"'For my people…trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces...[i]"
It can be hard at work when I feel like my middle name is One of These Things Is Not Like the Other. I neither smoke nor drink. Among colleagues, I’m black. And, I don’t hang late socially because I get angry when I’m tired, and I want to keep my job.
Even as someone who advances the power of shared purpose for a living, I’m learning. Over the last year especially—kindled by my experience of a close friendship with a man of a different color—I’ve invited myself to critically examine my commitment to the cultural identities that are my jazz, my feel-good place. Even as they serve me, how might those ideas I have of myself as culturally black, politically liberal and Baha’i by religion distance me from others? I’m trying on the idea that holding so tightly to who I think I am in comparison to, or contrast from, others limits who I ally with as my people. By qualifying how I connect with others, how do I limit my own value?
Recently on work assignment, an accidental experiment revealed to me that I’d been operating in the belief that I was a person of less value. I’d sat down with colleagues to what I expected to be dinner and a show. I call it forced fun; I am the show. But that evening, I was unwilling to put on a front. I quit the pleasantries, opened conversation about topics of interest to me, and laughed without self-censure. Literally, I enjoyed myself! I let go of the obligation of being One of These Things in a work environment that likes the idea of employing diversely and unknowingly obligates me to make that complexity work.
In her TED Talk gone viral, the actress America Ferrera identifies the obstacles that “executives and producers and directors and writers and agents and managers and teachers and friends and family” stumbled over by caricaturing her as “a too fat, too brown, too poor Latina.” Her words spoke to me as someone who regularly experiences the reasons why people don’t “bring their whole selves” to work. If you listen, America’s likely speaking to you, too:
“I couldn’t change what a system believed about me while I believed what the system believed about me. And I did. I, like everyone around me, believed that it wasn’t possible for me to exist in my dream as I was.”
This post is “[fo]r my people…trying to fashion a world that will hold all the people, all the faces…”; for my people who have not believed it’s possible to exist as they are; for my people who hold tightly to who they think themselves to be: Let go, enjoy yourself, challenge the rest of us to connect to our value. “Let a new earth rise. Let another world be born.”
Malii Watts Carolyn
[i] Direct quote from, and nod to, Margaret Walker’s award-winning poem, For My People (1942). Walker (b.1915 - d.1998) was a U.S. American poet and writer, and part of the African American literary movement in Chicago, known as the Chicago Black Renaissance.
people. place. purpose.