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.
7 thoughts on “Race, words and harm…a BGIM thought dump”
As I said to you in a quick comment on Twitter…I would not have been able to bite my tongue with that mother — having the child leave the room. I agree with the first paragraph comment of “Detours from home”. smdh.
As for your former friend and author of the piece in the local paper…I just cannot even comment. I don’t even know where to begin. I’m walking away.
Seems to me that one of the failures of the liberal movement that invented affirmative action for people of color is that they failed to perceive that something was required beyond leveraging the government into imposing this on the existing system. I wonder if avoiding any overt connection to the wrongs done, so that poverty was not defined as the by-product of a vicious, corrupt system but simply a naturally occurring evil that would be erased “de facto”. If any part of the “War On Poverty” was supposed to serve as reparations, by disguising such an important fact gypped everyone of an emotional justification. Wars fail without the wholehearted support of the people who must fund them and politicians strive to provide powerful emotional arguments to justify the mayhem of war. Naming the effort to bring justice to the economy a “war” without also whipping up a national fervor of awareness concerning the evil deeds of First Nations genocide, chattel slavery, & Jim Crow and enthusiasm for absolution for these crimes through correction was stupid and ignorant. The wrongs of exploitation of human beings that created poverty were not discussed. Corporate greed was the backlash of the opposition to the war. We have a government in which the right hand and the left function as if belonging to different bodies. So the words that might have informed the spirits, intellects and moral compasses of the whole nation regarding the depth of the wrongs needing correction that would have justified the stridence of the actions were never born. The concepts and language of discussion that might have been been conceived in the hearts of the movement instigators came stillborn. Uninformed curiosity seems to be far more dangerous than we have been able to evolve to realize. Yet. So much for war.
In this case your exercise in restraint is both wise and admirable. I feel it would have added more injury to ream the mother in the presence of the child.
The instance with your long-ago friend is sad; fractured relationships are a bummer.
It is difficult for me to navigate cross-cultural relationships too….I find myself deferring and aquiescing too easily to women of wealth, education or status (not necessarily in that order). I view at it as a character flaw in myself.
Your story about the child/hair incident hurts my heart. I adore my 10 year old son’s beautiful curls and although I would prefer for him to keep them a bit shorter and less unruly, his feelings about them matter more to me.
I don’t even know where to start. But I will ask this question again: why do white women continue to breed–yes, breed–and procreate with black men, knowing damn good and well, they will produce a beautiful NAPPY-headed child? Are they expecting their magics white fairy dust will erase the n***a???
As for you [former] “friend,” she should know that there are somethings that you DO NOT say. When I read her article, I couldn’t event get past the first two lines. All if her intent was nullified in the opening. There are racist words that should neither be repeated nor confessed under the guise of “admitting” your privilege. Confessing your privilege does not mean doing violence in the process.
In fact, there’s a piece a white friend of a mutual Black friend of ours posted on FB (don’t know if you saw it), that models how to publicly deal with your privilege.
And, certainly, I’m no saint. I’ve been guilty of saying some very, very harsh things for which I’ve have to do major penance (and part of that penance involves dissolving the relationship). Likewise, I’ve had friends say some shit that I can forgive but I’ll never forget, nor will I trust them the same way.
People should THINK before they speak. An apology doesn’t assuage the pain.
I hope that, with time, your sharp, brittle edges will become softer and rounder, and that the big chip will soon fall from your shoulder.
“Confessing your privilege does not mean doing violence in the process.” – So true, thank you for this.
I’d love to read the piece on how to publicly deal with privilege. Can you link it here, or email me? firstname.lastname@example.org
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