When you receive feedback once, you can generally take it with a grain of salt. When you get the same feedback twice, your ears might perk up. When you hear the same feedback the third, fourth, fifth … or fiftieth time, you should probably take it seriously, right?
I was out with a friend last week. We were having a nice dinner in the city and talking about nothing in particular when the conversation turned to what I planned to do with my life. Did I see myself being a worker bee, an entrepreneur, a corporate chief executive, a stay-at-home mom, a media mogul? Where did I see my life taking me?
I laughed nervously and asked why she was asking. She looked me dead in the eye, and said: “I’m asking because I see you're not just hitting the glass ceiling, you're cowering under a table waiting for rocks to get thrown at you. What are you afraid of? What’s holding you back from living?”
I’ve never been kicked in the gut before, but I am pretty sure I know what it feels like now. She wasn’t the first person to say this. I had heard this feedback before from others in different ways.
- “What are you afraid of?”
- “You can do anything, why do you hold yourself back?”
- “I feel like there’s this whole part of you that you’re not putting forward.”
- “What’s stopping you?”
- “Why do you care so much about what other people think of you?"
- “Why are you always deferring to authority?”
- “There’s so much more to you; I’ve seen it. Why are you hiding? What are you hiding from?”
- “Where’s that book you keep talking about?"
These are all the same message: “Why aren’t you showing up for your life?”
Let me explain. I’m terrified most of the time. I spend most of my life living among people who don’t look, walk, and talk like me. I’m often the only person of color in my yoga studio, in my office, or at the local coffee shop. I can go an entire day without seeing another person of color. Silicon Valley is known for many things, but diversity is not among them.
I am used to this state of affairs, and that may be the problem. I’m used to doing what it takes to be an inoffensive, non-threatening black woman. I know how to make myself small when I need to and how to stay that way for as long as it takes to weather the storm of the day. I know what scares white people (yes, even the most well-meaning ones), and I know what brings them closer and leads them to invest in a person of color, because it’s a sad fact that wealth is not concentrated among black people. So, if you want resources, you have to learn how to fit into the tiny crevices, nooks, and crannies white people create in their world. You need to know how to ignore the siren song of people who know nothing about what it means to be black and female. They croon seductively, "You can do what you want! Bring your whole self! Don't hold back! Don't be afraid!"
Heh, sure. I see you, siren. You say that now, but wait until I bring my full self. You'll sing a different tune. Then I'll be out of a job, and you'll be justifying the decision to close the doors on women of color.
Ask Oprah, Beyonce, or Michelle Obama — I am sure they will all tell you how they all practiced this quiet, social jujitsu at some point in their lives. My particular practice entails getting quiet and small — small enough to fit under figurative table, behind a barricade waiting for an attack that may never come.
From journalism and academia to Silicon Valley, I’ve navigated as carefully as I could, finding opportunities to put myself forward just enough to get in the door and not to get my head lopped off by someone else’s irrational fears. But the compromise has been this: I don’t dream too big, I don’t hold a strong point of view, I don’t chase after the things I really want, I compromise, and I hold back from committing to any one thing. The easiest way not to be disappointed or disappointing, is to never hold too tightly to a goal, a dream, or a point of view.
Another consequence is that I see the world as an overwhelmingly hostile place (the past couple of years have done nothing but validate my position). Everything is a fight to be won or a trap to be avoided.
I’d like to know what it feels like to stop smiling and laughing to make others feel comfortable, to say what I really think, to take a stand without worrying the ground will fall out from under me, to stop caring if people like me or not, to hold my own point of view, to live fully, and to stop caring about what other people think, to stop fearing the consequences, and to simply be my own, one, true, black, womanly self.
Jeez, the simple act of writing that makes me confused and terrified.
I know, this isn’t exactly an uplifting essay (and I can see the subscriber bleed it will incur), and it doesn't offer any answers, but it’s honest. The fact is, I don’t know how to be my true self. That was easily masked in my youth, but now that I am older, it's starting to show. If I am going to be truly successful in my life, both personally and professionally, I need to figure this out.