I wanted to record this digitally, but if I keep waiting for that to happen, I'll NEVER post this, sooo....
Many people don't know this, but I am actually the African American ambassador to the nation. One of many, really, but I don't often seem to be in the same place at the same time with the other ambassadors. In fact, in most cases and many places here in upstate New York, I am the "only one" or "the other one" in many social gatherings. It is my job to be as diplomatic as possible in relations with those outside the African American race so that all future cross culture interactions go as smoothly as possible. It's a pretty stressful position, but one I have slowly learned to realize the importance (and sometimes depressing nature) of.
Back in the early years of my marriage, my skills were truly put to the test while visiting friends for their annual New Year's Eve party. Their party was truly the highlight of our year. It always included a great many people, old and young, most of whom I held in high regard as friends of my husband, who’s always been a great judge of character. I was usually the only person of color in attendance, but as I mentioned, I'm frequently the "only one" or "the other one", so I never really noticed.
Late in the evening, as we were starting to get a second wind, someone suggested we play Balderdash. It's a word definition game in which you to try to convince people you know the meaning of a real, but very unusual word by writing a definition that sounds convincing…or at least, sounds hilarious enough to make the game fun. Usually, people become one of three types in this game: the goofy definition writer, the simple definition writer or the complex definition writer. After a few minutes of game play, we already had established ourselves. We'd had quite a few of the goofy answers already, like "fungo--the green goo on the back of a turtle" and "bort--excess gas". For the record, however, I'm an amazing liar as well as a teacher, so I tend toward the creation of definitions too complex to be a lie. So, when the word karbi K-A-R-B-I appeared, I went with this gem: "karbi--the sooty residue atop slate shingles after years of usage".
On that same round, however, another member of our party also came up with a definition. "Karbi--what a black guy says…dis kar bi mine."
Most of you hearing this did one of two things just now…snicker a bit or freeze up, waiting to hear my reaction, the way the rest of the table did. Remember for a moment that I was the only black person at this table full of 10 other adults. Even my husband is white. The entire table swiveled to look at me while my husband gripped my hand with an intensity that was as powerful as my own at that moment. I knew he thinking the same thing, but what was I supposed to say? What COULD I say?
A diplomatic quandary, though you may not recognize it. For I only had one true option in this situation and it was NOT the one I want. To do what I wanted meant becoming indignant, demanding to know why this man, whom I only knew as a husband of a relative of a friend, would say something so insulting at this table with me right in plain view. How dare he say such things in my face, insinuating that a black man, such as my college-educated father or any of his friends, would talk this way? Jokes about people of any ethnic background are inevitably about their stupidity, so how in the world could he feel comfortable doing this in front of all these people? Sure, there are black actors, comedians, and regular people who still use this humor to impress others, but maybe they haven't yet realized the dignity our people have lost while they get paid, or just don't care. Money can make a person that way, especially large amounts of it. I have even watched younger black children make these same jokes so that their friends will think they are funny, too, not realizing that they are being laughed at, not with, and I feel sick inside thinking of all this.
And for my husband's immediate wish? A simple leap across the table and a right to the guy's jaw would have said all he wanted to say at that moment.
But without even looking, I could see what was hoped for, even expected. Surely I would find this amusing! Don't most shows tailored toward black people tout the same sort of Ebonic pride? Surely I could be pleased that I would be part of such a broad tradition of humor! Besides, it was "just a joke"…why take it so seriously and ruin the entire party with a bunch of politically correct rhetoric? We can all laugh at ourselves here (which is that lie people tell themselves so they can laugh at whatever they want and marginalize the feelings of anyone that doesn’t agree).
Many of you might be saying, "This is ridiculous! If I found something offensive, I'd speak right up! Why should I care what those people think if they’ve made me angry like that?" But therein lies the catch 22 of being the diplomat. What others think of ME is what they will think of those they meet AFTER me. Everything I say and do now reflects on every African American this person will meet later. Don't believe it? Then ask yourselves why, even now, younger people will still come up to me wanting to show me how "down" they are, or ask me why black people are so mean all the time? Why do grown men and women still ask things like "Why are black people so loud?" or "Do you know Shanika? I used to work with her back in (insert city we have in common here), and she's black, too…"? Why would my own mother-in-law's chief defense in hating me AND any children I might have be an attack by a black mugger back in the 70's? One bad experience with a black individual becomes my burden and the burden of those after me.
And honestly, if this is allowed to be anyone’s defense, could anyone BLAME any black person for being irate with every white person THEY met? Why can't I take this one experience and hate or prejudge or, at the very least, have a real fear of any white person I meet?
But what I usually hear in response to this is "Well, you just have to understand…"
I, as an ambassador, cannot simply SAY how much I dislike something without global repercussions. It is my job to understand while the rest of the world vents its rage. I CERTAINLY can't ACT on my feelings, because my anger here proves that black people are a violent, or at the very least, an overly sensitive lot.
Yet my silence or laughter only reinforces that it's okay to use this kind of humor and then nothing is learned at all. Never mind the fact that had this joke been about someone with a mental handicap, we would ALL have been indignant.
A diplomatic quandary.
And so, I sat for an uncomfortable second, with all this whirling in my head, my hand steadying that of my husband's to keep him in diplomatic check as well…
…then I did what I had to.
"What the hell is wrong with you?" I demanded. "Do you not see me sitting in the room here?"
But as I said it…I laughed.
And as I did, the rest of our friends began to chuckle with me, and a little piece of my dignity slipped away. My right to speak for myself was stolen by the adoring eyes of my friends who thought I was a great sport for laughing, even as I threw a notebook at the man's head and blinked back angry tears that no one but my husband saw.
He and I left that night feeling cheated. The party was gone, the evening was lost and all we wanted was the warmth and safety of each other's understanding. I must have jokingly vented for quite a bit in the car before my husband's gentle hand on mine stopped me and made me deal with the ugly core of my hurt. "I hate being reminded of my place," I muttered wearily, then started to cry. My husband reacted quickly, of course, and tried to get me to understand that my place was not to be the brunt of ANYONE'S joke. "No," I told him, "my place is to understand that he doesn't know any better and that he might NEVER know any better and just accept that. I am the ambassador. Welcome to my world."
As I sobbed harder, I realized in the back of my mind how hard this was for HIM. As a white male, he has never been denied or given away his right to speak. He has even gone so far as to demand that shoplifters put things back when he sees them taking an item, so justice is indeed his banner and whiteness his shield. He has also never been denied his husbandly right to protect me. But, he was able to see how even his anger or irritation on my behalf would only have exacerbated the situation, putting the person we wanted to educate on the defensive instead of teaching him. He felt just as helpless as I did, I knew, and worst of all, this feeling was still relatively new to him. He'd only been an ambassador for the 5 years we'd been together, after all. In a way, that makes it harder, I suppose, seeing such events from the eyes of someone you love.
But he didn't leave it at that. The next day, he wanted to call our friends to explain everything, which I was totally against. If they got offended in return, I didn’t want my issue to be the reason he lost this lifelong friend. Worse yet, if they tried the “you just gotta understand” defense, it would just deepen the hurt you feel when you realize a friend is not on the same moral page as you. It would easier to go on as I always had in the past; tamping the memory way down and hoping we never had to go through something like that again. My husband was adamant, though. “It’s not just YOUR issue, it’s OUR issue,” he explained. “No matter how nice the guy might be in real life, what he said was wrong and offensive, and if they don’t understand that, then they’re not the people I thought they were in the first place. That kind of connection won’t even be a loss to me.”
So he called as I cringed, waiting for the other shoe to fall. Eventually, he handed the phone to me with an encouraging smile and I took it shakily. Not only did they understand, but they had ASKED to talk directly to me, if I was up to it emotionally. Then they apologized for the hurt of that moment and the embarrassment I was suffering in having to speak up. More importantly, they THANKED me for telling them and allowing them to understand instead of just writing them off.
I suddenly realized how many people really WANT to know when they've said or done something offensive, but don't ever hear it. Usually, if there’s no pressure to respond, we ambassadors leave, offended but silent, swallowing another distasteful public scene to own dismay and disillusionment. It’s not that we haven’t TRIED to tell people or just write them off; it’s just we’ve been hurt enough by the backlash of speaking up that we become jaded to the idea that we’ll somehow change the world. Instead, we assume the worst; that this is another case of people who won’t ever understand and we live to (not) fight about it another day.
This time, I was comforted to know that this is not always a thankless job. It's unfair and even painful, but not always thankless. SOMEone learned something from this…and perhaps in hearing it, you might, too.
I am actually one of the many African American ambassadors to the nation. I have diverted many a cross cultural mishap in my time, but please…don't thank me.
Speak for me when I cannot speak or am not heard.
And for God sake, don't just let me laugh…hand me a tissue.