In high school, we had a house mistress that many students disliked. As unruly high school seniors, we were bent on frustrating her by breaking the rules, such as not returning to the hostel by the required time, making noise or moving around excessively during siesta, and more. One of the final straws was when this house mistress’ room was “mysteriously” flooded. If you think hell is hot, try being a house mistress to a bunch of raging high school seniors. Eventually, the news broke that the house mistress had resigned from the job and packed her things.
I vividly remember the day she was leaving. She waited in the sick bay, and I stopped by. We talked briefly, and she told me that she thought I was one of the “good students” and that I should continue being good. I thanked her for all she did for us within her capacity and wished her farewell. In the following days, the guilt that ravished me wasn’t tiny. While I wasn’t actively participating in the antics to torture her out of her job, I was fully aware of most of my peers' plans. The part that ate me up the most was that because of my introverted nature, she didn’t think I was one of the “bad students.” Unfortunately, this won’t be the first, and neither would it be the last when someone would look at me or observe me and make an untrue assumption.
A couple of months after I first relocated to the United States, I posted a picture on Facebook wearing a wine top and black skirt for a church’s youth event. An extended family member took it upon themselves to parent me and advised me to “take it slow” because my appearance must have suggested that I started disregarding any home training I was brought up with. Of course, I ignored the comment, but I wanted to remind this person of their children, who were the clear black sheep among us.
Co-founding my company, SprinNG, at the age of 18, I heard a lot of “wow, you don’t look like it” and “you’re definitely young” or “you’ve accomplished so much at a young age.” While on the surface, these are perfect complements, and even I would say them to myself, I quickly learned to put my age in my back pocket so that people would take me seriously. At some point, I stopped posting on birthdays. I ensured no indication of my age or birthday was anywhere accessible to people outside my immediate circle because I wanted people to take me seriously when I talked about projects and collaborations.
I remember after transferring to NYU, there was an event where I had to read one of my pieces. Someone else read my biography before I walked up the stage. However, as I walked up to the stage at the aisle on the far right of the room, most people looked back to see who owned the biography. It was another “you don’t look like it” moment.
Oh, I have also heard the suggestion to “put on some make-up” to look more “grown.” Recently, I posted on WhatsApp that I noticed people treated me a little more respectfully and as privileged when I wore make-up. I thought I was in my head until I tested it out in a context where I would meet the same people consecutively for two weeks. One week, I wore make-up, and the other week, I didn’t. When I posted about this on WhatsApp, other females responded they experienced the same thing. My biggest annoyance was that men didn’t need to do anything other than shirts, pants, shoes, and combing their hair to show up. Still, women are held to these unrealistic presentation standards to be considered professional.
On make-up. In my early teens, I wanted to look grown and would put on make-up, paint my nails, and tell the tailor to slim-fit my clothes, leaving only space to swallow one breath at a time. But as acne ravished my face and confidence one cell at a time, I gave all that up. The outspoken acne on my face and freckles did enough to call attention to my face. If anything, I was trying to tone down the unsolicited advice I received here and there by only wearing my $2 lip gloss.
Three or four times in the past couple of months, some people I encountered professionally passed a similar comment about not looking like I have the experience they are looking for. Despite having done the same work for over 6 years and having tremendous success, such as helping students secure over $1M in scholarships with my business writing and coaching skills, I didn’t look like a qualified professional. While I am grateful enough to have support to thrive out of these situations, it stings and sticks.
While I am currently doing my Masters in Creative Writing, it often surprises people when I say I have no desire to use that degree professionally. I am at that point where I have lost or disassociated with all the enthusiastic reasons one pursues this degree. I console myself by saying I am doing it for a while until I care about figuring out whatever I should be doing in the following years of my life. However, I’ll tell you this… ideally, people with such degrees end up working in the publishing industry. After interning at three top book publishing companies in the United States, I realized that wasn’t my dream, mainly because of the lack of diversity.
You may think it counter-intuitive, but reflecting on the times that I would be in a room with other people within the industry and get lost in counting the number of black people in the room because I felt like an imposter made me lose my desire even to want to be there at all. In a country where many companies are trying to “look” diverse, but several levels and situations prove the discriminations preventing such and hindering inclusivity, I have unburdened myself of the responsibility to be the poster black employee.
As an introvert and polymath, I have mastered the art of not looking like what the 10 characters in my head think. I often let people get away with what they assume I am, for example, in relationships. Except if I am comfortable with someone, I put the slightest effort into revealing myself. But when I get comfortable and allow people to know me outside my shell, I wouldn’t even need to say much before they can tell what I am thinking. People assume from my introverted nature that I am coy, shy, and gentle, but I am also highly mischievous and naughty in thought and deed, as my nuclear family and close friends can testify.
The other day, I took down my poems after overthinking something someone said over 2 months ago. The person claimed they had “researched me” and didn’t think I could assist them in a context where I was. I tried to be a big girl, but it broke my spirit. While my goal for writing sarcastic or satirical poems has been to expand the community of people with access to poetry, I couldn’t help but wonder if this person thought I was a clown who didn’t know how to write a good business document. It took me down memory lane of a classmate who was shocked that English is my first language as a Nigerian.
In the fall of 2017, I read a life-changing book titled “Asking the Right Questions: A Guide to Critical Thinking” by Neil Browne and Stuart Keeley. It was my first semester at NYU, and I was taking a critical thinking class. In that class, we discussed assumptions, fallacies, and the right questions to ask. We learned to admit when we didn’t know something, step back when we made assumptions, and seek out the truth about people or situations. I learned not to immediately or emotionally react to buzzing headlines and just dwell in the wonder of what I don’t know in any context. So, even while my mind creates all these assumptions and meanings about what the speakers of these situations could have intended, one part of me undermines every repeating situation and says, “It’s just me. It is just my silly brain overthinking everything.” But is that true?
It is natural to make assumptions to protect ourselves. No one is above it, and no human being can ever fully be a saint of this sinful nature. Let me prove this to you. When you’re about to board a bus and do a quick scan to decide where you should sit, what you think is just a simple choice, many times, isn’t. Even if you don’t consciously assume and judge people based on appearance, your unconscious is scanning the bus for who looks like they could be smelling or could steal from us.
Even on mental health, I remember when Cheslie Kryst passed away; I heard most people say she didn’t look like she was unhappy. On the contrary, she looked beautiful and at a prime of her life. Watching some of her videos on YouTube, I desperately tried to search for any point, moment, or glimpse of when she could have indicated dissatisfaction about existing in this world. Likewise, when Osinachi Nwachukwu passed away from an alleged domestic violence issue, people said the way she worshiped God fervently and sang Ekwueme didn’t make it seem like anything was wrong.
Every other year, a new blogger announces Lagbaja’s “Shocking Face” under the mask. Google it – “Lagabja’s Face” and you too will see. No one even knows what the dude has been up to recently, and so many times, I wish he could just drop something new for us, his musical peasants, but I digress.
In the past 5 years, I have met two people with little to no digital footprints. While I have always been fascinated by their choices and persuaded them to at least put something on LinkedIn, I get it these days. In an age of digital media and a craze for fame, one of the most unspoken privileges is for someone not to hold a power of assumption or inaccurate knowledge over you. I get it now, and as much as I can try to disappear here and there when someone talks to me or about me inaccurately, it is not the same.
Lagbaja, these days I too want to hide. And I just really wish people would pause to wonder and ask questions rather than falsely assume they know who I am or what I am capable of.