Peering over wire-rimmed glasses, the Vice President of Clinical Research looked directly at me for the first time since we sat down for the job interview and said, “I was expecting a Black guy.” There was no trace of humor in his comment.
At our greeting there had been a firm handshake, but no smile. Tall, portly, and balding, his presence conveyed gravitas and corporate seniority.
There was a long stretch of silence. I sat on a low uncomfortable couch, trying to maintain an impossible posture that appeared to be both relaxed and engaged. My back was aching from this contradiction, as I struggled to contain my shock at the inappropriate remark.
I had not been asked about race at any point in the application process. There had been no boxes to check, and no personal demographic information was ever requested. Whatever had created this expectation in the Vice President’s mind, he was disappointed. The person before him did not appear to be Black.
We regarded each other without a word, each displaying the flat affect of a poker player in a high-stakes game. The Vice President had opened, and it was now my turn. I wanted to bring the conversation back to the familiar territory of job interviews, but I could not ignore his strange comment.
I decided to go all-in and said, “I am a Black guy.”
“Really,” he said, striking a tone halfway between “Really?” and “Really!”
There was a long pause while he considered this new piece of information. I had no idea what would come next. Almost anything was possible. Would I be expected to disclose details of my personal and family history? Would I have to supply an explanation of my light skin and white-appearing features? Would I have to give an impromptu lecture on racial identity?
“Interesting,” he said in a vacant way that indicated a complete lack of interest. He did not attempt to challenge or probe my statement. He was ready to move on, and he pivoted to a barrage of standard interview questions. By reflex, I fired back standard interview answers.
“What excites you about our company?”
I replied, saying something about the company’s research portfolio.
“What is your role in your present company?”
I described my role and responsibilities.
“Why would you consider making a change in jobs now?”
I was no longer considering making a change in jobs, but I said something I thought sounded convincing about the many opportunities and prospects for professional growth that the company offered.
For the remainder of the hour, we ranged over details of my previous industry experience, technical matters related to the job, and scientific advances in our field. I continued to respond by reflex. Nothing remotely personal came up. I could only guess that the Vice President’s statement had been a careless blunder, an unfiltered remark from a man who seemed to have limited social skills. As soon as he realized his mistake, he changed the topic.
The interview ended. We rose to our feet. There was a vigorous handshake and a general sharing of positive affect. I had a feeling that I had somehow handled the bizarre interview well. This was no comfort. There was a long day ahead with many more interviews.
An administrative assistant appeared and shuttled me from one interview to the next. She led me down gray corridors, through mazes of cubicles, up and down stairwells, in and out of elevators. With each interview came slight variations on the same bland corporate interview questions. I somehow found new words to express the same answers. Race was never again mentioned. Its sudden disappearance made me feel crazy. I began to wonder if I had imagined the Vice President’s comment. Was I overreacting to a trivial or misunderstood remark?
“Tell me about yourself,” they asked again and again. A voice inside me screamed, “Did you know that I am Black?”
Instead, I marched through the details of medical school, graduate school, residency, first job, second job, third job. I expressed enthusiasm, curiosity, engagement, and humor. I did my best impersonation of the ideal job applicant while I watched the clock and anticipated escape. The day ended in a brief meeting with a representative from Human Resources. Her cold blue eyes and flinty demeanor made it clear that no form of self-disclosure would be welcome. We quickly discussed the company benefits package. She asked if I had questions. I had none.
A car was waiting to take me to the airport. It was growing dark, and the slate-gray sky pressed down on the New Jersey winter landscape. A light dusting of snow covered the ground giving it a thin veneer of white.
My mind went blank as I slumped into the back seat of the car and watched the bare trees and highway scenery roll by. Twenty minutes had passed when I lifted my eyes and glanced at the rear-view mirror, making fleeting eye contact with the driver. For the first time, I consciously noticed that he was Black. We had exchanged a few casual remarks when I got into the car, but I was functioning on autopilot. Ashamed that I had been so absorbed in myself, I felt a desperate need to connect with him; but no words came. Did he recognize me as Black? Did he mistake me for a white person as most people do? Maybe I was just a faceless, raceless passenger at the end of a long day.
I am a descendant of slaves and slave owners. My mixed heritage extends back as far as I can trace my ancestry. I have light beige skin, loosely curly brown hair, an angular nose, a small mouth, and brown almond-shaped eyes. I never know how others read my racially ambiguous appearance. On rare occasions, when my skin contrasts with a white shirt, or the humidity enhances the curliness of my hair, people might recognize me as the Black man that I am. Most of the time, they accept me as an ethnic variant of a broadly conceived whiteness. People are occasionally curious, and they try to press me for details.
“Will you be celebrating Hanukkah this year?” a co-worker inquired.
“Is your family from the Middle East?” asked a friend in college.
“Fala Português?” asked a cab driver, suspecting that I might be a fellow Brazilian.
“Are you a Gypsy?” asked a classmate in fourth grade.
“What race are you?” is the blunt question that stands behind these queries.
I grew up long before the concept of mixed-race had any meaning in our culture. To say I was anything but Black was a sign of dishonesty or delusion. There are only three words that I can use to meet these questions, but there are many ways to say them.
“I am Black,” I have answered with a flat, box-checking tone that minimizes the significance of the question.
“I am Black!” I have exclaimed with a blast of anger and indignity that conceals the great anxiety that the question of race always arouses in me.
“I am Black,” I have stated, in a cadence that terminated with an audible comma, preparing the listener for the “but” or “however” that will follow.
“I am Black,” I have said with a tentative voice that almost adds a question mark to the end of the sentence.
I have responded to the question in every way that I can imagine, but I have never come up with a satisfactory answer.
“American,” said the driver flatly as we arrived at the airport.
This was the first word he had spoken to me in more than an hour. The guilty discomfort that our silence had produced during the ride was unbearable. I vaulted out of the car, saying a perfunctory “Thanks,” and hurried into the airport toward the security line.
I got to the terminal as general boarding was called for my flight. Men and women rose in different parts of the waiting area and converged toward the gate. Most, like me, were dressed in gray business suits. We slowly shuffled toward the gate in unison, merging into an anonymous line, preparing to be identified by the scanner code on our boarding passes.
I was among the last to board the nearly empty flight. I had the great luxury of finding an open seat next to mine. There was a long taxi before the wheels lifted from the runway. When the seatbelt light turned off, I pushed the armrest back. It was the first moment of physical comfort I had experienced all day. My eyes closed, and my body slowly relaxed. As I spread myself into the negative space of the vacant seat, I felt as if another person sat there beside me. The expected Black guy seemed to be there at my side. He was an almost palpable presence that filled the empty seat.
“I was expecting a Black guy.” The Vice President’s words kept looping through my mind.
What cues would have triggered the Vice President to see me as a Black man? Perhaps skin color or hair texture would have made the difference. Perhaps voice, manner, or gesture would have provided the signals he needed. Maybe performance and attitude were what I lacked. The expected Black guy was a bizarre mirror that revealed all the recognizable traits that I failed to manifest. He was something different to everyone, a collage of counterfactuals, each with a different story. I have stopped trying to guess what it is that other people expect to see in a Black man. I know only the looks of confusion and disappointment that greet me whenever I fail to meet their expectations.
For many years, I have lived and worked in predominantly white circles among friends and colleagues who had little understanding or interest in problems of race. My light complexion gives me the camouflage that enables me to go for weeks and months unrecognized. I raised my family in a suburban neighborhood where we were, in outward appearance, almost indistinguishable from our white neighbors. Many of them would be surprised to hear that a Black man lived among them. I felt as if I was fading into the beige background and white noise of suburbia, living like a spy under deep cover. Is this what it is like to pass? I have never deceived anyone about my identity. I have sometimes gone to great efforts to assert it. Some people might foolishly celebrate this as a post-racial life.
No one today is post-racial. The color line is as real as ever, but it is drawn in the shifting sands of culture and fashion. Those of us who live in its margins may cross it without moving and without even realizing where we are standing. We are constantly guilty of motionless transgressions that violate the unwritten rules and invisible boundaries of society. That morning, I was caught in just such a transgression. I was not the expected person.
Meeting the expectations of others has a heavy price. Race often seems optional for me. The expected Black guy has no options. Wherever he goes, he is predefined. He is always the Other. He is the medical student unworthy of admission. He is the doctor everyone assumes is there to sweep the hospital floors. It is the expected Black guy that the police pull over for no reason other than his perceived race. He is the suspect, the perpetrator, or the assailant. For him, any traffic stop can become a public execution. My racial invisibility is mostly a blessing that I sometimes take for granted. I am not free of race, but my appearance gives me respite from its daily assault. Perhaps the expected Black guy had come that day to remind me of who I am.
Race was the last thing on my mind when I walked into the Vice President’s office, arriving in place of the expected Black guy. I suddenly became an imposter posing as Dr. Harris. Was I a white man trying to pass for a Black man? I no longer knew who I was. The comfortable equilibrium I had long enjoyed exploded.
What had created this situation? How did the Vice President come to expect the Black job candidate he hoped to interview?
An image of the Vice President holding a copy of my resume in his hand started to coalesce in my mind. I realized that the morning’s confusion had arisen from just a few lines buried in the resume. The clues to my identity were there for anyone to see. There were committees I had served on and organizations I belonged to with the word “Black” in their titles. There were also papers I wrote and a book that I edited on topics of race. All of these appeared in the resume. I had done them many years ago at the beginning of my career. I had almost forgotten this idealistic time before other goals and obligations sent my life and career in a different direction. Taking on the role of an archeologist, the Vice President dug out these shards and artifacts, assembling them into the person he expected to meet that morning. That person now seemed to be sitting beside me, smiling at the confusion he caused.
Twenty years before, during my residency training at Yale, I planned a small seminar about race and identity. It seemed like a topic that might engage mental health professionals in the department, and I thought I might learn something in the process. The idea drew far more interest than I could have imagined. The event quickly grew into a two-day conference that engaged academics throughout the university. I shared the work of organizing it with several faculty members whose connections got us an all-star lineup of speakers. We booked an auditorium that held several hundred attendees. My little seminar had grown into a monster beyond my control, but I was to give the keynote address.
I had never addressed such a large audience before. As the day approached, I practiced climbing the steps to the stage. I practiced aligning my shoulders with the edges of the podium. I knew exactly where I would place my hands and where I would first cast my gaze over the audience. I would then pull out my copy of the keynote address that I had recited dozens of times before a mirror.
When the day came, I sat in the front row, forcing myself to avoid looking at the crowd filling the auditorium behind me. Very few in the audience had any idea who I was. A senior faculty member introduced me to the audience. He mentioned that I was a third-year psychiatry resident, and he made a very intentional point of stating that I was a Black man. He knew that this would not be obvious to everyone in the audience. He felt compelled to say it to avoid the confusion my appearance might have caused. This introduction demolished whatever confidence I had as I approached the podium. Everywhere I looked, eyes returned my gaze. Who did they think I was? How could I possibly be the Black man the audience was expecting? How could I live up to this role? I was sure that I was the wrong person and should not have been there.
I began the speech with a passage from W.E.B. Du Bois’ work The Souls of Black Folk. He began his description of the Black experience in America by asking, “What is it like to be a problem?”
As I spoke Du Bois’ words, I felt like I was saying and hearing them for the first time. The passage continued, “being a problem is a strange experience, peculiar even for one who has never been anything else.” Then, I came to Du Bois’ most enigmatic words, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”
As I stumbled through the words, I could feel the judgments of the people in the audience. Did any of them see the Black man they were expecting? Perhaps it was a good thing that my appearance would raise questions and disrupt expectations. I began to hope that many in the audience would appreciate the profound paradox of the light-skinned, white-appearing Black man who stood before them. This was the paradox of race. This was what the conference was about. I came to the end of my speech with the strange feeling that I had somehow played my role. I took my seat in the audience.
The sudden impact of landing jolted me back to the present. My muscles strained against the force of the decelerating plane. My heart was pounding when we reached the end of the runway. I felt a clarity of mind for the first time since that morning. I looked across the empty seat beside me, relieved to see no one there. Through the window, I could see arrays of runway lights that became visible as the plane turned to taxi toward the terminal.
The expected Black guy was gone. I am the Black guy nobody was expecting.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Julie Kenward