A Lifetime of Abbys: Reflections on a recent episode of Scandal

Abby and Olivia (played by Darby Stanchfield and Kerry Washington)   

Abby and Olivia (played by Darby Stanchfield and Kerry Washington)   

I don't generally write about TV shows.

While I do watch TV (a lot), my writing tends to be much more grounded in the truth of my own reality than the fiction that I enjoy watching on a regular basis. But last week something about the episode of Scandal really spoke to my soul. Perhaps it was because of all the events that had transpired the day that it aired. Perhaps it was because of all of the events that I have experienced over the last several decades.

I spent that Wednesday and Thursday in Pennsylvania doing very exhausting but fulfilling work with a group of local union leaders on getting a resolution passed that was designed to further racial and social justice efforts in their local. The team that was proposing the resolution and the set of recommendations that accompanied it had been on a 14-month long journey in which they had done a deep dive into exploring what it meant to improve racial equity in their organization. My colleague and I had been their facilitators along the way. The work was hard. The group had gone through a number of difficult conversations about race, gender, and social identity. They’d had numerous conversations about what this work meant for them personally and professionally and why it was necessary to do it for their organization. There were disagreements and breakdowns along the way. And, in between, there was a life-altering election that broke people’s hearts and spirits. But in the end, the group came together—energized by a passion and commitment to racial justice and a desire to what was right for their union members and for the community at large. It was amazing to be a part of and was a highlight of my professional career. But I was tired—worn-out actually. It came at a time where I was coming out some major life transitions—personally and professionally. And I, like many of us, was and am still struggling to make sense of the madness of this election and what it means to experience life in the Trump era when every day seems like it is full of chaos, disorganization and coordinated attacks meant to disenfranchise the lives of people of color and the most vulnerable in society. I was also tired because racial justice work is exhausting. Holding space for people to work through their shit is exhausting and, invariably in mixed race spaces, white fragility and defensiveness shows up and even when you are not the person who has to facilitate those specific conversations (thank God for amazing white people who do this work and do it well so you don’t have to constantly educate people) sometimes it can leave you bone tired and needing to save your energy for more pressing battles ahead.

So that’s all that was happening for me as I was going into watching this episode. And sometime over the course of those two days, I also had the grave misfortune of witnessing the Kendall Jenner Pepsi commercial. Whew! That warrants an entirely separate blog post, and so many other folks have written about it so much better and thoughtfully than I could, so I will save my precious words here and just say that I was not at all amused by the commercial—not in the least. In fact, what occurred to me, after watching it, was that once again how toxic I feel relationships with white women can be for people, specifically women, of color. (I'm consistently amazed how the black folk in the Kardashian's lives sign off on their racial fuckery.) Now, I have written about this toxicity before, right after the Trump election. In particular, I have pondered the duality of having relationships with white women when they can be both incredible allies to women of color and also deeply complicit in our subjugation and abuse. And I was really feeling, in those days leading up the watching this episode of Scandal, both the duality of incredible allyship/friendship in my racial justice work in Pennsylvania with white women as well as my incredible frustration with tone deafness of white women in that same work and also downright disgust with Kendall Jenner and the type of white supremacy that allows the Kardashians to be a million dollar money making franchise.

And then I watched the episode. And my relationships with white women clicked into laser sharp focus into quite a way that they hadn’t before.

Though I don’t consider myself much like Olivia Pope, I realized that I have definitely had an Abby in my life.

In fact, I have had lots of Abbys.

This will be hard to explain if you aren’t a fan of Scandal. Basically, before they had a major falling out, Abby was Olivia’s right-hand woman. Her trusted ally and go to person. Abby is smart and capable. But here’s the thing—Abby is never really a match for Olivia. Olivia is better looking, Olivia is smarter, better educated, better employed. Olivia is in charge. And although Abby is on a surface level Olivia’s best friend, Abby is so jealous of Olivia that she cannot stand really Olivia. She loves Olivia and will technically do whatever Olivia wants her to do but deep-seated envy is always teetering near the surface. And while these may sound like dynamics you assume are typical among women, they are actually quite a big deal, in particular because, Abby is not supposed to be jealous of Olivia. Olivia is black and Abby is white. White women are supposed to be the envy of black women, not the other way around.

This is certainly not to say that I’ve been the envy of all the Abbys in my life. Do I think some of them have been envious of me? Yes, I do. But more than anything I believe that unconscious white entitlement and superiority can and often does play out in friendships between white and black women—its insidious and comes up in all kinds of toxic ways when people are unaware and haven’t done their work.

Abby’s entitlement as a white woman hadn’t really become clearly to me until last season when she leaves working for Olivia to work for the President of the United States. And this season she shows up fully in her power and “in charge”—both politically and racially. She becomes power hungry and I have been really irked by her all season and it wasn’t until this last episode until I understood why. Her behavior has mirrored so many of my experiences with white women in the work world. She gets proximity to power by way of a white man, which has been afforded to her, ironically, by the labor of a black woman. Once she gets there, she proceeds to treat said black woman like shit. When confronted by said black woman, she resorts to tears to get back into the good graces of her black friend. These tears represent a kind of violence. When white women cry, the whole world literally stops to comfort them and in doing so, their tears serve to delegitimize the real feelings and harm they do to black women. And their tears allow them to absolve themselves of the responsibility of participating in systems that perpetuate white supremacy and patriarchy.

As I mentioned, I have definitely had my own Abbys at work. White women who have gained favor with white men or other white women due to success on a project or training or paper I worked on but my contributions went ignored. White women who were temporary allies with me while it suited them only to turn their backs on me when it wasn’t convenient. Mediocre white women I’ve seen get promoted over me or make way more money than me—some of who came after me in the organization and most of whom didn’t have the same education or level of experience. White women whom I’d confronted about their own or their colleagues’ racial microagressions or outright racism only to have them cry about it and make me feel like a “reverse racist” for bringing it up. After nearly twenty years in the work world, they are an amalgam of names and faces but the list is long and the experiences vast. I know Abby well and I know exactly what she is capable of. Of all the characters on the show, Abby is most certainly the most real to me.

In this particular episode, Olivia and Abby have a falling out. And as these thoughts were swirling together for me—the toxic relationships with white women, the Abbys, my racial justice work—I felt a relief when temporarily, Olivia and Abby argued and looked like they were ending their friendship; seemingly ending this cycle of abuse that I know so well. I desperately wanted Liv not to forgive her. After my memories came flooding back of all my own Abbys and Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial, I felt enormous satisfaction and relief when Olivia made her anger with Abby physical and slapped her not once, not twice, but three times. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! It was as if, for just a moment, hundreds of years of invisible injuries and bruises, all the macro and micro aggressions were temporarily healed.

But at the very end of the episode, after Abby breaks down into classic white woman tears, Olivia forgives her. And I must admit that my glorious sense of satisfaction gave way to a kind of sadness and grief. Seriously, I could feel my face scrunch up into a mean mug as the credits were rolling. And then I was vexed for the rest of the day. Then I was left with this final thought— I know that I can’t stay in a place of anger forever. And to be clear: I’m not angry with white women. But I am angry with white supremacy. And I am angry with the white women who choose to continue to remain complicit with it. If Olivia Pope forgives her Abbys, that doesn’t mean I have to. Because truth be told, I have ZERO room for any more Abbys in my life.

On The Line: Labor Activism In The Trump Era

Editor's Note: The following blog post is a dialogue between myself and Marc Polite on labor activism and how the labor movement can engage Millennials of color. It was great to be able to exchange our perspectives and ideas; particularly with Marc having many years of experience as a labor activist and myself more recently having come to work in the movement. With the inauguration of Donald Trump just a few weeks away, conversations like these will be essential as progressives figure out how to develop strategies for organizing and resisting policies that are harmful to working people, their families and other vulnerable populations. Follow Marc's work at Polite on Society.

Who are you, how did you both meet and why this topic?

Marc’s Answer:  Marc is a writer and labor activist from New York City. He presented a talk over the summer called “Economic Justice in a Post Obama Black America. This current topic relates to us, because we both presented at BloggerWeek 2016, and decided to collaborate. Considering that Polite On Society and Conflict Undone both deal with issues from a progressive point of view, our working together makes sense.   

Marc and Kelly met at BloggerWeek 2016.          

Kelly’s Answer: Kelly is a writer, educator and consultant who focuses on the intersections of diversity, communication, conflict and identity. She is based in Washington, DC. Kelly manages the organizational equity and inclusion program for a national labor union with over two million members. When they reconnected at BloggerWeek 2016 (they actually met in 2015 at BloggerWeek but Marc doesn’t remember!), they both talked about their work in labor and thought it made sense for a collaboration around progressive issues and the labor movement.

What role can the labor movement play in the lives of young Millennials of color?

Marc’s Answer: The Labor Movement can play the role of community. As millennials typically don’t gravitate to church, there is a vacuum there of influence that can be entered. Especially now, with such an anti-labor president that we have incoming in the persona of Donald Trump, it will be even more important for Labor to make its voice heard and its impact felt.

Kelly’s Answer: I think the Labor Movement can mobilize Millennials of color by providing an organized space to do meaningful change work around critical issues of importance for this generation. Job and economic opportunities, student loan debt, climate change, and especially racial justice, are all issues that impact this generation more than any other. Labor has the infrastructure and the people power to connect these issues and coalitions of people to the broader issue of economic justice. What will be a challenge, however, is for Labor to know how to effectively partner with other activists and organizations currently doing this work. As with any social justice work, there are opportunities to lead and there are opportunities to follow. Knowing when to do which will guarantee the effectiveness of a multi-issue movement.

What are some ways the labor movement can organize and mobilize Millennials of color to become politically and socially engaged?

Marc’s Answer: By connecting to the need for a jobs program, and a rebuff of the “gig” economy.

 Kelly’s Answer: I think this generation often gets a bad rap and is consistently marginalized. As much as society portrays Millennials as lazy, entitled and disengaged, I see just the opposite. I see young people using their creativity, interests and leveraging technology to make a change. I think the Labor Movement could benefit from this energy. Using technology to educate, organize and mobilize people has been a trend within this generation. I would love to see Labor come into the present by using some of these new methods of organizing and outreach which speak to young people and their ways of participating in the world. To Marc’s point, I think the “gig” economy has struck a chord with people because it taps into their desire for entrepreneurship and autonomy. So instead of pushing against it, I wonder how Labor could work with it and benefit from it. What if Labor began to organize those workers? How might that make the movement relevant to Millennials who may not be interested in traditional 9-5 jobs? I think these are all questions worth exploring.

How can the labor movement benefit from the energy and knowledge of Millennials of color?

Marc’s Answer: The labor movement seems moribund. Isolated. The protests for the end of police brutality have a broad focus, and draw 1000’s of people.

Kelly’s Answer: Don’t marginalize young people and create opportunities for them to lead. The Labor Movement still has the appearance and attitude of an all white, boys club that values tenure over fresh ideas and perspectives. While female leaders and leaders of color are now heading some unions, the culture remains overwhelmingly masculine and white dominant. Investing in the leadership of young people of color and then creating the space for them to lead can re-energize and reinvigorate a movement that many feel is stale.

Why don’t millennials look to labor as a force as past generations have?

Marc’s Answer: Lack of connection.

Kelly’s Answer: Agreed. And Millennials may not have the patience while Labor struggles to figure out how to make the movement for economic justice an intersectional one.

Is there a way to turn that around?

Marc’s Answer:  In steps. Unionization drives, rallies, connecting the struggles of the unemployed/underemployed to those of union workers… and eventually unions have to start winning battles and reviving the strike as a weapon.

Kelly’s Answer: I’m not sure. But I would love to see smart, capable young people of color involved in thinking it through!

Why has organized labor ceased speaking out on social issues?

Marc’s Answer: The unions don’t want to get bound or bogged down in issues not directly related to their members, and is hesitant to speak on social issues that are at variance with the views of some of the politicians they may have to end up endorsing.

Kelly’s Answer: I think it’s an act of courage that not all unions are willing to do. To Marc’s point, members drive a very big portion of the conversations and strategy within Locals and nationally. If a union takes on a social issue, it may receive backlash from members who want their union to do nothing more than negotiate contracts. Or if it’s a police union or some other entity, it may see progressive social issues in direct contradiction to their work and profession. If there is any silver lining to the election of Trump to the presidency, it is that I am hopeful now that Labor will have to organize around social issues because they are increasingly relevant to the lives and well-bring of today’s workers. 

Wake Up Everybody

An image of a record featuring the song "Wake Up Everybody" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass.  

An image of a record featuring the song "Wake Up Everybody" by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes featuring Teddy Pendergrass.  

Since my last post was about awakening and listening to what the universe tells you, I cannot help but see the connection between that and yesterday’s election results. 

Though I am left completely aghast at the reality of a Trump presidency, I do think there is a larger plan at work here. While I don’t know what that is, I do know the message of opening your eyes and seeing what is really in front of you resonates now more than ever.

Last night, the nation chose white supremacy. And while over 59 million people did not, we still woke up this morning to the news that a white man with no governing experience who based his entire candidacy on fear, racism, sexism and xenophobia is now the president-elect. 

Despite all the talk before the election about whether or not the Obama coalition would show up, one thing is clear and we do know who did show up. White people. White people overwhelmingly voted across religious, gender, education and class lines to vote for Trump. He never hid who he was. He made it perfectly clear that he had no respect for women, "the Blacks", "the Hispanics", Muslims, immigrants, people with disabilities. And they chose him anyway. No matter what we say to make ourselves feel better, hate actually did trump love, at least temporarily, last night. 

So if you are a member of one of these groups, or hold multiple memberships in these groups I listed above (as I do), it's hard to not see this as a vote against you. A vote that serves in the most sobering of ways to remind you that some people were so undone by 8 years of an Obama presidency, became so unhinged at the changing demographics in this country, felt so uncomfortable with some of the social progress that we have made, that they decided to vote this truly terrible human being with no experience into office.

In case it wasn’t before, it's very clear now that there is absolutely no threat to white male patriarchy. Some 58 million voters, the majority of them white, made sure of that last night. Including white women. Especially white women.

For me, that’s the part that feels the most frightening and the saddest.

I’ve been around white women my whole life. White women were my best friends in elementary, high school and college. White women are my cousins and aunts. They are, in the literal sense of the word, my family.

But I also know that I, as do many black women and women of color, have a tenuous relationship with white women. Or more specifically, white womanhood.

The truth is that, for all their presence in my life, white women are generally the ones who don’t get me, or rather what it means when I talk about what it is like to be a woman and black. Though many of them claim feminism, I experience many as practicing a kind of feminism that is not intersectional and doesn’t recognize the layered oppressions of misogyny and race and class and sexual orientation. Some don’t even want to do the work of unpacking those layers. In my essay about Hillary’s nomination, I said that I was well aware that gains for white women didn’t necessarily translate into gains for non-white women. I have experienced many white women as looking out for each other in school, at work and in life while doing the exact opposite for sisters of color.

I have also experienced white women who are progressive but behave in equally damaging ways similar to the above. The ones that think that because they are married to or in relationship with brown people, they know more about race and racism than I do or that they are impacted by it in the same ways that I am. They often talk over me in conversations about social justice or try to silence me or center themselves and their experiences with oppression because they haven’t quite done their own work. They, too, haven’t yet tried to understand what it means to be a woman and black.

Either way, the experience is the same. They haven’t learned how to listen to black women.

And yet, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I also have experienced incredible allyship with some white women. White women who celebrated engagements with me and consoled me in heartbreak, white women who send me notes to say they are thinking of me and appreciate my voice and writing and wisdom. White women who are Jewish or immigrants to this country who can have complex and nuances conversations about race and class and gender. White women who came to my dissertation defense. White women who chaired my dissertation and were my fiercest advocates in graduate school. Queer white women who are some of the best diversity practitioners and racial justice workers I know.

So, this election is so deeply personal for me, in part, because it brings up the complex duality of the relationship I have with white women. And makes me wonder what the state of relationships across gender and race can be in the wake of a Trump presidency.

If you are white and especially if you are a white woman, and especially if you voted for Hillary, you may feel anger, guilt, shame or defensiveness when you hear people and me name you, as a white person, as responsible for this madness.

While I'm clear my job isn't to center you as white people in this moment, I can actually see where you are coming from. White people are not used to being seen as a group. One of the ways that power and privilege function is that when you are in the dominant group, you get to see yourself as an individual. And since many of us pride ourselves on thinking that we are good people individually, and do not recognize group identity, privilege and its impact societally, it hurts to think of ourselves as participating in the oppression of others; especially if they are people we care about.

I confess that I struggle all the time with my privilege. As a native born American, as a multiple degree holder, as a straight person, as a cis gender woman… the list goes on. One of the things that happened more recently to remind me of my privilege was the shooting at Pulse Night Club in Orlando.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do. But I did my best to show up in a way that wasn’t toxic. I sent texts to my queer friends to tell them I loved them and was thinking of them. I read every one of their Facebook posts and chose not to comment when I was feeling judgment or defensive. I listened when they talked and screamed and cried about feeling targeted because of who they are. I went to a vigil and kept silent. I tried hard not to draw attention away from them or trying to “connect” in that moment by sharing my experiences as a black person and a woman. I acknowledged that I didn’t know how they were feeling but that I deeply cared.

Because, in that moment, I didn’t want them to feel shittier. And I felt like those things, those very small things, were the least I could do. I also felt a responsibility as a member of a privileged group, when it comes to sexual orientation, that I needed to own my group membership.

I don’t hold most individual white people I know responsible for the election results. But I need them, those “good white people”, to collectively take ownership of their group membership and understand what it means in this context. 

I need them to acknowledge that this impacts me differently than it does them. Because while I have no doubt that this election has set back gender relations decades and means we still haven’t broken that highest glass ceiling, it also isn’t the same when I think about walking around in my black woman skin after this election. I live not too far from the U.S. Capitol and all I can think about is what happens when I am walking my dog near Capitol Hill post inauguration and someone yells a racial slur at me or tells me to go back home. What if I’m by myself? What if I’m with my Hispanic immigrant husband? What will our city of Washington DC feel like when the active KKK members who supported our new president come to town? Will it still feel like home? What if they become violent like they did at his rallies? I need the white people in my life to be aware that I do not have whiteness as a shield to protect me from these things.

Like I said in my previous essay, now more than ever, I am fully awake and aware of everything around me. Including what the election results mean for people who look like me.

I need white people, and especially the white women in my life, to be aware and to see it too. 

 

 

 

Eyes Wide Open

This summer was difficult for me. Painful, in fact. For the first time in 38 years, some dramatic life events happened which caused me to face the fact that I had created a reality for myself, which was neither realistic nor sustainable. A harsh truth to come to terms with, but deep, thoughtful introspection made me realize that I had created a fictionalized world filled with unrealistic expectations to make up for the disappointment that had long characterized my childhood and adulthood. I was aspiring for the perfect marriage, perfect friendships and perfect career; largely because I felt so imperfect inside. But the fantasy was slowly caving in on itself until I had no choice but to face it head on- eyes wide open.

I think I had this realization in late August. Sometime after the bottom dropped out. My relationships were suffering. Things were rough at home. A good friend that I’d known for over twenty years and a close relative that I relied heavily on for moral support both suddenly stopped talking to me. I began to feel restless at work. I started questioning the meaning of life and realized that I was experiencing more than just a midlife crisis come early.

The signs were everywhere. My head throbbed and my inner voice shouted loudly but I had trouble deciphering the message. But there was no clearer sign then when I was at my weekly healing circle and randomly chose three cards from a soul coaching deck. The first card I pulled was “Awakening.” The card said: “I am joyously awake and aware… and ready for anything.”

The second card read, “Joy.” The third card read, “Adventure.”  

The message suddenly became crystal clear. Opening my eyes fully and seeing what was in front of me would lead me to find joy, which in turn would bring wonderful new experiences.

I promised the universe and, more importantly myself, in that moment that I would no longer go through life with the blinders that had protected me for so long. The blinders gave me the illusion of safety and were my default modus operandi but they were really preventing me from seeing not just reality but the humanity and imperfection in myself and the people around me.

As painful as reality is, it can also be a catalyst for growth and change.

It was time to wake up. Like Laurence Fishburne’s character, Dap, at the end of the movie School Daze, every fiber of my being was yelling at me to “WAKE UP!”

My memory flashed back to years ago when I had my cowrie shells read and the reader told me that my eyes weren’t open and that I refused to see the truth about what was in front of me.

Suddenly, I detected a theme in my life. One that I was apparently blissfully unaware of or chose to ignore. One that may have temporarily felt safe but was also no longer serving me.

I began with small changes. I was overwhelmed with the idea of changing my life dramatically but I knew that I could do a few things here and there to find joy and adventure.

I found my way back to dancing tango after almost a decade away. It has been pure bliss. And unlike my first time around, this time the classes have other Black women in them. Of all shapes and sizes. I feel like I’ve finally found a dance home.

A good friend sent me a meditation app for my phone and I began a daily meditation practice. The meditation serves as reminder to keep breathing and stay calm. For the first time in my adult life, I have been able to deal with certain conflicts that deeply trigger me without flying into a rage and becoming unhinged.

I got brave enough to commit more fully to my desire to give up eating meat and have started experimenting with cooking vegetarian options through Green Chef. I still hope someday to become a full vegetarian. Aside from the good I think it will do in the world, it also feels better for my body. And, at this point in my life, it feels important for me to make choices that honor my physical and emotional well-being.

Most importantly, I have begun to see the world as it really is. I have finally begun to acknowledge the pain I feel from disappointing interactions and relationships with intimate partners, friends, family members and colleagues without trying to transform it or creating a fantasy to wish it away or make myself feel better. I sit with the pain now and don’t judge it or myself for feeling it. I make an effort to feel it like I feel joy. I practice giving voice to it. I also practice letting it go.

Last week, I randomly happened across a horoscope for myself and have been repeating the words ever since. They are exactly what I need to anchor my awakening in this moment.

In part, it read: “With this new moon, I cast spells of psychological well-being by refusing to reject any part of myself, no matter how fearsome, powerful or intense. I do not turn away from myself. I cast spells that help me to create healthy boundaries in all the relationships that I share my energy in. I cast spells that help me to hear my own needs more clearly and to tend to them more carefully.”

After 38 years, I have finally abandoned the fantasy in my head for reality- in all its messy complication. I am proceeding through life eyes wide open. I am ready to be awake and even more ready for the joy and adventure that await me.

 

 

 

 

 

The Tango Lesson: El Primer Paso (The First Step)

Movie poster from Director Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson." Courtesy of: http://alchetron.com/The-Tango-Lesson-28311-W

Movie poster from Director Sally Potter's "The Tango Lesson." Courtesy of: http://alchetron.com/The-Tango-Lesson-28311-W

It is a seemingly basic, not terribly interesting plot for a movie.

Frustrated with writer’s block, a writer-filmmaker takes a break from her craft and travels on a trip to Paris where she falls in love with a dance, and later, a man.

It was already seven years old when I came across it in 2004; tucked away among the many other foreign films on VHS that no one rented from the Blockbuster in Adams Morgan in Washington, DC.

I took it home to my tiny studio apartment and it was a day or two before I watched it. I can’t remember which day of the week it was. I vaguely remember that it was sometime after I’d finished my last graduate class and around the time that I broke up with a man I’d been dating for nearly five years.

I had no expectations of the film; other than it might be a good opportunity for me to get practice with my Spanish and if, I was lucky, it might have nice cinematography.

Who knew that watching The Tango Lesson would be the beginning of a 12-year love affair? The worst kind of love- the kind that leaves you breathless with anticipation and longing for your partner one minute, only to shatter your heart and make you question everything about your self worth the next?

To be totally honest, I knew nothing about tango and really nothing about Argentina. I spoke Spanish and at that time had been making a living by teaching it in schools for the last five years so my knowledge was basic and I could give you the Reader’s Digest version of facts about the country. But I’d spent much of my education and training focused on Mexico, Spain and the Caribbean. I loved music in Spanish but was much more likely to listen to Latin pop music, salsa and merengue than Rock en español or musica protesta. I loved Shakira, Elvis Crespo, Celia Cruz and Marc Anthony but had zero idea who Carlos Gardel was.

So imagine my surprise when I watched this 1 hour and 41 minute movie and was totally mesmerized. The melancholy and haunting emotion of the music stirred something deep in my soul and the intimacy of watching two people dance so closely and communicate so much without words and through such seemingly simple movements spoke to my head and heart.

I was completely captivated.

Yet, it was several months, maybe even close to a year, before I decided to actually do anything about it.

Life got in the way.

The breakup with the boyfriend happened. It was painful and ugly. I left my tiny studio apartment with no job and no place to live and moved in with a friend in Baltimore for a while. I had student loans coming due soon. I desperately applied to any and every job I could think of. So while the tango was something that was calling me in a faint sort of way, I had other pressing priorities to think about.

Within a few months, I got a job. I secured a place to live. While the job paid relatively little, I had some money in my pocket. The ex-boyfriend situation was still off and on though and got to be dangerous when he started following me places and showing up at my new job and new apartment.

I went to the police and got a peace order; which meant he was to refrain from coming near me. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done in life. I was 26 and, up until that point, had limited interactions and experience with the court system. I was mortified and embarrassed at what I thought were incredibly bad choices on my part. I felt limited in my capacity to reach out to friends and family for help. I felt their judgment and wanted to hide away in my apartment and watch West Wing episodes on DVD.

When I finally emerged ready to be a normal person and interact with the world again, it wasn’t my friends and family who found me.

It was tango.

I went to my first tango lesson in 2005 at a place, ironically, named Gardel’s.

I had no idea what to expect but I found it online and knew that they had beginner lessons on Sunday afternoons. Since I was still living paycheck to paycheck, I pulled together what little cash I had on hand to cover the $15 fee. I didn’t know what to wear to a tango class but I’d worked up enough courage to go. In the past, I’d taken private Latin dance lessons at Arthur Murray but I knew this was a group class and I was nervous.

There were only a few people there. We were all beginners, some of who had no experience and couldn’t keep the tempo or beat. Since I didn’t know tango music at all, I had no idea how to count the rhythm of the music. Salsa came so much easier to me and I knew I could find the clave- 1-2-3-1-2, 1-2-3-1-2. But this was totally different. The instruments were unfamiliar. The music was sadder and slower. The instructor, a young Argentine man named Pablo, walked us through some steps- forward, backwards, ochos and secadas. My heart raced. I didn’t know what I was doing. I tripped over my toes more than once. I was confused.

And in that singular moment, I fell totally and deeply in love with the feeling. 

Black women loving and holding each other fiercely

The text was two sentences and in that moment those two sentences were everything.

 “Look, you’re not on this journey alone. I’ll be your person.”

Tears immediately sprang to my eyes. Recent experiences had rocked me to the core and lately it felt like my world was crumbling around me. I desperately needed support. I needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t judge me. And even though I had known her for less than two months, here she was offering me advice, compassion and unconditional friendship.

Though I wanted to be surprised, I was not. And I gratefully accepted and received the help.

This is what Black women do for each other-- especially in times of crisis. Somehow, even though we have a world of burden and hurt that we are carrying for ourselves, we rally and create loving community for each other and those around us.

 It is one of our greatest gifts.

 It can also be one of our biggest downfalls.

 In carrying the weight of the world, we often forget about taking care of ourselves. Self-care appears to be a luxury, not a necessity or a right. And because of it, we suffer. We have high rates of heart disease, obesity, mental, emotional and physical stress that goes unspoken and undiagnosed. Between racism, misogynoir, being superwomen who get shit done and holding space for everyone, we experience a combination of trauma and physical illness that is, quite literally, killing us.

 Of course, what I’m sharing is not a new phenomenon. Black women have been writing and talking about this topic for years, especially in the wake of some of the more recent incidents police and structural violence directed at Black people. However, it’s been on my mind a lot recently as I move through the world, talk with and read the words of other Black women. During a phone call this week, a sister-friend and colleague shared the following with me:

“A brother said to me ‘Black women don’t take care of themselves. White women are always in the gym taking care of themselves.’ My response to him: ‘We are busy taking care of you, your children and the community. We are raising the community. We are saving the community. We don’t have extra time to go to the gym, too.’” – DJ

 I reject this brother’s observation for a whole host of reasons. As someone who prides herself on nuanced, critical thinking and high level analysis, I have no desire to entertain intellectually lazy and simplified arguments.  Clearly, it goes without saying that not all White women take care of themselves and that all Black women don’t. I know plenty of White women who are also stressed out by the pressures of daily life and struggle with self-care. I also know a number of sisters who are making self-care a priority and are always in the gym, at the yoga studio, eating right etc. And I’m definitely not here for ANY kind of shaming of Black women, particularly with comparisons about how White women take care of themselves in a way that results in a more physically attractive appearance than Black women. To me that comment is reflective of nothing more than internalized racism and oppression, patriarchy and ignorance that I don’t have time or interest in refuting or expounding on.

What I do wonder about is why we are characterized so negatively and judged so harshly considering that we literally give our bodies in the service of caring for other people?

Black women’s bodies (just like our hair) have always been and continue to be political. We gave birth to the labor that built this country and also built this country through our own labor. We’ve never fully been in control of our own bodies since literally anyone and everyone has been able to tell us what to do with it since we arrived in this part of the world. We’ve been enslaved and given birth to enslaved peoples. We’ve been the mistresses of enslavers and victims of their sexual assault. We’ve clothed and fed White bodies. We’ve nursed White children from our own breasts. We’ve cared for the elderly and dying relatives of White people. If you add up that labor from 1619 to 2016, we’ve been doing that work for 397 years. 

Yet, outside of the conversations that we have with each other, there is no understanding of the physical, emotional and mental challenges that face Black women in this society and why it might be difficult to prioritize our self-care. It’s assumed that we are overweight and out of shape (and subsequently unhappy) because we are lazy. And if one of us is “in shape” (meaning a physique that is deemed acceptable by Western European standards), she is held up as a model to the rest of us to let us know that we are deficient in some way and need to do better.

 The above idea is demonstrated by Kanye West’s music video for the song “Fade” which premiered this past weekend at the MTV Video Music Awards. To be honest, I’m not a fan of Ye’s (I gave up on him sometime between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his relationship with Kim Kardashian) or the VMA’s. But the resulting conversations about the model in the video, Teyana Taylor, and Black women’s fitness have provoked much to reflect on. While I haven’t seen the whole video, I have been inundated daily with GIFs, memes and photos of Teyana’s physique. Generally, the impressions that I get from these images are that I am super lazy for not looking like Teyana.

 They scream: “Teyana has a newborn but she’s in great shape!” “Teyana is a Black woman just like you and she can do it all, why can’t you?” “Teyana proves that Black women actually do go to the gym and work out!”

 There is little to dispute. Teyana has a phenomenal body and has likely put a lot of time and effort into shaping it. I commend her, support her and cheer her on as she makes her way in the world as a Black woman who is fly as fuck.

I also know that I am not Teyana. The women I know are not Teyana. She is 25. We are in our late 20s, 30s and 40s. Without getting into a comparison of our lived experiences, I will say that at 25, I most certainly had a different set of experiences and priorities than I do at 38. I was not married, I wasn’t even working full time (I was still in grad school) and I hadn’t fully experienced all those racial and sexist microagressions that let me know that despite my best efforts, the world would often let me know that it does everything it can to make sure that Black women do not thrive.  At 25, I had much more time and energy to go to the gym and obsess over my figure than I do now- although I spent nearly every moment on my studies to make the $50,000 student debt worth it. And I certainly hadn’t made the connection to the fact that every ounce of mental and emotional energy I would put into fighting racism and sexism in my later years would leave me physically drained. But that aside, even if I had 8 hours a day to work out incessantly, my body type is different than hers. I will never look like Teyana. I’m ok with that. That’s actually the beauty of Black women; we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, textures and personalities. We do not have to look like Teyana to be worthy of love, attention and humanity.

While I know these things with absolute certainty, it would be nice for the rest of the world to understand that when we aren’t prioritizing our self-care, its not because we are lazy. In fact, very often its because we are prioritizing your health, happiness and well-being. We are also helping each other on our individual journey toward health, happiness and well-being.

 Stop judging us. Be thankful for all we do.

 While I know that my own self-care is not a luxury, I know need to pay better attention to it. Perhaps in some way my writing this down is my way of putting that intention out into the universe. However, I also know that, for me, self-care doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym or eliminating carbs from my diet.  While those are certainly forms of self-care, I’m certain that the physical is empty without the spiritual and emotional work I need to do to lift myself up. When I reflect on my self-care, what’s really teaching me the most about loving myself is what I learn through with other Black women. Through their words, actions and deeds, Black women show me that, no matter how terrible things get, we can always give much needed attention, support and healing to each other. It encourages me to reach beyond myself and to give back to other women. My interaction with other Black women is my self-care. In community, we make space for each other to be heard. To be seen. To be human. To be each other’s “person.” If that’s not self-care, I don’t know what is.

 Recently, I was required to write a response to the question “Which woman inspires you and why?” This is how I responded:

 “How do you name an amalgamation of every Black woman you know? The sister at my favorite lunch spot who always gives me a knowing smile and hooks me up with extras; the professor at university who insisted I had a right to be there like everyone else and wouldn’t accept less from me; the yoga instructor who asserted that, despite thick thighs and back rolls, yoga was for me too; the new friend who barely knew me but sensed trouble and told me she’d be my “person.” Black women are always inspiring me by loving and living with fearlessness that only we possess. We make magic and claim our humanity in a world that doesn’t want us to survive."

We may not always do self-care the way others do. Maybe it’s by going to the gym or running 20 miles. Maybe it’s by nurturing the community. Maybe it’s by eating our favorite cupcake from Crumbs bakery. Maybe it’s by spending time together. Whatever it is, the way we hold and love each other fiercely is nothing less than God like.

 And for that, I am forever grateful.

 

 

 

A letter to my young self on the eve of Hillary Clinton’s nomination for President

                            Me and my cousin, Rebecca, sometime in the early 1980s.

                            Me and my cousin, Rebecca, sometime in the early 1980s.

Dear Kelly,

I recently came across a picture of you. I’m not quite sure how old you are but by the looks of it, you might be five or six. You are at a park-- leaning on a picnic bench with Becky, your favorite childhood cousin, beside you. You and Becky are three years apart and while you will go on to grow up in different parts of the state; because you are both only children, you will consider her more of a sister than a cousin.

In fact, a few years from now, you will find yourself and Becky playing in her neighborhood in Montgomery County with a group older kids trying to bully the two of you. Instead of being intimidated by them, you will stand up to them and forcefully insist that they leave you both alone. You tell them that you are from Baltimore (after all, they are suburban DC kids who likely grew up afraid of anyone and anything from Baltimore City) and that you will kick the ass of anyone who bothers your cousin.

This incident says a lot about you- both who you are now and who you will become. 

Though you do not know it now and you will often forget it as an adult, you should know that even at a young age you have always been strong and always stood up for what and whom you believe in.

It is one of your best qualities.

Remember it--even when others try to silence you or when they tell you that your voice is too loud. There will be plenty of people in the future who do not understand your strength and power. They will try to make you feel that something is wrong with you and will tell you that you are too much, too opinionated, too “aggressive.”

Pay no attention to them.

People also said the same thing about Dr. Anna Julia Cooper, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisolm, Assata Shakur, Leymah Gbowee and all the other brilliant female descendants of Africa in whose image you are created and on whose shoulders you stand.

What people do not understand, they fear. And there is little scarier to systems of oppression than a Black woman who thinks independently and speaks her mind.

I am struck by the twinkle in your eye in this photo. You have big, round brown eyes. Eyes with which you will take in the world and experience all the beauty, sadness, pain and triumph your experiences will offer you.

In your teens, you will wish to go far away from home. You will wish to travel and meet new people, experience new languages and cultures. You will get your wish. You will have the good fortune to study overseas twice. You will end up having a job (one of many jobs you will hold) where you get to work with international development professionals and people trying to make their own countries better in different parts of the world. You will find something special about everyplace that you go. But you will find a special connection to Latin America. More importantly, no matter where you go, Baltimore- the place you wanted to leave so badly, will always feel like home.

You will fall in love.

You will have your heart broken. More than once.

You will give of yourself completely and fully to friends, family, romantic partners and colleagues until you get hurt enough to learn to be more cautious of whom to give your heart to.

You will stay close to your grandmother. She will always be a special part of your childhood. In your adulthood, she will become a close friend and ally.

On November 4th, 2008, she will be the first person you call when Barack Obama is elected the first Black President of the United States. You will both cry together and say that neither of you ever imagined you would live to see this day.

You will feel deliriously hopeful at the prospect of his presidency.

Years later, you will simultaneously hold the feelings of being incredibly proud of him and a sense of disappointment about what he did not do.

You will realize that he, like all people you love and admire, is not bigger than life but is an actual, flawed human being.

This will turn you into a pragmatist who is cautious about what she expects from others.

You will develop a political consciousness that later helps you to understand that politics are lived outside of the voting booth and outside of the Capitol and White House. You will do the work of campaigning for candidates and organizing voters but your heart will always remind you that the real work you need to be doing is in the service of your people.

You will become passionate about and work fiercely for the emotional emancipation of yourself and other Black people.

You will find solidarity in movements that are about the liberation of immigrants, LGBTQ+ persons, reproductive justice and the rights of working people to unionize and make a decent living wage.

After twenty plus years of a hair relaxer, which you did not actually choose for yourself, you will go back to your natural hair. On certain days, you will love it and think it is perfect. On other days, you will contemplate perming it again so that it can finally be tamed and lay straight. Do not worry- this is all part of the journey of accepting and loving yourself as you are.

I write you this letter on the eve of a historic event in this country. It is the first time that a female candidate is nominated by a major party for the position of President of the United States. While others around you will extol this as a victory for all women in the country (and even around the world), you will experience this event with a mix of contrasting emotions. After all, in 1996, you will cast your very first vote in any election for her husband, Bill. And in 2007, when Hillary runs for POTUS for the first time, you will be thrilled. You will believe that you are “Team Hillary” until you realize the kind of deep longing for hope and goodness and change that Barack Obama stirs up inside of you. It will be the first time you really remember having to choose between being Black and being a woman.

Get used to it. It will become a common occurrence later in life.

Because at that time you will have many friendships with white women, you will often find yourself lying about whom you are voting for or risk a barrage of questions and judgment about how you can betray the sisterhood of all women.

In 2016, you will have very different friends. You will also feel differently about the so-called “sisterhood” of all women.  

On this historic occasion, you will realize that when white women make strides, you will also know that it is a hard truth that those advancements do not always yield improved conditions for Black women and other women of color. You will know that white women’s progress often comes at the expense of Black women and other women of color. It comes without them reaching a hand back to help other women who look like you.

You will not see yourself in Hillary. And though you will feel proud of him, you won’t really see yourself in Barack Obama. But such is the life of a Black woman- navigating between the lenses of race and gender; never really being seen by white women or Black men.

It will cause you much pain. But it will also instill a value in you to gravitate toward spaces where you can be seen. If they aren’t there, you will create them. You won’t give others the choice not to see you. You will show up fully and demand to be yourself- all the time. In whatever space you are in.

So, on this night, I am still hopeful. I am hopeful, not for Hillary, but for you.

Since women all over the country are celebrating this night and telling their sons and daughters that girls can do or be anything, I want to pass on the same to you.

You need to hear it and this is a good time to share it with you. You will also need to hear it when you are 8. You will need to hear it again at age 18. You will definitely need to hear it again at 28. You will likely need to hear it off and on for the rest of your life.

There are quite a few times in your life that you will experience heartbreak. It will not only come in the form of romantic relationships but also in the context of your social location as a Black woman. There will be real, tangible consequences for you as you work, live and love in a racist society and world.

You will not be prepared for these things the first few times they happen to you. Your heart will make you want to see them as isolated incidents rather than a larger pattern of supremacy that thrives on lies about who you are and who people of color and Black people are.

Often these incidents will make you feel terribly lonely. They will make you question the meaning of life and humanity. They will make you want to curl up into a little ball in your bed and not come out from under the covers.  

You should know that, despite how others may deny it, racial trauma and stress are real.

You should also know that the pain will not last forever.  

Despite the loneliness you will feel at various points in life, you will also find a loving, quilted fabric of community of your own making and solace in some deep, meaningful relationships. Relationships with people who will see your full humanity and who honor your heart, soul, spirit and all the quirky contradictions that make you who you are.

At this age, you don’t quite know what you want to be when you grow up. You will discover and want to do many things- like writing, anthropology and politics.

You will go on to do all of those things in very non-traditional ways.  Like the person that you are and are meant to be, they will defy expectations. They will be complicated. They will be nuanced.

You will write some words that get published and that make people think. You will one day sit on a tree stump in a forest in Oyacachi, Ecuador with an Indigenous man who makes hats from materials in the forest where he tells you about how decisions are made in his community. In Cuba and in West Africa, you will discover the spirits that your ancestors once worshipped. You will call voters and knock on doors in several elections. You will speak at a political event. You will go to the White House where your husband will talk to the first Black president. You will make a career out of working for social and racial justice. You will pride yourself on that work, work in which you help to create a world where people like you can be their full selves.

You will realize the significance of this moment in time, but you will also realize that you don’t need Hillary’s nomination to prove that you can break barriers. Everyday you will break barriers when you live into your passion and purpose as a Black woman in a world that doesn’t want you to survive.

You will not just survive, you will be determined to thrive.

You will take on the world with grit, determination and total badassness with an authenticity that is reflective of who you are in this moment and who you will grow to become.

You are resilient.

You are loved.

You are, and always will be, magical.

With so much love,

Me

 

Me and Rebecca, still sometime in the 1980s, being our carefree Black girl selves.

Me and Rebecca, still sometime in the 1980s, being our carefree Black girl selves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

No Country for Black Women

I started writing this last month when I realized that I’d become obsessed with OJ Simpson. Of course, it feels like great irony that a show centered on a Black man would make me start thinking about Black women. Perhaps its because I felt the absence of the presence of Black women so strongly in his story. Or maybe it’s that, more often than not, we have so very few spaces and places where our lives and experiences get centered.

If Black women aren’t actively advocating for Black women, no one is. While we labor with all our heart, spirit and soul and give our bodies and children to the movement for racial justice, our community seems to have forgotten us. We are forced to choose being race women over being black and women often allowing the pain of our sons, brothers, husbands and uncles to be centered before our own.

And while we take feminism to new heights, coining terms like womanism and embodying a politic that is about freeing the collective (not just the individual), it also appears that women’s rights advocates often leave us to fend for ourselves.

So it was in that spirit that while I binged watched the TV and documentary series, it occurred to me how incredibly selfish OJ is for looking out for himself and only himself at all times.

As I voraciously consumed the story of his life, I kept thinking about one singular theme that stood out to me. It didn’t really have to do with OJ but very much mirrored my lived experience as a Black woman.

“There is no place anywhere on Earth that a Black woman gets to transcend her blackness or be anything other than Black.”

This one thought captivated my attention.  And while it may be an obvious one to a number of women much wiser than I, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I talked about it at length with my husband. I talked about it with my girlfriends. I talked about it with anyone who watched the series. I talked about it with my therapist.

Interestingly, before I could even finish this essay, it was reaffirmed this week as I heard the news about Leslie Jones and her experience with racist trolls on Twitter.

A talented Black woman, making strides in her profession and coming off the heels of a successful opening of a high grossing feature film does not get to transcend blackness or be anything other than Black.

To give some context to this permeating thought, I confess that I was fascinated (and slightly repulsed) by the idea that OJ could somehow manage to remove race as a factor in his life so that he could thrive in a world full of white people. While I felt myself judging him more after each episode, I also had to admit that I immediately understood his motivations. As I routinely experience the physical, emotional and mental manifestations of racism and white supremacy, at various times and with increasing frequency, my thoughts have pondered what the world would be like for me if I were not a Black woman. Of course, I have always known that erasing my blackness was never actually an option. So I watched the shows with a morbid curiosity about how OJ was able to do it himself.

“For us, OJ was colorless… OJ portrayed success.”—Zoey Tur in O.J.: Made in America

Both the series and the documentary took different approaches to what is essentially the same thing. As an athlete at a predominately (if not nearly all) white institution in the mid to late 1960s, OJ seemed to know that his success on the football field would only get him but so far. He was aware that his social capital and success off the field would come from his relationships with whites. This was long before the days that Black boys/men actually learned to navigate their blackness around whites in a way that made them “the cool black kid with swag” that white men would strive to emulate or at the very least, befriend. OJ strategically chose to make himself seem as close to white as possible; something that led to his overwhelming popularity, corporate business success, a lavish lifestyle and access to several white women for decades.

“I’m not Black… I’m O.J.”—O.J. Simpson

As someone who has spent much of her life navigating being black in predominately white spaces, being seen as colorless has never been an option that was afforded to me, and one that I suspect never will be.  And to be clear- it’s not something that I’ve ever aspired to. But in my youth and naiveté, I had a very simplistic view of the world. Even though I clearly knew what racism was and I’d often experienced it, the love in my heart and the desire to live as an independent person judged by her thoughts and deeds, prevented me from fully comprehending how damaging racism was to my well being. I strove to excel so as to compensate for how I knew people were judging me based on my skin color. I was the gregarious, good-natured friend of color in a group full of white friends. I was polite to teachers and smiled when they remarked how articulate and smart I was. I impressed my friend’s parents with my knowledge of history and a curiosity about their Italian/Polish/Irish heritage. I got good grades and was college bound. But no matter how many white friends I had, no matter who I dated, no matter which elite schools I was accepted into, I was always seen as black. I was never racially transcendent. I was always “othered.” I was always reminded of my blackness.

As a young teenage girl first starting to date, I particularly felt the sting of being othered when I went out with Brian and then later, Chris, two white males from a local Catholic all boys high school that was the brother school to my Catholic all girls high school. When it was discovered that I had gone out with each of them (a year or so apart), both of their parents actually grounded them and forbade them to go out with me. Punishment was preferable to risking the confusion, shame and embarrassment that came with a white son in an interracial relationship.

I am and have always been seen as Black. A Black woman at that. The lowest possible position one can hold on the social totem pole.

No matter the good grades. No matter the degrees. No matter the jobs and prestige that I would go on to get. No matter the good person I am inside. No matter the shitty person I am inside. 

But watching OJ’s story made me realize that white folks can and do bestow the title of "colorless" onto Black men; specifically when it suits them.

Michael Jackson, Barack Obama, OJ, Muhammad Ali, Prince. All of them have been regarded as racially transcendent at some point. Which usually means that white people were willing to grant “safe passage” to them in their world when they have some exceptional talent or ability that white people enjoy or benefit from. Transcending race is largely based in performativity. It requires blacks to perform a task or feat (like music, sports, art etc.) that is pleasing to whites and, in OJ’s case, also requires the performance of whiteness- a willingness to construct an identity that appears racially neutral or white like.

But like I’ve proclaimed earlier, there is no place anywhere on Earth that a Black woman gets to transcend her blackness or be anything other than Black.

So all of this has been on mind for several weeks now and came to head this week when I learned that Leslie Jones actually quit Twitter for a few days because of all the racial harassment she received after the premier of Ghostbusters.

Seriously. She makes a hit movie and spends the days after its premiere fending off racist assholes who had nothing better to do then send her pictures of apes and pictures of herself with semen on her face. 

Can a sister get a damn break?

I’m not even really a huge fan of Leslie or her comedy. For me, its always felt too much like performance; specifically, the performance of blackness mostly for the white gaze. She often plays boisterous, loud and stereotypical characters and while it used to really annoy me, I now feel differently about it. I actually feel sad. I think about the little Black girl inside of Leslie, with dreams similar to mine, with a naiveté and desire to be an independent person who is judged by her talent and deeds and not by her color. Trying to make it in a business that, even when people are not supposed to judged on their looks, is harsh to Black women. And when I read the pain in Leslie’s tweets to her vicious, violent harassers, I have more appreciation for her journey and her lived experience navigating the world as a tall, fuller figured, darker skinned black woman. I want to hug her and tell her that I understand.

Leslie wouldn’t be the first comic who built a brand around how society viewed them in stereotypes. Remember Chris Farley? He consistently made reference to his being overweight and often did skits on SNL where is he showing his stomach and being laughed at. Roseanne Barr built an entire series on her brand in the 90s, which featured her as the wife in a working class, blue-collar family that made light of redneck jokes. Margaret Cho also had a series (which notably did not last long) that played on first generation Asian children assimilating to American culture to the horror of their parents. I’m guessing that comedy, much like writing, is about telling the story that you know. So I see Leslie as channeling the pain of being a dark-skinned, Black woman in society into something tenable for a laugh. It isn’t new. And in fact, it’s what Black people and other people of color have been doing for generations for our resilience. If we laugh hard, we forget to cry. I always think of Dave Chappelle as a master comedian who did this incredibly well. At the end of one of the skits, “The Niggar Family” in his (way too short lived) show, he looks directly into the camera, laughs hysterically and says “Oh Lord, this racism is killing me inside!”

This racism is killing me inside.

 So as I think about this week and the madness of the RNC convention and the blatant racism permeating every part of the event, the indefensible defense of Melania Trump for a speech we know she plagiarized (or at the very least “borrowed liberally”) from, and the silence in the mainstream media about Leslie's harassment; I am reminded that she faces the real life consequences of being a black woman, trying to forge ahead and be successful in a very racist society. Even with a hit movie, black women don’t get the benefit of pulling an OJ and becoming colorless or post racial, we can never hide from racism or white supremacy; no matter how successful, smart or awesome we are.

And I keep coming back to the singular thought that captivated me during the OJ series.

There is no place anywhere on Earth that a Black woman gets to transcend her blackness or be anything other than Black.

 There is literally no country for Black women.

Leslie Jones on Saturday Night Live

Leslie Jones on Saturday Night Live

Dear White People

A poster from the 2014 Justin Simien movie, "Dear White People."

A poster from the 2014 Justin Simien movie, "Dear White People."

Dear White People,

This is not addressed to any one individual in particular but after an incident I experienced last Friday night, it needs to be said. And so I’m going to try to express it to my white friends and family with all the understanding that I can.

My experience with whiteness tells me that overwhelmingly white people are not used to thinking of themselves as part of a collective group. You have the luxury of seeing yourselves as individuals so it’s a natural thing for you to feel angry, defensive or scared when things are directed at "white people" as a whole. It is true that as individuals many of you are good people. That you may have individual relationships with people of color, that you try to treat everyone equally and that you want to get what is happening with race and racism in this country.

Respectfully, this is not about YOU.

While all of the above is true, it is also true that for all your goodness as an individual, racism at individual, interpersonal, systemic and structural levels is very real. It is a terrible reality that people of color deal with everyday. As nice as we may be to each other as individuals (and let's face it, even though this is the default stance we tell ourselves, not all of us are great people), that will not stop what is happening in this country around state violence directed at people of color, nor will it stop the incredible disparities between people of color and whites when it comes to education, housing, job opportunities, general health and well-being etc. Being nice to each other is NOT the problem. This is a complex, systemic issue that requires complex, critical thinking and analysis. It makes sense that you don’t know where to start. To be honest, neither do I. But staying at the place of “I’m a good person, I’m colorblind and I love everybody” isn’t it.

Over the past few months, a number of you have reached out to say that reading my posts or essays or talking to me has been helpful in increasing your awareness and thoughtfulness around race. And I’m glad for it—truly. If there is one theme that threads together my life’s work, it is community. Whether it’s been giving back to my own community or creating a welcoming community for others, I have undertaken the idea of moving forward together as human beings with the utmost seriousness and sincerity.

And yet…

While I remain firm in my commitment to create community with others, I am unabashedly, unapologetically firm in my commitment to being in community with other people of color. We need that. I need that- now more than ever. Last Friday night, in a slight incident with some white people in my neighborhood, some tensions arose. I do not wish to explain the details (and trust me, the story is not worth going into) but what I’m left with is how when I said I wanted to just drink my beer and sit with my husband and dog that a white man told me that I was "part of the problem." That my need to be in my own space was problematic, that he wanted to friends with us and that my request was divisive.

If you know me well, you already know that I was not having it! I lit into him in a bilingual tirade with the fury of Angela, Malcolm, W.E.B. Dubois, Audre and all the ancestors on whose shoulders I stand. And then I calmed down and with all the strength I could muster, I calmly explained to his friend, why demanding for us to be in community with him (a total stranger by the way!) in this moment was a very violent, supremacist and thoughtless thing to suggest.

So I’m just taking this time to share with you all that while we cannot do the work of undoing racism in siloed communities, you all must also give us the space and time to grieve as people of color, if that’s what we need to do. We cannot center you right now. We should not center you right now. It isn’t always about educating you, or being in community with you, or helping you understand race and racism. This is said with love. Trust me, I see your good intent. I understand why you are asking. I love that you are reaching out and challenging yourself to learn and grow and be an advocate. I am receiving messages from far and wide from people I know very well and some I don’t and from people I have known for a long time. I see it, I feel it and I am encouraged by it.

And, it’s not about YOU.

In this moment, while we are all reeling from the events of the last few days (the killings of Alton Sterling, Philandro Castile, the five police officers in Dallas and the four Latino/a people who were killed by the police since July 4th), people of color specifically are carrying around the gravity of what its like to be non-white in this country. Having been around white people for most of my life, I have always known what it meant to be something "other" than white. But over the last year, in the rise of what has become an America that feels almost unrecognizable, I have physically, mentally and emotionally carried around the sobering reality that I am not safe anywhere I go. From work to school to home to socializing, I am a black body that is always at risk for passive and active racism and violence. On a cellular level, I feel scared for my well-being and that of my loved ones. Because of this, there are many days that I don’t want to get out of bed.  I want to hide under the covers where the world is infinitely less scary. But then I am reminded of the work I do and why it’s important. I am reminded that this hateful, awful system isn’t entitled to steal my joy and I persist. But it doesn’t mean that I’m any less scared or angry or hurt or anxious.

Forming community with other people of color is one of the rare things I can do for myself in this moment to find comfort and joy. To find resilience, to heal, to breathe, to feel safe. And I need for you and other white people to respect that sacred space. It doesn’t mean don’t reach out. But the emotional burden of carrying you all in this moment is overwhelming. When I or we tell you that this is our time, our space, our healing circle-- no matter your feelings, please remember it is not about YOU.

If you are looking for something to do, as I always say, talk to other white people about race and racism. If you need help with that, ask. There are many white accomplices out there doing the work of dismantling racism. I have been trying to redirect white people I know who are curious and learning to other white people I know who are actively doing their own anti-racist work. It is critical that you all support each other in your own learning, growth and journey.

As for me, I will be doing the important work of self-care, feeding my soul and supporting other people of color. Right now, that’s the most important thing I can do.

It doesn’t mean we cannot remain in community. In fact, we cannot succeed if we don’t work together. But our work across race will only be made stronger if we allow ourselves to also do the work intra-racially as well. People of color need that. And I’m pretty sure you all need it too.

Remember, its not all about YOU.

With gratitude,

KLM

The overwhelming sound of silence

“Did you see it???? The video?” My husband asked, in a voice that conveyed both shock and disbelief. Without having to ask which video, I instinctively knew that he was referring to the video of the police killing of Alton Sterling.

I nodded slowly. I saw it first thing this morning as I looked at Facebook on my iPhone.

What I didn’t share with him was that, after watching it, I proceeded to cry silently in the bathroom for several minutes. Silent tears of anger and of rage. Silent tears of hopelessness. Silent tears of shame for feeling shocked and numb and scared--all at the same time.

And silence is what strikes me most as I reflect on this latest news from Baton Rouge.

Alton Sterling is the 558th person to be killed by police this year. He is the 135th black person to be killed. There are so many names and faces that I often have trouble keeping track of all of them. It’s easy to tune out if I want to. Another day passes and another black person is killed. Every 28 hours. It is an ongoing, seemingly endless cycle.

Police shooting of unarmed, black person. Outrage and cries for justice. Justice never comes.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Sometimes the deaths hit me like a ton of bricks and I find myself not sleeping well. My mind races for days and I’m afraid that I cannot walk down the street without fearing for my safety from those who are supposed to protect it. Other days, I feel numb and they just strike me as yet another headline in a barrage of information I receive as I scroll through my social media feeds. It is the latter that feels the most unsettling to me. The inner silence I experience when everything in my brain screams that I should be outraged but my soul is too weary to feel anything other than a lack of surprise and indifference. 

Silence.

Just like my tears went unheard this morning, it is clear that so too do Black people’s collective cries for justice. Society is so comfortable, so very content with black bodies being abused, beaten and killed in the public eye that it seems like yelling “Black Lives Matter” until we are hoarse does absolutely no good. We rant. We rage. We roar. Even though we remain unheard and change does not come, we continue to shout. But the response is only silence.

Silence.

Like my tears and our collective cries, there is silence on the part of most of the white people that I know. And while that in itself is also not surprising, sometimes I experience that silence, in particular, as deafening.

Silent white people are on my Facebook feed--some of whom I’ve known for several decades. The same people white people who use Facebook to comment on literally everything and everything from their dog’s latest grooming appointment to what they’ve purchased at Walmart to what they are eating for dinner. Somehow they seem unable or unwilling to use their platform to let me know that they even remotely care about my life or the lives of the people who look like me. Silent white people--some of whom are my family members. Silent white people-- many of whom I know are in interracial relationships and raising black and brown children.  They remain silent about Trump, silent about race and racism, silent about what is clearly an epidemic in this country.

Silence.

My office is silent today, too. Silent because there are many people who are out of the office but also because the few people of color with whom I work and with whom I would normally find community and comfort during a time like this are all traveling. This kind of silence is especially painful. My professional career for the last 14 years has consisted of navigating my black womanhood in predominately white settings. That has lead to years of stress and anxiety. And in the midst of global anti-blackness and a war on black people in this country, connection with other black people and other people of color, today of all days, feels not like a luxury but a necessity. In the silence, I am reminded how often much I crave interactions with those who look like me and that our joy is a radical form of self-care and an integral part of our emotional emancipation. Since we can’t seem to be free physically, we can at least be free in our minds. But since I’m the “only” in the office at this moment, I don’t get to feel connected or feel black joy or feel emotionally free today. I just feel silent, only accompanied by the thoughts racing in my mind.

Silence.

Silence fills my ears, my heart, my mind and soul.

Until today, I’d never really thought of silence as having a sound. But as it turns out, it does. According to science, silence is actually noisy. In silence, our brains create noise to fill it and that activity can manifest in sounds like ringing, humming, buzzing, even resulting in hallucinations and psychosis—imagining things that aren’t there.

So since my mind is creating much noise to fill in the silence today, I’m going to voluntarily imagine some things that aren’t real but that I wish to will into existence.

I’m imagining that Alton Sterling is at home with his children and his family. The same goes for the other 135 black people killed this year by police and for all the victims of police violence.

I’m imagining that instead of being bombarded with stories and images of unarmed, black people being killed by police I’m bombarded with stories and images unabashed, unapologetic black joy.  

I’m envisioning all the amazing, innovative and revolutionary contributions that we black people make to the world and that we are thriving in our homes, communities, families, schools, churches, workplaces--any place else we are and wish to be.

 I’m imagining that the silent white people I know will find it no longer acceptable to be silent about the fact that black lives matter. That they will find their voices to boldly proclaim that racism is a shameful part of our country that needs to be eradicated at personal, interpersonal, institutional and structural levels and that they will work toward it.

 I’m envisioning that everyday I will have connection and community with other black people and that together we embrace all of our resilience in the face of pain and laugh till our faces hurt, share stories and cry tears of joy.

 I’m imagining a world in which all black people can be free.

Finally, I’m not imagining, but instead speaking into existence that the sounds of silence around black lives will no longer be heard as silence. That instead they become the roaring, deafening sounds of action, justice and love.

Ode to the Unnamed Black Girl in the South Carolina Classroom

*This piece was inspired by the final courtroom monologue given by Matthew McConaughey's character from the movie "A Time to Kill."

I want to tell you a story.

I'm going to ask you to close your eyes while I tell you this story.

I want you to listen to me.

I want you to listen to yourselves.

This is a story about a teenage girl sitting in class one afternoon in the fall at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. She is Black. I want you to picture this teenage girl. You don’t her name. You can't see her face. But you can imagine she’s like many teenage girls these days. Sitting in class, she may be daydreaming about hanging out with her friends. Maybe she's thinking about who she will message via Snapchat later that afternoon. She could be mentally reciting lyrics to her favorite song or thinking about what she wants to be when she grows up.

The School Resource Officer is called into her classroom. He begins to yell violently at her.

She’s sitting still when suddenly he races up to her chair. He grabs her. He wraps an arm around her neck then viciously pulls her from her leg violently causing her to jerk up out of her seat. The desk overturns. She lands on her back with the desk on top of her--body splayed out in the air, tangled in a mess of limbs and chair legs. He drags her several inches across the classroom floor, using both hands to pull her by an arm and a leg.  He makes his way, still dragging her like a wild animal attacking its prey, to the front of the classroom. He has turned her over onto her stomach and is leaning into her back and grabbing her arms to pull them behind her. He outweighs her by several tens of pounds.

Looking at it you cannot help but hot tears come to your eyes. The image is accompanied by very painful memories. This is the kind of position that some sexual assault victims know very well, many of whom have been attacked from behind.  In a single, swift instance their sense of agency and control is stolen from them by someone bigger and more powerful. Its a singular moment that changes their lives forever. 

It looks and feels like the girl is being violated. She is being violated.

Violated in front of her peers and teacher. Violated in front of an entire country who will later witness it on the news and through social media.

Stunned, no one can bring themselves to stop it.

He pulls hard on her arms and they look like they are going to come off. He handcuffs her. Her fellow classmates stare on in silence. Risking arrest, one brave classmate decides to record it. It is like a scene out of the TV show "Oz" or one out of "Lock Up Raw" or something out of a prison movie. But this is not fiction or a documentary. This is happening, on an ordinary day, to an ordinary Black girl in her high school classroom in the American South.

Can you see her?

Her scared, abused, beaten and damaged teenage body. Violated by a school police officer. Humiliated in front of her peers. By an adult sworn to protect students. Left to be arrested and deal with the media frenzy that is about to ensue. 

Who knows what kind of trauma this will cause? Who knows the impact it will have in the future? She will likely never feel safe in school again. If she hadn't already been, she most assuredly will fear the police from this moment on. She may even fear men for the rest of her life. In just under a minute, her teenage innocence and sense of safety have been stolen from her-forever.

Can you see her? 

I want you to picture that teenage girl. 

Now imagine she's white.

Confessions on Baltimore

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

I confess that I can’t quite remember what day the uprising began.

I feel like I should be able to remember. After all, it happened in the city I was born and raised in. But all that I can seem to remember from that time is that one day I looked up from my laptop and Baltimore was burning.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had left home off and on over the years for different reasons. Undergraduate studies in New York. Graduate studies in Washington, DC. Doctoral studies in Florida. But I’d always chosen to come back.

Over time, like any native child, I developed a love-hate relationship with the city of my birth. I loved it for random reasons like the peach cake I used to eat from the Woodlea Bakery and steamed crabs in the summer. I loved it for the strange way that, no matter where in the world I was, I could always tell people from Baltimore by their accent and by the way they pronounced the word water as “wudder” and sink as “zinc.”

I loved it for its simplicity- that its people were overwhelmingly humble and low key. Having moved to Washington, DC for grad school and struggling with the intense networking and industry town culture that exists there, I came to appreciate that Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. I loved that I always knew that when someone in Baltimore asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. With your one answer, they were likely to be able to sum up your whole life story-who you are, what neighborhood you are from and what tribe you belong to.

I loved it for giving me hot, August nights during which I cheered on the Orioles with my grandfather. One of my favorite childhood memories remains listening to baseball on the radio with him- sitting outside on the porch of my grandparents’ house and hearing the roar of the crowd at Memorial Stadium just a few blocks away.

Baltimore is etched in my DNA. It is a part of my cellular memory. My mind and body vividly remember every street I grew up on and where my family members lived. Green Meadow Parkway, Ashland Avenue, Westview Road. I loved Baltimore and it would always be home.

 

I must confess, too, that while I loved it immensely, I also hated it for its simplicity.

I hated how segregated the city was. While it could give you a sense of community, being from Baltimore also meant that often you lived among people who were exactly like you- never really venturing outside of your racial, ethnic, class or religious bubble.

I went to Catholic high school in Baltimore with other girls who had gone to Catholic school their whole lives and whose families all worshipped at the same churches for decades. They went to school with other Catholic girls whom they’d known since they were toddlers. Many of them didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic. If they did, they certainly weren’t the norm. Coming from public school and starting a new school in 9th grade, trying to make friends with girls who’d been friends with each other forever and who all lived in the same neighborhood was not easy. I hated the feeling of being different, of coming from a non-traditional and non-Catholic family. A huge no-no in the Catholic Church (and one that I probably shouldn’t ever admit publicly), sometimes I used to take communion (never having actually received the sacrament in a First Holy Communion ceremony with a priest) with all the other girls just so I could fit in. Baltimore could be a lonely place if you didn’t have a community or a network to call your own. I spent many years as both a teenager and adult trying to find my community and the right “fit.”

Long after high school, when I’d come back to the city for the last time and had gotten married, I hated how everyone thought it was so strange that my husband and I were an intercultural couple- Black American and Colombian. I hated that every detail of our relationship was subject to scrutiny by those who’d never ventured outside of the bubble. That anywhere we went, people almost always asked what language we spoke at home and couldn’t believe that a Black woman could speak fluent Spanish or that a native Colombian could speak fluent English. I hated that we could go to New York on weekends and be anonymous but, in my own hometown, curiosity, ignorance and exoticism marked how others saw our relationship.

 

Most of all, I confess that I hated how dramatically I saw the city deteriorate before my eyes.

After finishing my undergraduate studies, I came back to Baltimore as a teacher through Teach for America. I confess that it was not a voluntary decision. I had marked Baltimore as number 10 out of a total of 13 choices for site placements. When the placement letter arrived, I cried and refused to go back home. I wanted to move to New York or LA. I wanted a new start in another city. A place with which I didn’t have such a tenuous relationship. I did not want to go back home. It was my mother who convinced me that it would be good for me to come home, to be closer to my family and to really learn about the inequality that existed in my own hometown.

After a year, I ended up teaching Spanish at Gilmor Elementary School in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The same neighborhood, where 15 years later, Freddie Gray would be killed. The same neighborhood that made worldwide news during the uprising for its disproportionately high level of boarded up homes. It was described in various ways by the media. Food desert. Crime ridden. Impoverished. This was the location where the HBO show The Wire was filmed. I worked day and night with other tireless educators to try to do everything we could to try to improve the life chances for students in that neighborhood. We endured neighborhood shootings, school lockdowns and played de facto therapists to kids with drug addicted parents. We taught Saturday school, bought books and supplies paid from our own paltry salaries, meals for children whose parents couldn’t raise them, kept deodorant and toothbrushes in our classrooms and taught kids how to use them. We did anything we could to try to save them from the streets and a system that was sure to abandon them. It did not work. But like the memories of the streets in Baltimore I was raised on, the names of those kids are etched in my heart and soul. Deja, Shakeisha, Albert, Demon, Anthony. I could never forget those kids and their faces as long as I live.

After three years in the classroom in Baltimore City Public Schools, I was tired. It was time to go. I loved the kids but the ridiculously hard work, the bumbling administrators that ran the school and the systemic inefficiencies pushed me to my breaking point. Upon coming home from school after a 12-hour day, I often slept on the living room couch; too tired to make my way to my bed. I had been given Xanax to calm my anxiety after my first year of teaching and I believed that I would have been headed for a nervous breakdown if I made a career out of teaching. I left Gilmor and moved to DC for graduate school and didn’t look back. While I would later come home to work in Baltimore in other jobs related to advocacy and social services for marginalized populations, I couldn’t give my heart and soul to them the way I did in those years at Gilmor. I was hardened and forever changed. My heart was irreparably broken. My city no longer looked the same to me.

 

I confess, prior to the uprising, I had often thought about the city burning down.

I wondered if burning it down to the ground was the only way to fix it. To raze it, tear up all of its pain and suffering from the root and rebuild anew on top of the cement and ashes. 

I moved away from Baltimore for the last time in 2013. My life and career had taken me in a different direction, to a new location and, I will confess, that I was glad for it. I didn’t think I could ever live there again.

In 2015, while living in my new city, I looked up from my laptop at the TV and I realized that Baltimore was burning.

I watched with tears as CNN showed my hometown erupt into flames, tears and pain with Freddie Gray serving as the spark. I watched people demand justice for the mysterious death of a young Black man in police custody. But I also knew that this uprising, this rebellion, was the result of decades of blight, corrupt government, the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the poor and gentrification come back to haunt us all. It turned Baltimore upside down. I worried myself sick about my grandparents, my mother-in-law and friends who were still living there and caught in the crosshairs.

I confess, that while I yearned to go home, I didn’t. I was paralyzed. It was too painful. I had a dissertation draft deadline to finish if I wanted to graduate on time. It served as a convenient reason not to go. Baltimore was stomping on my heart, yet again, and I just couldn’t bear it. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to endure this kind of heartbreak for a second time.

Instead, I posted about it on social media. I ranted. I raved. I talked about it in very intellectual terms with colleagues who were interested. I felt numb and ached all at once. I thought about my time in Sandtown-Winchester a lot and about the kids I’d taught all those many years ago. I wondered if any of them had been impacted by the violence.

I’ve been back to Baltimore a few times since then. Thanksgiving with my grandparents, dinner with my mother-in-law, a random trip passing through here and there. But it still feels near impossible for me to fully go home. It will never be the same. Remembering what the city once was and seeing what it now is reminds me of the crazy and painful push-pull relationship that I have always had with the city of my birth.

 

I confess that like so many of the complicated relationships we have as adults, I still simultaneously love Baltimore and hate it for the heartbreak it’s bestowed upon me.  No matter how hard I try, it is still inextricably linked to my DNA. And somehow, even though it aches to love it, because of all the pleasure (and the pain) it’s given me over the course of my lifetime, I just can’t seem to shake it loose.

Managing Anger

It’s actually good to be angry.

This is one of the most powerful life lessons I’ve learned, it’s also the one that is the most hard to accept and scariest to admit. For me, this has been a revelation years in the making.

As a naturally optimistic and deeply empathetic person, I still cringe when I think about how other people experience me when I’m angry. An only child, raised by a single mother until I was 13, I was often lonely and felt emotionally abandoned by both my parents. I viewed anger as giving people a reason to push me away. And growing up a Black girl in a world in which white people often surrounded me, I was taught by relatives that being nice, agreeable and “acceptable” was a way to set myself apart; with the hopes that defying stereotypes about sassy, attitudinal Black women would shield me from the racism and sexism that exists in the world.

At a critical point in my adult life, I realized that the expectation to not be angry had become stifling and I felt overwhelmed. Throughout painful and abusive personal relationships, work situations in which I was frustrated by lack of opportunities and not making enough money, and various kinds of loss and struggle, I felt extreme pressure to put on a façade for everyone. This resulted in deeply hidden emotions. The façade wore me out. It made me incredibly unhappy. But still, I refused to speak truth and give voice to my anger. Even when it was righteous and warranted.

The anger only increased as I started to develop a critical consciousness about the world around me. Racism, sexism, homophobia, social injustice… there was so much to be angry about! And when I finally did start to make sense of it, I became incredibly uncomfortable. Most people are generally uncomfortable with anger as an emotion. Anger is messy and pushes our boundaries. It can range from irritation to full blown rage. It does not fit into a pretty little package and can throw individuals, relationships and even society into upheaval.  In a world that emphasizes orderly, pleasant appearances and self-control, and because so many of us place our need for stability, security and order above all else, anger can feel chaotic, dangerous and unmanageable.

As humans, our instinct is to shy away (or even run) from our feelings of anger. Like I did, many of us deal with our anger by suppressing it, lying to ourselves or others about it, or trying to put a happy face on the outside despite feeling very differently on the inside.  Once I was finally able to name my anger, there were many times I shared my feelings with others only to have them respond with comments like “Look on the bright side,” “Don’t be a Debbie Downer,” or “Look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.” It was exhausting.  

The message internalized from this type of response is that there is something inherently wrong with me for being angry. But I found that it wasn’t just me. Society is full of subtle (and not so subtle) messages that reinforce the idea that anger is a negative emotion--something unpleasant, unnecessary, outrageous, better yet, immoral that we should not feel or express.  Feminists boldly proclaiming that women deserve equal pay for equal work—scary and angry. Young Black protestors asserting that Black lives matter—hateful and angry. Activists championing the rights of undocumented immigrants—entitled, unlawful and angry.  

And for women, being vocal about our anger comes at great risk to us both personally and professionally. Shame and shaming often accompany female expressions of anger. As a woman, I’ve been labeled “emotional” “unreasonable” “unprofessional” and “high-strung” when I have expressed my anger at being personally wronged or at injustice, whether it is in the workplace or in the world. And as a woman of color, when I’ve expressed my anger, the stakes have been even higher.  I’ve been called “aggressive” “negative” or “angry” as in the “angry Black woman” more times than I can count.  

The end result was that for years, as both a child and an adult, I tried desperately not to appear angry. Not because I wasn’t, but instead because I feared being judged and labeled. If I was angry, what did that say about me? Is something wrong with me when I feel anger? Am I a bad person because I am angry?   Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? What good could possibly come from being angry?

 With time and reflection, I have learned the answers to these questions and they are relatively simple. What does anger say about me as a person? Only that I’m human. Is something wrong with me when I feel angry? Not at all, anger is a natural emotion. Am I a bad person because I’m angry? No, everyone is entitled to feel their emotions- fully and without shame.  Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? With rare exception, little is achieved by lying to others or myself by pretending to feel something I don’t.

What good could possibly come from being angry?

Actually, a lot. Being in touch with anger is a fundamental part of self-awareness. Acknowledging the feeling of anger and understanding it, allows me to intentionally make choices to change my situation. I find that when I simply sit with the feeling of anger, it provides a bit of clarity and allows for good decision-making. For example, when I get that snarky email from a colleague or boss that evokes anger in me, when I sit for a few minutes and digest those feelings, I no longer have the need to respond in all capitals back. I am able to make the decision to wait and respond after I’ve had time to cool down. Anger can also be a powerful motivator and catalyst that leads to societal change.  Anger about injustice in society led to the Civil Rights Movement, to marriage equality and to equal pay laws. Anger is one of the foundational emotions that has caused humans to mobilize and organize for justice in ways that better humanity. Finally, anger can lead to personal growth and change. Recently on my favorite podcast, I heard someone say, “I demand to be my full self in any space that I am in.” I wholeheartedly agree with that mantra. After years of hiding and suppressing my feelings, I want to live an authentic life--embracing all of my emotions and bringing my full self everywhere. That includes my joy, my curiosity, my anxiety, my intelligence, my passion and, yes, my anger. Anger is a natural part of what I feel along with all the other emotions that humans are gifted with.

So, I embrace anger. I am alive. I am a full human being. I have complex emotions that I or others don’t need to judge- they are what they are. And sometimes it’s good to be angry.