Dear The South, My Southern Baptist Pharmacy School, and That GSK recruiter:
The South, I hate it here. You wanna know why? I chose to come here to experience culture because being the savvy cheeky millennial that I am I snidely whisper behind the backs of my upper middle class to lower upper class classmates of my three institutes of higher education, Duke University, Tulane University, and Stanford University, who feel they have to travel abroad to experience culture. Why leave the US when there are different cultural experiences available right here in the great US (read: us). But alas, the joke is on me.
I was born in the Land of the Freed. That’s not a typo. I was born in Monrovia, Liberia, a country founded by freed American slaves. That’s right, black people who were “lucky” enough to leave The South with an ocean between them. I should have listened, but… #millennials.
With people like Paula Deen being outed and confirming what suspicions (read: realities) we all know to be true, you, The South, really are as bad as people think you are. Having received a Bachelor’s of Science, yes Science, meaning pretty much a Chemistry minor, in Mathematics and Linguistics, that started at one first tiered university and ended at another, continuing on to yet another for a graduate degree, I had become accustomed to a certain degree of clout. I laughed at the angry black woman. Just get an education. Play the white man’s game… and win.
It was working. I could walk into a room, command attention (I am still black after all) and not be intimidated. I could carry on pseudo-intellectual conversations and even self-deprecate without it being confused for truth. I had as much life experience and education with the people I encountered. I was born in another country, after all; lived all over the United States, coast to coast; and even travelled outside the US several times.
My final frontier was The South. Really, it can’t be that bad. You were. You are, because I’m still here, yearning to be free again, noosed by a commitment to a doctorate degree.
In The South, there exists this insidious sense of lowered expectations and an Us vs You–ness when the Us realize you are not just passing through. At first, I was bombarded with the constant restating of my name, “slower this time,” the Us would say. Every single person I met asked me where I was from or confirmed that I was not from around “here.” Mind you by most accounts, I sound “pretty American.” There were the old white ladies in the pool on campus where I—not they—pay tuition, accosting me about my hair. Yes, in 2015, this still happens. Say it’s nice, or say nothing.
In 2012, it was the tension at the polling place for Obama’s second race. In class, it was my 40-year-old professor openly sharing the fact that he had never flown on a plane… so you’re telling me in four decades of life you never had a desire to venture out more than driving distance? Aren’t you embarrassed? No, no one ever is. This is why you never meet anyone from The South, they’re all still here. One roommate asked me if I had ever used a toaster oven. When I loaded the dishwasher once, another came behind me to check my work, “Oh, I just wanted to make sure there’s dishes in there.” At my suggestion to accompany me to a yoga class, one of the Us asked if I had ever been. At a restaurant where she proudly ordered edamame and ate three, another one offered, “Try one, have you ever had these before?” It was 2014. I was 30.
My last year of my doctoral program required field experiences, which essentially turned out to be a year-long exercise in putting me in my place. In the privacy of their individual field sites, each white preceptor was quick to verbalize their aforementioned lowered expectations sprinkled with do you have a nickname? Can I call you x, y, or z? When an acceptable other name was not offered, I was deemed not a team player and what followed was okay: Only Deroe-Asha answer this question. Deroe-Asha, do you know this? Great response, white person, Deroe-Asha did you know that?
Suddenly they could pronounce my name. At one evaluation there was, “When I first met you, I thought you were lazy and I thought it was going to be a rough month.” Based on what?! There was the repeated, “Smile more (because this is in fact a beauty pageant, not a training site).” Stop Telling Women to Smile! It’s a movement now. Google it! Or there was the “I was really surprised by how well you did with x, y, z (because your black face led me to believe otherwise).”
Then there was the mother of all mother^&((&$@. The white man who did not appreciate the black girl that talked back. How dare you! he admonished after cornering me in a room. You’re embarrassing everyone,he said into the empty room. I intimidate you, so you better act accordingly, he added. You’re uneducated, he continued, and the things you say are nonsense. You have ADHD, he divined, have you been tested for a learning disability. Realizing I did not immediately find the place in which he was trying to put me, he put himself on repeat for 90 minutes. If verbal waterboarding were a thing, it happened to me on that day in The South alone in that room with that white man. When I told some mid-level administrators at my school, they blinked twice and started with, “You know, this is The South…”
So hey, The South, now we’ve officially met. Four years after my arrival, after you’ve shown me around (my place), I am beginning to wonder if the Us were right about me. Prior to making your acquaintance, had I been living in some magical Northern bubble where education and hard work meant something? Would I always just be black and thus stupid and worthless like Paula Dean says I am? Well, if I’m being completely honest, it’s perfectly fine to be black here as long as you are not trying to be anyone’s boss, marry anyone’s child, or have an opinion. Maybe that won’t be so bad.
Even nearing graduation, I considered staying in The South and being employed by my obvious racial superiors. Back when I was educated, I used to know what this phenomenon was called (S something).
Then I got a call from a recruiter at GSK in New Jersey. Before I could answer her standard opening statement, tell me about yourself, she gushed: Wow, you’ve done a lot with your life! It’s all very impressive. Two degrees already… Stanford, Tulane. How do you stay so motivated… The interview ended with, “you’re a strong contender.”
You’re right, GSK recruiter! I have done a lot with my life! I am very impressive! I am a strong contender! I am going to be somebody!
Roll credits for every urban education teledrama where a white person validates a black girl’s existence or an alternate ending for On the Waterfront.
The South, never speak to me again.
You know my name,