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“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



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I have posted a few paeans to my block. I love where I live and the apartment I live in. I love my neighborhood. This is the first place I’ve felt at home in many, many years. Because a post earlier this week tracked my path from my mother’s home to this one, I was remembering my experience of finding this apartment … and that got me thinking about David.  While it’s true that I loved this apartment the moment I saw it, it’s also true that it wasn’t the only really nice place I looked at in Crown Heights.

I saw another apartment first, a big two-bedroom with great light that cost about $300 less a month than where I live now. Why don’t I live there? Part of the reason is that this lovely block and the surrounding blocks felt better to me than that other apartment’s immediate neighborhood … but mostly the answer is David.

David is the man who showed me the apartment, the man who did double duty as realtor and building manager, the man with whom I would have had to interact on something like a regular basis if I lived in that apartment. David failed “The Test.”

I saw David’s apartment on Craigslist and called to learn more. David was pleasant. Gave me lots of information about the place, happily set up a time for me to see it. So I took off on a super-cold, “wintery mix” kind of day … only to find that David had given me lousy directions, had told me to get off at a subway stop four long stops too soon for his apartment, had told me to walk the wrong direction once I came up from the subway. I kept calling him to figure out what was going on, to find out where I was supposed to be. He finally admitted that he was a driver and wasn’t sure of the directions. (Seriously. Where they do that at?)

So I finally got directions from someone who actually knew what they were talking about and got myself turned around. On my way to the building from the train, I called David one last time to let him know I was almost there.  He said he was right outside the building entrance, keeping warm in his car. I got to the building and looked around. There was a man parked right in front of the building, sitting in his car. He wasn’t stepping out and announcing himself as David, but he was the only guy anywhere near the building, so I walked up to the window. He made a half-glance at me then quickly looked away. He turned his body slightly toward the passenger side of the car, clearly bent on not acknowledging or interacting with me. I knocked on the window and he turned an angry face to me.

“What do you want?” This comes muffled, through the glass because he hasn’t put his window down even the tiniest bit.

“Are you David? It’s me, Stacie.”

“Stacie who was just on the phone?”

No, some totally random other Stacie who just happens to be showing up outside your building knowing your name, you jackass. Yes, that Stacie.”

He still didn’t leave the car.  He opened his window … I finally got that “tiniest bit open” I’d been expecting from the start. He put down his window seemingly to get a better look at me.

“Stacie who called about the ad?”

“Look, it’s cold out here.  Are you going to show me the apartment or not?”

“You’re the one who just called.”

“Yes, you completely hideously annoying man.

You know the big, you’re-a-loser “X” that flashes on Family Feud? Imagine that coming into play now, except in this quiz, you only get the one strike. It’s all I need to count you out. David had completely and utterly failed The Test. He heard my voice on the phone and thought he knew who would be coming to see his apartment. I showed up, and he needed to process that he had been talking all that time to a Black person without realizing it.

And up to that point, I’m not angry with him. People regularly assume I am a white person when they hear me but don’t see me. And I can be fine with that, depending on where you go once you realize that I am, in fact, a Black person, once you know that I’m the person who comes with the voice you profiled. The fact that David couldn’t manage to process the reality of me — or at least take himself through his slow and painful process in some way that was vaguely graceful and not so obvious — is where he went off course.

Yeah, the fact that processing reality ended in him being quite clearly displeased to discover my Blackness makes that big, you’re-a-loser “X” glow in a hot, red neon.

(Of course, it’s my fault, you understand. His displeasure. It’s my fault. I should have warned him. Should have said, within seconds of greeting him on the phone, “I, as a Black woman, would like to see the apartment you’re renting on Union Street.” See how simple that is, how completely normal and like actual human conversation?)

I still wanted to see the apartment.  I knew I didn’t want David to be my landlord, but I’d come all that way, through the wintry mix and everything. I wanted to see the apartment. And it was as nice as it sounded online: big rooms, lots of sunlight, new fixtures in the bathroom and kitchen. Lots of closets. A large entrance hall (with a coat closet!). I think there was even a laundry room in the basement. Lovely. Too bad I wasn’t going to live there.

I decided to waste a little of David’s time and asked him to tell me about the neighborhood, asked him who lived in the area. He gave me an informative description of the Orthodox Jewish community … and stopped. Please remember that we’re in Crown Heights. Yes, there is a large Orthodox Jewish community here. But they are not the only folks this neighborhood is known for. There’s a reason the Caribbean Day Parade is held over here, after all. But he talked about the Hasidim and stopped.

“Ok. So that’s the whole population?”

“No, no, there are other people.”

“Oh, ok, great. Who else?”

“…”

Please know that here he could, really, have said anything. He could have told me there’s a large Caribbean community, could have said something straight to the point like, “Oh, a lot of black people,” or something a little more “cute” like, “Oh, a lot of people who look like you.” He couldn’t do it. He just stared at me for a minute then looked away and hemmed and hawed for another couple of minutes.

“Oh, you know … oh, there are … oh, a lot of … you know … neighborhood people.” (his emphasis)

Neighborhood people? Neighborhood people?

Oh, I could have played with him a little longer, asked him to explain what that meant. But he’d already failed the test, forcing him to add glitter and blue flame to his “X” was pointless.

Neighborhood people.

What, really, could be his problem? (Not an actual question.)

Let’s play compare and contrast. The morning after seeing that beautiful apartment, I rode back over to Crown Heights to see the place in which I am sitting to write this. I had been on the phone with the woman who would be one of my landlords. She had given me directions and asked if I knew anything about the neighborhood. We’d chatted a little and then scheduled my visit. I followed her clear, accurate directions and walked down the block toward the house. As I got closer, I saw a couple standing half on the sidewalk and half in the driveway of a house. A woman, a man, two small girls. I figured they were who I’d come to meet. As I walked up, the woman smiled and said, “Stacie? Hi, I’m L____.”

See how easy that was? It’s pretty much 100% likely that Leah (we’ll call her “Leah.” I’ve always disliked those “L____”s) made an assumption about who I was going to be when she talked to me on the phone. When I walked up and turned out to be me instead of who she imagined, she said hello and kept it moving. Like. a. normal. person. would. Like a not-racist person would. Yeah, of course I went there. That was the only “where” we were every going to go.

I’d have saved some money renting from David. I’d have had to pay for basic utilities, plus heat and laundry at his place, so the $300 difference in rent would really have been more like $100, but that would still have been more cash in my pocket. But no. That place wasn’t an option. I was never going to live in David’s building, and that was clear as soon as he didn’t greet me outside the building, as soon as he couldn’t wrap his small, racist mind around the fact that I was me and not whatever version of a white woman he’d had in mind when he’d talked to me on the phone. I had no intention of saddling myself with David, of having to do regular business with a man who didn’t trust me based on nothing but what I look like, a man who acted as if he was afraid to be alone in the apartment with me the whole time I was looking at the place, a man who turned his back when I walked up to his car so that he wouldn’t have to interact with me. No. So much wiser to rent from a family for whom my Blackness wasn’t cause for alarm.

There are plenty of things that make this apartment the better option: the back yard, my own washer and dryer, space in the basement to store my too-much-stuff and set up my sewing table, a full-on pantry closet in the kitchen … and just the general feeling of coming home that settled into me the moment I set foot in the door.

Leah and her family passing The Test wasn’t the only reason I wanted to live here, but it was one of the important reasons. The fact that they have turned out to be nice, intelligent people who I like talking to and knowing is an excellent bonus. Getting to watch their kids grow up, getting to sometimes hang out with their dogs … bonus, bonus.

I joke about David’s inability to name Black people. Mopsy and I talk about “neighborhood neighborhoods” sometimes, or whether or not there’s a good mix of neighborhood people at an event. It’s silly, and we sound silly saying it, and that’s why I like it. But David? Nope, not getting any love from me.

I save my love for Crown Heights. I’m super happy to have wound up in this neighborhood neighborhood. ❤



It’s hard to believe that the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge is almost over!
How does March go by so fast!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

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So yesterday there was some unnecessary-but-unsurprising ugliness in the world. There was April Ryan getting scolded and bullied by the White House press secretary. There Representative Maxine Waters being insulted by Bill O’Reilly. It was a bonanza day for Black women. Bo.nan.za. If you missed it, you can get a recap, complete with lame, insincere apologies over at The Mary Sue.

I was feeling that #BlackWomanAtWork hashtag, for sure. This nonsense had me remembering a lot of things that have happened to me during the long course of my work life. I posted some of those thanks-for-the-memories moments on FB:

“Don’t get excited.” Said by coworker when I leaned forward in a meeting as I spoke.

“Okay, stay calm,” said by coworker every time I express displeasure at something.

“Calm down, don’t get so upset,” said by a friend any time I expressed anger, displeasure, concern. Went on a long time until I finally called her out. Hasn’t happened since.

Boss looking at my natural hair and asking if I think it might be “too street.” (Whatever the fuck that is when it’s home.)

HR manager after I interviewed with him (many years ago): “You’re very intimidating, you know. You should work on that if you want to find something.”

“No, you cannot be the director. I need to speak to the director.” Man trying to bully his way into the program I used to direct.

Presenter looking directly at me for the only time during his presentation: “We have programs for single parents and people who didn’t finish college.”

“Hello … again!” Member of another team who thinks he’s seen me already even though he hasn’t … even though there is not a single other Black woman on our floor who looks anything at all like me.

“You’re listening to rock? Black people don’t like rock!” Coworker in ed program where I used to teach.

This crap is ridiculous. And it’s all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s when you expect it, and — best of all — when you least expect it. There’s a reason both April Ryan and Maxine Waters dealt so well with the awful treatment they received. They have had years of these experiences, and they have learned how to brush off their shoulders and move on.

I have to wonder at O’Reilly, though. Coming for Mother Maxine is just foolish, plain and simple. Ms. Waters is not here to play with you and your racism. She is not going to take her ball and go home because you chose to show yourself to be a hateful bag of wind (again). No. Ms. Maxine will take that O’Reilly, raise you a Spicer, lay you and your misogynoir out with a royal flush of proud Black clapback, and walk away with the pot every damn time. (Yes, note the Oxford comma. Just like Ms. Maxine, it is not here to play.)

But I’m not really expecting sense from O’Reilly. Or Spicer. I know better.

And I don’t need to defend Mother Maxine. She can take care of her fine self by herself. And, too, she has R. Eric Thomas in her corner, writing his love for her practically every day. If you haven’t caught up with him yet, you can click over and check out what he wrote about this foolishness. Because of course he wrote about this nonsense.

Here is a scrummy little taste:

Because Bill O’Reilly (whoever that is) can’t come for her. He wasn’t sent for. His hairline doesn’t have the range. She has 40 years of political receipts. He has tired, racist dog whistles about hair. These are not equivalent. If he thinks he was reading her, he needs Hooked on Phonics.

Giving me life. 100%.

As you can see, Ms. Maxine is fine out here without me. Me, on the other hand? Mostly I’m just tired. All the ways we are always and always being pushed down, pushed back, silenced, shamed, erased. Can’t folks just give it a rest already? Can’t we just live? I know this answers to these questions is going to stay “No,” maybe for a good, long while. Knowing the truth of that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, doesn’t make me feel any better about any of it. As a friend said in response to my FB post: “We call them microaggressions, but what about a constant onslaught on your very being and existing is micro?”

Yes. What she said.

But then I remember Representative Waters. And I remember one of my coworkers telling me that I gave total Maxine Waters in a meeting on Monday. And I feel a little energized. Feel a little more like I can keep standing up, keep clapping back.



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

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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.

____________________

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.


alice-tillis

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.

alice-tillis
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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!

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I write a lot about racism. And by “a lot” I mean A LOT. And I’ve been doing it for years. Anyone who knows my work knows this, or should know it, would know it if they’d been paying the least little bit of attention.

Since November 8th, much of my writing has had the same message, a message that has made some folks accuse me of being a racist: namely, that you, white people: you are responsible for THOTUS¹. You sided with the Klan, took up the cause of the neo Nazis, voted in a hateful, racist, misogynist, xenophobic, islamophobic, isolationist, elitist government. The who-voted-how numbers tell the tale quite plainly. White men went for THOTUS in droves. And more than half of white women followed.

I kept posting from the heart of my anger, telling white folks to take responsibility for the apocalypse-world they ushered in, telling them to come get their people and start doing the work of eradicating the deeply ingrained racism that is the poisoned lifeblood of this country, work they should have been doing all along.

Surprise! Some people didn’t like what I had to say. Some people felt saddened or angered or attacked by my posts. And I got a lot of pushback saying their feelings were hurt by my “come get your people” demand.

I was caught off guard – not so much by the fact that anyone was hurt, but by the fact that a lot of anyones were hurt. If only a few people had contacted me, I might have seen them as anomalies. But I had more than a dozen emails, a handful of private messages, and a bunch of responses to FB posts – they ranged from sad to offended to passionately self-defensive to curt. Clearly there was something I should take a closer look at.

So I looked. But you know what? I’m not wrong. White people decided this election. Full stop.

Yes, I know. Not all white people. Ob.vi.ous.ly. I never said all-a y’all voted for him. No. What I said was that all-a y’all are responsible. What I said was that white people need to come get their people, need to start doing the hard work. And that’s what I meant.

I get it, the offense. I’ve written plenty about racism, but those other times were easier for my white friends and readers. They could see themselves as separate from the “bad” white people I chastised in those posts, remain comfortable in the knowledge that they were “good” white people. But in my writing since the election, there hasn’t been any room for white folks to hold themselves above the fray. The things I’ve written are the first time I’ve come for white people as a group, a monolith. And being seen as a whole group rather than as individuals makes a lot of people uncomfortable.

Fine. by. me. I’m not interested in anyone’s comfort, or at least not yours. It’s your comfort that made it possible for the election to turn out the way it did. It’s your comfort that enabled you to talk only to friends and family who agreed with you about the issues, who never said anything that rippled the quiet, happy waters of agreement that kept you buoyed and confident. It’s your comfort that kept you from giving credence to the number and socioeconomic diversity of people clearly enamored of THOTUS. Y’all been too damn comfortable for too damn long.

I know. On November 8th you cried. On November 9th you cried. How could the world have betrayed you like this? How could it be possible for that man to win the election?

Yes, you cried. But you know what? I’ve been crying, too … for years. Where’ve you been? You never noticed, never bothered to look, never bothered to care.

And I don’t mean the old-timey crying – when you kidnapped me and forced me into enslavement on your plantations and in your homes, when you sold my children away from me, when you raped and beat and killed me, when you lynched me for sport, when you refused to educate me, when you kept me from moving into better neighborhoods and better jobs … or any of the other ways this list could go on and on.

No, I mean in my own life. I mean the little ways you’ve cut and slapped me, made sure I knew I was “other.” I mean 8th grade when you took hold of my arm and rubbed hard enough to break the skin and then looked at me, puzzled, asking why none of the dirt would come off. I mean that time after college when you fixed me up with a guy from your job who you thought would be perfect for me – he was Black, after all – but you didn’t bother to tell him anything about me, not even the simple fact that I, too, am Black. If you had, he could’ve said to you instead of me that he didn’t date Black women because he found us uncontrollable and disrespectful. I mean every time I tried to tell you about some large-scale manifestation of discrimination, and instead of hearing me, you told me to calm down, to not be so angry. Instead of hearing me, you told me about some time when you, as a white person, had been a victim of reverse racism.

And I mean this moment in my own life. In the bigger ways you’ve let me down and broken my heart. Civil rights activist Johnetta Elzie says it so powerfully in her poem, “Where were you?

Where were you when the media called us “thugs” for protesting?

When I stood outside on those hot summer days, and needed ice water? 

Or a back rub?

Or someone to talk to?

Why weren’t you standing with me?

Where the hell were you?

Where were you when we asked you to #SayHerName?

When Rekia Boyd was killed while playing at the park with her friends?

When Tanisha Anderson, Sandra Bland, Shantel Davis, and others died at the hands of police, with little media attention?

When our trans sisters — Brandi Bledsoe, Rae’Lynn Thomas, Dee

Whigham — were also murdered and also forgotten? 

Where were you?

If you can answer at least one of the questions here, answer me this: We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?

Exactly right. Do you see it now? You have been making me cry since the day we met. And you’ve never noticed.

But you want me to pay attention to your tears, need me to understand how my statement of facts is painful to you, how it makes you uncomfortable. You want me to apologize.

Nope. No more. I’m over coddling you. Over biting my tongue when I need to call you out. Over swallowing my anger and hurt when you slap me down with your unconscious bias. Done.

Instead, I’ll be pulling on a brightly colored bathing suit, goggles, a nose plug. I’ll be doing that weird, arm-flailing body-slap Phelps does before a race. And I’ll be diving into an Olympic-sized pool filled to overflow with your tears.

A friend sent me Leah Roberts Peterson’s Facebook note. She wrote it after Saturday’s march, wrote it to her white sisters who had just stepped up in their pink pussy hats of solidarity but who were feeling attacked by questions and comments from women of color. She wrote:

The best thing you can do is take in all those feelings coming from our sisters who are hurting and angry and OWN IT. Remind yourself that yes, you’re trying because THIS is how they feel. You’re doing what you’re doing because it’s RIGHT and it’s how humans with empathy and sympathy and a working heart should live their lives once they figure it out. Not because all the Black women are going to magically start appreciating you. They owe you NOTHING. Mark the date on your calendar when you’ve got as many days under your belt being awake as you did being asleep, and then, maybe, start being a tiny bit impatient when others don’t recognize your efforts. My own date is June 17, 2061. I will be 91.

I tell you this with sincere love in my heart because I KNOW you’re trying. Sit in the discomfort of these moments. It’s ok to not feel comfortable. That’s how lots of people around the world live their lives every single day. Comfort is not our goal. Equality is. ❤

Oh, I am so here for this. When I talk about white fragility and you respond by dm-ing me how that term is divisive and hurtful … know that you’re flat out exhibiting A-grade fragility right there. When I talk about how the safety pins make me feel so much “Meh,” and you tell me I should be happy people are making an effort … just … no. Don’t do that.

When you say these tone-policing, silencing things, I respond as kindly as I can because I’m interested in keeping dialogue going, keeping lines of communication open, because I know and care about you. But I need you to take a moment, think about how microaggressive some of your comments are, think about how much your comments are really asking me to shut up and be grateful, to give you a cookie in appreciation for all your hard work on my behalf.

Yeah. What Imma need is for you to think about what’s making you uncomfortable and examine your discomfort before you come for me. Thank you.

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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

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¹ Titular Head oThese United States


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This is Mr. My President and Mrs. My First Lady’s last night in the White House. I’m sure they’re doing it up, dancing and laughing through every room, singing old songs and clinking glasses. I’m betting there’s even a little cuddling under that last piece of mistletoe they saved just for this night. I’m sure they’re looking forward to having the tiniest bit of their real lives back — they won’t get too much of a return to normalcy, but that smidgen will surely feel like heaven.

Just about every day since Mr. My President was elected, I have said a prayer for him. (Does this surprise you? You couldn’t be more surprised than I’ve been.) Every clear night, I’ve given up my wish on the first star for him. I’ve prayed and wished for his life, for his health and safety, for the health and safety of his family, for him to have the love and support of his rockstar lady-wife and his fabulous daughters, for him to find the way to be the president we voted for.

Eight years of wishes. Eight years of dreams. And now I have to learn to say goodbye.

It hasn’t been an eight-year love fest. There have been those times … those times when Mr. My President has annoyed me, angered me, disappointed me, driven me crazy. He has backed things I’ve wished he wouldn’t, and turned his back on things I know he should have picked up and carried. But he’s always been my president, and I have always loved him, will keep on loving him. I love his poise, his sense of humor, his intelligence, his graciousness, his calm, his speechifying, his love of children, his measured contemplation of issues, his friendship with Uncle Joe, his love for his family … and most especially, his love for Michelle. For eight years he has stood center stage showing us what Black love can look like, showing us strength and grace, swagger and humility. And now, in his last act of modeling classy behavior, he will hand over this country to a man he would surely rather read for filth. And he will do it with dignity. Of course.

Thanks, Obama.

(Surprise me tomorrow morning and change your mind about Leonard. It’s really the one thing I’ve most wanted you to do these last eight years. There’s still time.)

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On New Year’s Eve I learned that a couple I was close to for years, parents of a friend I had from college until my early 40s, had voted for the Hate Monger. I knew they’d had a souring experience that had nudged them to the right, but I wouldn’t have guessed how far adrift they’d gone. They are a white couple and have many children, two of whom are married to POC. Yet they voted for a man who would happily deport one of those in-laws and would see the other as representing a country he accuses of cheating and mistreating the US. They have daughters. Yet they voted for a man who actively harms women and can’t be trusted to respect or strengthen women’s rights. One of their sons is a small business owner whose insurance likely comes from the ACA. Yet they voted for a man who vowed to get rid of that legislation on his first day in office.

The souring experience? Their youngest son missed out on an opportunity years ago … and they decided that what should rightfully have been his had been denied him because of Affirmative Action.

Yes.

Their youngest son is smart and capable. I’m sure he’d have taken complete and successful advantage of that opportunity. Do I automatically assume he was more deserving of that opportunity than any of the people who actually received it? No, but he’s not my son. Still, it’s a significant leap of faith.

Anger over Affirmative Action doesn’t puzzle me. It’s coming from a very clear and basic place. What should suprise me about that anger is how blatantly racist it is. Think about it: One hundred people are accepted into a program, and maybe five of them are POC. How are you — the angry, left-out soul — certain it’s one of those five POC who “stole” your spot? Why aren’t you assuming it’s one of the 95 white folks?

What was that?

I couldn’t hear you.

You aren’t looking at the white folks because … why?

Oh. You assume they deserve the same gifts and accolades you think you deserve?

Yeah. Thought so.

It’s the thing that always gets caught in my teeth with Affirmative Action haters — that instant assumption that they’d be riding high if it weren’t for some POC bogarting their position. And you know, maybe those five POC did take a white person’s place. But who said it was your place? Can we just acknowledge that there could have been dozens — nay, hundreds — of more qualified white folks ahead of you in line? Don’t forget the glistening, high-court-confirmed mediocrity of Abigail Fisher.

And while that youngest son moved on — is still moving on — his parents set their hair on fire and have let it burn to this day. Hearing about the end result of their anger and resentment made me wonder. Their bitterness drove them to embrace the same presidential candidate as the Ku Klux Klan, as the Neo Nazis. Could this loss for their child really have turned them from staunch Democrats to hardline Republicans? They’ve been on this path a while, voted for both McCain and Romney. Could their son’s disappointment really have been the initial push?

Were they sliding to the right all those years when they smiled in my face and welcomed me into their home? Did they question whether I had earned any of my successes? Did they see those as gifts, handed to me because I was Black?

I was close to their daughter for more than 20 years. She and I went to college together, studied abroad together. We moved to New York at about the same time, went to grad school around the same time. She stayed in academia, and I became a teacher, but we were still in each other’s lives. I was in her wedding and attended her sister’s.

When I think now about my interactions with her parents, they all become suspect. If their daughter hadn’t gotten into the college where we met, I would be exactly the kind of person they would have blamed for her failure, the kind of person they would have accused of stealing her seat. If I had gone to Paris junior year and she hadn’t been accepted into the program, would their anger have bubbled up then? Would they have assumed I’d taken her place?

Fortunately for their ability to maintain a relationship with me all those years, they always found me lacking. I am a collection of things they wouldn’t want to see in their kids. I’m not their style of clever. I’m fat. I’m not ambitious. I didn’t get a Ph.D. I didn’t get married. I’m childless. Did they treat me well because I posed no kind of competitive threat to any of their children? How quickly would they have turned on me had any of the facts of our lives put me ahead of my friend on the path to their idea of success?

I guess what I want to know is: how long? For how long was this belief in the inferiority of POC finding a warm, safe home in their hearts? How long was racial prejudice alive and well in these people I thought of as second parents?

Prejudice doesn’t just appear from nowhere. One of the scripts I’m working on for Adventures in Racism is about how children learn prejudice and how — or if — they can unlearn it. It’s been a challenging script for me because I keep waiting for the light-bulb moment, the bright flash of realization that will show me how to “unteach” those kids … but it doesn’t come because there’s no handy movie magic to solve this problem.

I was in kindergarten the first time I met people who disliked me because of my color. We were five, but my classmates had already learned their lessons well. I have since had the same experience with children even younger. Kids learn early. So, did my friend’s parents have seeds planted in childhood?

But prejudice isn’t only learned in childhood. It’s just as easy to internalize, over time, the steady drumbeat of inferiority that is the narrative surrounding Black people, particularly in this country.

Still. Something existed in both of these people before The Great Disappointment. Something strong. Something that made blaming people of color their first response to misfortune, something that instinctively spat up the assumption that an undeserving Black or brown person was being lifted up in their son’s stead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen or learned of someone I know fully blossoming into their racial hatred. But in those other instances, those people showed early signs — I can’t really be surprised to find a friend from high school posting racist memes about Mr. My President when, in 8th grade, she explained that she found Mick Jagger so sexy … except for his “nasty nigger lips.” Those early warning signs were helpful. I knew exactly who I was dealing with, how far to trust them, just how much not to let down my guard. This change in my friend’s parents — despite taking effect over many years — feels like an ambush.

I don’t know if I’ll see anyone from that family again. It’s been 12 or 13 years now since those friendships ended. I have a hard enough time thinking of what I’d say to my former friend, to her siblings — people with whom I still, presumably, have things in common. I can’t imagine having anything to say to her parents.

Maya Angelou’s quote keeps running through my head: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” But these people never showed me who they really were. And that’s the thing that’s poking me. That “how long?” really has its foot on my neck.

In the end, it can’t matter. People I felt deep affection for harbored ugly, racist beliefs. Maybe the whole time I knew them, maybe only toward the end of that time. It can’t matter … still, I feel cheated. I feel as if they’ve stolen something from me, my memories of them, all the ways they made me smile — their jokes, their chaotic family meals, their insistence on having large pets in a house full of expensive artwork and delicate antiques — all of that is made grimy by the truth of who they are.

I see them now. And no repetition is required. I believe them this first time.


Two essays down in this 52-essay challenge!

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