It is quite prevalent in our society that if a person of color assimilates nicely into the American mainstream, that some white people pretend to overlook cultural differences, ‘not notice’ race or straight up consider them white. This epidemic has happened to me much of my life, but there was one experience that has remained a running joke. I had just launched my own boutique fashion public relations and production company in New York City while in my 20s. It was so exciting for me to be living my dream of working in fashion, producing shows and handling press for designers. One of my clients was an eveningwear designer client Tim (name changed to protect privacy) and we were busy planning his fashion show for the runway in Bryant Park. This was the 90s, when all the big runway shows during New York Fashion Week were held in the 7th on Sixth tents in Bryant Park. A nostalgic time for fashion veterans. My designer client was a funny and friendly WASPY kind of guy with a gentle and kind business partner. I liked these men and they entrusted me to build a solid public relations campaign for their shows, so I was grateful for their faith in me. I was young and to be honest, I did not see one other fashion production company that was run by a person of color at the time. These clients were open. We had fun working together.
One day the designer Tim says to me. “I have a friend I want you to meet. She’s a black fashion editor at Vogue, who is an Ivy grad, and I think you would hit it off.” I was so happy that I was going to meet an editor at Vogue, to possibly nurture a new relationship. I love meeting new people and because I was young, it’s important to build my network. Plus the fact that she was a black editor was such a rarity that I was open to a connection to another woman of color in the industry. Then Tim said to me, the words that have been a running joke with my husband & I for years. “I told her all about you. I told her you were black, but not black, black.”
What does that even mean? He said I’m not ‘black, black’ to another black woman? You can’t make it up! Tim had no clue how insulting this comment was on both ends. He was probably proud of himself to bridge the connection & didn’t think anything of his description of me. There are many reasons that come to mind as to why Tim didn’t think I was ‘black, black.’ In many people’s minds, “black” is considered with negative connotations.
Ok, here goes my hypothesis…
I speak proper English, sans slang.
Did he know I was mixed with a white mom? Not sure.
I have poise and portray etiquette.
I’m not from the hood.
So all that means I can’t possibly be black? I think Tim’s eyes were closed to the beauty and diversity of black culture. His point of view is largely based on misinformation and misunderstandings of the issues between race and class. He looked at me and our editor colleague and just couldn’t tie us in with other black people, who were not of the same caliber in his mind.
Why is there such shock when black people excel or just so happen to assimilate really well? The answers run deep, but I believe the divide in America often just comes down to racism. On a whole, communities of color just do not have the equal opportunities & resources allocated to their communities and schools. This appears to be due to the unjust, discriminatory laws and false beliefs American society was built upon. The residual effects of slavery has been passed down from generation to generation in all facets of American life. (One can go on and on about this.) The laws today show that discrimination against underprivileged minorities is as strong as ever. Sometimes it’s obvious like the #Black Lives Matter movement and our education system. Other times it is incognito, like the privatization of prisons that house enormously higher percentages of black and brown people. The biases that Tim, my designer client, had in regard to blacks probably has been ingrained in his thought process for a long time. I do not fit the mold. There was confusion. This happens to a lot of mixed people — the confusion and curiosity of others.
So that day I went home and told my boyfriend, now husband…who happens to be white, all about this conversation with Tim. We were laughing for days. To this day it has always been a private joke between us if some strange racist scenario would come up for me, he would say jokingly, “Oh it’s because you’re not black, black.”
When I did go have lunch with the Vogue editor, I didn’t bring it up. We just had a nice time together. Years later, after she left Vogue, she wrote a piece in a top magazine on the plight of minorities in the fashion industry. I did write her and finally told her what the designer said to me many years ago and it was a laugh. It’s disturbing how some people really think that if you are educated, exude manners and speak proper English, you are ‘acting white.’ (I’ve heard this from black students, that didn’t like me, for most of my upbringing.) Yet, I am assuming my designer client Tim liked me enough to hire me because I was relatable and was very familiar with his culture and his world. The gift of being mixed is that most of us can flow between cultures seamlessly. I didn’t realize this gift until adulthood. It is also to be noted that many people of color that are raised around predominantly white culture and/or are educated in a particular manner, do also have the ability to just go with the flow and assimilate well.
So many people of color who get along just fine in America experience similar situations. In fact, recently my Indian girlfriend told me her white colleague actually told her “I don’t consider you a person of color.” Silence and shock was on the other end of that comment. What is going on in this world we live in? It’s quite clear to us that this colleague did not understand the concept of white privilege whatsoever. I have no idea what made that woman again, have the nerve to say that to her face, but here is my one assumption of what her thought process may have been…’That Indian woman is nice and smart enough. Maybe in my mind, I’ll pretend she’s white, since it’s easier for me to relate to her.’ Again, I have no idea what with woman was thinking but it’s a guess. It hurts us people of color when our ethnicity is white-washed because it’s easier to accept. That is not to say one talks about race and cultural difference all day either. It’s simply about accepting people for who they are. Seeing people as is, for real. Understanding all this, even back then with Tim, it didn’t prevent the sting of him ignoring my identity and having the nerve to state out loud to another black woman about me…”You will like Hope. She’s black, but not ‘black, black.”
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, so do share in the comments section below.