I had lunch with Chae. She’s a friend, an ex-coworker, and a great lunch buddy. She understands the nuanced balance between actively talking and actively listening. The lunch spot was Sobban Korean Southern diner, fusion cuisine at its finest. Catching up on each other’s lives happened between bites of delicious Chicken Kalguksu, Japche and Korean fried chicken wings. Yum. During our hour-long conversation, we touched on a number of subjects - family, work, and professional development. But, one exchange stood out.
One afternoon, Chae and her husband were standing outside of a very popular Korean restaurant in Korea Town in New York. They were meeting her parents for lunch. Chae was on the phone, giving them directions to the restaurant. As Chae’s parents approached the restaurant, they walked right past her. In fact, they didn’t recognize their own daughter. How was that even possible? Well, she is Korean. Her adoptive parents are white Americans. When she told me this story, it instantly reminded me of similar experience that happened to me. I had to share.
One evening, I decided to surprise my then-girlfriend by showing up to her house unannounced. She was in the final year of nursing school at Emory, and as a result, she had a busy schedule between class, studying and clinical rotations. This was one night that she would be walking home from the children’s hospital that was only a few blocks away. When I pulled up to her house and discovered that she wasn’t home, I decided to make it an even bigger surprise by walking down the street to meet her. It was a poorly lit street, but I instantly recognized her walking toward me from 100 yards away. We were on the same side of the street, and with each step, I was getting more excited. As we got closer to each other, my girlfriend abruptly changed course and crossed to the opposite side of the street. As she was passing me on the street, I said “Hey!” She was shocked to find out that the unknown dark figure was her own boyfriend of 5 years. My then-girlfriend is now my wife, and I still poke fun at her for not recognizing me and reducing me to an unknown dark figure.
Chae and I laughed at each other’s tales, sorted out the check and said our goodbyes. On the way back to work, I kept replaying the exchange of stories in my head. Something stood out to me more than the obvious The Onion headlines, “White Parents Don’t Recognize Korean Daughter in Korea Town,” and “White Girlfriend Crosses the Street as Black Boyfriend Approaches.”
Then I came to the realization. Our laughter was an expression of a mutual understanding. It’s an experience that we all share - being a stereotype. In Chae’s case, she was invisible. In my case, I was dangerous.
Battling this type of stereotype is an ever-present struggle for me. I navigate environments where people are trying to reconcile the Don they see with their deeply engrained stereotypes. These stereotypes are fueled and validated by the overwhelmingly negative images perpetuated by the media about Black men.
At times, this silent battle can feel like it’s just in my head. It’s hidden in plain sight. But ever so often it manifests itself in very real, but subtle ways.
As a result, I make a herculean effort to preempt the formation of the assumptions about me, to bend perceptions and to frame my narrative. From the clothes I wear, to how I style my hair, to how often I smile, my entire appearance is carefully crafted to not only be seen, but to leave a positive impression on every person with whom I come in contact.
It’s a small attempt to reverse the negative polarity surrounding Black men. That is to burst stereotypes about what an engineer looks like. About what an entrepreneur looks like. About what a loving husband and father look like and act like.
My approach to bursting these stereotypes is empathetic. I understand that it’s human nature to attempt to classify people in buckets based on their appearance. And since I’m acutely aware of what it feels like to be stereotyped, I try my best to correct myself when I find myself stereotyping others. Sometimes I catch myself. Sometimes I don’t.
From the clothes you wear, to how you carry yourself, to the expressions on your face, everything about you tells a story. Have you felt stereotyped? How did you respond? Are you doing something in your everyday life to burst stereotypes and to frame your narrative?