Playing on Repeat

Early in Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Janie’s grandmother tells her that Black women are the mules of the world. From everything she’s seen and lived, Black women exist at the lowest level. Any load no one else wants to carry is handed off to the Black woman — white men give the load to Black men, and Black men pass it off to Black women (you’ll notice who has no burdens in this scenario). She tells this to Janie for any number of reasons, not least of which is letting her grandchild know where she stands in the hierarchy so she can be prepared for life, so that she’ll understand her place.

And, of course, there is Malcolm X’s statement: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

Zora Neale Hurston’s character in 1937 and Malcolm X in 1962 were seeing the exact same thing. The world hasn’t changed all that much since either of those times.

Yes, that’s an exaggeration. It’s also true.

Oprah Winfrey, a singularly powerful and wealthy woman, is racially profiled in a clothing store, told she can’t afford the expensive accessories that are on display.

J. Marion Sims conducted medical experiments on enslaved Black women without their consent and without anesthesia, believing that Black women couldn’t feel pain. And in 2020, half of this country’s white med school students believe Black people have thicker skin and don’t feel pain as acutely as white people.

Britney Griner, an Olympic champion and professional basketball player is currently imprisoned, being used as a pawn in a political conflict and her plight gets little to no coverage in the media.

In 2019 a Black woman in Chicago is dragged naked from her bed when police raid her apartment. She isn’t allowed to put on clothes, but is handcuffed, naked, and left standing exposed as numerous officers search her apartment … which is across the street and down the block from the apartment of the person they were searching for.

Serena Williams, one of the greatest athletes of all time, is dismissed when she is in physical distress after giving birth to her daughter.

Police officers in Arlington, Texas put their guns to the head of a young Black woman they say “fits the description” of the older Black man they are looking for. And when they determine that she is, in fact, not that man and holster their weapons, they tell her the incident that could have ended in her death is a learning experience and threaten to arrest her when she responds to their treatment with anger.

A first-grade teacher stands one of her black students in front of the class and cuts off her braid as punishment, and encourages the other students to make fun of her.

Sadly, this is a very short list pulled from an endless one.

*

Obviously, I’m still thinking about that “joke” at the Oscars. I saw many crazypants comments about it today. A lot of people are leaning hard into the belief that Chris Rock didn’t know about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. One person told me I would have no choice but to believe he didn’t know because — wait for it — Steve Harvey and his team didn’t know about the alopecia. What? Is Steve Harvey the Great and Powerful Oz of Black celebrities’ health conditions? And if he doesn’t know, no one knows? Um … but … tons of people knew, so how does Steve Harvey figure into this as an excuse for Chris Rock?

Besides, as I said last night, the alopecia isn’t actually the point. Yes, it makes Chris Rock’s joke skew to a different kind of meanness. But the joke was already plenty mean.

It’s still the misogynoir for me. A Black woman was mocked in front of an unfathomably large and majority-white audience. She was mocked about her hair, in front of white people, when it is the anti-Black racism of white people that created the reviling of Black people’s hair in general and Black women’s hair specifically. She was mocked in such a way that the white people watching wouldn’t know how significant an insult was being thrown at her, making her look unreasonable in her pained reaction.

And she has to keep navigating this very public mess because her husband’s reaction became the entire news cycle for two days (despite a month-old war and a Supreme Court spouse trying to overthrow the democratically-elected president of these United States).

Ugh.

I am not claiming there aren’t many, many things wrapped up in what happened Sunday night. Of course there are. We aren’t single-issue people and we don’t reach our 50s without having all kinds of baggage. So yes, there is a lot to unpack from that moment. But the willful insistence that Rock’s joke wasn’t all that bad and couldn’t possibly track back to the hatred of Black women’s hair is annoying af.

I’ll say it one more time for the folks who haven’t been paying attention: it’s never “just hair” when it’s Black hair, and that is emphatically true when it’s Black women’s hair. It’s okay with me if people don’t understand that. I don’t need them to understand, necessarily. I need them to listen to Black women. I need them to understand that this isn’t their area of expertise and maybe they could sit down and let other folks have the mic for a minute, folks who know what the hell they’re talking about.

Maybe folks could record it on their phones and play it on a loop as they go to sleep, make it a mantra: it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair, it’s not “just hair” when it’s Black hair.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Dope Slap

While I am repeatedly on record talking about how much I love a good smack, I’m not a fighter, not a fan of violence, and I have never smacked anyone in my life. I’ve thrown a couple of punches, but I think I can be forgiven for those since the target of my punches was trying to rape me.

I make a lot of jokes about smacking people. I totally stole and adopted “dope slap” from Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the Car Talk guys. I loved it the moment I heard it. It fit so well with my love of the visual of doling out a well-deserved smack. But again, no actual smacking has been meted out by these hands.

*

I don’t want to be #TeamWill or #TeamChris. Mostly because that hashtag-team shit is diminishing and stupid when discussing real things. And also because I couldn’t possibly be on Chris Rock’s side of this mess. At the same time, I can’t … quite … exactly … fully … condone that slap. But really, anyone who knows me even a little has to know I’m not mad at Will Smith.

And I’m not not-mad at him because he was “defending his woman,” as so many have praised him for. Jada wasn’t in physical danger, in need of someone to jump to her defense. But I can empathize with the anger that would have been triggered by Rock’s comment, and I can imagine not thinking all the way through my actions if I chose to get up and slap him.

People keep talking about how Smith was laughing at first and how that shows he wasn’t really upset by the joke and thought it was funny. I suppose there’s a version of this story where that can be true. What seems more true to me is the version of this story that is more like what we saw Venus and Serena Williams do at the Critics Choice Awards when Jane Campion went full White Woman on them as she accepted her award. Serena laughed and clapped, while Venus kept a desperately-full and painful smile on her face while her eyes widened and she leaned forward to look hard at Campion and tried to absorb that hideous moment. Both women knew they couldn’t respond as they might have in private. To show any displeasure at that completely disgusting comment would have made them the bad guys. Articles about the awards show would have focused on how “angry” they were, how incapable of taking a joke, how much they had overreacted. They had to swallow every response they might have liked to have and give a show of gracious good humor or at least acceptance.

Will Smith knew that he was supposed to be amused by Rock’s joke. That was his job in that moment. That’s always his job. He’s made a whole career out of being a smiling, gentle man. But his ability to laugh at jokes at his wife’s expense — or his own expense, or his children’s expense — isn’t as unlimited as his smiling face has allowed us to believe because (SURPRISE!) he’s human. But he knew he was supposed to laugh. That’s what’s supposed to happen. Even Pinkett Smith tried to shrug it off in the first second or two.

But it hurt. They were in that audience for what could be a huge night for Will. They were happy and excited and probably thought they could be safe from ridicule for the time they sat in that audience. And then they weren’t.

*

But I’m not here to defend Will Smith. That man has the money and the staff to take care of his current situation and a lifetime of other situations.

I’m here to talk about the joke.

I’m here to say a solid “fuck you” to everyone who has ignored what happened to Jada Pinkett Smith last night.

I’ve spent a lot of time this month talking about my hair, about Black women’s hair, about the denigration and pain and insult and violence that gets braided and twisted and pressed into our hair. I said very explicitly that it’s never “just hair” for us. And last night was all about the truth of that.

One of the ways that Black women are shamed about our hair is about length. Having super-short hair is held against us. We are called bald-headed when we wear short hair, and trust me that it isn’t meant to be funny or endearing. It is meant to let us know that we are unattractive and unacceptable because “good” hair is long and silky and flowing, not short and nappy and close to our heads.

Plenty of Black women (more every day!) choose to wear short hair and revel in their hair. That doesn’t mean they can’t be insulted or hurt by microaggressive comments about their hair.

Jada Pinkett Smith has worn short hair at various times in her career, so short hair isn’t a surprise on her. She looks lovely with short hair, and she looked fabulous last night. But she has been public about her struggle with alopecia, and public about her current look being a result of that struggle.

For a woman, and particularly a Black woman, to feel comfortable stepping into the spotlight bald, to attend an event that will be aired around the world, has to be difficult and stressful. But you know you’ll be surrounded by friends and colleagues, so that probably helps you feel a little more at ease. Then this man — a Black man who made a whole-ass documentary about Black women’s hair in which he acted like he learned something and felt something akin to sympathy if not empathy — this man on the stage looks at you and decides that he will use your baldness for a cheap, out-of-date reference joke. And you know you are supposed to laugh it off. You know you are supposed to laugh because this night is about you as the glamorous and proud plus-one, and you are supposed to keep your mask in place and show the façade that has carried you through in the past.

But what you feel is exposed. Exposed as if that man had pulled up your skirt and pulled down your panties in front of all those people and all those cameras. A Black man looked at you and called you bald-headed, an insult that has been hurled at countless Black women by countless Black men. A Black man with his very specific knowledge of our history and our hair made a joke that wasn’t a joke, a joke that he knew you would hear in a way that many people watching wouldn’t.

I’ve read so many takes today saying Chris Rock made “a so-so joke,” “a bad joke,” “a joke.” Each time, the writer has wanted to make the point that, even if it wasn’t a good joke, it was “just” a joke, it was “just” about her hair. Nothing to get so upset over.

But even Chris Rock knew better than that. He knew it the moment he finished the joke. And I don’t mean because of the slap. Even before Smith left his seat and headed for the stage, Rock was trying to minimize the damage. He makes the joke, then he tries to brush it off — literally brushing his hands in front of himself as if he is erasing it from the stage. And then he tells us that the joke “was a nice one,” as if he can speak that wish into reality. But by then Smith is on his way to the stage and the rest is history.

But Chris Rock knew. Even if he didn’t know about Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, he knew he’d said something that wasn’t quite as okay as the other jokes he’d made.

And I just keep coming back to Jada and how she must have felt when Rock told that joke.

*

I dealt with alopecia areata as a young woman. I lost my first patch of hair when I was 25. I didn’t know what was happening, just knew I suddenly had a bald spot where I hadn’t had one before. I went to the ER — I don’t recommend this for a lot of reasons, but I was new in the City and didn’t have a doctor yet. I went to the ER and the doctors made fun of me. One teased me about having ringworm. Another said I should hope that all my hair would fall out because that would be an improvement. When I began to cry, they told me I was overreacting, that they had been kidding around and I should toughen up, get thicker skin, learn to take a joke.

That first patch grew back, and it grew back brown — because there is always the possibility that your hair either won’t grow back or that, if it does, it will be grey. Over the next dozen or so years, I lost patches of hair again and again, sometimes I’d have a couple of patches at the same time. My room mate helped me figure out ways to hide them, but I was constantly aware of them, constantly aware that I could lose all of my hair. Those ER doctors were assholes, but they certainly weren’t the only people who were rude to me. A man on the subway told me I shouldn’t even be outside, exposing everyone to my ringworm. The whole car of riders moved away from me and people yelled at me to get off the train at the next stop.

Ayanna Pressley and Jada Pinkett Smith are stronger women than I am. I don’t know what I would have done had I lost all my hair. I don’t think I would have had Pressley’s courage, releasing a video to introduce myself to the world without my hair. And I don’t imagine I’d have made it to the Oscars or been able to keep anything like a game face on after being mocked in front of the world.

*

If Will hadn’t slapped Chris Rock, we might have spent today focused on the poor taste of that joke. I think most of that focus would have been on Pinkett Smith’s alopecia and the cheapness of making a joke about the visible manifestation of a medical condition. I think there would have been some people who would have zeroed in on the misogynoir — because Rock’s joke had the weight it did because of race and racism — but the louder conversation would have been about the alopecia.

And I still keep thinking about Jada, about how it must have felt to sit in that moment with the world watching, knowing she had to keep her face right. It’s never “just hair.”


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Passion Project

I recorded a podcast yesterday with some adult learners. This is the second time I’ve been on a podcast, and I have to admit, I find it both excellent and weird. We recorded in what I think of as the “bootleg” way — recording a zoom call, no special microphones or anything. I liked doing the recording on zoom because then we could all see each other, which I think was really helpful for making everyone feel comfortable yesterday. It also helped that the man whose podcast we were recording has been doing this for more than a year and is at ease and adept at the technical and logistic things.

I’m on the board of an organization that focuses on women’s literacy education. We produce a journal of student writing every year, and our 2022 issue will come out this week. The podcast is about the journal, and we invited three adult learners who are in this year’s journal to read and talk about their work. One of those women is far along in her journey and is now on the advisory committee of the organization. We also invited another board member, our organization’s secretary, to be in the podcast because she joined the board when she was in an adult education program, and a piece she wrote several years ago has been used every year since as the introduction of the journal.

I don’t ever need reminders of why I do the work I do. Even on my worst, most exhausted, most frustrating days, I love my work. I am always clear about why I’m in this field, why it’s important to me.

Reminders aren’t necessary, but they’re lovely all the same. I don’t get to spend time with students in my day-to-day (something I want to figure out ways to change as we start to come back to in-person programming), and that’s definitely part of what made yesterday’s recording session so special. I hear about students often. Yesterday I got to hear directly from them.

So, yes: even though I don’t need reminders of my purpose, moments like yesterday are a pure delight. It was so wonderful to listen to the women read their work and to talk with them about their writing. I’d spent some time on the phone with two of the women on Friday night, helping to prepare them for the recording. We hadn’t met before those calls, but by the end of our conversations, I was completely in love with both of them. One woman was immediately comfortable with me, and by the time we hung up, I felt as if I’d known her for years.

I just sent the recording to the learners, and I can’t wait to hear their reactions. I loved it, and I hope they’ll be as pleased as I am. I’m kind of holding my breath in anticipation of final approval from each of them so the episode can be released on Wednesday. I can’t wait!


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

Can I get a Claritin?

I have allergies. To all kinds of things: fruits, vegetables, animals (my cat!). I’ve learned to live with and work around my allergies. So I take meds. For years, Claritin was my savior. One tiny pill that started to work super quickly. Just that one pill, and I was good for hours and hours. I don’t know if my body changed or if my allergies changed, but Claritin stopped working for me. These days, I bounce between two new meds, making my decision based on whether the pill makes me sleepy or lets me get on with my day. The sleepy-making one works better, but I can only take it when I don’t care if I fall asleep.

I’m stalling.

This isn’t the slice I was going to write. It’s the slice I decided to write because it’s nicer. But never mind nicer. I’ll just dive in with the real slice.

I have allergic reactions to people, too. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does … whew! Don’t I wish I had a Claritin then!

I first noticed this about ten or so years ago. The project I directed meant I had to meet and sometimes work with a very powerful, famous man. Everyone who worked on the project was thrilled to have the chance to interact with this man, to get to say that they could call him by name, that they had shared a meal or a joke with him. Feh.

I could and can still easily acknowledge the incredible work he’s done. It’s extraordinary and beyond impressive. I respect him for that work, for the ways he’s been able to grow and expand it.

But the man himself? No thank you. The moment he entered a room, everything in me soured. He’d make a joke, and I’d have to choke back the bile rising in my throat.

And he knew it, too. I don’t think he would have been able to articulate what was going on with me, but he certainly knew something was off between us. I would catch him sometimes, looking at me with pure confusion. I made no sense to him. And how could I, when I wasn’t making sense to myself?

I fussed with myself, trying to puzzle out what my problem was. I talked to a friend about it, describing my responses in comparison to seemingly every other living being on the planet.

“You’re allergic to him,” she said. “On sight, everything in you — you physical self, your psyche — rejects him. Like if you ate a fig.” (I am super allergic to figs.)

That idea — that I could just have a complete, visceral rejection of another person — had never occurred to me. And, although it sounded exactly right when I heard her say it and I’ve adopted her language and have been saying it ever since, the idea troubled me. What does it mean about me that I can so completely reject a person I don’t even know?

As I said, it doesn’t happen often. I can really count on one hand the people I’ve had this response to. I’m not talking about not liking someone or being disgusted by someone. But truly feeling an instant, full-system revulsion and rejection. When I have to be near/around that person, my physical response is akin to the way magnets repel, a dramatic and natural force driving me away from that person. I’ve never figured out how to counter it, only how to live with it.

And I’m thinking about it now because I’ve just recognized that it’s happening again. I’ve been working with a group that I enjoy supporting. I’ve been working with them since mid-way through 2020, and I’m getting deeper into the work, which means I’m working more closely with a lot of the group members.

And tonight, watching playback of an instructional video several of the group members made, I recognized my response. There’s a woman in the group to whom I’ve been responding from the beginning, and it wasn’t until hearing her voice tonight that I recognized my repelling-magnet response.

And maybe it’s not something that can be helped. Maybe I’m always just going to have allergic responses to people. But I want there to be a way to solve this, to not be repelled. This woman I’m responding to seems to be a genuine, kind, caring person. If I could get over this allergy, I’m sure I’d have a lot to learn from her, that I’d enjoy being in working groups with her, might even socialize with her outside of the group.

I have no idea where to start, what parts of me I need to be investigating to figure out what’s triggering this response. This is a part of myself that I’m not happy to recognize. I want to be hopeful that calling myself out can help me find some answers. I wanted this to be my slice but then shied away from showing this decidedly less appealing side of myself and started writing about my “real” allergies instead.

But the false start works for me. Those OTC meds saved me and continue to save me. I wish there was Claritin for this reaction. And I’m joking, but I mean it, too. I have work to do to figure out what in me causes this response to other people. It would be wonderful to have some magical “Behavior Benadryl” that would let me have a normal interaction while I’m doing that work.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot

I want the drugs. I need the drugs. Give me the drugs.

I am vaxxed and boosted. I am, in fact, hoping that a second booster for oldsters like me will be approved before my trip in May. I want to be loaded up with all the protection I can get.

My doctor — because she is a sensible and responsible professional and not an alarmist hypochondriac, terrified of getting Covid — has been telling me each time I email her about a second booster that I need to wait, that a second boost hasn’t been approved yet, hasn’t been shown to be helpful/necessary. And, each time we talk, I nod and agree that it’s best to wait … while inside I am screaming: GET THE DRUGS INTO MY BODY!!!

It’s still interesting to me how pro-vaccine I am. Or, to be more precise, how pro this vaccine I am. When vaccine talk first started in 2020, I was pretty certain I would wait a good long while before getting a shot. I wanted to wait until a lot of people had been vaxxed before I offered up my own precious self for some drug that would have been tested for about twelve seconds before being touted as the answer to our prayers. Did I want a vaccine? Yes. Did I trust Big Pharma or Caligula’s administration? Not hardly. I already have a strong, evidence-based distrust of the medical profession. There was no way I was going to raise my hand for experimental drugs.

Ha.

Fast forward to the moment it became possible to get a shot. When I say I would have elbowed kittens, Mr. Rogers, and the Dalai Lama out of my way to get my first shot, believe me. I didn’t think twice about signing up.

Same with the booster. The moment I was eligible, I was online booking a shot for the next morning. I got to the pop-up vax spot before the staff, sitting outside closed, empty trailers ready to roll up my sleeve and get my dose.

My trust of the medical profession hasn’t grown by leaps and bounds. It hasn’t grown at all. My recently canceled surgery and the lack of care that has come in the wake of that mess have shown me that I can be assured that the medical profession still doesn’t care a whit for me.

Clearly, however, my fear of Covid is stronger than my distrust of doctors and drug companies. I am acutely aware of how likely I am to have a terrible time with Covid, how much more likely I am to die from it. That fear is what makes it easy for me to stay masked, easy for me to follow all the protocols (and wish other people would, too). That fear is what sent me hurtling toward my first Moderna shot, and what has me desperate for a second booster.

I just saw an article saying the Biden administration is pushing for second booster for people over 50, and I am so here for it! It hasn’t been approved yet, and there are good-sounding reasons to maybe wait … but none of those reasons are stronger than my fear, none of those reasons can drown out the drumbeat of GET THE DRUGS INTO MY BODY!!

Fingers crossed.


It’s the 15th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head on over to Two Writing Teachers
and see what the rest of this year’s slicers are up to!

Original Slicer - GirlGriot