Mia Johnson’s story written by Andrea Wolfe
Mia is 36 years old
About a year and a half ago, a colleague of mine at Ivy Tech Community College and I were working remotely with an Ivy Tech employee from another region. We were to meet this other woman at a conference for community college honors students that we planned to attend together. My colleague—an older, white woman—was struggling to remember how to pronounce this other employee’s name. She must have assumed that it was a “black name,” as she approached me for help at the conference a few hours before our meeting with the woman we had been working with. Students swarming around us, my colleague asked, “How do you say her name again?”
“Chavonne,” I answered.
My colleague grimaced and sighed. “You girls and your names,” she remarked as she continued walking through the convention center corridor to our next session.
I stopped moving. My eyes widened and my mouth dropped open a little bit. There were so many things wrong with what she had just said; I wasn’t even sure where to begin. First of all, I recognized that I had just been held responsible for the naming practices of the entire black American population, notwithstanding the fact that I was actually named after the white actress, Mia Farrow. Moreover, hearkening back to a long history of white people referring to black adults as children in order to position themselves as superior, my colleague’s comment revealed that she categorized me, then a 34-year-old college professor, as well as every other black woman in the world, as a “girl.” She had also insinuated that the names that some black parents chose for their children were singularly designed to complicate the lives of white people with “normal” names. How was it possible that this educated woman could so determinedly miss the point that non-European names might represent resistance to centuries of white imperialism, oppression, and violence?
I wanted to tell my colleague all about herself, but I knew that I couldn’t get upset. I didn’t want to cause an argument in front of the students and colleagues around us. Also, I recalled past instances of being accused of yelling when only speaking clearly about issues I was passionate about. I knew that I couldn’t be too loud or too insistent on being heard. So, I didn’t say a thing. I didn’t want to be “the angry black woman.”
Another time, my colleague was talking about finding out that her daughter was going to marry a black man. She tried to joke with me, “I guess now I’ll have to start listening to your kind of music.”
Like last time, I felt struck by her comment. Again, she was suggesting that I, personally, was answerable for or somehow innately loyal to that which she perceived as an inherent aspect of African American life—in this case, “black music.” Never mind that I may like country music! I don’t, but I certainly could. Her comment also demonstrated her assumption that black Americans produce only one kind of music and insinuated that this kind of music was abnormal and just a nuisance in the lives of white people. Furthermore, she failed to understand the social function of rap and hip-hop, the important role that these types of music have played in black artistic expression and articulation of systemic forms of oppression in black people’s lives.
But, again, I held myself back from saying what I wanted to say. I began to realize, though, that my sense of personal responsibility for disproving the stereotype of “the angry black woman”—as well as the additional stereotypes that I perceive others as using to judge me in other areas of my life, such as “the black thief” when I was shopping at Target and “the single black mother on welfare” when I am alone with my children in public—was beginning to feel very heavy. I know that I don’t face the kinds of overt racism that people in the past faced. The racism that I experience takes the form of microaggressions. This is the new racism. It is sneakier and, because it propagated by people who pretend to be my friends, it is sometimes harder to directly contend with.
After the two incidents with my colleague, I talked to a friend about what had happened. He actually helped me to see racism a little differently than I had before, mentioning that there are multiple levels of racism and that one level of racism is simple ignorance. The colleague who had insulted me on these occasions, he suggested, perhaps might not have known that she was using stereotypes or that her sentiments about naming practices and rap and hip-hip were offensive. He proposed that an honest conversation with my colleague might allow me to express how she had hurt me and ultimately even help her to develop more appropriate ways of discussing race.
Maybe I should take the initiative to educate my colleague, but I haven’t done this. I don’t like the idea that it is my responsibility to correct her wrongs. I now just try to avoid her. I simply don’t have anything to say to her. I might be willing to forgive one faux pas, but two is too many.