All Black Everything [Our Professional Selves]

Jose Vilson Jose

In school, I’ve developed the mannerism of using “sir” and “miss” (or misses) when greeting colleagues and, to some extent, students. The greeting puts a small distance between me and the person I address. People might take this as a sign of deference or even subservience, yet my stature and demeanor reveals nothing of the sort. Anytime people mistake my courtesy for tenderness or servitude, they quickly find my discourteous side, the one that won’t go the extra mile to meet both of our needs, the one that won’t stay extra hours, the one that will play directly into the Angry Black Man stereotype.

Because, as a Black man, there’s little worse for one’s professionalism than being told you’re a “Yes man.”

The same goes for the term “groupie,” or for those who think they can keep their insulted coded, “sycophant.” In many of our professions, we’re asked to do things at times we don’t exactly agree with all in the name of the principal’s vision. Sometimes, we object to things behind closed doors in order to create a united front in front of everyone else. In certain instances, we might help create pieces we don’t intend on every using in our own practices. Even hardliners often find themselves in predicaments where they have to choose between making a minor compromise or diminishing their professional aspirations. In a previous life, I might tell them to curse everyone out and create their opportunities. Yet, nothing is ever that simple, and we shouldn’t expect it to be.

As we whittle the ceiling, we often get asked to do more than the ordinary to prove ourselves ordinary.

When people of color have these conversations, it takes on another level of societal angst, for we always have to think of our ancestries and the perils they undertook for the present generation to get to the point of having better control of their destinies. Our professionalism often comes into question as is: we’re asked to fit into molds we didn’t individually create for people who may not see us as multidimensional beings (no matter what The Cosby Show did!). Our attitudes and body types become a reflection of our cultures as a whole, and our emotions say more about our people than we mean.

Thus, when I say people of color often have to work twice as hard and do things twice as well, I mean that, if we don’t, we become casualties of a meme we didn’t create. Observers often confuse quiet for consent rather than finding the right time, nodding as agreement rather than patience, and position as power rather than a step in one’s professional direction and interest. Yet, observers don’t ask deeper questions very often, like, “If this person has all these beliefs, then why do this?”

Too many people won’t ask this. They presume the worst already.

On these occasions, I’m forced in a position to reassert my individuality. The distance between other entities and me inches a bit further away, the consummate optimist takes a small rest for the straight shooter, and the ebullient “sir” becomes the stern “sir.”

Even when not wearing all black anything, we become all Black everything. It’s the only suit that suits us this well.

Jose … and Mr. Vilson