women

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. 

 

 

 

Black women loving and holding each other fiercely

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

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

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

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

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

 It is one of our greatest gifts.

 It can also be one of our biggest downfalls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Stop judging us. Be thankful for all we do.

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

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

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

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

 And for that, I am forever grateful.

 

 

 

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

Managing Anger

It’s actually good to be angry.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What good could possibly come from being angry?

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

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