By Sarah Sharp, Case Management Intern
Have you ever had chameleon-like clothing that changes meaning depending on who you’re with? Clothing you are perfectly comfortable with in one context, but would think twice about wearing it in another?
This is what I faced recently when I sat on the floor of my room in front of my jewelry box. “Should I wear these?” I asked myself aloud as I looked at three sets of wooden earrings I had purchased at Rondo Days last summer. I had purchased them as a reminder of how far I have come in learning to embrace the Black aspects of my heritages. My Africa-shaped earrings in particular had taken on a different meaning when I used to wear them at my previous job at an African American student center at a local college. They signaled my agreement with the shared identity of the center. In the center, we were all descendants of strong, intelligent, and resilient people who survived being ripped from Africa and enslaved, still surviving in a world of inequities.
But I no longer worked at the student center and I needed to leave home in the next couple of minutes so I could be on time to Daily Work. I was worried about the message two green silhouettes of Africa would send my clients that are predominantly from there. Questions flashed through my head: Would they appreciate seeing an image of Africa in the same way I appreciate it when people from other states talk about Minnesota in a knowing manner?
Or would they think I was being insincere; like my preschool teacher when she wore African-themed earrings to school after being accused of racism by a Black couple? She also gave my Dad a box of Wheaties with an image of Tiger Woods on the front to show how “down” she was.
Would they harshly judge me as being yet another Black person who romanticizes the Africa of the past, yet doesn’t know much about the Africa of today? I thought of how a colleague went to Africa decades ago just to be called the n-word by a person that lived there. Is the typical job seeker at Daily Work even aware of the many back-to-Africa movements that have occurred in American history? To learn more about one of these movements, visit: https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/marcus-garvey
While my job as a case manager at Daily Work isn’t to discuss ethnic identity, it cannot be separated from our work. Have you ever had the experience of someone behaving differently around you once they realized you were from a certain neighborhood, ethnic group, income group, religion, etc?
Once someone gets an idea about you in their head, it is hard to undo it. This can our abilities to trust each other and undermine… or enhance our abilities to engage and build rapport with each other.
I remember being laughed at by a customer when I used to work at Target because I didn’t know how to speak Oromo…or any other language besides English. In that moment, I felt like the “dumb American” stereotype because many Americans can get by only knowing English when people from other countries know two, three, or even more languages.
On the other hand, I have also been called a “sister” by a man from Africa with an accent so strong, I nearly missed it. He recognized the shared connection we both had to Africa, even if our connection to it was different. To be fair, I can also think of times I’ve heard Black people talk about people from Africa in ways that elicit images of primitive people, apes, and starving people. Experiences like these are why I get annoyed when people simplify conversations about racial and ethnic identity by talking only about skin color i.e. “I am white, you are black. I have different experiences because of my skin color”.
Narratives like these fail to take into account that even though people might share similar skin color and features, their experiences are truly worlds apart. Human beings are complex creatures with many layers and experiences. One of the important things happening at Daily Work is that people with very different life experiences and backgrounds are building connections and community with each other. These types of intimate, personal experiences are the types of conversations that lead to debunking stereotypes and developing understanding, perspective-building, and stronger communities for all of us.
After reading this, you now may be wondering if I did leave for Daily Work with the green, Africa-shaped earrings in my ear. What do you think I did?