I just had an interesting encounter. Sitting in the campus coffee shop at Duke University, where I teach part-time, a woman approached me.
“Are you a graduate student?” she asked.
“Actually, I’m a professor,” I replied.
“Oh! What department?”
“What class do you teach?”
“Wow! That must be explosive.”
“It’s quite enjoyable. I’ve just come from there.” Indeed, I was still unpacking my computer.
“Well, I’m from the Caribbean and you want to know what I think of black men in America?” I nodded and she proceeded to gesture from the tabletop to the floor.
“I’m not sure what that means,” I said.
She clarified by giving a thumbs-down sign. I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
“Really?” I finally said, hoping the lift in my voice would encourage her to say more.
“Black men in America are no good. Every now and then you find a good one here or there. But most of them are no good.”
I wondered whether I should tell her about my husband, my brothers, my brothers-in-law, my cousins, my uncles, etc. – all the good black men in my life. I was tempted to invite the young brother at the next table to join our conversation. I wished that some of my students were around.
She continued. “Then again, I’m not a feminist. Are you a feminist?”
“Yes, I am.”
She gave me that look, the one that sisters use – no matter if they’re from U.S., the Caribbean, or Africa – when we’re sizing you up. She announced that she was going outside to smoke. But as she turned to walk away, something caught her eye – the gleam from the ring finger on my left hand.
“You’re married?!” she asked incredulously.
“Yes I am,” I said.
“And you’re a feminist?!”
“Absolutely. They are not mutually exclusive.” I found it ironic that the woman with such a dismal view of black men was surprised to discover that a feminist liked men.
She went outside for a few minutes. Coming back in, she grabbed a chair and pulled it up to the table.
“Are you religious?” she asked.
“Yes, I’m a Christian. In fact, I’m a minister and I teach at Shaw Divinity School.”
Her mouth fell open. We talked for nearly an hour before exchanging telephone numbers and promising to keep in touch.
Ironically, my class today was about the way in which our imaginations are shaped by popular culture such that we hold judgments about each other based upon what we think we know. Many of us walk around with scripts in our head that tell us what to expect from other people based upon a label. Black man = no good. Feminist = hates men. Christian = not feminist. These are a few that my conversation partner seemed to hold at the beginning of our encounter.
With rare exceptions, most of us have some sort of script in our head. And for those in the United States, these scripts are heavily tainted by the legacies of racism and sexism. And these scripts, in turn, poison our romantic relationships. They are the walls that box us in. They limit our imaginations in terms of who we see as romantic partners, how we function in relationships, and how we expect our partners to function. And quite often, they prevent us from seeing the truth about ourselves.
People are usually more complicated than labels. At the risk of sounding cliché, it’s time to think outside the box.