beaver” kind of home, with dinners at the table, baking cookies, story hour and reading, the whole nine. In the mornings we even had to read a verse from the Bible and pray together before we left for school!
I hate, hate, HATE when people profile you, say/do something racist (or just plain stupid) that you have to check them on, and then when you DO, they act like YOU did something wrong. U.G.H. What’s also funny is that they don’t realize how many things we just overlook and let them make it on because we chalk it up to their cluelessness. Some things are so blatant, though, that you HAVE TO speak up and set them straight – and then suddenly YOU are the big bad wolf when THEY were the ones who did something wrong. I have to laugh, because something else people like that don’t realize is that we’ve had to deal with pseudo Jedi mind tricks so long, we don’t fall for the B.aloney S.andwhiches. 🙂
~Le sigh. The good thing is that your hubby recognized the profiling for what it was and stood by you. That person can’t come between the two of you, and that’s really what MATTERS.
This has been an excellent series and given us a lot to think about. In a way, it has been cathartic. In answer to the question of definition, I define myself. Oh, yeah, there are people out there who want to do it for me but that’s not going to happen.
Once, when I was stationed at Naval Space Command, I was sitting in my office working. My boss and I had an excellent working relationship and sometimes we would discuss social issues. One day, he asked me how I defined myself. I did it in list form (hey, it’s the military way, lol!). I said I was human first because I couldn’t change that. I was a woman second because I could change that but was born that way and was planning to stay that way. I went down a list where Black came in about number 10. When I said that, he looked amazed. He asked me why Black was so low and I said that being Black didn’t change the other things. Everyone always thinks of “Black” as a social construct rather than from a scientific POV (more melanin = darker skin). Many White folks bought into it because it helped them feel better about themselves. What’s funny but sad is that a color has been personified with the worst human characteristics. “Shiftless”, “Lazy”, “Stupid”, “Ugly”, “Dirty”… think of any negative adjective and you’ve got it. But, as my doctor mother likes to say, strip off the skin and what do you have? We are one blood.
My boss looked like he was about to cry. He came around his desk and gave me a hug. He said that was the best thing he had ever heard. Can you believe that was off the cuff? I had never given any thought to how to define myself until then.
That was a wonderful story, you have an incredible resolve even as a child. Probably from having such a loving, supportive family. My last time being profiled happened recently, last year, in fact, although I did everything ‘right’ I was still profiled by some ppl close to me. That’s even more hurtful, that although you can the very best you know how that ppl when they want can still just try to reduce you to a color. Although, I’ve forgiven, I can’t forget b/c none of the ppl who participated in the profiling thought they were in any way wrong, they justified it and even worse played victim. So we don’t speak much, really not at all. I’m okay with that, I feel no need to try to repair the relationship I didn’t do anything. So now it’s them to make it up to me not the other way around. But it still hurt very deeply, but hubby stands by me so we’re good.