For over two decades now I have earned my living working as a creative. I went to film school, but I began my career after college as a graphic and interactive design in the ad industry throughout the mid-'90s through the early 00s (oughts). When digital video came into vogue I was able to parlay my love of filmmaking into my day job, which is what I've been doing for the last 13 years.
I have had many titles; Graphic Designer, Interactive Designer, Art Director, Multimedia Director, and then eventually Producer, Sr. Producer, and Executive Producer. 90% of the time, I am the only Black creative working for any given company; 99% of the time, I am the only Black creative executive. I don't tend to think about it much because I grew up in a predominately white suburb, went to a college with a predominately white student body...basically, I'm used to being one of the only Black people around. It doesn't bother me, and MOST of the time it NEVER comes up; in my experience, I have found that most sensible, mature people don't have racial hangups.
My father used to tell me about being "bilingual," basically being able to communicate not only with "our people," but also being able to conduct yourself in a white world. That's the generation that my parents came from-- this anxiety of being "too Black" around white people, so as to not give them an excuse to use their racism against you. I always understood what they were saying, but what I have come to realize over the years is that it should not be up to us to alter who we are to accommodate someone else's issues. Besides, I found that trying to preemptively thwart someone's racist POV has been a rather useless exercise.
Back in high school, when I wanted to get a summer job I would look in the Want Ads in the paper. I would call the number in the ad, inquire about the availability of the job, and they would ask me to come in. When I get there, I would ask to see the manager. This is the exchange that would occur EVERY SINGLE TIME:
Manager: "Yes, can I help you?"
Me: "Yes, hi-- my name is Charles, I called earlier about the job"
Manager: "Oh-- OH...hi!"
There will be those of you who are reading this who know EXACTLY what I'm talking about, because it's happened to you, too. They weren't expecting a Black face behind an articulate voice, so they are "sincerely" shocked or surprised when they see you. This is what in the modern day parlance is called "micro-aggressive racism." It's something that many of us are used to by now, but it's something that we've had to build a tolerance for dealing with, primarily because it's idiotic and tiring.
I bring this up in part because there have been many stories in the news lately about white people making false judgments and ridiculous assumptions and allegations against Black folks. I also bring this up because it's been a while since I've experienced this sort of thing- mostly, I believe because these days social media is often times the first contact people have before they meet you in person. If there is, in fact, any shock to be had it, it would happen in private. Recently, however, I had my first 21st-century encounter with an oblivious dope.
I have been shooting a social media series for Instagram for the company Pure Wow (where I'm the Sr. Producer). It's a small team, so I have to book whatever talent, or locations, or whatever I need to get things done. So, I speak to a lot of people from these locations over the phone. This series involves fitness, so I'm calling lots of gyms and fitness clubs to book shoots. As recently as last week, we showed up at a location in downtown Manhattan, New York City. This series has a bit of a reality/docu slant to it, so I'm usually rolling when I show up. It's the talent, my shooter, my sound guy (all 3 are white), and me (sometimes on a 2nd camera). We walked in, rolling immediately, shot the session, everything went smoothly. I called cut, and approached the instructor to thank him for his time. This was the exchange:
Me: "Hi, [NAME WITHHELD], Charles Conyers-- it's good to finally meet you!"
Instructor: "Oh...Oh, Hi! You're Charles! Oh, for some reason I thought he was Charles [pointing to the shooter]. I don't know why, haha!"
Oh, I know why. And my team knew why, as well. My shooter didn't understand how the instructor could assume that I wasn't the one in charge. "You were the only one of us wearing a suit jacket!" Well, the doorman wears a suit jacket, too...so, the clothes don't necessarily matter much. People have their presumptions, it's just that most are too embarrassed to acknowledge it. This instructor was a bit of a flake, so it's no surprise-- his nervous laughter said it all.
I remember back in the day being told by white folks that I spoke very well. "As opposed to what?" I would ask. Cue nervous laughter, floundering, back peddling, etc. What some white folks fail to realize is that we are infinitely more than what their expectations will allow. We have long passed the days where we feel like we have to impress you, or coddle your ignorance. We tolerate it because our expectations are proven out by experience.
Underestimate us at your peril. In the end, it makes you look a lot worse than your assumptions about us.