Primetime Blackness and White Discomfort

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. – James Baldwin 

America is a nation in the midst of seismic change—a change so great that it threatens the very soul of this nation and, to be honest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The creation of America is the result of whiteness centering itself as the norm. Whiteness as an ideology and as a people created a system that disproportionately favored whites while creating laws and policies that actively oppressed and discriminated others and while that uncomfortable truth is a bitter pill to swallow, we are all living with the aftermath of decisions made long ago.

To be white in America in 2016 is to have the privilege to choose whether to engage on matters of race. For people of color, our proximity to white skin often determines how much latitude we have in choosing to avoid matters of race. Personally, as the daughter of an Arkansas sharecropper’s son, race is has never been an optional discussion for me. My first awareness of race and the notion that this brown skin I wear could be seen as a negative by some occurred when I was around 4 or so.

There are few topics that make White America as a collective squirm as talking about racism and race outside of a white lens. It’s not nice, it’s not polite, it doesn’t feel good. For some, it’s a stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the sins of the past still affect the lives of today, for some it’s a fear of fumbling and offending and coming across as racist. For others, they are so steeped in the silo of whiteness that they are unaware of just how unaware they are on matters of race. After all, to be white in certain segments of America means you can live your entire life with little to no interaction with people of color except as something to be consumed through the media.

Which is why when unbridled, unabashed Blackness and joy of Blackness meets up with one of America’s biggest events, the tensions flow and people will do everything to avoid naming their reality. Millions tuned in to see this weekend’s Super Bowl 50; even for the un-sports folks like myself, the Super Bowl is a time to nosh on treats, watch the latest commercials and enjoy the halftime show.

Well, this year’s halftime show was a bit more than some could handle but that’s okay because it was a public declaration of a piece of American history that is often hidden and our collective wholeness as a nation requires that a change occur. It is time for a full embrace of all Americans in all their very unique experiences, even if they aren’t white ones.

Beyonce, the superstar who makes even other superstars shrink, dropped a new single this weekend and then performed that single at the Super Bowl. That single, “Formation,” is a song that does not run from the Black American experience. It’s an open embrace of them, especially many aspects associated with the Southern Black American experience.  Visually (in the video) she paid homage to multiple aspects of the Black American experience, including our tragedies, and in the halftime show she was joined by a group of Black backup dancers dressed to invoke the imagery of the Black Panthers…it was a Black experience.

I wouldn’t say that I am a Beyonce fan, but with the release of “Formation,” she brought unabashed Blackness to the mainstream. We witnessed Blackness as worthy of being centered in primetime where normally it is the white aesthetic that dominates center stage. As we say in some Black spaces, yasssssssss! I am here for it despite the fact that the backlash was almost immediate.

Since the blessed event and thanks to social media, it’s never been easier to know what people are really thinking and, sadly, for many white folks in America, they did not appreciate having their primetime family experience “ruined.” As @yeloson tweeted on Twitter Think hard on this re:Black hypervisibility: “Servants are supposed to entertain, not advocate for survival.”  Because… that’s what it is.”

Blackness and by extension Black people are increasingly demanding to be seated at the table of full humanity that our white brothers and sisters take for granted. Half-assed laws with a few token players who are allowed to succeed (provided that they assimilate into white norms) is no longer enough. We are the descendants of those enslaved people who were forced against their will to build this great nation and we carry that pain, that strength and that grit in our souls. Our stories and our lives are just as American as anyone else’s and if our truths and our ways offend than that is not our problem. We are more than marionettes who dance on demand for the white gaze and this weekend’s half time show gave a glimpse into the rich tapestry that is part of the Black American experience.

Growth often requires discomfort, and right now we bear witness to a nation experiencing racialized growing pains that may eventually lead us to a place of true racial equity. But I suspect that the journey will be rocky. As for me, damn, send me a plate of collard greens and cornbread! I do carry the hot sauce in my bag!


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Realities of Scarcity and the Rush Card

Growing up working class in a good year and flat-out poor in a bad year shaped me as a person, and it continues to shape me even in middle age. I have never shied away from talking about my working class roots in this space and even now when I know that this space is well-read, I refuse to shy away from uncomfortable discussions because money is a source of shame for many of us when the reality is that it doesn’t need to be. For many years, my family’s humble roots were a source of both shame and the anxiety that nearly destroyed me. It takes a lot of work to manufacture a reality that is not yours or to live a life of half-truths because you are afraid of being judged.

Growing up, my parents rarely had two nickels to rub together much less any spare nickels to salt away for a rainy day. My parents weren’t financially savvy folks, in part because they didn’t have enough to be savvy with. My mother did grow up middle class but in marrying my father, she effectively turned her back on that life which meant that my brother and I rarely saw any of the fruits of her middle class upbringing. Instead we saw the legacy of my father’s upbringing under Jim Crow which meant my parents, loved and lived for 33 years with little in the way of any safety nets. When times got rough there was food from the food pantry and in one particularly bad period there was time at a homeless shelter.

I entered adulthood with little in the way of understanding how money operated; I was in my early 20s before I stopped cashing paychecks at the currency exchange and actually got a checking account. Even with a checking account, I still made a few mistakes and underestimated a few times and ended up being overdrawn. The cost of not knowing was pretty damn expensive and thanks to a few good mentors and a partner who was patient with me, I learned how to manage my basic money and steer clear of predatory schemes designed to part me with my money.

Yet I have never forgotten just how hard it is to be broke and nowadays, it’s a whole different world for those struggling with financial scarcity. Many of today’s low-end jobs no longer pay with a paper check that can be taken to the bank that the check is drawn. Or, for that matter, brought to the currency exchange where, for a fee, the paper check can be turned into actual cash which one can use to pay bills.

No, we are living in a world that is increasingly paperless which means for the truly vulnerable who are living paycheck to paycheck, they are forced to use pre-paid debit cards which their paychecks are loaded onto. Ideally, folks would use traditional banks and credit unions but in the US, there are millions who are unbanked for a variety of reasons: fear of banks, past fees owed to a bank, low credit scores, etc. It’s not nice, it might not even be the wisest decision, but it’s the reality for millions.

Which is why today when I heard that the Rush Card prepaid card has been locking people out of their accounts, I must admit, it took me back to my own years of extreme scarcity. The Rush Card prepaid debit card is a card marketed by hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons as an alternative financial product.  It also seems to be laden with fees and as of right now is experiencing technological issues that are in essence preventing people from accessing their own money.

While this situation may be a joking matter to some or a way to bray about how much smarter they are because they had a helping hand in life or a better start, it’s no laughing matter when you work, are paid for that work yet can’t pay your bills because you can’t access your money. It goes without saying that the typical consumer of a prepaid card probably doesn’t have access to an emergency stash of cash for the unexpected like being locked out of their prepaid account.

America is a place of excess and scarcity where we spend far too much time lecturing the poor for their “excess” without ever questioning the systems that keep people locked into scarcity. The poor and working class often pay a higher price for their money than Jane and John Middle Class will ever pay. Comfortably middle class people often pay little to nothing to use their own cash but the truly struggling are virtually locked into a maze of scarcity with few solid pathways out. It’s always been hard for folks from humble beginnings to get ahead and frankly in 2015, we have pretty much blocked off all the pathways for all except the most exceptional. Jobs with unreliable schedules and no guaranteed number of hours, stagnant wages with the ever increasing cost of living. Underfunded schools that don’t prepare kids for the future, higher education that is increasingly out of reach and the list goes on.

So instead of tsk-tsking and blaming people for their plight perhaps a moment of gratitude and empathy is what we all need along with a commitment to level the financial playing field.
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