In the fear of being racist, failing to be an ally

Trigger warning: this essay discusses sexual abuse and assault.

When I saw Dave Chappelle’s skit in 2003 of a music video parodying someone named R. Kelly, I’m ashamed to admit I thought it kinda gross but also kinda funny. (My shame today wants me to not tell you this, but I won’t let it stop me.) At the time, I didn’t know why he created the video. I also didn’t try to find out. So I didn’t know it had anything to do with sexual assault victims of R. Kelly. I just cringed, hummed along to the song, and laughed. A lot. I’m now horrified I was so dismissive of Kelly’s victims, but this isn’t about me and my feelings.

If you don’t already know about it, a documentary called “Surviving R. Kelly” recently aired on Lifetime television last week. The documentary exposes Kelly as a serial and sadistic abuser of young girls and women. Highlighting interviews with women who survived his abuse, it shows how his career has been “riddled with rumors of abuse, predatory behavior, and pedophilia.” And, “[d]espite damning evidence and multiple witnesses, to date, none of these accusations have seemingly affected him.”

It’s only because I follow many Black women on social media that I became aware of this documentary. In addition to the palpable pain and outrage the women expressed, I saw anger at white people’s silence. Anger at how we didn’t listen, didn’t see, didn’t hear when Black girls and women told us about the abuse.

For example:

Or this powerful tweet thread (several tweets connected together) by @DrSamiSchalk:

I tried to answer her questions (in my mind). Because I’m a sexual abuse and assault survivor myself, I certainly had thoughts about his predatory behavior, but it didn’t feel right to tweet about it. Why? Because he’s Black. I’m not saying I think it’s racist to bring awareness to his crimes, but I am saying part of me preferred speaking up about white perpetrators instead of a Black one. I am sure, too, that I was afraid it would seem racist to “pick on” this particular criminal. Tweeting about Jeffrey Epstein? Sure, but a Black man? Should I really do that?

Back to Dr. Sami Schalk:

Yes, I think my fear of being racist—and in this case, I mean causing harm to people of color as an individual rather than racism as the structure on which our country is founded—my fear is sometimes stronger than my solidarity with Black women and girls. (I recommend reading the whole thread, here.).

The solution for me is not to criticize the abuser himself—though I certainly wouldn’t defend him—but to talk about the system that allowed him to continue harming Black girls. A society that doesn’t value Black girls, doesn’t hear Black girls or women when they speak, or tells them to shut up when they raise their voices loud enough that they’re harder to ignore.

So many people were just like me, laughing along with Dave Chappelle. (Chappelle even went as far as saying 15-year-olds are old enough to offer informed consent to sexual acts with an adult.) Again, I won’t let my shame about the truth silence me: It must be that I didn’t care enough about Black girls and women to notice what they were saying.

It’s because of this that I will be talking with people about the systems that allowed Kelly to abuse these girls and young women. Twitter white woman Erynn Brook has some good thoughts on how to be white and against R. Kelly. The #MeToo movement, started by Tarana Burke, a Black woman, is a movement that stands against all abusers. But the truth is, not all survivors are treated equally. I will actively make sure my fellow white people know about “Surviving R. Kelly,” bringing to their awareness how our society has especially let down Black girls and women. Yes, all abuse is bad. But we’ve got to start recognizing that all survivors are equally deserving of our response; that thus far we haven’t acted like that is true. We need to care about Black girls and women more. We need to do more for and with Black girls and women so we can, together, destroy misogynoir.

If you want to learn more, check out Feminista Jones’ “Surviving R. Kelly’ and the Inherent Violence of Being a Black Woman;” this piece by Morgan Jenkins in Teen Vogue, “R. Kelly and Other Powerful Men Have Always Manipulated Their Teen Fans;” or, especially, this piece that includes viewing advice for those of us who haven’t yet seen the documentary: “After Surviving R. Kelly, What Now? How About Trusting Survivors and Dismantling Systemic Misogynoir?


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Photo by Lorna Scubelek on Unsplash

Yes, I’m POC, but 95% of the time I’m simply Black

This week, I made a little self-affirming, declaring-my-identity tweet, and it went like this:

Just a reminder, I’m Black. I’m not a Person of Color. It’s cool if you are but I’m not. I’m just Black. If using the term Black makes you feel uncomfortable, you should sit with it and examine why. Signed, A Black Girl in Maine.

It got some support. It got some raised eyebrows. It got some negative responses.

So, let’s have some real talk about the term people (or person) of color, or POC for short, and Black. And understand that while my tweet and this post focus a lot on Black (and blackness) because, well. I am, this is a post that could easily be substituted with “Indigenous” or “Latinx” or just about anything else besides “Black” (assuming you changed some of the specific historical examples and whatnot). But I’m blackity black Black, so lemme keep it real and personal, OK?

Yes, I am a POC. I live in a white supremacist, white-privilege-focused, white-centered nation in a world that in huge portions of it is pretty much the same way. POCs as a whole get pushed down and shoved to the side. That’s true. So, yes, I belong to the large group known as POC.

But you’ve heard of white-adjacent, right? Or “proximity to whiteness” maybe? OK, maybe not all of you. But the fact is, certain POC are treated less badly—sometimes way less badly than a Black person—because they aren’t as dark as Black people and because they are perceived differently by white people in terms of “threat level.” That’s a fact. And aside from how light (or not) a POC is, there are all kinds of cultural and historical differences (good and bad) that make us distinct as well from each other.

Black people and Indigenous people here in the United States and a whole lot of other places are pretty much the most maligned and abused POC groups. Blacks got chattel slavery and being seen as literal property with no agency for centuries, followed by brutal segregation and state-sponsored abuse and lynching that frankly continues to this day in many ways. Indigenous people were subjected to genocide and then their few remaining numbers put on reservations with few resources. And both groups have been subjected to efforts to dismiss their cultural traditions or stamp them out entirely, all at the same time as white people appropriated what they wanted from those cultural traditions.

Latinx people have had to deal with a lot of overt racism and cultural appropriation and disproportionate levels of police violence, too, but the history is different and the kind of hatred expressed toward them is different. And with other POC, like various Asian people, there is also a different flavor of racism directed toward them. And so on.

It’s true that as POC, we have a lot of shared goals. But the problem with casually and regularly referring to me as a person of color (when I identify as Black) or lumping any other non-white person into the POC category, is that you are ignoring their central identity. You are erasing the core of who they are for the most part. Because most people, at least in my experience, identify within their group primarily, and not primarily as POC.

In other words, when we are talking about issues that really affect all POC in a similar way (or most of them), by all means let’s say “POC.” But if you want to honor who I am and what I deal with day in and day out, you need to call me “Black.” Because my experience with racism, for example, day in and day out, is as a Black person. A Black woman.

And that’s another spot where I see an example of erasure. Being a woman under the umbrella called feminism. Because as has often been noted by women of color (Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Indigenous, etc.), much of feminism is white-centered, and the moment non-white women try to bring attention to particular sexism or misogyny tied to their race (or in the case of trans women, their sexual identification), they are called divisive and accused of derailing the movement. They are called upon to just be women and to follow a white-led party line and to put their specific concerns aside for now (which really means over and over again forever), no matter how horrible their specific experiences are compared to white and/or cis women.

I am not rejecting my shared plights with POC when I insist on being called Black. I am not being divisive when I say I am a Black person first and a POC secondarily. I am asserting my identity and my experience. I am embracing my racial history and culture and being proud of who and what I am. Being Black has a ton to do with how I was raised, the way I speak, the food I hold dear, the notions I hold sacred, the music I love and the way I dance—and so much more. The same is true of so many Latinx or Hispanic people and Asian people in all their varied forms, and other POC who are not just part of some monolithic group called “people of color.”

I am also identifying myself in a specific way because my blackness causes me to be treated in a way that other POC are not, just as their race or ethnicity or both cause them to be treated in a different way than me.

We have a shared struggle against white supremacy, but burying our cultural and racial identities under the term POC to me doesn’t feel like it will honor our ancestors, our history or our culture.

It seems to me it will only help to erase or obscure them, and that serves whiteness more than it serves us, I think.


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Photo by Eloise Ambursley on Unsplash

Racism really only goes one direction mostly

Remember when white people thought that Obama’s election meant we got rid of racism? Remember how cute that was? Well, I hope you’re getting ready for some more cuteness! Whenever 45 leaves office you won’t even be able to count the number of talking heads and think pieces talking all about how we got rid of racism again! But you can bet your post-racial ass that that’s not how any of this works.

All things are not even. Racially motivated attacks went up when Obama was elected. Then 45 got elected and what do you think happened?

They went down.

Just kidding. They went up the next fucking day because it only ever goes in one direction.

—-

Last week, while at work, a young, Black woman was attacked by a white man. The woman, Yasmine James, was employed by McDonald’s and the white man was a customer, demanding a plastic straw. Here’s CNN’s article about it.

The first line is, “A new plastic straw law had unexpected consequences when a man lashed out at a worker at a fast food chain.”

Now, first of all, you know goddamn well that his lashing out was a very expected consequence of a misogynist and racist culture of violence, but CNN doesn’t see that. Even looking right at it, the most open minds seem to only say, “Good for her! She got her shots!” But that’s a problem, too.

In that statement is the idea that Black women are tougher than the rest. We accept that idea on falsely natural terms, without any type of context. We never ask why that could possibly be. We don’t consider that a system’s neglect and persecution would force some to either die or defend themselves against the terror and abuses unseen by those with systemic protections. No, instead we look on with idiotic admiration as though that’s just the beauty of Mother Nature’s obvious intentions. We don’t protect Black women. We arrogantly and condescendingly applaud from a soothing distance while they, alone are compelled to protect themselves.

By accepting the idea that Black women are naturally (or genetically) tougher, we accept the idea that they do not need the rights and protection guaranteed to them as people. In so doing, we also remove their humanity, implying that they don’t even experience natural human emotions, like fear.

So, sure, she whooped his ass. And, yes, it’s because she’s a badass, but that is beside the point. The point is that it is unacceptable to require that of her or any other Black woman.

—-

Imagine a small, belligerent man. Imagine him yelling in the face of a much bigger man. Imagine the much bigger man being very patient with the small, belligerent man. The much bigger man tells the small, belligerent man to walk away, but he refuses and continues being belligerent. You’ve probably seen something like this before. You know how it turns out. Usually the much bigger, formally patient man takes the small, belligerent man, puts him out like a cigarette and you wonder why the small, belligerent man ever thought it could’ve gone any other way.

Now imagine the same scenario from the beginning, except the much bigger man is a police officer. Now imagine the much bigger police officer is telling the small, belligerent man to walk away because he’s obstructing an investigation. But the small, belligerent man refuses, saying something like, “I’m gonna stand right here and talk however I want because this is fucking America!” Or something like, “Back up offa me, bitch!”?

This one’s a little harder to visualize. Not only could this much bigger cop put the small, belligerent man out like a cigarette, but, you know, the police kill about a thousand people a year because they’re pretty much allowed to. It’s kind of a silly situation to imagine, but that’s me. I’m a Black man. Every run-in I have with the police I do my level best to get through as easily as possible. Even if I was white, though, I still don’t think I could believe that the state-sanctioned power of my skin color would out match the cop’s state-sanctioned license to kill.

But what if I was white and the cop was Black? Could my skin tone allow me to then behave as though I had authority over any Black man despite his station in life? I mean, yeah. Absolutely. I could totally see that. And so can you, right here.

Yup. That happened. A small, belligerent, white man was told by a much bigger, Black cop at least five times to “keep walking” because he was obstructing an investigation. And the small, belligerent, white man refused.

What if the possession of the badge been reversed? How many times do you think that command would’ve been given before the gun came out?

The small, belligerent, probably drunk, white man resisted arrest. A lot. Again, reverse possession of the badge and how much resistance happens before the gun comes out? We don’t need to reverse it. We’ve seen it. A disproportionate amount of times. This situation is the reversal.

Whiteness allowed that small, belligerent—probably drunk—white man to obstruct a police investigation, defy police commands, curse out a police officer to his face, resist arrest and survive just the same as it allowed that motherfucker in McDonalds to assault Yasmine James.

Whiteness allowed that same motherfucker in McDonald’s to later call the cops and falsely claim he had been robbed by a group of Black people just the same as it allowed that small, belligerent, probably drunk, white man to talk on the radio like he’s giving his own arrest a goddamn Yelp review.

And whiteness makes me wonder if Yasmine and the cop will get to keep their jobs because, like I said before: This really only ever goes in one direction.


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