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In third grade my friends started joining the Girl Scouts, and my mother wanted me to follow them. My brother was a Boy Scout, and it seemed those big, organized group activities appealed to her. I was an often solitary child, as happy to curl up with a book as play with my friends, and she may have worried about my reclusiveness. She talked up the Girl Scouts, but I wasn’t interested. Was I just a contrarian kid, was I opposed to child labor in the form of cookie sales, was I averse to sashes and badges? No. The turn-off of the Girl Scouts was simple: I didn’t want to be called a Brownie.

I hadn’t ever been called a Brownie, mind you – did anyone ever actually call Black people brownies? They did call us “darkies,” but I was too young to ever have been called that. I grew up in a time and place where no one was saying “darkie.” Folks said “colored,” but not darkie. And “colored” is the worst thing I can remember being called until I was older, so it’s curious that I had such a stiff reaction to Brownie.

It isn’t curious that I had some race consciousness so early. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and their politics rubbed off on my brother and me. And, while I was only eight, I’d had my first self-shaping experience of race prejudice a few years earlier, having been shunned by all but one of my kindergarten classmates simply because of my color.

But I was a meek kid, a go-along-to-get-along kid, so it’s still odd that I would have had strength enough of my convictions to refuse to follow everyone else’s lead, to reject my mother’s urging to become a Scout.

My mother didn’t pressure me, but she didn’t give up, either. When I reached fourth grade, she raised the question again. We had just moved to a new town, and maybe she thought Girl Scouts would be a way for me to build a group of friends quickly. I was still anti-Brownie, but she was determined. She did some homework and came back with the idea of starting a Camp Fire Girls troop. First level in Camp Fire world? I got to be a not-in-any-way-racially-problematic Bluebird. I signed right up. I still have my Bluebird pin today.

*

My mother didn’t often get me. I was a strange proposition for her then, and my strangeness in her eyes continued until well into my thirties. I was tall, awkward, unpopular with boys … a kind of photo negative of her. Our experiences of the world and the ways the world saw us were so different, I had to have seemed patently alien to her.

She didn’t always get it right with me – her obsession with my body shape and size was particularly difficult. As was her rampant fear of the quite completely impossible chance of my getting pregnant in high school.

But for all her off-key moves, her inability to figure out who I was because I was so unlike her, she trusted my mind, my capacity for seeing things. Even when she didn’t agree or fully understand my position, when it was clear that I’d thought a thing through and had reason behind my decision, she gave me room, respect.

She could have seen the Brownie situation as small, silly. Could probably have forced me to become a Scout. But she didn’t. This thing that happened between us – this way that she was able to see me and that I knew I was seen – it didn’t happen often. Charting our history, I realize that it happened most consistently when my focus was on race.

In seventh grade, I lashed out at a classmate who called me a nigger. It was the first time anyone had called me that. No one admonished him. Instead, I was seen as the problem. I was sent to the nurse’s office so she could figure out what could possibly be wrong with me to make me behave so aggressively. She called my mother to suggest some appropriate scolding and punishment. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She spoke to me to make sure I was alright, then had some words with the nurse, words that turned the nurse first red then white, words that shut down the scolding the nurse had been doling out.

My senior year of high school, my final presentation in speech class was about being one of only three Black kids in that school. My teacher said I’d have to present another one, said she couldn’t grade the speech because it didn’t fit the topic: “America, the Melting Pot.” She said that, because she’d liked the speech, she’d be generous and give me a chance to write something else, to do the assignment correctly rather than get a crap grade. My mother wasn’t having any of that, either. She had a conference with my teacher, which ended with the speech being graded as written.

(You’ll notice I don’t tell you what my mother actually says in these situations. That’s because I have no idea. That’s her MO. My mother is genteel. A lady and a trained actress. She goes into the fray with grace, has calm, mysterious, carefully-worded conversations … and on the other end … the world is righted.)

*

I don’t know how my mother found out about Camp Fire Girls. We were pre-internet, she had no friends in that town, and there were no existing Camp Fire groups in the area. But she found out what she needed to know. I didn’t care for the other members of my troop much, but I had fun all the same. I like learning stuff, and there was always some new thing. We went on nature walks, learned history, baked bread. We even met some Iroquois elders, for reasons that escape me today. We also learned to knit – a skill I use now to create delicate, lacy gifts, primarily for my mother.

Mostly, what I liked was spending time with her. I was fascinated by my mother. I found her just as alien as she found me. I couldn’t imagine being as poised, beautiful, or talented as she was, and I was already questioning whether I made logical sense as her daughter. But in Camp Fire Girls, all of that could be ignored, and we could just be ourselves with each other.

Which was maybe what she’d wanted. Maybe the Girl Scouts had never really been the point. Yes, she could have forced me into the Scouts, but she could understand my reason for not wanting to join, so she found another way, found a path I could walk, that we could walk together.



I wrote this piece for Listen to Your Mother. I auditioned with it on Wednesday and found out yesterday that I didn’t make the cast for this, the final year of the LYTM performances. I found out while on break during the Girls Write Now genre workshop. That’s a crappy time to get bad news. I’m in that room to learn, to hang out with Sophia, to see other mentors. I put my phone away, put my feelings about the rejection away with it, and got back to the workshop.

I didn’t think about it again until late in the afternoon when I was on the train headed to the hinterlands of Westchester to watch my niece’s school musical. I was still sad about it. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been looking forward to being part of that show, part of that community. And rejection always hurts, so it’s not surprising that I was sad.

But that sadness was already fading by the time my train ride was underway. I’ve certainly dealt with writing rejection before. MANY times. The hard slap of disappointment has to pass or you don’t move on to the next thing. I decided on the train that I’d share this piece on my blog, and here we are. And now it’s time to move on to the next thing.

original-slicer-girlgriot

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


original-slicer-girlgriot

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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!

And don’t forget to head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what other folks are posting for Slice of Life Tuesday!

original-slicer-girlgriot

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And so, Dylan Roof is guilty. On all 33 charges against him. Guilty.

And I’m glad of that. Of course I am.

When I shared the news, a friend commented that he wouldn’t be happy until Roof got the death penalty.

And I get that. Of course I do.

But …

Is it wrong that I want worse than death for him? I don’t know what that means, but that’s what my heart said when I saw the headline. He is clearly incapable of remorse, and I don’t believe in the death penalty … but in his case I want something visceral and inhumane and deep enough to reach whatever shred of humanity is still left in him.  And then I want it to go further.

That was my response to my friend’s comment. Is this who I’ve become? I think it is.

And I get that. Of course I do.

But …

Would there ever be a punishment that could fit Roof’s crime? I can’t imagine what it would be. Nothing anyone would or could do to him would ever erase what he has done, would ever make him understand that what he did was wrong, would ever bring anyone peace. So my wish for something “visceral and inhumane” doesn’t serve me or anyone else.

What, then?

Maybe a guilty verdict for Michael Slager. Maybe for Daniel Pantaleo. For Timothy Loehmann. For Joseph Weekley. For Stephen Stem. For Jeronimo Yanez. For Darren Wilson …

Maybe a country in which I wouldn’t need to write this.

Maybe.

I always wanted to believe we would grow up to be that country. Of course I did.

But …

At least today Dylan Roof is guilty. At least there is that.

It isn’t enough.

Of course it’s not.

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And now you’ll all know the truth: that, while I don’t post here very often, I’m running my mouth in other spaces. I’m cross-posting a piece from Just No More that grew out of some early-morning FB writing:

Brave New World Indeed

I suspect this is just the first in a 4-year-long series of posts. We’ll see.

In solidarity and struggle,

Stacie

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