Saturday, October 22, 2011

Coping with and Leveraging Your Invisibility

My father grew up in the Jim Crow South in a area on the border between Alabama and Georgia. To make extra money he would caddy on the golf course. His clients were gangsters whose acts were so nefarious , that the president at the time, Dwight Eisenhower, imposed martial law on the city.

My father told me that as his clients were selecting a golf club, hitting a ball or retrieving a ball, they'd be in dicussion. Right in front of him they would say who they killed and where they had dumped that particular body. In their minds, my father was not only unimportant, he didn't count because to them he was invisible.

Fast forward. I noticed a book advertised online. The topic was the economics of beauty. On the cover was a face divided in at least four parts. Each feature on the face was created by a part of a face from a different woman. Not one part of the face had a person with skin the color of a brown or dark woman of African descent. The unspoken message to me was, based on the cover of this book, the economics of beauty didn't even include a black woman. In the equation she didn't even count.

I worked on an international project. It required that I facilitate meetings in the Netherlands and Scotland. Many times as I looked around the table I was the only female and the only black person in the room. I remember going to dinner and I was 'jokingly' relegated to the end of the table, and told to sit and converse with a man who had been deemed as not very personable. Understanding his status as well as mine, he surreptitiously turned his back to me during the meal.

When I lived in Japan I remember sitting with a fellow teacher, listening to him bemoan the fact that he was not able to obtain a high level opportunity in a Japanese corporation because he was white American. I looked at him incredulously as I thought about the opportuntities that had been denied so many people of color in the US because they were not white American. But I guess those people didn't count.

At the university, I remember this young woman was expressing her empathy for the character in a book called, "Black Like Me". The protoganist in this true account colored his skin and masqueraded as a black person. She was moved by the fact that it was so horrible that this white man had been so terribly mistreated in his black skin disguise. I looked at her and said, "But that happenened to black people all the time". She sort of shrugged it off like, "Whatever". I guess real black people didn't count and were not worthy of her empathy.

As the average black woman, not necessarily average looking, you may be invisible to society at a large. It does not mean that this is YOUR percecption of yourself, but that this may be how the world perceives you. In general, in our society, a great deal of a woman's value is based upon how she looks. In modern day society there is a standard of beauty and most black women will never fit that standard. You know what I say, "So what!"

I don't believe that as a black woman you can afford to be color blind. You need to have an idea and an understanding of how others may perceive you. NOT, so that you can internalize debilitating feelings and beliefs but so that you can learn to cope, navigate and leverage this information to YOUR advantage. I know I am preaching to the choir. Sometimes a reminder is needed.

How do you do that? You give people the benefit of the doubt but don't have any expectations of them. Only have expectations of yourself. Afterall, you have control of one person- YOU.

When I worked in Japan, I was treated like a queen. Prior to my arrival in Japan, I had developed coping skills that enabled me to focus on my work and do my job well. I can't tell you how many times I was complimented on my work ethic by my Japanese managers and co-workers. I was offered jobs and opportunities that I didn't even know existed.

When you walk into an organization, it is very unlikely that you will be openly excluded. There is a great possibility that you may not be included, though. You have to cultivate vision and hearing that can see the unseeable and can hear the unhearable. Those are skills, ladies. They are transferable and if used with awareness, in conjunction with a solid education, great work ethic and professionalism, you will be unstoppable. People can slow you down, that is for sure. But they can NEVER stop you. The only person who can stop you is you.

Don't let someone's perception of what your beauty is supposed to be create a kink of vulnerabilty in your armor or expose you like it did to Achilles. Fortify yourself and continue with embracing your God given beauty. You've got work to do. In order to do it well you need all your wits about you and of course you will look good while you are doing it! Lastly, remember that in order to change the game, you got to be in the game. In order to be in the game, you have to be able to successfully navigate and leverage what you got. Beauty is power. Power is needed to help uplift and serve those around us in need. When you help others to reach their dreams, that just gets you even closer to reaching your own.