After last week’s interview with Larry Wilmore, which was undoubtedly one of the highest points in my career, an elderly Black man approached me. I recognized him; we sat at the same table at the MLK Celebration at Syracuse in January. He was bent over and depended on a cane. He wore glasses and spoke softly. When he said hello, I smiled and bent in to hear him in the noisy auditorium. He asked me if I planned to get married this year. He then proceeded to give me a very personal sermon about why, on the 85th birthday of Dr. King, I should be focused on getting married in the next year. According to Psalm 85, “Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other,” and I should focus on this meeting. I begin looking for the most respectful way out.
I know this conversation well, as a 32-year old single woman. It does not matter what I have accomplished in my professional life, I am now at an age where it is commonplace for people to give their unsolicited advice about my personal life regardless of my career choices. However, in the moment, I did not want to appear disrespectful, I did not want to continue the conversation, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with this man. He continued to talk, as older individuals have earned the right to do, and I began to strategic removal of myself from the situation. It often involves smiling, standing up right and not appearing interested. It is responding attentively while attempting to make eye contact with someone else; “I appreciate your comments, but I am really focusing on being the best professor I can be at the moment.”
Finally, I managed to escape and began engaging with a student. About 20 minutes later, the reverend approaches me again. I smile politely and lean in to hear him.
“Don’t cut your hair. Her hair is a woman’s glory.”
Exhausted, frustrated, and unwilling to let this antiquated gender-, age-, and career-based discriminatory conversation continue, I respond.
“My brain is my glory, my hair is just what sits on top of it.”
He acknowledges my statement with a belittling, “Of course,” and proceeds to tell me why my hair is important, “A woman will always have her hair.”
At this point, I abruptly ended this line of questioning with a, “Thank you. Will you excuse me.” I talked with some students and took pictures during the post-interview meet and greet, and focused on what would be a very thrilling last minutes of the Syracuse@Pitt game. I had too many other things on my mind to think about the interaction at any length.
When having drinks with Larry and a few other professors after the event, I related this interaction. A girlfriend of mine, a young, attractive, female professor of color confessed that she noticed this interaction and was thinking of coming to save me; just as she had a plan, I managed to extract myself. We laughed. We laughed because this situation is a constant; it is a job-related hazard. We laughed because it is all you can do when your life decisions are not just questioned, but they are blatantly disregarded by people who believe that they are saying this for your best interest. We laughed because we have an ingrained sense of respect for our elders, that we cannot simply run up on racist sexist comments in the moment, we can only talk about them in private and sharing coping strategies for later.
As things have calmed down and I am able to reflect on this conversation, I am becoming more frustrated with the interaction. As I get older and excel in my career, I have always been grateful that this is not an issue I hear from my mother, but I do get it from other family members and strangers. It draws on cognitive assumptions that associate women with marriage; marriage is and should be the goal for all women, and any other goal is nice but not as important.
There is an unquestioned assumption, or stereotype, that a woman’s inherent worth depends on her domestic ability or credibility, and a subsequent stereotype that professional oriented women are less domestic, and subsequently less worthy, resulting in a variety of negative attitudes, or prejudice, towards working women. Any behavior that stems from these stereotypes and prejudices can be considered an act of discrimination, including those who are “just trying to help.” We can call it “helpful sexism,” or “well-intentioned sexism.”
Although this type of bigotry is commonplace, it is rarely discussed unless it is a very public forum. Recent events include a reporter’s question to Eugenie Bouchard after winning the Australian Open about who she wants to go on a date with, a Kenyan politician’s recent comments about unmarried women being the source of “all these problems”, and most troubling, a recent study that demonstrated that participants were less likely to vote for a woman politician when the news coverage focused on her appearance (positive or negative) than when her appearance was not mentioned.
It also appears in the context of race, both within and between groups, and can range from comments about professional appearance and the recent stories about hairs and appearance (e.g., dreadlocks, more dreadlocks, kinky afros, natural hair in general) or colorism (e.g., Dark Girls, Girlfriends: Hip-Ocracy) to name a few.
I argue that these experiences are on par with microaggressions, or “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative [racial] slights and insults toward derogated groups [people of color]” (Sue, et al., 2007). Microaggressions have since become an encompassing term that can be applied to any moment where negative stereotypes become visible; check out this powerful photo series featuring racial microaggressions heard on a daily basis.
However, why does the implicit intention need to be negative? Well-intentioned comments can be just as painful because they are based on the same insidious cognitive associations, and more importantly, allow them to continue. Offhanded recommendations like, “you should get married” to a career oriented women, “don’t marry a dark man because your kids will be dark,” or even immigrant parents refusing to teach their native language to their children to help them assimilate. As I write this, I came across a story about Princeton Mom’s recent comments that girls need to get back to husband hunting and getting their Mrs.
I’m trying to help you in a world where other people will make judgements about you based on your characteristics, so you should dance within those stereotypes to make life easier for yourself.
However, despite the good intentions, these behaviors are derived from the same stereotypes and unquestioned assumptions that cause others to (negatively) discriminate. By adjusting one’s own behavior to suit these unenlightened individuals, we simply perpetuate hegemony, or the hierarchy of norms regarding what certain people should be, and become active participants in our own manipulation. This positively-slanted microaggression deserves its own label to separate it from the implications of “aggression.” I suggest, “beneficial bigotry.”