Updated: Mar 1, 2020
I have never really liked business suits. I recall many days coming home from a business meeting, unlocking my front door and peeling off the suit I wore that day much like Tony Stark peels off his Iron Man suit . I can never move or flow as freely as I like while wearing a suit and I always feel claustrophobic in them. Crazy thing is, as much as I dislike them, I put on an invisible one every morning before I leave my house. When I wear it, a voice altering capability powers on raising my pitch every so slightly. It programs my eye rolling and brow raising levels to just below inquisitive. It allows me to keep my hands clasped or folded, shoulders forward ever so slightly bowed, my jaw softened and tongue tight to the roof of my mouth. This suit even emits a fragrance of slight passivity that enters the room before I do. I can still breathe fairly well in it, just soft enough to not ever let out a full sigh, but no full belly laughs or teeth sucking until I walk through my door at home and disrobe. While I'm wearing the suit, I walk softer, respond softer and always, always smile. Smile, because it disarms the silent alarms of others just as they begin to start making judgements. Smile because it distracts my own mind from calculating what judgements are probably being made.
The suit would incite comments such as ", She's strong but not too dominant, probably not the right one for Executive representation, she'll get the job done though". Let's see what else...oh yes, "palatable, capable and non-threatening" It never fails to conjure up the phrase "she is very articulate and well-spoken!" This suit is the colorblind appropriate, mythical "model minority" version of me.
I don't remember exactly when I started dressing myself in the assimilation suit, but it had to be a subconscious decision made early on in my childhood, I believe remnants of it have been passed down from my great-grandmothers through my parents to me. My great grandmothers had to wear this suit to survive on the plantation, to shrink their value and hopefully not get beaten, sexually- assaulted or sold. It was protective for them, and my version of it was protective for me.
I can mentally trace the evolution of it over time in my own life as a result of a few influences. One, often being "the only Black person" in social settings as a kid, I learned to mimic the behavior of my white peers as a reference point for accepted behavior. It wasn't racial for me. It was social. You speak the way the majority of your peers speak as a child and I hadn't learned yet about the racialization of social behavior. Two, my Black elders told me that speaking this way was respectable, that I was intelligent because I carried myself this way. I'm still not entirely sure which reason carried more weight.
I guess somewhere along the way I combined the remnants from my ancestors suits and the reactions from Blacks and Whites to tailor my own suit. Except, I wear it in Corporate America. I call it the cheesecake organizational structure. All the color is still on the bottom.
The suit had recently become too confining and I had been trying to figure out how to permanently put it away. I was contemplating this as I walked towards an elevator at work one day. I had just come out of an ego measuring contest, I meant to say a department meeting and one of my colleagues from the meeting walked towards the elevator with me. I was talking through my opinions on a topic we discussed in the meeting, when he interrupted me mid-sentence. The words flowed out of his mouth like the straps of a straight jacket aimed in my direction trying to pull me in, "You are just so well-spoken, I'm impressed at how well your grammar and articulation is, where are you from?"
"Where are you from?" had been asked of me in almost every corporate setting I had been in. It was a trap. I learned that the question was usually code for, "you don't sound and act like other Black people".
As if Black people, Black Americans, Black American Females all have one brain connected to the Black cloud that downloads one code for dialect, body type and interests into our consciousnesses. "Where are you from?" was not an attempt at getting to know my cultural heritage or childhood environment. "Where are you from" wasn't about the where at all. It's about the YOU in the question. "Where are YOU from?" YOU are differently situated inside my narrative. YOU exceeded my limited expectation of you. So why are YOU...you? There must be something anomalistic about you. You're too you, to be YOU. In this case YOU was me and me was Black and Black was...articulate. This seemed to pose a conundrum for him.
I heard myself reply to him, "I was born in this country, just like you". My mouth turned up on one side, head tilted, brows furrowed, eyes narrowed, and I went on to say, "I have come to realize that scholarly articulation of American English is not unique or exclusive to any particular people group". My eyes darted to one side and rolled their way back towards the other direction finalizing their trip around my eye socket with a long blink and a deep nasal sighhhhhhh. I went on to say that American English was my first language, and asked him why he thought my articulation of it was so exceptional. I said that I believed I spoke the same way he did, and I didn't think there was anything exceptional about his speech pattern. Wait, what? Something was... off.
It was then that I realized I had not put on my suit that day.
I was met with an unapologetic, incredulous "Ohhhhhh boy, let me guess, what? You think that compliment was racist or something right?" Somehow my response to his "compliment" became problematic. I had said nothing specifically about race, but my response had pushed him into a space where he had to explain himself since I was not going to give him an ancestry.com exclusive. I didn't empathize with his recoil because see, explaining myself is something I do on a very regular basis: Why this hair, why this outfit, nail color, what kind of food is this, why this movie, this part of town, this song, this idea, this question, this topic, this shoe, why can't I put my unwashed hands on your hair, what are your Black thoughts on this racial thing that is on the news and why, do you prefer Black or African-American?
I had become very familiar with it as it comes with the territory when you are hypervisible (in this case commonly the only Black person in a social setting). Hypervisibility makes my personhood corrigible, critique prone, which is why I wore the suit. That suit gives me the super powers to make it through an 8 hour day on the plan...corporate office. My upgraded version it has built in kryptonite for micro-aggressions, and sometimes even activates an invisible force field that silences the questions for an entire day!
He was not accustomed, I surmised based on his facial expression, to ever having to piece apart his commentary to someone who looked like me, so he waited for me to explain. I could mentally hear myself back-peddling and Blacksplaining why my individual opinion doesn't necessarily represent the entire Black community of the world, this is how it landed on me, but we are not a monolith etc. etc. etc. -this accommodating talk is actually a defect of the suit that I would sometimes default to. I stopped myself.
I literally thought to myself What would Leslie Jones do if she was in this situation? If only I can be half as brave as she is in the face of this intrusive mess. I defer to her in my imagination a lot.
But that day, I just came to work as Black and Female me.
So, I turned to face him in front of the elevator that we were both about to step into, knowing that if I engaged it would be suuuuch a long elevator ride down, but also understanding that in order to get the chance to discuss any other topic from the meeting, the racialization of my speech pattern had the mic first. I mentally predicted that there would be more questions when we landed, there are always more questions. I ran through my outcomes: I would be labeled problematic in that moment if I turned away, problematic if I engaged, problematic if I said the act of racially profiling speech patterns is offensive. Yeah, still problematic. What times was it again? It was too early for me to be going through all of this! To always have to wield a diplomatic response in these scenarios is exhausting.
It was then that I realized I didn't freaking care anymore. I was tired of the duality, of accommodating projections hurled at me every day. I was over the assimilation suit. See, being "complemented" on how I spoke was really a negative judgement on Black women that did not speak the way I did, an implication that they were somehow less intelligent and I was not at all cool with that indictment.
I'm a grown woman who has evolved into understanding the care God took in wrapping all of these pieces of me into my own Black skin. I am not obligated to help someone else figure me out enough to stick me into yet another box. Keep your box. I am not your personal "what is racist- what is not racist" google search. So, yes, articulate and well-spoken sir is Black, it is female it is Me. My heritage, my ancestors, my faith, my experiences are me.
I turned to face him, and full voiced, hands on hips, eyes dead set into his, I repeated again, "Scholarly articulation of the American English language is not unique or exclusive to any particular people group".
Not a flinch in sight nor a flip to be given about how that truth landed on him again. My point was my point. I tossed my locs behind my shoulder and pushed the up arrow button on the elevator. " As I was saying..."
Group Questions and Comments:
1.Let's Talk Mental Health and assimilation. Studies have shown that culture plays one of the largest self-protecting roles in mental health.
Do you find yourself wearing your own protective suit in environments where you are hypervisible- ? What does that look like for you?
2. I could write an entirely separate post digging deeper into how historically Western society has imposed their scrutiny- whether critical or dressed as curiosity- onto Black women especially. (ex.she should talk like this, dress like this, wear this makeup, this hairstyle, this weight, maintain this level of aggression etc.) We know this exists. The question is how much of this is internalized and reproduced subconsciously as a default behavior in hypervisible settings?
3. We have been culturally assimilating for so long in America that you can almost forget there is more to Blackhood than what has been misappropriated. How is assimilation into "American" culture still marginalizing people of color in this country?