Choosing Silence

While this entry doesn’t have a lot to do with design it is a different kind of bridging experience that I think speaks to the struggles of being an African American women designer in a predominantly white profession. In many ways a kind of cultural bridging that often goes unacknowledged.  I am the only African American in this year’s Loeb class. While I appreciate the efforts made by the fellowship to  create diversity in the program sometimes it’s hard to be the only black face in the group.  While most people think they are not racist, the fact is that we all are and it means I am inevitably forced to confront these subconscious attitudes and make a decision to speak or to remain silent.  This was tested at our Loeb Fellowship dinner on Wednesday. Every week in the Loeb Fellowship we have a dinner guest at the Doebele House. As 6:30 draws near our cohort files into my home while delightful smells waft from the kitchen as our chef Matt makes the final preparations for dinner service as 7:00. At the last dinner our guest came at the proper time and was both engaging and interesting as we delved into a conversation about women and tenure at Harvard. However as she told her story of struggle she chimed in that she was perceived as a nigger, an uppity nigger no less.  As the words flowed from her mouth my usual thought processes came into play as I had to make the usual call as to weather or not to say anything potentially ruining the dinner atmosphere. I never expected my White, Jewish , Asian or Latino counterparts to speak up which is a shame because for some reason I always find it easier to defend the rights of others since I don’t seem to go into as much shock when it’s a slur against another race. I don’t think that our guest intended to be racist. She was a Jewish- American woman using the word to explain the discrimination she experienced but it was insensitive, arrogant and inappropriate to use language that has such a painful historical legacy amongst people she did not even know.  In the end I remained silent as we moved into the dining room for dinner.    I realized later that I would have liked for someone to acknowledge that it was said and reach out to see if I was OK or what my thoughts were.   Some people thought I handled it well but did I? Why didn’t I feel comfortable in calling out our guest on her comments?  If I had would this also be perceived as handling it well or would my colleagues have been uncomfortable even angry? I don’t know the answer to this since I haven’t tested it. Hopefully next time I’ll have the courage to do so. 

4 thoughts on “Choosing Silence

  1. Hey girlfriend, this doesn’t sound like you to shut up. We love you for always speaking up and you should have kicked a big fuzz over this. Like you did, and righly so, about our Zwarte Pieten. We continue to explain the dutchies they should change this offensive tradition- not very succesfully yet but I promise I won’t leave the country without some evidence of change. We missed you here last week when we celebrated this, and I had an internal chuckle over the picture of you falling off your bike, in a puddle, in front of Sint and his black piets. Back on your topic, I was reading a beautiful but disturbing book, the Human Stain, have you read it? Philip Roth. Curious what you make of it. Love and miss you and can’t wait to hear all your stories and updates when we get together with Natasha in spring. much love. r

    Roebyem Anders | Zonline Pedro de Medinalaan 11, 1086 XK, Amsterdam | +31 6 54 94 28 83| +31 20 80 80 854|

  2. Thank you for having the courage to write about this issue. I suspect the silence was more deafening than any words that everyone around the table has, most likely, already heard. Why should you be expected to be jerked into a well-trodden pattern of defending/educating/representing, every time a racially insensitive comment is made? The weight of this responsibility is on us all. Good for you for taking a different kind of stand.

  3. I thank you as well for sharing. I know how that must have felt. It’s kind of unfortunate but I too find myself being the only African-American in my professional settings, as well as in college. It’s always good hearing you voice whether out load or in reflection. Thank you once again!

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