A steaming pile of dog mess by any other name …

By now perhaps you’ve heard that Ms. Can’t-stop-doing-the-absolute-most Rachel Dolezal has changed her name. She has decided that the secret to once again hoodwinking folks into believing she’s Black is to give herself a full-on Africanified name. She now wants y’all to call her Nkechi Amare Diallo.

I wish I was joking.

I wish I had a barf bag.

Can someone please come get this woman? Gather her up and show her exactly where to take her seat? Lead her by the hand — or perhaps by a handful of her struggle weave — and put her in the corner with a sugar teat where she can sit down and shut the fuck up. Forever.

I was pissed when I saw this “news” item yesterday. Why can’t this woman stay out of my feed? Why can’t she just disappear already? Why doesn’t she get that her 15 minutes are past, that they were never really her 15 minutes in the first place but some time she stole from actual Black women all-over-the-damn-where?

It made me so tired. So angry. And then more tired.

I set it aside. I chose not to write about it. I cranked out some fluff about popcorn instead. But I still have her kanekalon mess stuck between my back teeth.

So I’m posting a revised-and-finally-finished-after-being-ignored-for-two-years piece I wrote when Dolezal’s hideous story first broke.

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Color, Culture, and Clown White: Rachel Dolezal, Blackness, and Misogynoir

For 54 years, I have been Black. Never a question, for me or anyone else. It’s been an easier and more comfortable truth at some times than at others, but it has always been a truth. When my sister and I put cardigans on our heads to playact long, straight hair, I was Black. When white friends looked right in my face and told me they didn’t see me as Black, I was Black. When I relaxed my hair, I was Black. When I let a make-up counter lady talk me into buying foundation shades too light and when I wore that ridiculously clownish color out in the street, I was Black.

This woman is Alice Tillis, my great grandmother.


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She is Black, just not as visibly as I am. She wouldn’t have called herself “Black,” but I am of her. As is true for many families of the diaspora, my relatives can fill every space on the black-to-white spectrum.

There are many reasons for this, but the first is racism, is the power and greed of White Supremacy that supported the triangle trade, that put African women into the hands of white, rapist slavers.

And so my great grandmother, whose father was the Scottish man who enslaved her mother. Because, also like many people in the diaspora, I don’t have to look back too far to find enslaved relatives.

* * *

I managed to be a semi-silent observer of the infuriating insult that is Rachel Dolezal. But she’s back in the news. I have to be irked by the sight of her face in my feed yet again, staring out at me, by turns smug and self-pitying. Biting my tongue on all the things this woman’s behavior calls up in me allows her to silence yet another Black woman. And she’s had that power for too long.

Shortly after her fall from grace, a friend was on a dating site and sent me a screen cap of a white man’s description of the women he wanted to hear from. At the bottom of the long list of must-haves was this cleverness: “The only black women who should reply better be black like Rachel Dolezal.” Yes, exactly that. The only Black women this asshat will date are the kind who aren’t actually Black at all. Thank you for the heads up.

After the original story broke, an NPR news host let us know that he’d be discussing the case later that day. He asked if race was color or culture and suggested that he’d get to the bottom of it on his show.

And I wondered if he was really that ignorant or if he just fell in love with the alliteration.

Because race isn’t color or culture, and we all ought to be grown up and honest enough to know better than to say that at this point in our history.

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My great-grandmother and me

We aren’t the same color, and we most definitely haven’t lived the same culture. We are still, however, the same race.

Of course we are. Because race has not one thing to do with color or culture. Race is about the power structure that works for, affirms, and upholds White Supremacy and the power of white privilege. Period.

Rachel Dolezal isn’t just a liar. She is, fundamentally, a white supremacist. She knows that, as a white woman, she can pantomime blackness and get away with it, reap the benefits of it, and never have to deal with the negatives. She knows that, as a white woman, the dominant culture of this country will protect her, even as she runs around in black face.

She is the ultimate user and benefactor of white privilege. She can choose to act as though race is fluid, and she can do that because she is white. Crossing that line works because she is white. It’s easy enough to see that such an attempted crossover wouldn’t work for me if I woke up tomorrow and claimed to be white because I “feel” white, but remember how obsessed America was when Mariah Carey hit the scene, how relentlessly the media dug and dug to find out what she “was,” to set the record straight on whether or not she was “part black.” The idea that this woman could keep her history to herself and just be a musical artist who was judged based on her songs was unacceptable. She wasn’t allowed to tacitly pass as white, if that was even what she was attempting. White America had to be the arbiter of her whiteness. White America gave Carey the thumbs down. Loved her music, but she would not be allowed live on the “fair” side of the line. Carey isn’t alone. The same media frenzy was sparked when Nora Jones arrived, when Amos Lee arrived.

As many have pointed out, there have been Black people who have crossed the color line, left their histories and families behind and passed for white. This truth is held up as an example of how not unusual or troubling Dolezal’s story is. To everyone making that point, you’ll just have to miss me.

People not of the dominant culture who pass their way into that culture are hoping to access some of the ease, opportunity, and safety denied them by a society created to value and privilege whiteness. They are hoping they will finally be able to get a job based on their merits rather than being denied one based on their color. They are hoping to have no trouble getting a hotel room, or a seat at a lunch counter, or a decent education. They are hoping to be able to bump into a white woman and not be lynched.

Dolezal, however, elbowed her way into the sphere of people this society works to hold back and keep down, and has chosen to set herself up as deserving a generous share of the limited opportunities available there.

White Supremacy has always held tightly to about nine-tenths of all possible goodies. Rachel Dolezal looked over at the portion begrudgingly allowed to non-white folks and decided to skim the cream off the top.

Black women sift to the bottom of every social value hierarchy diagram. There is too much truth in Hurston’s “mule of the world” line. Thanks to the steady drum beat of the White Supremacist narrative, Black women have forever been seen as pack animals and brood sows. As such, our lives – and deaths – are routinely counted as less if they are counted at all. And yet Dolezal came for us.

Dolezal has pantomimed Black womanhood for profit. She could maybe have been an ordinary white woman in the world and achieved some level of success, but she could occupy positions of power and status as a black woman precisely because of racial prejudice and anti-black misogyny: White Supremacy and the long heavy shadow of internalized racial inferiority. If she were an extremely light-skinned Black woman, Dolezal could reap rewards on both sides of the color line. So much winning! She isn’t crazy. She knows exactly what game she’s playing and exactly how to play it.

Even in her exposure, she continued to profit – all those TV interviews, the book deal that (of course) eventually came, the movie rights that will surely follow. Exposure took very little away from her. And her whiteness allows her to continue to claim that she is black. A Black person passing for white risks numerous losses if discovered, not least among which are loss of family members, loss of employment opportunities, loss of safety and protection. And discovery would never be defended as angrily and vociferously as it has been in this case. Dolezal has, ultimately, risked nothing. She can choose to be a white woman and enjoy her privilege outright, slipping back into the cloak of her original life. She can choose – as she seems determined to do – to stand her ground, continue to assert that race means only what she says it means and that the rest of us can go to hell … another gift of white privilege, as white people have always and ever been the arbiters of who is and isn’t white.

Whichever choice she makes, she will continue to profit, will continue to find any number of supporters and defenders … even as actual Black women continue to fight on all fronts to be seen, heard, valued, protected.

*

A friend asked why I was so angry, so disgusted. She wondered what I thought Dolezal had taken from Black people, from Black women. She sees the story as a nonsensical distraction from real issues.

And that’s true. Dolezal is a distraction. But even with the truth of that, it’s dangerous to ignore the fact of her story. What she’s done and the hateful noise she generates with her claim that she is the one who has forced America to talk about race … all of it needs calling out. To dismiss her is to once again paper over the emotional, political, and social damage done by racism in this country.

*

Dolezal played into racist tropes to strengthen her position and profit from her dishonesty. She used white privilege to enter the space of Black women and call it hers. She invented a history of racial violence and abuse, claimed to be the victim of racial hate crimes, and held these “facts” up as her racial and cultural bona fides. She changed her skin color and hair to support her performance. She claimed a lived experience and expertise in a history that she hadn’t lived or experienced. And in the exposure of her fraud, she claimed to be inspiring the first real, national conversation about race, as if the Black Lives Matter movement hadn’t opened that conversation a year earlier and sustained it ever since.

Every move she’s made has taken space from Black women. And that is the bit stuck in my teeth, the affront I can’t get clear of. There is already such limited space for Black women to occupy that having any of it occupied by a white woman silences us, erases us. All of the good work on behalf of Black people that Dolezal’s defenders pointed to when they scolded those of us who were angry could have been accomplished by a white person … and could have shown an excellent example to other white folks of what it means to be an ally. Instead, Dolezal has chosen to be usurper rather than ally, has decided that she does a better job speaking for Black folks than we do for ourselves.

This ugliness is a good reminder of how active and vigilant White Supremacy is. Look away for a moment, focus your energies on the several aggressive and violent fronts from which Black people are attacked, and different territory will be annexed, another tongue will be cut out. Who knew we needed to worry about this type of encroachment? Well, now we do. This is the conversation Dolezal should be sparking, the conversation she has sparked for me: how do we protect ourselves, even against attacks it makes no sense for us to imagine. Thanks Rachel.



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In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
I’ve fallen behind, but I’m determined to catch up!



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It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

I’m a Hollaback! girl, but …

I’m no fan of street harassment.  As the title says, I’m a Hollaback! girl, and a fan of Maggie Hadleigh-West’s amazing War Zone and of Holly Kearl. I’m happy every time a harasser is challenged, every time one is charged.

You can already hear the “but” coming, can’t you?  Yeah, it’s there.

I stepped off the bus this morning and headed for the subway.  As I approached the corner, I saw a young guy turn, see me, give me a serious once-over. When he gave me the second full-body stare and opened his mouth, I took a breath and set my face.  Whatever he was going to say, I was ready.

So here’s the but (or, to be crass — and give away the punchline — here’s my butt).  He started singing.  Started singing Queen.  Sang out loud and proud, “Fat-bottomed girl, you make the rocking world go round!”

I could have gotten mad at him, but really all I wanted to do was laugh.  First, I love that song.  Second, I often sing that song in reference to myself.  (I know I once wrote here claiming another number as my theme song, but who says you can only have one?)  Third, I just never expected him to sing, and certainly not that song.  Wasn’t he too young to even know that song?  And who sings Queen to strangers on the street at 8:15 in the morning, anyway?

I didn’t laugh.  I didn’t hug him, either.  I just kept walking.  But I won’t lie and say I didn’t have a little bit of a smile on my face for the next two blocks.

Note to the other harassers out there: this trick isn’t going to work every time, so you can put your songbooks away.

My Life as a Cougar

No, this isn’t some poignant tale from my Swedish childhood.¹  This is me struggling with the weird reality of going out with a guy young enough to be my son.  You know, dealing with the discovery that I am a “cougar.”²

Ok, so I’ve said it.  I’ve said both “it”s — I’ve gone on dates with someone who isn’t AC, and that not-AC someone is ridiculously young.  Take a moment to denounce me if you like.

Done?  I’m not sure I am, but let’s continue.

We’ll call the little whippersnapper I’ve been talking to Tarik.  On our third date I made the mistake of asking his age.  I knew he was young.  Even in the dark dance club where we met, it was clear I was the senior partner in our couple.  It’s just that I had convinced myself ours was a single-digit age gap.  Yeah, not so much.

I am finding this May-December thing decidedly icky.  And I’m surprised by how much it bothers me.  I don’t know if Tarik ever had any kind of boyfriend potential, but I do know that learning his age chilled my interest.  How annoying that I care.  Why do I care?  After all, AC is younger than I am, too.  Ok, only by two years.  We’re practically separated at birth compared to me and Tarik.  But really, what’s the big deal?  A man “of a certain age” dating a woman in her 20s would be envied and admired — ok, maybe not by everyone, but by many.  But when it’s an older woman and a younger man, suddenly there’s something animal and creepy going on:³

Shall I photoshop my face in there?

Again, what’s the big deal?  According to this handy chart I found on the internets, Tarik’s in my half-plus-seven dating range:

Mercifully, I will be saving myself from having to agonize over this too much longer.  It seems that my little trip to Cougar Town is going to be a short one.  Tarik is mostly irking the mess out of me these days, and is about to get that final goodbye.  I just wish I could figure out whether or not he’d irk me half as much if he weren’t half my age.

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¹ Tell me you never saw that movie.  What’s Netflix for, friends?

² Oh, so many issues with this use of “cougar.”  I suppose it’s better than “cradle robber,” but what is it really supposed to be saying?  And, while we’re figuring stuff out, how is it that I’m finding myself in this category?

³ Check out The Gender Blender Blog for a good articulation of some of my problems with this whole cougar business.

Using and Abusing

I don’t know what to do with men on the street.  I am mostly quite good at not seeing them, even as I watch them for threat or danger.  Sometimes one will push or slide past my shield, and I have no choice but to interact with him in some way.  I have yet to develop the ‘face of beligerence’ that Fox and my mother can level with such skill, but I can manage an outraged-but-dismissive glance down my nose.

I wore one of my favorite summer dresses on Friday.  It was hot, I was listening to Juanes, singing along in my head.  As I passed, a man seated in front of a shop stood and leaned into my path, put his beery breath in my face and started singing Besame Mucho.

I love Besame Mucho.  It’s languid and melancholy.  It reminds me of Oscar Hijuelos and João Gilberto and a beautiful elderly Chinese man on the Lexington F-train platform playing it like a soulful moan on his gaohu.

I love Besame Mucho, but I don’t really want a stranger — particularly not a half-naked, half-drunk, fully-sweaty one — blocking my path and throwing it in my face.

With headphones on, I can pretend I don’t hear, which lets me pretend I don’t notice.  I can keep on down the street to the party beat of La Noche.  But why do I have to be bothered by this in any way anyway?

I could go on and on, work up to a real rant.  But that’s the wrong direction.  I’m more upset with myself right now.  I don’t want random masturbators trying to make time with me on the street, but I use them.  Ok, not the disgusting men, but men in general.  I am quite consciously aware of how some men will respond to my voice, my smile, and to some things about me that are … uh … shall we say very up front.  I know and I take advantage of what I know when I need to.  Not five minutes after the half-naked singing man, I used my Sweet Girl voice to get some heavy-lifting help from a stranger in a store. 

Didn’t they used to call it “feminine wiles,” this manipulative behavior?  Fox isn’t a fan.  She thinks it’s demeaning, insulting, that women resort to such tactics, that I resort to such tactics.  I hear her.  And sometimes even I find myself rolling my eyes and getting annoyed and disgusted when I see women doing it … but I do it, still.  Not all the time, but sometimes.  Yes.

Part of me feels a little sheepish about this, but part of me thinks, “Why not?”  If men are so foolish as to let themselves be taken in because of my voice, my smile, my breasts (yeah, let’s just put it out there … we all know what I’m talking about), whose fault is that?  And where’s the harm, really?  They get to feel all “manly,” whatever that means for them, and I get to walk away without breaking a sweat … or a nail.

Except there is harm, isn’t there?  Every time I smile pretty or use my girly voice or pretend not to notice some man directing his conversation at my chest instead of my face I’m making it harder for the next woman who walks up and has a question, for the next woman who becomes his supervisor or assistant and has to deal with the belief I’ve helped cement that women are helpless and needy or that we exist for his pleasure.

Feh.

Fox will be happy to see that the light bulb’s finally gone on over my head, but I’m annoyed.  Do I have to be conscientious all the time?  Sometimes I really just want some guy to hold the door open or offer me his seat or put my suitcase on the overhead rack.  Is that so wrong?

Jump back: let me kiss myself!

This is a post you might want to skip.  You know, if you can’t stand shameless self-promotion and pathetic displays of “You like me! You really like me!” and all.

We had our year-end celebration last week -(a few weeks early thanks to current-year funding cuts).  As part of this year’s celebration, we asked all students to write something about their teachers so we could share some of their comments at the party to honor each instructor.  So my co-MC and I went into each class, kicked the teacher out for a while and had the students do some writing.  The teachers didn’t know what we were doing, and it was fun to think of surprising them with the sweet things their students had to say.

Some of my favorite things:

An ESOL I student wrote — “She is a pretty teacher.  She is charismatic.  Always smell I love.”  That is, hands down, my favorite comment! … Even though Mopsy insists the student was trying to say “Always smiles.”

Students wrote about how their teachers work with them, how patient they are, how they’re always in a good mood.  They wrote about how nervous they were when they came into the school, and how their teachers made them feel welcome and comfortable (“I found a warm heart and a true sister”).  The students seemed to enjoy sharing about their teachers as much as I enjoyed reading what they had to say.

I had thought I’d skip this exercise with my students.  Not because I don’t care what they think of me, and not because I think I already know, but because it just seemed so vain somehow for me to be asking them to write about me.  But then I realized how unfair that would have been to my students, that they would have been so upset to see that everyone else had been given the chance to contribute to the ceremony except them, so I relented.  And, too, my co-MC (henceforth to be called Hipstomatic Man for all the excellent photos he’s been taking on his iPhone) insisted that I get my students to write, so I did.  I had them place everything in a big envelope and I sealed it up and handed it over to Hipstomatic Man and didn’t think about it.

Until the celebration, when he started reading some of the comments.  And then the next day when I got to read through the whole stack myself.  They are so wonderful … and, according to them, I am too!

So yes, I’m actually going to be so vain/rude/pathetic/self-serving/fill-in-the-blank as to post the things my students had to say.  Or bits and pieces, anyway.  That’s right, it’s time for the shameless self-promotion:

She walks into class and the first thing you see is her smile.  She makes you feel welcome each and every day.

Whenever the class goes wild, she always has a way to settle it down and keep things cool.

We all love and learned from Stacie.

She didn’t turn the class into just students and teachers.  She turned the class into a family.

When you open a dictionary and you search for the word “teacher,” a picture of Stacie should be there.  She is the definition of teacher.

She made me believe again and she gave me back my faith that I can do it!

Truly a great sensation to be around.

She’s cool, very laid back and easy-going.

Ok, I’ll stop.  I love a) the acknowledgement that sometimes our class really does go wild, and b) that I’m a great sensation!  I’m glad to know that I’m seen as handling the chaos when things get crazy in the room.  Sometimes I wonder about that.  As for the sensation part, I’ve always wondered what it would take to be a sensation, and here I’ve gone and done it without even trying.  (Now I wonder if I’m more like A Chorus Line or Tommy.)  Mostly, I love knowing that, even though I often feel that my job pulls me out of the classroom too often and makes it hard for me to do as much preparation as I’d like, my students still feel that they benefitted from being in the class with me.  People wrote so much and so wonderfully about the class and how much they enjoy being part of it.  There are all sorts of ways I need to improve as a teacher, but at least I’m doing a few things right.