CANDICE IS BLACK IN AMERICA
The 19th of 28 interviews with a variety of artists, writers and friends to learn more about individual perspectives on being black + original illustrations by George McCalman
CANDICE MORGAN (diversity + inclusion strategist)
I didn’t have to wait until I became a young woman to know that I would be judged on my appearance and needed to cultivate self-love.
What identity — racial or otherwise — do you feel closest to?
For the longest time, it was my racial identity. Even when I went to Barcelona for the first time at 16, there was an incident of harassment and anti-blackness. So often, it was the box I was put in.
However, I do remember times when it wasn’t the most salient thing people saw about me. I spent a couple of times in my twenties living abroad, and then being an American was in one context a negative thing (politically) and in another it made me popular and unique. There is class identity as well, which has been positive or negative as I’ve moved to different parts of the U.S. I’ve realized, even the identities people place on you can be contextual as well as intersectional.
Has being black made your life better?
One thing I didn’t realize for a long, long time is that while, as a human being, we all deal with different forms of adverse negative stereotypes — from body-shaming to xenophobia to bullying — I learned to anticipate that much earlier than some others have. I didn’t have to wait until I became a young woman to know that I would be judged on my appearance and needed to cultivate self-love.
When my fifth grade substitute teacher insisted that I “couldn’t have written this paper,” I was very taken aback and didn’t know to tell her I had scored off the charts for the state-wide exams and skipped a grade. But now I know better when someone doubts my abilities, because I encountered those things so early. It’s not about what you tell that person in that moment (and those beliefs are likely very fixed anyway, not my burden to undo). It’s about making sure that it doesn’t settle in your heart and become self-limiting. That goes for any of us: white or black, child or adult.
When was the first time you understood what it was to be black?
I don’t have a direct moment in time, because it happened very early, before I had the vocabulary to speak to it. I remember watching television and seeing that none of the families looked like my family, not in the movies or commercials. There were exceptions (“Fresh Prince” or Urkel), but you couldn’t miss that they were exceptions. I had a ton of Barbie dolls, and there was always one of Barbie’s “friends” that was Black, but she was always an exception, too. So when your idols all look like Nikki Taylor or Barbie, you know early on that you don’t look like them and that you’re an “other.”
When I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, my mom took us on a single-parent (her and three girls) trip to a beach town in New Jersey. We got quite hungry and went to a diner for lunch. After playfully joking for a while with my sisters, I was getting really hungry and noticed we had no menus yet. Everyone around us was getting served their food, including several patrons who came in after us. We were also the only people of color there. My mom asked the waitress for menus and said, “Excuse me, we’re ready now,” a couple of times. The waitress’s face was completely set in irritation as she whizzed by, saying nothing. My mom stopped her and got her to take our order. Our food never came. We sat there a while longer until my mom said, “OK girls, let’s go.”
What’s something most people don’t realize about being black?
On Pinterest I have this awesome board called “Whimsy,” with jokes and funny quotes, etc, and one series is #blackgirlproblems. I read one today that said, “You’re afraid that your college roommate will be disappointed when she finds out you’re black.” And as incredulous as that may seem to some, it’s common when you’re used to being an “only” in predominantly white or other non-Black spaces. So many groups have anti-black stereotypes that you can feel before you know what it means.
In middle school, my friend let me know I was the first Black person allowed in her South Asian family’s home, that I had somehow ‘earned’ my way out of their fear into a place of safety due to my academic achievements. Being followed around in stores starts around that age as well. So one thing people of other races may not realize, is that constant awareness that someone’s first impression of you — as a Black person — may potentially be disappointing or threatening, and you’re already managing up from that preconception from the moment you meet.
How would life be different if you just didn’t have to think about race much?
It would be so freeing. Thinking about race, or rather feeling the effects of racial tension, can create stereotype threat for those of us in groups that are seen as less competent in areas like academic achievement. It’s a real thing. Though I can only speculate, taking an exam with a pure mindset of ‘what do I know’ versus ‘what can I know,” even if subconscious, is invaluable for a young person. In another context, I was speaking at a high profile conference and went to pick up my badge at the Speakers booth, giving my name. I was told by the young woman that Candice Morgan “needs to come pick up her badge herself.”
You start to think about race long before something like that happens, about how you needed to dress differently that morning than other speakers to have “credibility.” So yes, it would be freeing to shed such considerations and just go kick ass. But I do it anyway!