Myriam Michel is the executive director of the nonprofit Healthy Waltham and the founder of M&M Elite Events. Here, she talks about standing out, and trying to blend in, in Boston’s mostly white high-end wedding industry — as told to Katie Johnston.
In Boston, the event-planning business is predominantly white, and my authority has been questioned in a manner that my white counterparts would never experience. In 2015, I was the only person of color at a 160-person wedding in the Worcester area. The bride worked for a pretty high-profile person, and that brought an air of WASP-y entitlement, in terms of guests. I walked into the brunch and I was giving instructions: “All right, we have to get on the bus so we can get moving to the next event.” I remember a gentleman coming up to me with his finger in my face, saying “Who are you? Why should we listen to you?” Just very pompous. I remember the feeling of him looking me up and down, and inside I was dying. I felt like the help. I told him, “Hi I’m Myriam, I’m the planner, nice to meet you,” and he shrugged his shoulders, with his hands up like, “So?”
Just because we’re in the service business does not mean that we’re “the help.” It takes on a different meaning for people of color. We already have a history of that in our country.
Early in my career, my hair was straightened. I always had a weave. When weddings were my primary source of business, I made a conscious effort to blend in. I already stand out as a Black person — I don’t want to bring any more attention to myself by wearing my hair in its natural state. Sometimes I’m called on it actually, by my sister. She said, “You’re not being authentic.” In my head I’m like, you’ve never owned a business, you don’t know how competitive it is out there. You have to play the game if you want to be perceived as a high-end vendor.
Am I ashamed for not being my true self? Yes. I try to make sure I don’t repeat those mistakes with my children, who are in a predominantly white private school. I tell them, you have to be your full self all the time and be unapologetic about it. I also went to a private school where I was the minority, and it sucked. I wanted to be white, and I remember those feelings vividly.
On my event-planning website launched in 2009, I didn’t note that I was a Black-owned business. But I just updated it, and am now leading with my photo on the homepage.
At networking events, Black colleagues tend to congregate with each other. You notice it because there’s only like five of us in the room. And we’re relaxed. It will be like, “Hey sister, hey brother. How you doing?” But if a white colleague comes in, every Black person will tell you there’s a switch you have to turn on. It’s called code switching. You have to embody a persona of whiteness. When I turn on my switch, I enunciate my words a bit better. I stand up a little bit taller. I’ve done it for so long, it’s just like second nature. I do it so I can be more respected, not seen as less than. It’s a defense mechanism.
It’s like you’re standing up for the Black race. You don’t want to be that vendor that f’s it up. The stereotype is already out there: We’re late. We may be lazy. We can’t be professional. We’re loud. You don’t want to be portrayed as that uncooperative Black woman vendor. You have to swallow your pride. That’s why I always try 1000 percent. It’s exhausting to be on all the time. It’s almost like a fight or flight response.
When people hear me talk for the first time, they’ll say, “I didn’t expect you to sound that way.” What does “that way” mean? That I don’t sound Black? For your Black friends, you’re too white, and for your white friends, you’re the Black friend. I remember when I was working at BU, and a senior leader said to me, “Your dialect is just so different.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You enunciate your words.” He said, “Were you born here? How about your parents?” He was trying to figure out my background that led to me sounding this way. What he was trying to say is: “You sound educated.” I think he was trying to make it a compliment, not knowing it was a microaggression.
In 2019, one of my white colleagues was planning a wedding conference, and all the panelists were white. I called her and said, there’s no diversity on this panel. This is bad. Unconsciously you are telling the narrative that luxury is associated with white people, and that people of color don’t belong in that category. It fell on deaf ears. But because it’s a movement now, and everyone wants to be woke, in June she sent me a text: “We now see how terribly wrong we were ... and how important diversity is in our country and in our industry.”
It’s not just white people who feel that only white planners can deliver a luxury event. I once had a Black colleague tell me, I have a client I think you’d be the perfect planner for. But they clearly couldn’t afford my services. He referred them because he assumed that as a Black planner, I did lower-budget events. Even as a Black man he was feeding into the stereotype. I was livid and disappointed. I know 1000 percent he never would have referred a white planner to them.
Once a white vendor e-mailed me, asking about a Black hairdresser and makeup artist for a client. A white caterer called me to say, “We’re trying to close a deal with a Black couple, and we want the seasonings to reflect their culture. Can you give me some insight?” So I helped them and moved on. Now, during this period of self-reflection, there’s a plethora of materials on the Internet. “Do you know any Black vendors that do X?” Yes, Google them.
I don’t know how long it will last to be more woke. It’s sort of like the hot thing to do now. But it’s a double-edged sword. I don’t want it to be, “OK, I did something for Black History Month.” It should be an everyday thing. We appreciate people using their privilege to educate themselves. But also, this is what I’ve been telling you since forever.
I have biases too. My father has Parkinson’s and is partly deaf. Before, would I look into a venue to make sure it was ADA accessible? Probably not. But I do now. It’s up to us to understand that we’re all privileged in some way and we can use that privilege to make a difference.
Myriam Michel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or mmeliteevents.com.
Part of an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area. To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at email@example.com.
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Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.