“There is not enough time to unpack the impact simply living while Black has had on my consciousness. The hyperawareness that stems from the battling of stereotypes, the experiences of shopping while Black, or the shortening of my given name by others because it is ‘so hard to pronounce.’ Not enough time to explain how it felt working as a Legislative Aide to my state representative and realizing, at 22, how racism is sustained through the regulations and budgets that are voted into law by our legislative bodies. How it feels to work at companies where I have been their only ‘diverse employee.’ How it feels to travel to other states and see the confederate flag proudly displayed on government buildings, the sadness and anger that brings because, while I am only visiting, there are others who are reminded daily by its presence that this is the same America whose Constitution counted Black slaves as three-fifths of a person.”—Dwaina Howson
No Matter How Small the Voice
By Dwaina Howson
I. (Don’t) Pardon My Tone
“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”―Zora Neale Hurston
BOSTON Massachusetts—(Weekly Hubris)—1 August 2020—An unexpected bonus of this current coronavirus quarantine is the increased communication in my friendship circle. I have been sharing some important conversations with my similarly social-distancing friends across the country that have centered around what it means to be a Black woman living in this era. Sharing our frustrations around having to read and reread our draft emails to ensure there is no perceived tone. I am sure you’re asking yourself what makes this so significant. Let me explain. Tone is code for “Angry Black Woman Typing.” We have observed others in our respective professional environments being labeled as “aggressive” or “difficult to work with,” simply for requesting that others provide updates on ongoing projects. Or for voicing concerns around the micro-aggressions that are interspersed in daily office interactions. Do you understand now? You see, tone is used to suppress Black professionals and diminish their accomplishments, while others with less-pigmented skin are praised for their continued underachievement.
I remember starting a job at a private medical practice a few years ago and the office manager being shocked when she learned I had a college degree—as none of the staff had one. That I had attended my university on an academic scholarship that allowed me to graduate debt free. “How did you get that?” I chose to ignore the emphasis on the word you—the undertone—and simply answered, “Hard work.”
Over the course of the next year, I was the one who was continuously shocked. Shocked by her audaciousness. Her lack of decorum. The temper tantrums she and her daughter, who worked as the receptionist, threw in the office. Amazed at the willingness of the doctors to rationalize away this behavior while allowing a toxic environment to fester in which their minority employees were bullied. I was called into a meeting and told by one of the owner doctors that she realized that the office manager’s daughter was not capable of fulfilling her job responsibilities, and that after her mother retired it would be my place to take over some of her role in addition to my own. This would come without a fair increase in compensation. I updated my resume, secured another position, gave my two weeks’ notice, refused to be guilted into staying beyond that timeframe, and have not looked back.
This was before the 8 minutes and 46 seconds it took for George Floyd’s life to be snuffed out on the pavement of a Minneapolis street in May by a law enforcement officer kneeling on his neck. Racism in America is not a new phenomenon and Black men and women have been suffocated by systemic racism since the outright killing of us has become somewhat taboo.
Was that written with tone?
There is not enough time to unpack the impact simply living while Black has had on my consciousness. The hyper-awareness that stems from the battling of stereotypes, the experiences of shopping while Black, or the shortening of my given name by others because it is “so hard to pronounce.” Not enough time to explain how it felt working as a Legislative Aide to my state representative and realizing, at 22, how racism is sustained through the regulations and budgets that are voted into law by our legislative bodies. How it feels to work at companies where I have been their only “diverse employee.” How it feels to travel to other states and see the confederate flag proudly displayed on government buildings, the sadness and anger that brings because, while I am only visiting, there are others who are reminded daily by its presence that this is the same America whose Constitution counted Black slaves as three-fifths of a person. Not enough time to dissect how disgusting it is to have entitled strangers think it is OK to invade my personal space and attempt to touch my hair. Or how infuriating it feels to constantly have my voice stifled simply because I am Black.
Tone. I will not apologize for having it. Because, yes, this is an angry Black woman typing.
II. Cracked Foundations: This Forgiveness Thing
“In order to have the life I desire, I cannot continue to hide. Hide who I am behind the snarky comments and sarcastic smile. Pretending that nothing really impacts me and clinging to anger. The decision to free myself from my self-imposed cage of diminishment started a beautiful new leg of my life’s journey. I knew it would be painful for me, but I was convinced that doing the hard work of self- improvement—self-acceptance, really—was absolutely necessary and what I was being called to do at that moment.”—Dwaina Howson
“She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.”―Zora Neale Hurston, from Their Eyes Were Watching God
In the winter of 2013, I attended a planning retreat for the nonprofit board on which I served as Vice President and came to the realization that I had been slowly losing myself over the course of the previous seven years. Clichéd, I know, but I had lost sight of who I was in an effort to protect and strengthen others. Those shades of Dee—all those beautiful, vibrant shades of me—had become muted and dull.
The loss had been so gradual that I did not notice it for years. I knew on some level that I had changed, but an incident involving someone in my friendship circle that occurred in a local supermarket while shopping for the retreat brought home to me the extent of the change. I did not like what that incident revealed about who my years of molding myself into the perfect picture of Christian meekness had allowed others to think I was and I decided to take action.
The Thursday before we went on our retreat, the board President, a board member, and I went to the grocery store to pick up some items for the weekend. There was a lot of tension around the planning for the retreat because of a last-minute decision by the President to invite non-board members to join us for the weekend. I and other members of the board did not support her in this, but she had already made an executive decision and it was too late to rescind the invitation.
The tension led to a heated discussion about the President’s decision while we were out shopping. I did not interpret as disloyal my pointing out some flaws in her logic, and siding with the opinion of other board members in the matter. But . . . she and I were friends before we were elected to the board, and she thought that as her caring, considerate, supportive friend, as Vice president, I would automatically support whatever she chose to do as Executive.
While we were shopping, she revealed that she had received some messages stating that some board members were backing out of attending the retreat. When I made some comments indicating that I could understand their reticence resulted in her throwing an adult tantrum in the store. As she spoke, I took a mental step back, and my mind flashed to similar situations in the past. I realized that my previous acquiescence to her did not reflect my true nature. I had morphed into a peacemaker, someone trying always to make sure everyone around me was OK. And I realized that, in that process, I was neglecting my own strong feelings while constantly making sure everyone else was good.
Well, the retreat happened. It was a disaster. So much so that a few attendees decided to leave early. And grudgingly, my friend the President admitted that we had been right to oppose her.
“The Incident,” as I came to call it, spurred me to begin writing again, and it felt freeing. I had developed a habit of avoiding putting down in words my true feelings because, once written, they feel too concrete, almost too real, and so I could no longer deny the truth of the words. Unlike the thoughts that flit through my head, briefly there, but easily buried, words written down in any format do not easily go away. But that realness is exactly what I needed at that moment because I was tired of hiding.
I am tired of hiding.
In order to have the life I desire, I cannot continue to hide. Hide who I am behind the snarky comments and sarcastic smile. Pretending that nothing really impacts me and clinging to anger. The decision to free myself from my self-imposed cage of diminishment started a beautiful new leg of my life’s journey. I knew it would be painful for me, but I was convinced that doing the hard work of self- improvement—self-acceptance, really—was absolutely necessary and what I was being called to do at that moment.
On the day I was scheduled to leave for my retreat, I woke up to a lack of hot water and a flooded basement. Our plumber found that the water heater for one of the floors in our home was damaged. Fixing the problem was costly, with the demolition work needed on the basement added in, but easily accomplished. After some contemplation, I decided to go on the retreat as planned instead of staying home, and thus I had my life-changing weekend away . . . including “The Incident.”
Monday morning, the plumber came by to finish up his work and found that the basement had, once again, flooded overnight. Troubling because the root cause, we thought, was fixed. It turns out that the foundation of our home was cracked. The crazy thing is that the crack was not due to natural causes. It was due to some work done previously by a professional (reputable) company to repair another issue. I won’t go into details about what work was completed to fix all of the damage (water heater, flooded basement, cracked foundation) but I learned an interesting lesson that day.
Cracked foundations are not necessarily damaged beyond repair.
Part of my struggle to forgive is that I sometimes think that a relationship has been damaged beyond repair by an infraction. But this is not always true. Regardless of the little cracks that appear—of which I am sometimes the cause—the rest of the foundation is still strong. Just as with the foundation of our home, if the right tools and materials are used, the damage can be repaired. Because we are human and prone to mistakes, any relationship we build will develop cracks. The cracks themselves are not the issue. Cracks add character and depth to a relationship. And when they appear, they point out weak spots that, once “fixed,” only help to strengthen the foundation. There will always be some evidence of the crack, but that is not the entire story.
I think I’ve been going about this whole forgiveness thing wrong. Focusing on cracks and not necessarily looking to strengthen the foundation. But that’s another topic for another day.
Editor’s Note: The images used to illustrate this column come from “Visualizing Racism: Nine Photographers take on the challenge of depicting bigotry,” a photo-essay published in “The Washington Post Magazine” on November 25, 2019. The two images above are by photographer Jahi Chikwendiu.