Monday, March 24, 2008

Women's History Month blog carnival

Dear Judith Townsend*,
by Deesha Philyaw

You probably don't remember me. I'm that colored girl that you tried to cheat out of job opportunity in your school district in the mid-90s. Ring a bell?

No? Let me refresh your memory. After graduating with a 3.4 GPA from an Ivy League institution in your home state, I took a corporate job but quickly became disillusioned. I wanted to do work that mattered, so I leapt at a fellowship opportunity to have your school district pay for my Master's degree in teaching while I simultaneously did my student teaching and served as a substitute in your district. The program was designed to attract highly-qualified "teachers of color" to your incredibly lily-white, affluent district. An admirable goal, and I was thrilled to be chosen to participate.

As the head of human resources for the district, you were my primary point of contact regarding employment matters. For a year and a half, I checked in with you about the process of transitioning from the fellowship program to full-time employment. There were no guarantees; everything hinged on available positions, and I wanted to make sure that I had all my ducks in a row when interview time came.

As the 1994-1995 school year drew to a close--and I was set to graduate with my M.A. in teaching with a 4.0 GPA--I called you more frequently at the urging of the principal at the school where I was serving as a long-term sub for a teacher on maternity leave. (You know, the one "poor" school in the district where most of the colored kids go?). This principal confirmed my presumption that hiring for the upcoming school year would take place before the present school year ended, and she seemed surprised at your telling me that you doubted there would be any new teaching hires for the upcoming school year. But each time I called, you told me that, so far, none of the elementary schools in the district had any openings.

Imagine my surprise--shock, horror, rage--when one afternoon, just a week before school ended, the principal's secretary ran out onto the field where I was helping referee Field Day, with a phone message for me. One of the other elementary school principals had heard great things about me from the principal where I'd done my student teaching, and he wanted me to come interview for a 5th grade teaching position. Today. After school. Today was the last day of interviews, and he had assumed that I would have been amongst the candidates that you, Judith, would have sent over to see him. But since I wasn't, and since he had been underwhelmed by the other candidates, he thought he'd give me a call and offer this last chance.

Surrounded by six-year-olds, I didn't scream, Judith. I refrained from calling you every kind of bitch my brain could conjure up. I exhaled--we colored people have to do that, a lot--and I asked the secretary if she would watch my class while I went to the office to make a phone call.
In my t-shirt and shorts, grubby with little hand prints, I called that principal and pleaded--my people are no strangers to that either, Judith--pleaded with him to extend the interviews just one more day. I wanted to the opportunity to present myself as the other interviewees had--poised, prepared…clean.

He hesitated, but ultimately, he said yes. Thank God, he said yes. Despite of you, Judith, he said yes.

And I got the job.

But maybe you do remember all of this, Judith. Maybe your brow wrinkles involuntarily on occasion when you recall One of Them that slipped through. Maybe you are still haunted, confused, by that time when people who looked just like you undermined your efforts to piss on someone who looked like me.

All these events took place well over a decade ago. I've moved on, certainly, no worse for wear because of your bullshit. But your deceit has stuck with me all these years for this simple reason: I am a daughter of the South, Judith. My mother drank from "colored" water fountains, and my grandmother was on a first-name basis with Jim Crow. But not until I arrived in your Northeastern town and dealt with you, did I ever personally experience such blatant, direct racism. You managed to out-cracker the crackers, Judith. What a feat.

*By the way, you know and I know that Judith Townsend is not your real name. I've used this pseudonym not so much to protect your privacy, but rather to represent the fact that behavior like yours is common. Racist and sneaky?--You could be just about anybody. How's that for irony? Aspiring to maintain a bastion of racial purity and elitism by acting common. I just shake my head at that.

If you don't remember me, you probably don't remember how, once I was hired, you had to sign off on various personnel documents, and you dated one of them "1965." You wished, Judith. You wished it was 1965. It pained you to admit defeat, to have to throw in the towel on your underhanded scheme. I relished calling you up and telling you that you would need to re-sign the document. "Because it's nineteen-ninety-five," I said cheerfully. And Freud laughed.

You probably don't know that the day I went to interview for the job you did not want me to have, was the day your school system made national news. Not for any noteworthy academic achievements on the part of the students, or anything like that, but because some boys in the senior class at the high school decided to encode racial slurs into the captions under their yearbook picture. Upon publication, the code was cracked, and white people were shocked--shocked--that kids from your town, Judith, would do such a thing. I wasn't the least bit shocked, but as I drove to the interview, hearing the news report triggered the tears I had previously refused to shed. I was determined not to let you make me cry.

But you know how that story ends, Judith. By the time I sat down for the interview, I'd fully regained my composure and claimed the job you didn't want a colored girl to have.

You may not know that some of the teachers and administrators in the district regarded you as a relic, an unfortunate leftover from a bygone era. They assured me that, while you definitely had it out for me because I was black, you were an equal opportunity bigot, extending your iciness to Jews and Italians as well. Folks in the district viewed you as a necessary evil; you stood between them and their paychecks and their continuing ed credits. But they did not respect you, Judith. Unlike you, some of them at least gave lip-service to anti-racism and progressive thinking.

You probably don't know that the students I taught and their parents loved me, at every school where I subbed, and at the school where I had my own classroom. Even though I challenged their outdated and uninformed ideas about black people, about history--they still sang my praises.

But maybe you do know that. Maybe you kept tabs on me, salivating at the possibility that the colored girl--since this was 1965, after all--would fuck up. But that day never came, Judith. I'm sure you celebrated when I left the district after only two years of full-time teaching, because my then-husband got a better job offer in a different city. But guess what? Some of your precious white babies still reach out to me via the Internet, as college students, thanking me, saying that I'm the best teacher they ever had.

I'm sure you don't know about the little 3rd grade girl whose class I subbed for once, who held my hand practically the whole day. Her teacher had left a note explaining that her mother had abandoned the family, and so she tended to cling to mother-figures. On the playground during recess, we held hands, and this little girl asked me, "Why are black people bad?" I turned the question back to her, asking why she thought that. "Because," she explained, "my daddy says he hates black people because they take too long to cross the street when he's trying to drive." I explained to her that in the world there were people who sometimes acted in bad ways, and people who acted in good ways, but that skin color had nothing to do with it. That seemed to relieve her, and she held my hand even tighter. I wish someone like me had had a talk like that with you in the 3rd grade, Judith, to counter the lies your daddy told you.

I was told by some colleagues in the district that you are very proud of the fact that you can trace your ancestors back to the Mayflower, a group of freedom-seekers. And yet you would deny me certain liberties, because my ancestors can be traced back to different ships, to voyages made not of their own volition. Do you really believe that if someone cuts me and someone cuts you, that your veins will bleed blue and mine red? Do you really believe that your people were here first?

Judith. You would not have done what you did if you weren't afraid of me. And if your blood is so superior, why fear me?...Unless I embodied the sudden realization that you'd been lied to all your life, about your alleged superiority. I can imagine that smarts. It's like believing that you are the next Van Gogh because your mother hangs all your artwork on the refrigerator. Well, if that's the case, your beef was with the folks who lied to you, not me. They deserve your shock and awe, not me. I deserved a fair shake. Nothing more, and certainly nothing less.

You are probably in your 70s now, retired, or being gently nudged to do so. Or maybe you've passed away. Behind that steely demeanor, there always seemed to be something frail about you, something sickly. I remember thinking (after I learned of your attempts to sabotage me) that you were like a wounded dog, lashing out, out of fear and your own misery.

I'm glad I got the chance to succeed, in spite of you. I'm glad that my mere existence fucked with you. But day-in and day-out, I didn't give you a single thought. You no longer posed a threat. Instead, I thought about our ancestors, yours and mine, Judith. My American Dream was your ancestors' nightmare.

Did I do my ancestors proud during those years in your district? Did I pursue the ideals they subscribed to--justice, perseverance, and freedom for all? I can answer with a resounding "yes!"

Can you?

There's so much you don't know about me, Judith, about people who look like me. And in a way, that's cool. The most important thing you need to know is that, except for the privilege your white skin affords you, protecting you from being treated the way you treated me--except for this, we're not so different. But that's a big exception, one that I suspect you'll go to your grave never fully grasping. However, if I'm wrong, and if you do "get it", everyone in your circle of influence will be blessed. Most especially, you.

Deesha Philyaw has written for Essence magazine, Wondertime magazine, and reviewed books for The Washington Post. In addition to freelancing, Deesha is also working on non-fiction book projects and a novel. She is a mom of two, and blogs at Mamalicious!.


womensspace said...

Amazing post, Deesha, thank you. I'm so glad you prevailed and got the job! And that there were a couple of decent people around who noticed something was severely wrong.

I was talking with someone the other day about a situation in which a bookkeeper had stolen literally millions of dollars over, like, 20, 30 years of working for a company. This person was really pretty bold about it, just wrote out checks in her own name, etc. I was asking, how did this person think she wasn't going to get caught? The person I was talking to (who deals with situations like this a lot, or has) said these people invariably think they are smarter than other people, better than them, slicker than them. I was thinking about that reading your essay. How did this woman think that sometime, she wasn't going to be outed as the thief she was, because racist acts of this type really are like theft. She is stealing what other people are entitled to based on their hard work, gifts, abilities and credentials. She is also stealing from the children and coworkers of those to whom she is denying opportunities and from whom she is withholding information. Without recognizing it in her blindness and arrogance, she is even stealing from herself, because she is robbing herself of the satisfaction that always comes from seeing to it that people who deserve a job, or an opportunity, or whatever, get it, and from being in a position to provide it. I think these people, whether they are racist thieves or embezzling thieves, also believe and count on it that there are a lot of people like them who just aren't saying anything but who would do the same thing they've done.

Well, anyway, thanks for this really good essay.

Ferocious Kitty said...

Heart, thanks for your comments. The idea of racist actions as thefts--of opportunity, experiences, freedom--really resonates with me. It is an idea that takes such actions out of the realm/context of pure emotion that, I believe, makes racism so easy for some people to dismiss or deny. Not to say that reaction to racism shouldn't be emotional, but likening it to theft invites a different and welcome kind of discourse, I think.

Tami said...


I like the racism as theft idea, too.


I think this story is very timely. I was just explaining to a conservative friend of mine who thinks the playing field is even now how wrong he is. As long as there are "theives" like this woman around, the playing field cannot be equal. The longer we take to address racism like this, the longer the playing field will remain skewed.

Ferocious Kitty said...


With the regard to folks like your conservative friend, I always brace myself for someone saying "That didn't really happen" or to try to make excuses. Sigh.

GirlGriot said...

Deesha, this is an incredible post. I've run into my share of Judiths ... most recently six years ago in the form of my first supervisor at my current job.

My students today say: "I know black people had it hard back in the day." Yeah. Back in the day. As in last week. I tend to grind my teeth as I exhale ... and then make use of the 'teachable moment.'



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