The Smiling Face

The Smiling Face

THE SMILING FACE – June 8, 2020

As I examine my part in this dysfunctional system, some unsettling memories and patterns surface for healing and change within me.

Taking inventory of systemic/institutional racism and the cost of my complacency to white supremacy… how little murders against my worth snowball to shut down potential and retard mobility. Let me share a painful set of memories.

19 years old, new to my first apartment of my very own, in an eclectic 1920’s art deco apartments in Beach Park. The run-down building was in dire need of care but I didn’t realize it. I had my own space to create in. Just a year prior I had moved out my parent’s home with just $100 to my name. The cult community I was raised in threatened complete shunning if I moved out of m father’s house and/or went to college. I had to claim my life, so I left and was terrified but excited to see what was next (kind of like now)

There where 10 apartments in the building just behind Mons Venus. Every neighbor was a stripper by trade. Those girls were sweet and protective of my innocence. Together we worked to create a little sanctuary on North A Street.

With my 4.2 high school GPA, I landed a “legit” job interview within walking distance. A sound and vision communication firm that produced mega conferences for corporate meetings (think Dwight Scrute speech Dunder Mifflin). The advertised job was for a receptionist, $8-10/hr, no benefits.

I walked in to their business, a beautiful 100yr old converted house w wooden floors and a border collie running around. It was like nothing I had ever seen in Tampa; not a stuffy office but a place of creativity and art direction.

During my interview I was complimented on how articulate I am and they were impressed by my computer skill. It was clear my presence could lend a edgy flare to this South Tampa office in 1997. They offered me the position at $8.50 an hour. I asked for $10 as advertised but they said it was for college graduates despite not mentioning that criteria in the ad.They pitched a creative place to be apart of cutting edge production. I’d have time to study for my courses at HCC and no cubilcles! I would be the smiling face of the company.

I accepted because I could see a future for myself if I worked hard; a goal of becoming a production assistant or graphic artist and one day having a creative agency of my own. I threw myself into learning show processes, industry lingo, started teaching myself adobe photoshop, the new software on the market. I’d recreate logos and animations in my spare time to demonstrate my growing skill.

The owner often commented what a genius I am. I can teach myself anything. Still the main focus of my work was making sure the coffee was piping hot, the dog was walked, and the kitchen clean.

About a month in, the head lady was complaining about the cleaning crew. As an innovative eager youngin, I suggested an idea that would prove to tank any meaningful future w the firm… I suggested I clean on the weekends. I had done it before to make money and the extra income would bridge the gap to the $10 an hour I needed to pay for my apartment.

Instead of make my life easier, I solidified my position as the Help. Any initiative I showed to learning the business was resented. My job was to be the smiling face. The little murders started: I wore my natural curly hair to work and the sales guy said “huh! THATs interesting”… he later came by my desk to ask that I brush (straighten) my hair because clients stop by. I was left out of staff meetings about upcoming shows, my only task to cater them w Wright’s deli sandwiches and be sure to clean up after. I of course could eat whatever was left over. The border collie starting coming in w diapers on. I learned she was in heat when I was asked to change her prior to a walk. Humiliated, I refused. Everyday felt like a battle to prove I had worth beyond an eager, ego-boosting smile and a cheerful clean-up.

My work started to suffer. I was late 5, 10 , 15 minutes. I wouldn’t eat all day long, only drinking the piping hot coffee. Getting thinner seemed to ease criticism. I stopped creating and often just stared out into space or snuck a nap when everyone was out at a show. I completely checked out after the hiring of intern. Paid $10 an hour, a young all American from Plant highschool w a 3.4 GPA who was included in all the meetings.

Soon after I came in on Sunday to clean per usual. Somehow I nudged the natural gas dial in the fireplace while dusting. On Monday the head lady came in to a house filled w gas, a ticking time bomb. I was fired immediately.

I should have been more careful. Maybe things would have worked out in my favor had I applied myself harder, in a few years maybe I would have been given an opportunity to use my gifts. After all, I was “given an opportunity” as folks love to say. I was trying to pull myself up by my bootstraps.

What I’m realizing now as I reflect is how much that experience stayed with me. The idea that my way into a fulfilling career projection was to settle for being the smiling face and work my way up. To get my foot in the door doing what I could do in my sleep and volunteer as much as I could to prove myself worthy of getting compensated for my gifts, at a painfully slow rate.

I’ve put myself through private university, generated work opportunities in six countries, have over 20 years management experience, helped over 160 local start ups marketing their business over the course of 25 years, AND STILL, I default to being the smiling face so I don’t offend or come across uppity.

I’m not saying this is entirely due to institutionalized racism constantly eager to put me in my place… but there is an implied comfort level for a fat black woman in the south – the caretaker and smiler. I know folks like Oprah have at a young age said hell no, I’m not taking this I’m forging my own road. I don’t know why I did not have that strength, why I internalized my anger, why I would settle and work 4 jobs so I could create opportunities unavailable in conventional routes accessible to me.
 
I don’t know what gives Oprah, Beyonce, Shonda, courage to blow the lid off limits and own the powerhouses that they are. But I’m running out of characters, I’m 42 turn and it’s time to fuck shit up.
 
Let’s go!

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