Last week was an interesting week. Before I continue, let me preface it with my understanding of the word smiling. I’ve heard that smiling is a form of submissiveness, it puts the receiver in a more comfortable position because it is (or once was) a precursor of my behavior as being friendly; at the same time, it is also disarming to people who see my skin color and align it with “threat”.
I learned to smile because I worked in a white environment (sometimes I was the only token) almost all my life (with the exception of those few months as a clerk at North Division in Milwaukee after my graduation). My schooling was in a similar environment (I smiled A LOT!). Back in the days when I first started living in the world outside my community, the people I worked with never (or rarely) came into contact with Black people in their communities, nor went to school with them, so I wanted to make sure that if they ever said they didn’t like Black people, they would have to check themselves because they knew me. I imagined one of their thoughts would be, “I don’t like African Americans, except Carol, she’s nice”; not as much vanity as mental self-preservation.
Christelyn Karazin says in a blog, “Smiling is a sign of weakness on rough streets–it’s a sign of compliance and submission, which is probably why some black women have awkward entrances into interracial dating. All men, especially white men, are socialized to positively respond with more confidence about themselves when women smile at them. One guy on Dr. Lyubansky’s facebook page said, ‘Constant smiling makes a man a moron while if it is a woman it tells about a happy character. Serious women make a man to feel uneasy'”. [http://www.beyondblackwhite.com/smile-black-women-smiiiiiiile/]
I understand Christelyn’s comments because I have made men (particularly Black men) uncomfortable when I didn’t smile. I always wanted people to feel easy, comfortable in my presence. That’s the caretaker part of me. The people pleaser. My mother, too, was a smiler, but that always annoyed me when she did that around white people because her whole physical manner changed. She lowered her head and wouldn’t look white people in the eyes (even her doctors in progressive California) and fiddled with her hands. She learned that from growing up in rural Mississippi where hanging was the norm to teach Black people their place. I thought I was different because I at least looked people in the eyes, but in a final analysis, I probably wasn’t that much different.
Thinking back to those early days this happened: One day close to 20 years ago here in San Diego, I went to work and was annoyed at something Andre’ said before I left for work. Unsmiling (but ever pleasant), I walked down the hall at work and Sandra, a coworker, passed me in the hall and I greeted her, just not smiling cause I had stuff on my mind. In retrospect, my brow was probably furrowed and I probably looked concerned. Maybe half hour later, Debbi, a friend (African American) in the library called me and asked me what was wrong. Puzzled, I asked her what she meant because I hadn’t seen her that day and I hadn’t really interacted with anyone since I came in earlier than most of the other staff. How, I wondered, could she think something was wrong with me? After all, I was pleasant, just not cheerful.
She told me that Sandra said I looked like I was on the warpath, or angry about something. Knowing I didn’t glare at her, or snap, or act indignant, I was astounded. I told Debbi that nothing was wrong, and I sat back and tried to figure out what happened. What had happened was (I smile when I say that) before that time I was always smiling at people (I do it now at people in stores, in the mall, doctors’ offices, etc.). If someone came into my office, I stopped what I was doing and smiled, no matter what was going on. I would smile at people even if I didn’t know them; it put them at ease. To Sandra, a white woman, even the gentle me was menacing if I was not smiling even though we had worked together for about 7-8 years before that.
Back to last week. I say all the above because last week really was an interesting week on a curious level. My husband’s boss quit and suggested to his superiors that they hire Andre’ into the position he was leaving as manager. Andre’ has management experience and much more. Instead, they chose to put another manager, a white woman, into that position, which meant she doubled her teams, which, I assume, also doubles (or at least increased) her paycheck.
Then my second youngest daughter got written up because someone in a daycare center (where her clients (children) are) said she looked mean; unfriendly. Mind you, none of the clients or their parents made such a comment. As this was going on my youngest daughter (in a different city) was told at her job something to the effect that she looked mean, and this is the one who almost always has a smile on her face. She was also told that her input wasn’t wanted after one meeting, then was told that she was too quiet following another meeting where she refrained from inputing her ideas. Not mixed messages, whiplash messages that constantly keep you unbalanced.
All of these pissed me off because it was like deja vu–all over again. That day encountering Sandra was only the last, most recently significant, time I can remember when smiling was an obvious issue that put me in the defensive position.
Let me break it down more. Two of my daughters, both work for different organizations, live on opposite ends of the West Coast, yet have white people telling them they need to (basically) shuck-and-jive just like they did hundreds of years ago. What? If we’re not smiling, they’re still not happy? There’s no excuse these days for that kind of behavior from them, because whites are much more likely to interact with African Americans at an early age now than they did in my youth.
So, basically, things have changed, but have stayed the same. Things I experienced in my younger days I see being repeated in the life of my children. It seems more absurd to me now than before how a person, any person, can assume the worst of someone because they are not smiling. I think of that term, mad-dogging, that young people, mainly males, do today to show how tough they are. Maybe if Trayvon Martin had smiled/shucked and joked/jived to put Zimmerman at ease, he would still be alive today. Maybe.
My mother used to think that when all the “old white people” died off, we wouldn’t have any discrimination because the younger people (usually) didn’t have the same prejudices. After all, there were thousands of whites who supported the Black Civil Rights movement and did many things to show how far we’ve come and ensure that it would happen. Miss Ruby, my mom, didn’t seem to consider that those “old people” would ingrain their values into their children and grandchildren. And those horrors she experienced in her generation would continue into that of her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. We need to make sure it doesn’t stay the same.