Sunday, August 14, 2016

My Lived Racial Experiences Part 2: Standing on the Hot Coals of Truth

This is a series of posts in which I share my racial experiences as a Black woman  in America. I am an activist and a humanitarian. If I want to make the world a better place, I must begin with me and examine how race shows up in my life. These are my epiphanies.

photo courtesy of Shutterstock
Self reflection is an important part of my personal growth. I look at Self and my reactions to the world around me, and I adjust. But I admit seeing is difficult when I don’t want to face my truths. Because of all the racial turmoil and unabashed hatred going on in the world, I feel the need to check for biases and prejudices in how I’m processing what’s happening. How am I moving through the world? 

As much as I advocate for what I believe is right, I’m not so naive or so full of myself that I believe that I live bias free. I’m not afraid to admit that sometimes I am blinded by my own perceptions and misconceptions. A few weeks ago, I went up north to see a sold-out play. Issues of race and color intrigue me, and this play (that I have since forgotten the name) was a story of both. It was about free women of color who lived openly with their White lovers in Louisiana. And even though they could not marry, the women and their offspring could inherit his fortune prior to the Louisiana Purchase.

I put my name on the list and went across the street to grab a bite to eat. The restaurant had indoor and outdoor seating. It was nice out, so I opted to sit outside. Next to me was an interracial couple. He was Black, she was Other. My mind immediately went to judgment about why this dark skinned Black man was with this non Black woman. The stories of dark men hooking up with light women to increase their chances of having light brown or tan babies was not foreign to me. I had seen it, heard it, and tried in vain to explain to dark boys in my classes over the years that being with light girls would not guarantee the birth of light babies.

And as soon as I was conscious of my thoughts, I chided myself for jumping to conclusions. I was able to get in to see the play. The man and his wife from the eatery were seated in the audience. During the Q&A after the show, he talked about how he had come to learn to love himself as a Black man. He gushed about the strength and the beauty of Black women, and how the play spoke to him that we need to love Black women. The Latina with him was his wife. He said that she was beautiful, too. This reminded me of how quickly and absented mindedly we succumb to stereotype. He wasn’t a Black man stepping over sisters to get to mixed race women like Kanye who said he and most of his friends like “mutts” or Lil Wayne who does not hide his lover for red bones (light skinned Black women).  But I digress. I made unfair assumptions about the man in the audience. His appreciation of Black women did not supersede his love for his wife and vice versa. 

During the month of July, I worked with a summer program teaching social justice. I worked with a great bunch of ladies. The day following the tragic fatal police shootings in Dallas, a White woman at work remarked at how horrible it was. The three black women sitting at the table remained silent. The shootings had come on the tail of two police shootings of unarmed Black men. We changed topics. I made some assumptions: as Black women we were in solidarity in our thoughts. But it wasn’t that simple. I had only been working with these women for a few weeks, so we were still learning about each other. It turns out that the White woman’s son is a police officer, so it stands to reason that she would be upset by police shootings. Both of the Black women have Black sons, and one of them is married to a police officer. Imagine her anguish. She has to worry about her husband and her sons coming homely safely every night. 

These situations serve to remind me that even in my fight for civil rights, I still have my own work to do. Nothing is rarely as simple as it seems. The world draws a stark line of black and white, but so often the line is blurred. There are so many shades of grey in our existence. I recognize that I jumped to my own conclusions without having all the facts in both situations. How often do we do that? I’m not afraid to admit that I fall short. I’m standing in my truth even if it feels like hot coals under my feet. I have to stand in it, own it, and work on it. But every day I have a chance to learn and do better than I did the day before. That’s My Truth and I’m standing on it.
What’s your truth? Be sure to let me know in the comments section.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

My Lived Racial Experiences Part 1: Should I Hate White People?

This is a series of posts in which I share my racial experiences as a Black woman  in America. I am an activist and a humanitarian. If I want to make the world a better place, I must begin with me and examine how race shows up in my life. These are my epiphanies.

 In these times of increasing racial tension and social unrest, I've been thinking about my lived racial experiences to see if they warrant me hating White people. I think it's a fair question considering the loathing and terror that people of color, particular African Americans have been subjected to in this country at the hands of White people. We have suffered horrific atrocities from the day we first arrived to the current day. 

I think about the racist rhetoric aimed at the Black Lives Matter Movement in that they have the audacity to demand justice. Equality will not been given without a fight. We’ve seen this movie before. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “Without struggle, there is no progress. As much as people love Dr. King today, he wasn’t always well liked. The struggle for civil rights was met with great resistance because much of America thought that protesters and activists were asking for too much too soon. Not much has changed.

During the peak of the Black Power Movement in the 70s, I was a child. And images of whiteness were replaced by images of blackness, and I responded. Instead of drawing peach colored people with long yellow hair. I drew brown people with gigantic black Afros. My new found cultural awareness must have frightened my older, White second grade teacher because she prohibited me from drawing people with afros anymore. This troubled me, so, I went home and told my mother who sent my sister to school to talk with my teacher. I watched as my teacher folded one of my drawings in half to demonstrate that the afro was as big as the body. She offered a compromise: I could draw brown people with afros if I made the afros smaller. Funny thing is I never remember her telling me that my golden Rapunzel-like hair was too long. 

Fast forward to the following summer when my oldest sister had the bright idea to send her daughter and me to Day Camp. I don't know why. I was perfectly fine running up and down the block with my niece and my friends. But off to camp we went. The two-year age gap between us meant that we were assigned to different groups which were separated by age and gender. My neighborhood was segregated. My school was segregated. The only White people I knew were the old couple who lived next door and the staff at my school. I had never had any interactions with White children. And my first interaction proved to be memorable--and not in a good way.

Living in a Black World, color never mattered until I went to camp. My otherness surfaced feelings of alienation and isolation. In Duck, Duck Goose no matter how many times the girls went around the circle, I was never the goose. In Red Rover, I never heard, “Red Rover, Red Rover, send Stephanie on over.” My counselor was no help. Not only were these 9 year-old girls bigots, they were also bullies. I swear, it seemed like they made the spineless counselor cry every day. I had two saving graces. I could braid hair, so my counselor liked for me to pull her long black hair into a braid while the other girls watched in fascination. They still wouldn’t play with me though. And the last part of the day, we were free to go with the other groups, and I defected to the familiarity of my niece’s group. She was there and her counselor was Black. It was home until I could get home.

More than them ignoring me, the thing I most remember about Day Camp is something that still bothers me to this day—not that it happened as much as my reaction to it. One of the girls had some Skittles. We didn’t have Skittles in my neighborhood. We had Starbursts and I liked Starbursts, so I thought I might also enjoy a taste of the rainbow. The blond-haired girl saw me eyeing her candy, smiled and offered me some. I nodded and held out my hand. The smile disappeared just as she smashed up what was left in the package before handing it to me. I can feel the queasiness in my stomach as I write this. I wanted that candy; I wanted to belong, and so I ate it. That is my shame. But from pain come lessons. When those White girls became women, and I met them in grad school, I knew what was behind the manipulative White tears. I watched them say and do mean shit on the down low, and then cry when confronted. I learned not to fall for the okey-doke.

I was supposed to grow up in an integrated world where I was judged by the content of my character, not the color of my skin. I’m a post-civil rights baby much like we are supposed to be living in a post racial America today. Things were supposed to be different then. Things are supposed to be different now. They’re not. 

 I have been discriminated against and stereotyped for none other than the color of my skin. I reflect on the many times I’ve had to face down racial prejudice. When my family left the segregated west side for the integrated south side, my mother was told where my niece and I could not go. A mile east of us past the viaduct was off limits. In high school, I was at Evergreen Plaza Mall when I was accused of shop lifting. My niece and I were taken to a back room and all of our bags were dumped out. We didn’t have any stolen merchandise. There was no apology for the error on their part. 
I remember taking the bus to Ford City and being in the parking lot when a group of White boys zoomed past and nearly hit me. I jumped out of the way, heart racing, legs weak only to see them whiz by me laughing. I remember being the only Black person working for a real estate magazine on Kedzie. It was a small, family owned business a few miles west of my segregated neighborhood. It was a good work experience, but because of their limited interactions with people of my hue, I became the curator of Black culture. I had to answer questions about my hair, food, clothes—you name it. 

The one time I was super irritated was when one of the women corrected my English. She said I said “ax” instead of “ask”. I tried to explain to her that, that was not what I said.  My sister was the Grammar Police and “ask” was at the top of her list of grammatical offenses. I knew how to say “ask” with the “k” sound. This was confirmed when on a previous job, a White woman proclaimed loudly in the cafeteria that I was the only Black person she ever heard say “ask” (hard K.) But I digress.
This 2nd Ax/Ask woman came back to me asked me to be more “pacific” about the notes I made. So, I asKed her, “Do you want me to be more Pacific or Atlantic? Those are the names of oceans. I think the word you’re looking for is ‘specific.’” OMG! She was so pissed; she threw her hands up, said “Whatever!” and walked away—her face blood red. It was okay for her to correct me, but not for me to correct her? I simply laughed and shook my head. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. I enjoyed my time there even though the Black police officer stopped me when I was out to lunch to ask me what I was doing in the area. Racism is systemic folks. It's as natural as the air we breathe.

I can go on and on, but there is no need to replay every negative racial encounter I’ve had. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking, Oh, I’m Black. Let’s see what kind of prejudice I’m going to face today. The reality is it has happened and continues to happen. I accept that I’m going to have to navigate an often times rugged and bumpy terrain as a Black woman because I understand the history of racism in this country.

 I also know that just as I’ve had encounters with prejudice and bigotry that, that is not the sum total of my experience. I liked my second grade teacher despite the incident with the drawings, and my third grade teacher was amazing! I don’t think I even noticed that she was White until I got older and would reflect on the fond memories of my third grade classroom. It was evident that she loved students and teaching. I l adored my high school English teacher, and it was an honor to see her years later as a colleague.

 I'm not going to fall back on the cliché that some of my best friends are White. They’re not. But I did date a White guy and we had a good relationship, but race was a factor in us breaking up.  I do know some cool White people, and we hang out together and have a great time. I have also met some wonderful people online who are comrades in the struggle for equity in this country, and not just for Black people but for all marginalized people. I enjoy conversing with them and learning from them. Just recently I participated in a conversation about race between Black and White women. We didn’t see eye to eye on everything, and that’s ok. We’re still looking for what binds us as opposed to what separates us. We’re going to meet again in September. 

So, to answer the question that I raised: Should I hate White people? No. I don’t want to hate anyone anymore than I want them to hate me. I want to get to know people as people and celebrate our differences as well as find comfort in our similiarites. I believe it takes all kind of people to make the world turn.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

My Melania Moment

Melania Trump at the RNC: Read the Full Transcript of Her Speech Side-by-Side with Michelle Obama's| 2016 Presidential Elections, Politics, Donald Trump, Melania Trump, Michelle Obama
photo courtesy of

True confession: I enjoyed the Melania/Michelle memes. I laughed out loud and shared a few on Facebook. But I also know that plagiarism is really no laughing matter. An accusation of plagiarism has serious consequences.  It can result in expulsion if the accused is in school and termination if employed. I know because it happened to me.

It was my final year of undergrad. I was a journalism major finishing my B.A. I had been awarded a scholarship in exchange for working on the school newspaper. I enjoyed finding and writing stories. I liked editing and laying out the paper.  Life was good until I made a huge mistake.

It was about 2:00 am and the newspaper had a hole in it, and we didn't have a story to fill it. Dead tired, we ready to call it a night, but there are no blank pages in a news paper. We couldn’t come up with any ideas to fill it. Then I remembered that I done this paper for my science writing class on being left handed. I got it and showed it to the editor. She gave me the thumbs up. We put it in the blank space and it was a perfect fit. There was a God! We put the paper to bed and went home.

A few days later, I was in the newspaper office, when a call came in for me to report to the head of the journalism department’s office. The head of the department was also my science writing teacher. The girl who answered the phone said he sounded upset. I headed to his office clueless as to what he might be mad about. When I arrived to his office, he was five shades darker than the pink shirt he was wearing. Butterflies fluttered around in my stomach. 

“Sit down, Stephanie.” His tone frightened me. What had I done? He had a copy of the school newspaper. My story was on the back page. It was highlighted in various places. I still didn’t know what was going on. “You plagiarized this story.” How could he say I plagiarized the story? What I had used from the Reader’s Digest article was in quotes and I had mentioned in the story where the quote came from. That’s what I had been trained to do: use direct quotes and attribute the source.

I tried to explain this to my professor.  But he told me two things: one that I had quoted too much from the Reader’s Digest article and that I had stolen the writer’s idea. In the original story, the writer had compared being left handed to Alice in Wonderland and I also used that in my story explaining what it felt like to be left handed. I didn’t know that I couldn’t do that. I really didn’t know that I had done anything wrong. I mean who volunteers to put their head on the chopping block? I t was my idea to run the story!

A student had read the article in Reader’s Digest and also read my article. Seeing the similarities, he went to see the head of the journalism department. My professor explained that I would have to go before an expulsion hearing. The editor of the newspaper said regardless of the outcome of the hearing, she would vote against me keeping my scholarship. She seemed to take as a personal assault on her. I tried talking to her, but to no avail. (But that’s another story.)

In the end, I lost my scholarship, but I was able to stay in school and finish my degree. The professor testified that he did not think the plagiarism was intentional. I was put on probation. I went on to graduate, but I was scarred by the incident. For a long time, I wouldn’t write. The fear of plagiarism had paralyzed my pen. I eventually began writing again. 

Plagiarism is not something to be taken lightly. From what I’ve read, it doesn’t seem like Melania fully understands the ramifications of her actions. But the Trump camp should have known better. They goofed big time, and what should have been a shining moment for Melania has turned into a big gaffe for her, her husband and the Republican National Convention. 

I feel bad for Melania. I can imagine how she feels. My incident in college was one of the most humiliating and hurtful experiences I’ve ever had in my life. But mine did not play out on a national stage and on TV with millions of people watching. The fallout has been relentless. But this too shall pass; it did for me. I learned some valuable lessons from my experience as will Melania from hers.                                               

Monday, July 4, 2016

Jesse Williams: The Pain of the Light Skinned Black Man

photo from LA Times

I waited for it; I knew the backlash against actor and activist Jesse Williams would be hard and fast. I watched his speech, and like many I applauded his bravery. He did what many of us are afraid to do: bite the hand that feeds us.

When he was given the 2016 BET Humanitarian Award, he seized the moment to speak out against the injustices and inequities that African Americans face in America. It was a great speech.  What difference does it make that he didn’t say anything that hasn’t already been said? As long as the problems exist, the message bears repeating again and again.

I’m not surprised at the folks on Fox who criticized Williams. I am inclined to agree with Jane Elliott that racism is a mental illness. Tomi Lahren’s rant and subsequent response to the Black Twitter beating she took, was nothing more than her making a name for herself—again!--on the back of Black pain. There are some people who simply cannot help themselves. She is one of one of them as is her partner in crime Stacy Dash. Dash has sold her soul to the devil to stay relevant. And she had the audacity to call Williams a plantation Negro! She too, is a non issue.

But what burns my grits is that some of these so-called conscious people who are doing the most complaining just woke up. We know that light skinned people have been favored, and some of us still long for what they have. How many times have we talked about good hair, being mixed or having Indian in our family? How many of us think pretty eyes are anything other than dark brown?  Black folks quick to claim everything but African, but now we mad?

We speak of skin color bias as something that happened in the past when enslaved Africans worked in the field and in the house. Even today we continue to use this as a marker to divide us as evidenced by some of the posts that I read following the speech. The first two posts I read in opposition to Williams both mentioned his appearance: . . .you got this grey eyed Man say a couple of words and all of a sudden He’s the “New Face”???” a dark skinned woman wrote on Facebook. I look at the Jesse Williams speech for what it is, entertainment. . . I try not to take it seriously, but some of y’all be pushing a pretty bitch to do just that. Ugh, okay. This was the opening of a long post by a non pretty, average looking Black man. Am I saying that Willams is above being criticized? Not at all, but I do take issue with those who attempt to discredit what he said based on how he looks and who his mother is.

The notion that his bi racial background and European-like appearance disqualifies him from speaking for the masses is rooted in colorism and sexism--something that we are not willing to talk about. But looking at the role of complexion and how it relates to our definition of Blackness will explain some of the discontent and/or ambivalence with Williams’ comments.

It is well documented that lighter skinned Blacks do benefit from a culture that is steeped in a Eurocentric esthetic. Those of mixed-race backgrounds or lighter coloring have had advantages since the days of slavery, but it has not come without a price. Many of our leaders and firsts have been fair in complexion carrying the burden of race and color. In The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm shared his conflicted feelings about his complexion—thinking it was a status symbol, but feeling his mother’s pain of being a child of rape.  

Malcolm’s father, though dark skinned, was not immune to the effects of colorism. “Father was belligerent toward all the children except me. . .I actually believe that as anti white as my father was, he was subconsciously so afflicted with the white man's brainwashing of Negroes that he inclined to favor the light ones and I was his lightest child." (excerpt from The Autobiography of Malcolm X).

I have had numerous conversations with people whose preference in a partner is in part based on their complexion. To deny that color does not play a role in our interactions with another is to deny a part of our reality.

The pendulum of colorism swings both ways. Colorism is the discrimination of others within a race based on skin tone, hair texture and facial features, so those questioning someone’s blackness based on the lightness of their skin, need to come into the light. Wake up.
We have a racist and sexist perception of what a “real” Black man is, and a light-skinned Black man ain’t a man at all, let some of us tell it.  We live in a society that doesn’t even acknowledge Black men as men. We refer to them as boys and/or males. And then when we want a Black man to “man up”, we want him to be the stereotypical Big Scary Black (dark) Man.
Light skinned men might be pretty, but we don’t think they’re manly.

This continued stereotyping based on lightness or darkness of skin and facial features hurts everybody. The pain of dark skinned people is real. But we have to stop measuring pain. At some point, pain is pain. Now we need to start the healing process.  From the lightest to the darkest we’re all Black. It’s time to be united, not divided in overcoming the challenges facing us.