self

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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