blackness

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. 

 

 

 

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