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Thursday, September 25, 2014

On Race: Coming to Terms with My Kelsey Problem

Hi, my name is Kelsey! We haven't met, yet, or maybe we have. Maybe you've seen me at Starbucks ahead of you and ordering three skinny pumpkin spice lattes and two iced mocha decafs while pulling my wet hair into a messy low-pony on that day you were running late for your 8:00am conference call. Sorry about that, but I had to grab some caffeine courage for my office biotches, you know! Hey, and super sorry about the maj coffee spillage that happened when my friend texted me about her bangs emergency and I attempted to hold my iPhone to read the text and then tried to reply to the text while balancing those two coffee trays. I felt to Lena Dunham that day, you know? Oh, you don't know! Really?? She's on "Girls" on HBO! I can't believe you haven't seen it!! Well, gotta run - BYYYYYYYEEEEE!

OK, that never happened. This was a fictional conversation between a fictional character named "Kelsey" and, an unwitting player in her life's drama, a fictional character that I'll call "Shandra." It's kind've funny, but, like a "Law & Order" episode, this scene was ripped from the headlines of my life, and, perhaps the lives of others. My fictional "Kelsey" is based on the flesh and blood Kelseys I meet everyday. She is buoyant, forever smiling, chirpy, and full of pluck. She is well-coiffed, though she spends countless hours with her hands in her hair - whether pulling it back with the elastic band that she always wears on her wrist, tucking it behind her ear, or maniacally running her fingers through it and furiously scooping it all to one side or the other or straight back if she really wants to get nuts. Her nails are always buffed and polished, and when they're not, she calls attention to the fact and tells a ripping yarn about why they're not done that usually involves a weird weekend DIY project with her roommates or baking brownies. Yes, brownies - Kelseys love to bake brownies and eat brownies, though not too many. And when they are seen eating their homemade confections, the Kelsey will, undoubtedly, call attention to how massive her gut/butt is, though she's usually south of a US size 8. 

Are you rolling your eyes yet? Or, are you nodding in agreement? Maybe you're doing both, like me!

Kelseys in the workplace are especially difficult to navigate. They are hardcore people-pleasers. Need someone to manage the office birthday party celebrations? Kelsey's there, with her well worn Rachel Ray cookbook and its perfect birthday brownie recipe! Need someone to work late every night for a year without asking for overtime, a raise, or a promotion? Kesley will do it, and she'll do it with a smile. She'll even come in on weekends, wearing her favorite Ann Taylor jewel tone cardi, skinny jeans, ballet flat, and plain white JCrew t-shirt, along with her faux, oversized pearl stud earrings. And don't worry, she'll stop by Starbucks on her way in for coffees for the whole team. I mean, they have to have something decent to drink with the 4 dozen brownies she managed to bake in the hours between working until 10pm on Friday night and arriving at 9am on Saturday morning. 

Kelseys function best in groups where they can stand out, although they hate to call attention to themselves. After work, packs of Kelseys (or is it gaggles, or a murder, no, that's crows) go to the nearest watering hole where they drink shots and call their fellow Kelseys "biotches" at the top of their lungs while precariously balancing an overflowing pilsner glass as they navigate through the throngs of other Kelseys looking to get their drink on! Oh, and here's another note, Kelseys always like to get something "on" - get my laundry on, get my drink on, get my tan on, get my party on - maybe it's because a Kelsey is always "on", which is why after stopping at the bar, the Kelsey then heads to the gym for SoulCycle or some sort of fitness bootcamp. Kelseys like the camaraderie of group classes or team sports, although she'll run a half-marathon for a cause, so for all you trying desperately to recruit for the company kickball team look no further than the Kelsey in your own backyard.

So, what's my beef with the Kelseys? I guess I have to go back to my childhood and my first Kelsey. At the start of second grade, the parents made my sister and I switch to a school closer to home, which meant goodbye to the 35-minute morning commute and hello to a school down the street from us. The change of venue, though, also meant goodbye to the black teachers and classmates I'd grown to love and hello to a predominately white elementary school. All at once, I was a little, fat black girl with unreasonable hair (read: nappy), a shiny face (Grandma liked to Spackle Vaseline on my face EVERY morning), a strange smile (a gap between my front teeth which I proudly display now), and no fashion sense (c'mon, I was a fat kid in the 1970s!). And there were the Kelseys - with their cool Barbie dolls, strawberry lip gloss, perfect penmanship (complete with hearts over their "i"s), and Hello Kitty pencil cases. In the presence of the Kelseys, I felt lacking.

By undergrad, I knew how to deal in the Kelsey-rich environment of my small, southern, nearly 100% white college and I seemed to thrive. But, I could see some cracks beginning to form and the Kelsey-tolerance I thought I'd built up was starting to wane. The Kelseys were the ones going on dates, getting boyfriends and fraternity pins and engagement rings from the white boys on my campus. And me - well, when I wasn't being overlooked or mistaken for one of the dining hall or cleaning staff, I was the friend or the one those white boys wanted to take to bed, but not wed. I felt shame and anger,

After school, though, I learned that I was not alone. That there were others of us who've suffered the Kelsey Curse of feeling less than. In my first job after grad school, I tried to out-Kelsey the Kelseys, striving for perky and upbeat and positive. My white supervisors applauded me, but the black women in my office were divided with some giving me a lot of side-eye and others loving my can-do attitude, and hoping that we finally had a contender to fight the Kelsey scourge!! I was doing alright, and soon, I left for my dream job in radio, but, in a stunning twist, I found that what my new boss wanted me to BE a Kelsey. You see, somewhere I'd become confused, and had taken so much Kelsey into my bloodstream that people thought that I was a Kelsey. But, I'm not, and that's when I began to understand that my Kelsey problem was defining my life. I remember, at that time, going to a vocal coach who said that everyone who hosts their own radio or TV show has to find their voice - who they are, their point of view - and communicate that over the airwaves. It sounded so simple, unless you don't know who you are, and I didn't have a clue. 

I had only defined myself in relation to the Kelseys of the world, and now I am able to see that I am more than I thought. All of the shame and the anger and the longing to belong had become tiresome. I hate thinking about all of the time I lost in the clutches of the Kelsey haze, and even though I have some minor twinges, like when I'm watching "Top Chef" or "Food Network Star" and see another black woman contestant knocked off of her game by some fresh-faced Kelsey, I'm aware of how good life is. Not perfect, but so very good. Too good to be consumed with the cult of Kelsey. So play with your hair, drink your pumpkin-spice beverage, bake your brownies, Zumba your little heart out - I'm over it, Kelsey! 

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