Musings on Whiteness and Mammy…the Toxic Sea Or Level 200

“The reality is that African-American women face discrimination through both their race and gender. Spheres of social identities—from race to gender to sexuality to disability—operate on multiple levels, creating multidimensional experiences.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw

When I first started writing about racism back in 2003, barely anyone wanted to touch what I was selling except other people of color and a few hardy white people who had swallowed the red pill and had the intestinal fortitude to touch the uncomfortable. Ours is not a culture that willingly embraces the uncomfortable yet, in recent years, technology’s ability to capture what has been normalized for centuries in this country—that is, to literally show people proof of what Black people have been saying has been happening to them all along (and rarely being fully believed)—has made discussions of racism almost hip and trendy.

Talk of white privilege and white supremacy has now entered the mainstream lexicon and, while many are genuinely making the effort to labor for racial justice, the reality is that we don’t have a shared vision of what racial justice and racial equity actually look like. It should be quite clear by now, for example that a few well-placed people of color in highly visible roles or in positions of wealth doesn’t indicate a post-racial era and words on pages (notably, anti-racism and civil rights laws) often fail to lead to actual justice for victims of racism. More people are aware of systemic racism and institutional bias and all that thanks to the growing evidence, video and otherwise, shared online and elsewhere, but that awareness hasn’t brought us any closer to solutions…yet.

Instead, what we are actually often doing is working for the continued existence of whiteness as the cultural standard bearer and as the baseline norm, with the vision of bringing marginalized people into that norm. It’s the old assimilation thing in new clothing in many cases. Applying a form of justice to everyone that continues to support whiteness as the best and most normal standard. Or maleness or any other privileged class as being the standard.

We often talk about how Black and Brown people in this country have been dehumanized but what is truly dehumanizing  is how whiteness as the cultural norm doesn’t recognize individual or collective humanity nor does it often respect cultural differences. It demands the blood and sweat of all and it rarely sees the individual. And yet we hold this concept of whiteness up as our norm and something to aspire to.  It should instead be destroyed…and to be clear, I am not saying that white people should be destroyed. I am however saying that the cultural norm of whiteness should be destroyed. After all, a “value system” that cannot see people’s individual or cultural worth is not healthy for anyone, regardless of race. Whiteness benefits white people but it is not a healthy benefit even for white people; for all that it gives, it demands the soul in return.

True racial justice should honor the inherent worth and dignity of all people and should not require one standard of “normal.” But it doesn’t, and as someone who works in the racial justice and anti-racism world, it has become increasingly clear to me that much of the work that we do is especially harmful to women of color. Because just like in other areas of life, women of color (and particularly Black women) are asked to serve as the pack mules for the greater cause.

For the past several months, I have found myself quietly noticing how women of color are treated on an interpersonal level and after a conversation with a fellow sister activist of color, frankly I am dismayed. Given that we all live within the context of whiteness as our cultural norm, we live with a system that devalues women of color and particularly Black women in the United States. Black women have historically been relegated to one of several archetypes,  with the most popular being: Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and the Angry Black Woman.

Even in 2016 with talk of race and racial justice being an almost daily occurrence, rarely are we willing to discuss how we still put Black women in the boxes that whiteness created for them even in the context of dismantling racism. Far too often, we expect the Black women in our lives to be our personal Mammy, to be of service to us all. To nourish us, to teach us, to lift us up, to carry the loads. And yet when do we see their individual humanity? When do we really grasp the intersectionality of a a Black woman’s life with other groups and classes of people? (For example, in feminism, Black women’s racial concerns are often glossed over because the goal is often more focused on white women’s equality first and foremost.) Do we really concern ourselves with the special struggles they face, or do we just pay lip service and throw around jargon while feeling good about ourselves and passing out collective high fives because we think we know a little something?

To be a Black woman in America is to hold multiple identities that start at the intersection of Black and woman and, as Kimberle Crenshaw states, it creates a multidimensional experience. To exist in many spaces and to be validated in none of them. A life with many facets that is rich, complex, and often disheartening but rarely appreciated except in the private spaces where Black women hold each other up…rarely understood except by others at that same race and gender intersection.

Right now in America, the only person who truly sees a Black woman is another Black woman because patriarchy and misogyny often creates too many layers for even a Black man to see a Black women without the frame of whiteness and its unreasonable expectations.

We can talk about race, we can join groups, we can write, we can attend conferences, we can educate, we can march. But at some point we need to shift the discussion to realize that we are all swimming in a toxic sea called whiteness that threatens us all. The cure requires more than the busy work of showing up; it actually requires nuance and intentionality at a level that is frankly missing in many racial justice spaces. If your praxis creates harm to women of color, then your ally-ship is not enough. 
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For My Mentor and All the Black Women Who Hold Us Up

There are people who come into your lives whose presence changes the entire trajectory of your life; for me personally there have been three such people, two of whom I married and the other who was my first instructor when I went to college in my mid-20s. As I have recounted over the years, I was not a stellar student in my high school years (partially a lack of dedication to class attendance and homework but mostly an inability to pass gym classes). So much so that at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I simply decided not to return, instead running off a few months after turning 18 and getting married and then becoming a mother a few weeks after turning 19. Statistically, my life should have been a wrap given that my decision-making at that stage in life wasn’t great but sometimes the universe has a plan that you can’t even begin to imagine.

My early adulthood journey would take many twists and turns and at 25, I would find myself enrolled the School for New Learning at Chicago’s DePaul University (a program aimed at older and other non-traditional students) where my first class was “Women in the Black Church,” taught by gregarious and warm, middle-aged Black woman with a deep laugh, a sparkle in her eye and a slow and measured way of speaking. Cynthia Milsap spoke with authority, but she was warm and inviting and in that first night of class, she asked us to share about ourselves and, in my self-deprecating manner, I said something to the effect that I probably wouldn’t be in this class too long because I wasn’t known for being too book-smart. Cynthia looked at me quietly and told me that “That was not going to happen” and that she would be with me on graduation day.

What can I say? If I had been a betting woman, I would have lost that bet because Cynthia was correct. Over the  years Cynthia would become not only an instructor but my adviser, my mentor and a dear friend. Cynthia saw me not only getting through my undergraduate years but excelling in a way that I could not have imagined. I completed my undergraduate degree in three years, working full time while mothering and being a wife.

During my last months as an undergraduate, Cynthia saw my passion for African-American studies blossom and strongly suggested that I consider applying to graduate school. I did and much to my own surprise, I was accepted to every program that I applied to, even ones that were extremely competitive.

From that point on, Cynthia would serve as my unofficial mentor over the years. When I relocated to Maine, Cynthia stayed in touch with me through the years and every major transition of my life since my late 20s. If too long went without contact, it was not uncommon to get a call (or several) reminding me that with faith all things are possible. Cynthia’s love and support has nurtured and nourished me over the years and she saw in me (and many others) infinite, unlimited potential when no one else did. Much of what I am right now is directly because of Cynthia’s unwavering belief in supporting Black women and all marginalized people. Cynthia was not merely an adjunct professor, she was a minister with a deep abiding faith. She also spent many years serving as executive director for a Chicago faith-based nonprofit, The Night Ministry, and over the years was a researcher and consultant who wore many hats and worked tirelessly for change.

Hence my surprise several weeks ago when I heard that she has been ill since late June and receiving care at Chicago’s free hospital since that time. Turned out that Cynthia had no health insurance and furthermore was at risk of losing her place since with her hospitalization, she hadn’t been able to work and her landlord was getting ready to start eviction proceedings. Several friends put together a crowdfunding campaign to stave off the eviction.

It shook me to my core that a woman who had given so much of herself over the years would be in this situation but it is the unspoken reality that affects far too many Black and Brown women who nurture and nourish others in a world where economics don’t favor women like us. It’s the unspoken reality that pushes me because I saw both my own mother and grandmother die with little in the way of material comforts.

Unfortunately my beloved mentor, Cynthia Milsap passed away this weekend after receiving a diagnosis of kidney disease and systemic lupus.

There are no words. There are only tears because, as I have learned with the other women whose shoulders I stand on, our time on this rock is limited and yet we carry the essence of our personal change-makers with us wherever we go, hoping that we can be half as good as they were.

There was only one Cynthia Milsap but in countless communities there are Black and Brown women like Cynthia whose unwavering faith and belief in nurturing the human spirit plants seeds that sprout in untold places. Women who give so much of themselves, sometimes to the exclusion of themselves, and we (like that greedy boy in Shel Silverstein’s dark story “The Giving Tree”) rarely think about how we can give back.

Rest well my dear friend, big sister and mentor. This is only goodbye for now, until we meet on the other side.
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On Black women, girls and a side of Lemonade

Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s; I often felt like I didn’t belong. Sure, I had my family, which was for the most part loving and no more dysfunctional than any other family…though we might have been financially broker than most. But as a Black girl who dreamed of being the titular character in Harriet the Spy and later a bounty hunter or assassin…yeah, I was different.

My earliest school memories are of being in kindergarten and being seated behind a girl whose name was “Kate.” Kate was everything that I wasn’t: blue eyed and blond with a cool lunch box and even cooler school supplies. Even at five, I had started to internalize the deceptive and destructive messages that white was better, though it would take decades before I could even begin to unpack that. I just knew that the girls who looked like Kate seemed to be treated better than me.  As the years went on, the Kates of the world were my nemeses; they were everything that I could never be. In high school it only got worse. When I should have been discovering young romance, I was doomed for a life of always a friend and never more because I was seen as “pretty for a Black girl.” That is a phrase all too often used for Black women whether directly or indirectly but , in fact, a young dude used that exact wording with me in the 10th grade and I have never forgotten the sting of those words and the feeling of rejection. The truth is even now, occasionally my 16-year-old self rears up inside my 43-year-old body. I am too rarely seen as a pretty woman but as someone who would only truly be pretty if I were white. Too often I’m only desirable as some fetish object or as an exotic distraction, if I’m found desirable at all.

Always an avid reader, I immersed myself in books only to still find myself longing to be what I could never be because at that time far too many of the fun and desirable characters in books were always white. Sweet Valley High anyone?

No, I could never be pretty enough but damn it, I could most certainly be weird enough. So in the late ’80s, I attempted black girl Mohawks and I wore Doc Martens and black lipstick while chain smoking my non-standard little cigarettes. I wore my grandfather’s old trenchcoats to my grandmother’s horror and I listened to music that scared the shit out of my folks and occasionally wore chains as necklaces. Fake ID allowed me to dance all night and drink too. It was my pushback against a norm that I knew I could never meet.

It would only be that when I finally made it to college in my mid 20s after marriage and motherhood that I would encounter classes that would shift my perspective and that would allow me to understand that this culture was the result of white supremacy and that women like me would never find a home in it. We would have to push back against it and work to claim and even reclaim our personhood and womanhood as Black women.

The thing about this system is that, to be honest, it’s not good for any woman. But it is downright toxic for Black women and girls. How do you exist in a place where you rarely if ever see yourself modeled? Where your representation is flat and two-dimensional and lacks wholeness? Where your humanity, dignity and worth is rarely validated or even acknowledged?

Raising my second and last child, my now-tween daughter, I am utterly aware of how Black girls in particular have to fight to be seen. How their intelligence is not assumed, how their soft spots are not recognized and how utterly dehumanized they are. And as a Black girl who has now become a Black woman raising a Black girl, I refuse to let this system have my girl…yet I know I am fighting a war that I may not win. There are moments when my daughter and I are talking when I have to fight my instinct to scream out and punch the air against this system that is already starting to sow the seeds of doubt in her despite my efforts to keep her safe. The subtle messages that she is just starting to internalize that subtly tell her that girls like her don’t have place. To live this life as a Black woman raising a Black girl understanding the psychic scars is something that only another Black woman knows and understands fully.

It’s why when Beyoncé’s latest album “Lemonade” came out that it has resonated so deeply with Black women beyond the story of alleged infidelity. “Lemonade” is an acknowledgment of Black womanhood put on display in a way that has rarely been captured. It is a celebration of Black female personhood in our full spectrum of human emotions with no hiding. I am hardly a Beyoncé fan but watching the visual album  caused emotions to well up in me that have long been dormant and, based off the many pieces I have now read on this album, I am not the only one.

I have written before about how vitally important it is to see representations of ourselves and increasingly we are turning a corner where representations of Black womanhood beyond Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire are starting to happen. While it gives me hope for the future, there are many of us for whom this shift is too little, too late. In the same week that we celebrate Black womanhood thanks to Beyoncé, pictures surfaced of rap star and legend Lil Kim who over the years has transformed herself from a gorgeous brown-skinned woman to a caricature of a white woman. Her appearance is heartbreaking because over the years, Kim has spoken about the pain of being just a regular Black girl and the pain of being dismissed because of it. This is the legacy of white supremacy and the toll it takes on Black bodies. Some of us reach a place where living in these Black bodies becomes too much.

Which brings me to the last story this week that has just gutted me as a person, a Black woman and a parent. A 16-year-old Black girl, Amy Inita Joyner-Francis was beaten to death in a school bathroom.  A young girl walked into a bathroom at school and left on a stretcher being airlifted to a hospital and, within hours, is dead. We live in a world where even among ourselves seeing our own humanity has become increasingly harder to do and instead violence becomes our norm. Yet in many ways, violence against Black women and girls has been the norm since our ancestors, enslaved Africans, were brought to a  land that was not theirs and forced to work and give life against their will. Many times having their children taken away from them. This is a nation and a culture that has normalized violence and dysfunction against Black women and girls.

But the pushback has started. And it begins with the recognition of Black female humanity and a tearing down of all that holds us back from full participation in the human experience. We’ve been here a long time; soon enough, we are going to make sure society does not ignore or disregard us any longer.

So, if you have been, wake up and take notice. We’re not going away; we’re not going to cringe in the shadows.
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