I wrote the following article after Hidden Figures came out. Everyone thought that since I am an engineer, black, and female, that I should empathize and sympathize with the film. But, the words wouldn’t come… This is ultimately what I wrote instead and I’m not waiting for a “special emphasis” month to share it.
Recently, I participated in a “Diversity Day” event for a local company. I was partially responsible for coordinating the “African-American Heritage” portion of the event. My team wanted to do something different than what had been done in years past and ensure that we were embracing multiple cultures. We wanted not to be bogged down in the dark history of slavery, inequality or civil rights, but be uplifted by African-American progress and our often unmentioned contributions to society (Think Hidden Figures. Did you know about any of that before the movie?). We put on a Harlem Renaissance era performance with a reading of Langston Hughes’ poem “Make America America Again.” Read it. It rings timeless in our current uneasy political culture.
For a cooking contest, an employee offered to make Pelau, a traditional Trinidadian dish of rice, meat, and spices.
I asked other African-American personnel to contribute what they would like – food, artifacts, history. When I would tell them about the Caribbean flare we intended to showcase, they would respond with, “That’s not African…” A couple suggested that there should be a separate showcase for non-African heritage.
This was an unexpected snag. I was flabbergasted. Shocked. Frankly, just plain annoyed. I thought it the opinions based out of the ignorance of a few. I did not realize this was an issue though, until over the course of coordinating this event, I had the same conversation with several African-American employees.
What an unexpected incongruity. I was not ready for it.
Despite my boiling blood, I still had an event to coordinate. We read poetry, served Pelau, danced to the Electric Slide, displayed some Caribbean Carnival costumes and overall, and it was a success. Many a person learned that you cab, in fact, buy Jamaican Ginger Beer in Publix. There is many a gem down the International aisle.
The resolution that folks came to, the thing that made them all comfortable with the idea of what I was doing was the idea that “we’re all descended from Africa.” What I often tell people, though, is that I do not care to be called African-American. My father is Jamaican. My mother is Trinidadian. They met in the United States in the 80s and out of that love and union came a first generation AMERICAN. Me.
According to most mainstream religion, we are all descended from Adam, too. But, clearly, we are not just one big happy family.
I am sorry, Africa, but I just do not identify with you.
I identify with the Jamaican patois dialect that my father speaks. I identify with the boisterous, gregarious Trini culture that is my mother. I identify with Jerk chicken, star fruit, rice and peas, currant rolls, and the Red Stripe beer that my grandmother drank on her 100th birthday. I know about the Caribbean tourist attractions constantly advertised with advertisements of carefree vacations among beautiful waters and dutiful, accommodating staff. I know about the other parts of the islands where my parents grew up, sometimes in fear of their lives, the parts that I’ve seen, but that people do not talk about. That is what I grew up with. That is my heritage.
Sit a plate of fufu in front of me, though, and I don’t know what to do, but I can tell you that I am not a fan of cassava.
Many companies are trying to embrace “diversity and inclusion.” But, do we really understand what that means? I was helping to coordinate an event for all African-Americans, something that should embrace all of our cultures. Note the plural form there. In these moments, when I heard disparaging and unwittingly narrow-minded remarks from other Black employees on what our heritage should be, I felt that I was not accepted. I felt like it was ok for me to advocate for their equality, but not for me to be a part of them. I did not belong in this group called “African-American.” I was being told that because of my Island heritage, I might equal, but I should be separate.
Last time I checked, we were all BLACK.
In our quest for inclusion, we have created numerous blanket terms that are supposed to make us feel togetherness, but actually create exclusivity. If I look at a Caucasian (or European-American), do I know if the heritage includes Jewish Holocaust survivors, the Lucky Irish, or South African? Do I ask? Do you?
What does African-American mean, anyway? It is a politically correct term that has been bestowed upon us by society. It is a term used so that everyone feels like they are embracing our heritage without offending us with terms like “negro” or other ‘N’ words. It is a term used because somewhere along the way, it became taboo to say “black.” However, think on this: When a potential employer interviews me, what does he/she see? I am an engineer by profession, rare for a woman or a minority, and as both, I am most definitely a rare bird. When I walk into a meeting, what do my peers see? When I walk into a store, or down the street, or outside in a hoodie because maybe it is cold or I’m protecting my perm, what does anyone see?
They see BLACK. It does not matter where I am from or what my heritage is. In that moment, we are all the same. We all look the same. We are all judged the same.
The next time you consider what African-American heritage is, stop and think. Where are YOU from? Where is your family from? Do you want to be called African-American because it is your heritage? Because it makes people feel better? Because it is politically correct? Because that is all you know and you choose not to be called anything else?
Do not call me Nubian. Do not call me Queen. Do not call me African-American. That nonchalant generalization does not tell you anything about me. It is only the checkbox that forced social etiquette would have me fit in. Call me Summer. That is the nickname my parents chose before my birth and what my family calls me to this day. Call me Lauren. That is the name my father chose for me to take on the world. Call me Bitch. As a black female engineer, sometimes I have to let that out in order to hold my own among my majority white male counterparts (but, that is a story for another day). Hell, call me White, because, ironically, that is my last name and people find no end to the humor in that…
Call me BLACK for no other reason than it is what I am. Then, recognize that beneath that, there is so much more for you to know and that I would love to tell you.