by Stephanie Gates
Last week, I was sitting in a room full of white people, and I pulled out my banana and ate it. I wasn’t the only brown face in a sea of whiteness. There was another woman of color in the two-day workshop, but there’s something markedly different about being the only Black person in a room full of white folk.
On Day 2, it was my intention to arrive early so that I could eat my on-the-go banana and yogurt breakfast of choice before the workshop began. I left home with time to spare, but traffic was heavier than I anticipated. My trip was supposed to take 42 minutes. I gave myself a 90-minute window to account for traffic and my penchant for getting lost, but it was to no avail.
I was hungry and knew that the lions in my stomach would start to roar before the noon lunch hour. I thought the yogurt was too cumbersome to try and eat while following along in the binder that took up the entire desk space. The banana was the better choice to tide me over. So, I went for it.
The weird thing is that I was consciously aware that I was eating a banana in the presence of white people. It didn’t freak me out; I laughed as I fed the beasts in my belly. But I couldn’t help, but think about the whole white people still think Black people are apes scenario. And that’s the problem with stereotypes. They make broad, general statements. So, I was sitting there thinking, “Am I feeding a stereotype by eating this banana?”
It’s not as if I was given any special attention, I was just there. And judging from the conversations around me during the breaks on Day 1, I knew this was a conservative Christian crowd—God help me! Not exactly the place I wanted to be considering the heightened level of racial tension in society. Too soon after the Zimmerman verdict, it wasn’t quite warm and fuzzy. I was the only fly in the buttermilk, and I stood out even if it was only in my mind. Two tapes played back in my head which fed my angst.
The first incident involved Cecile Kyenge, the Black woman who was appointed Integration Minister in Italy in April. She has been met with quite a bit of resistance since taking office. Those on the far-right do not agree with her stance on immigration. Twice in the month of July she was likened to some species of ape first by a senior parliamentarian in the anti-immigration movement who compared her to an orangutan. Then on July 27, bananas were thrown at her during a speech. My workshop was July 30 and 31.
The second incident happened in Paris, and was shared with me by a friend. She was visiting her daughter and granddaughters who live there. The girls are 10 and 6. Their father is a Black Frenchman, and their mother is a Black American. The girls are bilingual—speaking both French and English fluently. My friend, her daughter, and granddaughters were on a bus, and the oldest accidentally bumped a white woman’s bag. The child apologized, and the woman nodded as if she accepted the apology. She then turned to her teen-age daughter and said in French, “See, they are monkeys, and that is how monkeys act.” Understanding what the woman said, the little girl turned to her mother and whispered that the woman had called them monkeys. Her mother was livid and admonished her daughter for whispering. She told her daughter in a voice loud enough to be heard by all that when someone insults her; she is to speak out even if they are adults.
It’s 2013, and as Black people, we cannot get away from the association to apes. And the fact that we have an African-American president seems to provide even more ammunition to people who are afraid of true evolution. The incidents involving apes and the First Family are too numerous to name. The one thing about the many references to people of African ancestry is that it does not discriminate by nationality or gender. Let the fools who fear change tell it, we all swing from trees.
So, while I was amused that I was actually thinking about the ridiculous notion of being identified as monkey, I was also disturbed that my mind even went that way. When I got home that evening, I thought about Melissa Harris-Perry’s book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America in which she describes our plight as that of trying to stand up right in a crooked room.
Harris-Perry uses the analogy of the crooked room to describe how Black women must navigate space in a world that is hostile to their presence because of race and gender. Harris-Perry says, “When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up.” Perry says that the perception of Black women is shaped by common stereotypes that have relentlessly followed us over time—Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and others. “Bombarded with images of their humanity, some Black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion.” Was I in a crooked room, or had I tilted it myself?
Kyenge was in a crooked room. My friend, her daughter, and granddaughters were in a crooked room. If I had decided not to eat my banana, I would have confined myself to a crooked room. Too often we bend and bow folding ourselves into restricted spaces in an effort to make others comfortable. We stoop, slouch and squeeze into these pre-conceived spaces. We stop breathing. Stop living.
Crooked rooms poke and prod us with sharp and jarring edges of blame and shame. We stare at ancient angles of stereotypes steeped in race, class and gender. And if we stare at them long enough, we begin to believe that they are real. We see flat, one dimensional representations of ourselves and we cannot stand up straight.
It requires energy and effort to stand up right in a room designed to stunt our growth. But we must. We have to straighten our backs, square our shoulders push our chests out and hold our heads up high. We have to push and stretch beyond the confines of the Crooked Space. We do it for ourselves; we do it to pay homage to those who navigated the crooked spaces before us; we do it for the next generation of Black girls and women trying to find to reclaim our authentic selves.
Honoring Your Authentic Self: How To Stand Upright in a Crooked Room
Speak For Yourself: Why Fighting Stereotypes With Generalizations Does Not Work