In the late fall of my first year at college I found myself sitting on the steps of the Mendenhall Center for the Performing Arts. My first year at Smith had been everything that I had wanted it to be but the constant newness and mental stretching had worn me thin and I ached for something simple and easy. I recognize it now as being acutely homesick — I just wanted a moment when I could simply exist without working so hard, to be sitting in a place where things just fit.
It was a fleeting emotion and I’m convinced I wouldn’t recall it nearly thirty years later if I had been alone. But, I wasn’t alone. I was joined in that moment by a classmate, a Black woman who had come to Smith from the south. We sat there, two women from very different backgrounds quietly pining for the same thing: the familiarity of home.
I don’t remember much of that day. I don’t remember why I was there, why we were talking, or even her name. I just remember that at some point I blurted out that I needed to go home, that I longed for the anchor of Thanksgiving with my family and everything that felt normal.
Then, her eyes shined and she shared with an obvious love all of the dishes that her matriarchs would bring to dinner. She rattled off foods so comforting that just saying the words brought an immediate smile to her face: ham, sweet potato pie, collard greens, macaroni and cheese. For the rest of my life I will remember the look on her face and the yearning of her voice because they so completely matched mine. And I will never forget for as long as I live the shocking moment when I realized, perhaps for the first time in my life, that my lived experience was not everyone’s lived experience.
It may sound naive, but until that moment I believed that everyone’s Thanksgiving table looked like mine — like the Normal Rockwell painting. Certainly everyone celebrated Thanksgiving with a huge, golden turkey accompanied by covered dishes of mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberries. Everyone shared a slice of pumpkin or apple pie before adjourning to the family room couch for napping and conversation. I had not even contemplated that other families had different traditions, that their normal was different than mine. And, because I put myself (and Mr. Rockwell) at the center of the universe, my Thanksgiving table was the right way — the way Thanksgiving was supposed to be.
The whipsaw of being completely aligned to my classmate one moment and watching a deeply held assumption crumble in the next is why I remember it so clearly sitting here three decades later on a sunny June afternoon. It is the feeling of that moment — the painful, agonizing growth — that I hits me every time I feel the urge to turn my normal into everyone’s right. I think of the macaroni and cheese and remember that everyone has a normal, but only white majority culture has gotten to choose what is right.
One cannot underestimate the power inherent in defining the standard of rightness. Sure, there are some consistent ideas across countries and cultures, but there is a whole lot of gray space within that. I see them everyday in the world of work, things like:
- The definition of professional business standards, including clothing and hair choices
- The best way to lead people and communicate and collaborate within a group
- The value and artistry of a painting, a song, a dance, a feature length film or a book
Looking back on the early moments in my career I can identify moments where I saw myself subtly nudging individuals with a different normal to the white majority standard. Usually, my intention was to provide them with support in advancing — in competing effectively in a world where knowing and following the unwritten rules can make the difference between getting and losing a promotion. Whether I realized it or not, there I was putting the turkey in the middle of the table and declaring it the right way to celebrate, regardless of how it felt to others. I wanted them to be successful, so I taught them how to play my game, instead of adapting to play theirs.
It was easier that way — for me at least.
And, I might have stayed in that zone if not for another personal experience many years after the steps. I was at an academic ceremony that included a pretty even balance of graduates from all races. I noticed that as the white candidates walked across the stage, their friends and family would clap quietly. And as the Black / African American graduates walked across the stage, their friends and family would offer riotous applause, shout the candidate’s name, and call out affirmations. Near me, as I sat in an all white group, I heard disparaging comments about the Black families — suggesting with rude words and offended looks that they were not behaving in the right way. I was deeply ashamed then, and I still am now thinking about it.
Here’s the thing, I was raised to see a ceremony (a graduation, church service or wedding) as a solemn thing. I was taught to sit quietly, clap politely and draw no attention to myself. That was my normal, the expectation of what was right. But what makes that right? Why was their way of celebrating any less right than mine? Isn’t a graduation cause for enthusiastic and excited revelry? What could be wrong about joyously expressing pride and support for the hard work, dedication and accomplishment of their loved one? If I’m honest with myself, my personality is much more aligned to that model of excited exuberance. I would much rather be loud than languid.
As a leader and an advocate for diversity, inclusion and belonging I seek to remain humble about the right way to do anything although I find myself fairly rooted in my nearly 50 years of lived experience. Even when I try to be open to new ways of seeing the world and manage to push myself off my anchor my human bias is to swing back. As hard as it is now to pivot, I suspect it will be even harder the older I get. So, I surround myself with people who live in the world differently than I do — good people with values and capabilities that I respect. I do little things like say “different” and not “weird” to remind myself (and signal to others) an openness to possibility. I accept the challenge I have to create a more inclusive standard and the failures that will come in that work. And every time I get to experience something different than what I would expect I am grateful for the chance to put a crack in my deeply held traditions and reveal them for what they are.
One way of living in the world — but not the right way.