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Don’t Let Them Put You in a Box

Yesterday, I rushed to the city to meet with a guy of a well-known business. *John was very chilled, laid back and deeply passionate about the brand he worked for even with the picture of him w/the Vice President at the White House on his bookshelf. It was the most informal interview I’d ever had, but it was authentic.

“You’re on an island and can only bring five hip-hop albums. What do you bring?” he asked.

“Nas’ “Illmatic” and “Stillmatic,” “The Carter,” “Me Against the World” and “From Me to U,” I said.

“I bet your last interview wasn’t like this was it? They asked about your qualifications,” he said. “But I don’t give a fuck about all of that. I want to know who you are.”

 

Thinking about it now, I would have definitely eliminated the last three albums altogether, making better selections. Hell, I would not be stuck on an island without “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill”. But I had to think fast on my feet. The meeting continued in a similar manner because it really was all related to the brand and the position.

With the explosion of the Internet, prospective employers are googling you. If you think they aren’t, you’ve been misinformed. So of course he googled me prior to my visit. He saw my Twitter page was private (damn right!), he saw some of the online publications I write for, he came across my blog and read a few of my posts. I didn’t really know how to feel about him reading my blog for obvious reasons I’ve discussed here. And the fact I couldn’t tell what ethnicity he was upon first glance, made me a little nervous that he might be apprehensive about the content. He wasn’t in the least bit. When the subject of race did come up as it relates to the business discussion we were having, he tricked me saying he was 100% black. I looked at him strangely because he was damn near the color of Justin Beiber, but it could be possible. Turns out he was a white guy.

“You’re extremely talented. But don’t let them put you in a box,” he said. “We white people don’t like yall. I know it’s a shocker. (We laughed). And we’ll put you in a box every chance we get.”

I appreciated his honesty and perspective as a white man. He elaborated by emphasizing how majority of my clips were for black women’s publications. According to John, people in his chair on the other side of the desk don’t see that as impressive, no matter how good the writing is. “Ok, she’s a black woman writing for black publications. Not too hard,” he said.

“I can go to any event, around any type of people, and talk about any subject,” he said. “I’ll be damned if you’re going to put me in a box just because I work for [said company].

But so could I! I have traveled internationally on several occasions. I love Shakespeare as much as I do Zora Neale Hurston. I think Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell are dipshits like the rest of the US population that is actually smart. Celine Dion’s voice gives me chills, as does Patti Labelle’s. I enjoy Bill Maher more than I do [insert any well known black commentator]. “I Am Sam”, “Ever After”, “Kill Bill”, and a host of other movies that featured few, if any, black or Latino actors, are still some of my favorites.  I grew up reading Seventeen magazine, just as Essence, Ebony and Jet were monthly rituals in my household. The point is- what John kept reiterating- was “black people don’t only like black shit. And white people don’t only like white shit.” Our country is changing drastically with the growing multiracial, multicultural generation.

I couldn’t agree more. His words kept replaying in my head, “Don’t let them put you in a box. Don’t let them put you in a box.”

It was one of the reasons I stopped doing so many articles about relationships. It was getting dry, and I wanted to prove my versatility. Not wanting to be placed in a box with the pretty black ribbon was also one of the reasons I reached out to Jezebel. I knew writing for their site would expand my readership to a more diverse group. It’s the same reason I will pitch to Cosmopolitan, Elle or InStyle in a heartbeat. I love all things in print, not just all black things in print. I crave the versatility.

This doesn’t take away from my commitment to people of color. Our issues will always be at the forefront of my life. But that’s not all of who I am.

Yes, I am a black writer. However, if I choose to write a book, I don’t want my book limited to the African-American literature section of the bookstore. By being confined to only one area, the implication is a) my work is only good enough for that section b) my work would be deemed as only African-American literature and not just literature and c) that it would not be relatable to anyone other than blacks. Such a flawed logic that I wish would change.

Black women are assumed to be a monolith. And majority of black women writers are pitching/writing for the same publications. So we become a dime a dozen oftentimes writing on the same topics. Is it too much to be seen as a writer without the other qualifiers? Can we, people of color, be seen as just poets, dancers, professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers, without the “black woman/man” preceding our profession?

So big ups to John for sharing another perspective that I suspected had always been true. Boxes are best for gifts, to be unwrapped when it’s time to open the present. There is no box that would ever be able to contain all of what makes me who I am. And if you must put me in a box, make sure you have at least twenty of them. Just the “black box” won’t do.

*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the person and business.

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