As I walked home, I thought back to a conversation I had a few years ago with a man who I consider to be a colleague and a potential friend. He is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. I’m not quite sure why my mind went back so many years but the memory came back vividly. My colleague shared with me that an email I had written him made him uncomfortable. And so, he wanted to ensure that the parameters of our relationship were clear and that I was not seeking to work with him in order to get close to him. I was initially surprised and the more I thought about it insulted. Of course I searched through my sent files and re-read every email I ever sent to this man. I finally came to one that I guessed was the culprit- a line that stated, “Can you bring some sunshine into my life please.” It is very clear how this could be misinterpreted. But here is the issue: At that time, I lived in a city that went without sunshine for about seven months out of the year. Winters were extremely long and when it was still dark and cold in April everyone was miserable. So each “spring,” I would usually go on a rant about the weather and had mentioned this weather in a few other emails that I sent to him. I wrote this email meaning the sun in the sky not the philosophical light in my personal life.
No doubt, I understood why he would feel compelled to have the conversation and why it is so easy for any man to misinterpret kindness for flirtation. But still, I was insulted. Professionally insulted because of the underlying insinuation embedded in his comments-that I would use the work to which I am so deeply committed as a venue to spend time with a man. Insulted because I am the type of woman, the type of person, that works hard to treat the professional men with whom I work with the same respect that women demand in the workplace. Inappropriate behavior and sexual disrespect goes both ways. I am conscious of the fact that many outstanding, attractive, and successful men are inappropriately approached and propositioned. And so I am very careful to ensure that my interactions with men are always respectful. But at the same time, I don’t want to compromise being kind, playful, caring, and nurturing through both my work and with the people with whom I work. I want to be free to just be me rather than being made to become a cold, distant, formal, and inexpressive person. And so as I left the park that day, I found myself thinking about that little boy and girl on the playground and wishing I was back there again in my own life. What happened to good, honest, and platonic friendship? Somewhere between the playground, the classroom, and the boardroom it all gets so fuzzy. And it is disheartening.
I think that I was also insulted because the very idea that I was being forward or inappropriate goes against my personal principles as a woman. I am a Southern woman. I was raised in South Carolina for the first 21 years of my life. And there are some southern values, really human values, of which I refuse to let go. As old and traditional as it may be, I believe in a man approaching a woman and so I am the type of woman that does not throw herself at men. I believe in courting, and so for me, attraction comes through knowing a person not just being around them. But most importantly, I believe in the spirit of community and familial love. I am traditionally southern in that I embrace the idea of being open and honest with your feelings, of being refreshingly naïve in a way that allows you to give a brother a beautiful compliment, smile, hug, and love without fearing that he will think that you are propositioning him, disrespecting his marriage, or hoping for anything more than a simple thank you. In the adult years that I have spent growing as a woman outside of the South, I have found it extremely difficult to just be kind to a male friend without that being misinterpreted as flirtation or a sexual advance. Yes, many women can be very aggressive, flirtatious, and some even down right inappropriate in the ways in which they interact with men. But it seems that this unfairly becomes the prejudice of all women particularly among colleagues…to share kind words, to acknowledge a man’s genius, to be nurturing and caring through a hug, to even suggest breaking bread together or sharing a cup of coffee is interpreted as an interest in something more intimate. We can’t even play together anymore much less build a healthy ethic of community.
This worries me, particularly in a society that does so little to love black men on a daily basis. Because of old, patriarchal ideologies governing parenting and in an effort to groom “manliness,” young boys are not nurtured, hugged, and affectionately spoiled enough. And black men are unloved by so many institutions in American society-the judicial system, the educational system, the political system, and the list goes on. So I have taken a stand as a woman to do all I can to be guided by an ethic of love in my interactions with all of the men in my life-both personal and professional. I want to be able to freely tell a friend that I think he is an incredible man without him interpreting that statement as, “Can we sleep together.” I want to be able to hug a colleague without others supposing that something inappropriate might be going on between us. I want men to be able to have a wider view of love that allows them to see that women can love them in many more ways than just romantically. I want to be a true sister to all of the brothers in my life, partly because I never had a brother of my own.
We are all familiar with the old saying that all is fair in love and war. This informal but very popular edict means that people in love and soldiers in wartime are not bound by the rules of fair play. To me, this gets at the core of what’s straining our healthy development of all types of relationships. There is so much inappropriate, unfair, and dishonest behavior going on that it clouds our ability to even recognize goodhearted kindness when it is staring us in the face-even on a computer screen. But I am holding on-trying my best to transcend the battles between the sexes. And I am going to continue to show and express my love, appreciation, and admiration for all of the men in my life including the brother that expressed his concern. I just hope that one day those men can feel comfortable loving me back as a community sister and a friend. Because, yes, women also need love, hugs, and care from everyone in their life and in every space that they occupy-the bedroom, the boardroom, the neighborhood, and the playground.