JTP’s Side Eye Symposium

JTP’S Side Eye Symposium: “Wait, How Old Are You”?

Yesterday, the Daily Post posed a question, “What question do you hate to be asked? Why?” It really wasn’t hard for me to access one… the question that grates my ears each time it passes: “Wait… how old are you? Can I ask how old you are?” I mean this question gets a “You just tried it but I still have to be composed”, First Lady Chantal Biya level side eye from me.

Image Credit: http://awesomelyluvvie.com

It’s not so much the question, per se. It’s how the question is asked, specifically because this question is asked in situations where I’m meeting someone new, and I’ve talked about where I’ve studied, or the work that I do, areas of interest, or really any other thing that they feel doesn’t match how old I look. I have been asked this question by professionals, pastors, artists, entertainers, parents, clients, students, strangers, and more. My usual response is, “I’m a busy millennial,” or, “I’m not as young as I look – I’m just youthfully effervescent”. Yet inside, you’d better believe I’m cringing.

In an article for the Student Affairs Collective, I talked about this question in depth, citing the ways that young professionals have to manage their image through the use of either verbal or nonverbal cues (Leary & Kowalski, 1990). Yet, to talk about image management without really unpacking the question doesn’t really gave the full picture. There are a lot of assumptions hiding behind questions about our age in the workplace, especially those asked in public settings. As stated in that article, they include:

  • Assumptions about how competent and capable younger professionals are or should be
  • Assumptions about work / life balance being easier to obtain, the younger that you look
  • Assumptions that age = experience, credentials, and / or lack thereof
  • Assumptions that you may be “out of your depth”

All in all, what lurks behind that question, in professional settings are the slight hints of ageism, based on someone’s perception of age. This is why the question makes me cringe. In my experience, more often than not, it is condescending. It shows that you assume credentials (or receipts as I like to call them) are directly tied to the perceived age of someone. This is problematic for me, specifically because, let’s be honest… I’ve looked about 17 for the past 10 years or so.

Oh, make no mistake, the question is nerve-sy (as my Gramma says). Because there is a certain age bracket when that question fades away, when it might seem incomprehensible to even ask. But it is one that many millennial professionals hear quite often.

My response to the question, “Wait…how old are you,” varies, considering who might be asking it, why, and when they might be asking. When I was asked at an important conference, I’ve simply responded with, “I’m not sure what makes that relevant to the presentation / session”. If it is a student, I simply pose more questions to try to clarify their purpose in asking. If it is relevant to something that we are discussing, then I share my age. But most times, I give a (slightly shade-filled) smile and speak my truth: “I don’t tell my age”.

Sure, there are ways that young professionals manage their professional image and identity, and this varies for each person. I always keep a resume on hand, along with a few business cards. I tend to dress a bit more formally on days where I’m meeting with important stakeholders or while attending conferences. Some would contend, “That’s just best practice,” and I would be inclined to agree with them. Yet there are also those who understand that some professional image management is going on at the same time.

One of the commenters asked a very interesting question under that initial article, stating:

…I struggle with the balance of appearing/ seeming older (either with props or just giving my confidence/ attitude a super boost), but also remaining authentically myself. Any suggestions as to how to manage those two things simultaneously?

And I knew that I could communicate a more contextualized and nuanced answer in this space (cuz it’s mine. Ha)!

Yesterday, I was at brunch chatting with my friend T.J.* and we started talking about navigating the perceptions / stereotypes of young, professional women of color in professional spaces. She expounded on some of tools that she uses as a millenial woman of color, educator, & PhD candidate. For example, we talked about dressing more formally for business meetings and teaching sessions, bringing documentation or research that would assert our professional critiques, wearing a name badge that connected us to the institution,  etc. However, it was what she said at the end of our conversation that really stuck with me, “Other people may not have to use these same tools as me, and I usually encourage them to reflect in those instances to see if there is any type of (race, class, socioeconomic, age) privilege attached to that. But individually, I make sure to never compromise my soul. I can get dressed up to teach; that doesn’t compromise my soul. But there are other types of image management that I just won’t do – that compromise my soul. It’s different for everyone”. I think T.J.’s advice applies in these cases. It is the same advice that I give people who ask, “Should I change my hair for the interview space? Should I engage in a certain type of image management?” The answer to that lies in the question, “Does that compromise your soul?”

In addition, though I am not comfortable with someone asking me how old I am, I am also not interested in “looking older”, per se. I am interested in communicating my professional identity in a comprehensive way both verbally and nonverbally, as it is appropriate. This can be done with or (hopefully) without being asked how old I am. This is much like when I am attending an arts festival and I’m done up in all kinds of eclectic jewelry, accessories, hairstyles, etc. that communicate my artistic identity / expression. Neither one of these modes are inauthentic and neither one of them require me to compromise my soul.

So, to those ends, there are some image management practices that I’m just done with – they require too much shape-shifting and at the end of the process my authentic self feels hidden. There are some image management practices that I just refuse to engage in (like answering the question, “Wait, how old are you?). For each individual, figuring out whether to engage in image management or not is a process that requires you to remember your personal values. In addition, calling attention to problematic questions about identity and perception takes finesse, self awareness, and self advocacy. (Because there are those times where you have to say, “That question is neither relevant nor appropriate…” – and it makes all the difference if you know when).

Further Reading & Sources:
Leary, M. R., & Kowalski, R. M. (1990). Impression management: A literature review and two-component model. Psychological bulletin, 107(1), 34.

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JTP’S Side Eye Symposium: “Wait, How Old Are You”? by Jade T. Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

JTP’s Side Eye Symposium: Intro & the Grammy’s

Let me just be honest & say that I can’t remember the last time that I sat down to watch an entire Grammy’s show. Typically, I just wait until all the social media commentaries and clips come out and that is precisely what I did this year. But the events from this year are making me move forward with something that has been on my heart… JTP’s side eye symposium. There are so many things that warrant the side eye in life, and I’m here to talk about mine.

But first, some context: Tracey Michae’l, contributer at ForHarriet.com, wrote a hilarious piece on the definition & phenomenon of the side eye. She explains, “In situations where we might feel silenced (or have chosen to silence ourselves) for whatever reason, in those all too frequent moments when we feel like we are drowning in micro-aggressions and plain out foolishness, it’s our way of saying, “Oh so you just going to say/do that?” or “Okay, I see you,” or simply, “Stop.”

There are some absolutely wonderful versions of the side eye out there, but my absolute favorite side eyes tend to come from Prince. Here’s his latest:


Prince’s Epic Side Eye,
Image Credit: http://www.theroot.com/blogs/the_grapevine/2015/02/how_one_photo_of_prince_perfectly_summed_up_the_grammys.html

Again… I’m taking notes:

So, in my side eye symposium series, I will cover the various events, happenings, etc. that I think would warrant a fictional session in my side eye symposium. The level of side eye that I give to each event will typically be ranked from Level 1  to Level Prince (aka 5).

There are a lot of commentaries on why the Grammy’s were problematic this year, so I won’t rehash those. Today, I’m focusing on a few of the nuanced events that happened surrounding this year’s Grammy award show that I am incorporating as a session in the symposium.

Yesterday, I read an article about India Arie’s experience with Lady Gaga’s security guard. According to the source (and India.Arie’s tweets), India Arie was reaching out to greet Lady Gaga, but was “swatted on the hand” and “touched aggressively” by her security guard. India.Arie navigated this exchange with lots of grace, online, explaining that her sole issue was with being touched by that security guard (here I will add aggressively and without consent, but those are my words).

After posting the source article via my personal social media page, I witnessed the most amazing case of man’splaining I’ve heard in quite some time. The general sentiment was that the security guard was just doing his job, and though he may have been too aggressive, this type of behavior was within the constraints of his job. I had to put my ear to the computer to check because that explanation sounded like something I wasn’t here for…

So today, I’m giving a Level 4 Side Eye for the actions of Gaga’s Security Guard & the by-proxy explanations of his action. Here’s why:

  • Far too often, we see this societal pattern and belief that keeping a woman in check physically is normal and within the constraints of some acceptable end (u.e. getting the job done). It’s inappropriate and far too often, a verbal discourse would be sufficient in the conflict resolution process.
  • The notion from the mansplainations that Gaga’s body was not to be touched, while India Arie’s body was allowed / acceptable to be touched aggressively and swatted is incredibly problematic. When I look closely at that notion, and those who are apt to defend the bodyguard’s actions, I can’t help but to see the undervaluing of the body of a woman of color. As India.Arie vented on Twitter, it did not take long for people to begin with their arguments. Meanwhile, that experience was her experience. She was explaining it from her point of view, and a corporate group took to social media to say (in so many words), “Nope, your experience is invalid… he was just doing his job”.

This one is a bit stickier for me because it involves four artists / musicians / entertainers that I respect for their body of work. Those entertainers are Ledisi, John Legend, Common, & Beyonce. If you haven’t heard already, Ledisi is the artist that played famed gospel artist & singer Mahalia Jackson, in Ava DuVernay’s latest movie, “Selma”. There is a scene in which Ledisi, in character, absolutely sings the snot out of the hymn, Precious Lord. In this year’s Grammy show, however, artistic rendering of that song was given to Beyonce, as per her request. I will let you draw your own conclusions on the performance.

Of course, media outlets showed feedback and further insights about the performance from both singers, as the flames of controversy grew. Radio shows and news outlets asked the question of whether or not Ledisi had been “snubbed”. Beyonce’s team produced a mini-doc explaining her creative process, while Ledisi shared her thoughts with ET. (Ledisi for the win on her comments!)

So, let’s dial back and then I’ll give out my side eye. How did Beyonce get this gig in the first place, if Ledisi was the one who sang it in the recent movie, Selma? She asked. According to sources, John Legend explained that “You don’t really say no to Beyonce if she asks to perform with you.” My heart was sad… because I love John Legend. I love his activism and philanthropic work, and there’s no denying his musical talents, as well. I also love Common and his socially conscious rap and acting pursuits. But in this particular moment, I gave them both a loving level 1 side eye (it broke my heart, too). Why?

Because there are some real implications when you say that you could not say no to Beyonce, even if it was at the expense of Ledisi… a colleague in the very movie that you worked on. Ledisi never received the implicit no. So, what made it so easy to say no to Ledisi in the Grammy’s format, after her being cast to sing this song in Selma? And why aren’t people talking about this while fixating on dualistic Beyonce versus Ledisi rants?! Something about the notion of crafting media narratives that pit two women artists against each other sounds alarmingly like…something I’m not here for.

When we peel back those layers, we also understand that neither Legend nor Common are the final decision makers of who gets to be on the Grammy platform. So I’m giving Grammy board members, execs, (‘n nem) a level 4 side eye. I’m not sure why we are equating levels of celebrity to technique within a specific genre of music. When I initially heard the story, I was not sure if there was colorism going on, to be perfectly honest. I’m not sure if this is another way that popular media outlets and big-time-peer-reviewed spaces are keeping DuVernay’s work and interpretations out of the spaces that need it most. For these reasons, they get the level 4 side-eye. I’m passing them out pretty liberally today.

Note: I am accepting submissions for bloggers who want to host a session in the JTP Side Eye Symposium! Contact me & let’s chat about it!