The Well-Meaning White Chick

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whoosah!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Bad Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But … it’s still problematic.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



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

Three Years On

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

***

But we are not dead. Not yet.

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

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

Rest in Power, Michael. We carry on.



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

I’d like to teach the world to sing …

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

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

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

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

Um, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Q is for: Quotation

“Land is power.” Ruby McGee

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of watching an amazing documentary, Dirt and Deeds in Mississippi. It tells another amazing “hidden figures” kind of story, some Black history that was rolled up in cotton wool and tucked way out of sight. In this case, the story of Black land-owning farmers and the role they played in the fight for rights — civil, voting, human — in Mississippi. It is an eye-opening, painful, powerful, important document of history. I could watch it on a loop for days.

Ruby McGee was the first Black person to be registered to vote in her county. Today, she owns and operates the family tree farm that gave her the freedom to take some of the chances she took as a young woman, that enabled her parents to run a Freedom School. She talks about what being a landowner gave her, says that it meant she didn’t have to work in white people’s kitchens. She talks about the idea of “knowledge is power” … and says no, “Land is power.”

And that resonated so deeply in my chest. I wanted to clap my hands and shout, “Yes!” It reminded me:

Got land to stand on,
then you can stand up,
stand up for your rights
as a woman, as a man.

“Achin’ for Acres” by Arrested Development was about exactly this, the power of owning where you live, owning the ground beneath your feet.

And it reminded me of my sadness, my personal heartache when family land has been lost, on my mother’s side, on my father’s. Those are pieces of ourselves we can never get back. I feel the empty spaces left by each even now, years later.

It reminded me of something I heard John Boyd Jr. say a while ago in an NPR profile piece: all of us are no more than two generations removed from somebody’s farm.

It reminded me of Constance Curry’s amazing book, Silver Rights, also about Mississipi.

This movie touched so many chords. And it spilled over into tonight’s chōka.

I have so much pride
seeing my ancestors fight
seeing them stand up
refusing to cave, to give.
This is what it means:
strength, power, faith, love, honor.
This is who we are,
fierce, unendingly stubborn
and sure. Sure of us,
sure of the fact we were right.
Sure that — live or die — we’d win.

My family isn’t from Mississippi — at least no one I’ve found yet — but Dirt and Deeds felt like home all the same.

_____

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.



I Live in a “Neighborhood” Neighborhood

I have posted a few paeans to my block. I love where I live and the apartment I live in. I love my neighborhood. This is the first place I’ve felt at home in many, many years. Because a post earlier this week tracked my path from my mother’s home to this one, I was remembering my experience of finding this apartment … and that got me thinking about David.  While it’s true that I loved this apartment the moment I saw it, it’s also true that it wasn’t the only really nice place I looked at in Crown Heights.

I saw another apartment first, a big two-bedroom with great light that cost about $300 less a month than where I live now. Why don’t I live there? Part of the reason is that this lovely block and the surrounding blocks felt better to me than that other apartment’s immediate neighborhood … but mostly the answer is David.

David is the man who showed me the apartment, the man who did double duty as realtor and building manager, the man with whom I would have had to interact on something like a regular basis if I lived in that apartment. David failed “The Test.”

I saw David’s apartment on Craigslist and called to learn more. David was pleasant. Gave me lots of information about the place, happily set up a time for me to see it. So I took off on a super-cold, “wintery mix” kind of day … only to find that David had given me lousy directions, had told me to get off at a subway stop four long stops too soon for his apartment, had told me to walk the wrong direction once I came up from the subway. I kept calling him to figure out what was going on, to find out where I was supposed to be. He finally admitted that he was a driver and wasn’t sure of the directions. (Seriously. Where they do that at?)

So I finally got directions from someone who actually knew what they were talking about and got myself turned around. On my way to the building from the train, I called David one last time to let him know I was almost there.  He said he was right outside the building entrance, keeping warm in his car. I got to the building and looked around. There was a man parked right in front of the building, sitting in his car. He wasn’t stepping out and announcing himself as David, but he was the only guy anywhere near the building, so I walked up to the window. He made a half-glance at me then quickly looked away. He turned his body slightly toward the passenger side of the car, clearly bent on not acknowledging or interacting with me. I knocked on the window and he turned an angry face to me.

“What do you want?” This comes muffled, through the glass because he hasn’t put his window down even the tiniest bit.

“Are you David? It’s me, Stacie.”

“Stacie who was just on the phone?”

No, some totally random other Stacie who just happens to be showing up outside your building knowing your name, you jackass. Yes, that Stacie.”

He still didn’t leave the car.  He opened his window … I finally got that “tiniest bit open” I’d been expecting from the start. He put down his window seemingly to get a better look at me.

“Stacie who called about the ad?”

“Look, it’s cold out here.  Are you going to show me the apartment or not?”

“You’re the one who just called.”

“Yes, you completely hideously annoying man.

You know the big, you’re-a-loser “X” that flashes on Family Feud? Imagine that coming into play now, except in this quiz, you only get the one strike. It’s all I need to count you out. David had completely and utterly failed The Test. He heard my voice on the phone and thought he knew who would be coming to see his apartment. I showed up, and he needed to process that he had been talking all that time to a Black person without realizing it.

And up to that point, I’m not angry with him. People regularly assume I am a white person when they hear me but don’t see me. And I can be fine with that, depending on where you go once you realize that I am, in fact, a Black person, once you know that I’m the person who comes with the voice you profiled. The fact that David couldn’t manage to process the reality of me — or at least take himself through his slow and painful process in some way that was vaguely graceful and not so obvious — is where he went off course.

Yeah, the fact that processing reality ended in him being quite clearly displeased to discover my Blackness makes that big, you’re-a-loser “X” glow in a hot, red neon.

(Of course, it’s my fault, you understand. His displeasure. It’s my fault. I should have warned him. Should have said, within seconds of greeting him on the phone, “I, as a Black woman, would like to see the apartment you’re renting on Union Street.” See how simple that is, how completely normal and like actual human conversation?)

I still wanted to see the apartment.  I knew I didn’t want David to be my landlord, but I’d come all that way, through the wintry mix and everything. I wanted to see the apartment. And it was as nice as it sounded online: big rooms, lots of sunlight, new fixtures in the bathroom and kitchen. Lots of closets. A large entrance hall (with a coat closet!). I think there was even a laundry room in the basement. Lovely. Too bad I wasn’t going to live there.

I decided to waste a little of David’s time and asked him to tell me about the neighborhood, asked him who lived in the area. He gave me an informative description of the Orthodox Jewish community … and stopped. Please remember that we’re in Crown Heights. Yes, there is a large Orthodox Jewish community here. But they are not the only folks this neighborhood is known for. There’s a reason the Caribbean Day Parade is held over here, after all. But he talked about the Hasidim and stopped.

“Ok. So that’s the whole population?”

“No, no, there are other people.”

“Oh, ok, great. Who else?”

“…”

Please know that here he could, really, have said anything. He could have told me there’s a large Caribbean community, could have said something straight to the point like, “Oh, a lot of black people,” or something a little more “cute” like, “Oh, a lot of people who look like you.” He couldn’t do it. He just stared at me for a minute then looked away and hemmed and hawed for another couple of minutes.

“Oh, you know … oh, there are … oh, a lot of … you know … neighborhood people.” (his emphasis)

Neighborhood people? Neighborhood people?

Oh, I could have played with him a little longer, asked him to explain what that meant. But he’d already failed the test, forcing him to add glitter and blue flame to his “X” was pointless.

Neighborhood people.

What, really, could be his problem? (Not an actual question.)

Let’s play compare and contrast. The morning after seeing that beautiful apartment, I rode back over to Crown Heights to see the place in which I am sitting to write this. I had been on the phone with the woman who would be one of my landlords. She had given me directions and asked if I knew anything about the neighborhood. We’d chatted a little and then scheduled my visit. I followed her clear, accurate directions and walked down the block toward the house. As I got closer, I saw a couple standing half on the sidewalk and half in the driveway of a house. A woman, a man, two small girls. I figured they were who I’d come to meet. As I walked up, the woman smiled and said, “Stacie? Hi, I’m L____.”

See how easy that was? It’s pretty much 100% likely that Leah (we’ll call her “Leah.” I’ve always disliked those “L____”s) made an assumption about who I was going to be when she talked to me on the phone. When I walked up and turned out to be me instead of who she imagined, she said hello and kept it moving. Like. a. normal. person. would. Like a not-racist person would. Yeah, of course I went there. That was the only “where” we were every going to go.

I’d have saved some money renting from David. I’d have had to pay for basic utilities, plus heat and laundry at his place, so the $300 difference in rent would really have been more like $100, but that would still have been more cash in my pocket. But no. That place wasn’t an option. I was never going to live in David’s building, and that was clear as soon as he didn’t greet me outside the building, as soon as he couldn’t wrap his small, racist mind around the fact that I was me and not whatever version of a white woman he’d had in mind when he’d talked to me on the phone. I had no intention of saddling myself with David, of having to do regular business with a man who didn’t trust me based on nothing but what I look like, a man who acted as if he was afraid to be alone in the apartment with me the whole time I was looking at the place, a man who turned his back when I walked up to his car so that he wouldn’t have to interact with me. No. So much wiser to rent from a family for whom my Blackness wasn’t cause for alarm.

There are plenty of things that make this apartment the better option: the back yard, my own washer and dryer, space in the basement to store my too-much-stuff and set up my sewing table, a full-on pantry closet in the kitchen … and just the general feeling of coming home that settled into me the moment I set foot in the door.

Leah and her family passing The Test wasn’t the only reason I wanted to live here, but it was one of the important reasons. The fact that they have turned out to be nice, intelligent people who I like talking to and knowing is an excellent bonus. Getting to watch their kids grow up, getting to sometimes hang out with their dogs … bonus, bonus.

I joke about David’s inability to name Black people. Mopsy and I talk about “neighborhood neighborhoods” sometimes, or whether or not there’s a good mix of neighborhood people at an event. It’s silly, and we sound silly saying it, and that’s why I like it. But David? Nope, not getting any love from me.

I save my love for Crown Heights. I’m super happy to have wound up in this neighborhood neighborhood. ❤



It’s hard to believe that the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge is almost over!
How does March go by so fast!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

Hello … again!

So yesterday there was some unnecessary-but-unsurprising ugliness in the world. There was April Ryan getting scolded and bullied by the White House press secretary. There Representative Maxine Waters being insulted by Bill O’Reilly. It was a bonanza day for Black women. Bo.nan.za. If you missed it, you can get a recap, complete with lame, insincere apologies over at The Mary Sue.

I was feeling that #BlackWomanAtWork hashtag, for sure. This nonsense had me remembering a lot of things that have happened to me during the long course of my work life. I posted some of those thanks-for-the-memories moments on FB:

“Don’t get excited.” Said by coworker when I leaned forward in a meeting as I spoke.

“Okay, stay calm,” said by coworker every time I express displeasure at something.

“Calm down, don’t get so upset,” said by a friend any time I expressed anger, displeasure, concern. Went on a long time until I finally called her out. Hasn’t happened since.

Boss looking at my natural hair and asking if I think it might be “too street.” (Whatever the fuck that is when it’s home.)

HR manager after I interviewed with him (many years ago): “You’re very intimidating, you know. You should work on that if you want to find something.”

“No, you cannot be the director. I need to speak to the director.” Man trying to bully his way into the program I used to direct.

Presenter looking directly at me for the only time during his presentation: “We have programs for single parents and people who didn’t finish college.”

“Hello … again!” Member of another team who thinks he’s seen me already even though he hasn’t … even though there is not a single other Black woman on our floor who looks anything at all like me.

“You’re listening to rock? Black people don’t like rock!” Coworker in ed program where I used to teach.

This crap is ridiculous. And it’s all the time. It’s everywhere. It’s when you expect it, and — best of all — when you least expect it. There’s a reason both April Ryan and Maxine Waters dealt so well with the awful treatment they received. They have had years of these experiences, and they have learned how to brush off their shoulders and move on.

I have to wonder at O’Reilly, though. Coming for Mother Maxine is just foolish, plain and simple. Ms. Waters is not here to play with you and your racism. She is not going to take her ball and go home because you chose to show yourself to be a hateful bag of wind (again). No. Ms. Maxine will take that O’Reilly, raise you a Spicer, lay you and your misogynoir out with a royal flush of proud Black clapback, and walk away with the pot every damn time. (Yes, note the Oxford comma. Just like Ms. Maxine, it is not here to play.)

But I’m not really expecting sense from O’Reilly. Or Spicer. I know better.

And I don’t need to defend Mother Maxine. She can take care of her fine self by herself. And, too, she has R. Eric Thomas in her corner, writing his love for her practically every day. If you haven’t caught up with him yet, you can click over and check out what he wrote about this foolishness. Because of course he wrote about this nonsense.

Here is a scrummy little taste:

Because Bill O’Reilly (whoever that is) can’t come for her. He wasn’t sent for. His hairline doesn’t have the range. She has 40 years of political receipts. He has tired, racist dog whistles about hair. These are not equivalent. If he thinks he was reading her, he needs Hooked on Phonics.

Giving me life. 100%.

As you can see, Ms. Maxine is fine out here without me. Me, on the other hand? Mostly I’m just tired. All the ways we are always and always being pushed down, pushed back, silenced, shamed, erased. Can’t folks just give it a rest already? Can’t we just live? I know this answers to these questions is going to stay “No,” maybe for a good, long while. Knowing the truth of that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow, doesn’t make me feel any better about any of it. As a friend said in response to my FB post: “We call them microaggressions, but what about a constant onslaught on your very being and existing is micro?”

Yes. What she said.

But then I remember Representative Waters. And I remember one of my coworkers telling me that I gave total Maxine Waters in a meeting on Monday. And I feel a little energized. Feel a little more like I can keep standing up, keep clapping back.



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!