‘You Need to Leave Now, Ma’am’

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Image: Martin León Barreto for The Chronicle

By Carlyn Ferrari 

When I entered the job market, in 2017, I was mistaken for a prostitute.

I had one interview scheduled at the Modern Language Association conference held in New York City that year. I paired my good-luck Calvin Klein dress with patterned black stockings and high-heeled Mary Janes. I decided I would wear this dress to every interview. It’s black, knee-length, belted. It’s plain and unassuming, but it fits like it was made for my body, and it makes me feel good.

I arrived at the hotel 45 minutes before my interview. The lobby was empty. I felt relieved. I must be the first candidate today, I thought. The search committee will remember me.

I informed the individuals at the reception desk about my interview, and asked whether there was a separate waiting area.

“No,” they told me, and pointed to the lobby.

I sat down at a table, fixed my dress.

Then I took out my journal.

Before each interview, I practiced a self-care ritual. I am enough. I am enough. I would write this over and over until the piece of paper looked like a collection of furious scribbles. Impostor syndrome had grabbed hold of me during my days as a first-generation college student and never let go.

The hotel staff was carefully watching me.

They wanted me to know this.

As a Black woman, I know the difference between friendly customer service and surveillance. As I sat in the lobby performing my ritual, I was continually interrupted by hotel employees. By the third Ma’am let us know if we can help you with anything, I knew I needed to explain my presence and answer the implicit question that wasn’t being asked: What are you doing here? You don’t belong. Every time, I said, “I have an interview at 10. There isn’t any seating outside of the hotel room, so I’m sitting here, if that’s OK.” And every time I said this, I received a fake smile and an incredulous look.

Five minutes before the interview, I made my way to the hotel room. I don’t remember the details of the conversation, but I vividly remember a committee member saying, “You probably didn’t get any literary training in your department.” I was earning my degree from an Afro American studies department. My dissertation was about a New Negro Renaissance poet. I didn’t know what was being asked. I still don’t. What, exactly, is “literary training” anyway?

The interview ended. I walked to the elevator feeling relieved. I called my partner to pick me up and sat down at a table in the still-vacant lobby.

I suddenly found myself flanked by a security guard.

He began to interrogate me. “Do you have a room here, ma’am? What is your room number? This lobby is for guests only, so if you don’t have a room here, you need to leave now.”

I was terrified.

I said that I had just come from an interview.

Indifferent, he repeated his initial command: “I’ll give you a few moments to get your things together so you can leave. Now.”

He didn’t believe me.

He towered over me as I fumbled to put on my gloves and scarf.

“You need to leave now, ma’am,” he repeated.

It was the weekend of a massive snowstorm, and it was 10 degrees outside. I was dressed for an interview, not a blizzard. I wanted to tell the security guard to call the hotel room, but I feared that I would come off as “combative” or “insubordinate” to the interview committee. I could see NYPD officers outside of the hotel directing traffic, and I felt closer to being in handcuffs than in a tenure-track position.

The security guard held the front door open.

I walked outside and stood on the sidewalk ashamed, embarrassed, and freezing. I was too cold to cry, so I shivered in silence. I kept replaying the incident in my head. What did I do wrong? How long was I in the lobby — three minutes, maybe? Why was I thrown out? Days later my friend, Kelly, would say what I could not bring myself to admit: They thought you were a prostitute.

I should have emailed the members of the search committee and told them what happened. I should have, but I didn’t. I was afraid a complaint of this nature would automatically disqualify me. I was afraid of being labeled a Problem Candidate. I was afraid that they — an all-white search committee — would not believe me. Being thrown out of a hotel was bad enough. Being thrown out of a hotel and not being taken seriously was not an option.

So I remained silent.

Months later I would accept an offer from this college. I had secured a position in an abysmal academic job market and immediately after graduate school. I was the epitome of success. But I felt like I had relinquished my dignity.

Now, two years later, I’ve resigned from that job. I expected to stay until tenure. That was my plan, but it quickly changed. I love teaching, and I cannot imagine doing anything else. However, I absolutely hated being the only faculty member of color in my department. What I didn’t know while shivering on the New York City sidewalk was that those feelings of shame, rejection, and inadequacy I felt that day were actually preparing me in advance to enter the professoriate.

As an untenured Black woman, I am constantly reminded of the ways I don’t fit, whether it’s a colleague questioning my academic training or being the “voice of diversity” in faculty meetings.

I was hired to teach African American literature. But the real work was making everyone around me comfortable with my Blackness — relinquishing my own comfort in the process.

I learned to present a highly curated version of myself. I smiled. I made small talk. I exchanged pleasantries. I suppressed the urge to remind colleagues of my expertise during meetings, knowing that my tone or dissenting opinion would be perceived as angry, intimidating — or worse — insubordinate.

I listened as my first-generation students and students of color cried in my office and talked about how they felt they didn’t belong. Though it broke my heart, I treasured these visits. I had more in common with these students than my colleagues. Like me, they were brought in to “diversify” the campus. They had no support and neither did I. Every time they spoke their truth, I felt like a fraud for hiding mine.

I couldn’t openly talk about the racism I experienced in the classroom from students who expressed that they didn’t want to read only Black authors. These were conversations reserved for my few colleagues of color. We would trade “war stories” over cocktails, masking our shared pain with laughter. These moments were also informal mentoring sessions. The tenure advice they gave me was foreboding and spelled inevitable doom: Find out what your white colleagues did and do twice as much. At least.

But I pretended to be OK. Always. I had to. There was no other option.

I thought I was prepared for the onslaught of institutional whiteness. I read the books, the articles, and I have some of the best scholars in the field as my mentors who told me how hard it would be. But I know now that there is no adequate preparation. It is a profoundly isolating experience that left me questioning my self-worth daily.

Most days, I’d decide which meeting to attend by asking myself, Do I want to be the only Black person in that room?

None of my colleagues were surprised when I told them I was resigning. Instead, almost all of them said, “I’m so happy for you.” They knew I was suffering, and they acknowledged how hard it is for people of color, especially Black women. When I told my chair, she responded with a flat “OK,” and our conversation was over after four minutes. She proved to me something during those few minutes though: that she couldn’t care less if I left.

I know I made the right decision. But a part of me feels like I started something I simply could not finish. I failed.

This fall I started a new position. I’m on the West Coast, closer to my family, at an institution where I have colleagues of color in my department. This is all true. But I also left because I had to.

Carlyn Ferrari is an assistant professor of English at Seattle University.

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