Be the change you want to see in the world.
— Mahatma Gandhi
I’m in a taxi heading for 72nd Street and Madison Avenue on New York City’s tony Upper East Side. It’s October 1986, a clear but chilly evening and the streets are just as busy as they were when I worked as a maid on Fifth Avenue nearly thirty years earlier. As I considered my circumstances then and now, it struck me how much I had changed and how much the world had changed since the late 1950s.
The purpose of my trip this time was to attend a reception hosted by a member of the Committee of 200, a group established in 1982 by a small cadre of powerful businesswomen to expand the agenda of the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO), which was formed in 1975. One of the committee’s goals was to use its members’ clout to raise money for the association. The reception that evening was not a fundraiser but rather a social gathering to bring together Committee 200 members who lived in the mid - Atlantic region of the country. I was asked to join this prestigious group because I had received positive publicity as a female entrepreneur in the first eight years that I had been in business. Many awards had come my way, including the Small Business Person of the Year for the State of Maryland, which I received in 1981.
In preparing for this trip, I had wanted to make sure that I looked the part of a successful businesswoman, so I chose my outfit carefully. My tailored navy blue knit suit and my mink coat were perfect for the occasion. This time I was ready for New York City. The cab pulled up to a tall, elegant apartment building where a doorman stood outside like a sentinel guarding his post. He approached the taxi, opened the door, and guided me into the building. After I told him the name of the resident I was visiting, he directed me to the elevator. I quickly scanned my surroundings and flashed back to the wealthy family on Fifth Avenue. This apartment building looked every bit as grand. I rang the doorbell of the apartment and was greeted by an elderly woman, who, I later learned, was the mother of the hostess and was visiting her daughter. She took my coat, looked at it strangely, and then looked at me. I followed her across the foyer, expecting to be led to the living room, where the reception was being held. Instead, she brought me to the kitchen. It dawned on me what had just happened. I looked at her in disbelief and said, “ I’m a guest.” Her face turned pale, as if all the blood had just drained from her body. She had assumed, because I am black, that I was there to serve the party. She obviously had missed her cue: my outfit was not one that a maid or a caterer would wear to an affair like this.
In that instant, I was hurled back in time to the 1950s, living in the South, when black people were “put in their place.” Part of me was fuming, but at the same time I understood why this woman had done what she did. Her drawl gave her away: she was an elderly white southerner who in her whole life had probably never seen a black person in any other role than a subservient one. This did not make it right, but that's what race has come to mean in America. It’s a perfect example of the danger of making assumptions about people based solely on their appearance and, in my case, on the color of my skin. As soon as her daughter heard about this faux pas, she rushed to my rescue, apologizing profusely for her mother’s action. I accepted her apology — what else could I do? — and tried to make
the best of an embarrassing moment. For the rest of the evening, I could not seem to get out of the hostess’s mother’s sight. I knew that she was trying to make me feel welcome, but her gestures, which were an attempt to make amends, were overbearing and, frankly, annoying. There are some actions that you can’t take back. This was one of them. It was up to me to look past it, and I did the best I could. I spent the rest of the evening enjoying myself and getting to know the other women. I didn’t pick up any signs from them that they were surprised to see me there. These women were part of a new generation of working women, which made all the difference. This elderly southern lady had made me realize how much progress black women have made as a sex and a race. She also made me realize how much further we had to go before women and minorities would achieve full equality and acceptance. My only consolation that night was that I saw her as a dying breed — or was she?