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Are you the Hooker or the Help?

Are you the Hooker or the Help?

The sun beamed down relentlessly on a cloudless Saturday morning. It was already humid as my Uber driver pulled up to the the high rise apartment overlooking Panama’s central park, Parque Omar.  I was rushing to my 8 a.m. appointment to prepare the son of a CEO for an ESL exam. I’d started tutoring professionals and students privately in English once I'd moved to Panama City and had quickly accumulated regular clients. 

I’d been to this particular high rise a number of times before, usually later in the day. This morning, the security guard glared down at me from his guard booth before calling up to announce me. Once we were allowed entry, I exited the Uber at the front of the building and walked up purposefully, a purse full of books in hand. I tried the handle of the glass doors, but it was locked. When I peered inside the tastefully decorated lobby, I realized that the front desk clerk who usually buzzed me in wasn’t there. Assuming that she had not yet started her shift, I turned back and asked the guard to let me in.

He walked out of his booth with all the swagger and semblance of authority that comes with wielding a clipboard. “What kind of work do you do for the ____’s,” he asked me reproachfully. Momentarily confused, I asked, “Perdon?” He brushed me off as if he couldn’t be bothered to explain himself. “You need to use the back entrance,” he said curtly before turning and walking back to his booth.

 I stood there shocked as he walked away, the realization of what just happened sinking in. It was not yet 8 a.m. in the morning and I had already experienced racism, sexism, paternalism, and classism- all before I’d even had breakfast. I have been mistaken for the maid or cleaning lady before in my three decades of being a black woman (my friend later on pointed out that he could have also assumed that I was a call girl). From Rome to Rio, Panama to Petra, London to Louisiana, regardless of our occupation or our attire, black women are often pigeonholed as the help or objects of sexual desire. However, this was the first time in my life that I’d been relegated to the back door.

 It has taken so many years and so much education for me to be able to even recognize and articulate when my humanity is denied- either blatantly or subtly- that I have grown accustomed to the seething anger and humiliation that comes with it. So, I composed myself and went through the back door and up the service elevator that led to a back closet. I remained poised throughout my appointment while the memory lingered in my head.

 I know many will ask why I followed his orders. The reason is complex. I’ve been relegated to many figurative “back doors” in my life by people whose own racist and sexist attitudes rendered me invisible:  

The store clerks who ignore me, assuming I can’t afford to purchase anything, or worse, the security guards that blatantly follows me throughout the store.

The cab drivers who won’t pick me up, assuming I live in a dangerous part of town.

The men who want to sleep with me because of stereotypes of black women's sexual prowess, but would never introduce me to their mothers. 

The teacher that advised me to play a sport in order to increase my chances of getting into college rather than focus on academics.

The college professor that scrutinized my papers more closely than my classmates because he was skeptical that I could actually write well.

A colleague who dismissed me as aggressive or angry for expressing a unique thought.

How often people comment on my looks as a means of discrediting my intelligence, experience, or talent.

The mediocre men who speak over me to remind me of my “place” and claim my ideas as their own to garner praise.

The amount of times I’ve recounted experience with racism and sexism and the listener searches for reasons to discredit me (I’m sure a few people will read this and offer up countless excuse to absolve the guard).

There have been so many backdoors that, in that moment, one more made little difference to me. It was not the fact that I had to share the service elevator with hookers or the help that was humiliating, for there are women who enter into either profession with dignity as a means to an end. It's the fact that I was dismissed as not deserving of respect simply due to the color of my skin that marked that particular experience. The  other visitors could not be so affronted as to share an entrance (or the proverbial water fountain or a countertop) with the likes of me. 

I’ve broken down many figurative back doors, overcome many barriers, and gained the respect of people who were convinced that black people were innately inferior. However, I’m not proud of this. I’m sincerely exhausted and disappointed that I constantly confront these manifestations of prejudice. The level of fuckery that is par for the course if one aims to excel as a black woman is in itself frustrating. How can it be that I am still encountering the same racist and sexist stereotypes in 2016 that has plagued black women since the end of slavery?! 

That day, I didn’t have the energy to fight yet another micro-aggression  because, to be quite frank, it wouldn’t be the last that week, this year, or in my lifetime. In that moment, I choose to preserve my piece of mind rather than lose sight of myself in a blaze of anger and expletives. It’s been a long three decades; my soul is weary, and I must save the fight that’s left in me for the bigger battles ahead. I let my client’s father know what happened so that he could take a turn in the ring this time.  

 

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