I’m convinced that being black, and “successful,” in America means being at least a little schizophrenic. I consider myself to be black, and “successful,” in America. Yeah, I know. That probably means I’m a little schizophrenic.
My “mental condition” was first brought to my attention back in my early twenties. I was volunteering for an organization that helps under-employed and unemployed 18 to 24 year olds find gainful employment. Volunteers helped youth write resumes, practice interviews and conduct productive job searches. Did I mention that while I was doing this I was just 24 years old? I was teaching my peers.
I volunteered during my lunch hour so I was often dressed in a business suit when I met with the students. One day while conducting a seminar on “Interviewing and Networking” I was interrupted by a brash 22 year old who took pride in informing me that “[I] talk like a white girl!!” Without skipping a beat, and with a decidedly “urban flair,” I responded, “And I make money like a white girl too!” What followed was a short stare down. Chrissy is the champion of the stare down. My record remained intact that day.
The classroom that had been only half listening up to that point was now at full attention. Without me having to specifically address black schizophrenia, they got it. They got that while I was able to speak like them, I was also able to master “The King’s English” in a way that allowed me to maneuver through mainstream America in an attempt to obtain the American Dream. Here I was, the same age as them, dressed well, with an education and a “good job” in corporate America. The typical volunteer with this agency was middle-aged and white. Now they were receiving the message from someone who not only looked like them but was also the same age as them. One student later told me that hearing me deliver the message made it feel like the American Dream was something she could achieve. She even gave me props for being able to “switch it up” when I needed to.
I had just about forgotten about this “schizophrenic” episode until early this morning. I was on the phone, like a teenager, talking into the wee hours of the morning when the person on the other end said, “Damn, what did I do to deserve the ‘corporate voice?'” I hadn’t even realized that I’d slipped into “work speak.” At first I was a little embarrassed. I take pride in being able to switch it up at the drop of a dime. But this had been unintentional. Then I felt stupid for being embarrassed. Why should I be embarrassed that I have a firm grasp of the King’s English? That is after all what my parents taught me. That is after all what helped make me a “success,” right? So here’s to being black, successful and “schizophrenic” in America.