WRITING IN CAPS: What Issa Rae’s Insecure and Shankar Vedantam’s Hidden Brain Showed Me About My Communication Biases at Work

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Issa Rae’s HBO show, Insecure, brilliantly creates a broad platform that allows people of color, women of color and black women specifically to see ourselves in a real way- a glimpse in how we try to navigate our lives with ourselves, and not whiteness, at the center of our existence. Often times, the show bombastically extrapolates nuances of our experiences. I think to the lipstick/mirror scene. More times than I’d like to admit, I too have personified different outfits to find the right one for who I want to be on a night out. Other times- and these are my favorite times, there are moments in the show when these nuances are subtly interwoven into larger plot points, maybe perhaps missed by those who haven’t shared that experience. One scene in particular has continued to linger with me:

Remember Rasheeda? Here’s Angelica Jade Bastien’s recap of part of her story line:

“In Episode 3, Molly faces this dilemma when a new black intern joins her law firm. Rasheeda (Gail Bean) embodies the sort of sassy black girl archetype that may be O.K. around friends but reads as inappropriate anywhere else. You can see Molly wince when Rasheeda ends her sentences with “girl” or tells off-color jokes to white co-workers about finding a man so attractive she had to send herself to HR. When Molly takes her aside and suggest that she “switch it up a little bit” Rasheeda takes offense.”

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Regardless whether I’ve said something directly to the Rasheeda-type characters I’ve encountered in my own life, I have definitely been in Molly’s shoes before. Countless times. In my current work in international development, I collaborate with colleagues and partners hailing for different countries in sub-Saharan Africa where English may be their second, third, or maybe even 8th language that they know. As you would expect, there are often differences in communication styles, words and expressions. Over the past two years in this business, I’ve developed these pesky (read: petty) little peeves that drive me nuts: the spelling of the word hello as hallo, shortening hello as hie instead of hi and lastly, and most annoyingly, WRITING OR NAMING DOCUMENTS USING ALL CAPS.

Most of the time, I’d either roll my eyes and ignore it or reformat it before saving it and sending off again. Sometimes, especially if it’s someone I’m close to, I’d advise them to correct the error so they won’t repeat it in the future (not effective, by the way). There’s part of me, I think/hope most of me, that does this because I have experienced how it feels when difference marked by dark skin is valued negatively and read as incompetence. Perhaps in my own way, I try to help my colleagues “switch it up a little bit” in hopes that it would impact how they may be received by others. At the same time, perhaps my corrections aren’t completely altruistic and go far deeper than trying to help a sister out.

Bastien goes on to describe:

“Molly’s desire to get Rasheeda to act in a way that fits the aesthetics of a high-powered law firm isn’t a wholly selfless act — she also wants to protect herself. When you work in worlds where black faces are rare (especially in positions of power) a mistake your co-worker makes may reflect unfairly on you.”

In a recent post, I detailed my (ongoing) struggle to understand how I fit in my industry as an American from the African diaspora. I feel linked to both my African and Western colleagues. I don’t exactly know whether or how the perception and reality of black group identity translates across oceans and manifests in my day-to-day. Regardless, for better or worse, I do feel this pull to adjust these communication differences for both group and self-protection.

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At the same time, I also cannot ignore that it also drives me nuts! I feel like I actually get upset and emotionally involved! I thought that was one of those things that make me unreasonable at times- we all have our things- until I heard a recent episode of Hidden Brain. This part of Shankar Vedantam’s conversation with linguist John McWhorter  really resonated with me:

Vedantam: You make the case that concerns over the misuse of language might actually be one of the last places where people can publicly express prejudice and class differences. And as you point out, it’s not just that people feel that a word is being misused, they often feel angry about it and you think this anger is actually telling.

McWhorter: Yeah, I really do. I think that the tone that many people use when they’re complaining that somebody says “Billy and me went to the store,” it’s a little bit incommensurate with the significance of the issue. And I can’t help surmising that part of it is that the educated American has been taught- and often well- that you’re not supposed to look down of people because of gender, because of race, because of ability, but might we allow that there’s probably a part of all human beings that wants to look down on somebody else? What a cynical thing to say, but that doesn’t mean that it might not be true. And if that is true, then the educated person can look down on people who say “Billy and me went to the store” or who are using literally “wrong” and condemn them in the kinds of terms that once were ordinary for condemning black people, or women, or what have you. So I just think that it’s something we need to check ourselves for. It might irritate you slightly…but does a person who says that really deserve the kind of sneering condemnation that you often see. Something is off, and I think it’s because there’s a lowlier part of our nature that grammar allows us to vent in the absence of other ways to do it that haven’t been available for some decades, for a lot of us.

McWhorter’s response perfectly articulates why I cringe when I see others jeer at others’ misspellings. But before I got too high on my horse, I realized that this condescension may join self- and group-protection as an additional layer at the root of my pet peeve.

Well McWhorter, consider me checked. Will these things continue to drive me crazy? I’m sure it will. Change doesn’t happen overnight, especially when it comes to these types of biases. Certainly I will notices these communication differences, and when I do, I must practice vigilantly to observe and adjust my feelings and actions. There’s no need to get all emotionally involved and correct the “misspelling” of hi, especially when it doesn’t matter (and especially when the person speaks way more languages than me).

Sure, the Molly/Rasheeda scenario and the grammar bias issue have their differences. But for me, the ideas of these two issues together culminate into this interesting intersection between 1) understanding stereotypes and managing perceptions through code switching and other tactics and 2) avoiding the pitfalls of perpetuating harmful stereotypes about us or other marginalized groups, perhaps cloaked in acceptable avenues of marginalization such as communication, grammar, etc.

Don’t get it twisted. This is no “we have all biases” kumbaya circle. Biases held by people of color about themselves are developed, manifested and sustained in very different ways that are not equivalent when white people have these biases against us. I get that.

What this is, I guess, is another public monologue of me trying to fit myself in this world of international development and look honestly at my own thoughts and behaviors. And I hope that it could only encourage others to do the same.

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