The three panelists were “women of color”; a Mexico-born Latina, a U.S. –born African-American and one reared in Africa, all highly regarded electrical engineers. In skin color, they ranged from “very light” (the Latina) to “light/medium brown” (one black woman) to “very, very dark” (the other black woman), the former two with shoulder length flowing black hair.
The audience consisted of thirty managers and I was the facilitator.
Throughout the session, “Insights – perspectives of women of color in the contemporary organization, “I threw out thought-provoking questions to both the audience and to the panelists. Here’s one to the panelists that left many in the room – and the panelists too – with a “deer in the headlight” look across their faces:
“To what extent has your skin color been an issue for you during your career, if in fact you think that it has?”
Yes, I said it and like toothpaste once out of the tube, I couldn’t put it back, couldn’t retract the question even if I wanted to.
Now two women, seemingly surprised yet amused by the question, said that other than being thought to be Italian, Asian-Indian or a deeply sun-tanned white person (the Latina), and sometimes getting flack for being “high yella” by some in her community (one black woman), reported that skin color had otherwise posed no real issue for them in the workplace.
Then came the perspective from the other black woman, a tall, elegant individual from Cameroon with flawless dark skin. Here’s what she said, humorously, through a smile clearly designed to put the audience at ease:
“Terry, honestly I did not know that I was black until I arrived in the U.S. to study engineering. Ever since, I’ve gotten reminders that are grounded in stereotypes about Africa. I had to convince one curious young man that Cameroon was located in Africa, not East Texas, that yes, we do have internet back home and that I was not raised in a hut in the jungle.”
Silence against nervous laughter enveloped the room. We’ll get back to her calming comments further down.
Later, I wondered if some thought that I’d played “the race card,” arguably the conversation stopper of all conversation stoppers with my question. Had I somehow put her and myself onto a high wire sans a safety net? Which takes me to a recent column by Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald where he writes about the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. Here’s an excerpt:
………People who look like you are deprived of health, wealth, freedom, opportunity, education, the benefit of the doubt, the presumption of innocence, life itself – and when you say this, even when you document it with academic studies and buttress it with witness testimony, people don’t want to hear it, people dismiss you, deny you, lecture you about white victimhood, chastise you for playing a so-called “race card.”
Eugene Robinson, another talented columnist with the Washington Post, and like Pitts a Pulitzer Prize winner, recently wrote about the fact that anytime he broaches the topic of race, he typically gets rounds of complaints from readers about his “playing the race card.” Says he,
“Whenever I write about race, some readers react with one or the other of these end-of-discussion criticisms. Some people believe, or pretend to believe, that mentioning race in almost any context is “playing the race card.”We will never get to the point where race is irrelevant if we do not talk about the ways in which it still matters.”
Sensing that many in the audience needed to hear something reassuring after her bombshell of a revelation, our panelist from Cameroon left them with this:
“It didn’t take me long to understand that my curious co-worker, although uninformed, was sincere in wanting to know more about me. So I seized his lack of awareness as an opportunity to teach rather than to be offended. Perhaps that’s because I wasn’t born in a place as race-conscious as the U.S. nor have I necessarily shared the experiences of US-born African Americans. It’s not for me to validate their experiences nor how they respond to those experiences.“
Hum, two choices – to teach or to be offended? Maybe, just maybe, the better choice as our lady from Cameroon suggests, is the one less traveled!
“… I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
“The road not taken” by Robert Frost
Just imagine the limitless possibilities when we sometimes choose to take the road not taken!