Nothing to Be “Nice” About

I went to a meeting today. A meeting full of people, some of whom I have known for a long time. A meeting in which all of those people were going to listen to a handful of speakers share information. There would be opportunities to ask questions. There would be some back and forth and some clarifying and perhaps even some obfuscating. These meetings have been going on for years. They aren’t always smooth. They aren’t always contentious. They are usually cordial.

At one point Speaker Man was sharing some information. That some people in the room weren’t thrilled with that information was clear in the sort of quiet, grumbly way that people can let you know they’re not buying what you’re selling. Audience Man raised his hand and, when called on, made a comment. Facilitator Woman stepped in and added what I’m sure she thought was a helpful, clarifying statement. Audience Man assured her that he had checked her numbers … and they were lacking. Speaker Man told Audience Man that, if he wanted to do something, he’d need to send his concern in an email:

“In a nice way. This isn’t the 60s where we beat the tables.”

There was a collective drawing back in the room and some very audible sounds of displeasure. Audience Woman 1 spoke up and voiced the same concerns as Audience Man and in much the same way. Speaker Man thanked her for her comment. Audience Woman 2 spoke up a few minutes later, much more forcefully than Audience Man or Audience Woman 1 had, lodging a complaint about the issue. Speaker Man thanked her for her comment.

I couldn’t be sure how others were feeling about what we’d just seen, but I was angry. For Speaker Man to attempt to shut Audience Man down with that scolding comment wasn’t okay. Silencing people, maybe especially in a forum that’s supposed to be open and collegial, isn’t okay.  Maybe that was why people drew back after Speaker Man’s comment. Maybe that was the cause of those audible sounds of displeasure.

But maybe, the “why” was that Audience Man was the only Black person in that exchange. That was certainly the trouble spot for me. White Speaker Man had no problem hearing dissent from White Audience Woman 1 or White Audience Woman 2. But when Black Audience Man spoke up, he had to be slapped down.

I’m going to give Audience Man a name: Edward.

Silencing Edward was about shutting down a voice of dissent. Of course it was. But the “In a nice  way,” was about policing Black anger. To say that the perfectly professional way Edward had expressed himself wasn’t “nice,” felt like a slap, like code to tell us that Edward wasn’t nice, wasn’t polite, respectful, deferential, aware of his place. So Speaker Man needed to put Edward in his place. If he had done the same with both white women who spoke, I’d still be angry, still be offended, but for different reasons. But the white women who spoke up were met with no censure, no request that they speak “nicely” — that indication of the need to learn how to behave was reserved for Edward alone.

I was surprised and not surprised. Although I have known Speaker Man for years, he isn’t someone I know well enough to have formed any kind of opinion as to his feelings about or skill in interacting with people who aren’t white. I know he has met me on numerous occasions and has often confused me with another Black woman who works in our field (and looks not even a bit like me). It would not have occurred to me that he would be someone who a) would automatically visualize a black man as angry or aggressive or b) be tone deaf enough to say things out loud that would make that perception clear to others.

We were in a professional setting, a setting in which Edward has standing, in which he meets regularly with these colleagues. We know him to be smart, fair-minded, passionate about his work, and a skilled advocate for the people he serves. It’s unlikely that any of us will now think less of Edward or differently about him because of this microaggressive comment.

But …

As Gazi Kodzo said in his excellent video about Giuliana Rancic and Zendaya’s hair, an apology means nothing — and in this case, there was no apology, and I doubt there will be one. An apology means nothing because the damage is done. Now, when intelligent, caring Edward speaks, it’s more likely there will be people in the room who question whether he sounds too angry, whether he is speaking respectfully (nicely). How much will this casual undercutting impact the relationships he has with his colleagues?

_____

After the Pantaleo grand jury chose not to indict, I began writing, began to be more vocal in my anger, my frustration, my distress. A few weeks ago, a friend asked if I’d had more negative experiences centered on race since that failure to indict. And she was surprised when I told her no. “But it seems like every day you have some ugly experience about race,” she said.

In fact, it doesn’t just seem that way, it is that way. Every day there is some ugly reminder of the way race is an issue in this country. But this isn’t true because a jury on Staten Island didn’t think Eric Garner deserved to have his murderer charged with his killing. This has always been true. The only thing that has changed is that now I am drawing attention to the ugliness regularly, rather than only when my pain reaches critical mass.

Still, I don’t share every ugly moment. If I did, I could be on this blog several times a week. There would be days when I was posting six, seven, fifteen times. This stuff — these tiny moments that are born of a history of hatred, denial, and devaluation happen all. the. time. ALL. THE. TIME.

Edward will move on from this morning’s true-colors moment. He may be so skilled that he was able to move on from it immediately. I find ways to move on, too. If I couldn’t, I would have lost my mind years ago.

Edward will move on, but why does he have to? Why does he have to face moments like this? Why has he had to face so many of them that he has learned how to let them wash over him, that he was able to maintain his composure this morning? When will it stop?


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014

Unseen, Unheard, Unvalued, Unimportant …

… and yet folks wonder why I’m angry.

There are so many things I would rather be writing about today.  There are so many sad things I could be writing about today.  Instead of those things, I am writing this.

_____

Yesterday I was walking in lower Manhattan.  I was nearing Houston Street, thinking about ducking into the subway station at the corner and getting back to my book once I was on the train, thinking about the volunteer work I was scheduled to do later in the day, thinking about the residency applications I’m working on, thinking.

“Smile, big lady!”

Yes, because any moment of my life can only be made better by some random man demanding that I smile.  Because — obviously — I only exist to window-dress your day with my smiles.  Yes.

I could write an entire post about how annoying it is to have men ask women to smile.  That’s not this post.  I didn’t smile.

I didn’t smile and I kept walking up the block.

And then he grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him.  I was so taken by surprise, I almost fell into his chest.  Before I had a chance to rebalance and focus, he got in my face yelling about what made me think I was too good for him and how sick he is of angry black women, and how — fat and ugly as I am — I should be glad any man was talking to me.

Generally speaking, men don’t accost me.  They make any number of comments, give all kinds of looks, but they don’t put their hands on me.  I’m not saying it never happens, but it doesn’t happen often.  The last time I can remember it happening is five years ago.  Because it happens so infrequently, my first reactions are a little slow-motion.  First reaction: surprise that some stranger is grabbing me.  Second: look at the stranger and gauge how strong he seems to be and if I think I can fight my way away from him.

So I looked at this man yesterday.  He was taller than I am, maybe 6′ 2″.  He was slender, but he had spun me around.  Aside from the fact that he caught me off guard and so off balance, I am a big person, it’s no easy thing to spin me around.  That told me he was probably stronger than I am.  Third reaction: use my words.  I’m pretty good at talking my way out of trouble.  And I’m pretty good at shaming street harassers into backing off.

But this man was bigger and stronger than I am, and was already worked up, shaking me roughly, yelling crazy crap about fat black women and how entitled we act and how we should be more respectful when a man shows us some attention.  And I froze for a minute.

But then I unfroze.  And I started yelling for him to let go of me, started trying to break out of his hold.

And then I realized I was on a pretty populated street, and there were people around me.  I started asking people for help, asking people to call 911.  Most people ignored me, acted as if they could neither see nor hear me, didn’t even flinch away or glance in my direction.  I didn’t exist.  One man laughed at me.  Two men said they didn’t get involved in couples’ problems.  Couples’ problems.  As if anything about that scene looked like a couple having a disagreement.

I understand why the women who passed didn’t step in.  That man had already devolved to violent behavior.  I don’t think I would have stepped in, either.  But I would have stayed there.  I would have engaged the woman and called 911 as she’d asked me to do.  I would have let that man know that he had a witness to his harassment and that it wasn’t cool.  And I’m willing to bet that, one person stopping might have emboldened other people to stop, and that an audience might (might) have pushed that man to let go of me.

But no one stopped.  No one stopped.

I wish I didn’t have to stop here and say this, but I have to stop here and say this: every single person who walked by me yesterday was white or looked white.  The man in my face was white or looked white.  And that was when I my fear of the man shifted over to fear of what could happen to me if the police did come.  I wasn’t as tall as that man, but I am definitely bigger.  I could imagine police officers seeing me and seeing Eric Garner, seeing Eleanor Bumpurs, seeing a big black person who needed to be subdued, not bothering to see that I was the person being assaulted.

I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

This whole scene didn’t take very long, from the moment he grabbed me up to this point was maybe only 20 or 30 seconds.  It felt much, much longer.

A group of black teenagers walked up and one asked if I knew the man.  I said I didn’t, and they immediately stepped between us got him off me and away from me, formed a shield between him and me.  They tended me — was I okay, had he hurt me, what did I want to do, did I want them to travel with me.  The man ran and two of the boys were going to go after him, but I stopped them.  I wasn’t going to be the reason for someone misinterpreting the sight of two young black men chasing a white man down the street.  More things I shouldn’t have to worry about.  But do.

The boys — because really, they were babies, maybe 15-17 years old — walked me to the subway and were ready to throw off whatever their plans for the afternoon had been to see me safely wherever I was going, but I said no.  Those boys were beautiful and fine and exactly the kind of men you want every man to be.  And I thank all of the people who raised and shaped them. And I didn’t mind at all that they called me “ma’am.”  I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been coming up the block.

I was badly frightened by that man.  And I was angry.  Angry at him for not seeing me, for seeing only a female body that he felt he had control over.  Angry at him for putting his hands on me.  Angry at the people who wouldn’t help me.  Angry at every one of them who pretended not to see or hear me.  More than a dozen people passed me.  More than a dozen people ignored (or mocked) my call for help.  And I understand fear of putting yourself in danger.  But practically every one of those people had their phones in their hands (for all I know, someone put my street assault on Instagram).  It would have been an easy thing to call 911.  Just hearing someone make a 911 call would surely have sent that man packing.

I want to believe I was mistaken in my fear of the police, but how can I be?  There are too many stories that back up my fear.  There is Marlene Pinnock as just the latest example of black women not being any safer from police violence than black men.

_____

I want this post to be more articulate (yes, I used that word).  I think I am still too close to yesterday.  Retelling the story gives me a stomach ache and I lose sight of the points I want to be making.  I keep coming back to this: I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear that expressing my absolutely valid and appropriate anger sets me up to look like an aggressor, to fit someone’s stereotype of a loud, angry black woman, to make me someone to be ignored.  All the things I shouldn’t fear.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

Something that doesn’t give me a stomach ache?  Those boys.  Those boys who have probably been stopped and frisked all kinds of times.  Those boys who saw a bad situation and knew they could do something about it.  Seven children — all loose limbs and baggy pants and over-long muscle shirts and ball caps and big hair (one of the boys had a gorgeous afro!) — seven children stepped up.

__________

I’ve been away for a LONG time, but today is a Slice-of-Life Tuesday, and the slicers are going strong over at Two Writing Teachers!

Click over and see what everyone else is up to!

SOL image 2014

Affirmations

Stand

why so afraid to stand up?
someone will tell you
sit down?

but here is the truth
someone will always tell you
sit down

the ones we remember
kept standing

— Ruth Forman

_____

Spent the day at a training.  Two pieces of it were quite good.  Oe of those was the pleasure hearing Newark Mayor Cory Booker speak.  I’ve heard him speak before.  The first time I heard him, he was part of a panel on neighborhood revitalization … and listening to him made me know I needed to apply for that big grant we were awarded in the fall.  It’s not so much that he inspired — though he does definitely inspire.  It’s more that he seems to be talking directly from the parts of your heart and soul that get tamped down in the face of all the things you wind up having to do to keep the boat afloat.  He speaks like a charismatic reminder of what you know is right, of the thing you set out to do when you first started working in a non-profit.  I listen to him and yes, of course he’s “on,” but everything he says rings sincere, authentic, true.  He finished speaking and I would bet everyone in that room felt lifted up, felt reenergized.  My boss was almost in tears.  No, it certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s funny, intelligent and attractive, but the thing that sets the room on fire is really his out-loud affirmation of who we are and what we do, of my decision to work in education, in community-based programs.  What a fabulous gift.

The Face of Home

Thinking about the Baldwin story I posted the other day and about doing research at the American Library in Paris.  I had an interesting  surprise as I looked at a collection of Gordon Parks’ photos.  I remember turning slowly through the pages, just admiring the images.  Then I turned a page and saw a group of middle-aged black men gathered in a room.  In my hazy memory, they are in a tai chi pose, but I’m sure the reality of that photo is a little different.  Maybe a military pose, maybe a prayer pose.

I remember seeing that picture and stopping.  Stopping and staring and staring and staring at those men’s faces.  I remember almost starting to cry and not knowing what was wrong with me, what was going on.  I closed the book and stared at nothing for a while.  I went back to the photos and stared some more.  And I remember being struck by two things in the same moment: I missed black people — black American people — and those men were so beautiful in a way I hadn’t ever consciously thought about black people being beautiful.

I stared at each of their faces and confirmed again and again that each was beautiful, each was so different from the black people I was meeting in Europe, that there was something so “home” about them, something that made it clear that they were my people, they were connected to me in a way that the Africans I was meeting in Paris and the rest of Europe couldn’t be.

A longing for home, for the chance to see those faces, hit me so powerfully, I did cry.

I spend a lot of time looking at people’s faces.  And in my current neighborhood, I get to see a lot of black faces.  I still sometimes get a mini-jolt of recognition, but never anything as grounding and soul-filling as that moment with Parks’ photo.

_____

The night is beautiful,
So the faces of my people.
The stars are beautiful,
So the eyes of my people
Beautiful, also, is the sun.
Beautiful, also, are the souls of my people.

— Langston Hughes

uptown_gordonparks

Choking on a wishbone.

I’ve been reading over at Margaret and Helen off and on since Fox introduced me to them months ago.  They pretty much never disappoint.  And yesterday Helen wrote about Gates Gate and the big wind that has blown up around what happened at 17 W____ Street¹ at 12:44 in the afternoon on July 16th.

There are so many things about what happened to Professor Gates that make me angry, and just as many things about what has happened in the aftermath of his arrest that make me even angrier. 

Helen’s post made me smile, and I’m right with her … mostly.  It’s just that I have such a bad taste in my mouth over this.  Yes, the president’s answer at the press conference and the ensuing Beer Summit was definitely a distraction from the healthcare discussion, but what happened to Professor Gates wasn’t a small thing that we shouldn’t have been paying attention to.  I actually think the craziness surrounding the Brew-ha-ha was an attempt to distract us from what happened to Professor Gates, to distract us from actually having to get (back) into that conversation none of us wants to have … the one about race, about white privilege, about how things went badly for Gates and how much more badly they might have gone if he hadn’t had some ID to produce quickly and easily, about whether or not Officer Crowley would have found an elderly, cranky, white man with a marked limp and a cane ‘tumultuous’ enough to require arrest. 

I agree with Helen that we should continue the work on healthcare reform.  And on about ten thousand other pressing matters that need our government’s attention.  But our president’s a fairly intelligent guy, and he’s already shown that he can do more than one thing at a time.  Yes, go back to the healthcare debate, but that doesn’t mean we should try to push the Gates affair under the rug, make like nothing much happened and fuss over who chose what brand of beer.

I know we aren’t going to have this conversation.  Not yet, anyway.  It’s stuck in our throats, however.  We’ve been gagging on it almost 400 years, and it’s high time for us to either swallow it or cough it up.

_________

¹  It drives me crazy that on the 911 tapes we hear Professor Gates’ address over and over and over.  Just in case the people who’ve been making those death threats weren’t sure where to find him …