An odd thing happened to me at work yesterday.
So, I’m in my office having an impromtu meeting with a colleague; when all of a sudden, I get a surprise phone call from a guy I knew growing up. I wouldn’t call him a friend, per se, so I admit I was a bit taken back by the call. This guy easily fits the bill as one of my “cousins ‘nem” – a gentle euphemism I typically use to describe fellow black people who are – how do I put this nicely? – ghetto as hell. As it turns out, he’s been away for a minute but is looking to turn his life around. In particular, he’s finishing up his GED and is thinking about going to college (Endless kudos to him. Straight talk). He wanted to get some insight about the campus and found out through mutual friends on Facebook that I worked there. The passage of information through the grapevine of social networking. Sh*t.
Let me take this quick moment to digress…
I, along with countless black professionals, occasionally find myself in the unenviable position of resorting to the practice of code-switching; the process by which a person alters their communicative style in an effort to more closer align with the people or settings in which they find themselves. Remember the flack Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took when he said (then Senator) Obama didn’t have a negro dialect? Well, most black people – at least the ones with any ties to the ‘hood – have some kind of ‘negro dialect.’ It’s becomes the onus of the black professional to determine when it’s appropriate and, perhaps, sensible to turn it on and off. **End of digression.**
Anyway, back to the story. I don’t know what possessed me to answer the phone at that moment, but I wish I hadn’t. Because the moment I picked up that receiver, I bore witnessed to the paradoxical intersection of the ‘hood and white-collar employment. Due to my fateful decision to answer the phone, the two worlds I’ve worked so assiduously to keep seperated collided. The very core of both my cultural and professional identities were put to the test. Do I flip the code-switch off and meet this dude’s ‘hood with my own while simultaneously running the risk of having my professionalism questioned, or do I keep the code-switch on and come across as an Oreo who has lost touch with the ‘hood roots from which I came? I tell you: this is the kind of perplexing struggle in cognitive dissonance that I wouldn’t wish on even my worst enemy.
In the end, I kept the conversation brief, with most of my responses limited to one or two carefully selected words. I disguised the conversation well enough, I think, so my co-workers (all within listening range of me) or the person in my office could’t entirely decipher what was being said. But I think I also accomplished the feat of not coming across as being bougie to this guy (not that what he thinks about me matters at all, but the next time this could be somebody closer to me). All told, I think I walked away from this one relatively unscathed. But what will happen the next time these two worlds meet is anybody’s guess.
All this time I thought drinking and driving were a bad combination. But that’s got nothing on the deadly cocktail of being black and professional. OK, maybe I’m getting a bit dramatic here. But, still.