The award ceremony had all of the necessary ingredients: my name engraved on an award, an encouraging audience, and the warm, wide smiles of my proud parents. I wore a gray boxy suit that my mother bought me so that I would look the part of what she thought an award recipient would look like. I wish I could say those were the most indelible images I carry with me to this day. But they aren’t. That wonderful memory is sullied with a microaggressive remark that still shocks me.
As a college sophomore, I had the fortunate experience to be the recipient of an academic award. Of all the wonderful events on that day, what stands out to me is a comment directed to me by an older white man who was in attendance for the event. After the recognition ceremony during the reception, he offered his congratulations and we fell into a brief conversation about academics, my plans, and my background. After I explained a little about my personal life, he said good-naturedly, “So I take it that your family is not exactly the crew from Good Times but also not the Cosby family either. Somewhere in between?”
I didn't know what to say to that. I knew that something was “off” about that comment but College Me didn’t know what. So like many people without a clue of how to handle a questionable remark, I giggled nervously and excused myself to find my parents.
Months later, sitting in the kitchen as my parents cooked dinner together, I finally told them about the comment. My dad, in trademark fashion, simultaneously just shook his head and rolled his eyes. It was a gesture that I knew well. It signaled exasperation with yet another racial incident that was inevitable, trivial, and hurtful and that he understood. I asked him playfully if he ever compared himself to the fathers in those TV shows. His reply?
“No, TV doesn’t know anything about black dads. And that person you talked to doesn’t know anything about black families.”
He was right. I left the hurt there. In his signature taciturn style, he had validated my feelings and eased the angst. My brothers and I could always depend on him to help us through the confusion of microaggressions.
Of course, I now understand the full weight and implication of that awful remark at the reception of the award ceremony. Among the racist and classist inferences in this remark was a statement on his assumption of my family’s socioeconomic status based on the very little that I had shared with him in the space of a few minutes. It not only revealed his poor manners but also the narratives of black families that he had been exposed to. All he knew about black families was the fictitious struggling Evans Family of the show “Good Times,” a show about an African American family living in Chicago housing projects, and the fictitious affluent Huxtable Family of the “Cosby Show,” a middle class family living in Brooklyn, NY. That was it.
I truly believe that he intended no harm. But that doesn’t matter, does it? The impact of his remark, like other microaggressions, seared itself onto the memory of that day, burning off what must have been pleasant memories of pride, recognition, and achievement.
This is the danger of the “single story” as author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells us. It creates a false narrative and “makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” Rather than find a common ground for us both such as the college experience, academic achievement or anything else, in trying to size me and my parents up, he relied on the only two black family images that he knew. It is true that as African American family images went at that time by the early nineties, there had not been many more as prevalent as the two represented on the popular TV shows. However, when an entire diverse group of people is assumed to fit into narrow definitions based on skimpy representation, their humanity, as Adichie tells us, is disregarded.
I wish that College Me would have had a more sophisticated reply that questioned his bias and his assumptions. But I didn’t. I can only hope that since then, that gentleman has had more exposure to narratives, images and interactions with black families and other families of diverse backgrounds and cultures. I also hope that he has the opportunity to reflect on and address his own implicit and explicit biases. I hope others around him have also had the opportunity to examine their biases they hold and then hold each other accountable in deliberate attempts to be allies of individuals who hail from marginalized communities and cultures.
This hope may seem like a tall order but given the malleable nature of the human brain, it is entirely possible. Beginning in mid-March, TESO Consulting Group will host a course entitled, “Disrupting Bias in the Workplace.” It is wholly dedicated to helping us all to disrupt bias and create spaces that promote and maintain an anti-bias culture of dignity, respect and belonging.