Elaina Smith, a sophomore majoring in biology – health science, remembers a time when she went to a convenience store and the cashier at the register told her that she didn’t expect Smith to be so nice.
“The only thing she could have assumed that from is based off my race because my face wasn’t mean or anything and I came into the store saying ‘Hi’ to her,” Smith said.
Smith explained that at times, she feels hyper-aware of her blackness, especially in social contexts in which she is one of the only African-Americans present.
“There will be a time when a song will come on and people will say, ‘Oh, you should know all the lyrics to this song because it’s hip hop,’ and I actually don’t know.”
Smith said that she often struggles with stereotypical perceptions of being African-American, particularly ones that revolve around black womanhood.
“It’s either you’re sweet, or you’re an angry black woman,” Smith said. “I don’t want to seem like I’m angry at everybody, but I also don’t want to seem like everyone can just walk all over me.”
Smith recalls being referred to as behaving “too white” in grade school, often by fellow African-Americans and other people of color.
“So, it’s like, how are you going to say I’m ‘too white’ when if I walk into a store or start talking about things we went through when we were growing up, I would have the same experiences as you?” Smith said.
Tanya Keenan, Caroline Scholars director and adjunct professor at Mount Mary University, has a candid memory of being in kindergarten and her mother having to go to her school to speak with her teacher because of his disbelief at her ability to read.
Keenan said that this questioning was something that she dealt with throughout her K-12 grade experience.
“[It’s] just that stereotype, unfortunately, that a lot of African-Americans have to deal with,” she said. “The stereotype that we’re not as intellectual or intelligent.”
Dr. Shawnee Daniels-Sykes, an associate professor in theology, recalls when she first began teaching at Mount Mary back in 2006. Daniels-Sykes specializes in biomedical ethics, and she was teaching a course in theological ethics and healthcare through Mount Mary’s former partnership with Columbia College of Nursing.
“The students came to the class, but they were lined up outside of the threshold and they weren’t coming in,” she said.
With the syllabi on the table and computer workstation set for class, Daniels-Sykes was confused as to why the students continued to congregate at the door when class was about to begin. This prompted her to question the students.
“ I said, ‘Are you all here [for class]? ‘And they’re like, ‘Yeah,’ and I said, ‘Well you guys better get into class because it’s almost 4:30. Why are you all standing out here in the hallway?’” Daniels-Sykes said. “So, everybody came in and sauntered slowly looking at me like ‘Is this really the teacher?’”
At the end of the semester, Daniels-Sykes had students come up to her expressing how much they enjoyed the class and how happy they were to take it.
“One of the students said to me, ‘You know, I need to tell you something. Do you remember at the beginning of the semester when we were all outside in the hallway?’ and I said ‘Yeah, I will never forget that; it was the strangest thing to me because it had never happened before,’” she said.
The student revealed to Daniels-Sykes that the reason the class didn’t enter the room was because they thought that she was a “stranger” and they were confused about who the real teacher was. This led to the group almost calling security on her.
“They weren’t expecting a black woman to be teaching a healthcare ethics class.” Daniels-Sykes said. “They aren’t used to that.”
This is one of the too-many occurrences for Daniels-Sykes, whose experiences range from an individual questioning the validity of her degree at a bioethics conference to a security guard at Mount Mary interrogating her reasons for wanting to go up to her office on the weekend, with the assumption that Daniels-Sykes wasn’t a professor.
“I’m like, ‘Okay, this person doesn’t know [that I’m a professor]’ and people will say ‘Well, he does that with everybody.’ Well, I don’t know about that,” she said. “Being a woman of color in an environment like this, it is really important to hold on to your hunches, because racism exists.”
Perpetuation of Stereotypes
Sister Joanne Poehlman, an associate professor in anthropology, said that stereotypes and generalizations are similar and as a species, we use them so that we don’t have to think about the nuances of every situation.
“We label – and maybe this works for stereotypes – so that we know how to act towards people,” she said.“For the most part, it can help us. But when our actions become discriminatory … then those acts are only helpful in maintaining the status quo or the power of the person using them.”
Keenan said that as a group that has historically been under siege and discriminated against, the reasons that stereotypes are at times perpetrated by fellow African-Americans is because of the need to feel a sense of commonality.
“I get it because I feel like as a woman of color and as a black woman, I do feel solidarity with those I share my ethnic and racial background with,” she said.
Though Keenan expressed that it comes from a place of good intentions, expecting one to align with stereotypes can become discriminatory.
“It becomes confining because then we start labelling and taking away the uniqueness from each other that oftentimes a greater society does [to us] anyway,” she said.
Daniels-Sykes, who is the only black Catholic female theological and bioethicist in the country, is aware that people won’t necessarily see her in terms of her accomplishments, but will view her based on her existence as a black woman, as well as the stereotypes associated with this.
“Once you get to know me, those stereotypes will fade,” she said. “But I think as black women, for the most part – and depending on your social context – that’s going to be a part of us.”
While Daniels-Sykes understands that stereotypes are a part of the human mind when judging a situation, she said that it’s what we do with these perceptions in our actions towards others.
“But at times, [it feels] almost as if you’re guilty before you’re proven innocent,” Daniels-Sykes said.
Not Confirming to Stigmas
Daniels-Sykes said she adopted the practice of “code switching” in different social contexts. According to “Code Switching (Language)” by Richard Nordquist, code switching is defined as “the practice of moving back and forth between two languages, two dialects or registers of the same language.”
“I can flip into black dialect very easily because I was raised by that,” she said.
Even though she holds the ability to code switch, Daniels-Sykes recalls moments in her early professional career as a public health nurse when a child referred to her as a “white woman” when calling to set up a house visit on the phone.
“In my academic circles, I’ve also been called the ‘A’ word – as in the word ‘articulate,’” she said. “That’s supposed to be a compliment, but it’s not a compliment.”
Thinking about what someone could mean when they refer to an African-American or another person of color as being “too white,” Poehlman said it depends on the person you’re talking with.
“I’ve been worried about it in the sense of grade-school or high school kids, when [being labeled as too white] means that you’re are getting ‘too educated’ … sometimes it means that,” she said. “It means that you’re going after education in a way that moves you out of a realm of comfort for many people.”
This idea is supported by an article published in the “Harvard Economist” titled “An Empirical Analysis of ‘Acting White’” by Roland G. Fryer Jr. and graduate student Paul Torelli. They found that white students with good grades overlapped with more popularity, while black students who excelled in school were considerably less popular than black peers with lower grades. Fryer and Torelli also found that this occurrence is even greater in Latino students.
“It seems so much of what a dominant class would say to people who they wouldn’t want to be educated [and] would be a way of stifling the power that could come from it,” Poehlman said.
Keenan, who lived in Green Bay, Wis., recalls that the city was – and still is – predominantly white. In high school, she said that out of the 900 students in attendance, there were only two other black students.
“I think because we lived in Green Bay since I was four, I didn’t really know any difference,” Keenan said. “But I was still very aware.For the most part, I feel like people were very good to me; I had friends and it was my community … But I always knew it was different.”
Transitioning into college where she attended University of Wisconsin-Madison, Keenan said that though the school was predominately white, it still contained a lot more diversity than what she was accustomed to in Green Bay, Wis.
“[For] me coming from a place where there’s really no black people, I was in heaven!” she said.
Keenan recalled when she first began college and was introducing herself to a fellow freshman, the student looked at her right away and could tell that Keenan wasn’t from Milwaukee.
“I was talking a way that she felt wasn’t normal for a black person,” she said.
Keenan said she struggled during her first couple of years of college in terms of fitting in and the idea of not being “black enough.”
“Why are we burdening ourselves by feeling like we can’t be who we are and feeling like we have to limit our experiences or the definitions of who we are?” she asked.
Keenan spoke about her niece, who is a freshman at UW-Milwaukee who had a fellow black student criticize her because she felt like she didn’t understand what being African-American was truly about, which upset her.
“I kept telling her that I understand what you’re going through, but you have to be true to yourself and realize that there are multiple ways of being black, like we are humans and we’re unique,” she said.
Keenan said that to foster an identity independent of racial stereotypes, it is important to be true to yourself.
“If you know in your heart that you are doing things that you love [and] are being who you are authentically made to be, you have to let it go,” she said.
Keenan recalled the often derogatory and judgmental comments she would receive when she began dating her husband, who is white.
“I would question myself like, ‘Oh my gosh, do I hate myself? Is this why I’m dating a white person?’” she said.
But Keenan knew in her heart that she felt good about who she was and her heritage, so letting go of the negative perceptions from others was key.
“I feel like when we don’t do that, it’s like a mental enslavement,” she said.
Daniels-Sykes said that what has helped her grow into her own identity is being around other African-American theologians and professors. This includes maintaining a friendship with her mentor.
“He directed my master’s degree in ethics and then he was on my dissertation committee [at] Marquette for my Ph.D.,” she said. “He and I are like really good friends and we keep each other accountable … So, it’s important to have a circle of colleagues you know who are going to keep on you about what to do and critique your work.”
Daniels-Sykes spoke about her recent trip to St. Lucia, where she and 18 other colleagues represented the Black Catholic Theological Symposium. Here, they shared their work and ideas.
“We ask questions and we push in a certain area by asking, ‘Have you thought of this?’ or ‘Have you thought of that?’… Part of this is having colleagues that understand your plight who can be a support system for you,” Daniels-Sykes said.
Daniels-Sykes said prayer, journaling, and keeping up with things that have caused barriers for her are what keeps her grounded.
“You know, we’re always in progress,” she said. “We’re always growing and developing … so really being in touch with who I am is important. I have Crohn’s disease. And so that offers another barometer for me, especially if I’m burning the candle at both ends and really stressing myself out.”
If you are in a position of power where you could support someone who is being unfairly treated based on racial biases, Smith said that you shouldn’t be dismissive or tell them “not to worry about it.”
“There are all these people being treated this way and losing out on job opportunities or another step that can be taken in their life because of their race,” Smith said. “Not because of their work ethic or something that is in their control, but something that has been with them all their life and hasn’t changed who they are.”
While Smith still struggles with growing into her own identity, she has come to realize that racial stereotypes do not limit her.
“If that’s the way people think, then I can’t be worrying about what they could be thinking about me, my race, my culture or whatever is associated with my skin tone,” Smith said.