I cross one leg over the other and check the time again, fighting the urge to start pacing. I’m nervous, but I don’t have a reason to be. I’m pretty sure the job is already mine. I sent in the application on time. I survived the phone interview; I thought it had gone surprisingly well. The woman on the other end told me she was very impressed with my resume and excellent references. She asked me how soon I could come in to sign the paperwork.
This meeting is just a formality, I remind myself. I take a deep breath. I smooth down the front of my shirt. I check to make sure there’s nothing in my teeth. I pop a piece of gum, then spit it out, realizing it’s not a good idea. I have to make a good impression.
I check my watch again. Nine twenty-eight. I arrived early, of course, which means that I had plenty of extra time to torture myself. Nine twenty-nine. I scoot toward the edge of my seat, ready for the office door to open, ready to stand up to greet my new boss.
At the last second, I decide it will be better to wait until my name is called. I don’t want to seem too eager. A tall woman with short hair and reading glasses stands in the doorway, staring down at a clipboard.
“JoAnn?” I recognize her voice from the phone interview.
I start to stand, still watching her. She glances up. And right past me.
“JoAnn…Michael?” she asks again, checking her clipboard once more.
“That’s me!” I step forward to shake her hand. “And it’s pronounced Mi—”
“Oh, you’re JoAnn?!” She cuts me off. Was that a statement or a question?
“Yes…?” I’m confused, since I’m the only other person in the room.
“Oh, I’m sorry. You’re just not what I expected.” She laughs. I don’t.
By now, my anxiety is completely gone, though I prefer it to the awkwardness that hangs between us instead. She chuckles sheepishly, pausing to usher me through the door of her office. I try to smile back at her, torn between wanting to ask whom she had been “expecting” and wanting desperately to change the subject.
The curiosity is too strong. I choose the former. “May I ask what you were expecting?” That last word feels funny in my mouth.
“Well, we had such a great phone interview…I just thought you were someone else.” She makes a waving motion with her free hand, as though trying to dismiss the awkwardness. Her too-big smile gives way to a too-loud laugh. “Shall we begin?”
I nod and produce my own folder of papers and my driver’s license, items she had requested I bring along. I’m still trying to process what just happened.
The woman introduces herself and proceeds to go on and on about how excited she is that we will be working together. She goes over the job description, the schedule, the rules. I am only half-listening. My mind is stuck in one place, hiccupping like a broken record.
She thought I was someone else?
I watch as she rummages through her desk, searching for yet another form for me to sign. She’s middle-aged, energetic, very chatty. She is also a mom, based on the several photos of two small children that are posted around the room. She seems nice, with kind eyes and a kinder smile. I want to like her, to get to know her. But I can’t help but wonder what she meant when she said she expected “someone else.”
A thought comes to mind, and I am instantly ashamed of it. Still, the more I try to suppress it, the more it persists, nags, hovers:
Was she surprised because I’m black?
When any high school student finds out she has been accepted to the college of her dreams, there is probably some screaming, usually some happy-tears, and often a lot of disbelief. So when I, a Haitian-American, very low-income high school student found out that I had earned a full ride to my (very expensive) top choice, there was a lot of excited screaming (me and my older sister), a lot of joyful singing and praises to the Lord (my parents), and a lot of pinching myself to make sure it wasn’t a dream.
I spent most of the week on the Washington and Lee University website; reading about the classes and the workload, thinking about all the people I would meet. I wished I could get my high school degree right then and there, I was so eager to begin a new life and an even better education at such an amazing school. My excitement doubled as I read about the many student clubs and organizations. I went to the QuestBridge Scholarship site to see how I might get involved with Washington and Lee’s Quest Scholars chapter. That’s when I saw the racial diversity chart.
Two of the eight categories glared back at me.
African American: 3%.
I tried to move on, to wave it off as the statistic that it was supposed to be. I continued my surf: learning everything that I could about the admissions process, deciding how I would go about getting my French degree. My dad and I planned our first trip to Lexington for the following April, so we could see the campus on Accepted Students Day.
As we made our way through the winding, mountainous roads of rural southern Virginia, the stats from the diversity chart resurfaced in my mind. I started to feel uneasy, and the aforementioned disbelief kicked into high gear. I thought of what my counselor said when I shared the good news.
“Washington and Lee?! That is a very selective school...”
So why on Earth did they choose me?
On Accepted Students Day, we arrived just in time for the first information session. I surveyed the room, and instantly regretted it. All of my excitement quickly faded, replaced with sudden unease. Reading about the statistics was one thing, being one was something else. My father, blunt by nature, said exactly what I was thinking:
“Are there no black people at this school?”
The unease became a sudden, crippling wave of doubt, fueled by one shameful thought:
Am I only here because I’m black?
These thoughts have since become less frequent, but they haven’t gone away. What's worse is that they will always be there. I am doomed to a never-ending struggle, torn between questioning myself and questioning the circumstances. To voice my uncertainty is seen as shameful and insecure, but to hold it back is downright ignorant. If I am confident, then I am too proud but if I am hesitant, then I am too weak.
Contrary to popular belief (and the media) black people don’t always want to “make it about race.” In fact, we’re often the last people who want call attention to it.
That doesn’t mean I don’t think about it. Constantly.
That doesn’t mean I don’t wonder if I am here as a result of my hard work alone, or if I am just another percentage on a racial diversity chart.
That doesn’t mean there is no self-doubt.