On Being a Woman of Color

June 4, 2014 | Diversity & Inclusion, Overcoming Bias

Sometimes I spend Saturday nights watching Jeopardy reruns and drinking wine and sometimes I spend them floundering in a world where I wear (some of) my differences like a brightly colored flag. Or fishnets.

Last Saturday, I was invited on a cabaret adventure. Laughing and wrapped in wine, feathers, top hats and more than a little cleavage, two of my good friends and I made our way to a cabaret night at the home of a brilliant local business woman.

 In preparation, we made all the proper calls and costume adjustments to ensure that we were neither over – nor under – dressed for the occasion. Imagine our surprise when walking up the pristine lawn to a house that surely was, or will be, on the cover of Better Homes and Gardens, we catch a glimpse of our fellow party-goers through the glass door and see not a single boa, not a single fishnet, not a single hint of rouge (Moulin or otherwise) and, most dauntingly (for me), not a single person of color.

We stopped on the steps, we looked to one another for support, for direction (for wine?!) – from the corner of my eye a quick brown rabbit ran across the lawn and I turned to follow – but alas, we were spotted, waved in, our boas streaming like distress signals in the night.

We three, curiously clad, women of color entered a room filled with white wealthy people in casual summer suits, light floral dresses, strings of pearls (many of which were clutched – clutched!! – upon our entrance) and not nearly enough dark corners to hide in. With resignation, with grace (with wine!) and many mental parenthetical exclamations we embarked on what was surely the plot of some cosmic sitcom.

Each of us dealt with the situation in different ways – after rushing to the bathroom to collect, to adjust, to hyperventilate, we emerged with bright smiles hiding gritted teeth. We could do this. One of my friends channeled Lady Mary Crawley delicately swirling wine in stemmed glasses and sighing, “How delightful.” Our other friend, a social goddess and business entrepreneur, talked and moved through the space as if she owned it (she probably could) and I teetered somewhere between fits of laughter and desperate prayer.

There was not much we could do about the stares, the nudges, the surreptitious photo taking, the blatant photo taking, the clutched pearls and pitying smiles. But we could enjoy each others’ company, enjoy the music, the food, the wine (THE WINE) and the conversations that were so scandalously sparked from our attire.

The night was fun, the host an absolute gem, but the constant brush of stares and whispers set a sour taste along my tongue.

Why did I feel so out of place? It wasn’t simply my attire, it was more, it was my skin, my socioeconomic status, my age – and yet, the feelings of displacement and discomfort, the sense of standing out in a negative light, the sense of rubbing the world the wrong way was familiar even though this particular dilemma had never happened to me before.

But it has.

It happens every day when I walk into the office, it happens at professional gatherings and in supermarkets, it happens in my grandparent’s home and in the churches of my friends – the feeling of being a woman of color in America, for me, has always felt like showing up to an event wearing the drastically wrong attire. The stares, the whispers, the pictures taken and questions asked, the awkward silences in conversations leaving racially sized holes, the disconnect – finally I have a metaphor for what it feels like as a woman of color in this world – it feels very much like showing up to party filled with people who are in some ways (and consider themselves to be in all ways) your superiors while wearing fishnets, heels and entirely too much rouge. It feels like being trapped in a costume that you cannot take off in a room filled with people who are either very entertained at the sight of your discomfort or annoyed by it completely.

My skin is not a costume and my heritage is something I cherish, but other people sometimes treat me as a sideshow, the exotic part of their day. There were some guests that night who pushed us to perform, who expected that we sing and dance and provide a finale to an event we were invited to enjoy, not enliven. And I often feel that way about my race in my workspace, when watching popular media or in the millions of other spaces where I am a minority – I feel that I am expected to make a joke of my skin, my hair, to laugh off the casual remarks made at the expense of my race and to tamp down my own discomfort so that others may stare and grin.

I have been away from this blog for a long time – but the stories have been piling up. After graduating, I thought I would step into a world similar to the one I had just begun to understand (a liberal arts college) and instead I’ve stepped into an adult world that is very much divided, very much stratified, very much steeped in realities I have learned to speak about academically, but have only begun to navigate personally.

At least now I have a metaphor, a situation that can help me understand some of the layers of my discomfort. Like my friends and I at the party, I can own who I am and push confidently through tight spaces, I can assimilate into the crowd and work change from within, I can dash quickly across dark lawns to hide from society (yes, I am counting that little brown rabbit as my friend. In situations like this – you take what you can get) or I can continue to teeter on the desperate space between laughter and tears.

Or I can, as always, mix my options together and face the world on a multifaceted front doing the best I can with whatever is available to me in the moment – whether it’s a pen and paper, rabbits (and wine!) or an afro and fishnets.

By: Adriana Green

Read more of her adventures at The Crocodile Chronicles.