Race, words and harm…a BGIM thought dump

Excuse the typos, I am writing this post from my office so it’s a bit rushed.

What a week this has been in BGIM land, the girl child turned 8 a few days ago and that rising start in the indie rap game known as Milo aka my firstborn, flew home to celebrate 8 years of the girl child. Having both my babies under my roof if only for a couple of days always warms my heart and turns me into the ultimate Mama Bear. Thankfully the family side of life is good because frankly, the other parts of my life have been challenging to say the least. Rest assured though this is not a rant about the daily travails of my life but instead I want to talk about the power of words and the impact our words can have on others especially in cross cultural relationships.

Many years ago, I lost a dear friend because in a moment of racial frustration, I said something so tacky and thoughtless that my friend, at that time a young white woman, couldn’t deal with what I said and our relationship ended immediately. After over 20 years of no contact, we reconnected thanks to that modern connector known as Facebook and in a weird twist of fate it turns out that we both live in New England approximately 200 miles away from each other. As great as it has been to reconnect, the foundation was laid over 20 years ago and we will never be able to undo the damage that was done and we know it. Instead we can share tidbits, look at each other’s photos and be thankful that the gift of time has lessened the pain, but we both know we can never forget. There are times, when words are truly that awful. Words can hurt worse than being physically pummeled at times.

This week at work, I had the misfortune of bearing witness to an exchange that cracked my heart a bit. Due to confidentiality, I rarely talk in specifics about my work but this is one time, I don’t care because the damage being done by words is far greater than the consequence of my dismissing the rules of my profession.

A mother came to pick up her child from the summer program at my community center, the child is biracial, very clearly half black and half white; Mama is white. The mama upon seeing her daughter while talking to me starts lighting into the child about how horrible her hair looks “It’s all matted and curly, I hate it, when we get home I am straightening this shit out.” I am standing there trying to close my mouth when the Mama proceeds to explain to me that she hates curly hair and that it is difficult to manage. Um…lady, did you not notice that you are talking to a very brown woman with 3 inches of very curly hair also known as nappy hair on her head? Have all the god-damned seats rights now, how dare you say this to a child in public. The mother’s contempt for the child’s hair was clear for all to see evidenced by the fact that after the center closed my staff and I talked about how painful that conversation was.

Some may be reading this post and thinking what’s the big deal? Well in a country that has effectively reinforced that the only beautiful woman is a white woman, ideally a white woman with blond hair and blues eyes. For a white woman with blond hair and blue eyes to tell her brown daughter that any part of her body is ugly is a great way to create a complex in a child of color. Never mind that if Mama openly berates the child in public for something so inconsequential as her hair, what the hell is she saying in private? For just a second that beautiful child who only wanted to hug her Mama wilted and I did all I could to restrain myself from not crossing the line professionally. Though after the Mama told me how she had cut most of this precious nugget’s hair off in an attempt to tame her hair, I did suggest that she visit the local Black salon a.s.a.p.

I went home so bothered that this white woman raising a brown child could be so utterly thoughtless in her words, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprise. People mean well and while intentions are great, the very real impact is another thing.

This brings me to another set of words that rattled me this week and something that is much harder to grasp. I have made no secret of the fact that it is extremely hard for me to navigate cross cultural relationships with white women. Ever since losing the aforementioned friend over 20 years ago, I have been cautiously guarded around white women. I don’t like to speak in generalities since they leave room for hurt feelings but I strive to be honest in all my words that I share. I find that it is easier for me to get along with white men and specifically with white women who hail from working class backgrounds. The intersection of class often allows me to make a connection that sticks.

Yesterday a woman who I had considered a friend for the past 8 years wrote a piece for a local paper that rattled me, you can read it but with an opener that includes “His really dark skin means he’s dangerous. Her wide nostrils remind me of a monkey.” The piece goes on to discuss racism and white privilege and while there may be a few salient points in her piece, the fact is as a Black woman raised in a Black family despite living in Maine and being married to a white guy, words such as this are deeply offensive, so much so, that our friendship may be at the end of its life cycle. This piece and the sting of my friend’s words reminds me of an argument that the Man Unit and I had several years ago, when I yelled out something to which he calmly replied if I ever said that again, our marriage would be over. There are some words that you cannot recover from as my old friend showed me many years ago. Some words are so painful, and so revealing of our true selves that once they are said, all you can do is move on.

So unlike the old adage “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” I beg to differ, words can hurt more than the hardest fist because they will replay in that continuous loop most of us have in our heads. When words are written down, they leave a lasting legacy that rarely can be undone, we may know our intent and how we feel but there comes a time in life when we should borrow from the world of medical ethics, Primum non nocereor first, do no harm. The best way I know to do no harm with my words is to mind that gap in my head and in my words.

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