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.


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.


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!

Petting Zoo Protest

Today is a day off from the A to Z Challenge. Too bad, as I’m chock full of “T” things to pile into this day: Tardy, Time, Tired, Training, Testing, Truth-telling …

Instead, today I’ll reflect on another challenge, the #52essays2017 challenge. I’m still determined to write 52 essays this year, despite being well off the essay-a-week goal. I have several sizable drafts waiting for completion, but my brain just can’t quite seem to get there. Yes, part of that is the fact that I haven’t given myself much time to sit with any of those drafts and work. Part of it is also that I wonder if their moments have passed, if they are too specific to events that are no longer current.

On my way home from a workshop today, I thought about a couple of those unfinished essays in particular. The one I started to write in response to some of the casually violent and oppressive comments I heard and read from people after the women’s march in January. The one about what I really mean when I keep telling white folks they need to come get their people. Thinking about these and the other unfinished pieces, I could feel the stubborn, obnoxious me fussing, saying I should just finish and publish them, even if their subjects feel out of date. I did throw the Dolezal piece up, after all, why not these. And I kind of, maybe, sorta agree?

I need to think about it a bit more. I had some good anger in there. I hate to see it wasted, cast off to the Island of Misfit Blogposts.


Meanwhile, today’s chōka — inspired by a moment on the A train this afternoon, a moment I have had so many times in my life, but especially since I started wearing my hair natural … which was in 1989, so we’re talking a ridiculously long time and people should know better by now.

What My Hair Says

Did you see me? I
look like a goddess today
… at least, my hair does.
Today I have hair
that makes strangers’ hands reach out
as their eyes light up
and they ask, “Can I touch it?”
Today my hair says,
“Get the fuck away from me,”
as I duck my head,
bob and weave, avoid contact.
Woman on the A
looked offended when I moved,
reached her arm again
as if I’d made a mistake.
“Do not touch my hair,”
I said it calmly, clearly —
nary a stutter.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said,
her hand in mid air.
I took a step back, said … “Yes.”
Nothing more to say.
My hair is quite beautiful.
But this is the A —
subway car, not petting zoo.
Do not touch my hair.
You can ask … but you
ask while already reaching,
already so sure
you can of course have your way.
You can ask … but I
don’t have to agree. And won’t.
Today my hair says,
“Get the fuck away from me.”
Tomorrow, that’ll be me.

My first long chōka … and of course it’s angry. Of course.


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.