I have a niece. Fabulous. Educated, well credentialed, very good at her job, and always exquisitely turned out. Lashes, hair, make up air brushed on, clothes, car, everything top of the line and together. A few years ago she went through a bad patch. It happens. She was let go from a job — I’d bet money her being fabulous had a lot to do with it — and it was tough for her to find another one.
My mother, who’s 80, suggested it was because of her looks. She said I should talk to her, tell her to tone it down, stop posting vacation pics on Facebook, etc. “White people see that,” said my mother.
I knew what she meant, and I did talk to my niece, but not to tell her to tone it down. At this moment, I think I’d die and go to hell before I ever tell a Black woman to make herself ugly or plain to curry favor with white people. So, I consoled my niece. I told her to keep looking, to hang in there, and she did. Not only did she land a six figure gig, she started her own business on the side, ‘cuz, why not?
I did that for a long time, dulled myself down to avoid a lot of attention. I got tired of white coworkers commenting in their low key judgey way “that’s an interesting dress, it’s so bright.” Or, forever asking about my jewelry, or my shoes or my purse. It wore on me. I became self-conscious, started to wonder if I was doing something wrong.
Well, Kellye, maybe they were just being complimentary. If you look nice, people will say so.
True. But those weren’t all compliments. It was judgement. The subtext was, why do you look so nice? Why do you have that? I remember one white female coworker used to come in my office and open up my bags — shopping on my lunch hour was a hobby in my 20s, you understand — and take out my things to look at them. Without my permission.
But Kellye, how do you know that she had ill intent?
First of all, don’t touch my shit without my permission. How dare you? And second, I know it was foolishness because I’ve had many other black women come and tell me the exact same thing I’m telling you right now. We’re not stupid. We can tell when someone’s giving us a sincere compliment and when someone is picking at us.
Then, I went on a business trip. I’ve been on dozens, but this one was special because one of my white male coworkers said something very interesting in front of a contributor — I used to work in publishing, ran a magazine, etc. — that I’ll never forget.
My old company had really nice events twice a year — they probably still do — to support the magazine I used to run. As its editor and by association the face of its brand, I always brought my best clothes to these events. I treated them as special occasions, and it was an excuse to break away from my low key business casual uniform and give my outfits an airing. In short, I was always fabulous. I’d have one dress on for breakfast meetings, another for the panel I was moderating, and yet another when cocktail hour rolled around, ‘cuz, why not?
One of my contributors complimented me on my dress in front of the head sales guy. Before I could open my mouth to accept the compliment, this creature laughed loudly and said, “she looks great now, but you should see her in the office.”
There was an awkward silence, then I smiled and said, thank you, and gently steered the conversation into a new area. The incident passed. But when I got back home from that trip, I began to wear whatever I wanted to work. Nothing inappropriate, that’s not my style — I save the controversial for my writing *winks* — but if I liked it, and it looked great, no dress was too nice, no bag was too jazzy, and no ring was too big.
I began to reapply my red lipstick before I went into meetings, and once when I lost an earring, I left the office at lunch time and went to buy a new pair. No buffoon would ever embarrass me like that again. You see, I realized something. I walked right into that squalid incident when I let a little negative attention sway me into changing who I am.
I didn’t deserve to be embarrassed that way. But knowing what I know about certain white minds and how their mental bias and deficiency manifest in microaggressive ways, I inadvertently opened the door to ill treatment when I forgot something critical. I forgot who I am.
I have great style. Working from home I currently live in athleisure-wear, but when I leave my home to go somewhere I’m usually jazzy as hell. I never for one moment should have let a little attention, a little jealousy, a little foolishness, sway me from who I am.
As American writer and activist Audre Lorde once said, “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” When you are a black person, self-care is the ultimate form of resistance. Why? Click the link a few sentences back. In that Essence article, author Jor-el Caraballo said it well: ‘When your life, or the lives of your loved ones, is deemed as less valid…how political does caring for your own wellness become when the State sees nothing but danger in the color of your skin?’
Black people, please, never forget to treat yourself well. Especially now, when the world is in turmoil, struggling to right itself, with black bodies taking the brunt of the battle wounds created in the fight. When we’re still explaining the obvious, and they’re hanging us from trees in 2020 and calling it suicide. Eat well, exercise, wear your nicest clothes with your mask, and get your proper rest because taking good care of you, your children, your loved ones, that is a huge part of winning the battle.