“Look around the room. Every African-American in here, will experience discrimination at some point in your life.”
My body flushed with heat. Suddenly I felt like I was wearing an oversized sweater, made of cheap polyester on a hot summer day. Uncomfortable, like the fabric meshing with my sweat, causing my skin to itch and prickle. This was sixth grade, in a specialized school on the Upper East Side after all; in a class of twenty something, only three of us are being peered at. Did my english teacher miss the irony of this moment, or was it intentional? I’ll never know, but the seismic shift between those the system benefits and those oppressed by it was felt by all.
Silence blankets the room.
“Okay ladies we’re going to Estée Lauder today.”
We were so excited to have an upcoming event. As interns of a mediocre PR company we spend most of our time in the showroom: sending clothes/accessories to magazines and televisions sets, tracking down missing items, creating invoices, archiving press clippings, creating lists of some sort, stalking and organizing. Amongst a slew of other tasks. Style House PR had two semi-large accounts so the work got done fairly quickly, leaving us in the tedium of down time. A project like this was a perk, like the leopard print jacket they let me have. Dakota Fanning wore it on the cover of a magazine, but it was so last season they didn’t need it anymore.
Upon arrival they disclose the details. They were launching a new product line, so everyone was to receive a gift bag containing: lipstick, mascara, a gold compact mirror and bronzer. The guest list consist of bloggers, influencers, make-up artists, magazine editors and anyone else who could peddle their cause. Taking place the following morning, 200 bags had to be created that afternoon.
We worked assembly style. Everyone doing their part, passing the bag down the line until full completion. Someone opened the bag, I put tissue paper in and slide it to Thea for a mirror. Quietly we work with intention. All of us in mini conversations, occasionally joining as one then scattering again.
“A lipstick is missing.”
One bag to go, when an Estée Lauder staff member makes this announcement. No one could account for where it’d gone. Logically I believed it was miscounted, 200 lipsticks is a lot to keep track of.
Silence blankets the room. The silence thickens.
It becomes clear that they think someone stole it. The thickening thickens as it dawns on me that I’m the culprit. Not the lipstick stuffer, who has been in and out of the room multiple times, who was three people down and closest to the door. It was me, because I’m black. Sixteen eyeballs laser focused, waiting for a confession they never get. Thea the other intern is Asian, she stares at me disbelief mixed with pity. A knowing passes between us, had I not been there it would be her getting crucified. The racial hierarchy.
The only colored ones in the room. All the white people had a telepathic conversation via eye contact. Completely disregarding the logical and obvious suspect. The lily white brunette.
One of their members breaks the ice, with news that we too would get a bag. Another perk! We start to clean up, pretending as if nothing happened. Internally I am choosing between calling them out, so they can label me the angry black girl, or peace. I remain professional by choosing the latter.
Janna our boss hands each of us a bag, eyes burrowing into mine as she passes me one. “Thank you for today.” I think this is her way of apologizing for being bias. I never left the room, nor was I near the stolen goods.
Us interns part ways with the Style House employees when we exit the building. Walking in the opposite direction, we gleefully rummage through our gift bags. I stop giggling. Janna wasn’t giving me an apology, she was letting me know I was a criminal, by giving me the incomplete bag.
We stop walking as Thea pulls out her lipstick tube. I feel like I’m wearing that shitty polyester sweater again. This is what Ms. Mitchell prepared me for. I feel so targeted, but I refuse to feel small. I make a vow to myself that I will never, ever stay silent in the face of prejudice. Nor will I trade one label for another. It isn’t my job to make you comfortable, to assuage your guilt once inappropriate behavior is addressed. It’s my moral duty to hold perpetrators accountable, when they treat others not as people, but caricature’s of stereotypes. I would be the change I wished to see. It’s their turn to wear the sweater.