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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.

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

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

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.