In the workplace white men are automatically assumed to be competent. The rest of us have to prove ourselves. For example, at a recent conference in Boston, the white writer Gay Talese asked the Black New York Times Magazine staffer Nikole Hannah-Jones if she was truly a New York Times Magazine staffer and who over there hired her and why.
You would think that with all of these questions Talese must work for the Times. He does not. Despite that, he was determined to perform what I call the resume check. That’s when a white man asks you to prove you belong. There’s a difference between being curious about a person’s journey and all but telling that person that you don’t understand how someone who looks like them could have gotten that job. Hannah-Jones is clear that Talese wanted her to prove herself to him. “I felt defensive,” she told a writer from Rewire. “I feel like I’ve been explaining why I’m in a room where apparently people think I’m not supposed to be most of my life, so I know when someone is asking me that question.”
I’ve been asked that question several times in my life. Once, at a selective writer’s retreat in Italy, a co-attendee asked, “How did you get here?” I said, “By plane.” But I knew what she meant. I was the only Black person there. It was the resume check. The message had been sent: She was not sure I belonged. And I felt attacked. Black people know the condescension of a resume check. We know what it is to have a white person signal their confusion over our status or success. These sorts of microaggressions are ways of pointing out the superiority of the dominant group. Ways of saying we don’t belong.
But Talese’s show of ignorance was not entirely about race, it was also about gender. In fact, when he encountered Hannah-Jones he had just come off stage, where he had admitted he had not been influenced by women writers. Women know all too well the feeling of being on the wrong side of microaggressions. I’m guilty of contributing to that. I’m not proud of it.
A few years ago in a meeting the team was debating whether the NFL team from Washington, DC should be named on TV. The guys were dominating the heated debate. Then a woman on the team, someone I consider a friend, said she was a fan of the Redskins. My friend was taking what I felt to be the wrong side and it really bothered me. So I said, “Can you name one member of the team?”
She got really upset. That’s when I realized what I had done. I had pulled rank on her. Like, ‘Hey, the guys are arguing about sports and I don’t like your interjection so I’m going to challenge your right to be in the conversation in the first place. I mean, if you can’t even name a person on the team you say you like…’ I felt horrible. I apologized. I went home and thought a lot about it. I told myself I had to be more vigilant in policing my blind spots. Being aware takes conscious, active engagement with your biases. I know I’m not sexist or misogynist but in that moment I engaged in a sexist action. I have to own that if I hope to become more aware. I don’t know if Talese is racist or sexist — to truly discern that we would have to do some sort of spiritual MRI. But it’s clear that he engaged in some racist and sexist actions that hurt Hannah-Jones and had an impact on many people beyond her.