Happy, Nappy, Proud

Today’s feature on Wendy Angulo Productions’ Lifting the Burden of Shame series is my essay, “Happy, Nappy, Proud.” And I’m super proud of that!

I learned some things about myself in writing this essay. Thinking about shame pushing open a door in my thinking, and I’ve continued to explore what’s been locked away in that room. Will be interesting to see what new understanding comes from that exploration/excavation.

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Cultural Awareness as Deflector Shield

I adored my auntie. I am, as it happens, an auntie my own self, a role I absolutely adore filling. Yet still, there is my absolute distaste at hearing white folks use this term in relation to Representative Maxine Waters.

Since my essay about Maxine Waters was published last month, I’ve been thinking about the most popular, annoying reactions I’ve seen. A lot of people on a lot of different threads had a response similar to one of these:

“Oh, in my family, we call all older women and men “aunt” or “uncle” as a sign of respect, even if they aren’t related to us.”

“Oh, in the [fill in your not continental American cultural background here] culture, the term is used to show respect.”

“Oh, that seems like an American thing. In my country it’s totally different.”

“Oh, my students from [name any other country in the world] call me “auntie” all the time, and they mean it respectfully. I like it.”

“Oh, you can’t assume everyone has the same understanding of that term as you do.”

“Oh, if you tell people not to say “auntie” you could be hurting their feelings because it means something else in their culture.”

Did you notice a pattern? I saw the same thing happen over and over. The moment one person posted one of these “what about this other culture” comments, there are suddenly a bunch of replies from other people talking about the traditions of other countries and cultures and how interesting the similarities or differences are … and suddenly we’re having a whole other conversation that has nothing to do with what I was writing about.

Feh.

On almost all these threads, someone eventually stepped in–and then stepped in when it happened again and then again … because of course–and pointed out that these discussions were missing the point. And some of the Cultural Awareness people were able to hear and understand that. Others really struggled with it. Hard.

And I’m feeling the need to shine my light on why seeing that “other culture” conversation kept springing up drove me nuts.

People seemed to want to be sure everyone understood that “auntie” doesn’t have a negative connotation round their way. Fine. But you know what? The word doesn’t have a negative connotation right here, in the States. It is a term of love and respect, a term used for elders we care about, whether they’re in our families or not. Same meaning and use as in whatever other culture you heard about or studied or lived in during your gap year or whatever. Same.

That’s the point.

The term has always been familial, has always been used to show love and respect. Subverting that meaning and use of the term was surely one of the reasons the term was chosen for this distinctly American, disrespectful use. My essay draws that line, specifically states that using “Auntie” was a way for polite-seeming white people to speak impolitely to Black women, it allowed them to sugar-coat their disdain, their insult, their race prejudice with a kind-seeming honorific. They subverted “Auntie,” made it ugly.

So, if you read the essay, it should have been easy to see that there was no need to call out the traditions in other countries. None at all. And yet there were all those comments, again and again and again.

Here, I’ll insert the other, somewhat-related comment I also saw quite a bit:

“Oh, I’ve never heard this use before so when I say it I am, obviously, not using it that way, so there’s no problem.”

It’s easy for me to believe people wouldn’t have been aware that they were hearing “auntie” used in a demeaning way, but they’ve surely heard the term used for Black women–because, hello, they must absolutely have heard of Aunt Jemima. But even if you never knew there was some nasty history attached to “Auntie,” I’m telling you that there is, I’m telling you exactly what that nasty history is. So yes, you could have called Rep. Waters “Auntie” before you learned the backstory, but now that you know the backstory, why would you still want to use the word? If I’m saying I feel a way hearing that word in your mouth, why would you still want to use that word?

To get back to everyone else, making the case for using the term today because it’s used respectfully in another culture is just as insulting. In some ways, it’s actually more insulting. If I tell you there is a very specific use of the term that is particular a) to this country and b) to white people and Black women, and if I tell you that hearing white people in 2017 refer to a Black woman using this term makes me feel a way … one thing I’m not asking is for a cultural awareness lesson so that I can learn how other peoples use that word and why I shouldn’t only associate it with negative ideas. And by telling me all of that, you are letting me know either that you missed the point of my essay entirely, or you are intentionally harping on this side point to move the conversation away from racism.

Guess which one I think you’re doing.

I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to hear about the tools of racism and to learn that you’ve been using one of them when you didn’t realize it. And I imagine it’s much easier and far more comfortable to deflect, to resist the focus on something ugly and wax poetic about an alternative story that makes you feel better.

I get all of that. I’m not here for it.

I’m always talking about how white folks need to step up and do their work. Feeling uncomfortable? That’s part of the work. White people need to “suffer” through the few moments of feeling Ill at ease and hear what’s being said. My essay wasn’t an attack or an accusation. It was me letting people know how I hear the word “Auntie” when white folks use it in reference to Rep. Waters. It was a request that white folks stop using the term. It was an opportunity for folks (maybe primarily white folks) to learn something about this country’s history–because I decided to trust that people really mightn’t know about that bit of ugliness in our national past. And it was an opportunity for white people–once they learned about the derogatory use of “auntie”–to make the decision not to continue saying something that could be hurtful.

I’m going to extend my benefit of the doubt a little further and say it’s likely that most of the people talking about the ways other cultures around the world use “Auntie” aren’t fully aware that they are trying to change the subject and turn the conversation away from the sticky discomfort of talking about racism. I’m being this generous because I know that many of the ways white folks deflect to insulate themselves from having to deal with racism are unconscious.

Let’s forget racism for a minute. Suppose you were in a meeting that included a person who smacked you really hard across the head every time you saw them. You decide to say something about this awful smacking crap, and you hope that saying it in the group will finally get this person to stop because the group will rally around you and condemn that violent behavior.

You say, “You know, I have to tell you that it’s really painful and enraging when you smack me in the head.” And that person nods and says, “Oh my God, have you ever noticed how 2-year-olds can be slap-fighting one minute and then kissing like crazy the next?”

And, before you can point out that this has.not one thing to do with your point, someone else says, “Oh, my partner always gives me a little slap on the shoulder when she walks up to me. We call them ‘love taps,’ and I really like it.”

“Oh, my partner and I have love taps, too!” another group member says. “I thought that was just our little thing. How funny that you have that, too!”

And suddenly everyone is talking about love taps and the boy who pulled their hair on the playground in kindergarten who proposed after college … and the issue of you being assaulted by your colleague has been disappeared.

Frustrating as hell, isn’t it? Frustrating as hell.

To be most clear: the sidelining of my point about white people and “Auntie” is like this disappearing of calling out your colleague’s violence.

Does it seem like a lot to ask white folks to change their behavior, to sit down and listen when someone tells them something they’re doing is hurtful, silencing, derailing? It shouldn’t be, but clearly, it is a lot to ask … and the truth of that is maddening.

Yes, this is another one of those moments when I say a whole lot of stuff and then just say, “I’m tired. Beat to my fucking socks.” Because … yeah.

I’m glad a lot of people read my essay–more people than have ever read anything else I’ve ever written. That’s a wonderful thing. I just wish more of them had allowed themselves to actually hear what I had to say.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

The Well-Meaning White Chick

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to the piece I wrote about Maxine Waters. Most have been positive and thought-provoking. And then there have been others …

“Well but it’s very confusing. Because I read this piece and understood it but then today received a fundraising email from the Great Woman herself calling herself Auntie Maxine. Personally I don’t call her that, but it creates confusion in the well-meaning white chick.”

Does anyone remember SodaHead? (No? You can check out Urban Dictionary’s description of the site. It’s exaggerated, but that’s not to say it’s inaccurate …) There was a minute years and years ago when several of my coworkers were obsessed with SodaHead. They talked about the fires they’d start with the mildest bits of push-back on someone’s statement. They talked about how ridiculous and rabid the people on their threads were. I joined for a heartbeat to see for myself. What I saw was exactly as my coworkers had described. I was still surprised—by the level of vitriol, by how quickly and with how little provocation people went on the attack. The most common goals for members seemed to be a) piss off any and everyone who disagreed or just seemed as if they might possibly be disagreeing with your position, b) use circular reasoning and non-sequiturs because you have no real arguments or don’t feel like bothering to do the work to come up with a real argument. After reading for a few days, I dove in. I had this idea that I would mess with everyone’s minds by refusing to fight, by insisting on fostering calm, rational, sane discussion no matter who said what idiotic business to me. It was an interesting exercise, but I tired of it quickly. I don’t think I lasted a full month. There was far too much willingness on the part of other users to say idiotic business. It was exhausting.

That SodaHead exercise turned out to be great practice for the moment we’re in as a country (as a world?) and the way I find myself talking on FB these days. Yes, I can be counted on for a fair amount of snark and some basic, awkwardly-self-conscious clapbacks, but mostly I try to engage, even when people are saying outrageously stupid or triggering things.

When I read that “white chick” comment, I froze for a second. I mean, I’ve been answering all kinds of comments for years now. I’m pretty good at maintaining my calm, trying to leave room for some benefit of the doubt, whatever. But that comment … That comment, with its “well-meaning white chick,” really stopped me, and when I started picking apart what bugged me about it, I remembered the exchanges on SodaHead that I found most troubling.

My most heated SodaHead conversations were about race—which I’m sure is entirely surprising to you, dear reader. There would always be someone who’d insist on shouldering their way into a conversation with a pissy rant about how none of this racism/white supremacy/white privilege stuff had anything to do with them because their people came over from Poland after the second World War and were treated like shit and never owned slaves and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and why were we still talking about this ancient history because really Black people needed to just get over our mess already.

Whoosah!

Yeah, those comments were always the best tests of my ability to keep my calm-response experiment going. It doesn’t matter how many times some jackass throws that crap into a conversation, my temper immediately reaches critical mass and it’s all I can do to hold back the thermonuclear meltdown. But I started to get good at it during the couple of weeks I spent on SodaHead. I think SodaHead—coupled with many years of teaching—was exactly the preparation I needed to be ready for the kinds of volatile discussions I find myself in these days.

In the end with this woman’s comment, I chose to respond to the “it’s very confusing” part and ignore the “white chick” part. That allowed me to keep my blood pressure in check.

Yes, I could have called on the SodaHead practice I got all those years ago, but my experiment of playing the calm, rational conversationalist was over. Who I am in discussions on race has changed considerably since those days. Since the beginning of the Movement for Black Lives, I’ve granted less emotional and intellectual time and space to people who can’t meet me halfway. Between the killing of Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014 and the refusal, on December 3rd, 2014, to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo with murder for choking Eric Garner to death, I began to embrace my rage, to stop stuffing it down and hiding it from polite company. That fall, I declared that I would no longer entertain foolishness (see my lists of grievances and demands for some clarification—they’re incomplete, but they’ll give you an idea). There just isn’t time, and I don’t have the energy. What had seemed amusing on SodaHead had become soul-sucking. So I responded to the part of that comment I felt like addressing, and left the rest. Someone else on the thread stepped in and had what to say about the “white chick” part, and that was perfectly fine with me.

So what was my problem, anyway? Was it really all that problematic for to say “the well-meaning white chick”? Isn’t that pretty innocuous, all things considered? Ugh. Guess again. That was a huge red flag for me. Reading that, I felt as if she was trying to shut me down, put me in my place, cut off my response before I had a chance to open my mouth. That sweet little signifier read like an aggressively-loud proclamation. She may as well have said: “Just so you know, I’m one of the good white people, so you’ll look like a bitch—and maybe like an Angry Black Woman—if you come for me. Also? I’m just a little white girl. I’m always innocent, so you know I mean no harm!” (As if white girls haven’t been the cause of so MUCH harm in the lives of Black folks. As if I owe her some special courtesy simply because she claims to be a good white person. Feh.)

Perhaps my being triggered by this woman’s nonsense says a whole lot more about me than it does about her, but I definitely felt a way. That kind of cutesy, dog-whistle-rich disclaimer pisses me right off. The same way “not to be racist, but …” lets you know the speaker is about to say something 100% racist, calling yourself “the well-meaning white chick” tells me you’re about to say something racially problematic, but you want your tender, white-girl feelings to be respected even as you flounce all over my coarse Black-girl feelings.

Other women on the thread came and collected that well-meaning white chick—and I’m just now realizing that it was all women, despite there being plenty of men in that group, and that makes me wonder where the men have been hiding. To be more exact, other women in the group tried to collect that woman. She really wasn’t interested in listening to anyone. Here’s the hissy fit she spit back at folks just before disappearing herself from the group:

“This isn’t about me and my fragility – I can take all you have to dish out and more.  And your misplaced anger will not deter me from doing what I do every single day to try to make this world better for everyone of every race.  Really the only point I was trying to make was this: it’s hard.  Many of us are trying.  I understand that intent isn’t enough, but maybe good intent earns a reaction a step down from utter contempt and nastiness.  I get that POC are angry and that they have every right to be and more.  But when people are really trying, perhaps it’s best not to shame.  Now go ahead and have at me, because I’ll be spending my time today trying to get Virginians and North Carolinans to vote people of color into office.”

That last line couldn’t be more spectacular. It’s so fabulous. Just in case we didn’t believe she was as well-meaning a white chick as she already told us she was, she lets us know that she doesn’t have time for our ugliness because she’ll be out in the world helping the misbegotten souls of Virginia and North Carolina elect some poor, downtrodden Black folk into office. Now who’s a jerk, huh? I mean, she’s trying. She’s trying so hard, and all we have for her is contempt and some hard lessons she doesn’t want to hear? It’s as if we can’t see how hard she’s trying.

In truth, I’m not surprised by this foolishness. Really not. I pretty much assumed this would be the most common response to my essay. I’d had the audacity to tell white people there was something they couldn’t do, some word they couldn’t have, something that Black folks could do but I didn’t think white folks should be allowed to do. That’s pretty much an invitation for indignant white folks to stand up and wrap their arms around the thing I’ve told them to step away from. Of course. The fact that this kind of response has turned out to be the exception rather than the rule pleases me enormously.

That “well-meaning white chick” comment caught me so off guard. Not because I think I’ve heard everything and therefore nonsense like that shouldn’t anger me. If only. I continue to be human. I hear new foolishness every day, and bullshit still irks the crap out of me. No, my surprise was at the complete whiteness of that comment, the utter, unabashed, controlling whiteness, tossed in so casually to set the parameters in which that woman was willing to engage with me. And that’s what shocked me, that assumption of power, that assumption of having the right to tell me that I had to give in to her demands—for room, for grace, for the benefit of the doubt—if I wanted her to stay in the conversation. This way of performing whiteness is hardly well-meaning, and it’s completely exhausting.

SodaHead taught me how to poke at the trolls of an earlier era, how to keep calm and come with receipts. But it didn’t prepare me for sneak attacks of toxic whiteness. That woman’s comment woke me up. I think I’m ready for whatever ugliness folks want to throw my way, but I need to stay vigilant. This right here is not the time for complacency. White Supremacy always has its eyes wide open, always has its ears to the ground. And I have to put the same time and attention into being equally on top of my game.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Not Your Auntie

That’s the title of my essay that went up on The Rumpus yesterday. I wrote it weeks and weeks ago, and I’m thrilled to be able to share it here.

The use of the title “Auntie” for Representative Maxine Waters both amuses and troubles me. I tried to write my way through it. From some of the feedback I’ve received, I’m seeing that I left some people struggling to figure out how they can support and praise the Congresswoman without taking an offending misstep.

I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that people would read my essay and instantly decide to change their behavior. I’ve received a few comments from people who are swearing to make different choices from this moment forward. That’s powerful … but also jarring. This is a good reminder for me of the power of words, of the impact writing can have on people.

Curious to hear your thoughts!

_______________

This piece on The Rumpus makes my 30th essay of this essay-writing year. I’m far behind the count–I think this is week 43? But I’m a lot closer than I thought I might be by this late in the year! It’s November, so I’m turning this year’s NaNoWriMo writing over to creative nonfiction: My NaNo work is going to be essays, I want to see how much I can catch up over the course of the month. I wrote an essay today that I’ll post tomorrow, and started a draft of another idea … so I’m off to a pretty good start!


I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in in the last two combined, so that looks like a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Bad Brain

In kindergarten, one of my classmates saw it as his special mission to teach me all the ways Black folks (“you coloreds,” in his words) were inferior to whites and just generally bad, wrong, non-human. Every day, he shared some new “fact” about Black people: we were talking monkeys, if God cared about us, we’d be white. And on and on.

Kindergarten. I was the only Black child in my class, one of maybe six Black kids in the whole school. It was a fun time.

One day, as he was telling me some racist, bullshit “fact” about what I was, I wrote his name on a piece of paper and showed it to him. I said something along the lines of, “And this is what we know you are.”

I don’t know why I did that, what I thought would happen, what I wanted to prove. These many years later I am convinced I was conducting a science experiment. That boy had been telling me, repeatedly, that I was dumb, that all Black people were dumb. But I could read and write, and I knew that he couldn’t. I was the only child in the class who could, which won me solo reading time while everyone else was being taught their letters.

I think I wrote out that boy’s name to prove—to both of us, like as not—that I was not the one who was dumb.

He looked at the paper, grabbed it from me and brought it to Mrs. Moore, our teacher, to tattle on me.

“Look what she did,” he said, presenting the damning evidence of my early literacy.

Mrs. Moore, conveniently (or willfully) oblivious to the racist drama that was my day to day, looked at the paper and said how nice it was that I had written his name.

That was the first time I used my education to make myself feel superior. I don’t know how I knew that was something that would make me feel better in that moment, but I knew it would. And it did.

That was the first time, but definitely not the last.

In fourth grade, I started a new school. On that first day, one nice, gentle boy went out of his way to welcome me and make me feel less like an outsider. It was a relief to have someone befriend me so quickly.

At lunch that day, a group of kids approached my new friend and me. They were fronted by a large, tough-looking Black girl. They stopped in front of us and the girl, pointing at my friend, asked me, “You like him?”

It was, of course, instantly clear that I shouldn’t like him, that he was not someone other kids liked or accepted. If I said I liked him, I might be saying goodbye to the chance of having any other friends. And it was only lunch on day one. But how could I say I didn’t like him? He was the only person who’d been friendly to me. The kids in front of us were unknown quantities—and also didn’t seem particularly nice or friendly. I could spurn my friend and still end up shunned by other kids.

I had already determined that kids in that new school weren’t smart. They didn’t know things I knew, didn’t seem interested in reading or school, didn’t pronounce basic words correctly. So I used my words. Did I like that boy? “In some circumstances yes,” I said. “And in some circumstances no.” My friend heard the “yes,” the bullies heard the “no.” As I’d hoped, no one knew what a “circumstance” was. They accepted the answers they’d chosen to hear, and I was safe.

And again, not the last time I would use what I saw as my being smarter than other kids to protect myself.

So what is that about, that immediate transformation into that snobby smart kid who lords her cleverness over others, looks down on them because she knows something they don’t?

That’s a pretty ugly thing to see and know about myself. Yes, I was a child in those instances I recounted. Sure, but there were other instances in my adolescence and teens. It’s also true that my ugliness surfaced when my back was up, when I felt attacked. Okay.

But … it’s still problematic.

*

I grew up and became a teacher, first of high school seniors then of adults learning to read, adults studying for their high school equivalency exam. I was fiercely supportive and protective of my students, particularly the adults, clapping back whenever some fool asked if my students hadn’t learned to read or finished high school because they were “lazy or just retarded,” the two options I was offered again and again.

I came down on those people like a vengeful harpy. How dare they make assumptions about the grit, intelligence, value, strength of the fabulous people I got to work with. I invited them to stop and tally up the raft of privileges that made it possible for them to learn in the school systems they had access to, the privileges that enabled them to complete high school and go on to college.

I got angry not only because I loved my students but because I had learned something child me hadn’t understood: literacy, a big vocabulary, success in school, love of reading … these things quite often have absolutely nothing to do with level of intelligence. Neither do knowledge of history, science, literature, or math. These things all have to do with education, and to look down on someone because they’re less educated is disgusting.

I wish someone had said a word or two to child me about any of this. I grew up poor but so privileged. I grew up in a family that prized reading. It’s not surprising that I was a reader before kindergarten because there were books everywhere in my home. My brother, sister, and I were read to and encouraged to read all the time. I grew up in a family where school was prioritized and any other responsibilities could be made secondary to getting that education. I never had to put my needs aside to help care for a crew of younger children, never had to worry about finding a quiet place to study in a too-full house or apartment. I was able to go to a summer camp that introduced me to worlds of new ideas to explore, that encouraged my creativity and taught me skills I couldn’t have learned at home. I grew up with both of my parents—at least in the beginning—and my mother very attentively at home for most of those years. I grew up with enough food on the table. I grew up without experiencing violence or witnessing violence in my home or neighborhood. I grew up in a community that had clean drinking water and access to healthy food.

I could go on. I was fortunate in the circumstances of my childhood. Incredibly fortunate. Was I a smart kid? Maybe. Most likely. But I wasn’t exceptional in that way. What I was was lucky to have the family I did in the places where I lived, to have been able to learn in the ways I was taught and to have access to schools and libraries.

Child me believed education equaled intelligence and put a lot of store in braininess. Being smart was one thing that couldn’t be taken from me and the one thing that—even if someone mocked me for it—I never felt ashamed of. I was made to question the value of my color, myself as a girl, my belonging each time we moved to a new town, my attractiveness to boys, my body, my hair. So many things about me weren’t “right” or acceptable, were outside the norm.

But my education, my smartness, that was mine. I could control it, I could grow it. Yes, of course there were folks who were smarter than I was. But that didn’t take anything from me, just inspired me to learn more things. No one could touch my smartness. I wrapped myself in it whenever anyone came for me. I might have been ugly, brown, nappy-headed, fat … but I was smart. And, nine times out of ten, I was smarter than whoever was working on bullying me, and my Big Bad Brain saved me again and again.

I’m not proud of assessing my long-ago classmates and deciding they were dumb. Grown me would not use that calculus. But child me used what she had, and I am grateful I had that. I was never truly bullied, not in the horrifying truth of bullying that we see today. And part of that is surely because the kids I grew up with weren’t that cruel. And part of it was because the act of bullying hadn’t been honed into a killing tool when I was a kid. But part of it was also because my brain, my own brand of Jedi mind tricks, allowed me to navigate potentially rough waters.

I’m not proud, but I can at least be glad that I kept most of my ugly thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk down to people or call them out for not being whatever “smart” meant at any given moment. I was a pretty shy, quiet kid. Calling people out didn’t become part of my repertoire until much later. My bad behavior was mostly happening in my head. That doesn’t excuse my incorrect assessment of other people’s intelligence, but at least it kept me civil and polite. I let my brain loose on occasion, but only when truly pressed.

I’m not proud of the intellectual snobbery in my past. I worked hard to change that behavior, and I keep a close eye on myself even now. I’m not proud, but I have to remain thankful for it. It served a necessary purpose.

I wrote recently about an experience in high school when two boys were mocking me because I was fat. I wrote that I listened to the way they spoke and concluded that they were dumb. It hurt to write that, to remember that way I had of being in the world. I almost changed what I’d written to make myself look less ugly. I didn’t change it. That was real. Just as those boys looked at my body and decided they knew something about my value, I listened to the way they spoke and decided I knew something about their intelligence.

Obviously, we were all wrong, those boys and I. I’ve spent a lot of time working to be more right in this way. The difficulty I had writing about my part in that incident tells me I still have work to do.

 



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Three Years On

Three years ago, a boy was killed. For no good reason, but for a lot of bad ones. He was murdered and left to bake in the August sun. And after his murder, a lot of people worked hard — and are still working hard — to convince anyone who’d listen that his death was his own fault. After all, they said, he wasn’t a good person anyway. And, they said, the man who murdered him — despite that man’s training, despite his holding all the power in that encounter — should be both lauded and pitied for making it through the ordeal of killing the boy. We should, they said, understand how afraid he must have been as he stood armed with a deadly weapon facing a child.

Three years ago, that boy’s murder was the next in a long line of murders, a long line of dead folks we were instructed to blame for their deaths at the hands of more powerful, deadly people. Dead folks like the seven-year-old girl who had the audacity to be sound asleep when she was shot to death. Dead folks like the the 22-year-old man who thought he had the right to shop for toys in a department store. Dead folks like the 22-year-old woman who seemed unaware that hanging out with friends in a local park was a capital offense. The boy murdered three years ago today was one more in a long, long line. Just one more.

But not just one more. A tipping point. Somehow that boy, that murder, that moment. Changed everything.

Changed everything. Not just for me, but definitely for me. I had spent years being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years waiting for an end to the killing of Black folks by police and their surrogates. Years waiting for killers to be held accountable, to be punished. Years, being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years feasting on disgust, disappointment, despair.

And then Michael Brown was murdered. And my despair turn to rage. And I embraced that rage, and gorged on that rage, and nurtured and listened to and learned from that rage. And I have never been the same.

And I am not alone. Brown’s murder didn’t only spark me. It birthed the Movement for Black Lives, our new Civil Rights Movement. A movement that has grown and continues to grow. A movement that has forced and sustained a focus on this country’s forever-inability to honestly face, acknowledge and dismantle racism.

***

Michael Brown should be prepping for his senior year in college. Should be finishing up the last days or weeks of that summer internship or study-abroad program he was so happy to get into. Should be texting with his mom about whether she’ll have time to run him by the back-to-school sale at Target so he can stock up on notebooks and his favorite Pilot gel pens. Should be thinking about the fact that his favorite professor will be back on campus after a year’s sabbatical. Should be hoping his course load and schedule will leave room for him to work part time at the campus library.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

***

But we are not dead. Not yet.

We are still here, and we are still angry, and we are still committed to this fight. These three years have not been kind to us. But we are still here. And we aren’t going anywhere. We aren’t sitting down. We aren’t shutting up.

Today is a sad anniversary, but it is also a thank you. To one boy whose loss helped so many of us find our voices, find our way, find one another.

Rest in Power, Michael. We carry on.



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

I’d like to teach the world to sing …

By now you’ve likely seen and debated the Heinken ad that seems to exist to show Pepsi how social responsibility is done, to show all of us how world peace can be achieved.

You’re not wrong if you’re hearing disdain in there. Maybe you’ve also seen DiDi Delgado’s piece that talks about why this ad sucks.

I agree with Delgado, but I was also totally taken in at first. I want to believe in this ad, in what this ad is trying to sell me (in addition to a cold one). This ad wants me to believe in people’s ability to treat each other with human kindness, wants me to believe when people who have diametrically opposing views are brought together and given the chance to interact one on one, magic will happen. When they face each other in these one-to-one ways, when they see each other as people, the ad assures us, even people with views as extreme as the folks in this ad can see one another’s humanity and treat each other with human kindness and good will. Better still,  the ad suggests that this ability to see an individual’s humanity is the secret sauce, the magic elixir that will change how we look at and treat larger groups of people, whole categories of people.

I want to believe that. I truly, kind of desperately want to believe that. And that’s how the ad suckered me. Of course I want to believe that, so of course I liked this ad when I first watched it. It was almost irresistible. Look how those random, opposing-view-holding, nice English people got their acts together and shared a beer! The world can be saved! Praise be!

Um, no.

I liked this ad, but it also made me incredibly uncomfortable. And, ultimately, made me angry.

My issue with the ad isn’t, as one friend suggested, that there aren’t enough “this type against that type” pairings. They’d have had to make far too many of these ads to cover every possible high-profile, opposing-view pairing. As I said to my friend, however, I think they were cowardly to leave out big-ticket items like anti-Semitism and racism, though I get why they didn’t take them on. The number or type of pairings isn’t why this ad is terrible.

Delgado’s excellent point about “putting regressive ideology on equal footing with progressive ideology” is right on the money. The false equivalencies set up in these pairings is awful. The hateful comments of the transphobic and misogynist men are given to us and we’re supposed to see their comments and beliefs as perfectly acceptable, alternative ideas, we’re supposed to see their comments as the same as a) a woman talking about the need for equality and equity and b) a woman simply stating that she exists. There is no equivalence here. Not even a little, tiny one you can only find with a microscope. No.

We’re supposed to set aside our feelings about the hate these men spew because we see that, oh, hey, they seem like nice guys! Sure. They are nice guys … who believe horrible, horrible things and surely make decisions and treat people according to those awful beliefs – how many women have had to deal with that man’s misogyny in their interactions with him at work or when they’ve tried to be in a relationship with him? The prejudices these men reveal aren’t the equivalent of the thoughts expressed by the women they are paired with – the transgender woman isn’t espousing any view at all. She is simply stating who she is and expecting to be able to live her life. There’s no opposing view for this pair, just one prejudiced person paired with the kind of person the are prejudiced against. Not a shred of equivalency there. These two pairings are harmful and ugly.

Harmful and ugly. And there’s the other false equivalence. We’re supposed to see these pairings as equal to the climate change pairing, and they aren’t. The two men with their opposing ideas and beliefs about climate change are giving their opinions about an idea that isn’t about them as people. The misogynist is talking about women, about people, not about a theory or concept or scientific finding. He’s saying he doesn’t believe in the agency, autonomy, or humanity of a whole group of people.  The transphobic man is talking about people, not about a theory or concept or scientific finding. He’s saying he doesn’t believe in the existence or the right to existence of a whole group of people. Neither of these positions is in any way like not believing climate science.

The other false equivalence is the pairing of women with men being set up as equal to the two-men pairing. Let’s not pretend it is. Particularly not with the men chosen for the mixed pairs. From the first go, from the second both women duck their heads and let the men move into the space first, those pairs aren’t the same as the climate change pair. And when the drink-or-ditch moment comes, both women step up right away because they are “nice,” and perhaps because of gender-based pressure to be nice. That’s what we’ve been conditioned to be, it’s our role in social situations, particularly those involving men.

And finally we have the big reveal. When that moment comes, yes the climate change guy is surprised by what he hears his build-a-bar partner saying, but he isn’t worried, isn’t afraid. The women are both clearly uncomfortable, and their discomfort seems to come from a place of concern for personal, physical safety. That moment seems especially awful for the trans woman. Who knows how that transphobic man will respond?

And the “joke” the transphobe plays. It makes for good film, but I can’t imagine the pain that joke caused the woman. It only takes a second for that feeling of rejection to hit, that realization that someone who’s been perfectly nice to you is now repulsed by and turning away from you. Heh. Some joke.

And I’m annoyed by the fact that it seems clear who is expected to have the bad reaction and possibly leave in each pair. The person who is (set up to look) intolerant is assumed to be the wildcard, we don’t know what they’ll do. We assume the other person (who is set up to look like the better person) will be open and conciliatory, ready to have conversation, even with someone who’s just been revealed to have problematic, dangerous, hateful opinions. It annoys me because that is always what’s expected. We are supposed to be open minded, see the other side, listen to what the opposition has to say. And while we may often be the person willing to listen, that’s not always the case and also puts pressure on us to have more open-mindedness than other folks, to leave ourselves in potentially-dangerous situations for the sake of being nice, or polite, or reasonable.

So everyone stays and shares some time over beers. It’s a beautiful thing. Of course it is. The climate denier blowhard decides everything’s fine because he can have a drink with a stranger. The misogynist says, “Smash the patriarchy.” The transphobe gets the nice woman to exchange numbers with him — and immediately makes clear that he is taken, so don’t get any ideas.

It’s not hard to believe that people can get along one on one. It’s not surprising or magic. At my old job, I had to moderate a community meeting in which a lot of angry white people stood up and said hateful things about the immigrants who had begun to outnumber them in the neighborhood, but when I saw those same hatemongers on the street, I’d often see them chatting quite pleasantly with their Chinese, Yemeni, Mexican, Bangladeshi, or Palestinian neighbors — in one case, playing sweetly with a neighbor’s children. Them having good relationships with the people they knew individually didn’t stop them from hating the groups of people those individuals were part of. I’ve seen this with people I know saying unbelievably racist things to me … and then assuring me that they don’t think of me that way. Liking me as a person didn’t stop them from hating Black people. It just made them think I was an exception to the rule.

Coke wanted to unite us with song, Pepsi with a reality TV star. Now we get arts and crafts with beer. I am irked by the tied-with-a-nice-bow conclusion this ad presents to us and wants us to believe, the completely unrealistic idea that we’d all get along if we could just sit and share a beer. Never mind that I don’t like beer. My life will not be long enough for all the one-on-one drinks that would be required to affect real change. And I’m annoyed by how much I wanted to believe and so let myself be taken in, no matter how briefly.

I’m also annoyed by how quick folks have been to tell me my criticism is wrong, that I should “be happy” because at least Heineken tried. This is part and parcel of the marinated-in-white-tears complaint that folks should get a pass if they’ve tried, that telling them their attempt hasn’t worked makes it less likely that they will try again because we haven’t given them any credit for their messed up attempt, haven’t given them time to bask in the warm sunshine of our love and praise.

Yeah, that.

Look. This is life, not everyone-gets-a-hit little league. I have neither the time nor the inclination to pat people on the back when what they’ve done is make a hash of things.

In an attempt to do something good, something clearly much more carefully conceived and executed than the Pepsi ad, Heineken has, instead, put out something patently disturbing and dangerous. Would “greater progress on ideal scenarios” — as someone in my mentions accused me of wanting — be desirable? Of course they would, but I’d be happy with “first do no harm,” and this ad does harm. An entity with worldwide reach put something harmful into the world. And that’s a) a problem, b) fair game for honest criticism, and c) not something to be overlooked simply because we assume the intent was good.

People have also felt the need to tell me how I should respond to this ad, as if the problem isn’t with the ad but with me being too ignorant to understand what I should be seeing when I watch it. As if.

I was told that I should “recognize it for what it is. Be happy it wasn’t just a callous money grab. That they’re at least TRYING to get it right.”

Yes, well, see above about the back-patting and how inclined I am. And, too, do you really not think this was a money grab? Also, no. It’s not acceptable for anyone to be telling me how I should consume or respond to … well … anything. Punto. And really, this harkens back to the anger that flooded my mentions when I had the nerve to admit that folks wearing safety pins didn’t make me feel happy or supported or more safe. As a general rule, when a marginalized person — particularly one from a group that is presumed to benefit from the behavior or change in question — tells you, “Hey, there’s something wrong here, something is making me uncomfortable,” your response shouldn’t be to tell that person to shut up, to tell them how they should be responding, to tell them how very appreciative they should be that someone wanted to do anything for them, no matter how flawed the finished product turned out to be.

It is important for us to acknowledge when folks get things right, when they try to do something productive and helpful. But, if we ever want folks to actually get it right, criticism is necessary . Without criticism, the people who made that ad only hear praise, get to think they did it 100% correctly, that there’s no need for improvement, no need for them to learn how to do this work better. I’m not interested in patting people on the back because their intention was good. I have, in fact, no idea what their intention was, other than to interest me in buying their beer. I can only judge what they’ve shown me, and what they’ve shown me is extremely flawed and troubling.

So no thank you to anyone who wants to tell me how to respond, how to feel. I’ll keep feeling and speaking and responding in the ways that work for me, in the ways that can foster actual change rather than silencing myself because people want to feel good about a beer commercial.


Oh, I fell off the wagon completely on this essay challenge, what? But I’m back, friends. I’m back. I’m miles behind, but I’m determined to catch myself up. Sadly, it seems the world is determined to provide me with things to get pissed off about, so there should be some solid essay fodder in all that mess. Welcome to the ride. ❤