Fighting Racism Got You Down? Don’t Make Those Brunch Reservations Just Yet

3 Oct

Breonna Taylor illustration by Robin Hilkey

How are you all doing? It’s been 18 weeks since the killing of George Floyd, 1 week since the indictment for the bullets that hit Breonna Taylor’s neighbor’s wall, and the non-indictment for killing Breonna Taylor, and 4 weeks since I last blogged.

Have you noticed that things have quieted down…and…they haven’t? Since I last wrote, we are not seeing as many televised Black Lives Matter marches. They are still taking place all across the country, but as usual, it seems the media stays hungry to capture the few where destruction occurs, perpetuating the narrative that protestors are violent, that Black Lives Matter, or, the Movement for Black Lives, is violent, and that white people should be very afraid. Yet, let’s take a closer look.

In August, we saw how the horrible killing of a five-year old white boy by his neighbor, a Black man, was used by white racists to try and draw some kind of correlation between a lack of outrage for this white child’s death at the hands of a Black person–which is highly rare–with the systemic violent deaths of Black people at the hands of white police officers, which happens…a lot. Somehow, these gaslighters could not believe that Black, Brown and white “liberals” were also outraged and saddened by the boy’s tragic death, and could not make the connection that justice was served in this case. A manhunt and arrest and jail without bail of the boy’s killer occurred all within 24 hours. Contrast that with the six months it took after Breonna Taylor’s killing, to get the heartbreaking, but unsurprising news from the grand jury, that there would be no indictment in her death, other than for the one officer charged with wanton endangerment for the bullets fired not at Breonna Taylor, but at her neighbor’s house.

We saw in late August in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Joseph Blake be shot in the back at close range by police officers while walking to his vehicle after trying to break up a domestic dispute. His children were sitting in the back seat of his car at the time. When protests broke out following the shooting, we saw 17 year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, a strong Blue Lives Matter supporter, and militia group member, fulfill his mission to support the police as they dealt with “rioters.” We learned Kyle’s mother drove him across state lines to do just that. We saw him use his AR-15 rifle to straight up shoot and kill protesters, Anthony Huber, 26, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and injure a third man. We saw Kenosha police allow Rittenhouse to roam the streets that night, with his rifle, even after he held his arms up in the air after killing the two men, as if surrendering. We saw police cruisers simply pass him by. We saw Rittenhouse arrested a few days later, alive, unscathed.

Just this past Tuesday, during the first presidential debate, we heard our President refuse to denounce white supremacy. We saw him instead prop up the white supremacist group, The Proud Boys, giving them the go ahead to “stand back and stand by.” Somehow, some of us thought it was merely dinner entertainment–a humorous evening watching two childish, old men shouting over one another.

So, just checking in, since the videos and memorial tribute memes of George, Ahmaud, Rayshard, Breonna, and Elijah have waned, and the racial justice proclamations made by many corporations are no longer flooding our social media feeds. As are the number of days ago growing, where we passionately said to our friends, co-workers, family, and ourselves, we were going to do something about all of this. I wanted to ask, how are we all doing with this? Are we allowing ourselves to be lulled back into complacency–into a forgetting that this movement requires us to keep at it every day?

I am remembering the article I wrote for Motif Magazine last month, with interviewee, AJS, activist, and member of Standing Up For Racial Justice (SURJ). In a conversation we had afterward, AJS reminded me how all of us who seek to break down racism and the racist systems that uphold it, have to realize that we are part of a continuum. We have to keep doing the work. As white people, we need to support Black leaders who lead the charge in Black liberation. The work has been done before us. The work will be done after us. While we might not see the change we seek to see in our lifetimes, we must keep working, now supporting Black youth, Asian, Latino, Muslim youth, white youth, all of our young people, who are picking up this charge, so that our future generations can realize the changes we wish to bring to fruition.

And, I know we are tired of this virus, and wearing masks, and we just want to feel some semblance of normalcy as summer bid us goodbye, like breathing mask-free on the beach one more time, or dining outdoors at our favorite restaurants. We deserve some relief from having to stress over how we sent or didn’t send our kids to school, how we’ll pay our rent, how our businesses will survive, and how we will mail our ballots if they keep pulling our mailboxes out of the ground.

While I too, wish for carefree days, wish for certainty, I think of my friend, poet, actor and playwright, most recently of the upcoming, Invoice for Emotional Labor, Christopher Johnson. Christopher has posted on social media, and we have talked together about white apathy when it comes to the deaths of innocent Black people–and let’s just say for a time marker–beginning with the death of Jordan Davis in 2012. In reference to our upcoming presidential election, Christopher shared a meme that asked, will we, once Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are elected–will we just go back to our brunch?

Will we? I’m asking, will we, white people, order the status quo avocado toast with a big side serving of white complacency? Will we put on, not our clear face shields, but opaque side blinders that enable us to block out everything in our vision and memory bank that reminds us of racial violence, of racism in education, housing, generational wealth building, and criminal justice? Will we keep our masks on long after we are finally able to shed them, so that our lips stay silent?

Or will we order the Fight The Powers That Be omelette? I was taught at our family’s yearly Passover Seder, the dinner service using symbolic foods and storytelling to remember the time the Jews fled slavery in Egypt, that the foods we nourish ourselves with that night hold great meaning. I ask today, will the egg in our omelette–which in the Seder represents both the symbol of life, and, a sacrificial offering in mourning of the destruction of our temple–now beckon us to both mourn the ongoing deaths and destruction of Black lives, and the mourning of our own souls which must be torn open, filleted, with urgency, as we acknowledge and reckon with the truth of our racist, violent lives, and history, once and for all? Will we heed the call to make the sacrifices necessary to bring about equality and liberation for Black people in this country? Will we allow the egg to renew and sustain ourselves in this cycle of life as we continue this fight? Because we know none of us are free until all of us are free, right?

Yes, let us take part in that kind of brunch. One that nourishes and keeps us on the path of the continued fight against racism in all it’s insidious forms and systems. I have faith in you. In us. I know that even though I haven’t been hearing all of us talking or posting as much about George Floyd, about Breonna Taylor, or about systemic racism, I know we want to keep fighting, right? Every day, right? At our places of work, at our schools, anywhere we encounter a Karen or Ken, and even, and especially when, we think nothing “wrong” is going on. Because it is. It is the systems that we think we can’t “see,” but I’m hoping that everyone who says their eyes are now open, cannot unsee. I’m hoping we will work on breaking those down most of all.

We can do the work right where we are. In our communities. We can learn how to advocate for and support Black people by reaching out, whether to an individual or to a Black led community organization, and ask how you can be an advocate and support–without causing emotional labor, without being a savior, and without trying to take that white person lead of “Here take this, I know what’s best for you.”

If you work in a school, or are a parent of a school child, you can advocate for and support Black and Brown leaders calling for equal resources, for curriculums and teaching and learning that honors all children, and for changes in the unjust, ineffectual, penalizing, school disciplinary systems. If you work in real estate, you can be the eyes and ears of unjust practices in those dealings. If you work in a non-profit organization serving BIPOC communities, and the leadership and board of that organization is majority white, and does not live in the neighborhood being served, be a part of breaking that down. If you care about the environment, you can get involved in environmental justice work. Ditto for all of our majority white spaces we find ourselves in, where Western, white cultural norms are seen as superior. You can question why there are not more Black people where you work, or where you order your outdoor latte, and ask why microaggressions that happen to your Black co-workers go unchecked. We can all learn that diversity doesn’t mean we get a few more token students of color in our schools, or co-workers in our office, and think everything is honky dory. We can learn it is about changing the culture, alongside our peers, not over them, so that everyone is equal, and white supremacist culture no longer reigns. This is a time of reckoning. The time is now. Order the omelette.

from the heart

it’s a start, a work of art

to revolutionize make a change

nothing’s strange

people, people we are the same

no we’re not the same

cause we don’t know the game

what we need is awareness, we can’t

get careless

you say what is this?

my beloved let’s get down to business

mental self defensive fitness

(yo) bum rush the show

you gotta go for what you know

to make everybody see, in order to fight the powers that be

lemme hear you say

Fight the power lyrics @universal Music publishing group, by public enemy, 1989, songwriters: Carlton Ridenhour, Eric Sadler, Hank Shocklee, Keith Shocklee

SOURCES: Breonna Taylor illustration by Robin Hilkey

How To Hang In There: Today, Baratunde Thurston’s Podcast, How To Citizen, Helped

2 Sep

Baratunde Thurston
Baratunde Thurston, How To Citizen

Everyone has probably heard the phrase, “we all have our cross to bear.” Even as a Jewish woman, I of course, get it. We all have our burdens in this life–our own, personal sufferings. Whenever I recall that phrase, it brings to mind this Russian artist, Ernst Neizvestny, and the time he painted a gigantic wall mural inside the Eduard Nakhamkin Gallery in Soho, where decades ago I worked as a gallery assistant.

I remember bold strokes of black paint outlining the mural content. I remember grey boulders, and a man, was it just a regular man, or was it supposed to be Jesus, I can’t remember, but he was dragging a cross up the hill of boulders. It appeared heavy. I remember Ernst talking with the other gallery assistants and myself about the weight of the personal burdens that each person endures in his or her lifetime. I remember his thick, Russian accent, and the passion he held in getting out the words which gave meaning to his vision. I felt the weight of that cross, and maybe that day I even thought about my own current life burdens, which at twenty-six, were most likely centered on how I was going to pay my rent, or keep things good with my current boyfriend, a salesperson at the gallery by day, and a flirtatious band musician by night.

Today, as I sit with my own struggles, the heaviness I feel with wanting to be doing enough, doing enough of my part in breaking down racism and racist institutions and systems of oppression, I know I am not alone. I know I am not unique in this. Yet, as a white-skinned, Jewish woman, I do not bear the burden of being Black in America, nor the trauma, pain, and anxiety that comes with living in a Black body in this country today, and for the past 400 years. This week, I heard the weighted words of Black friends on social media, words expressing emotional exhaustion, and the wondering of how much more they could bear. Hadn’t we said, Enough is Enough, after George Floyd’s death? Yet hear we were with all eyes, and hearts, on Kenosha, Wisconsin.

And, the burden is complex for each one of us. And we have multiple burdens, right? Many of us are stressed and depressed from Covid fatigue. Related to the pandemic, we may have health worries, financial worries, worries of how our kids will safely receive their education, and the worry that comes from the uncertainty of when this all will end. We may be dealing with anxiety and loneliness from the inability to socially connect with one another in the way we are used to.

We are also living through the current racial pandemic, and the uprising of strong activism–the reigniting of the Black Lives Matter movement–that followed the death of George Floyd in May. We have witnessed the killings where justice has not yet been fully served for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and Elijah McClain. Again, for white people, this may feel like something new, as we continue to wake up, and finally see and hear some of the things that Black people have been trying to tell us for a real long time about racism in this country.

And if that was not enough, our country is hurting terribly over the most recent shooting of Jacob Blake by police officers as he walked away from trying to break up a domestic dispute. Then came the subsequent killings of two Kenosha protestors, Anthony Huber, and Joseph Rosenbaum, by 17 year-old domestic terrorist, Kyle Rittenhouse. There is also a great deal of outpouring of grief from the Black community, and people of all backgrounds from all over the world, over the death of actor, Chadwick Boseman. Boseman succumbed from colon cancer this week, at the age of 42. His role as T’Challa, in Black Panther was historic in creating representation of the first, leading Black superhero in cinema, as were his roles portraying Jackie Robinson, and James Brown, among others. Through the tributes I am witnessing, the fact that Chadwick Boseman was a cultural marker, and maker, for Black people in this country, and abroad, and that his loss is causing great grief for so many, is quite apparent.

With all of this, all of these burdens, you might be feeling like it’s hard to be grounded. Like how can you even focus on regular, day-to-day life, when life is anything but regular? Like you can’t remember what it’s like to experience joy, or feel guilty for getting to feel some joy in the midst of all that is wrong in our world right now. You might be feeling like your cross, or whatever symbol you want to use, is too heavy to bear. I know I am having a hard time right now.

As a white person living through all of this upheaval, I am reminded of the words of local activist and educator, and founder of the Providence, Rhode Island based non-profit youth organization, A Sweet Creation, Pilar McCloud. This spring, at a backyard talk with a group of us white folks who showed up to learn more about how to show up for Black people right now, Pilar said that it was interesting for Black people to watch how white people are struggling with the pandemic, and their new acknowledgment of racial injustice. She said, and I am paraphrasing because I did not record her exact words, “Black people have always had to struggle to survive. We are experienced at having to make our way through all kinds of obstacles,”… the obstacles of racism and racist policies that began with slavery, continued with Jim Crow laws, redlining, mass incarceration, and unequal educational and economic resources, to name a few of the burdens that Black people in this country have had to deal with since this country’s founding.

Pilar’s words of truth, and a lot of the other wisdom she and her co-host, Juan Carter, shared that evening, show up for me when I catch myself struggling, which is often. I try to do things to help myself feel like the world will not stay sick forever. I can recall the encouraging words of friends and family, who say there is hope all this darkness provides opportunity for better days ahead. My 3-mile morning walks at a local park by the bay here in Providence help elevate my mood. On this Monday morning’s walk I listened to writer, activist, comedian, Baratunde Thurston’s new podcast, How To Citizen. I had first come to know Baratunde’s work through his book, How To Be Black, and wrote a blog post on it when the book came out in 2012.

From Baratunde’s website, on How To Citizen, the site says,”Baratunde reimagines the word “citizen” as a verb and reminds us how to wield our collective power. So many of us want to do more in response to the problems we hear about constantly, but where and how to participate can leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. Voting, while critically important, simply isn’t enough. It takes more to make this experiment in self-governance work. Listen in to learn new perspectives and practices from people working to improve society for the many. Join writer, activist, and comedian Baratunde Thurston on a journey beyond politics as usual that will leave us all more hopeful, connected, and moved to act.”

Sometimes feeling scattered and sporadic in my attempt to do my part to support the fight for racial justice and Black liberation, I knew I wanted to listen in. I was glad I did. Baratunde’s first guest on what he called a prelude to the podcast’s first season was Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist, filmmaker, lawyer, educator and faith leader. She is also founder of The Revolutionary Love Project, and author of the recently released memoir, See No Stranger.

I admit I had not known of Valarie Kaur before the podcast, but was intrigued and inspired by what she had to share, and after listening, understood Baratunde’s self-described intense, emotional draw to Valarie and her work. It was hearing these words she first shared on social media: “The future is dark. But is this the darkness of the tomb – or the darkness of the womb?” that blew Baratunde away.

In her discussion, Valarie asks us to act as if no one was a stranger to us, and to act with revolutionary love, which she describes as “the choice to labor for others, our opponents, and ourselves.” I admit I continue to struggle with acting or laboring with love toward those I see as opponents to racial justice, and the fight for Black Lives. Just last night I felt challenged when my friend and colleague, Amy, a white woman, posted on social media that she would be posting a lot about racial justice, and would make herself open to negative feedback from online ‘friends.’ I replied, “that’s why God invented the ‘Unfriend’ button.”

Amy responded saying that she likes to engage with people with diverse perspectives and beliefs, to see all sides of the story, and to understand that those with opinions and beliefs that counter hers have been influenced by the fact that they grew up with the institutionalized racial systems we still live in. She said she wants to try and understand others so that she knows what she is up against, and can be more constructive in her dialogues with them. I, on the other hand, go between wishing I had more grace, and believing it’s not deserved, in the conversations I have with white peers who have made racist comments about George Floyd, policing, and their interpretation of what Black Lives Matter means. Amy’s last comment though about “knowing what she’s up against,” was similar to something Valarie Kaur said about loving our opponent. Valarie said that it is not only pragmatic, but also, strategic to do so. She shared that when we know what, how and why people are thinking and behaving the way they do, then we can know how to have the conversation, what to talk about with them to “challenge the culture and institutions that promote hate,” which can then effect change.

There is so much more of value that was said, including a touching ode to joy between Valarie and her young son at the end of the podcast. I urge you to take a listen, and I bet you, too, will be inspired. I am hoping, too, after listening, you will see not only the tomb, but the womb. Baratunde, seeing that our country is now at a tipping point–that we can go in a bad direction, or a good direction,–inspired him to create How To Citizen. To that end, thankfully, Valarie believes we all hold value and can do our part, to see the darkness of the womb, and the beginning of “a new nation waiting to be born.” She also believes that practicing revolutionary love, seeing no stranger, and connecting to our joy on a daily basis, will allow us to sustain ourselves over the long haul while doing the work it takes to arrive there.

I was grateful that day for both the walk and the talk, which alleviated some of the heaviness I feel weighing on me. I want to know: How are you bearing your burdens? What helps you get through each day? How do you find joy, when in pain, when it seems elusive, or a luxury you cannot afford? I would love to hear from you, and have us share with one another. It can be our communal act of revolutionary love.


Photo credit: letsreimagine.org

Some Of Us White People

30 Jun

Protest following death of George Floyd, Providence, RI, June 5, 2020

It’s been a little over three weeks since the local protests took place here in Providence, and all over the world, in the wake of George Floyd’s death. And it feels like it’s been three weeks of vast numbers of white people in a tizzy over how we could not have known how bad things were for Black people in America, and how blind we all were to systemic racism.

Some of us woke up, and rose up, and said we want to help. We pored over the Google Doc of resources shared widely on social media by Sarah Sophie Flicker and Alyssa Klein–books, articles, organizations and funds to donate to, and legislators to call. Some of us also learned of the Justice in June Google Document turned website with expanded anti-racism resources and teachings by Autum Gupta and Bryanna Wallace.

Some of us bought all the books recommended on social media to educate ourselves on the history of racism in this country. Books like, Stamped From The Beginning, and How To Be An Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, So You Want To Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, The Me And White Supremacy Workbook by Layla Saad, Waking Up White by Debby Irving, and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. Currently, The New York Times Bestseller List for Paperback Non-Fiction, shows all top ten books are on race, with the aforementioned books on the list.

Some of us have confessed on Facebook how ignorant or blind we were to our own white privilege. How blind we were to the continued systems of racial inequity that came about post-slavery through policies and laws that created redlining, Jim Crow laws, loan discrimination, education disparities, job discrimination, mass incarceration, and the one we, if we have any humanity, can no longer deny: the more than “a few bad apples,”systemic racism inherent in law enforcement, and the never-ending police brutality against Black people.

Shortly after some of us spoke about being overwhelmed and not knowing where to begin to educate ourselves, and take action, we learned about the police killing of Rayshard Brooks in a Wendy’s parking lot in Atlanta on June 12th. The 27 year-old Brooks, married and the father of three children, had fallen asleep in the Wendy’s drive-thru and the police were called. After a half-hour of conversation where Rayshard politely told officers he had a few drinks, and offered to leave his car in the parking lot to walk to his sister’s house which was just a few blocks away, the officers decided to arrest Rayshard after a failed sobriety test. Rayshard, who was on parole, and working hard to stay on track with his family and work life despite the many restrictions and burdens the judicial system placed on him, most likely feared what an arrest would mean for him and his future. He resisted by trying to free himself from the officers trying to cuff him, Brosnand and Rolfe, and a scuffle ensued. Rayshard did grab one of the officer’s tasers and ran away, pointing it over his shoulder, and shooting the taser once at Rolfe, a taser which cannot cause deadly harm. Officer Rolfe shot at the back of Rayshard Brooks with his gun, hitting him twice. Rayshard fell to the ground. Officer Brosnan stood on Rayshard’s shoulders while he was on the ground, and Rolfe kicked his body. They stood over his body for two minutes before administering any medical attention. Rayshard Brooks died later that night at the hospital after coming out of surgery.

Some of us returned to our urgent call to ourselves to “do something!” Some of us worried still about offending Black people by either saying or doing the wrong thing, so some of us did nothing. Some of us thought and hoped we were doing the right thing by reaching out to our Black friends and asking them how they were doing. Some of us felt guilty when we read articles written by Black people who were taken aback, or baffled, by the awkward ways white people were reaching out to them– about friends who before now, rarely, if ever, had conversations about race with them, or ever noticed the micro-aggressions their friends endured, or the way their own white privilege allowed them to move through the world never having to think about their race, because their white skin was the default.

Some of us Venmo’d our Black friends, either at their request, or after seeing articles that said sending money to your Black friends is what you should do, because we sure owe them, or as a gesture to promote self-care for the recipient, then felt guilty again when we read some posts on social media about how sending money to Black people was insulting. I received a link to a podcast through Facebook Messenger from my friend, Darrell, who is Black, which he thought was hilarious, and which I had to admit I could see my own shortcomings in. The podcast, /reply-all/, episode #162 The Least You Could Do, produced by Emmanuel Dzotsi, was about this very subject of Black people receiving texts with offers of money from white people, like some kind of offering to absolve ourselves from the sin of being white, and benefiting from white supremacy. In fact, toward the end of the podcast, Black Latinx comedian, Milly Tamarez, did just that. After the 2016 Presidential election, she did a stand-up act asking white people to pay her, and if they did, she would absolve them of the sins of their people. It took off, and lots of white people sent her money, confessed of their sins, and received absolution. While some of the sins confessed started out light, like performing in a West Side Story play in school where all the parts were played by white people, some got darker as time went on, like the confession by a young white guy who was dating a Black woman but was afraid to get intimate with her because he feared he wouldn’t be as good a lover as a Black man. I hope all of us reading here will want to listen to this podcast to hear Milly’s response, and her thoughts about the whole experience of her White Forgiveness Project, as well as the thoughts and feelings that some Black people are having about how white people are reaching out to them at this time.

Some of us may have found ourselves saying, “damned if we do, damned if we don’t,” yet, hopefully we learned instead, that Black people are not a monolith, and do not think alike, and that most Black people would probably say they’ve lived “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” to the point of life vs. death, every single day. We hopefully learned that while one friend or acquaintance might welcome your reaching out to ask them what they need from you, and one person might say, Venmo me, and another friend might tell you they are too exhausted from experiencing racism to do the emotional labor to respond to you. They might nudge you to initiate your own self-education, and tell you to talk to other white people who may be further along on their journey in anti-racist work and action. They might tell us to figure out amongst ourselves what we should do next. After all, it is all of us white people who created and continue to uphold racism and racist systems in the first place. But, we’ll never know what to do if we don’t put ourselves out there and ask.

And as some of us are spending way too much time dealing with our own white fragility, rather than being of benefit to the movement to support Black lives, we learned of the death of Elijah McClain. Elijah was a 23 year-old massage therapist from Aurora, Colorado who was walking home from a convenience store when he was stopped by officers after a call was made to police about a suspicious person walking down the street wearing a mask. Elijah, who played violin on his lunch break to cats at animal shelters, because he believed it calmed them, was a slight, young man, with anemia, who wore the mask to keep warm. He did absolutely nothing wrong, and was wrestled to the ground by several officers, held in a carotid hold, and injected with the tranquilizer, ketamine, before being taken by ambulance to the hospital. Elijah suffered a heart attack on the way there, and was brain dead and on life support, when several days later, his family had to make the decision to take him off life support, at which time, Elijah passed away. The heartbreaking words of Elijah McClain while he was being arrested and his tiny frame being pressed on, to the point he vomited and could not breathe, have been shared widely:

“I can’t breathe. I have my ID right here. My name is Elijah McClain. That’s my house. I was just going home. I’m an introvert. I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry. I have no gun. I don’t do that stuff. I don’t do any fighting. Why are you attacking me? I don’t even kill flies! I don’t eat meat! But I don’t judge people who do eat meat. Forgive me. All I was trying to do was become better. I will do it. I will do anything. Sacrifice my identity. I’ll do it. You all are so phenomenal. You are beautiful. And I love you. Try to forgive me. I am a mood gemini. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. Ow, that really hurt. You all are very strong. Team work makes the dream work…(crying)..oh I’m sorry. I wasn’t trying to do that. I just can’t breathe correctly (proceeds to vomit from the pressure to his chest and neck).”

– Elijah McClain

And as we ask again, what should we do, some of us are pulling out our pocketbooks and making donations to local and national Black-led organizations that promote justice, and build resources for Black communities. Some of us are educating ourselves through reading, conversation, and attending virtual panels led by Black scholars and activists. In Providence, the calls to Defund The Police rang loud and clear this week on a 9-hour Zoom call for the City’s Finance Committee meeting, where residents, Black, white and Brown, got to use their voices to speak about far better ways to address community wellness and public safety.

Yet some of us learned of another Providence meeting of the City Council members, where Black councilwoman, Nirva LaFortune, was talked over and muted during the Zoom meeting, by fellow councilman, John Igliozzi. Igliozzi announced a petition he said he created to bring to the RI General Assembly to appeal the state’s Law Enforcement Officer’s Bill of Rights. Councilwoman LaFortune stated on the call, that she had been working on a resolution to repeal the bill and it was on the agenda to present to the council. She continued to say that Igliozzi was aware of and co-signed on it, and that this petition was appropriated from LaFortune by him without speaking with her, or giving her credit for the research, and work that she had done. Igliozzi continued to erase the work and voice of the Black woman councilwoman, as he muted LaFortune several times more as she tried in vain to make her point heard and acknowledged–the final time right after the councilwoman told Igliozzi that “this is oppressive behavior.”

And in all of this, still we wait for the arrest of the two officers who killed Breonna Taylor while she was sleeping in her home in Louisville, Kentucky. Breonna, 25, a beloved EMT, and her boyfriend, were asleep when the police broke into their home unannounced. Thinking it was an intruder, Breonna’s boyfriend walked toward the living room, licensed gun in his hand to defend himself and Breonna. The police upon sighting him started shooting. They fired eight shots that killed Breonna. Why did they break into her home? They were looking for someone who had a warrant out for his arrest for drug dealing. They were in the wrong home. The person they were looking for: He was already in custody.

Some of us are performing activism with expressions of outrage, and sadness, followed up with lackluster, or absent action. Many corporations have made statements in support of Black Lives Mattering, along with proclamations of intention to make their workplace “inclusive” and “equitable.” Some have even already instituted a policy to now make Juneteenth an official holiday. Some of us are seeing media outlets scramble to feature stories on race, and even hire Black writers and photographers and journalists to tell them. We are seeing art museums and arts organizations all of a sudden featuring the works of Black artists on their sites, like the Poem-a-day series I subscribe to that for the last month has featured daily poems by contemporary, as well as, 19th and 20th century Black poets.

Some of us are so worried about how dangerous the world feels “because of all the rioting and looting and Chicago and Black on Black crime, and nobody wanting to be a police officer anymore because of how dangerous it is for them, with everyone being against them now…” Many of our inner Karens have been exposed.

Some of us, a lot of us, say we really care, and we really do, and all of us, have to really do. I heard a Black woman artist at the George Floyd protest, who said in conversation with a friend of hers, another Black woman, that at this point, the only way white people can show they are supporting Black people, is to do one or more of these three things:

Give money

Share resources

Put your body on the line

Some of us see ourselves in some of this here, or all of this here, or none of this here. Trust me, my own white fragility guilt and shame level has been on ultra-high, too. Now is the time to rid ourselves of the guilt and shame that does nothing but absolve us in our own minds from doing anything, keeps us uncomfortable about ourselves only. Keeps us stuck and inert. With this focusing on ourselves and how bad we feel, we cannot see beyond ourselves, or be strong enough to do anything to break down racism. All of us have to be willing to be in discomfort outside of ourselves, whether it is in conversation with other white people about race, whether it is asking a question to a Black person that we are worried is going to make us seem racist, or whether it is digging into figuring out what actions we can take in our communities to break down systemic racism.All of us need to decide which ones of us we see here, and which one of us we are going to become.

Youth-Led Protest, Avoiding Falling Into The (Donut) Hole of Trying To Enlighten Those Inflicted With Blindness To Their Racism, And A Big Thank You To The Artists Who Do The Spiritual Lifting

9 Jun

Artist, Nafis White, in front of her mural piece on performance of care and need of sustained action @nafis_white. Breonna Taylor mural by Kendel Joseph @lucidtraveler_art

On Friday, June 5th, Providence, Rhode Island Black youth and youth of color, organized and led a Black Lives Matter protest. 10,000 people of all races, ethnicities, and ages came out to support. As I marched along downtown streets leading to the State House with my eighteen year-old daughter, I looked around, and said to myself, finally, we all showed up–meaning, finally, us white people have showed up. I had been disappointed at past rallies–for example, memorials honoring Mike Brown, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, where I would look around and see that the crowd was much more sparse than the much larger numbers of white people who attended the Women’s march or Anti-Gun Violence march.

But all of us together on Friday was a beautiful sight. Despite the heavy police and military presence, our young people inspired. Young Black women were the leaders, the glue that held the community event together. When a good number of people carried on the march that night throughout the city despite the imposed 9:00 p.m. curfew, young Black women were the ones to deescalate the crowd when police created moments of tension. Let us praise, elevate and continue to support our Black youth and youth of color, and not forget them, or let the glow from this day, and the purpose of this day, fade from our memory, or our duty to take action to continue to support the movement for Black Lives until all of us are free.

Youth led Black Lives Matter protest, Providence, RI, June 5, 2020
BLM youth led protest, RI State House
BLM march continues, James Street, Providence, RI

While I continue to stumble along the way in how to best support and use my voice to call out blatant racism, and to deconstruct racist systems that exist in every sphere of our lives, over this past weekend, I let myself stumble into a hole, a big ole’ donut hole. An owner of Allie’s Donuts, a Rhode Island institution for over fifty years, posted on social media that in support of breaking down systemic racism in policing, and to support Black Lives, they would no longer be honoring their 10% discount for the police or military.

Cue many white people losing their minds over this. Insulted white people took to social media to repeat the very words they said when Colin Kaepernik first took a knee. “How could they disrespect the police and the military like this?” “A few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl…” Well, they didn’t say that one exactly, that being a line from a 1970’s Osmond brothers song, but the bad apples reference showed up a lot in said posts on Facebook and Instagram.

I found myself getting so mad, and unable to resist the voice in my head saying “Don’t engage, Wendy.” “You know they won’t hear you.” But, alas, the voice that said, “Don’t stand for this racist foolishness. Call them out,” won out. I responded to a few posts, and comments on posts, made by co-workers. As expected, their focus remained on the disrespect they perceived was being placed on the police and military, and their blinders did not allow their hearts, even when pressed, to acknowledge, to have empathy, or to even utter any word about the racial violence perpetuated upon Black people.

Today I decided, despite my continued pandemic comfort eating of way too much sugar and fat, including the intermittent donut, that I will pull myself out of the donut hole, and take better care of myself. I will continue to call out racist bs when I hear it, but I will place most of my energy in supporting Black people in my community through word and deed.

As hard as it can be to lift ourselves up through trying times, I am forever inspired and grateful to all the artists in our communities, in our world. I will have to do a whole separate post soon about the artist project, Gratitudes, that master printmaker, Jacques Bidon, and artist, Nafis White, both affiliated with the local non-profit art organization, AS220, carried out, but wanted to mention it to illustrate a point. Briefly, Nafis and Jacques, in response to COVID-19, conceived of and created print care packages consisting of thank you cards and fine art prints with inspirational quotes which they gifted to staff at Rhode Island and Miriam hospitals, and for the psychiatric hospital I work for, Butler Hospital. The prints are being distributed to our frontline essential workers–housekeepers, nurses, doctors, mental health workers, etc.–and they have been much appreciated by our staff.

One of the prints included in the print package, is a photograph of a flowering tree with this Toni Morrison quote: “This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, and no room for fear. We do language. That is how civilizations heal.”

Yesterday, I got so see Toni Morrison’s words put into action. After work at the hospital, Jacques, let me know that there were a number of artists downtown creating murals on the boards that had gone up to cover small businesses’ windows–some that had been vandalized earlier in the week by youth not affiliated with protestors protesting for the purpose of racial justice–and others to prevent damage feared that might occur during Friday’s protest. However, there was no more damage done that night.

When I arrived, it was heart-opening to see so many artists working on creating beautiful images, and words–art created which reflected the beauty of Blackness, art that supported and called for the safety of, the equality of, and the justice for Black and Brown, Indigenous and Queer people, and art which called for us white people to recognize the call to do the work for the long haul for freedom to come to fruition for real.

The work, I’m told was de-installed today, but will be displayed at 1 Eddy Street, along with a gathering Tuesday, June 9th, at 6 pm, at this location, by the Breonna Taylor memorial mural. The gathering, as shared by Nafis White, will be “to celebrate Breonna’s life, to dance, lay flowers, and honor her and all the other women and men who have perished at the hands of the police.”

Defund The Police, Support Funds For The Community chalk art
Black Lives Matter mural in progress
Breonna Taylor mural by Kendel Joseph, @LucidTraveler_Art
More Mural art on Westminster Street, Providence, RI, by @Lunabadoula, @lizzysour, ysnel.com
Mural in progress by @naturalsnatural
Breonna Taylor mural, on corner of Washington and Eddy Street, where celebration of Breonn’as life will be held, Tuesday, June 9, at 6:00 p.m.

While I feel this post is a bit scattered, much like my mind these days in trying to ground and center myself so I can be an effective anti-racist, I’m going to close by sharing an article I wrote for local, Motif magazine: Be A Support: Five Do’s and Don’ts for White People Taking Anti-Racist Action. I thank, friend and poet, Christopher Johnson, for so generously encouraging me to write and send something to Motif, and thank, Motif editor, Emily Olsen, for her help in editing the piece, and for publishing it.

Have a beautiful day. And, fellow white people, please take anti-racist action today, and every day.

Thank you.

Conspiracy Theories, Freedom, Mirrors: What Reality Are We Running From?

12 May

A couple of years ago I was dating a man. A man who, in the dating world, would be considered “good on paper.” An engineer with a good job, healthy, kind, intelligent. He lived in a beautiful mid-century modern home fitted with all of its original built-in fixtures and furniture. My girlfriends and family can probably attest to the fact that I have pretty much ignored those “good on paper” facts throughout my romantic life. That it’s always been heart over head. And since my divorce eight years ago, I have added something to the “look away from practicality and reason” factor when searching for a mate. I now also possess the need to find something wrong with someone to prove to myself that I shouldn’t like this person, thereby saving me from being seen, and letting someone inside my soul, inside my heart. To do that, would mean I would have to look in the mirror and see myself, my desire to love and be loved, to see myself in all of my flaws and vulnerabilities, to not hide, the good, the bad and the ugly. I’d have to love myself, before I could say, hey you, will you please love me, and I will love you back?

In the case of the engineer, aside from me realizing there was somewhat of a lack of chemistry–you know, the kind that wears off after the first few dates where you think maybe it was the wine at dinner that made it seem like you two really hit it off–I found out he believed in several conspiracy theories. I don’t remember the details exactly, but something to do with the government, and tracking us, as most conspiracy theories revolve around. Looking for a reason not to like, or allow myself to be liked, I asked one of the approachable psychiatrists on the inpatient psych unit I work on, what he thought about people who believed in conspiracy theories. I prefaced my question by saying this was someone I knew, and not a patient.

His response was that he didn’t feel concerned about people who believed in them, that people have their own views of reality, and that he in fact has, as time goes on, questioned his own thoughts and the reality, or validity of them. I understood what he meant. In the eight years I have worked as an Activities Therapist in a psychiatric hospital, and the many years before that working with homeless adults with mental illness, many living with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, I have had conversations with people who have shared their intricately detailed realities with me, which has opened up my own view of what “reality” and “normal” means, and has made me feel, at times, that my own view of reality is quite limited, dull, or predictable.

My excuse to break up with the engineer for believing in conspiracy theories dashed, I had to just break up with him for some other reason, which I did, at least proving to myself, I wasn’t going to hold onto him for the comfortability of his economic situation, and that super cool house which I was sad to not see again. In a way, I was being true to myself, able to look in the mirror and say material comfort doesn’t matter nearly as much to me, as real love.

Living in the age of the coronavirus there are new conspiracy theories swirling around. These include ideas that the virus is a hoax, or its impact grossly overstated, and that our government in this country is using the virus, the shutting down of our economy, the placating of the masses through stimulus and unemployment checks, the restriction of our ability to move freely in open spaces, all as a means to take away our freedom and impose martial law.

In the video, Plandemic, which surfaced and then was removed from Youtube, and which I only watched a little bit of, but read about, these theories are expanded upon, and include a bid to discredit Dr. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, as a controlling, research grant money-grubbing scientist, who held back information during the HIV/AIDS crisis which put off the development of life-saving drugs to combat the illness.

I have a hard time understanding the belief of the coronavirus conspiracy theories when there is scientific data shared about the toll the virus is taking in this country and world-wide, and facts shared discrediting the story of the scientist making claims in the Plandemic video. People believe what they believe, and I should not judge, lest I be judged myself. But what troubles me regarding the virus conspiracy theories, is how believing these theories, impacts people.

There is data that shows how the virus, and living under quarantine has impacted Black and brown communities. We now know, as I shared in my most recent post, Let Us Not Forget Racism In The Time Of Covid-19, that the death toll has been higher for Black and brown people in this country. This is because of racist policies and laws which created health and economic disparities, and inequity in access to quality healthcare, which led to Black and brown people possessing more underlying health issues, making them more susceptible to having complications, or succumbing to the coronavirus. We also know in the hardest hit areas, our urban centers, it is Black and brown people who are the majority essential workers who have had to keep working, who have had to be in spaces with many people, thereby exposing themselves to a much greater possibility of getting the virus, and/or exposing their families and communities to it.

We can say, let people, and I am going to say, us white people, believe what we want to believe, even though I know people of all races and ethnicities are prone to believing in certain conspiracy theories, but when those beliefs put Black and brown people in even more danger, like the coronavirus conspiracy theories are, I question the will of the person who is investing their energy in an ideal that harms others. I wonder with all the energy it takes to get to this truth about the man and what they are trying to do to us, with all of this running to get to the truth, what is the truth my fellow white people are running away from?

When I hear white people, and not even the obvious state house-stampeding, gun-toting, confederate flag-waving, swastika-wearing, I Want A Haircut sign-holding, white people, saying their freedoms are being impeded upon, the virus isn’t so bad, and we should reopen the economy pronto, I hear white supremacist self-interest. I hear hypocrisy.

Yes, I know that many people are hurting economically. Yet, with the phased, or no-holds barred re-openings of states, it will be the low-paying service jobs in restaurants, retail, and factories, that get called back first. The people who are economically disadvantaged and living in densely populated areas, and who will be majority Black and brown people will be putting themselves at greater risk. If they refuse to go back to work, whether it is due to wishes to maintain their health if they or their family members are health or immuno-compromised, or simply fear risk of exposure or spread of virus, their employer can fire them, and they will have their unemployment benefits cut off. The freedom of choice you wish to have about whether you wear a mask or can sit in a restaurant, is one that not everyone has.

I have heard people worry about the right to assemble and protest being taken away during this time, another sign of the government taking away our liberties. When I hear this, I remember the same people complaining that the Black Lives Matter protest several years ago that blocked the highway, was inconvenient. I remember when you said Colin Kaepernick taking a knee was unpatriotic and disrespected our military, ignoring the fact that Kaepernick said, time and again, he was protesting the racial profiling and killings of unarmed Black men, boys, and women by police officers. I remember you saying this isn’t the place for protest. I remember you saying if only Black people didn’t riot, if only Black people didn’t run, if only Black people complied. But now, you are saying it is un-American that we are not allowed to “protest” our right to use our voice, to claim our freedom to get our nails done.

When I heard Black people, Black people I work with, Black people I talked with on the phone, Black people I see posting on social media, Black person after Black person saying they are so tired, so exhausted of the murders, the lynchings, of Black people, at the hands of white people, when I heard Black people asking, “Why?” “Why do they hate us?” I know it is not enough for me to be sad, to be enraged. I know I, I know we must do something. Yet I am enraged when instead of more white people around me speaking about being sad or enraged and doing something–and certainly there were many that were–there were still the voices who did not speak the name Ahmaud Arbery, but instead used their breath to wonder about re-opening.

When I hear us white people question this video and flip the question this time, asking, why didn’t he run, I want to shake us. In the past, it’s been, why did he run, why didn’t he just do what the officer said, why did he fight back, why did she talk back? Now you want to ask, why didn’t he run! Has our consciousness not been raised by witnessing, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Korryn Gaines, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Amodou Diallo, Sean Bell, John Crawford, Philando Castile, Ashton Sterling, Stephon Clark, Freddie Gray, Rekia Boyd, Jordan Davis, and on, and on?

Are we white people spending our time chasing the reality we want to believe so we don’t have to, as James Baldwin has said, look in the mirror and truly see ourselves, and the horror of our reality–the brutalizing of Black, brown and Indigenous people for over four hundred years? Is it we don’t want to make ourselves vulnerable to that? To surrender to our good, our bad and our ugly? Would we rather look to make someone else the ogre, like the government taking away our rights? Is it easier to make the Black person, the one who did something wrong, by taking a jog in his neighborhood in broad daylight, or by placing one of his knees on the ground?

It is, right? It is easier to do that than it is to accept the white supremacist ideas ingrained in the fabric of our souls, easier to do that than to implicate ourselves, to implicate our whiteness, which leads to white violence.

Some might say I am doing some chasing myself. That I am tying together threads that don’t belong together–like dating a conspiracy theorist, one’s right to freedom, and the killing of a 25 year-old Black man out jogging, to justify my reality that in this time in history, the belief in coronavirus conspiracy theories is harmful and fueled by white-supremacist values.

Some might say when will Wendy stop trying to make everything about race? My answer to that will always be: when we are all truly free.

__________________________________________________________________________

Photo credit: ksltv.com

Let Us Not Forget Racism In The Time Of Covid-19

28 Apr

Coronavirus Impact on Black People

How are you all doing?

I know I’ve gone quiet here. I got overwhelmed by what is going on in my world, in all the world.

We are all overwhelmed, aren’t we? Or, if you’re not, perhaps we can Zoom, and you can share with me how you are not. Even if you are feeling like you are not, because some days, I’m like, okay, I don’t feel stressed outwardly, I’m just still going about my day, there still is something happening in our psyches, right?

Even if you go for your run, or feel cozy binge watching a series you’ve always wanted to have time for, or re-experience the forgotten joy of family dinners, we must all be internalizing some feeling of, this is not normal or, is this really happening? We must be internalizing some kind of fear, the dread of, will I get it? or, will I lose a loved one? or, how long will this go on for? or when is that unemployment check coming? or how are my children doing? or what in the world–inject disinfectant?! or…fill in the blank.

And that is normal. We are living through a global health pandemic, something that many who were born and raised in this country have not ever experienced. There is not a wrong or a right way to be right now. Whether you want to be productive or you feel unable to do more than get up, shower, and sit on the couch, it is okay.

I do find I need to be conscious of my mental health, and do something to get a hold of my thoughts, my mood, when I am feeling low. Much of the time this consists of eating donuts. I hope this comfort eating habit passes.

Yet, in all of this, what we must also know, is what is happening, and not happening, to Black and brown, and Asian people in this country during this time of dealing with Covid-19.

Asian, and Asian American people are experiencing racial violence, most often in the form of verbal abuse, by people who believe they are the cause of the virus spreading to the United States. Black people are not being believed about their symptoms, and denied testing when they show up at hospitals complaining of virus symptoms. I have read too many articles of Black people dying as a result of being denied care, and when I scroll my newsfeed on social media, the majority of friends posting their losses of friends and loved ones from the virus, are Black.

There are also the statistics that show the disproportionate numbers of Black people being impacted by the virus, and we know the reasons for this are layered. Health disparities caused by centuries of racism and racist policies, like the GI Bill and discriminatory lending practices, which didn’t allow Black people to live in “white neighborhoods,” forcing them to live in over-crowded neighborhoods subject to pollution, and poverty. Lack of opportunity and access to affordable housing, good healthcare, supermarkets, transportation, and jobs which pay a living wage, all contribute to health complications, like heart issues, asthma, and diabetes.

We are also talking about how education gone distance=learning mode is marred with inequity. Even when every student gets a chrome book, there are some students living with a lack of privacy and space, lack of internet services, unsettling home environments, and some students are learning some of their teachers lack online teaching experience. These factors create unequal learning experiences.

In big cities, and other urban areas, we are seeing that our essential workers trying to earn a living, are majority people of color. They do not have the option to not be in crowded spaces, or to not interface with the public. And, I have not heard a lot said about this, but when I do go to the supermarket, the majority of personal grocery shoppers, whether they are working for Instacart, or for the grocery store, like Whole Foods, are Black and brown people. And, while, I understand that we are told to stay at home and avoid the markets as much as we can, and that some people are health and immuno-compromised and should not go out, and that being a shopper is a good way to make money, especially during this time, it is a time where people of color are putting themselves, and their health, on the line, so that they can earn an income to live on.

We talk about this as being a pivotal moment for us as human beings. A time when our lives and many of our livelihoods have screeched to a halt, or at least, greatly slowed down. A time when our leadership has greatly failed us. A time when we are witnessing the unraveling of our capitalistic society. A time when people are saying it is showing us our own humanity. A time when everyone is blaming someone or something else, and a time when no one wants to take the blame. A time when we are seeing those who care most about keeping what they have for themselves, and a time when we see those with a lot, or with very little, sharing what they have so others can keep on living. A time, as a friend said, which can be used to think about the person we want to emerge as when this is all over. Please be kind, is something he often says. At this time, it is said with more urgency.

I noticed in the last week or two as I scroll through my social media feed, I have seen many videos of pow-wows, when before I might see them very rarely. I have read how the virus is also hard-hitting in the Native American community for many of the same reasons as in the Black community: health disparities that lead to underlying health issues, and lack of access to adequate healthcare.

When I see the pow-wow dancers in their respective tribes’ ceremonial dress, when I watch them move, hear the singing chants, the beating of the drums, I feel as if they are appearing as a message to all of us here. It is a feeling of the dancers of today and their ancestors both here in present time, to show us whose land this always really was in the first place, to show us what we have done to them, to their land, to show us how we have lost our way in respecting one another, in respecting the land, and to show us that we must again return to the beginning, to acknowledge all of our horrific wrongs, to start over, to right the wrongs, to begin a new world, based not on what does not belong to us, but on creating a new way that speaks of honor, love, respect, sharing, and community.

If we are going to rise from these ashes and build something new for this country, will we be kind? Will we white people make certain that we re-find our humanity and be a part of recreating a society that is truly equal and just? I say, be a part of, because while we need to be the ones to take the responsibility and use our positions of power and privilege to change the system, we must also do that with Black and brown and Indigenous people taking the lead in sharing what is wrong, and what is needed, and what this new reality should look like if we are to truly share vision, power and resources. Will we be certain that we become beautiful loving humans, who have finally awakened to the knowledge that we are all connected and none of us are free, until all of us are free?

Yes, we are overwhelmed, and it is hard some days to think of anything other than getting through our own personal, daily struggles, and that is real, real. But, it is also my wish that we do our best right now, every day, to keep our eyes wide open, and speak up and act appropriately so that everyone in our communities is getting what they need in this moment.

Wishing you all peace, good health, and safety. Please be kind.

__________________________________________

SOURCE: www.theroot.com – article, Black Woman Dies From Coronavirus After Being Turned Away 4 Times from Hospital She Worked at for Decades, 4/26/20 by Ishena Robinson

www.washingtonpost.com – article, 4 Reasons Coronavirus Is Hitting Black Communities So Hard, 4/10/20 by Eugene Scott

Photo credit: pbs.org, Creator: Joshua Lott, Credit: Reuters

Tell Me The Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving

17 Feb

Presenters: Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving

Last Sunday, I attended Tell Me the Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations at the Glastonbury MLK Community Initiative Center in Glastonbury, Connecticut.

I had been wanting to attend one of these talks for some time now, every time I see Shay Stewart-Bouley or Debby Irving post about them, and was so glad that I could finally make it to this one in Connecticut, while I was there visiting family. Shay Stewart-Bouley is Executive Director of the civil rights organization, Community Change, Inc. in Boston, and a writer, and author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine. Debby Irving, is a racial justice educator and author of the book, Waking Up White.

The talk was held at MLK Community Initiative Center in Glastonbury, a town just outside of Hartford, which I always saw–as a person who grew up in Waterbury, Connecticut, a diverse, industrial town– as one of the state’s wealthier, white suburbs. I looked around in the spacious, light and airy room during the pre-talk reception, while I snacked on delicious food–babaganoush, fatayer, sesame cookies–which Debby said was catered by a local refugee family from Syria.The expectation almost didn’t register on a conscious level, at first, and then did–that the room of what seemed like a few hundred people, was majority white, with probably just under a dozen, Black people, and people of color, in attendance.

But, I was glad that all these white people were willing to come to hear Shay and Debby speak, as I was glad that I was there, too. I had first heard the two women speak about five years ago, when Debby’s book, Waking Up White, her journey of waking up to realizing how the construct of race, racialized systems of oppression, and white privilege, informed her life, and the world around her, and how her journey led her to do racial justice work. When I mentioned my attendance to their past event to Debby and Shay before the talk began, Shay said that that was the very first talk they ever did, and that I would now have the chance to see how the conversation between she and Debby has evolved. I hadn’t thought of that fact, and with Shay’s insight, was even more inspired for what was to come that afternoon.

I was inspired, even though right before I left my sister’s house to go to the talk, I told her I felt a bit nervous about going. She asked me why, and I answered that I supposed it was because I always feel so awkward in social, face-to-face interactions, regardless of the topic, and put pressure on myself at public events to think I have to come up with something deep to say or ask the presenters, which then fills me with anxiety and self-doubt, and so I just stay silent. I added that I want to be doing more in terms of racial justice work and breaking down racism, and feel like I’m not doing enough.

All that ridiculous, loaded, negative self-talk had taken over my brain, which is probably born out of fear of being honest and deep, in the moment when it comes to doing the work of racial justice, and having cross-racial conversations, which was the whole purpose of the afternoon’s talk, and why I wanted to go to it in the first place. My sister, who wanted to go to the talk too, but couldn’t, told me, in so many words, to not be silly–that I’m doing the work, and it will be a good thing to go. I knew that, and so packed myself and my fear into my car, as I always do, and went.

Not having any “good” questions to ask Shay or Debby after our brief chat, I blankly stared and smiled, in all my don’t know what to say next awkwardness, and soon after, both women moved on to get ready for their talk.

I let what Shay said to me simmer as I settled into my seat in the back of the very full, white-walled, mostly white-peopled, space. I took note of how it was indeed pretty cool that I got to see their very first conversation. I made a mental note to pay attention to noticing how the conversation might differ from their first meeting.

What I remember from that first talk, that even though Shay shared about herself, growing up in Chicago in a working-class family, and her work in the non-profit world, this first talk seemed to be more centered and structured like an interview, or review, of Debby and her book, Waking Up White. …” I remember Shay, saying what she thought about the book–that it had the voice of a privileged, white woman, and that it was basic in its framing of understanding the racist systems of oppression, like, the GI Bill, redlining, and inequities in public education, and Debby’s own noticing of her “good white person, white saviorism” traits when working in the arts in what was called, under-served communities of color.

Shay opened up the MLK Center’s conversation, referring back to her first connection with Debby, recalling how, “when I first got a phone message from her, I thought, who is this white woman who had the audacity to reach out to me to read and review her book, and have a conversation with her about it?” Five years later, Shay repeated how she thought Waking Up White is a basic book, but that it is an important, good beginning book for white people to understand, and perhaps begin their journey in understanding the roots of systems of oppression and white privilege in this country.

The two women let us know, their talk is always unscripted–they simply talk about what is on their mind at the moment, and take it from there. Snippets of the conversation that stood out in my memory were Shay’s statement of how when she visits a local bar on the island off of Maine where she currently lives, she listens to people’s conversations, and it strikes her how superficial white people’s conversations can be, especially with all that is going on in the world right now—people talking about the weather, instead of immigration, climate change, or the administration’s racist policies.

This comment made me think of one of the blog posts I wrote several years ago when I noticed all the white people on my Facebook timeline talking about the amount of snow we got instead of the not-guilty verdict in the first trial of the Jordan Davis killing. This was the case where a white man shot into a car of young Black teenage boys at a gas station, killing Jordan, simply because Jordan would not turn down the music blasting from their car stereo when the man yelled at them to turn it down.

Shay also talked about white people having to do their own healing, find their humanity, and of the inhumanity we possess, because, well, how can we not hold inhumane qualities for all the harm and suffering we have inflicted over the centuries on Black and brown people? When I hear these words, I know I experience feelings of shame and guilt, that my white fragility peeks out, but also know the truth of these words, and accept them. That these words are necessary for us to hear, to wrestle with, to believe, so that we can work to recover our humanity. And to think white people came up with the term and its implication, “three-fifths of a man.”

As Shay and Debby talked about their experiences having these conversations, and their individual work and life experiences, Debby noted how she was raised in this Anglo, wasp, tradition to always be nice, to avoid conflict, which made it difficult for her in the beginning of her journey to have conversations about the tensions she was feeling around the construct of race. She and Shay had an honest back and forth about what that meant, and Debby continues to work on this, but knows there will still be missteps. She encouraged white people to not be afraid to have missteps when talking about race. And, jumping ahead here to note a related comment at the Q & A at the end of the conversation, Debby said, “ we don’t enter into relationships with our parents, siblings, aunts, cousins or partners saying, we are going to have this relationship and there will never be any kind of misstep. We wouldn’t do that, right? Well, in having cross racial conversations, we have to remember that, and allow for that. Like any relationship, there is going to be missteps, and having these honest conversations helps to develop trust, and deepens the relationship.”

Shay also talked about the challenges she faced with being a Black woman whose experience includes Executive Director leadership of several non-profit organizations, one in Maine, and as mentioned, presently, at Community Change in Boston. Shay spoke of how at meetings in Portland, Maine, when various non-profit leaders met together to discuss initiatives in the city, that, “whenever I brought up ideas, I was met with lukewarm nods, or ignored, but when a particular white male in the group mentioned the same idea, the group would enthusiastically support him.” Shay said, “But the good thing is, this man noticed this, and became a mentor, and a true ally, in that he worked with me on how to have my ideas heard and put into action with the group.”

After about an hour of dialogue between Shay and Debby, they asked the audience to break out into circles of about six people each and to introduce ourselves and talk about what stood out to us so far about the talk, and anything we wanted to share about our experiences with race. In our circle, which contained a majority of white woman of varying ages, I couldn’t help but notice that several of the women, to me, discounted Shay’s experience of being a Black women not having her voice heard or trusted as a leader in the non-profit management world. The discounting came in the form of sharing that the women thought this wasn’t about race, and was more about being a woman, and shared examples of sexism in the workplace they experienced themselves.

I saw this as dissonance, or a very typical thing that us white people do regarding conversations about race, which is to say something is not necessarily about race, and then give some example of something related to them. In these cases, I always think of someone saying in response to Black Lives Matter, that All Lives Matter. I thought to myself, I have to say something to speak to that, but how do I do it in a way that the women don’t feel called out?

When it was my turn to talk, I shared that I knew of Debby and Shay’s work, had read Debby’s book, and follow Shay’s blog, and am on a journey myself in regards to race, racism and cross-racial connection, which I blog about. I said, “… and in this journey one thing that I have learned is that when a Black person shares something about racism that they experienced, to believe them, and, simply listen, and to not try and think of a similar thing that I may have experienced, but to leave it at that, and so we validate, and don’t invalidate that experience, and/or try and make it about us.” I am not sure it came out exactly like that, and because, like Debby who talks about her wasp upbringing, as a Jewish girl growing up at the same time as Debby, I was taught to be nice, and not to say anything mean, and while my parents taught us that racism was wrong, and that we should “treat everyone equally,” my family did not have difficult, deep conversations about things going on in the world. I worried that I had said something in our circle, in a way that both was a “call-out” and perhaps even showed this air of superiority—that I, this white woman knew more than these two women, and was a better white person because of it, even though I know that I am not. But I knew I had to at least try, to challenge what was being said, even though I want to learn how to say things with grace, as I was also thinking about meeting people where they are at, and saying things in a way that can be heard, and where people will not be hurt. I wondered how Shay and Debby would have handled this.

In the Question and Answer that followed our circle talks, a few questions in, a white woman took the mic, and asked Shay, “Can we get to hear your Black voice?” I did a double-take, and looked at Shay, who seemed to take one, too, and quickly answered back. “Let me think about that,” and then moved on to the next question.

Shay had earlier in the conversation talked about how Black people often have to code switch, and assimilate into white culture and present themselves in such a way that is palatable to white people, especially in the work place, and then when in the presence of only other Black people can relax and truly be themselves. I knew I felt disturbed by this woman’s question, as it seemed like she was asking Shay to put on a show for us. I thought in that moment, that Shay or Debby might respond more fully to that woman’s question, but I, myself, did nothing outwardly to question the question.

A few questions later, though, a Black woman in the audience addressed it. She asked, with patience and grace, “I would like to know if the woman could elaborate on what she meant by that question of Shay sharing her Black voice, because I want to understand what this woman means, where she is coming from.”

The microphone was given back to the woman who asked the question. She seemed a bit nervous as she spoke, but answered, “what I meant was, you talked about always having to think about the way you have to say things at work and other places so that you will be heard, and not seen as the angry Black woman, or something else, and in a similar conversation circle I did recently, a friend of mine, a Black woman told these stories of how she has to worry about her Black son being pulled over by the police and all these things that I never knew about that she was experiencing and went through, and so I wondered about those things for you, what are the thoughts you are having that you don’t say in the company of white people?”

I cannot remember if this happened before the woman answered the other audience member, or after, but Shay said, when she first heard the question “I was taken aback, and wasn’t exactly sure what the woman meant, and wasn’t sure I wanted to answer in that moment, so I moved on.”

At this point, Debby asked to comment, and said that this was a learning moment. To the white woman in the audience, she said, “When we do this work, and we are having these conversations, we say there is this thing called ‘Intention vs. Impact.’ You may have intended to mean one thing, but regardless, the impact it has on the person who it is said to, is what matters, and asking this question may have been taken by Shay, as if she was being asked, as Black people often are, to perform, as in this kind of minstrely way…” I looked over in the direction of the woman who asked the question about intent, and she and several of the people sitting close to her, also people of color, were nodding their heads, and I could hear one of the young people say, “yes, that’s what it sounded like to us..”

Debby went on to say how when this happens we need to validate the experience of the person receiving the statement, and accept their feedback. She added, “ I want to point out that, see, you did a good job just now. You were able to receive my feedback, and not get defensive, and that is a good thing.” She said that she realized, too, that she should have spoken up when the question was asked, and pointing to the Black woman in the audience who asked the question, said, “see, it is always Black women who speak up at these times,” and said that “I have to realize that that’s one of my limitations when this happens.”

I was appreciative of the playing out live of how a situation where intention vs. impact can cause harm, and the responsibility of speaking up and addressing it when it happens in a way that it is honest, and constructive, and as Debby and Shay beckon us, with the very root of their Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations–remembering the importance of creating spaces to have these authentic conversations.

In closing, Shay said, “Let’s be bold, let’s be brave. Let’s go deeper. When you’re at the bar, don’t ask about the weather. Let’s talk about racism, climate change…about what’s going on in your community..”
Debby added, “..sometimes people say, well, we need to work on the systems and policies, and, yes we need legislation, but we need this, too.”

They were right. We need this, too. I know I did, and do. It made me realize, too, that afternoon–because there is always so much we take for granted in our daily lives–I realized how Shay and Debby have been a constant in my journey of becoming a more conscious white person who strives to break down racism, most often on a personal level through my writing and conversations with other white people, and with Black people and people of color, too. I realize that while in my writing I can “speak” more fluidly about my feelings and thoughts about matters of race, that I need to practice and put myself out there more in my face-to-face conversations.

In following Shay’s blog, Black Girl In Maine, I get to learn about Shay’s lived experiences, about the perspectives and experiences of the writers featured on her blog, and current issues on matters of race in our country through shared articles from outside the blog. Shay also makes herself vulnerable in her writing, at times sharing about what is going on in her personal life with herself, and family members. She shares slices of life about what she described when once asked why she chose to be a Black woman living on an island off Maine, one of the whitest states of the union, as, “..I’m doing my version of Eat, Pray, Love, Black Woman Style.” While it is not Shay’s job to teach me about race, I am inspired by all that she does, and have deep gratitude for the learning and growth I experience as a result of all the work she does, and gives to me and the many others she reaches and teaches, through her blog, public speaking, and non-profit work to bring about racial justice.

I first met Debby when we were in a writing workshop session together in Boston, probably over ten years ago. There, we discovered that we were both passionate about working on understanding our place in the construct of race, and breaking down racism. Debby was just working on the outline of Waking Up White, and, I am inspired by all that she has done and continues to do with her work since then, as a racial justice educator, and public speaker. At last week’s talk with Shay, I noticed, perhaps a softer Debby. I remember Debby in her first talk, shared openly and confidently about how she initially, as white people tend to do, took up space in a group setting, took the lead, problem-solved, tried to fix things, even in Black spaces, and how during this most recent conversation with Shay, she, and I am not sure how to phrase this, but Debby read as someone who recognizes her privilege as a white woman, and all the other privileges she called out that day, like, cis-gendered, class, able-bodied, etc—and who listens, responds without taking over the conversation, owns her privileges and their historical and current impact, and does not give off the air that she knows everything, or claims status of “good white person,” which she would probably like to hear since one of Debby’s public talks centers on how white people can go from “well-meaning” to well-doing.”

I give major thanks to Shay and Debby for their tireless work in the world, to break down racism, and to build a just world, free of racial inequity. Shay, who noted her relief that she has raised her son to be a “free, Black man,” and Debby, are putting out the call for all of us white people to do the work to heal our inhumanity, to understand our place in the construct of race, for people of different races to come together to have honest cross-racial conversations, and to do the work for all Black people to be free, because in this 21st century, there is still much work to be done.

2019 WJSS Year-In-Review

31 Dec

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is M4RJ2017-scaled.jpg
March 4 Racial Justice, organized by local activist, Ria, India Point Park, Providence RI October 2017
It all still matters!
Keep on working white girls!

I wrote here a lot less than I have in previous years. It’s not that I am not thinking about race, cross-racial connections, and breaking down the systems of racism. It is definitely not that. I still think about all of it every day, pretty much 24/7.

I’d say part of the reason why I haven’t posted as much is because I sense I need to shift my focus away from shouting out racism in print because we know it exists, and we see it every day, even though there are certainly a number of, mostly white people, who will gaslight you all day and say, “it’s not so bad, ” or “every one has a chance to succeed if they just work hard, like I did,” or “well, you must have done something to provoke,” and here is where you fill in the blank: “the store clerk to follow you,” “the neighbor to call the police on you for being a Black real estate agent showing another Black person a home in a “white” neighborhood,” or, “the police officer to shoot and kill you for being in your own home playing video games with your nephew.”

I know I need to concentrate more on whiteness, what whiteness and white supremacy has done, and continues to do–how it shows up in our every day lives, and how I, as a white woman, and how all of us who are white, play a part in upholding white supremacist institutions and policies and ways of living, that make sure that racism and racist policies continue to exist, therefore, ensuring that inequities continue between Black people and white people in this country.

(Note: As most of you know, my focus on the blog is about the relationship between Black people and white people in America. I know there are many more areas where inequities take place, many more intersections of race, gender, ethnicity, country of origin, etc., that impact all of this, but my focus is on us, here in the United States)

I have wondered if the writing is still of any value, and how to make it more so, and that, too, has kept me from writing. I also have strived to be doing instead of writing. To speak up when I see and hear either, blatant racist comments, or actions, and speak up when I see and hear things said by white people, that don’t seem to be conscious of their implied racist undertones. I like to call it coded language, that again, may be unconscious to the person speaking it, but to my ears and eyes, implies the exclusion, obliviousness, or an implied inferiority in reference to race and Black culture.

Finally, I have been working behind the scenes on a couple of writing projects, both related to race, which one of these days I will share here. I mention them to hold myself accountable, to keep on working on them. I used to write other things–poems on Facebook made from my friends’ status updates, memoir, and creative non-fiction, but it seems, I can’t not write about race, and so it goes. Here is what I wrote in 2019:

I took a look at the film, based on the James Baldwin novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, which prompted me to think about time, and what I saw as The Problem With White People Time.

In February I got My First Letter To The Editor Published in The Providence Journal. The letter was because of that coded language which I could not believe the critic used to describe the Trinity Repertory Company’s production of the play, black odyssey. The letter prompted a Barrington, Rhode Island man to write an editorial reply to the newspaper and tell me how I was part of what is wrong with America today, and my questioning the validity of a white critic’s perspective on a play representing African diasporic culture, was divisive.

In March, I knew I couldn’t Watch The Michael Jackson Documentary. At Least Not Yet.  A fan from the time I was five years old, I couldn’t bear to watch the one-sided documentary featuring two of the young boys, now men, who had accused Michael of child molestation decades ago. Not here to defend himself, and not wanting to watch the take down of MJ, I still have not watched the documentary. Shorthly after the film aired, I wrote and submitted a short story to a local bi-monthly reading series of writers’ personal essays. The theme that month was Biggest Fan.

I thought my piece on MJ was cool, and looked forward to sharing it at the reading. I also feared that because of the documentary, that anything to do with Michael Jackson would be cancelled, the term we use these days when a celebrity makes a misstep, big or small, and the masses decide they are done with that person, and push them off their pedestal. The pushing usually begins in the form of tweets and social media articles. I got an email that my essay on MJ was not chosen to be read that month. It could have been they had too many other worthy stories. But I couldn’t help but think the organizers of the reading most definitely cancelled Michael.

In April, I was one of the people who finally took the time, a little too late, to find out more about the prolific, and more importantly, philanthropic hip hop artist and entrepreneur, and wrote about my Finding Inspiration In Nipsey Hussle’s Beautiful Being.

In July, I wrote about what I intimated above: wanting to be about the work of breaking down racism, instead of just talking or writing about it. I wrote, If It’s Not What We Say About Race, It Must Be What We Do.

My last post of 2019, was born out of my frustration with myself for not speaking up when I knew I should–once again, in a situation where I felt coded language was being used to denigrate Black culture. In looking inward, I wrote When White Fragility Comes Knocking, which explored my own, and my college age daughter’s struggle to not fear having dialog about race.

I continued to keep up with educating myself by reading books like Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From The Beginning, and How To Be An Anti-Racist, and joined in on the community book clubs for both books, led by The Center For Reconciliation. I kept up with blogs like Black Girl In Maine, published by BGIM Media, and helmed by Shay Stewart-Bouley.

I stayed inspired by daily learning about racism, and lived racial experiences, from friends, colleagues, and scholars, near and far, in real life, and on social media. And I stayed ready every day to do my best to speak up on not just the easy-to-call, blatant racism and racist statements I witnessed and heard, but also did my best to model my perception of what it means to ask questions during those moments that could so easily go unnoticed–those times where something needs to be said that de-centers whiteness, that speaks to who is being excluded, so that the spaces I move in recognize their white-centeredness, and do not stay white-centered, with hopes that other white folks, too, begin to chip away at the structures of white supremacy, and inequity. Things don’t always go as planned. I am human, and flawed, and stumble over my words much more when speaking, rather than writing. It is a process, but I know I must always try.

As the year comes to a close, like many of you, I feel, to put it lightly, disheartened, at the state of things these days, but I know I must stay optimistic, must keep on going, must keep on doing things to make things better, because for one, it’s white people’s job to do this work of breaking down racism and racist structures, and two, while I know we can’t daydream racism away, and we must seriously do the work, I am a relentless Pollyanna, and believe that things will get better. We will do the work to make things better, because can you truly rest your head on your pillow comfortably at night, as you settle for the alternative?

I want to thank all of you, readers, new and old, for being along on the journey during this year, and years past, and for all of the unwavering support you give to me.

I would love to hear what you have been up to this year. What you’ve read, who you entered into dialogue with, who inspired you to keep working to make things better for everyone. I wish you a beautiful beginning in this new decade, 2020. I wish you a decade filled with love, hope, joy, connection, and most important, freedom, and justice.

Thank you. xo

Happy New Year.

SPECIAL SHOUT OUT TO SHERRY GORDON, MY NUMBER ONE CHEERLEADER, WHO SENDS ME THE MOST BEAUTIFUL, UPLIFTING, MESSAGES, AND WHO KEEPS ME GOING WITH HER JOYOUS, LOVING, AND GENEROUS SPIRIT! <3 <3 <3

When White Fragility Comes Knocking

1 Oct

daughter, Leni, and me

My daughter Leni is in her second year in college. Snce she’s been ten years old, she’s wanted to become a dentist, and that is the path she is on with her studies. But even before age ten, Leni, like me, paid attention to race. She has been the muse for a number of my blog posts, like my favorite, Is Poppy A Black American?, inspired by Leni, when she was five, asking if my father was Black. She also wrote two posts of her own here: We White People Think White Culture is Cultureless and Proud Mama: My Daughter Leni Writes Her First Post for Wendy Jane’s Soul Shake.

Leni is currently taking a class in college, called Race and Power. Of course I was glad about that, even though a week before she started back to school, she made some comments to me during a discussion about race, something to the effect of, “you’re an older generation..us younger people, we all get along. You think differently because you’re thinking of the civil rights era, and it’s not like that anymore,…we all are more accepting of one another, it’s just normal for us to get along..”

I countered, “Well, I wonder if your friends, and peers of color, would feel the same way because while I understand what you’re saying about ease of getting along and acceptance for everyone across race, ethnicity, and gender identity, what about the microaggressions and racism that young Black people and people of color still experience on a daily basis, that you don’t?”

“Yes, I know that happens..but I don’t want to be the white person who thinks they know everything about race, and I won’t speak on that because that is not my experience,…and I’ll listen when a Black person or person of color explains something to me, but I’m not going to listen to a white person, explaining to me about race and racism.”

I know my Leni, so while there was much more we could enter into conversation about, I knew she wouldn’t hear it right then, so I let it go.

Fast forward to the second week of Leni’s Race and Power class. I get a phone call from her. Most of the time she calls me while walking from one class to another, or when she’s washing her face, or some other task or downtime thing. That Mom call to fill the void. But Leni also calls when she needs her mama for support. In this call, she shared how one of the Black students, a young woman in the class, mentioned she noticed the white students in the class were not commenting. Leni explained she felt bad about that, but that in that session there wasn’t anything she wanted to say, or if she had, it was already said by another student, and she didn’t want to repeat it.

I could relate. Whenever I go to a public event where there is a dialogue or Q & A involved, my fear of public speaking kicks in and these sentences loop through my brain, over and over:

“Wendy, you’re shy, so you should practice getting out of your comfort zone and say something, ask a question,” then, “I can’t think of anything to say or ask,” or, “I can’t think of how to phrase it so it doesn’t come out awkward,” or “you’re not that important, so don’t put all that pressure on yourself thinking it matters if you ask a question..”

Still, I encouraged Leni to contribute to the conversation in her class, and to not be afraid to share her opinion.

The following week I got another call from Leni. She told me she felt uncomfortable at times in the Race and Power class that day. She said that when a white person was sharing their opinion on the day’s topic, a Black student, kept shutting her down, saying, “no, no, you’re wrong. That’s not how it is..” I said, “okay, she is speaking her mind,” and then I asked her if the professor is intervening at all, directing the conversation happening in class. She said, “No, she doesn’t say anything. She lets the class talk.”

Leni continued to say that she was worried about saying “the wrong thing,” or students of color shutting her down, or thinking she doesn’t understand, or that she’s racist. I brought up the matter of white fragility and how those thoughts and worries are a part of white fragility, and talking about race for white people> I added that being uncomfortable is a part of it, too, because we worry about being seen as racist, or worry if a Black person becomes angry. But I always remember the question I heard about having conversations on race for white people that asks, “are you more worried about being called racist than you are about breaking down racism and structures of white supremacy?”

Again, I encouraged her to get uncomfortable. That it was okay to be uncomfortable. That it should be something white people allow themselves to be. That it’s necessary if we want to be able to have honest conversations, and take any steps in breaking down racism, and the structures of racism.

“Yeah, there’s like only four white people in the class…,” Leni continued.

“Well, now you know what it feels like for Black people to be, and speak, in majority white spaces they most always find themselves in. It’s good for you to experience that situation,” I said.

“I know what it’s like,” I could feel her eye roll over the phone, “…I was a minority in my high school, and well I wish it was like that. “..In my Multicultural Studies class, I was in the minority, but we all got along, and we could talk about things…I just wish we could talk about things in this class without getting angry.”

I brought up the need to be careful about tone policing, or the telling of Black and Brown people to not get angry when talking about race. She knew what I meant, but I suppose was having a hard time feeling it in practice.

I understood Leni, because I have felt all of the feelings she is now experiencing, on my journey to educate myself, and learn from others, about the construct of race, the history of racism, and most important, to make cross-racial connections to discuss race, without the fear of being thought of as racist, or just another white person who doesn’t get it.

I am still not good at making my voice heard about anything within a group setting, and it’s been years since I’ve been in a classroom setting, so I asked my friend Diana, an Anthropology Professor, with a focus on Carribbean culture, for her advice on how Leni might be able to share her perspective in class. Diana’s advice was for Leni to preface what she says with something like, “…what I share is from my perspective, which is shaped by my lived experience and who I am, being a white, Eastern European Jewish woman, with a small percentage of Native American heritage…I know it is different from other people’s experiences, and I appreciate being able to listen to, and learn from other people’s perspectives…”

I offered that to Leni, which she seemed to think could help, but she still worried about things “coming out wrong,” and being thought of as ignorant and racist. “Well, you just have to say what you mean to say. You may stumble. You are human, and what you say may not come out perfect, and you may say something that someone in the class finds offensive, and you will have to hear from them, how what you said made them feel..It’s all a part of learning and growing and understanding one another. I think people will see that you care enough to be a part of the dialogue. It’s important to not withhold. It’s important to be a part of the conversation.”

If only I always practiced what I just preached to my daughter.

Last week I had an awesome day in Boston. I really did. I went up to attend the National Organization For Arts and Health (NOAH) Conference, saw Leni afterward and had pizza with her, and then went solo to the Lizzo concert!

Throughout the conference, I noticed something I’ve not unseen since childhood, though admittedly it’s on a much more consistent, conscious basis now. That thing is noticing how white a setting is. From the thousands of attendees of this merged conference of Arts and Health and Healthcare Facilities personnel–to the introduction of a Board of Directors introduced by the lead Conference organizer, a sea of maybe thirty, mostly white men and a smattering of white women, to the break-out session presenters–people of color were a true minority.

I remember the words of Nina Sanchez, Director of Enrich Chicago a collaborative of 30 Chicagoland arts and philanthropic organizations committed to ending racism and systemic oppression in the arts sector, who said at a lecture here in Providence, “once you see it, you can’t unsee it”–the pervasiveness of whiteness, and how it shows up in spaces, not just in skin color itself, but in how the centering of whiteness shows itself in whose perspective gets shared, whose voices are included in decision-making in institutions, and who is left out, who feels safe, and comfortable, and who doesn’t.

It’s the latter I need to focus on and share right now. Of course I thought about how the make-up of the Board of NOAH is homogeneous and white, and as I knew already, the field of Art Therapy, and what is considered the main stream art world, is overwhelmingly filled with white people, because, like many fields, it links back generations to inequities in education, and who is supported to pursue what education and career goals, and who is not, which links back to redlining, bigotry and discrimination, which links back to Jim Crow laws, which links further back to slavery.

At the Conference breakfast keynote, I sat down at one of those big round tables with a few other strangers, and shortly afterward, a woman, who was Black, sat down next to me. I introduced myself to her, and somehow we got on the subject of how I had recently attended the University of Florida Arts and Medicine Summer Intensive, a two-week professional development program focusing on Artistic Practice and Arts Administration for utilizing the arts in health and community settings. I shared with the woman, who was there representing a youth arts organization based in Chicago, that I found the Intensive both inspiring and useful, and she gave me her card, as she was interested in hearing more about the work I do in a psychiatric hospital setting. I was also interested in hearing more about her work, and shared that I thought I had even heard of her organization somehow. We went our separate ways after the breakfast, but I found myself sitting next to her in an afternoon break-out session which focused on case studies where arts engagement practices either went right, or went wrong.

After hearing a touching anecdote about a pianist in a hospital playing a song for a man grieving his wife, which happened to be the last song they sang together right before she passed, to the counter, wrong case scenario of a contracted musician who got into a spat with a patient in the common area of a hospital, this next case study was shared.

The scenario, shared by an Art Therapist at a children’s hospital, was that an outside yoga practitioner was hired to facilitate some yoga groups on the children’s behavioral inpatient unit. The Art Therapist did not know of the work of the facilitator, as she was an outside person contracted by the Director of the program. On the day of the yoga group, the Art Therapist was called by a concerned nurse manager on the children’s unit. She said the young patients were becoming “disregulated,” or not in control of their behavior, and that the Art Therapist should come to the unit and observe what was going on. When the Art Therapist arrived, she said that “loud, rap music was playing,” and she emphasized the word “rap,” and continued “that the kids were using the yoga mats as light-sabers,” and that basically, the unit was out of control. There were some chuckles in the audience of about fifty attendees.

She went on to say how the music was inappropriate for this group of young patients, because of its language and subject matter. There was also some discussion about the yoga instructor not having experience working in this kind of setting. When I looked at the presentation slide that shared the names of the various scenarios presented, this one was called Yoga Rap.

Now, you might read this and not see anything out of the ordinary about it. And, part of that might be I’m feeling challenged to describe the tone of delivery of this scenario. But, what I do know, is I became really uncomfortable as this scenario was shared. As soon as the presenter mentioned rap music was playing during the yoga group, the tone was perhaps not incredulous, but close to it. I’ve heard this tone before, though. I’ve heard the implication that comes when rap music is mentioned in anecdotes like this one. It usually goes something to the effect of this genre of music being deemed negative, problematic, a promoter of violence, or is something to be made fun of, like, “yeah, imagine leading a meditative painting group, and playing some crazy, rap music for it..” or in this presentation, the inferred, “can you believe it, they played rap music in a yoga class?”

I wondered if the woman who sat beside me, or the one other person of color I spotted in the room, felt uncomfortable. I know I’m projecting here, because I cannot claim to know whether they were offended or felt unsafe in this room full of white people laughing about a yoga group paired with a music genre that, while appropriated by white Americans, and cultures all over the globe, originated, and is rooted in Black American culture. While I understood that this group example given did not work out well for the unit and population being served that day, I worried about the implication of this anecdote.

I thought, I needed to say something about this. All those voices that I mentioned earlier about what to say, how to say it, should I say it, kicked in. White fragility came knocking, and I worried about sucking the energy out of the room, and being met with silence. I worried about it coming off as attacking the presenters, and in essence, the NOAH organization.

During the Q & A session that followed the presentation, there were questions brewing about what kind of music is appropriate to use in what settings, and I imagined myself going up to the mic, and using humor as an icebreaker to talk about what was on my mind. To start off with something like, “well, before I make my statement, I just want to be sure we don’t give rap a bad rap…I mean, I know it was not the intention of this presentation to do so, and that clearly things did not go right that afternoon on the children’s unit during the yoga group, but I feel we have to be careful about how we talk about the different genres of music we use, so that all of the people we work with feel their culture matters and is respected. I for one, use hip hop and rap music often in the groups I facilitate on the psychiatric Adult Inpatient Intensive Treatment Unit where I work. And, yes, we do have some ground rules about music played. We say we must avoid music that has overtly violent or sexual lyrics, has profanity in it, or glorifies drug use because we do not want to trigger anyone, knowing those we work with have experienced a good deal of trauma, and are in a state of crisis, and in a fragile emotional state.

I was going to share, again with the thought to interject some humor, but also some insight into how music preference and impact is so personal and subjective, and would have apologized in advance for anyone who was a fan of Screamo music, about a recent group experience of mine. Just the other day when I facilitated a gentle stretch group on the unit, I asked a female patient what kind of music she wanted me to play. We had only two people in the group at that point. She said she liked rock. “What kind of rock, I asked?” “Heavy metal,” she said. Internally, I was thinking, oh, great. I do not like heavy metal, and. from my perspective, it doesn’t really go with doing the stretch group, just like it seemed the presenter didn’t think rap music paired well with yoga. I usually choose softer folk or r & b, or some relaxing instrumental music for stretching. But, I asked the question, so heavy metal it was. I asked what band, or if there was a particular song she wanted me to play. She said, “Lambs of God,” and named the song. I found it on Youtube, and pressed Play.

To me the music was hardcore yelling. Much like the yoga group example given, I felt like I was going to “disregulate” my own behavior, and found the music highly irritating. The patient who chose it seemed happy to be hearing her tune. When I looked at the other patient in the room, and a third that had since entered, they both seemed not to be bothered, but when the song finally ended, I was relieved to say to another patient, “would you like to choose the next song, so we all get a turn to hear something we’ve chosen?”

And, I don’t know. Maybe this anecdote would be offensive to someone that really likes heavy metal. But what matters even more is that I let my white fragility take over, and I never made it up to the mic to say what I ruminated about in my mind, and before I knew it the presentation session was over, and I had wimped out, and became, what I felt, was complicit in perpetuating the rhetoric of putting down a genre of music associated with Black culture in a predominately white space.

Ironic, given each week my daughter Leni is calling me about her Race and Power class, and I’m telling her to overcome her own white fragility and speak up, and say the things she wants to, and feels she needs to say. That afternoon, I did not practice what I’ve been preaching.

Yet, it is a goal of mine to do so. And I do sometimes. Most of the time. I call it my “wondering aloud.” Like when I was at the Arts In Medicine Summer Intensive and we were talking about Art and Aesthetics and presentation slides slipped by with words like Inclusion and Equity on them as bullet points, but weren’t discussed, I wondered aloud in our group of eighteen cohorts and program staff, “when we define what art is and what aesthetics is, the talk and education is typically centered mostly on white, European art history and aesthetics, and so I wonder things like who gets to define what art is, and who is included in that, and while I appreciated all the online modules we were asked to complete on Cultural Competence, I wondered how this program and how the field addresses this”…and I remember I didn’t want to go there and bring up this example because I didn’t want to sound like I was calling the host’s program out, but it just came out, and I continued…”earlier two of the truly wonderful musicians that the hospital employs to do bedside visits, spoke of their difficulty connecting with a Spanish speaking patient, and so we know that representation matters, and so how does the field, and how do we think about and put into practice these culturally competent practices so that we see from a variety of perspectives, and everyone is included?”

Well, it wasn’t quite that eloquent when it came out that day. But I said pretty much the gist of all that. Right afterward, as is typical with me, I worried that I had said something that sounded like a put-down, a call out, an attack. I was raised to be a nice girl, to be respectful, to not hurt other people’s feelings. Saying anything that I feel is negative or criticism is really hard for me.

I had to ask my peers during break if what I said was okay. Several I had become closer to, including one man, who is Native American, said they felt it was not offensive, that it was good to make the statement, even though they felt it wasn’t directly answered.

I try my best to make statements like that more and more where I feel there is a lack of inclusion, when white-centering has taken over, and there is an obliviousness as to its impact. I know I have my own blind spots, and I know in this white-dominated culture in our country, white-centering is happening all the time. It is my mission to be a part of actively breaking that down, and that means speaking up is really important, so, I can’t help to be highly disappointed in myself still, for not speaking up that day in Boston.

But, I carry on, and will do better next time, and the time after that. I don’t share this to have anyone read this, and then tell me, “but Wendy, you do so much good, or you do speak up, or take action a lot of the time, so don’t beat yourself up about this.” I am not writing this for that response. I am writing to lay bare my imperfections, my moments of failure, to ask all of us white people to do better, to do your own “wondering aloud” when you know it is necessary. We white people can feel very comfortable when denouncing white supremacy, and highly overt racist acts, but we need to get better when it comes to the every day exclusions, the every day white-centering, the every day microaggressions, the every day inferences that makes someone from another culture or race feel theirs is inferior.

I asked Leni if I could write a post about both of our struggles to speak up and not give in to our own white fragility, and I was glad, and proud of her when she said, yes. It made me feel like we are in this fight together. And, if we are to be accountable to one another in this fight, I, as her mother, want to set a good example.

And…that’s a rap.

If It’s Not What We Say About Race, It Must Be What We Do

22 Jul

I haven’t written here in a few months. It’s not that there isn’t anything to write about. Believe me, thoughts about race, racism, whiteness, and what is going on in this country, and what I can do about it, are spinning around in my head, and in my heart, 24/7. No excuses, but I was recovering from a botched cataract surgery, and the old eye is just about 100%. This week, though, I was asked by an acquaintance, if I was going to “blog about our President and his comments, and saying he’s not racist. So crazy,” he said. Crazy racist, I would say.

But, we know that. We shout out “racist!” “racism!” over and over again. We shout it out about our “Occupant in the White House,” as Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley calls him. Yes, the Congresswoman, who was one of four Congresswomen of color, who were told to go back to their own countries.

Oh, you want to hear more about the racism? About the Occupant’s rally, who a friend likened to a KKK rally? Where the crowd chanted “Send her back!” when Congresswoman Ilhan Omar’s name was mentioned? And how a day later, he doubled down on his damaging comments about Omar being linked to terrorism, by perpetuating the rumor that she got her brother a green card and United States citizenship by fraudently marrying him?

Or, do I keep writing about the viral videos that seem to pop up every other day of a white person telling someone just trying to buy their groceries, or work their job, to “speak English here in America”, or “go back to Mexico” or “I’ll have you deported?” And do I share how I agreed with social media friend, Michael Eaglin’s comments about how he’s lowered his expectations about people’s humanity, how he wondered aloud about our “basic respect and integrity,” and the fact that this “behavior isn’t admonished, isn’t found reprehensible by their communities and institutions, like family, church, schools, civic clubs, etc.’

Or, do I continue to write about the viral videos of white people still calling the police on black people, most recently, it was two black men, a real estate agent and a potential home buyer, who were thought to be breaking-and-entering a home the agent wished to show? Or, insert any normal life activity that black people are trying to do, just like white people, but are deemed criminal by white eyes that can’t comprehend the optics of black people living ordinary lives just like theirs.

Or, do I write about how some people keep saying these immigrants have to come in legally like their families did however many decades ago? The people who are able to separate themselves from any feelings of compassion or empathy toward children being taken away from their families, adults and children being kept in detention centers that mirror concentration camps, being treated with intentional cruelty, and not given their due process, as refugees fleeing unsafe countries are supposed to receive when seeking political asylum here?

And I wasn’t going to write about this, especially after my teenage daughters surprised me with their reaction to my action, thinking it privileged and performative. I questioned the purpose of sharing about the night of July 2nd, when I got arrested protesting at the Wyatt Detention Center in Central Falls, Rhode Island. But now I am sharing it, perhaps as a way to process that night’s events. I’m sharing how as a Jewish woman, I felt I needed to use my voice, and my body, to say #NeverAgainIsNow, and joined the Jewish activist group taking national action to block the entrances of I.C.E. contracted detention centers around the country, thereby disrupting their ability to do their harmful business-as-usual. I’m sharing about the pleading sound of men, women–and, were there children?–pounding on frosted windows to let us know they saw us, as we waved to who we could not see, to in effect, say, we see you.

I’m sharing that when myself and five women of the eighteen men and women who were arrested were put into a windowless van, with a metal wall separating us from the other side of the van, and we all sat there with our handcuffed or ziptied hands behind our back, and nervously chuckled on our ride to the precinct, how I looked down the narrow metal bench to the faces beside mine, and said to myself, I know these women, these are my people, even though, except for one, I didn’t know them personally. And at risk at sounding over-dramatic, and right after one of the young woman shared that she had just returned two weeks ago from visiting the Anne Frank house, I could not help but imagine us as the Jewish women who might have ridden together on cramped trains to concentration camps, and how maybe they nervously laughed, too, knowing their fate was not a good one, but worked to comfort one another, in the face of the grave inhumanity that would befall them. And in that moment, I knew, too, we were not them, but were here honoring them, and saying, Never Again, because it is now, we must not sit idly by. And, I thought, too, as we entered the van, of Freddy Gray, and how hard, and cold, the white, metal seat and walls and floor of the van were, and how his body was broken into pieces by police officers that night in Baltimore. But we were not Jews on our way to a concentration camp. We were not Freddie Gray. We were not Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, or Baltimore.

Us eighteen, that night, were white-skinned, and treated with calm, and kindness. We did not have to use milk to wash tear gas out of our eyes. We were not hit with batons. We were treated as human beings, and within three hours at the police station, we were all released with a summons. A week later in court, with an agreement to either make a donation to a non-profit organization serving the immigrant community in Central Falls, or do ten hours of community service, we had our cases dismissed. Amazing what whiteness and privilege, an accessory automatically included, can do.

Yesterday, I paused my own writing, in anticipation of attending the annual reading by the 2019 writers-in-residence at the Rhode Island Writers Colony in Warren, Rhode Island. The organization was founded by writer, and literary mentor, Brook Stephenson and his brother, John Stephenson. Brook, unfortunately passed away in 2015, at the young age of forty-one, and John has carried on his brother’s legacy with the continuation of the summer Writers’ Colony. The two-week residency creates a space for writers of color, not only to write, but to commune with one another, share ideas, work, and nurture one another’s creativity, which is rare in a literary and publishing world, that as they noted, does not make great space for them.

I was moved and inspired by all of the voices, and the work of the 2019 writers-in-residence: Alisha Acquaye, Sasha Banks, Jill Louise Busby, Fajr Muhammad, and Jive Poetic. Writers of short stories, novels, essays, and poetry– we listened to a coming of age short story, stories recording the history of, and the undoing of the America that brutalized black people for over four centuries, a novel about the disappearance and murder of black women in Philadelphia with a narrator who wondered if anyone noticed or cared, an essay from an author learning to love her body as a black woman, and poems about connection to one’s heritage, one about the futuristic genetic engineering of our souls that brilliantly begins with the whispered warning about seedless green grapes, and a poem about a white woman placing her hand on the poet’s chest, because she sees his “I’m Out – signed Harriet Tubman” tee-shirt, and feels she needs to share that in her past life she was a slave, too!

I got to consider my own white fragility too, when writer, Jill Louise Busby, read her piece, Oreo, a powerful, honest writing, and, trust me, those two adjectives don’t even begin to do justice to her words, or the soul-searching investigation of self, how whiteness always others, how not to use whiteness as a measurement of self, and much more, written with such directness and complexity, that I can never fully know or understand because at the end of the day, when I write about race, racism, and cross-racial connection, I’ll still be a white woman writing about it.

And, when the reading’s host, author, and the Colony’s Artistic Director, Jason Reynolds, said right after her reading, “it’s good to be unapologetic..and to feel the discomfort..well…for some of us,” the audience laughed, the white folks, probably more nervously so. And I nodded, the white person nod, to say, yes, we do, I do, need to feel the discomfort, to feel the sting, and yet, don’t make it about me, make it about us, about whiteness, and yet, at the same time, don’t push it away, and know, and take responsibility, and continue to do my own self-investigation, knowing how whiteness informs my perspective, my way of moving in the world, my relationships with everyone I come into contact with, and to know what whiteness has done, and what it continues to do, if I am ever to liberate myself from it, and try to effect any real change around me.

And on those days when I wonder what purpose my writing serves, if I am saying anything new, anything that matters, or when I promise I will reformat my blog, and work with other people to include new voices here, I also wonder: Does not everyone get it yet about racism? Or do we, myself, guiltily included, have to keep social media posting and sharing every race-related article–whether an example of a personal attack, or recognition of an institutional system–when we know racism exists? Do we call it out to prove it, or to show we are still outraged, or to escape looking into the mirror, so we feign disbelief that this is our country, that this is what we did, what we have always done, and this is what we are doing right now?

White people, I don’t mean in any of this, that we need to stop talking about racism, stop calling out racism, and white supremacist structures, institutions, and systems that created and perpetuate racism and inequity. Call it out. Call it out every day, every moment. Do not sit silent with what you see, what you know. Don’t ever be tired of talking about it, and calling it out, of people telling you you make everything about race. Because until there is equality and freedom for all, none of us are free. And, if you are tired of hearing about it, think of how tired black people, and people of color are of living it.

What I do mean, is I want us to ask ourselves, but what can we do? We feel overwhelmed, ineffectual. We don’t know how we can ever change the big, overarching systems that control what is playing out in our country when it comes to racism and white supremacist structures..

It is during those times of feeling overwhelmed, and ineffective, and yes, sometimes, helpless, I remember the words of friend, artist, curator, poet, humanist, Zaiche Johnson, who recently shared, “debating and dissecting political theory, can be compartmentalized gaslighting, when there is so much work to do in real time within our own community. The destitute and oppressed can’t eat CNN transcripts, meme wars, or cyclic policy dissertations. Altruism is the only cool.”

When I let Zaiche know his words here, and our past conversations about the same, help re-center and ground me to the work that I can do–about how we all need to focus on what we can do on a micro-level in our immediate communities where ever and every where we live–he reminds me how “we can only do our best commensurate with what we have accessible, which varies for each person.” I thank him for this detail which speaks to the very core of the necessary shift of sharing resources and access when, as white people, we are part of the privileged group that has made sure it got and keeps the majority of both.

On days like this when I wonder if I should be writing about race, and asked by friends if I’m going to write about all that is going on in the country right now, like “the President’s comments,” I know that the true answer is I cannot stop myself from writing about it. And, perhaps, I finally wrote about the detention center protest, because that was something I could do. That is what matters a lot more to me. That I never stop doing something about it.


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