“Hey! Before you go, do you mind if I ask you a question?” said the interviewer; the irony of the question about a question hung in the air.
“Not at all,” I replied.
“What was your name BEFORE you converted to Islam?” she asked.
To say I was caught off-guard might be the understatement of the year. I was obviously not expecting this question—especially at the conclusion of a job interview. Somewhere in my 23-year-old mind I knew it was inappropriate and even illegal, but, like I said, I was caught off-guard.
Her question continued to hang in the air, invisible, and yet indivisible, from the surrounding furniture, the well apportioned conference room where she held court.
I struggled to justify the question all the while condemning it—to feel while being numb and turn the tables on what I experienced as ignorance without actually turning the table over.
I felt the burden and the tension of all that I was and simultaneously all that I was not.
Of all that I could be and all that I never would be.
Of all of now and all of history—all in the milliseconds it took me to receive and process her question.
I clumsily responded, “Oh my name isn’t ‘muslim’ and I don’t practice Islam, though there is nothing wrong with either. My name is Yoruba and yet, ironically, I am not…which is a longer story.”
I remember her smiling congenially and responding with a mildly embarrassed face as she told me how “unique” and “interesting” it all sounded.
I wish I responded bolder. In my mind everything played out in slow motion. My face—twisted in offense, inincredulity—met hers and she immediately felt shame and regret. The searing peer-pressure of my pupils teaching her the costs associated with the softer forms of bigotry.
I wondered if she was aware of her unconscious bias– or was it merely un(checked)-conscious bias? Is that what it actually means? Was “unconscious bias” actually a portmanteau of “unchecked-conscious bias” this whole time?
It should be noted that my name is Olutosin (Oh-Loo-Tow-Seen); I go by Olu. I am the son of Eugene and Lena Burrell, of Washington, DC, and Kenly, NC, respectively. I have four brothers and three sisters and all but one of us have names hailing from different African ethnicities—the product of parents who have a deep Christian faith tempered by African cultural identity.
With a name like Olutosin, my race is rarely a mystery.
What IS a mystery, however, is the license my name seemingly gives to the bold and the biased.
I’ve discovered that the human condition lends itself to a need to classify things, to name them. At times, our haste (informed by our brains’ bias toward expedience) squeezes the air out of complexity.
It promotes the world as a confluence of black and white, of either/or dynamics and it causes us to treat, with rigidity, that which is actually nuanced.
To embrace “the gray” is a conscious choice. And those who live within the gray experience the kind of invisibility that gets you ignored until (and unless) you become a threat.
This “threat” is rarely physical. Many of us who share the social construct of skin kissed by the sun find ourselves trying to prove competence in social and professional settings only to find that once our excellenceis discovered, we innocuously unlock a more sinister level of bias: intimidation.
So you know what we’re taught instead?
We’re taught to “go with the flow” and “not rock the boat.” We’re taught to “choose our battles wisely.”
This is not to say that those words of advice don’t ring true at times, but shrinking as a way of surviving is not the life I want for myself or anyone else.
Shrinking renders us impotent; it makes invisibility the way to survive.
The kind of invisibility that cannot be seen even with the power of 1,369 lightbulbs.
I often think about Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. It’s not just Black men that are at times rendered invisible, but Black women, and Black children, and Black trans-persons.
All in hibernation.
All in a battle royale.
All while pouring sloe gin (which is red) over vanilla ice cream (which is white) while listening to Louis Armstrong “playing and singing ‘What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue’” (which is self-explanatory).
It affects all of us—those who are named, and those subjected to the scourge of stereotype.
And those thoughts bring me back to that fateful moment and every moment since when someone—other than myself—sought to define who I was/am/will be.
I’m looking forward to the days where we will be able to sacrifice who it is we feel we “have to be” in favor of who it is we “get to be.”
In the years that followed (and arguably the years before), I moved around with an awareness of what “Not Me” would look like.
“Not Me” should have been my response to her.
“Not Me” is a form of presence tempered by the absence of something else. Do not ask me what that “something else” is because it may surprise you (or not) about how both consequential and substantial it is.
“Not Me” is the first thing I said aloud when I lost my sense of smell on April 16, 2020 and and again when I received a positive test result for the SARS COVID-19 virus just four days later. But that’s a story for another time…
On February 14, 2011, Olutosin “Olu” Burrell discovered by happenstance that his first name is an anagram for the word “solution.” Since then, he has spent most of his time trying to temper his urge to solve EVERYTHING. That realization drives him to maintain a growth mindset by being not just a lifelong learner, but practitioner.
By day, Olu works in the leading human resource agency in the District of Columbia, where he administers leadership, training, conducts executive workplace coaching, and manages and Executive Leadership Program. In addition to this work, he also independently contracts as a writer, speaker, coach and consultant working with individuals, teams, and organizations in the federal government, not-for-profit, private, K-12 and higher education arenas.
Olu counts storytelling and the spoken word as part of his strengths, and–where appropriate–includes them in his engagements as he encourages his clients to craft their own legend. A student of inquiry and behavioral science, he “treats the interrogative as the imperative” in establishing first connection and then breakthrough. Olu is a proud son of Howard University where he earned a B.A. in English. He also earned a M.S. in Organization Development from American University, and a Graduate Certificate in Comprehensive Evidence-Based Coaching from Fielding Graduate University, where he focused on leadership, organizational, and personal coaching. He is certified as a Professional Certified Coach (PCC) from the International Coach Federation and holds certifications in a number of leadership, diversity, and 360° instruments. A fifth generation Washingtonian, Olu resides in Ward 8 with his wife Farran and their two children Samara and Solomon.