What Do I Owe You: When a Black Male Colleague Compels Racial Betrayal

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by Audrey Elisa Kerr

The obnoxious behavior started before I was even hired.

At my interview to become the second black, tenure-track faculty member (and first black woman) at a large University, I was pleased to see a black face in the crowd. After my job talk, as I chatted eagerly with the university’s provost, the black man from the audience walked over, stood between the provost and me and said to me,“I need to talk to you, now please.” The sea of white faces around me looked both horrified and embarrassed

“I’m speaking with someone right now,” I said slowly, “But I would be happy to talk with you when we’re finished.” Perhaps I’d just broken rule number one of racial camaraderie: never dis a brother in a room of white folks: still, I smiled and returned to my conversation. In the next fifteen minutes he proceeded to interrupt my conversation at least four times.

When we finally sat down to talk in his office he leaned back, crossed his arms and grunted.

“How much are they offering you?” he asked pointedly.

“Excuse me?” I was certain I’d heard him wrong. He not only repeated the salary question, but proceeded to give me “tips” on negotiating. Taboos did not exist in his world.

In the years to come, the white folks and I bore his rants, and inappropriately personal comments, even as he took to prefacing our names with “sister” and “brother” if we were “down” (race wasn’t a factor) and “Dr.,” if we seemed bereft of ancient properties. I was always Dr., while a black woman hired shortly after me was rewarded with “sister.” He would occasionally wander into my office and pluck a book off my shelf, shouting on his way out that he would return it (he never did). On one occasion he strolled into my office, picked up the picture of my daughter on my desk and asked me why she was so white.

Of my Black ex-husband he said, “He may want to talk to the mailman.”

Almost a decade later, I felt that his race (Black), nationality (Rwandan), gender (male) and age (70s) had afforded him innumerable walk-out-of-jail-free passes from well-meaning, liberal white academics.

Black folks on our support staff – mostly women -- received an even deeper category of degradation from him. One of his particularly vitriolic tirades about photocopying reduced a secretary to a puddle of tears. She filed a complaint which is probably floating somewhere around where Sandra Bullock found herself in “Gravity.”

Of course, we all have our breaking point. After the birth of my second daughter, he walked into a committee meeting, looked at my over-sized shirt and announced to the other committee members that based on my size “Dr. Audrey must be pregnant….again. “ Not long after that, he suggested I have salads for lunch, noting, “I use to be big like you. Even bigger. But I worked on it.”

It is certainly common for many African Americans to withhold from making public reports of disagreements with other blacks folks in all white environments for fear that infighting will perpetuate stereotypes. This particular colleague’s constant references to “tribal” methods of handling disputes gave me pause to think about how I might actually embrace a “tribal mentality” in dealing with a Black woman colleague of equal rank.

But the reality is that I felt no discomfort about turning my back on a fellow black worker who had disregarded the unspoken rules of being black in a white work place: that we support each other respectfully, that we affirm each others’ place in the face of living stereotypes and maintain a competitive standard; and that we model professionalism that contributes to our collective well-being.

After alerting the chair of my department to my on-going discomfort, I contacted the colleague directly and informed him that as a consequence of his consistently inappropriate behavior, I wish for our exchanges to be limited to public salutations.

The expectation of camaraderie is be riddled with falsehoods and obstacles. In “What Makes Black Women Angry at Work,” author Nsenga K. Burton notes, “Black women walk a tightrope in the workplace because we often have to manage other people's expectations of who we are. We are forced to learn the cultural nuances of each with whom we come in contact in the workplace, but few people are have occasion to look beyond [our masks].”

While ethnicity, class, gender, cultural experiences have to be named, and acknowledged as real, I learned early on that as long as some black men continue to behave in a way that supports patriarchal structures – be these men American or African diasporan, old or young, rich or poor – Black women will need to set our own agenda that categorically rejects our subjugation or subordination.

Racial solidarity is complicated.

But from where I stand, black feminism is simple, and with each incident, getting simpler.

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