The other day I went to a cocktail party of my former colleague. She and I have become very close friends over the years. Even though we probably make an unusual friendship due to the 15 year age difference and the fact that she is a petite size biracial Dutch and Chinese lady. However, I enjoy her company and I always appreciate the special efforts she puts in to the smallest details of her parties. Overall it was a nice party with food and plenty to drink. There were about ten women in attendance, most of them older (well older than me) Dutch women. Many of them I have not met; so I engaged them in small talk. “How did you meet Liz? What type of work do you do? Where do you live?” and etc. Nothing major just casual conversation.
In talking to one of the woman, I brought up the recent note and news worthy drama at a jail. The jail had made recent headlines because an inmate impregnated four correctional officers, while being incarcerated. We engaged in a conversation about how the whole scenario sounded like something off a Lifetime movie.
Then suddenly another lady from across the room asked, “Are you talking about the incident at the Jail?” We answered, “Yes” and she joined the conversation. She began talking about how absurd the story was and how she heard of the story on NPR. And then she stated, “Well, you know. The American media always tries to be politically correct. So they did not mention the races of these women and I wonder what are they. I assume that the inmates are Black just because statistically, there are more Blacks in jail in America than any other race; you know, just statistically.” And she went on and on and on.
I had to catch my breath. My initial thoughts were what the hell is she trying to say. So I listened. I came to the conclusion that she was just trying to determine the race of the correctional officers. So she could tell us her theory of why the incident happened which was, “I imagine, since there are so many Black people in jail that the Black correctional officers engaged in this conspiracy because they were trying to fight back against the system. You know? Because there are so many Black people locked up.”
Now, I must add that before she joined the conversation it was nowhere near controversial or racial. It was an interesting story and I shared my interesting experience of working at another inner city men’s prison. It became apparent that she had an agenda in entering this conversation, which was to share her theory: that Black people were conspiring with each other to break the law, so they can uplift their “people” out of the criminal justice system – that is at least what I took from it. It was difficult for me to determine exactly where she was coming from with this perspective. So I took a breath. I could not believe that she was going there, this was a casual gathering of women, most of which I never met before.
So when she finished stating her opinion, I could tell that she was waiting for me to respond. So I did; however, I first had to decide if I was going to “go-in” on her ass or be diplomatic. The old EB would have gone straight in on her ass. She does not know me. More importantly, she does not know me well enough to bring a controversial topic up, such as race. Second, she does not understand, as a white European, the oppressive American criminal justice system - it is the new Jim Crow, built to keep the Black man down! Third, how in the world are these women uplifting their “people” when now there are, at least four children, without parents because of incarceration. In fact, these women are worse off then before. Not to mentioned that these women were specifically targeted because they had low self-esteem, which allowed them to be coerced into the madness. Most importantly, what difference does it make what race they are?! Would it make it better if they were white?!
However, I did not. I chose not to “go-in” because of course if I did I knew some how I would be labeled as the “angry black woman”. So I decided to engage her in an intelligent conversation. Moreover, I wanted to demonstrate to her, not all Black people are ignorant or criminals. Furthermore and more importantly, that most people who are trying to uplift other Black people know how to do so without breaking the law. Overall, I deemed her as harmless; she is a politically minded person who wanted to share her opinion. So I did a good deed for the day. The key here is I listened for understanding and not just with the purpose to reply back. I am proud of myself for handling the conversation maturely and wisely.
However, hindsight is 20/20 and now that I look back on the situation. I am starting to feel that I should have “went in”. While, I exercised my sensibility muscle, I did not exercise my expressive muscle as much as I would have liked. Although, she was trying to be sensitive by relating everything back to the statistics, it still was extremely offensive, especially since I did not know her. Not to mention, she took the conversation in a totally different direction and entered the conversation with a stereotype about the Black people involved. Couple this with her failure to acknowledge the background behind those statistics made them all the more insignificant as well as derogatory. Yes, the statistics are correct but the circumstances behind those statistics should also have been expressed. She is a dear friend of my dear friend and she was personable; therefore, I will have to meet her again to fully wrap my head around her.
Nevertheless, over thinking the past is like rubbing salt in an open wounds. So I moved on and I think about the positives, which is I have mastered my quick-tempered mouth, at least this one time. I learned a lesson, which is to stick to talking about the weather when meeting people you do not know. Anything else can be political. The second lesson I learned is listen more for understanding and not just with the purpose to reply back, and to give people the benefit of doubt. It is difficult to discuss controversial topics without offending someone.
So what do you think?
When should you let racial or even sexist slurs slide in the work place or when should you advocate for Blacks and/or women?
Do you think she was disrespectful for engaging me in a controversial conversation when she did (does) not know me?
Do you think it is best to check someone immediately, when they offend you?
Or do you try to be diplomatic and engage someone in conversation?
How do you handle controversy and not become the angry Black woman?
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“The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.”
― Christopher Hitchens
“We judge others instantly by their clothes, their cars, their appearance, their race, their education, their social status. The list is endless. What gets me is that most people decide who another person is before they have even spoken to them. What's even worse is that these same people decide who someone else is, and don't even know who they are themselves.”
― Ashly Lorenzana