The Content of my Character is not Missing In Action (MIA)
Tomorrow, April 28, 2013, many Americans will observe the 50th Anniversary of the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. A number of activities to remember and commemorate this historic event have already occurred including a re-enactment of the march this past Saturday in Washington, DC and other places in the U.S. Most media sources have done a wonderful job of covering the events of the past that led up to the historic march, the changes that were brought about since the march, and the challenges that remain.
While I am reflecting on what the march meant then and now, I am reminded of a conversation that I had with a good friend about seven years ago. We share several common bonds including membership in GRITS – girls raised in the south, engineering as a profession, and knitting, sewing, or needlepoint. In case you are wondering, my friend is Caucasian and I am African-American.
She and I have had many discussions on various topics including those related to race, gender, and cultural diversity and inclusion or the lack thereof. So-o-o, about seven years ago we were discussing diversity and inclusion in a meeting with other women engineers. At a certain point, my friend says, “Vi and I have been friends for a long time. We have a very good relationship and we share a lot in common. There is nothing that I don’t feel uncomfortable talking to her about. When I think about Vi or when her name is mentioned, I don’t see a black woman, I just see a person. I don’t see color.”
My response: We do share a lot in common and have a great relationship. I’m even happy that she does not think of me as black or any other color. However, I do want each of you in this room to see color when you think of me or see me because it is a part of who I am. While I don’t wake up every morning, look in the mirror, and remind myself that I am a black woman, there are too many people in this organization, this country and the world who are very eager to remind me of that. And often with these reminders come prejudice, disrespect, rudeness, discrimination, harassment, etc.
If you cannot see that I am a woman of color who at times is subjected to these negatives and the added struggles that I have because of them, then you may also fail to understand who I am, and how I got to be that way. Therefore, until we are truly living in a color-blind society, I want each of you to see my color as a part of who I am. I also want you to see all that makes me who I am.
While many folks will remember this somber occasion as the 50th Anniversary of the I Have A Dream speech, the march was about discontinuing the disenfranchisement of some of America’s citizens, ending gender discrimination, and providing jobs that paid a living wage to support families and communities. In many respects, America is arguing for jobs and freedom today, although in a different way.
I reviewed a copy of civil rights historian Taylor Branch’s article: Remembering the March – 50 Years Later: What We Have Learned that appeared in USA Weekend and the complete text that appears online [Ref 1]. Branch included a statement from then NBC news anchor Chet Huntley’s experience in covering the march and of growing up in Montana: “We were a frontier people, he said. “We never really looked with honesty on the Negroes the way we examined the anatomy of a grasshopper, say or speculated on the after-hours life of a teacher. We looked, but we had been told what to see.”
In appreciating Mr. Huntley’s honesty 50 years ago, it is my belief and experience that too many Americans still buy into someone telling them what to see today! I have worked as a professional in the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) community for almost 30 years. I have also worked in non-STEM related businesses and sectors. Regrettably, too many of my colleagues still choose to judge me and what I bring to the table solely on my skin color. Too often, the liberty was taken of assuming that my educational background did not include a college degree. On discovering that I not only have a college degree, but undergraduate and graduate degrees in engineering coupled with an MBA, too many would prefer to put me under a magnifying glass and view me as a curiosity rather than allow me to engage in meaningful work and activities.
These missing data points also include the type of work experience that I am not expected to have including C-level experience. It is important that I give credit where credit is due. Some have acknowledged that all of the above is true, and would even put their name on my work! Yet some in this same group choose to believe that I am clueless about making career decisions that are in my best interest, managing my brand, and are compelled to speak for me without my permission.
While the technology behind “selective brain channeling” has yet to be demonstrated, I believe that my resume and other information that is available about me via social media and the internet provide accessible data about who I am and what I bring to the table. There’s also old-school communication – conversation and dialogue – that would easily fill in most missing data points. Yet, those conversations with me will not occur because of fear, bias, ignorance, lack of interest, or the need to obtain a desired outcome that may be different than mine.
While most people have heard or remember Dr. King’s I Have a Dream speech, if you only remember the speech and not the activities that led up to it, it is just that – a speech! Grass roots organization and activism were at the heart of the civil rights movement. Lives were lost pursuing this dream! Included in his speech are the words: I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Fifty years later, I am still looking forward to the day when most will judge me by the content of my character and not the color of my skin.
For sure, America can’t spend another 50 years chasing Dr. King’s dream. We are struggling to maintain our competitiveness in the global communities in which we do business. Real progress cannot be made as long as we hold onto gender and racial stereotypes and other relics of the past. We must allow the best and the brightest of every gender and race to be included at the business tables and in leadership positions as a part of putting this country back to work and back on track to greatness!
As recording artist India Arie so eloquently states in her song, I am not my hair [Ref 2]:
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am not your expectations no no
I am not my hair
I am not this skin
I am a soul that lives within
I am not my hair! I am not my skin! I am a woman of color with a soul that lives within! I am a STEM professional with business acumen! I am a knowledge worker! Yeah! Yeah! I am also a dreamer! And just as Dr. King reminded us 50 years ago, my dream is rooted in the American dream. My hair and skin color are a part of who I am, but not all that I am! The content of my character is not MIA! Allow the scales to fall off of your eyes and see all that I am, and not what you or others want to see!
I am an American! I love my country! And because I love America, I will continue to challenge Americans to be better than we were yesterday. And to be better than we are today!
This is not about you! This is not about me! This is not about them! This is about us!
1. Remembering the March, Taylor Branch, USA Weekend, August 16-18, 2013.
2. Lyrics to “I am not my hair” by India Arie, http://www.lyricstop.com/i/iamnotmyhair-india.arie.html