Search results: how to hang in there

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

Wake Up And Change The Racism, (insert: White) People!

23 Apr

Rashon Nelson, Donte Peterson

Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson

I almost used the cliché title of: Wake Up And Smell The Coffee, People, but that’s weak. Like, instant coffee weak. But enough with the clichés and play on words, as I reflect on what happened in the Philadelphia Starbucks last week, and if you don’t know, then you do need to wake up.

Two young real estate entrepreneurs, Donte Robinson and Rashon Nelson, went to a Starbucks in the well-to-do Rittenhouse Square neighborhood of Philadelphia to meet with business colleague, Andrew Yaffe, to talk about a deal they all were working on together. While waiting for Yaffe, who happens to be white, to arrive, the two men were deemed suspicious by (more…)

My MJ Thievery: There Goes The Neighborhood

20 Aug

It’s not always that when black people move into a white neighborhood, white people say to themselves, “there goes the neighborhood!”  Sometimes it’s the other way around.  Like the time I got caught defacing property in a black neighborhood in Brooklyn.  It was all because of Michael Jackson.  (more…)

Wendy Jane Soul Shake 2020 Year in Review

28 Dec

Dr. Fauci John Lewis
Dr. Fauci, John Lewis Street Art, NYC, August 2020

Every year at this time I write a year-end recap of the blog, and the times we are in. But how in the heck am I supposed to summarize this year? Nevertheless, I’ll try.

I began the 2020 WJSS blog with February’s post, Tell Me The Truth: Exploring The Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving, The afore-mentioned title was a public discussion at a Connecticut community center, between, Shay Stewart-Bouley, racial justice and equity non-profit executive director, writer, activist, and author of the blog, Black Girl in Maine, and Debby Irving, racial justice educator and activist, and author of the book, Waking Up White. I have followed both women for some years now, and it was good to hear them continuing to grow and share their dialogue on what it takes to stay open and honest in cross-racial conversations and friendships. There we sat, hundreds of us, elbow-to-elbow, in rows of folding chairs, taken in by their talk. How could we have known that within a month, our country would be thrown into lockdown over a global pandemic–the Covid-19 virus–and that such large gatherings would be prohibited, and that our facial expressions would soon be hidden under masks?

But racism doesn’t stop due to a virus, and in April and May I wrote Let Us Not Forget Racism In The Time Of Covid-19, and Conspiracy Theories, Freedom, Mirrors: What Reality Are We Running From. In these posts, I drew attention to the reports of how the virus was impacting Black and Brown and Indigenous individuals and communities, at a much higher rate than white people and their communities, due to our country’s history of racism–both bigotry, and systemic. This history and the policies and laws born out of it, created inadequate and less accessible healthcare for Black and Brown communities. In addition, we have seen how some Black people seeking care for Covid symptoms have been mistrusted, and dismissed, and their treatment mishandled, which even resulted in some cases, in death. Also, noted, was the higher number of essential workers of color who don’t have the luxury to work remotely, thereby creating risk of exposure for themselves, their families, and their neighborhoods.

In Conspiracy Theories, Freedom, Mirrors..., I held up a mirror to how I believe it’s racist when white people call the virus a hoax, and government’s way of trying to control us, and hurt our economy. Knowing how the virus has a lesser impact on white communities–even though there are countless, white people dying from it, too–having a belief in a conspiracy theory and government control is harmful to Black, Brown and Indigenous people. To put these communities at risk because of your selfish wish to have a haircut, is simply racist. I wished instead that we could be thinking of how instead of going back to what we were, to the way things were–to wishing you could go back and hide in the comfort of Starbucks and your gym routine–that we could be forging a new way of being, and caring for ourselves, and others.

At the same time these conspiracy theories were roiling, the signaling of a renewed racial justice movement rumbled beneath the surface with the release of the video in early May, showing the February killing of Ahmaud Arbery by two white neighbors, while Ahmaud was out for a jog.

And, then, on May 25, 2020, Minneapolis resident, George Floyd, was murdered by police officer, Derek Chauvin, following the arrest of Mr. Floyd for possibly passing a counterfeit twenty dollar bill at a convenience store. The world watched the horrid act of the officer pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, of Mr. Floyd’s pleading for his life, and calling out for his mother in his last moments of life. We know this because of the bravery of seventeen year-old, Darnella Frazier, who was in the crowd of onlookers yelling to Chauvin, and other officers present, for Chauvin to get off of George Floyd, to no avail. Ms. Frazier’s video showed the world the truth and horror of what happened to George Floyd that day. It held up a mirror to our country to say, especially to white people, we can no longer say this is not happening. We can no longer say, “he should have complied.” We can no longer say, “the officers are just doing their job, and defending their own safety.”

Shortly after this national tragedy that reverberated around the world, there was a new wave of uprisings–a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, this time with many more white people finally waking up, and now, joining in the call for racial justice. I was inspired by what I was witnessing around me, in particular, the young Black leaders, many still in their teens, leading their own city’s marches, using their voices, loud and strong, to let us know we are truly at a time of racial reckoning in this country. In response to these feelings, I wrote, Youth-Led Protest, 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.

BLM March in tribute to George Floyd, Providence, RI, June 2020

While I was hopeful and inspired about the fight for racial justice being rebirthed, The Falling Into The (Donut) Hole part of the title of that post (and I might be famous for writing the world’s longest blog titles) referred to the extreme anger I also felt when seeing social media posts, and hearing conversations by some co-workers of mine. Their comments showed they still weren’t getting it, and at this point, it is a willful not getting it, as far as I’m concerned. Posts about “riots” and “looting” and “destroying their own neighborhoods.” Posts with the meme that says something like, “…if you don’t want trouble with the police, then don’t do things that are illegal.” I engaged with some of these posts because they are racist. And while I didn’t want to project, and I am no white savior, I thought if it was hard for me to look these co-workers in the eye and work alongside of them, I imagined the harm it would also be causing for my co-workers who are Black. I did my, try every angle of presenting facts, trying, with kindness to ask for, to look for an empathetic bone in the offenders’ bodies, all the while knowing I wasn’t going to change their point of view. I took action, but shortly after this time, decided I would not engage any more with these social media posts, and would put my energy to better use.

During this time of feeling sadness, anger, and a will to keep fighting for what is right, I was grateful, and stay grateful for the artists of our time, who always hold up a mirror to what is happening, and who show us what love looks like. The artists in my city of Providence, Rhode Island–Black artists, Latinx artists, Indigenous artists, Asian Artists, white artists, came together to create protest posters, and gorgeous street murals. They showed us what solidarity, and hope, and resilience looks like.

Providence artists create street murals for downtown business district, June 2020

This also became a time to reflect on what it means to be white, and to see how our whiteness and white supremacy operates and how we have been programmed to believe what we believe about ourselves, and about those who we “other.’ With Some Of Us White People, I attempted to imagine all the various ways we white people were feeling, thinking, and behaving in the wake of the George Floyd killing, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the June killing of Rayshard Brooks by a police officer in Atlanta, and the call for justice to charge the police officers responsible for the killing of Breonna Taylor.

All the books on race we were buying, the films we were watching, the conversations we were having, the marches we were attending, the t-shirts we were sporting, all in the name of trying to catch up and educate ourselves, and finally start to learn and believe a portion of the things that Black people in this country have been trying to tell us for centuries, and to do something about it. All the ways we gingerly, or not so gingerly, asked Black people how to help, or, ask if they were okay, when on a daily basis, we heard the refrain of many Black people saying, “I am not okay.”

At this time, I got to write two articles for local, Motif Magazine, Be Of Service, 5 Do’s and Don’t’s for White People Taking Anti-Racist Action and A Surge In Activism, Activist Groups Help White People Show Up The Right Way. Motif, like many individuals, businesses, arts spaces and journalism outlets, was also looking to give attention to the current fight for racial justice. It was my friend, Christopher Johnson, who encouraged me to write the articles. Christopher, who is Black, is a poet, and playwright. His most recent work, Invoice For Emotional Labor, centers on the idea that he shouldn’t have to educate white people about racism, but in his experiential, cutting words, he does just that. While I have been to readings of the work-in-progress, I can’t wait to see this play performed in its entirety.

I have not mentioned much here about the in-between spaces of dealing with this year, and haven’t ever gotten too much into my personal life here beyond my experiences with dealing with matters of race. But I alluded to it in How To Hang In There: Today Baratunde Thurston’s Podcast, How To Citizen, Helped. In this piece, I spoke about knowing how we all have our burden to bear in life, and in this year, in particular, as we deal with a global pandemic, a call for our country to face its true history, and deal with our racial reckoning, reparations, and healing.

This year has impacted each and every one of us in all kinds of ways. I know some of you might be feeling the burden of being a parent who all of a sudden has to become an assistant teacher while your young child does their online schooling, and, figure out how to work from home at the same time. That teachers are working extremely hard to teach simultaneously in the classroom, and online, and worry, too, about exposure to the virus for themselves, and their students. That some of you are feeling isolated by working remotely. That some of you are trying to pay your bills as a small business owner, when your business isn’t able to operate at full capacity, or at all. That some of you are out of work. That some of you are trying to stay connected and care for an elderly parent with visiting restrictions in place, and that some of you worry about exposing immune-compromised loved ones. Some of you have to work in grocery stores, in public transportation, and other businesses with high volumes of person-to-person contact, and have never had a break. That some of you have lost some one you loved, or multiple people that you loved. That some of you work in hospitals–nurses, doctors, housekeepers, dietary workers–and are seeing far too much of death, and experiencing trauma and stress from all that you are witnessing while working countless days, hours, months, trying to save lives, and maintain a safe hospital environment.

And in all of this I am reminded of the words of local community activist, Pilar McCloud. In this post, Pilar spoke of how many people in the Black community have always had to struggle and work through adversities and obstacles due to bigotry, and systems of racism. She sees how this pandemic is just another thing for Black people to work through, and finds it interesting how more white people are finally getting to see what struggle feels like, with the pandemic, and their new awakening to racial injustice.

As for me, I work as an Activities Therapist at a psychiatric hospital, and run groups with patients on an Adult Intensive Treatment inpatient unit. Because of that, I have stayed working full-time in person, and while it is not dealing with the same kind of intense stress and trauma of working in a medical hospital, it has felt stressful at times to me, and I know it has to my co-workers. I am grateful I still have a full-time job that gives me structure, provides me with a daily purpose, and ensures that I can continue to have an income. I love working with our patients. I have amazing, compassionate, co-workers, and we pull one another up, mostly with humor, especially at the times we need to laugh, so we don’t cry.

But our patients are in emotional distress. The pandemic has exacerbated their depression, their anxiety, their paranoia, their mania, their feelings of isolation, and their psychosis. Trying to get our patients, who share a common milieu space, when they are at various levels of awareness, psychosis, and, or paranoia, to wear their masks, and to social distance, is trying, to say the least. To keep constant vigilance of possible patient and staff exposure, and get updates on actual staff and patients who have contracted the virus, especially on one’s own unit or area, is unsettling. To try to support people suffering more during this global pandemic, while we ourselves are suffering, can also be challenging.

In another capacity at work, I am the Coordinator of the hospital’s Healing Arts program. Started by my former supervisor, Barbara Ostrove, who was director of our Occupational Therapy Department, I, along with support primarily, from fellow staff member, Occupational Therapist, and artist, Laura White Carpenter, write grants, and develop and coordinate arts programming for our patients and staff in the form of artist residencies, exhibitions, and special events, all utilizing the arts to promote wellness and healing, and to humanize the hospital experience, and environment. This fall, we were supposed to have one of our past resident artists, violist, Ashley Frith, do an artist residency, but that was not to be with the virus. We are trying to hold off a bit for her to be able to come in person to connect with our patients in an interactive group format, as well as to offer some relief for our staff through performance and conversation. If that is not possible, we will have to think of possibly doing a live or recorded video residency, something we are hoping to avoid, as we feel it’s not the same experience. We may create an entirely different kind of residency experience all together. We shall see.

Still in the early months of the pandemic, I tried to be all heroic, and Laura and I did sidewalk chalk art murals outside our hospital’s entrance–brightly-hued florals and hearts, with words of thanks–which were greatly appreciated by staff. I was lucky to connect with local artists, Jacques Bidon and Nafis White, who so thoughtfully made beautiful handmade prints and thank you card sets that they distributed to three local hospitals’ essenttial workers. At our hospital, we received 100 print sets which we were able to distribute to our entire housekeeping staff, to our Patient Assessment Services (emergency room) staff, and to the staff taking care of our geriatric and dementia patients on our Senior Specialty unit. I also was able to procure a grant of three Amazon music loaded tablets for our inpatient units to use from the non-profit organization, Musicians On Call. We see how much music helps our patients to feel calm, connected, and energized, and so we were grateful to be granted the tablets.

Artists, Nafis White and Jacques Bidon and their Care Print packages for essential workers

Yet, after this initial burst of energy to use the arts to help us get through this time, I came to a standstill. These days I often feel like I’m this high functioning depressed person, just getting by each day, and not delivering the kind of care and attention I should be to our patients. I cannot bring myself to come up with another arts thing to give to patients and staff. It’s a Catch-22. This is exactly the time the arts can help us, and it is what I preach. I see how many artists, locally, and nation-wide are still showing up, and making the best of these times, and lifting us up with their work, yet I am unable to move myself to action.

Laura, Healing Arts Program, Chalk Art honoring our fellow frontline workers
me, Chalk Art for our fellow frontline workers, May 2020
The truth, May 2020

I say all this, not to get off-topic, or to get attention or sympathy. I say this because it is real, with this time we are in, and each and every one of us, I know, has their own story of how this time is impacting them, and how they are managing. I also acknowledge that feeling ungrounded with all that is going on has made me feel scattered, unable to commit and follow through at times when it has come to continuing the daily, long-term work of fighting to break down racism and the racist systems we live in. I touch upon these themes in the Baratunde Thurston post, even though I haven’t ended up following through to continue to listen to his podcast beyond another episode or two. I hope that you are able to acknowledge how you are feeling and are able to share that with someone, and I invite you to please feel free to share here below, how you have been managing during this year of Covid-19, and this time of a critical call for us to finally face our dire need for racial reckoning in this country.

Still, we all manage to carry on in some way. It is not all gloom. Yes, there are moments of joy, too, that appear for me, and I truly hope for you, too.

Getting to visit NYC with my daughters-surreal in its emptiness, but still loved

Our beautiful New England fall still came, and yet without the news of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks and Breonna Taylor, daily filling our newsfeed anymore, I worried that many white folks were forgetting about the fight they so vehemently said they were there for in June. With covid fatigue, and racial justice warrior fatigue in mind, I wrote, Fighting Racism Got You Down? Don’t Make Those Brunch Reservations Just Yet. I worried that so many of us who were waiting for the Presidential election, with hopes that we could oust the current one, would, once that happened, think all was well.

We do hold hopes the new President, will in January, begin to undo all of the evil policies and legislation put into place that hurt mostly Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, as well as our immigrant community. Yet, the post warns us to stay vigilant, and to keep fighting, and to not let things go back to the status quo. It asks white folks to not just rest easy, because the blatant hate is gone, and we are being taken care of again. It asks us to not forget our privilege, or the will to make things truly equal for every one, to include everyone, on not a hierarchal level, with white people at the top, but one where we are all together, side-by-side. (My August 2019 post, Every Day, Chip Away at De-Centering Whiteness speaks to this in more detail)

While I was able to, though more sporadically, keep writing this year, I got stuck in my own head, thinking I was real special, and developed a case of the white fragility. In, What I Didn’t Want To Share, Or: If This White (Jewish) Woman Went To Confession, This Is What She’d Say, you can read all about my bout with thinking as a white person, I should step back from writing about race, and how still after so much time of writing about race, and educating myself and doing anti-racism work, I still worry way too much about saying or doing the wrong thing in my cross-racial conversations and actions. Thankfully, through friends, Black and white, who help give me perspective on this, I carry on, striving to not worry what others will think, ready to engage in the conversations that come up because of my writing or dialogue, and take responsibility for what my impact is. I am also thankful for friend, and racial justice activist, Joan Wyand, who shared about the new podcast Eyes On Whiteness, which helps me look at how whiteness operates within me, and others, and the world around me. It’s truly helpful, and I highly recommend it.

In my most recent post, Catching Back Up With Artist Kenya (Robinson) And The Luck, Or Lesson Of, Finding What You Seek, written right before Thanksgiving, I share part of an older post never published about an encounter with visiting Florida artist, Kenya (Robinson) who gave a talk at the Providence Public Library for the exhibition, HairBrained. I follow Kenya on Instagram now, and in November, was lucky to catch an IGTV video she made on what she, as a Black artist, noticed was a passive-aggressive style of communication she was encountering, with white women. I was moved by Kenya’s thoughts, and desire to share with those of us listening, how to use our own inner creativity to ‘hack’ these conversations to be able to communicate authentically, and move beyond the way we’ve been programmed for survival with all of our ‘isms, and in doing so, create a new pathway to tap into our true inner energy where we are all the same.

In my blog post title, I use the word ‘luck,’ but when Kenya in her video held up her fortune cookie fortune which said, ‘If you seek it, you shall find it,” she emphasized that there are no coincidences, and so my happening upon her talk that day was meant to be, and I am grateful for the lesson, and the reconnection to both Kenya, and her important work. You can follow her at www.privilegeasplastic.com and on IG @kenya9.

Which makes me think about the word intention, as my year of 2020 blogging comes to an end, and this challenging year is about to wrap up. I have been challenged to keep the things in my life that I say are important to me–continuing the work required to bring about racial justice, equality and freedom, being present in the way I want to be for my two daughters, for my friends, and for my family, being present and giving better energy to serving our patients in my workplace, delivering more Healing Arts programming in my workplace, and opening myself up to the possibility of loving, and letting myself be loved in a romantic relationship.

I know we all have our lists, and that mine is probably sounding just like any New Year’s Eve Resolutions list. Yet, I hope not. I know I can be gentle with myself at this time, and not get down on myself for the things I feel I can’t muster the energy for. I hope you will, too. I also know, as is quoted often in this work of racial justice, in the words of Dr. King, that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I know that I won’t give up the work, and that the work started long before this time we are here on earth, and will continue long after we are gone, and each thing we can do, every day contributes to making things better for all of us. I know that we can make this new post-covid world a better place for all, and not go back to our ways that don’t make a way for all of us, but just for a few of us. I know we can do this. I know we must. I pray that we are not in a rush to get back to ‘regular life’ where we are all about having to make enough money so we can consume things that make us feel comfortable, and fool ourselves into believing everything is all right, forgetting the valuable lessons about what matters to us, is us. All of us. Not just some of us. All of us.

This year, in particular, I thank you all from the bottom of my heart for your support, for engaging with me, and with one another about how race, racism, whiteness, cross-racial connection, and the work of breaking down racism and racist systems shows up in you, and what you are doing about it. I wish you the will to keep doing the work to make the spaces where you are, free and equal, truly equal and equitable, with all perspectives honored and included, and with whiteness de-centered, and not above any other perspective. I wish each one of you, peace, continued good health, safety. I wish you joy.

Welcome to 2021, Or: When Privilege is Handed to you on a Silver Platter, And No, We’re Not Better Than This

11 Jan

The Daily Don BLM MAGA illustration by Jesse Duquette
Illustration Credit: Jesse Duquette, IG @the.daily.don

I am not a political pundit, and am not going to analyze the week’s event that we all witnessed with our own unbelievin’, yet believin’ eyes. There have been enough news shows and articles for that.

I will be another person, though, to call attention to the great disparities in how Black people, and their multi-racial, multi-ethnic supporters, were treated this summer during protests calling for racial justice, equality, and the very basic human request to not be shot and killed–mostly by police officers, and sometimes by white vigilantes, simply because of their skin tone. I’m quite certain, too, that many men and women who fancy themselves vigilantes like the white father and son duo who killed Ahmaud Arbery, were in the crowd that showed up at the capitol this week to “take their country back.”

We saw it with our own eyes on video, and on the news, and yet, Roots drummer, dj, author, food and culture enthusiast, Questlove, in an Instagram post, had something to say about the statement that so many in our country would rather believe in, namely: “this is not who we are.”

Questlove says, “It’s no coincidence the unpacking of our lives is going down this way (this instance, the events in dc, the pandemic, BLM, MeToo–everything that has risen to the surface in the past 5 years–I know a lot of people wanna hang on to the common thread of “this isn’t who we are” or “we are better than this” “A lot of you have to ponder & rephrase it now.. “This is who we’ve been?”…”Can you imagine what went unchecked without the cell phone camera? This didn’t just start now…or 2011…or back in 91 w Rodney King…..this has BEEN going on & no one believed it.”

Questlove’s Instagram post was actually in response to the viral video of Miya Ponsetto, the white woman who physically attacked jazz musician, Keyon Harrold’s, 14 year-old son, accusing him as the person who stole her cell phone. Ponsetto singled out Mr. Harrold and his son, who are Black, as they simply walked through the lobby of their Soho hotel to go have brunch. The phone, turns out, was actually left in an Uber.

But, as Questlove shares, this same belief he sees so many falsely holding, was shared by countless people posting all over social media that “this is not who we are” after watching the January 6th domestic terrorist attack on the capitol. We can apply the “this is not our country,” to this most recent ‘Karen’ moment, or to the storming of our nation’s capitol, and we certainly have been applying it for years, decades, centuries, haven’t we? Those of us with white skin privilege who believed the myth we were taught of how our great country was founded, of how our democracy was for all of us. We want to believe we are better than what keeps playing on the screens in front of our own eyes. But if that were the case, wouldn’t we be behaving like we are better than this? Wouldn’t we have made things equal, equitable and safe for every one through the ages?

Wouldn’t we be doing something to change things since the notion “that all men are created equal” was never carried out in law or deed? We witnessed how giving up power and privilege is so damn frightening for the white warrior face-painted, Davey Crockett meets neo-Viking, fur hat wearing, confederate flag waving, heavily-armed men, and women, who stormed the capitol. We witnessed hundreds of these white folks descend upon the capitol building, break in through a window, be let in by politicians, take selfies with capitol police, without the presence of the National Guard or police in riot gear. Friend, Gloria Johnson, a risk analyst, and strong advocate for her community who sits on several non-profit boards, said, on social media, contrasting January 6th’s insurgence with the uprising for racial justice after George Floyd’s murder, “protestors this past summer were beaten, gassed and hit with rubber bullets for protesting and yet these mofos were allowed to get into the SENATE CHAMBERS…without being beaten, gassed or shot! Nothing…Clearly restraint can be used by law enforcement”…She added, “…white supremacy is a hell of a drug..” after witnessing the insurgents “just chillin in the senate chambers…”

That about says it all. We don’t need pundits to tell us what we saw. If we, in the words of James Baldwin, which always come to me the strongest in these moments, look in the mirror, we will see that it is us, white people, who are the violent ones, the oppressors, who founded this country on white supremacist notions, laws, and policies, overt and covert, for over 400 years. We saw that when Black people asked this summer to be treated like human beings and their right to live and thrive like everyone else in this country, instead of as a monolithic, faceless group to be feared and harmed, they are met with violence. We saw when white people, armed with guns and zip ties, force themselves into the nation’s capitol building in an attempt to overthrow democracy, that they are given carte blanche to roam the halls, make violent threats, and desecrate property, all aided and abetted by the President and some of the capitol police officers there–never mind the fact that there were a number of police officers, former military, and government officials who were part of the insurgent mob themselves.

We witnessed the fear of all of these white men and women losing the grip on what they believe their white country does for them. They fear being in the minority by number, and by privileges, real and perceived, they have always benefitted from, either without caring what happened to Black or brown people in this country, or with the will to do great harm to them.

I plead for all of us white people to see that this is who we are, and to every day do something about it. We can no longer believe we are better than this. We have to do the work to make where we are in each one of our very own communities a safe, just, equitable and free place for Black people. This is our call. A new President will not fix this. It is on us. If you don’t know where to begin, as I’ve said before, look around in your workplace, your neighborhood, your schools, your non-profit organizations, at your elected officials. Are these places equitable and just and inclusive? Who is in charge? Who has the power to make decisions? Do your elected officials represent the needs of all people? Connect with and listen to the Black leaders in your community. Listen to Black women. Think of ways you can support them and their work, and ask them if your ideas to support are okay, are necessary, or are something that isn’t needed, or off-base, or white savior patronizing. If you feel stuck, comment below, or message me. I am no expert. I am on this journey, just like you are, but if we keep saying we don’t know what to do, then we are the biggest part of the problem.

It’s 2021. Who is ready to change who we are?

____________________________________________________________________________

Illustration Credit: Jesse Duquette, IG: @the.daily.don Twitter: @JRDuquette

Facebook: The Daily Don

Follow Questlove: IG: @Questlove @qls @questlovesfood

Catching Back Up With Artist, Kenya (Robinson), And The Luck, Or Lesson Of, Finding What You Seek

20 Nov

Artist, Kenya (Robinson)

“We can’t just jump into one another’s lives, and expect to know each other right away…”

That was artist, Kenya (Robinson), at the pre-reception for her lecture at the Providence Public Library’s HairBrained Exhibition, held in 2018. HairBrained was a look at the ways in which hair defines and reflects culture, self-identity, agency, and politics. Kenya’s talk, as stated in the library’s announcement, “offered a critical analysis of blondness, baldness, and beauty related to our collective hair politic, identification of gender, and normalization of whiteness.”

A small group of mostly white women stood around the oak library desk used to display a variety of blond hair bundles, which included: two-inch snippets of corn-silk smooth locks tied at their tops with elastic bands, long, textured ponytails with combs provided nearby, and a wooden hand-mop whose bristles were replaced with lengths of bleach blond hair. Kenya, who reminded me of how artists so well model the example of dress as self-expression, and whose outfit I envied, wore a white cowboy shirt with fuchsia fringe, similarly colored-velvety leggings, and high-heeled, sleek ankle boots. She did not have,  or wear, as we’d later learn of Kenya’s penchant for wigs, blond hair, but instead sported a short, natural style. Her comment about jumping into another’s life was in response to a woman who was yanking at one of the textured ponytail with a comb, creating a snarl midway through that seemed to be impossible to comb out.

“If that hair was attached to your child’s head, you wouldn’t be tugging on it that way. That would hurt, right? With our hair, we start at the bottom, and hold the hair above the snarl so that the person doesn’t feel the pain..well, sometimes people do pull like that, and the child complains, but you get what I mean?” Kenya said to the woman. The woman acknowledged Kenya’s comments, and moment of education, and re-arranged her grip on the ponytail and carried on with less resistance.

I attended Kenya’s talk and was struck how she managed, aside from her endearing vulnerability and sense of humor, which was a gift in itself, to ask us to think about inclusion, exclusion, racism, gender, and all the other “isms” as Kenya called them, without necessarily naming them. Instead, she challenged us to believe someone when they shared their lived experience with you. And, by the existence of her work dissecting “blondness,” and in turn, femininity, gender and racial identity, she asked others to see her and her work for what it is, and not through the gaze of gender or race. Kenya shared there were, and still are times where she has felt literally rendered voiceless, or her work not seen as intended, because of her gender (she did not clearly say, also because of her race) until she erased herself out of it. I cannot do Kenya, or the experience of her talk, as well as her work justice, but please know, that I was deeply moved and inspired by it, and thank her for that.

Another event I attended was Dr. Quincy Mills‘ talk which focused on the book he wrote on the history of Black barber shops from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Cutting Along the Color Line: Black Barbers and Barber Shops in America. Dr. Mills is currently Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland. I learned how black barbers during slavery and shortly after emancipation, were employed to service white men with shaves and cuts, as white men liked to have their domestic services performed by black men and women, and as the role of the barber was looked at as too inferior a service for a white men to perform. Mills also asked us to look at the fact, in allowing black men to be their barbers, they had to trust that an enslaved, or freed man with a razor blade in his hand, was still inferior, in order to dismiss any internal inkling that he would ever consider slitting the throat of the very man that once enslaved him.

We learned of the prominent black barber, George Meyer who served President McKinley, and how doing so, made him a central figure in Republican politics, as he was seen as a gateway to the political office, and the associated favors that came with voting the President in. Of course, white clientele in the newly developing Jim Crow laws years didn’t want to sit side-by-side with black men, who they considered less than them, so black men were shut out from black-owned barber shops, until black barbers started to open shops in black communities beginning in the 1920’s and 1930’s. With the Depression era upon them, the black-owned barber shops became a space that was much more than a place to get a haircut and a shave, but a free, public space, or cultural center, where the politics of the day could be spoken about without worry, pass the time talking about the joys and struggles of daily life, and coming-of-age life lessons for young black boys.

Aside from the great interest I had in learning about the history of the shops, Dr. Mill’s talk brought back to the surface for me the time I spent working in a black-owned barber shop and salon in Boston in 1980-81. In a city, highly segregated, and rife with racial tension at the time, Danny’s His and Hers Salon was situated on Massachusetts Avenue, in between the bordering black neighborhood of Roxbury, and the more affluent, white neighborhood, the Back Bay. I got to experience firsthand the cultural space and conversation that Dr. Mills speaks of in his book, and from the customers’ perspective, too. I wrote a little about that experience in the 2012 post, Black Beauty Back In The Day: What I Learned About Jheri Curls From The Grown-Ups, And Interracial Marriage From A 5-Year Old.

As I revisited this piece, I see how much there would still be to say about the social atmosphere of this space, as well as how I’ve grown to more understand the how and the why of the much deeper, necessary teachings about the relationship between black men and white woman that showed up that day in the presence of a five year-old Black boy who was a teacher I did not yet fully recognize as such.

Kathy, me, Kim at Danny’s His and Hers Salon, 1981. Where I learned more than a backgammon lesson from the 5 year-old boy noted above

Inspired by this artist and scholar, I had to attend to my own craft. I went to the HairBrained writing workshop led by local writer, Mary Kim Arnold, and had lunch afterward with my writer/artist friends. I was reminded how artists really break down life, and their experiences, and even though I suppose I do that very thing in my writing, when in conversation, I always feel much more surface and superficial, and much less of a critical thinker when I hear my friends’ critical thinking, reflections and making meaning of an experience–whether it be a book, movie, art exhibition, or the writing workshop we just attended.

In reflecting on making meaning, and understanding myself better as a white woman with a strong desire to connect across race, and to be able to communicate without over-analyzing, or worrying about how I’m coming across, which gets in the way of being myself, and in the way of a true connection, I reconnected last week with Kenya (Robinson)’s work, this time, on Instagram. I listened to her video, titled, WHITE BITCHES IS CRAZY (or the creativity of passive aggressive language) Another tool for hacking the IZM

In this video, Kenya shared on the concept of the lexicon of passive aggressive language, and in particular, on her experiences with this language exchange with white women, both recently, and in her past. These experiences, she said, left her at first confused, unaware it was happening, or knew and sometimes would let go, but, most often, got her mad.

Kenya began by making it clear, with what she called her “pure positive love energy miracle tone healing music” playing in the background,  that her aim in this talk was to approach these lexicons as a language which we are acculturated into, and to personally, get away from a judging framework, so that her vibration and energy can stay high, and won’t get trapped in judging, which brings her energy down. Kenya generously wanted to share the tools of creativity with others, so they could use them to hack these languages, and have the ability to open up to the infinite creative possibilities that lie within us.

Kenya looked at the etymology of the words, passive and aggressive. She shared how while Black people’s style of communication is said to be ‘real’ or ‘authentic,’ as if it is compelled to be so due to feeling safe or comfortable, it is actually a tool of survival, learned by always being surveilled, being watched, so that Black people feel they need to respond, to give answers, to be reporters.  It is an acculturation learned as a response to a stressor; a survival tool. White women, in their closeness to white patriarchy, are acculturated to conform their communication in response to the stressor of patriarchy, yet Kenya wanted to also be careful to not  give all credit to that idea because it can get in the way of the creative possibilities that can come from the investigation, dissecting, and understanding of this behavior, which is more complex than stemming from a single source

Kenya believes by working within that middle space between the dichotomy of passive and aggressive, and understanding how acculturation of Black people’s and white people’s lived experiences under the framework of all the isms, impacts our language and styles of communication, we can practice using creativity to hack our communication, instead of the survival technique which we were programmed to use. This will open up tremendous possibilities for connection, and to those places inside of us where our cores, our entity, our energy, is the same, and where we can learn and grow and help one another.

I listened to her talk twice to absorb and process all that she said, and will listen to it again, I’m sure, to have it soak in even more. There is definitely more detail about how and why passive aggressive communication shows up, about our inner and outer racialized “programming” and how to creatively hack our communication, so I encourage you to listen, one, two, three, or however many times you wish to so that you, too, can learn and grow through Kenya’s offering.

 I know for myself, as a white woman who has always considered herself definitely passive, and indirect in my communications with others, I have not considered the impact, and the how, when, where, and why, of my own passive or passive aggressive style of communication with Black women or men. I will here on in, be alert to this, and as Kenya asks us, will begin with the outer creative hack every time, and the longer term inner-programming of acculturation under all the isms, every day, every time. That is the only way to open up creative possibilities, to open up a new way of being together in this world.

Kenya finished by saying that in practicing this creative language hacking tool, she, and we, can be responsible and active in our communications, and she finds when she doesn’t allow this passive aggressive communication to be heaped upon her, to burden her, she feels more power, and more energy and positivity, which allows her to be more creative, and more engaged with her creative process.

To put it more beautifully, I will share the closing words of Kenya’s talk: “I need to talk to whoever, I need to be creating with my fellow human beings because this is going to make me…so I can tap into that source inside of me. (Holding up fortune cookie fortune) “If you seek it, you’re going to find it.” You’re going to find creative ways to interact with other people. And, you’ll find creative ways to make beautiful things happen. Its going be gender non-specific, intergenerational, non-binary, transracial, cut across class, geography…none of these things are going to be impediments because it comes from a source that is timeless, that is ultimate creativity, that is unknown, in the most beautiful ways.”

I have deep gratitude for finding my way to Kenya’s talk this day. If you seek it, you’re going to find it.

To follow Kenya (Robinson)’s work, visit her at www.kenyarobinson.com, and on Instagram @kenya9

What I Didn’t Want To Share, Or: If This White (Jewish) Woman Went To Confession, This Is What She’d Say

7 Nov

I actually did go to confession when I was in the fifth grade. I grew up as a Reform Jew, and wanted to know what all my Catholic classmates did in confession so I had a few of my friends take me to the grand, Immaculate Conception Church in our downtown. They prepped me on what to do and say when I got in the confession booth, and told me how to go to the altar and kneel and count to sixty instead of saying the Hail Mary. I felt certain the priest would know through the screened booth that I was Jewish. I felt guilty because I lied to him about the sins I made up about fighting with my sisters and lying to my parents, and that it was five weeks since my last confession. I felt guilty for kneeling at the altar because Jews aren’t supposed to kneel. But it made me feel like I knew something more about my friends, and what they experienced as Catholics. Left in our school’s classroom every Monday with the two other Jewish students, and the one Muslim student, while the rest of the class went to Catechism class, I had crossed a bridge into their world, and felt better off for doing so.

Speaking of guilt, I know my writing has been more sporadic as of late, but do you remember that bit of advice I gave at the end of Some Of Us White People ? Yes, the one about not letting our white people guilt, or shame, keep us focusing on ourselves, keep us stuck and inert and unable to act. You may not remember, because I wrote that piece in June–over four months ago!

Well, I didn’t listen to my own advice. I let myself get sucked into, let myself wallow in feelings of unworthiness, guilt, and wondered with self-importance if I, as a white woman, had the “right” to write about race–that maybe I could, maybe I should, just be quiet for a while.

I started a draft of this post back then, but kept putting off finishing  and publishing it because it didn’t say all that I thought I needed to say, and because I worried about sharing my vulnerability, and being called out for my own self-centering, self-absorbed “white freakin’ fragility” nonsense. As I sit to finally come back to this writing, it is November 5th, two days post-election, and we all sit waiting for all the ballots to be counted, and for the news of who will be our next President.

To be honest, this conflict about writing is something I’ve grappled with at times during the ten years I’ve been blogging about race, racism, and cross-racial connection. The sentences run through my brain…should I write about Black popular culture? about anti-Black racism?…Am I going to offend Black people with what I write? …Are white people going to think I am an extremist and make everything about race?I have no place wanting to write up the stories of the Queen of the Maroon peoples of Jamaica, Ga’ama “Mama G”, or more formally, Ga’ama Gloria Simms. Ga’ama Mama G is a great woman leader, who I was honored to meet in Jamaica, and be able to befriend through my friend, Professor Diana Fox, Chair of the Anthropology Department at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. I tell myself, shouldn’t it be a Jamaican woman who is representative of, and knows, the Jamaican culture? And, when I hear Black people say we should center and amplify the voices of Black people, of Black woman, I of course, fully agree.

As a white woman, I am grateful for the diversity of this blog’s followers and with every one’s engagement and feedback. As a writer, I also often hear the phrase, we should know who our audience is. I have to admit, I think I am someone who has lived her life in many areas in an unintentional, but perhaps, intuitive way, and I know I definitely wasn’t fully conscious of, or strategic, about who I was writing for when I started blogging. As time has gone on, I realize it is my intention, and my hope that sharing what I’ve experienced and learned through reading the works of Black scholars and writers, and while in conversation with Black people, and other white people, and through this reflective writing,  that white readers here will absorb at least some of it, and begin to question and change the way they see matters of race and racism, and us white people’s complicity in it. It is my hope that we all, no longer being able to unsee the racist foundation upon which this country was built and maintained, that we white people will want to change our ways of moving and behaving in this world, and more strongly, will do the work to break down racism in every facet of our lives. I know that it is also my hope that I continue to engage more deeply in conversations about race with Black people, and to learn more about their lived experiences, and to be open to receiving their feedback and questions, and to grow with that, and to not become defensive, or to let my guilt take over, like the very guilt and shame that had me hedging about writing and sharing this piece in the first place.

When I do express this inner conflict about writing to friends, Black, and white, I challenge myself to listen to their feedback with an open mind and heart. I was recently reminded of something I know, but also, at times, forget. Professor Julia Jordan Zachery, Chair of the Africana Studies Department at University of North Carolina, said, “you have a race..white people forget or don’t think they have a race. You have a race, and you’re writing about race through your white lens.” Diana, who I mentioned above, and who introduced me to Ga’ama Mama G., has shared her perspective of noting the many identities we hold, acknowledging intersectionality and the power and privilege that comes with those identities, and on broadening our views to one of a global interconnectedness. While acknowledging the need for affinity spaces, she also believes in the need for people of all backgrounds to come together for bridge-building work, and to bring about change in this world.

I have also recently gotten feedback from some Black people, suggesting, especially at this point in time, that instead of my writing on matters pertaining to the Black community, that I should center the voices of Black people in the telling of their own communities. What’s probably missing for me, is more feedback and interaction from other white people, especially the feedback I don’t get from white people who don’t like, or don’t believe in what I have to say. They seem to stay silent, and I’m left to ponder their missing feedback.

In the more distant past, I know I have looked for the feedback that told me I was still a “good white person,” and wanted to avoid hearing words that challenged my people-pleasing, good white person self. I got defensive and did that white person thing, of saying to myself and to friends, that whoever questioned what I wrote, didn’t know me, or my true intentions.

After ten years of writing, I definitely still can feel wounded at times when I take in commentary about white people and whiteness. I can personalize a “not all white people” statement, and then immediately afterward know I shouldn’t. And then take it to the place of knowing, but it is all white people, and embrace it. The constructs of race does not allow us to escape our whiteness. There is a dichotomy that sits inside of me that I continue to work on. The voice that says, I feel bad about myself, and the one that says, I am here to hear everything that needs to be heard about racism, whiteness, and white supremacy and white people’s complicity in it because it’s far more important to break down white supremacist systems than it is to worry about my good white person status. The latter is stupid and useless and dangerous.

As I get mad at myself for still, after all this time, having these feelings of guilt pop up, and work to overcome them, I wonder if these feelings of guilt and shame are more recently heightened because of this moment in time, and are a necessary thing for me, and other white people to not overcome, but to work through, in the process of undoing our whiteness, and of decolonizing our racialized minds and ways of moving in the world. It has to get uncomfortable, at least I know that is true especially for someone like me, to truly get myself further along on the journey of changing myself, and growing my ability to be a part of the change of the systems of white supremacy I find myself surrounded by. I know it is far more important to be able to hear the statements of truth about where we are at, at this very moment in this country. White people have the dire need to reckon with the white supremacist notions and racial violence that this country was founded on, and has maintained over the past 400 years, and as this election reflects, shows that half the country is desperately trying to hold on to. I will never “arrive” at being done with the work of dismantling the whiteness that resides within me and the world around me. None of us will. It is a lifelong journey, and will continue to be for those that come after us. I will work on seeing this moment as necessary for me to grow, instead of one that gets me stuck.

Something that is helping me tremendously to reckon with my current white woman junkpile of whiteness, is the podcast, Eyes on Whiteness. The podcast is co-hosted by Maureen Benson, who identifies as a white woman and whose work focuses on racial justice and intersectional leadership in the areas of education and social impact organizations, and Diedre Barber, who identifies as a Black, Puerto Rican gay women, and is the founder and CEO of Filament Consulting Group, where she coaches others—youth, educators, and corporations–to bring about systemic change through the use of authenticity, compassion, transparency and high expectations.

In the words of the founders, “Eyes On Whiteness is a podcast that illuminates the insidious and ignorant ways of whiteness, regardless of intent. Our guests are invited to talk about the ways white supremacy and patriarchy are pervasive and ever-present.  Our conversations are rooted in a commitment to normalizing the “how, not if” lens for looking at the ways it’s present for all of us.”

Eyes On Whiteness and the conversations that Maureen, and Diedre, who Maureen notes in her introduction, shows up when she feels like it, as is her right as a Black woman taking care of herself and setting boundaries for her own emotional labor, are deep, and eye, and heart opening. These two women truly reflect their values of authenticity, transparency, compassion and accountability, whether it is the two of them reflecting on how they feel on this Election Day, or in conversation with their guests who have included, poet/educator, Roger Bonair-Agard, educator, facilitator and healer, Leidene King, E3: Education, Excellence & Equity founder, Dr. JuanCarlos Arauz, and the episode I listened to twice for all of its gems: the conversation with poet, activist, leader and author of The Body Is Not An Apology, Sonya Renee Taylor.

Eyes On Whiteness is making me, instead of always looking outward to analyze anti-Black racism, look inward in a way that helps bring awareness to the ways whiteness shows up in me, and how it permeates all of us, and all the spaces we move in. It is challenging me to work through this current bout of white guilt I have been letting overtake me. It is helping me to sustain my will to always show up and be present in this lifelong work of what, I believe Diedre has named, as transmuting white supremacy. They say transmuting instead of dismantling because it is their belief that we will never break down white supremacy completely, but we can transform it, and change our ways of being together and living and working together—replace the ways of white supremacy with a new, non-hierarchal, equitable way of relating to, and caring for one another—to make a new way, and a new world together.

I thank you for sharing in my confession. Maybe mine will help you share yours. Because it’s okay to not be perfect, to slip up, to be self-aware, so we can know what we need to work on on ourselves. I give thanks to Maureen and Diedre, for all they have given to me over these past few weeks. I will now go count for 60 seconds, and clear out those guilt cobwebs, and begin again, looking for the next bridge to cross.

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

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

28 Apr

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.

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