When “Small Talk “Isn’t So Small: Unpacking Power and Privilege When You Say “Hello”

A friend of mine was on a flight from New York City to London for business. He sat next to a white man and they engaged in a small talk and talk that was a little bit bigger than “small talk.” They talked enough to figure out that they liked each other.

After a while, the white man asked my friend, Shim, where he was from. When Shim, half-Ghanaian and half-Chinese, told him that was African, the white man stopped speaking with him immediately.

Shim never found out why the hot-then-cold flight buddy rejected him, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to speculate that the white man did not like Africans, despite making an organic connection with the individual.

That story had me thinking about what really happens when two strangers introduce themselves in a business setting: what are the explicit and implicit messages, markers, and signals that influence our assessment of the other person’s worthiness or concept on normalcy? What makes one person decide that the person in front of them is worthy of their time or in the case of business, their money? Is it religion, pedigree, fashion sense, occupation, sexuality, or political party affiliation? And how do we feel and respond when those that we met are not who we expect them to be based on our own biases, assumptions, and expectations?

In particular, I started thinking about small talk between black women in the professional setting. I have noticed that it doesn’t take long before we are having conversations that move from the professional to the personal. After a few exchanges of what we do, I have noticed that we pivot to discussions around black men, marriage, finding love, and church. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with these topics, conversations like these remind me that many of us walk, even in the professional setting, in the assumption that every black woman that we encounter is heterosexual, is Christian and is exclusively interested in finding and sharing their lives with black men. Conversations that include, “How was your Easter?, “You know how it is for us single black woman out here?” , “Pray on it,” or “Look at all of these fine men up in here” are not uncommon.

And as a black woman that lives on the margins of this seemingly light and innocuous conversations because I am not Christian, I feel slightly uncomfortable when I share that I don’t read the Bible and that Easter and Christmas are not major events in my life. And to be honest, depending on how I feel, I may not share this part of my identity.

These types of conversations also make me aware of my own privilege in these conversations because I am married to a black man. No one is going to give me a side eye when I talk about how we met. In fact, I am often encouraged to share my advice and insight about our love.

But what about our black queer atheists sisters, our Muslim transgender divas in search of love, and our sistergirls that love the swirl that practice Santeria? How can we make sure that our introductions are not simultaneously exclusions?

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