Rising Above: How I Found My Voice To Push Back Against Stereotypes, At Work And In Life
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By Brenda Dupré
I've always had to navigate the stereotypes that people associate with being Black, and what that means to those who don't look like me.
And I realized at one point that if I wanted to move the needle of positive change, I would have to be the one to share what it's like to be on the receiving end of overt comments and less-overt slights, what we now call microaggressions.
I would have to rise above, so to speak. But it's not easy. And getting there took me a while.
I grew up near the end of the civil rights movement in the suburbs of northwestern Orange County.
Most of the population where I lived was white at the time, and much of it still is. I learned at a young age that being Black was a challenging curiosity for my white peers to embrace. Still, I tried my best to fit in and to find something in common with them throughout elementary, middle and high school, college and beyond.
I remember vividly at the age of about 8, a school-age friend suggesting that she cover my skin in baby powder so that I could look like her.
She had smooth white porcelain skin, deep blue eyes and sandy blond hair. I desperately wanted to feel that sense of belonging, and I remember giggling and nodding in agreement, even though inside I felt inadequate, thinking, "Why is my cocoa brown skin not good enough?"
I remember that feeling distinctly, that feeling of not being good enough, that maybe having white skin was better, or at least, it appeared that way. Although in the end my friend didn't attempt to cover me in baby powder, I did feel somewhat like a misfit.
I wanted to let my friend know that my feelings were hurt, but I didn't want to jeopardize our friendship, so I kept my feelings to myself. It was safer that way, and that soon became the way that I would navigate the sting of negativity.
The desire to stay quiet was only reinforced for me a couple of years later. One night, someone firebombed our house with a Molotov cocktail. The garage door caught fire. It was put out, and no one was hurt. But soon afterward, my parents decided to move to a neighboring suburb. As far as I know, no one was arrested.
As young as I was, it left an indelible impression, and it made me guarded.
At age 15, I recall walking to my predominantly white high school and stopping along the way to pick up my white friend who lived on a nearby street, so that we could walk to school together. I was not allowed in her home, because her parents did not approve of her having a Black friend. So each day, I waited on the public sidewalk adjacent to her house for her to come out so we could begin our journey to school.
What I felt standing on that sidewalk had by then become a familiar feeling. I was raised with a sense of humble pride, but the experiences of my young life had reinforced my perception of not being accepted because of the color of my skin. It hurt, deeply, that this was somehow a shortcoming to some. Still, I did my best not to show my true feelings. I didn't think I could.
As we walked to our suburban high school, the uncomfortable feeling of not being good enough in the eyes of my friend's parents was always in the back of my mind. I liked my friend and she seemed to like me, too. We talked and laughed about the usual things: classes, homework, drill team practice, et cetera.
But never about her parents and their prejudice. At least, not back then.
It was the early 1980s when I first hit the workforce, taking an entry-level job at an aerospace company. Things back then were different: For starters, people were still allowed to smoke in indoor public workplaces. And the vast majority of my co-workers were white — mostly men — several of them military veterans.
A year after starting, I sought out a role within the telecommunications department, while at the same time pursuing my bachelor's degree. I was one of four women, and the only Black woman, on the team.
Although my peers were somewhat polite, it didn't seem I was someone they wanted to include for breaks, lunch or after-work outings. I would try to engage in conversation, yet there was such a coldness that I decided it was better for me just to focus on my work.
Those old feelings bothered me, feelings of self-doubt as though I was not good enough as a young Black professional working on an all-white, mostly male, mostly middle-aged team. I didn't have a mentor or anyone to really talk with. But my parents had raised me to always do my best, and so I did just that.
I completed my degree and sought out another opportunity at the company, this time as an analyst in the same department. I applied for the position and was selected. One day, shortly after starting my new role, I returned from lunch to find my desk covered in trash. No one claimed responsibility. I was also subjected to unkind comments. To my knowledge, none of my white colleagues had experienced this type of treatment when promoted.
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I thought at that time — it was the mid-1980s and I was a young professional — that if I could just work for the "right" company that would accept all of me, I would be fine. In the meantime, I kept quiet. I didn't want anyone to think or see that I was beyond annoyed. As a young Black woman at the time, I didn't see speaking up as an option. Instead, I resigned to pursue other career opportunities and build my skills — and to fit in, and prove my worth.
What would I tell my younger self now? To seek out a mentor or sponsor who truly understands the need and the reason for diversity, and to not be afraid to venture into those corporate spaces to be seen and heard. To know that my voice, experience and contributions are just as important as those of my white counterparts. To not give in to fear.
But I wasn't there yet.
And changing jobs? It helped, but it didn't solve everything.
Sure, I came to realize the importance of doing my research before working for a company to see how committed they were to diversity, inclusion and belonging — and that they weren't just checking the diversity box.
I also learned over time that knowing my self-worth was enough for me. If someone was uncomfortable with me because of the color of my skin, there were others who were comfortable.
But I still encountered plenty who were uncomfortable, no matter where I worked, or for that matter, where I went.
FINDING MY VOICE
On several occasions, with various employers, there were still overt and less-overt comments from peers:
"I can tell you're not from the 'hood, you're different."
"You speak so well, where did you grow up?"
"Are you sure you're all Black? Your skin is so light, and your hair is different from the others."
"You don't like watermelon? I thought all Black people liked watermelon."
"Do you speak ebonics?"
Really, people say these things and they mean what they say.
Was I offended by all these comments? Absolutely! Did I react or show it? No. The last thing I wanted to do was validate them with an "angry Black woman" stereotype.
But slowly, calmly, I began calling people out.
During the period leading up to 1992's civil unrest, not long after we learned of the beating of Rodney King at the hands of police, I remember a white male colleague at the Costa Mesa company where I was working saying, "Rodney King must have done something wrong to get beat up."
This time, I did speak up: "We can't rush to judgment and automatically assume negligence on the part of Rodney King. We have to look at all the facts."
It felt good to say that.
Fast-forward to my 20-year high school reunion, when something else clicked.
My friend, the one I used to walk to school with, and I had not kept in contact since graduation day.
But the night of the reunion, when my husband and I arrived at the hotel, she happened to be standing outside, and recognized me. She ran over to the driver's side of the car and said a quick hello, and then just like that, she proceeded to tell my husband the story of how her parents hadn't approved of her having a Black friend. It just tumbled out, like she'd been wanting to talk about it for ages.
It was then I realized that it must have bothered her all along, because she mentioned it 20 years later and in such a charismatic way.
My takeaway from that experience was that people are very much self-aware; however, they may not know how to fix what is inherently wrong, so it's easier for them not to say anything, with the hope that whatever "it" is will just disappear. Only it doesn't.
The rest of the evening with my friend was uneventful. She and I fell into our old routine and talked about far more trivial things. But the experience got me thinking.
'HOW DO YOU KNOW WHERE I'M FROM?'
And I kept speaking up.
Like the day I joined a white girlfriend, a former manager, for a spa day in Beverly Hills. We sat in the lobby chatting, waiting to be called, when the receptionist asked to speak with me. She wanted to know if I would be paying with a gift card. I calmly replied, "No," gave her my gold American Express card, and told her that I would have no problem paying for the services rendered, thank you. She looked quite shocked and quietly thanked me. (And no, she did not ask my friend how she was planning to pay for her visit.)
After finishing our spa treatment, we decided to visit Neiman Marcus. In the fine jewelry section, I noticed a diamond bracelet in the case and asked if I could take a closer look. The employee responded with, "That's quite expensive." I replied, "I still would like to take a closer look at it." She seemed hesitant. (Meanwhile, my friend was trying on all the jewelry she liked.)
I felt like I was being judged and couldn't be trusted to try on the bracelet. The sales rep had determined by my actions that I wasn't worthy. But I held my ground. When she finally handed me the bracelet, I slipped it on and admired it. I didn't buy it, but I wasn't going to let anyone scare me out of trying it on.
And at work, when a new supervisor, a white woman, made a comment directly to me during a team meeting after listening to me speak, I pushed back.
She's the one who said this, in front of everyone: "I can tell you're not from the 'hood, you're different."
"How do you know where I'm from?" I replied. "It's important to be careful not to get caught up in the stereotype, because I could be from the 'hood, which isn't a bad place to be from."
My supervisor tried to make light of it, saying it was just a joke. The problem was that I didn't find it funny.
I've learned to choose my battles. There are things I let go. When a colleague on an elevator a few years ago told me, "You speak so well!" I so wanted to finish her comment by saying, "You mean for a Black person?" But I didn't. I just didn't have the energy. I politely said, "Thank you."
Other times, I've relished showing rather than saying — like when I walked into the Fletcher Jones Motorcars luxury dealership in Newport Beach wearing shorts and a t-shirt, asked the staff where the restroom was, then was met with surprised expressions when I also asked for the sales manager. Someone quipped that they thought I was only there to use the restroom. I left with a Mercedes-Benz CLK320 and a smile.
In the beginning, it was challenging not to come across angry or defensive. But I learned: Be slow to speak and quick to listen, it's a good way to allow yourself to process what is said.
Take a moment to b-r-e-a-t-h-e.
If the situation is right, say you're dealing with someone at work, invite the person to have a conversation, preferably over coffee or lunch. Why not?
I will say that there may be those times when the other party may not want to engage with you in the moment. It's okay. Let some time pass (not too much) and then reach out again.
The tone of your voice is just as important as what you say. Calm and firm are the best.
It can be as simple as saying, "You just never know where someone might be from, and you don't know my origin and where I come from, so you might want to be mindful of that."
There is a powerful quote by Maya Angelou, "People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." That rings very true regardless of ability, culture, ethnicity, gender, race and socioeconomic status.
I continue to be a work in progress, sharing my various experiences when the need presents itself and giving the receiver an opportunity to hear their words played back through my voice.
Again, none of this is easy.
I do it because I want to move that needle of change. And if I want to do that, I can't stay quiet.
I wouldn't change anything about the encounters that I've had. They have helped to shape me in such a way that I am not afraid to speak up and openly talk about microaggressions.
I've had to learn how to balance being gracious without sacrificing my authentic self. It's so important for each of us on any given day to have an open mind and compassion for others, even when we don't quite feel up to it.
There are still many conversations that need to take place if "we" collectively are to overcome racism and biases. We must be comfortable with being uncomfortable, and we must speak up for what is right; we are all human beings with the same color blood running through our veins. Not one of us is 100% anything, each person's genetic make-up is unique.
We need to embrace our uniqueness, and that of others.
* * *
Brenda Dupré contributed an abbreviated version of this story to the anthology "Speaking My Truth: 50 Real Life Stores that Inspire, Empower, Heal, and Transform" published in 2019.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Brenda Dupré is a Southern California native. Today, she and her husband split their time between Los Angeles and New Orleans.
Brenda works as a marketing and project management consultant. She's held various leadership positions supporting the technology, higher education, government, and entertainment markets. She studied journalism and public relations at Cal State Long Beach; she also has a master's degree in Management Information Systems and a certificate in Human Resources Management.
She is a mentor to STEM and STEAM college students and recently wrote a financial literacy book about credit for young adults. She's also been an officer with the L.A. chapter of the National Association of African Americans in Human Resources, and volunteers as a pro-bono strategy consultant for Taproot Foundation.