Six years ago, I founded a business that designs custom training programs and exam preparation courses for Wall Street firms. Wall Street, no matter what anyone says, is still not very integrated. People respond to me in the financial markets as a black person. And as a black teacher on Wall Street, I've encountered situations where people have judged me to be unqualified to teach because I was black.
In one of the oldest firms, for example, I had a particularly distressing experience. Even though my evaluations were excellent and many students considered me the best teacher in the company, I knew I had to be perfect in order to survive. I was perfect. My grammar was perfect. My clothes were perfect. My delivery was perfect. My grooming was perfect. I knew that when students first saw my black face I had a brief window of opportunity to convince them that I was worth listening to. I had to be "Mr. Perfection" in order for them to trust me.
Only after an initial period of trust building would I work black references into my lecture: I would quote Aretha Franklin songs, or use the word "ain't" or double negatives. Gradually my students would become more comfortable with my world. But first I had to start out being esssentially a black person who looks like white people, wants what white people want, needs what white people need, and speaks in a language that white people can hear.
What I have come to learn in the financial world is that white people really want black people to act "white," and being the black Alvin Hall was becoming a problem for me. The more this particular class was responding to my style, the more the white trainer became combative. He eventually insisted that I be removed from class. He said I was using "inappropriate" language. He was so incredibly threatened that I have not been allowed to work at that company since.
No matter how integrated their communities, white people have a fairly limited threshold for blackness. Even before I start a class, I must decide whether or not I need to come across as smart or successful. Only rarely can I be both at the same time. Sometimes white people are more comfortable with a black person who is smart and struggling than with one who is smart and flourishing. The latter combination can be frightening to them.
To survive in an "integrated" world, black people must always find ways of reinventing themselves in order to make sure that white people are comfortable with them. In the course of an all-day class with new students, I often metamorphose into six or seven different people to calm their fears and insecurities: the perfect, unthreatening 1950s Negro, like Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field; the suave 1960s black matinee idol; the 1950s homemaker, the June Cleaver type who reassures my older, white male students that they are smart and in command; the Eddie Murphy character, who piques their curiosity and perks them up with jokes.
If I sense that my white students are relaxing, I can inject more of myself into the lecture. If they are uptight, I'll have to cycle through those personae, tailoring them as I go along. I want my students to reach a comfort level that allows them to accept the knowledge that I can offer them. If I was totally Alvin Hall--Alvin Hall as a black man--they would not want to learn from me. I'm sure that many of them think I go home and listen to opera at night. Little do they know that I listen to rap music, too.
For a description of similar experiences in a different educational setting, see Keith Barry's "Teaching While Black: Practicing American History at a Majority White College" (thanks Ortho!); see also Samah's explanation of demands that she deny herself amidst the white privilege of office culture, at Jamerican Muslima