No to this “Oh”

Too often, White America has selective memory when it comes to the past. It reminds me of my tween daughter’s forgetfulness around things like chores, and yet she never forgets when her allowance is due.

As a Black American, it is fascinating to me how often White America looks back on the distant past with fond memories. It’s rare to find any Black American over 50 who yearns for those eras to the degree that our white counterparts yearn for them—and how often they are seen as “the good old days.”

Of course, why would anyone of color with any sense of history or self-respect yearn or look back fondly at a time when you were denied access to numerous spaces simply due to the color of your skin? A time when the even the family vacation was a racial experience because you couldn’t count on finding a roadside diner that might serve you and you had to do your best to avoid the sundown towns even in northern states like Illinois lest you end up dead. As my father told me, the day he graduated from high school in Blytheville, Arkansas, he was on a bus out of town that evening. Heading to someplace where a Black person might stand a chance of breathing. No, Black folks as a whole don’t revisit the past here in America because to revisit the past is to realize that the progress we envisioned isn’t nearly as far in the past as we like to think, along with the fact progress hasn’t gone as far as it should have yet (or as far as we’ve have been led to believe).

However, in a changing nation, revisiting the past for white folks takes on an entirely different tone. A time when whiteness paid maximum dividends and extending humanity and decency to non-white people wasn’t a thing. Or, as a local community group in Maine advertised with an upcoming stage production of “Oh, Susannah,” they described a version of the Old South as a “dream remembered” of “knights and their ladies, masters and slaves,” and a “pretty world where gallantry took its last bow.” Oh, and the production was to be composed largely of minstrel songs. And promoted using a Confederate stars and bars flag.

In case knowledge of minstrel-style shows isn’t your jam, let me give you the Wikipedia description:

“The minstrel show, or minstrelsy, was an American form of entertainment developed in the early 19th century. Each show consisted of comic skits, variety acts, dancing, and music performances that mocked people specifically of African descent. The shows were performed by Caucasians in make-up or blackface for the purpose of playing the role of black people. There were also some African-American performers and all-black minstrel groups that formed and toured under the direction of white people.”

So. yeah…in Sanford, Maine, the local theater group Sanford Maine Stage thought that staging a taste of the old days in the form of “Oh, Susannah” would be a marvelous idea. While the composer of the actual song “Oh, Susannah” was known as one of the fathers of American music, much of what he wrote was fodder for minstrel shows. Foster himself performed in blackface at one point.

A production like “Oh, Susannah” is steeped in racism. It’s one thing to revisit the Confederacy in a historical sense, but even then, it is to revisit some of this country’s darkest history. But as a form of nostalgia and longing? No.

That is a period in history when the degradation of Black people was openly sanctioned and encouraged—when we were viewed as less than human—and this country’s lack of remorse over that in general is bad enough. Its unwillingness to admit what a crime it was and how much it still impacts today. But as bad as that ignorance is, in the era of proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, why would anyone with an iota of decency want to take part in a show  steeped in the misery and subjugation of an entire people and look at as merely wistful entertainment?

Well, after community pushback the theater company decided to cancel the production. But in choosing to cancel the show, there are those voices who refuse to acknowledge how hurtful this very idea was, including a number of the actual performers in the show. Not to mention others in and beyond the community telling people not to be so sensitive and lamenting political correctness.

In this moment, I am reminded of how harmful the silo of whiteness is because too often it prevents its inhabitants from seeing larger truths. Online, there were those upset by the cancellation who were asking “where is the tolerance?” Well, I guess that’s an inadvertent good choice of words for those that actually made that word choice, because “tolerating” is something we tend to do for unpleasant things. So, in a way, those people are making my point. They are asking us to endure such ignorance.

The fact is the marketing of this show used hateful imagery and words—no one needs to tolerate that. The larger question is, “Why didn’t anyone question or flag this production before it became public?” It is not comforting to know that people spent weeks on rehearsal and preparation and no one thought that maybe this was a bad idea? I love theater and there are far too many shows that could have been produced that would not have been steeped in white supremacy. That could have explored the Old South in a more honest or nuanced way.

While the Sanford area is, like many Maine communities, predominantly white, there are non-white community members and white allies who now are concerned that they may be branded as troublemakers for standing up for what is right. The fact is that speaking truth to power often comes at a cost. Still, it’s always the right thing to do. For those who are disappointed that the show is canceled, I would invite you to ask yourself “Why?” To ask yourself why you think that your right to participate in or view a production that is hurtful matters so much. I am sure many of those pushing back would be offended to be called racist and yet their behavior is very much what American racism is all about. It’s the belief in rugged individualism and the American dream while denying or ignoring that it is almost always at the expense of someone else, and most dramatically at the expense of people of color. It’s the same racist spirit that justified “discovering” someone else’s land and then enslaving others to work that land to build a new country.


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The ramblings of a tired Black woman

For the past several years, we have been bombarded by images of Black lives being snuffed out at the hands of law enforcement. For some, the ensuing conversations in the aftermaths of these deaths represented the first time they had started to examine racism in America. And yet, still these conversations didn’t go far enough. They were the appetizer into talking about race.

However, the conversation is subtly shifting and we are almost at the point where as a collective, we may have no choice but to face ourselves and our nation’s history and present stance when it comes to Black folks in America.

America has never embraced Black people as a whole in this country. Other than our Native American brothers and sisters, America’s relationship to Black Americans is tenuous at best. We may like individual Black people, but as a whole? Nah. Too many white Americans, despite what they may feel/think, have absorbed the cultural attitudes which have been with us since the first African was brought to this country and we created race as a way to subjugate those with darker skin. Anti-Black bias is one of the founding pillars of this country and despite the shifting laws and the occasional embrace of individual Black folks, America does not like Black people.

The recent Starbucks incident points to the daily realities that Black folks face in this country. No matter what we do, no matter how hard we work to fit in, our very presence is deemed suspect. Even if what we do is exactly what the white people around us are doing. We as Black people rarely admit that because the truth is painful to acknowledge. To know that the country of your birth does not fully recognize or welcome you as a full citizen.

A few days ago, I had a chance to share a recent encounter with a white woman while waiting to board the train. You can listen here. What struck me in listening to the full piece and hearing from other Black writers was just how tiring it is to be Black in America. The “just us” rules which are generationally passed down, the times we shrink ourselves in hopes of not being deemed other. Or viewed through the lens of suspicion.

I have been sitting with the fact that no matter how often proof pops up of Black folks being mistreated, there will always be those who argue “If only they had done XYZ.” No, there is no level of doing that will keep Black people safe until a critical mass of white folks acknowledge that the same system that “others” people like me operates because whiteness has been placed on a pedestal of humanity that requires a fall guy. Black folks are that fall guy. However the realization is not enough; at that point, it requires action and material support to balance the scales of humanity. Yet too many white folks despite years now of seeing videos of Black people routinely abused or killed by the authorities (and others)—what amount to snuff films and pain porn—can’t move beyond the “know” to the actual “do.” So we spin our wheels and wait for the weekly dose of Black degradation caught on video and circulated on social media.

This week I am feeling particularly tired. Perhaps it’s because we have a non-stop assault on Black humanity. From the young men in Starbucks to the young woman whose request to speak to management at a Waffle House led to her arrest and groping by the police department to the group of Black women golfing who had the police called on them because they were golfing too slowly.

I am tired because too often even when we rally to support Black people in many of these incidents, too often Black women are left unsupported. That pesky intersection of racism and patriarchy. Black women are expected to do for all and yet who does for us? We experience the racism and genderism that comes with being women and femmes and yet we are rarely supported.

For decades now, we have told ourselves that things are getting better racially and yet the data doesn’t support that claim at all. We now know that in the last 50 years there has been little progress for Black Americans when it comes to home ownership, unemployment or incarceration. The wealth gap has tripled for White Americans despite the fact that educational attainment for Black folks has improved greatly. Black women in particular are obtaining a larger share of the college degrees being issued but this isn’t leading to the creation of wealth.

No, things aren’t getting better and yet, small numbers of white people are starting to wake up to the horror which they inherited. The realization that the game is rigged and it always favors white folks. The understanding that this is larger than the school to prison pipeline and  that there is no facet of life in America which is not tainted by race or at risk of being tainted by race. The question is can that small number wake up the masses or is it just a continuation of the dream we have all been dreaming?

I have no idea what happens next but I will tell you this, I am tired.


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Weapon of lass destruction: The tears of a white woman

In this current moment, talking about violence against Black bodies is almost trendy as more non-Black folks awake to the realities and horror of systemic racism—horrors that, frankly, we people of color (especially us Black people) have been telling y’all since the peak of the Civil Rights Era remain  a core part of the American experience for Black and other people of color. However, one of the problems is that the main reason so many more white people are waking up to this is because of social media and the ability to see just how shockingly glaring many of these Black experiences are.  And so, sadly, a lot of these conversations focus only on the overt violence and trauma, such as when our unarmed bodies are killed and left in the street. Or we are unjustly jailed (or detained for waiting at a Starbucks to meet a professional colleague). Or our teenagers are assaulted or harassed by police officers for hanging out just like white teens do, whether at malls or pool parties.

However, white violence against Black bodies is not always so dramatic. There is a type of violence that is just as deadly as a bullet yet rarely seen in the public eye—yet it touches the Black spirit and lives with us. We carry the scars and yet even amongst ourselves as Black people we don’t always talk about it. But it’s there.

Perhaps the only thing deadlier to a Black person’s soul and well-being than actually being killed or incarcerated are the tears of a white woman—among other weaponized emotions. White women’s emotions, particularly their tears, have taken countless lives over the generations. These tears and emotions are weapons of mass destruction and we rarely allows ourselves the chance to have an honest conversation about it. White women tears kill the soul, they make you doubt yourself and your right to exist, they render you voiceless because an emotionally distraught white woman becomes the priority in whatever space she is in. It doesn’t matter if you are right—once her tears are activated, you cease to exist.  And few things bring other white people—especially men, and sometimes no matter how misogynist they are—to a white woman’s defense than her declaring that she is feeling hurt, sad or discomfited by the words, arguments or actions (no matter how reasonable or nonviolent) of a Black person. Jobs have been lost, friendships ended and sometimes those tears can send the wrong person to jail. White woman tears are not simply a release, they are a tool.

Last night on Twitter, I saw a few tweets about the weaponization of white women’s tears and it prompted me to share a story that until recently I had parked in the deepest recesses of my mind. It is a story that changed the trajectory of my life and yet a few weeks ago, after reconnecting with a childhood friend, I finally had the language and emotional maturity to give the story the context it needed.

In sharing the story, it found resonance with many so I decided to write about it.

As a teenager in the mid 1980s, there were few spaces for awkward Black girls like me. I was a social chameleon who, due to academic success, landed at what at the time was a prestigious public high school in Chicago. It meant that I bounced between the “drama kids,” “stoners” and “trendies”  My trendy friends were all white kids with a few biracial Black boys—and myself, I was the token Black girl. At the time, I would not have called myself that but by the beginning of our senior year of high school, it was clear to me that I was not a true participant; I was the comic relief and the outward display of how not-racist my “friends” were.  

Somewhere between my junior and senior year of high school, my black consciousness started to develop and while I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate the concepts well, I knew that my position within this particular group of friends was not an authentic connection but a racialized existence.

I told one of my friends (a white girl) how I felt and that conversation ended our friendship. It also ended my high school career since in the aftermath of that conversation, my friend was distraught and suffice to say, no one heard me. Instead I was suddenly the mean black girl. I was also the weird Black girl and when you throw in the mean Black girl and you have a recipe for disaster. So right after I turned 18, I bounced. I never went back to school. I pretty much blocked that year from my memory for decades but 2018 seems to be the year where I am facing my past full force.

A few years ago, this particular friend and I reconnected via Facebook; she is now a professor at a prestigious college in New England. A college where her colleagues have shared some of my very posts in faculty meetings. We recently met up in Boston for lunch and at the end of our lunch, she apologized for what went down 28 years ago. She told me that my words had sat with her for years and now she understood what she had done to me all those years ago. In choosing not to hear me and centering herself and her whiteness it meant that she did not have to consider the ways in which she and our circle of white friends othered me and turned me into a Black caricature that in a dehumanizing way to me allowed them to be a diverse group of people.

I accepted her apology because, after 28 years—despite dropping out of high school—I have gone on to have a good life. But I am very suspicious of allowing white women to get too close to me. Time and time again, I have learned that white women rarely have the emotional maturity to examine their racist actions and how they harm Black women and other women of color.

Over the years, my experience has been that few white women can sit with emotional discomfort around certain issues (such as race or, especially, the intersection of feminism and race) and when they are confronted or challenged, they take out the one weapon that society has given them. Tears. These tears effectively serve to shut down any constructive conversation and instead in group settings, the goal shifts to soothing the white woman and taking care of her feelings, typically at the complete expense of the Black person’s feelings. Even in racial conversations of weighty matters—and even in settings that are meant to be focused on racial issues or anti-racism work—too often tears serve to stop the conversation from moving forward.

To cry is human but not all tears matter. And they particularly shouldn’t matter when they come at the expense of someone else. Rarely do the tears of a non-white woman carry any value; instead. society conditions us to not cry and, with tears not having equal value, you create a “strong” Back woman. The damsel in distress is never Black. We are expected to always be strong yet also expected to never show anger or disappointment. To always turn the other cheek and be the calmest person in the room.

White women tears are multipurpose: They derail conversation, they emotionally bully others (particularly people of color), and they are almost never questioned—which only adds to the power of a white woman and her tears.

My colleague, author Debby Irving, speaks honestly in our public dialogues about learning early in life that her tears had value. She has publicly shared being told by her parents as a teenager, that if the cops pull you over, start crying. I have heard other white women share similar tales of crying to get out tickets. I have never heard of a Black woman crying to successfully get out of a ticket.

In this moment, as more white women wake up to the horrors of racism and choose to make a difference, there are some honest conversations that need to be had: the role of white women in perpetuating and supporting racism, often through the use of tears and emotions, is one of those conversations. A white woman cannot be a real ally or accomplice without examining her own past experiences using emotional manipulation as a deflection tool, especially in cross-racial settings. To be clear, not all white tears are about literal tears, it’s about the emotional angst that comes out in settings that derails and dehumanize by placing white womanhood on a higher pedestal.

White woman are uniquely positioned in this society—they are both one of the oppressed and also one of the oppressors, and that duality has long served to keep white women and women of color at odds. White women carry a lifetime “get out of jail card” and moving toward any legitimate racial reconciliation requires examining this phenomenon. It means developing a level of racial literacy that can be faced honestly which also includes looking at when have your emotions and tears been deployed against people of color. When have your emotions harmed others? It means diving deep into white fragility and unearthing it—the work of Robin DiAngelo who coined the phrase white fragility is a good starting point.

As James Baldwin wrote “ “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”


If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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