Is It Just My Imagination?

Hi Liz,

I just want to get your take on this situation. I work in an office where I am 1 of 5 African Americans. My co-workers are pretty cool and they include me in on everything but sometimes I feel like our interactions are inappropriate.  I wear my hair natural and they always want to touch it or they comment about how difficult it must be to wash it (it’s very thick and kinky). When we have our potluck lunches, they always volunteer me to bring fried chicken.

I feel like I’m always on the ready to defend myself against their ignorant comments. We do joke around sometimes about the difference between black and white people but sometimes I think they go to far. If they think I’m angry or frustrated about something, they’ll say things like Here comes diary of a mad black woman part 2 or Madea’s about to reach into her purse or her baby daddy better watch out (I’m married). I laugh it off but on the inside it pisses me off. Even during small talk, I find myself looking for racial undertones and it makes it impossible to really enjoy participating.

Do you think I’m overreacting or am I being used as a source for their entertainment?

Here’s what I think.

Your co-workers may not necessarily be racist. They may have a genuine curiosity about the African American culture that has been misrepresented through media outlets for generations.

You are in a position where you can educate them on that which they don’t know. You have the opportunity to positively counteract any aversiveness that may have been handed down to them about African Americans.

Let them know that the African American woman is a very complex but versatile human being from the many ways she is able to wear her hair to the ways she satisfies her appetite.

With that being said, you need to recognize and correct the role that you play in their, seemingly, naive banter. When you joke around with or say things to people with humorous intent, you create tangible topics. It’s on the table and they can reach out and grab it anytime they want. Laughing things off that you are secretly not comfortable with gives off the same vibe that joking about taboo-to-you topics does. It’s an invitation to continue.

If you want something to be off-limits, you have to leave it off limits too. If something makes you uncomfortable, you also need to make it known because, ironically, it may not be obvious to some people.

If they volunteer you to bring chicken and nobody ever eats it, that would raise a flag but, if you bring in the chicken and the bones barely survive, CONGRATULATIONS! You’re a damn good cook and they love!! That doesn’t mean you have to always be the KFC ambassador. Let them know you have other recipes you can throw down on and bring it to the next potluck.

Set your boundaries. Once you do, you’ll know when someone is stepping out of line.

That’s my opinion.

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