Archive for the ‘ Current Events ’ Category

Loving across racial lines…what isn’t spoken

This fall will mark 20 years that I have been partnered with my husband, we’ve been together 20 years and married for 17 of those years. We met in our 20’s, when we were young and idealistic and even though my previous partner had been white, I had no idea that race on the cusp of the 21st century would still be an issue. I assumed that love was all that we would need but the truth is that for people who love across the color line in America, you need more than love. You need courage, strength and resiliency to deal with a world that is often hostile to those whose love crosses color lines.

We started to grasp the enormity of what our life together would entail early in our marriage, when a simple traffic stop in Chicago became a moment of horror and shame that we would rarely speak of because the ugliness was too much to bear. Yet in light of a story that broke this weekend, it seems fitting to share my own moment of shame; perhaps if more of us share these uncomfortable moments, people will truly start to grasp how little has truly changed when it comes to race in America.

Several months into our marriage, we attended the wedding of a mutual friend in the suburbs of Chicago. The type of event that many couples do, nothing out of the ordinary yet for me, that night would forever live in a place within me to serve as a reminder that my humanity could be taken from me at any moment, not because of my actions but because of the color of my skin.

Traveling back home from a northwestern suburb of Chicago, we came across a DUI check, the type of checks that happen in countless cities across America. A check you have no reason to fear if you haven’t been imbibing. My husband being the designated driver had abstained from drinking at the reception, so when the cops signaled to us to pull over, we had no reason to fear or so we thought.

The officer walked up to the window and it became immediately clear to us though we were in shock that we had been pulled over because my husband was a white man and I was a Black woman. The officer instead of asking had my husband been drinking, asked him about me…who was I? My husband said that I was his wife, the officer looked incredulous and without getting into the nasty details pretty much stated he didn’t believe him and that he thought that I was a prostitute. We ended up being briefly detained while the officers debated whether or not to believe our story, never at any time was my husband given a breathalyzer or any other type of test. After running our plates, they apparently decided we really were a married couple or else the most skilled set of liars who happened to have the same last name and a set of wedding bands.

We drove home silent and in tears as the horror and enormity of what happened weighed on us. Chicago being a big city, I later realized that without a badge number at that time, filing a complaint was futile. We weren’t harmed physically but psychically that encounter laid the foundation for the rest of our lives. Traffic stops over the years have become moments of fear for us and while other cops in other cities have also asked our relationship to one another, none have been as open in their assumptions that I must be a prostitute and my husband a “john”.

I wish I could say encounters with police officers are the only places where loving across racial lines has been troubling. There are few areas of our outside lives where we are not reminded that we are different, even in medical emergency situations when I have had to explain to harried medical personnel that yes, he is my husband. Yes, the worried white man is not my caseworker, a good samaritan or my neighbor, he is my partner and my legal spouse.

As my husband has learned in recent years, even simple encounters with other parents on the playground can become awkward moments. Several years ago, another parent made a casual reference to “niggers” and my husband had to quietly explain that his wife (me) is Black to which the other parent said he wasn’t referring to Blacks like me. As my husband has learned when he is not physically with me, many whites particularly white men will thinking nothing of saying careless and questionable things. Of course, in his quest to speak up, he has pretty much ensured that he will have few friends. The price he pays for daring to love outside of his race. Recently we hit a rough patch and bandied around the big D word for a while, it was interesting to learn how quickly whiteness took over for the few people he shared our situation with, then again I wasn’t surprised because I had already lived through him losing most of his friends when we got together almost two decades ago.

There are some interracial couples who are spared these indignities but more often than not, couples reach a place where the wear and tear of love with the added battles of dealing with race become too much to handle. As we approach 20 years in the battlefield of love, I look around and realize other interracial couples we have known have lost the battle. Marriage is hard work, no matter who you are but living in a world where the legitimacy of your union is constantly questioned and the partner of color is often dehumanized starts to wear on the soul. Nevermind the intricacies of dealing with family and inlaws across racial lines and when you add kids into the mix, the complications grow.

While the story of African-American actress Daniele Watts being detained after the cops assumed her to be a prostitute and her white husband to be her “john” has sparked outrage and shock across the internet, for me it’s a feeling of how much longer must we endure this shit? I am not shocked, I am sad, sad that yet another couple has to live this life and this shame for daring to love. I am sad that we keep repeating the lie that race relationships have improved based off a few victories in the racial arena when really very little has changed. We are still sitting on the same raggedy couch which simply has been draped with a new cover and rather than facing reality, we shift our position, looking for the comfortable spot instead of working towards a brand new couch.

I write a great deal about race in this space, in part because examining racial inequity is part of what I do as Executive Director of Community Change Inc (CCI),one of the longest, continually running anti-racism organizations in the United States. Our mission is to promote racial justice and equity by challenging systemic racism and acting as a catalyst for anti-racist learning and action. CCI makes visible and challenges the historical and ongoing role racism plays in the institutions that shape all of our lives. We focus particularly on involving white people in understanding and confronting systemic racism and white privilege.We understand racism as a system that impacts every area of life in the United States from education to law, from housing to transportation, from employment to media, from religion to artistic expression. It is a system that privileges white people and oppresses people of color.

This fall as part of our expanded programming at Community Change, we are looking to engage in authentic dialogues about race throughout New England. We are kicking off with a discussion this Tuesday, September 9th with a public conversation between white author and anti-racism Debby Irving and myself at the Portland Public Library in Portland, Maine.

Tell me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross Racial Conversations, is an open, honest and perhaps even painful at times discussion where Debby and I will talk about the impact of racism in our own lives as well examining the barriers that prevent authentic dialogue across racial lines in America.

Details on Tuesday’s event can be found here and if you aren’t able to make it, have no fear! Debby and I will be back at the library on Wednesday, September 10th at noon time discussing her book “Waking Up White” as part of the library’s Brown Bag series. So two days of racial justice and open discussion.


You can also check out a clip we did for a local show recently. Hope you join us and if you do, please say hi!

“The chief obstacle to having an intelligent, or even intelligible, conversation across the racial divide is that on average white Americans live in communities that face far fewer problems and talk mostly to other white people.”- The Atlantic

A family lost a son, a community rages and a country confronts the hard-to-ignore reality that we are a nation divided. The sins of the past still live with us and in spite of our best efforts of the past 50 years, we have never moved on despite a brief and fanciful dream that we were beyond race.

Race matters. Race always matters and that hard-to-swallow truth prevents us from moving on. As the nation watched Ferguson, Missouri, unravel in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s premature death at the hands of law enforcement, it was clear that how one viewed the unraveling had everything to do with one’s lived experiences. In fact whether or not one even viewed the events had a great deal to do with the color of one’s skin or willingness to see the pain of others as they would see their own pain.

 

Several days ago a report from the Pew Research Center that was released showed just how stark the divide is between Blacks and Whites in this country. At a time when we are becoming a more racially mixed country, old tensions between Blacks and Whites are still strong. Yet to those of us who study race or in my case work in the anti-racism field, none of this is news. White supremacy is the undergirding which this country was founded on; racism was inextricably woven into the fabric of this nation and constructed into the founding principles of this country. Whiteness is the default setting that we operate on and anyone who is not white learns that lesson early on. Even preschool age kids understand race and understand that whiteness is valued and everyone else is a distant second.  There is a reason that non-white children prefer the white dolls over the ones who look like them; none of this is coincidental.

We don’t typically ask the victims of violent crimes to heal themselves and solve the crime on their own, but in America we expect Black people to do just this. The history of Blacks that is taught in our schools and often talked about publicly has whitewashed the horror that impacted Blacks. The average white American because they have so little contact with people unlike themselves truly believes that Black Americans were freed in 1865 and that life was smooth sailing until a few hiccups in the 1950’s and 60’s when Martin Luther King Jr came along. So there is a persistent undercurrent of belief that that plight of Blacks is somehow the fault of Blacks and Blacks alone and that white hands are clean. Nothing could be further from the truth. In families like mine, people worked the land for white landowners under an arrangement called sharecropping while living under Jim Crow laws  which lasted well into the 1960’s. My father picked cotton as a child well into the early 1960’s on white owned land while being raised under Jim Crow which determined which school he could attend and what water fountain he could drink at. Integration hit my father’s life about 8 years before I was born. Considering that I am in my early 40’s that isn’t terribly long ago. Yet in recent days my inbox has been filled with angry rantings from those who feel that I am a whiner and race baiter but these same people are lacking in their own knowledge of all of American history.

Considering the sheer ugliness of America’s history when it comes to Black and Native Americans, it’s no wonder that we as a nation whitewash history and gloss over the pain of those who suffered mightily in this nation’s quest for success. In many ways it is no surprise that the social and professional networks of White Americans are 91% White (while those of non-whites are far more diverse).  The very setup of how we live does not lend itself to making cross cultural connections at a soul level and unfair funding of our public services often creates a situation where even well intentioned and open whites eventually end up in spaces where everyone is just like them. Often this is under the guise of needing good schools, etc for the kids.  For Blacks like myself who do end up living in white spaces, the psychic burden of always being an ambassador for Blackness often proves too much.

Is all lost on the racial front? No, but to move beyond requires more than Black and Brown bodies doing all the heavy lifting, it actually requires white people to move beyond the the moments of shame and defensiveness that is too often a part of racial discussions. It requires a willingness to acknowledge that for some of us privilege is bestowed upon us through no efforts of our own. It requires a willingness to learn just how American culture privileges whiteness at every turn and a willingness and desire to dismantle and change that narrative that enslaves us all.

When we actively work to dismantle the ugly foundation that we all stand on, it becomes easier to see the systemic inequities and notice the patterns of abuse and brutalization that certain bodies in this country see on a regular basis. When we are actively dismantling the ugliness we no longer “other” the pain of certain communities but recognize that a lost child matters to us all. Dismantling the system means we no longer hear that quiet voice of doubt that says a teenager somehow earned his killing but we become as passionate for that Black or Brown child as we would be for our own child.  We may not all change our life path to become an anti-racist but we can recognize the harm and danger of homogeneity.

Until we as a collective reach that place, we will continue to live this half life of sorts where we think we are all free when in fact none of us are free.  The choice is ours but do we have the heart and the strength to go beyond? That is the question.

Just a quick note for Mainers and those near Maine, on September 9th, white anti-racism activist and author Debby Irving and I will be giving a talk on cross racial discussions at the Portland Public Library, FMI click here.

Note: This is a deeply personal post and as a result it’s written in a stream of consciousness to say what I need to say, there is no point other than to give words to my truth.

“If you’re white you don’t have to live in our world. You can if you choose to. You can choose to visit. You can choose to completely ignore it and us. You have a choice. We do not. We do not have any choice over where we live. We, paradoxically, have to live in your world.”- A Black Bluesman in Maine

It was over 100 years ago when W.E.B. DuBois coined the phrase double consciousness, the state that the average Black American lives in. This past week I have never more been aware of the dual nature of the Black experience in America. A state that leads to what at times can best be described as a half lived life, a life where Black bodies are always aware of the space they exist in and how at times we wear the mask to conceal the depth of our sorrows and our pain, knowing that no matter how well we perform by the standards of whiteness we are never fully viewed as human.

 

Years ago when the decision was made to move to Maine, I knew there would be hard days, days when for my own safety and protection I must stay barricaded in my house.  Because the depth of my emotions would not allow me to wear the mask that is common amongst Black people who inhabit white spaces. How can we ever take our masks off when the very experiences of life in America are so very different! White lives and bodies exist in the silo of privilege where one can trust in the goodness of the world around them. Black bodies learn early on that the goodness that is part of the white experience in America  does not necessarily cross racial boundaries. Our worthiness as humans is measured against the white experience and if we fall short we are deemed to be very bad.

Over a week ago, a young Black man in Ferguson, MO was gunned down by a local police officer.  The town of Ferguson itself erupted under the weight of decades of mistreatment and systematic oppression yet in the mainstream narrative that is framed by non Black people the inhabitants of Ferguson are deemed dangerous and unruly. I have lost sleep and cried many tears not just because my heart goes out to Ferguson (it does) but in knowing that for my Black body and the bodies of my kids, at any time we can meet this fate. Blackness in America is knowing that our lives at any time can be snuffed out. Yet in more diverse spaces in America, one can find comfort in communion with other Blacks but when living in a predominantly white space, we are denied the fellowship of others like us. This hit home for me a few days ago when a young Black person reached out to me on how to navigate life in this very white state.

To be brutally honest the past few days have been hard; hard conversations have been had as my very white husband and I admitted to each other that if we knew almost 20 years ago what we know now, we would not be. Not because of a lack of love but because life is hard enough when living as Black, and to bring children into the world who while technically biracial will be viewed as Black will test the boundaries of love. These children have to navigate a world where in many ways there is no place for them. To love and live across racial lines is harder than anyone can ever know. To live in a space where few can understand is hard under the best of conditions but to add active situations with strong racial overtones is to be a person who goes above and beyond and sadly I am not that person.

My heart is broken and my anger is quick, I am tired, I no longer want to be a sideshow attraction for well meaning whites. I no longer believe that justice is available to others freely because as Frederick Douglass said “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” Yet in these tender moments when I see faces that look just like mine fighting to be treated like humans, I am tired. I finally understand why Blacks on average have shorter life expectancies than whites, our hearts and souls give up the good fight. Today I sit unable to go outside because to know that at best I am a curiosity is too much,even in writing this I wonder if I should hit delete. Yet after a week of being teased, taunted and ridiculed for my belief that Black bodies are worthy of inclusion into the human family, I write this to show that we are capable of the full range of human expression. To inhabit a Black body in America is hard and to inhabit it in a space where there are few people who look like you is hard and a continual journey where you hope and pray that you don’t step on the landmine.

 

 

Uncomfortable truths and dead Black boys

“History, despite it’s wrenching pain, cannot be unlived; but, if faced with courage, need not be lived again,”- Maya Angelou

As the inhabitants of the US once again face the uncomfortable reality of yet another dead, unarmed Black boy, it’s clear to me that we are all living in a warped version of Groundhog Day. We are all trapped in a cycle that we most likely will never escape because we as a nation lack the heart and courage to talk openly and tenderly about our ugly truths. Truths that exist because of people long dead, ugly truths that we all live with today.

Instead we tell ourselves that race doesn’t matter, we tell that brand new lie that we are “colorblind”; those of us who point out that racial disparities are real are told to “stop our race baiting bullshit” as a reader recently told me on the BGIM Facebook page. Or worse yet we are told that we as Black people are responsible for the ills that befall us, that our children deserve to be shot down in the streets and left out like roadkill because we did not govern ourselves accordingly. We weren’t acceptable nor respectful enough thus we bring this pain upon our own heads.

Yet how can we tell another mother, that her son earned his savage killing at the hands of the local cops in Ferguson, MO. On a week when Michael Brown should have been picking out classes, his parents will instead be picking out his final resting place and fighting the national media’s compulsion which frames Black men as either devils or saints. Never fully acknowledging the range of humanity that exists within all of us and most certainly the range of humanity that exists within Black people.

Police Shooting-Missouri

A humanity that feels so deeply, because we know that we are all just one or two degrees of separation away from this pain that Michael Brown’s family is feeling. A humanity that took to social media to hold each other and share space and yet found itself mocked. A humanity that met on the streets of Ferguson, MO to gather as Black people do in times of trouble only to be met with police in riot gear whose presence and demeanor was not one of comfort but of escalation of tense feelings which brought about the predictable script that shows Black people as savages.

Even now as I write these words, words that have become so familiar yet so painful; young men being shot and killed should never become familiar. But how can we not deny the familiarity of these scenarios juxtaposed with the uncomfortable truth that these uncomfortable moments only affects some of us?

Perhaps one day we will find the courage that Maya Angelou spoke about, a courage that will allow us to rip these tattered bandages off these seeping, raw and bloody wounds of racism. Our only hope for survival involves more than an urgent care clinic approach to a disease that has ravaged this nation for so long.

Blessings to the Brown family and to all affected in Ferguson.

 

“A focus on racial disparities alone,” Powell continues, also “presumes that the baseline position of the dominant group is the appropriate goal for reducing or eliminating disparities.” That is, it risks naturalizing or presuming a “white norm” that should be the standard policy goal to measure racial justice (for examples white rates of wealth, income, graduation, home ownership, etc.) rather than rethinking the ways such systems must be fundamentally transformed.”- Daniel Martinez HoSang

Another news cycle and another Black mother’s visage paraded before us as an example of “bad” parenting. This time it’s Debra Harrell, a 46-year-old South Carolina woman who found herself  having to choose between her job at McDonald’s and her 9-year-old daughter. Harrell originally was bringing her daughter to work with her but after their apartment was burglarized and their laptop stolen, thus leaving her daughter with nothing to do while sitting at McDonald’s, Harrell made the decision to let her daughter play at the park down the way from her job while armed with a cell phone. This decision cost Harrell her job, her child and very possibly her freedom as she is facing a charge of unlawful neglect of a child which carries a 10 year sentence if she is found guilty.

A few months earlier it was Shanesha Taylor, an unemployed Arizona single mom who had a job interview and no childcare. Taylor went to the interview and left her children in the car which led to felony child abuse charges.

Poor, single mom faces 8 years for leaving kids in car during job interview

Each times these stories catch the attention of the national media, we are bombarded with a stream of factual and think pieces lamenting the lack of affordable childcare, well paying jobs and overall support for parents and kids. Without a doubt here in the US, we talk a good game about supporting families but the reality is we fall short. Very short. Until this year, most of my professional career was spent in social services both in Maine and Chicago and I know that all too often, families in need cannot find the support they need to not only survive but to thrive. In many ways this is old news.

Another thing that is also old news is that too many times stories such as Harrell’s and Taylor’s are retold to the larger world through a white lens. In the era of the mom blogger/writer as social activist, we hear these stories filtered through a white lens that lacks nuance and too many times in sharing the stories of others they also remind us of how “fortunate” they are because while their hearts go out for these women, they also know nothing of this world.

Stacia Brown, an African-American writer wrote a phenomenal piece on Black latchkey families that made me realize why stories that affect Black women and kids must be written by people of color. While African-Americans are not a monolith, many of us see life with a shared lens of understanding and a narrative that is largely absent from the white lens of life. Many of us were raised in families where choices were made that at times appear dysfunctional under a white, middle-class lens yet we know the lens that people like us live with and we can share the tales without the unspoken judgement that too often lurks in the background when whites, even so-called white allies, tell our stories.

For many of us, even if we have escaped bone-grinding poverty and need, we are not so are far removed that we can’t relate. Even in my own family, I have relatives who struggle. I have relatives who struggle with involvement in the criminal justice system. When I write, I write not only dispassionate facts and figures but I write from a place of lived experience. But too many times experiences such as mine never make it into the larger awareness or conscience.

Black women and men need to tell their own stories, because too many times only our tragedies make the news. Yet often there are untold stories of joy and overcoming that never make the headlines. We need to tell our own stories because our lives are more than think pieces that lead to click bait but our stories are the stories of human resilience in the face of obstacles and barriers yet when filtered through the white lens we are often nothing more than the poster children of “bad” when juxtaposed against the face of “good” which all too often wears a white face.

We live in a time when the goal is a white-washed form of colorblindness where we are measured against a standard that very few people of color can ever meet. We are not colorblind and the quest to pretend so is harmful because for too many of us it strips us of our humanity.

In the journey for racial and ethnic wholeness, we can all work together; in fact, we must work together.  But for white allies it is not to tell other people’s stories but to examine how the white narrative that is the norm is not only harmful to people of color but to whites as well because there re far too many whites who fall short of the white norm that is positioned as the “right way.”

Many will say such thoughts are “racist” without understanding that racism is a system yet our instinctual instinct to label “racist” what we don’t understand is just another reason why people need to tell their own stories thus revealing their own humanity. It’s when we connect on that very human level without judgement that true change is possible.

Systematic Destruction and Chicago….my hometown

This past weekend in Chicago, 82 people were shot and in a 24/7 news cycle kind of world where our attention flits from one tragedy  to another, rarely are we given an opportunity to go deep.  Instead we hear the grim stats, we feel bad and if we are given to empathy we may wonder why the people in “those” communities live like that. But rarely do we allow ourselves to go beyond the usual stock answer that involves a need for better gun control. Without a doubt, gun control is something that this country needs to get serious about but the gun lobby isn’t too fond of that idea and the chances of it happening anytime soon are slim to none in my opinion.

Chicago’s violence problem is less about guns and violence and more about what happens when people lose hope and communities are systematically stripped of the resources that allow people to live fully and completely. It’s also about how underneath the surface, racist policies set in motion decades before impact future generations when the bill comes due. This recent piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic pretty much breaks it down and explains how racism is still very real and impacts Blacks in ways that are often hidden from the average white person.

This post today, though, is personal; in reading about the shootings that occurred over the July 4th holiday weekend, I realized that several occurred in an area that I’ve long considered home, an area that for many years was the only home I knew.

In the mid-60s, my grandparents settled into a neighborhood on Chicago’s south side, they were one of the first Black families to move in and by the time I was born in the early 70s and was old enough to be aware, all the white families except for one had long since moved out of the area.

As a kid, my grandparents’ house was like the promised land; my grandparents were firmly in the Black middle class. Unionized factory jobs allowed them to own a 3 bedroom brick bungalow with a yard and access to the American dream which back when I was a kid included an annual vacation to Jamaica and Texas to visit family! My parents on the other hand had fully embraced a lifestyle that was counter to my grandparents’ “uptight” middle class life, having proclaimed themselves Black hippies. Looking back, I admire my parents for the choices they made but as a kid, I wanted the lifestyle that my grandparents had, which included Saturday morning trips to the grocery store where my Granny allowed me to put whatever I wanted in the cart! Overnight weekend visits to my grandparents was one of the highlights of my childhood: Saturday mornings involved a visit to bank, the barber, the grocery store and maybe even a special treat after all the errands were ran. Late afternoons involved playing with the other kids and grandkids on the block, the only rule being that when it started getting dark, it was time to come in. This was a tight knit community, so tight that at 14 when I started smoking and had snuck out for smoke while running to the store for my mom, a neighbor spotted me and had called my folks before I made it back home! In other words, it was a community, people knew each other and cared for one another and looked out for each other. It was a community with the things in a community that you expect to have to function; things like a grocery store.

Fast forward to my early 20s, after the breakup of my first marriage. I was 22 or so, divorced with a young child with no nickels to rub together and I desperately needed to get myself together. By this time, my grandfather had long since passed away, my grandmother had fallen out of the firmly middle class category and was teetering on the edge financially but she still had the house. My grandmother offered my son and I the chance to live with her so that I could get myself together but it didn’t take long to realize that this neighborhood was not the same one from my childhood. This was around 1994-95 and gone was the grocery store and many of the things from my childhood. The area had changed and not for the better; walking to the local library was a no-no because of gang activity. Several times I tried to order food delivery, only to have it not show up because the area was deemed not safe by the drivers. On more than one occasion, I had to beg cab drivers to drive me home. Our time there was brief but life-changing because when I left, I did indeed change my life around and my times there as an adult will forever be a part of me. But looking back, it was clear this was a community in decline. Yet none of the people on the block had changed. In fact, many of the families who had bought when my grandparents bought were still on the block and in the area.

Pressing the fast forward button once again to about 10 years ago, which is the last time I stepped foot in the old neighborhood and, well, I didn’t really know it anymore. Two days after my mom died, I was in Chicago and after making arrangements for my mom, my dad and I drove to see my grandmother. We were almost at her house when in my bleary eyed state, I realized that I needed some coffee, now for most of us the idea of grabbing a cup of coffee in the afternoon is something that just happens. Yet there was no coffee to be found in my grandmother’s immediate area, we had to drive a few miles over to the predominantly white neighborhood to procure a cup of coffee. A community in the third largest city in the US, one of the largest cities in the world, yet a cup of coffee cannot be obtained without going to another neighborhood…this is not good.

My grandmother passed away 18 months after my mom did and a few months before she passed away, she was robbed at gunpoint in broad daylight on her way to the store. A neighborhood she helped to create, a neighborhood that had risen and fallen in less than 40 years!!

I shared this personal tale because despite my current residence in Maine, Chicago is my home. I know it. It is in my blood. I also know that when Blacks moved in and whites moved out there was a brief golden period and then these same communities slowly devolved into something that no one could even imagine. Communities without grocery stores, doctors, banks, or any of the things that most readers of this piece assume to be the norm.

A dear friend of mine, after a decade away from Chicago, recently moved back home and told me there are parts of my hometown that look like literal war zones. I have relatives who tell me that places that I grew up going to are no longer safe areas, where going to grab a bite to eat might very well mean the end of your life.

At the same time in the 12 years since I have moved away, millions upon millions of dollars have been poured into beautifying Chicago and turning the parts of Chicago that are seen by tourists and white folks into showpieces. Millenium Park was completed after I left and while it is gorgeous, why couldn’t some of the money that helped create this showcase of a park be put into the communities that actual Chicagoans live in? In recent years, schools and public health clinics in almost all minority areas have been shuttered while resources have flowed abundantly into areas that have few minorities.  This is no accident; this is how systemic racism works. The systems are not equal yet it becomes easy to blame “those people” rather than to acknowledge the structural inequity that is very real in large swatches of brown and and black communities.

We all make choices but sometimes the choices are made for us and we are victims of chance. If one is hopeless, longevity of life and aspiring to something greater than ourselves is hard to fathom if we have no role models or means to make such things happen. The lure of the streets and quick money suddenly makes sense when the systems that should work to help us to be a part of something larger than our base selves are simply absent from our reality.

Excuse the typos, this was written after a very long day.

How a book gave me hope…thank you Dr. Angelou

Legend in my family has it that as a baby I was slow to crawl and I took my sweet time learning to walk. When I did learn to walk, I took my first steps in reverse. I walked backwards before I walked forward. I have never known how accurate this tale is but my dad swears it is the truth and in many ways walking in reverse would be the story of my early life.

When my peers were thinking of prom and college, I, having made the ill-fated decision to drop out of high school in my senior year was married and with child by the time my class graduated. When my peers were legally kicking back their first legal drink, I had an estranged husband and was juggling multiple jobs to take care of me and my son.

In my late teens and early adult years, my life was in reverse and truthfully it was a lonely time since by the early 1990’s, early marriages were definitely not the norm. It was in those lonely years where I struggled and frankly felt trapped by the decisions that I had made,  convinced that my life was over before it had even started. It was during that I came across the work of Maya Angelou. I can’t remember how it was that I came across her but I devoured her autobiographies.  Her personal story gave me the hope that despite the choices I had made, I could become any damn thing I wanted. That my journey might be rocky but it was not hopeless.

I could indeed sing, swing, and get merry like Christmas!

Hearing about the passing of Dr. Maya Angelou felt like hearing about the loss of a beloved family member and I did feel momentarily embarrassed to shed tears over the passing of someone who I had never even met. Until I realized that for many of us, she was that beloved aunt, granny, friend…she was beloved community who inspired many of us.

In a world where Black womanhood is rarely celebrated, Dr. Angelou was that woman who inspired so many of us, yet she was honest, she was messy, she was real. Listening to various recordings of her over the years, I was reminded of how much her voice reminded me of my own Granny’s. Strong, warm and buttery. Voices that endured so much, yet always found the sweet spot even in the midst of shit. A woman who came from a tradition of black womanhood where we understood that sometimes all we had was one another and we lifted each other up but we also kept it real.

Dr. Angelou’s passing has reminded me why we need to tell our stories because in telling them, we free ourselves and offer a bit of hope to someone else.

Thank you Dr. Angelou! I hope the party with the ancestors is a blast and that the macaroni and cobbler is right!

Another dead black teen, humanity denied yet again

Another dead black child, another childless mother and another scared white man who feared for his life at the hands of an underage and unarmed black teenager. The only difference this time is that unlike the last case involving a dead black child and a scared white man who took a life, the latest scared white man who felt he had no choice but to fire a gun into a carload of teenagers will most likely die in a cold prison cell. Yet even that knowledge is no comfort or victory to the parents of Jordan Davis as their son’s killer is going to prison not for killing their son but for attempting to kill their son’s friends who were in the car with Jordan. The jury in the Michael Dunn trial was deadlocked on whether Dunn committed murder in a case that was sensationalized by media outlets as the “Loud Music Murder Trial” instead of the white supremacy trial which would have been far more fitting. Whiteness as rightness and its many manifestations is what allows a 40 something year old white man to see an underage kid and perceive him as a threat worthy enough of immediate and violent death.

Last night as I mulled the verdict over in my head, I found myself thinking of run-ins I have had in recent years with local white teens. Run-in’s that serve as a regular reminder that no matter what we say and attempt to believe when it comes to race in America things are neither equal nor fair. Behaviors that are normalized in white youth are criminalized in Black youth.

A decade ago when our family bought our house, there were few kids/teens on the block, over the years the demographics have changed with the yard space between my house and my neighbor’s becoming a de facto hangout space for the preteens and teens who live in the area. This situation was worsened last year when our neighbors across the way, a pair of twenty something brothers put up a collapsible basketball hoop on the side of their house which faces the front of my house. It meant for weeks and months enduring white teenagers treating the area like a public park, complete with loud, braggadocios behavior, sometimes late into the night. It meant sometimes pulling into my driveway watching said white teens sitting on my porch, noshing while watching a ball game and side eyeing me as if I were an unwanted guest on my own property. The situation eventually came to a head after one long afternoon when I couldn’t take it anymore and was ready to just smash their heads into the backboard of that damn basketball hoop.

Yet a funny thing happened as I marched down the stairs and crossed the street and peered into the faces of the young men who all stood at least six feet tall. I looked into their faces and saw the faces of kids, teenagers on the cusp, straddling the line of almost adults and not quite kids anymore. A space where mistakes can easily be made, a place where forgiveness and understanding is required if we acknowledge the humanity of others; a place where boundaries of youthful pride and arrogance are pushed to the full limits and adults help to guide them to respectfully test the limits. In the end, it seems the kids never realized that they had been annoying me and my family and I recognized that ours is a culture that provides few safe public spaces for teens.

To see others as fully human requires putting aside all preconceived notions. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable, as a 40 year old Black woman walking into a circle of white teens, I can say that as pissed off as I was, I was also scared. What if they hurt me and/or my house for daring to speak up? But when we deny the humanity of others, we end up taking the lives of others and for what?

Every time a verdict is read in one of these stories, we are saddened and stunned. Tears flows, words are written, words are spoken yet the injustices keep on happening because for the vast majority of people we don’t see people who aren’t like us in the same light that we see people who are like us. I often wonder what would happen if the data showed that young white men were being profiled. What if every year going back 20+ years there were well known cases of young white men being killed for reaching for their wallets, going out to get a snack, etc.? What if every white mother knew of someone who had buried a son before the age of 25?

The sad and tragically short life of Jordan Davis is another chapter in America’s sordid racial history, the chapter that we now pretend doesn’t exist. There will be more Jordan’s and Trayvon’s as long as the only people fired up and affected hail from black/brown communities. While none of us alive today created the institution of racism, the fact remains that whites are her beneficiaries and that black and brown bodies are disproportionally affected by racism. It means that whites who had nothing to do with creating systemic racism will need to actively work to dismantle it but that requires a willingness to be raw, vulnerable and messy. It means seeing and truly believing that my son is as good as your son. Until then all the faux crocodile tears won’t stop the next George or Michael from taking a precious life.

 

Several years ago, I shared in this space how terribly difficult it is for me to have honest and real friendships with the vast majority of white women that I know; the only exception being white women who hail from working class backgrounds similar to my own where we can meet at the intersection of class.  To admit such a thing is not comfortable but as my own knowledge of systemic and structural racism grows from both a personal and professional perspective, I now understand the awkward dance that exists between myself and most white women.  It is the same awkward dance that exists between many white and Black woman in a nation founded on the backs of enslaved Africans.

Despite the lies that we tells ourselves and the truths that we are not comfortable uttering and the false belief that some of us cling to that race is irrelevant, the fact is that even in 2014, race matters. It matters because ours is a culture very much rooted in white supremacy and whiteness is the default setting for acceptability in the eyes of many. White supremacy is not just people in hoods burning crosses on the lawns of non-white people, but it’s also a system that privileges whiteness and white ways of being over all others regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. In other words whether or not you like or dislike non-white people, ours is a culture that values whiteness. Whiteness and white ways of being set the tone for how our culture operates. The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that uncomfortable truth creates a myriad of problems for all of us. We cannot and will not move forward and dismantle systems of unfairness when we cannot even name said systems.

This past week, several stories came across my mobile device that left me shaking my head and made me realize that any forward momentum as a whole will be halted until we (and to be frank, when I say we, I mean white people) start to move beyond talk of just acknowledging white privilege but start to become intentional in dismantling the systems that work in their favor. 

XO Jane, an online publication published a piece “It Happened to me: There are No Black People in my Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Uncomfortable with it”, this piece was horrible and on a personal note as a yogi, I felt that the writer needs to spend less time on asana (poses) and more time learning the eight limbs of yoga.  However the writer in sharing her personal feelings and observations on seeing what she describes as a heavyset Black woman struggling with the poses juxtaposed against her own skinny white girl body and her imagined feelings revealed not only a sense of personal ignorance but the insidious nature of how white supremacy operates: “Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body. I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”

The question is how did she know any of this to be true? She didn’t; but in a culture that promotes the idea that whiteness and thinness is the desired way of being, the writer assumed that the not thin, not white woman must clearly be upset to not be the writer.  This piece is an extreme exaggeration of what white supremacy can look like and chances are that if you are reading this piece, you are thinking what a stretch?

Later in the week, The Nation  published a piece “ Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” where the writer talks about the changes in the feminist movement as more nonwhite women enter the movement and utilize tools such as twitter to create change, give voice to our struggles and to connect. However the tone of the piece is less than complimentary towards women of color. As the face of feminism changes and more marginalized women come forward, the rules of acceptability in the feminist world are being changed as the marginalized create and make spaces that address our needs. This change is unsettling as change often is and more so when the old ways of being suddenly end.   In theory as women, we should all just be able to get along but the reality is that we are coming from vastly different places. Middle class white women want women of color and other marginalized women to play by their rules lest they be seen as bullies but to quote Audre Lorde “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” To ask women of color to bend in order to be accepted is just another subtle way that white supremacy lives on in our culture. We use language that describes social norms but who created the social norms that dictate how we are to engage? The norms come from a white perspective and in our culture we either adapt to those norms and as people of color are seen as “safe” or we don’t and we wear labels that “others” us. In my case as a Black woman, that often means being seen as an Angry Black Woman.

In the end though, we can move beyond this but as I stated earlier it takes intentionality and a turning inward to examine ourselves and the ways in which we are held hostage by systems we didn’t create but that we still live with and in some cases benefit from through no effort of our own other than being born a certain color.  Of course the flip side is that some of us are held back by these same systems through no fault of our own, other than being born a certain color.

I am reading a book, Waking Up White that I would highly recommend to any white person interested in moving beyond this matrix of race that we all live with in this culture.