5th Tuesday Guest Post: Photographing Black Girl Magic

Note from Michelle: When I saw the photos from this project, I was floored. I knew this was something that needed to be shared far and wide, so I asked Katie about writing up a little something for Tuesday Justice. I’m so glad she agreed. This is what it looks like to use your privilege and be an ally. Thank you, Katie! Check out more of her work here


by Katie Hoffpauir

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The journey to this project took a little over a year, and it began as something so utterly simple. I wanted to document natural hair: the curls, the fro, all of it. But what started out as me wanting to take photographs of just hair morphed into something completely different, and I am so thankful that it did.34536308_10103233196156260_4917672386381217792_o

One day this past May, over a year after the idea came to me, I was walking around our local Barnes and Noble. Now, on a normal bookstore trip, I leave with at least two new books and probably some kind of puzzle. On this particular trip, however, nothing was standing out to me. I walked the aisles for well over an hour and not one thing said, “buy me.” As I was getting ready to just give up, I passed one of the center tables and the only, I mean the only book that I saw, was Black Girl Magic. I tend to take signs literally, and I knew that I needed to really do this project. Only, at that moment, I knew it was turning into something else. I felt it in my bones, this urge to photograph black women. Not only for their beautiful hair, but for their inner beauty and their strength. 

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This feeling took me to Pinterest to research portrait styles and trends for photographing black women in particular. And do you know what I found? Not a whole lot. There were literally photographs of white women for every single scenario, but mostly only ad campaigns featuring black women, and not very diverse ads might I say. Immense sadness washed over me as I realized that young black girls growing up don’t see themselves portrayed in a positive light very often. We’ve seen a growth in representation, sure, but is it necessarily mostly positive? The black women portrayed in most movies or tv shows are loud, obnoxious, or out for revenge. Just turn on just about any Tyler Perry movie, and there’s a black woman out for blood (usually over a no good man). Or in any white movie, she’s the token black friend plugged in for the sake of variety. We must change the stereotype that women of color are only two-dimensional, and we must teach our young people to not only SEE but CELEBRATE color. So often, I hear white people say that their children are taught not to see color. But you guys, color should be seen! We have to show our children that there is no shame in color; that there is beauty and strength in our differences. 

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When I posted about needing models for this project, some asked if they could bring a friend. This simple question took me not only into documenting an individual’s beauty, but their friendships. 

34556028_10103233195442690_7440125358134788096_oTo say I was excited about this turn of events, doesn’t do the feelings I had justice. The morning of the first session, I was a little nervous to be photographing three women. But then when we met up, every anxiety faded away, and I knew exactly where I needed this project to go. It became a need to showcase not only photographs that were about strength, but photographs that showcased a sisterhood and love. It became so much more than what I envisioned a year earlier. Each portrait day, these women were stopped by others on the street, telling them how beautiful they were. And at the end of each session, there was a sense of joy and pride present that I can’t explain.

I have never in my life felt so invigorated while photographing anyone, and that week of sessions did more for my soul than anything I had ever done before. I made new friends, and I met some fierce and beautiful women of color. These women work in social work, they deliver babies, they teach children, they are mothers, sisters, daughters. They are bold, beautiful, educated, courageous, and kind. They embody love, loyalty, and wisdom. They are a wonderful force for good in this world and we need to celebrate their melanin. Because it is amazing. 

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Find the Helpers: From Outrage to Action

 by Michelle Palmer

“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” 

Some weeks it’s really easy to know what to write about. There’s one thing dominating the headlines that deserves some thoughtful unpacking. Other weeks, increasingly it seems, there are so many it’s hard to even think about them all without losing hope.

So, today, I just want to remind us, like I did in the post on Syria, of what Mr. Rogers said:

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world.”

In the midst of so much tragedy, so many events that outrage and infuriate us, I want us to look for the helpers. My purpose in this is twofold.

  • First, I want to give us some hope. (There are helpers. There are people doing something to make things better.)
  • Second, I want our outrage to lead us to action. (We can be helpers too.)

Gun Control:

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The issue of gun control has come up (again) in light of the Las Vegas tragedy, as it so often does.

[SIDENOTE: If this seems like a particularly controversial issue for us to be tackling without much context, consider this: The majority of Americans are in favor of sensible gun control measures (reports here and here). And according to the CDC, there are an average of 33,880 gun deaths per year from 2011-2015, and those numbers are on the rise for 2016 and 2017.]

When I looked for organizations working for gun control, I found several lists, but there were four organizations that appeared on every list I saw. (This article from Bustle is particularly helpful.) These organizations are linked below, and each website has an action section.

I also came across an article that I found particularly interesting, “What If We Made Gun Culture Uncool Like We Did Cigarettes?” Here’s an excerpt:

“On the legislative front it seems America has made its choice and there is little chance for legal reform in the near future except at the margins deemed acceptable by the gun industry and a current generation of gun owners who believe that ‘things happen’ is an appropriate reaction to gun deaths. When lawmakers can’t lead, a social solution is certainly worth a shot.”

Puerto Rico:

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Full disclosure: My love for Lin-Manuel Miranda knows no bounds. However, I can honestly say his Twitter account is an amazing resource for finding ways to help Puerto Rico. His feed is chock-full of ways to help, donation drop-off locations, and links for donating money. Click here: https://twitter.com/lin_manuel

Lin’s twitter feed can get a little overwhelming, so here’s a more concise list from NBC:  How To Help Puerto Rico Right Now

Also, go listen to “Almost Like Praying” on your iTunes or Spotify or Amazon or wherever you listen to your music. It’s catchy, it’s beautiful, it has Gloria Estefan, and all the proceeds go to hispanicfederation.org.

And if you need a smile on your face, check out THIS VIDEO of Stephen Colbert’s #PuberMe challenge to see how much he and Nick Kroll raised for Puerto Rico.

NFL Protests:

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Despite all the arguments regarding secondary issues (respecting the flag, the right to protest), the purpose of the protests from the start has been to bring attention to “systemic oppression against people of color, police brutality and the criminal justice system.” (Source.) If you’re still unsure about the protests, this is the best thing I’ve read on the issue, “What You Might Be Missing in the Kneeling Debate” by Ed Uszynski. And if you’re unsure about the issues being protested, we have lots of information on our Resource List page, and Channon and I would be more than happy to answer your questions.

The organizations below tackle the very issues that led to the protests, and again, each one has ways to support and get involved.

 


There is so much heartbreak in our world, so much to be outraged about today. If the thing pulling at your heartstrings right now hasn’t been addressed here, and you have little hope or don’t know how to help, let us know, and we’ll do our best to point you in the right direction. You can email us at tuesdayjusticeblog@gmail.com or message us on Facebook.

Whatever you do, don’t give up hope. Let your outrage move you to action.

 

Cotton, Sugar, & the N-Word: Why History Matters

Maybe the n-word is just a word, maybe cotton is just a plant, maybe sugar mills are just historical artifacts, but when a person is keenly aware of their history, IT. MAKES. A. DIFFERENCE. We cannot ignore historical context in modern discourse.

ON THE N-WORD

by Channon Oyeniran

“When I hear the N-word, I still think about every black man who was lynched—and the N-word was the last thing he heard.” – Oprah Winfrey

As I was scrolling through my newsfeed on Facebook a few weeks ago, an article caught my attention, “If you truly knew what the N-word meant to our ancestors, you’d NEVER use it.” I thought to myself, “That’s for sure!” I know the word is horrendous, and I have cringed every time I hear it and have been called it, but I still decided to click on the link so that I could learn a bit more about the origins of this detestable word.

768px-you27se_just_a_little_nigger2c_still_youse_mine2c_all_mine_28nypl_hades-610093-125607929The author of the article, Brandon Simeo Starky, said this about the n-word and why it was used: “The best explanation of what I gleaned, what social scientists called internalized oppression, describes the psychological trauma that ensues when a person from a stigmatized group believes those negative stigmas. White folk indoctrinated them into accepting their supposed inferiority. These [slave] narratives illustrate the success of this campaign of mental terrorism, and no word conveyed the depth of this internalized oppression more than ‘nigger.’” What was clear to Starky while reading these slave narratives was the self-perception that those enslaved had about themselves based on the use of the n-word. It was clear to him, and became clear to me as I read, that the primary purpose of the n-word was to dehumanize, demean and break the spirit of those hearing it. It was used every day, all day, 24/7/365 and has been around longer than the existence of the USA. For this reason, many of those who were enslaved, and their descendants, internalized the meaning of this word.

 

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Enslaved black people were called the n-word as if it was their name, and the word was found in literature, media, entertainment, comedy, marketing and advertising of products, etc. If I haven’t gotten this point across, know that this word was everywhere, used all the time to degrade the very souls of black people. Doing a slow, psychological work in them, causing deep emotional damage, passed down through generations, that will take many years and much work to undo.  

Some say that it’s okay for black people to use the word. I disagree. I get that they have tried to reclaim it and use “nigga” instead, but I just don’t think it’s necessary or warranted. Whenever I hear black people using this word, I say to myself, “Do they know all of the history behind this word, like really know….?” 10214542_1_xThis word was used as our name. Although we had names, we heard this word so much that we started to internalize it and believe that we were n*****s and nothing more, that we had no value.

To see what others had to say about the n-word, Michelle and I sent a series of six questions to black women and men of different ages. We got back four responses and many of the answers were quite similar. (Huge thanks to those who participated and sent responses back!)

  1. Is it ever okay for non-Black people to use the N word (in context, joking, repeating, etc.)?

The general consensus was a resounding, “NO!” But Subria had a great response to this question.

Subria: It is never okay for a non-Black person to use any variation of the word: nigger, nigga, or my nig. When non-Black people use it, it comes with a history of violence. If a non-Black person says it, they are demonstrating their complicity in that violence, it will never be their word to claim, no matter how many rap songs and no matter how many black friends they have. And the black friends that don’t call them out need a history lesson as to why it’s grounds to whoop that a$$. (Q: Can I say that last part?)

  1. Is it okay for Black people to use the word?

Gail: After really understanding where that word comes from, I don’t know why they would want to. I think it’s best to educate them and have them really understand the history of it. There are some great books and movies that will really hit home (12 Years a Slave, Birth of a Nation, etc). I feel like if black people really understood the weight behind it they would not use it so freely.

Subria: Yes, it is okay for Black people to use the word. It surprises me that, particularly among black academics, the choice is made to use “the n word” instead of writing out or saying the word “nigger”. It’s a hurtful word and it stings on our ears. Just like the violence of the word stung our ancestors and continues to do to their offspring. This choice to use the “the n-word” pacifies the continued reality of its violence and this upsets me tremendously. Adding an additional perspective, I’ve yet to encounter a black person who says the word nigger casually. When the word “nigger” is used by a black person [casually], it is usually in haste and a demonstration of a black person displaying anti-blackness. [Emphasis added.]

Shenaz: I am not particularly fond of black people using the N-word, although some would say that by using it as a black person it takes the power away from non-black people; however, the history behind the word never changes.

[Sidenote from Michelle: Scholars like James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates have used the n-word in its full form to great effect. Christian hip-hop artist Sho Baraka also used the word on his album, Talented Xth. I believe the word can be useful in particular circumstances, for particular purposes, by black artists, scholars, writers, etc. at their discretion.]

  1. Does it really matter? It’s just a word!

Gail: It’s not just a word because there’s a lot of history behind it. It may not mean anything to person who is ignorant of that history, but it can be hurtful to someone who does

Muna: It’s the intention behind it that matters more than the word. You can always tell when it’s ill-intention for the most part.

Subria: It certainly matters. Language shapes culture and culture creates norms.  It is still normal to inflict violence on black bodies because white supremacy and racism have deemed that black people are inherently “lazy, violent, brute, a burden, and niggers”.  Black people are loosening the noose on centuries of white-violent branding. Black people are replacing, reclaiming, and kicking racism where it hurts through languages. Shifting and rewriting the narrative through a Black perspective is liberation, and this is why language that concerns Blackness in its entirety matters.

In all of these responses, the history of the n-word and where it came from was mentioned — How it was used to dehumanize, degrade and oppress black people from slavery to the Jim Crow era. How this word was created to differentiate and then used solely to demean people because of the colour of their skin. This word was a tool of oppression to the enslaved, to break them down and to kill their minds and spirits, especially while working in the fields cultivating things like cotton and sugar that ultimately filled the pockets of those who enslaved them and meant privilege for their descendants.

ON COTTON & SUGAR

by Michelle Palmer

Desktop7-001For most people in my circle, the reasons why using the n-word is a bad idea may go without saying. But there’s another issue that may not be so clear: cotton. A friend sent me an email about the cotton display at Hobby Lobby and asked for my opinion.

On one hand, as a white person, I personally don’t see it as racist at all. I have white relatives who are cotton farmers and did a family portrait in front a field of cotton. I just saw it on my Facebook feed a few days ago and thought, “That’s so precious!” It was beautiful, it represented who they are as a family, I loved it. My sister-in-law has a cotton bud wreath that I think is gorgeous. It’s literally just a plant. It, on its own, is neutral, at least to me, a white person.

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That being said, I was at Kent House last weekend, and I saw something that turned my stomach. The thing that bothered me most was seeing a sugar mill, with sugarcane planted around it, and the sugar kettles on display. It turned my stomach because I’m keenly aware of the effects of sugar on slaves. I think about it every time I pass a sugarcane field. Desktop7-003I’d probably think about it if I saw it at Hobby Lobby too. Harvesting and refining sugar was one of the deadliest things a slave could do. I didn’t see any reference to that. In fact, there’s an event coming in November called, “Sugar Days,” where the whole process will be demonstrated. And I’m guessing the dangerous, life-threatening parts of the process will be omitted. I’m also assuming they won’t discuss the high death rates and low fertility rates amongst slaves associated with sugar production. The sugar is neutral, the kettles are neutral, but being SO in tune and aware of the history makes me feel sick to see it being displayed in that way.

Maybe to display cotton as décor isn’t inherently racist, but if this woman was as keenly aware of the history of cotton in America as I am about the history of sugar, I can sympathize with her reaction. Since then, I’ve talked to several others who had the same reaction as this lady. Desktop7She isn’t alone. Of course, I wish she had expounded on her thoughts more to help others understand the depth of her hurt and why it upset her so much, but when someone is triggered that way, we can’t expect them to do the hard work of educating the rest of us as well.

Maybe the n-word is just a word, maybe cotton is just a plant, maybe sugar mills are just historical artifacts, but when a person is keenly aware of their history, IT. MAKES. A. DIFFERENCE. We cannot ignore historical context in modern discourse.

So, fellow white people, here’s the deal: We can probably never do away with the n-word. We can probably never do away with cotton and sugar mills and all the things that conjure painful imagery for people of color. But we can acknowledge the pain of others. We can minimize the triggers. And we can definitely do better.

I saw this comment on the post from Lipscomb University by Kaitlin Hardy Shetler, and she said so eloquently what was in my heart as I thought about the issue:

“If you can only see this as an issue of being offended by cotton, instead of a deeper systemic problem, you will never be able to meaningfully connect with our black brothers and sisters. You will continue to drive a wedge in this already tenuous relationship by refusing to acknowledge the pain, racism, and microaggressions they experience daily. […]

Reconciliation must start with white people. You may say that’s racist, but let’s be intellectually honest here. Collectively, it has been our people who have systemically oppressed, intimidated, threatened, and subjugated black people in our country. We should absolutely be trying to bridge that gap and heal deep wounds passed down from generation to generation.

Again, if you are offended by other people’s offendedness, it is not about you. […]

We may make mistakes and be clumsy in our approach, but we pray God will give us grace as we learn what true respect and reconciliation looks like.”


For more information…

Responding to Charlottesville

by Michelle Palmer

 

“The greatest indicator of whether we’d have marched or stayed home, spoken out or remained silent, been brave or safe in the last civil right movement is whether we’re marching, speaking up, and being brave in THIS civil rights movement. Who you are is not about what you believe or how you feel. Who you are is about what you do or do not do.” – Glennon Doyle

“Sickened.” “Disgusted.” “Devastated.”

Those are some of the words I saw flash across my timeline after last weekend. (If you are not one of the 30 million people who have already seen the VICE News video about Charlottesville, please do. I’m confident you will be sickened, disgusted, and devastated. WARNING: It’s graphic. It’s painful. It’s vulgar. But it’s important.)

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As thankful as I was to see so many denounce white supremacy publicly, including several who often steer clear of controversial issues, I am left, the week after, hoping their words aren’t empty. Hoping that their disgust will lead them to action. I’ve seen it stated in a variety of ways over the last week: If you think you would have marched with Martin Luther King in the 60s, you should be marching now. For folks who are just waking up to the severe racial divides and inequality in America, and indeed the world, I wanted to provide a resource that answers, “What do I do now?” I freely admit that I have stolen these lists from various sources for your convenience, but each source is linked and I encourage you to read them in full, if at all possible!  

I. Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide (This resource from Southern Poverty Law Center is the best I’ve seen thus far. If you’re sickened or disgusted or devastated, please click through to the full guide and find a way to get plugged in.)

  1. Act. “Do something. In the face of hatred, apathy will be interpreted as acceptance by the perpetrators, the public and — worse — the victims. Community members must take action; if we don’t, hate persists.”
  2. Join Forces. “Reach out to allies from churches, schools, clubs, and other civic groups. Create a diverse coalition. Include children, police, and the media. Gather ideas from everyone, and get everyone involved.”
  3. Support the Victims. “Hate crime victims are especially vulnerable.”
  4. Speak Up. “Hate must be exposed and denounced. Help news organizations achieve balance and depth.”
  5. Educate Yourself. “An informed campaign improves its effectiveness. Determine if a hate group is involved, and research its symbols and agenda. Understand the difference between a hate crime and a bias incident.”
  6. Create an Alternative. “Do not attend a hate rally. Find another outlet for anger and frustration and for people’s desire to do something. Hold a unity rally or parade to draw media attention away from hate.”
  7. Pressure Leaders. “Elected officials and other community leaders can be important allies.”
  8. Stay Engaged. “Promote acceptance and address bias before another hate crime can occur.”
  9. Teach Acceptance. “Bias is learned early, often at home. Schools can offer lessons of tolerance and acceptance.”
  10. Dig Deeper. “Look inside yourself for biases and stereotypes.”


II. “How to ‘Love Anyway’ After Charlottesville” – Courtney Christenson

  • recognize that racism is woven into the very fabric of our society
  • stand by our black and brown brothers and sisters and make sure that they know their well-being is more important to us than the feelings of their oppressors.
  • by pointing out the ways racism infiltrates our everyday language, culture, media, and government—rather than pretending that the extremists who showed up in Charlottesville are the only perpetrators.
  • advocate for the rights and fair treatment of people of color by law enforcement.
  • challenge white privilege when we see it in the relatively gentle response of law enforcement and government officials to white supremacist marching in Charlottesville, compared to their response to protests largely made up of people of color.
  • seek justice and reconciliation, instead of victory and domination.
  • use every nonviolent tactic we can think of to destroy hate and unmake violence, but we distinguish between destroying ideologies and destroying the people who hold them.
  • respect the humanity of the people in these groups by refusing to injure or kill or dehumanize them, even though they don’t show the same respect to others.
  • advocate for the healing and rehabilitation of white supremacists whenever possible. Because real peace is healing for everyone involved.
  • refuse to lose sight of the humanity of the oppressor… while remembering that our hearts belong to the oppressed.

III. “White Feelings: 0-60 for Charlottesville” – Erynn Brook (which I feel obliged to tell you has NSFW language, but I highly recommend anyway)

Amplify. Speak out. Follow the voices on the ground. Denounce white supremacy. Denounce white supremacy publicly, on all your social media accounts. Donate here (Solidarity Cville Anti-Racist Legal Fund). Donate here, Black Women Being will provide funds to individuals on the ground. Donate here, Nice White Ladies has an emergency fund that is directly available to community organizers. Get on Twitter and Facebook and ask your friends to donate as well. Donate to BLM Charlottesville, they are on the ground. If you feel like you need more education on anti-black racism, sign up for Safety Pin Box. Contact your local Black Lives Matter chapter and follow them. Just be present, do something, do anything. If you’ve done nothing because you’re worried about being the best, then you’re a bigger problem than someone who’s trying but messing up.

I know, I know: Many of these are pretty daunting. I get that. To quote my old pastor, Crispin, “Condemning racism is easy. Making space in one’s life for relationship with folks who are different from you is work, hard work, holy work.” Doing the hard, holy work of ending white supremacy and fighting for racial reconciliation requires time and energy and other resources. If you have the time and energy for this stuff, keep going. Keep working. It’s so worth it!  

If you’re not quite there yet, but still want to do something, there’s a (relatively) easy way to get involved that only requires one resource, CASH! Donating funds to the people on the ground is important, necessary work. (Erynn gave four great places to donate to up there ^.) Another organization to support, both financially and otherwise, is the Southern Poverty Law Center. I love the work this organization does! They are on the forefront of research on hate groups in America, and they use their research to fuel the fight against white supremacy.

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The SPLC is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.

FIGHTING HATE

We monitor hate groups and other extremists throughout the United States and expose their activities to the public, the media and law enforcement.

TEACHING TOLERANCE

We’re dedicated to reducing prejudice, improving intergroup relations and supporting equitable school experiences for our nation’s children.

SEEKING JUSTICE

We’re seeking justice for the most vulnerable people in society.

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(Also, I am donating my birthday to these guys on Facebook, and I would LOVE for you join my campaign. Click here!!!)

But it’s not just about financial support. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter, and share their work with your family and friends.

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I know this was a lot. If you’re feeling super overwhelmed right now, bookmark this post, come back to it, and in the meantime, do this:

“Tell your family you love them. Tell your friends you love them. Tell strangers you see them. Tell the marginalized you will stand alongside them. Tell children you see their potential. Whatever you do, don’t be silent.” – Matthew Huard

 


For More Information…

 

The Day I Became a White Man Was the Day I Became a Black Man: A Story About Race

Michelle here! Just a quick note about today’s post. No, it’s not the 5th Tuesday of the month, but we’ve got a guest post! We are so thankful to publish this piece by Vershal Hogan while we’re a week into our 2017 Tuesday Justice Survey campaign. We have already seen several requests for more ways to get involved and to tangibly work towards freedom, equality, and justice. That is coming, I promise. But this post isn’t it. With that being said, I fully believe that some of the most important work we can do is in our own hearts and minds. Vershal’s story has encouraged me to come to terms with my own whiteness and how that affects my interactions and relationships. As a person passionate about these issues, it’s mandatory that I regularly confront this in my own life. I hope this story helps you do just that, like it did for me. 

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Vershal and his son quite a few years back, closer to the time of the story than today.

by Vershal Hogan

At the time, I was in my first year of working for a newspaper in southern Mississippi, in a city renowned for its preservation of antebellum homes and — to some extent even now — culture. Any discussion of race in the city inevitably mentions its historic tableaux, which was originally known as the Confederate Pageant and wasn’t rebranded until the early 2000s, but even outside the spring and fall pilgrimage seasons — in which the city’s garden clubs open their historic homes for tours — the historic realities of the Civil War, slavery and Jim Crow are a part of a complicated history and present. Some embrace that history with unquestioning enthusiasm, waving the banner Lost Cause, while others wrestle with being the inheritors of estates that were built and paid for by human chattel. Many members of the black community are descendants of those slaves, growing up in the shadows of homes that were raised by the blood and sweat of their kin but never gaining any social capital from it. Couple that with Jim Crow and civil rights eras that were as violent as the worst parts of the country, and race becomes an issue that almost always simmers just below the surface.

I met David one day while I was out doing an assignment for the newspaper, a weekly feature in which we threw a dart at a map and then went and wrote a story about whatever we found. It was usually an innocuous, inconsequential story, usually something about a grandmother spending time with her grandchildren or about friends who worked on antique cars together – typically, it was something very middle-class.

That day was different, however. The dart had landed on a street in a historically black neighborhood that had once been renowned for its success, but had drifted into decay in recent years. My editor had given us a rule that you were allowed to go only as far as one street over from where the dart landed to find a story, and normally that worked. In that town, one street over from shacks leaning in on each other could very easily be gentrified, or just as likely, bourgeoisie. Economic degeneration and revitalization in southwest Mississippi is a strange thing.

The street the dart landed on was by far the better of the three choices we had using the one-street-over rule, and even then there was a gang of Bloods standing at the corner eyeballing me and the photographer, Frank.

The first couple of houses we approached had “Keep Out” and “Beware of Dog” signs, and when we saw David sitting on a porch, he was working on a neighbor’s kerosene heater, tinkering and trying to get it to fire up. He had a plastic cup and a bottle of cheap whiskey on the porch next to him, whiskey I smelled before I ever saw it. It looked like a lazy afternoon, and he would be someone we could speak with and get a story quickly.

“Hey, Mr. Frank,” he called out, recognizing the photographer, who seemed to know everyone in that town, “What are you doing with that Jew in this neighborhood?”

After Frank and I both laughed at the comment (I’d been mistaken for being Jewish a number of times, several of them while with Frank in black neighborhoods), we explained what we were doing, and David agreed to talk to us. He talked about the history of his neighborhood (he alleged, among other things, that a nun had been hanged in his house in the 1880s), about his personal doubts about organized religion even though he occasionally attended a church, about how he wanted to help people and how he gathered and distributed information around his neighborhood about how to get back into school, start a business or get corporate grants. He talked a lot about race relations, how they had gotten better and how, in some cases, they had gotten worse.

He had a master’s degree in agriculture production and had been part of a program that had the goal of teaching young black men how to be commercial farmers and catfish producers. That had been going well until his work in the field got the best of him, leaving him out of commission for a long time, he said.

“Sunstroke is a hell of a thing to happen to a man,” he said. “Especially to a black man.”

Through all of this, he would occasionally give me a strange look.

Finally, he came out with it: “You look white, but I know you’re not all white.”

Like many people in the South, I’ve got some Chickasaw-Choctaw Nation genes, but I’ve never considered myself to be anything but white and have certainly never been bold enough to try to identify otherwise.

“You know how I know you’re not all white?” David said, his eyes intense. “I know that because you look me in the eyes. White people don’t look me in the eyes.”

Here was a man who — while a little rough around the edges — was educated and articulate (yes, I said it), but conditioned by a dynamic that expected me not to treat him as an equal. His bringing up what he perceived to be my own ethno-racial identity was predicated on the safety of the neighborhood.

I don’t remember what I said after that. Back then, making eye contact in conversation wasn’t so much a professional or human courtesy as it was a compulsion because I had a teacher who berated me for not doing so when I talked to her when I was 15. I was just trying to be polite to an adult who was much older than I was, and for a brief moment, I felt a pointless pang of corporate white guilt even though he had praised me for doing what he didn’t expect me to do.

I had already come to the conclusion that in the South race problems were rooted in more than just a hatred or disdain for that which is different, that it was a social construct that conflated socio-economics with melanin. The city was the location anthropologists chose to study in the 1941 (at the time) groundbreaking anthropological study, “Deep South,” and though at the time I hadn’t read it, I’d noticed similar dynamics to what the authors published — that racial boundaries are often about maintaining a caste system, which is why, for example, it’s often considered shameful for a rich white girl to date a black boy (even a rich black boy) but not for a white girl from one of the poorer trailer parks.

But David then did something that made me realize that everything we do, consciously or unconsciously, reinforces those caste systems.

He reached over, put his hands on my shoulder, and said, “Because you look me in the eyes, I now adopt you as my black brother. You are now one of us.”

That was the day I really grasped how my own race could import an unspoken dynamic into a conversation, especially with someone who has the living memory of some of our shared culture’s uglier moments. Here I was, a kid just out of school interacting with a man three times my age and with twice the education, and he was socially conditioned to assume I wouldn’t grant him a basic courtesy, whether out of a sense of superiority or fear. Until that point, my general beliefs about racism had been facile, the thought that if one does not speak or think with overt hatred they’ve covered their bases, and a few years later, when talk of non-verbal racism became mainstream, I thought back to that occasion.

The story I wrote from that afternoon, like many dart features, wasn’t very long or memorable. I’m sure that if David even read it, he laughed at it, as he would laugh at this writing.

But I remember it, and sometimes I still think about it. Since then, I’ve had opportunity to attend sessions where black people — especially older people — talked about the conditioning that was drilled into them from a young age, how they weren’t to look certain people directly in the eyes, how deferential language was non-negotiable and even how where one positioned themselves in a room or a public space were important considerations. While most of the overt behavior codes of the bad old days are now gone, the complexity of our interactions continue; in fact, it may be more difficult to root out now because most people will affirm that racism is bad, and thus don’t want to admit their own shortcomings.

(And if you don’t see how that doesn’t sometimes translate into frustration or even rage…)

I am fortunate in that I don’t get to qualify my own failings with the old social crutch of “That’s how I was raised;” our home was pretty open. But the culture around me being what it was, there were a lot of unconscious cues that I absorbed, and I’ll admit that there are still things I have to work on.

But I’ll give this: If I have to be called out for something, I’ll at least be looking you in the eye.

 



For more on battling racism, check out our other posts on the subject:

The Art of Being an Ally

Being an ally means laying aside my own feelings and recognizing the larger forces at work beyond what affects only me and people who look like me. Being an ally means shutting down the pride that says, “It doesn’t matter if it’s not good for you; it’s good for me and that’s all that matters.” Being an ally means hearing hard things without getting immediately defensive.

by Michelle Palmer

DISCLAIMER: This is going to be a far more personal post than usual, and I’ll start with a confession. I’ve been thinking about this post for well over a month. I’m typing the first words of it at 8:45 PM the night before it’s meant to be published. I’m no stranger to procrastination, but this time it’s because I’m a bit overwhelmed and a bit afraid of what I want to say. I hope you’ll bear with me.

593ff1b91d00002900cc2ac9I first started thinking about writing this post when I saw Wonder Woman and loved it. But it didn’t take long, because of the people and pages I follow, before I saw a post on my timeline lambasting it. (A post which I am very annoyed to say I now can’t find.) The author made several excellent points. Firstly, she spoke about the tropes used on two of the featured Black women at the start of the film: the first a “mammy” figure chasing after Diana and the second a “brute” figure fighting Antiope (eloquently explained in this post by Cameron Glover). Then she spoke about Gal Gadot’s problematic Zionist views (outlined in detail in this post by Susan Abulhawa), which she and many others find deeply oppressive and unjust.

I don’t intend to tackle either harmful Black stereotypes or intersectionality or the Israel-Palestine conflict in this post.

Today, I want to tackle my white fragility.

329958-fragileWhat happened when I was confronted with the notion that Wonder Woman wasn’t perfect was a deep frustration…an exhaustion…a temptation to give up. It wasn’t just Wonder Woman. I remember thinking at the time about all the other frustrating and exhausting things I kept encountering that particular week. I just wanted a win. I wanted something to enjoy, something that I didn’t have to question.

That reaction was prideful and unfair, and it revealed my fragility.

You see, the truth is that even though feminism matters and there is some good to be said about Wonder Woman, the film is not intersectional; it’s not good for women of color like it is for white women. The truth is that minority groups, especially women in minority groups, don’t have the luxury of just ignoring what’s problematic. (Erynn Brook had a similar experience and writes about it beautifully in her post on Medium.)

As a privileged white woman, I can easily ignore what’s problematic and focus entirely on what’s good and post a highly-edited, shiny photo of my ticket stub with the caption “OMG BEST MOVIE EVERRR.” I can comfort myself and shy away from harsh truths and keep myself shielded from unfortunate realities. But that’s a temptation I don’t want to fall into.  

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Why? Because I want to be an ally.

Being an ally means laying aside my own feelings and recognizing the larger forces at work beyond what affects only me and people who look like me. Being an ally means shutting down the pride that says, “It doesn’t matter if it’s not good for you; it’s good for me and that’s all that matters.” Being an ally means hearing hard things without getting immediately defensive.

It can get complicated too. There are a lot of voices. And I’m still not sure I can explain intersectionality on my own without Google. (Though this article by Kimberlé Crenshaw, the law professor who coined the term, gives the clearest explanation I’ve come across yet.) But there are lots of articles, posts, and websites that make it plain and simple. Here are some I really like:

I encourage you to check them all out, but I’ve summarized them down to the bare bones here in case you don’t.

    • When you see it, call it out. Don’t let racism go unchecked. In your workplace, in your home, on your Facebook page, in your church. Challenge racism every single time you see it.
    • Get educated. (Find resources here and here.) Know about redlining, systemic racism, and mass incarceration.
    • Amplify the voices of people of color. Post stories and videos on your social media pages. Be supportive in your workplace and community and church, and don’t let other White people silence POC. Pass the mic as often as you can.
    • Listen. Listen. Listen.

There’s more to it, of course, but that’s a good place to start.

Last week, a friend of mine shared this picture on Facebook, and the quote absolutely floored me. I love it, and I feel like I need it tattooed on my arm so I can be reminded of it every single day.

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Then Sunday night, we were watching Captain America: Civil War, and Peter Parker said, in his own Peter Parkery kind of way, almost the same exact thing:

“When you can do the things that I can, but you don’t, and then the bad things happen? They happen because of you.”

The way Spiderman says it is less fancy, but it speaks the same truth:

Being an ally means doing all I can to end the vices and the bad things, and failure to do so is failure.

 


For more information….

#BlackHairProblems

As other posts on this blog have discussed time and again, there is deep-rooted systemic racism at play here, even down to the trivial things such as a person’s hair…the hair that they were born with. So no, the issue is not just about hair, but about the continuous racism directed towards black people and the constant effort to try and dehumanize us and make us feel “less than” in every aspect of society and life.

by Channon Oyeniran

afro2#BlackHairProblems – It’s a humorous hashtag on Twitter, but one of the big “problems” with black hair isn’t funny at all. The number of articles, news clips and stories I’ve seen and heard recently concerning black girls’ and women’s natural hair is both surprising and ridiculous. Are we really making such a big issue out of a person’s hair as to ask them to change it or “get it done” or suggest that they are breaking the school dress code…in 2017?! Seriously?! I must admit, the controversy surrounding this topic is puzzling to me in the sense that something so trivial as a person’s hair – the black person’s hair –  is creating such a stir.

Black women can do almost anything with our hair because it is so versatile. We can make it straight, curly, wavy, we can braid it, twist it, put it in a ponytail, cut it and style and so much more! We can also do all of this with our natural hair or with aides such as extensions, weaves, hot combs, curling irons, etc. Desktop6-008Many are now taking issue with black women choosing to wear their hair in its natural state, a trend that is growing in popularity, rather than trying to make it into some idealized view of beauty that the media and white majority have portrayed. For so long black women were told that our hair must be long, straight and flowing for us to be considered beautiful. Whether a woman chooses to go natural or not is not the issue. It is up to each individual and what she wants. The real problem is the pressure put on so many black women, from their workplaces, schools, and society, to “fit in” and conform to mainstream society.

This uproar is not a new phenomenon. Twisted views on beauty have been forced upon black women since they were taken from their homes in Africa more than 400 years ago. womenslaveThe black woman then had the western view beauty thrust upon her, internalized and then carried out among black communities. Black women who were lighter in complexion or of mixed race and had features that resembled white women were seen as “better,” and thus treated differently, than black women whose darker complexion and features were viewed “inferior.” This treatment extended to these women’s hair; in the eyes of the slave traders and owners, having long, straight, flowing hair was beautiful while having curly, short and wool-like hair was considered masculine, and unattractive. From the days of slavery, black people have had their value determined by their appearance and its proximity to whiteness. The more “white” you appeared, the more valuable you were.  This has led to an enduring pressure to conform to the styles, mannerisms and culture of the white majority.

As a black woman who has worn my hair proudly in its natural state for many years (e.g. no relaxers, weaves, or extensions in my hair) and for the past two and half years worn what are called “sisterlocks” in my hair (a trademarked locking technique where the hair is parted in a precise grid, utilizing a special tool that places the hair in a locking pattern: see photo), I have taken pride in being able to just wear my hair as it is and not fill the pockets business owners, many of whom are not black, who profit very well from black people coming into their stores and spending hundreds of dollars at a time on hair care products, weaves, extensions, etc. I, too, like many other black women used to relax, aka “straighten”, my hair so that it was bone straight like white women’s hair or add weave to my hair so that I would have the hair length like a white woman. Desktop6-001But after much money spent, and educating myself more on my history, who I am, where my ancestors came from, I came to the realization that my hair is nothing to be ashamed of or to hide or to change. My hair is beautiful, naturally curly…characteristics that many women wish they had. I also decided to not care what the media portrays to be beautiful or acceptable. The media doesn’t determine who I am or if I am beautiful or not (which I am!). Although this issue doesn’t only affect women, I will focus on three stories, from three different countries, that highlight the discrimination black women, in particular, have faced for wearing traditionally black hairstyles.

USA:

“Twin sisters Deanna and Mya Cook are being punished by Mystic Valley Regional Charter School in Boston….[…] because of their hair.”

-Kayla Greaves (HuffPost Canada)

Just this past week, the story broke that fifteen-year-old twins from Boston, Deanna and Mya, have had to serve multiple suspensions since April, could potentially be suspended again for wearing box braids and were banned from school activities. According to Mystic Valley Regional Charter School’s administration, the girls’ box braids violate the school’s dress code because the code prohibits extensions, and says hair cannot be “more than 2 inches in thickness or height.” deanna-mya-cook(This rule would insinuate a black student wearing their hair in an afro style would be in violation of the dress code.) Both girls are intelligent and active in school, so what’s the problem? Well, according to another parent whose daughter also wore the box braid style and was suspended, white children at the school have “coloured hair and you are not supposed to colour your hair, and they walk around like it’s nothing.” Many feel, and I agree, that these facts point to discrimination against black students who cannot simply wear their hair in a style that represents their culture, heritage and identity.

Thankfully, I came across a follow-up article to this story, which reports that the state attorney general sent a letter demanding that the school “[…] immediately stop punishing black and biracial students for wearing hairstyles the school said violate its dress code.” These are rules that the attorney general thinks are both discriminatory and unfairly enforced amongst students at the school. It’s a happy ending to this particular story as the Cook twins are again allowed to participate in their extra-curricular activities, as well as maintain their hairstyles, which represent who they are. However, these stories, which are all too common, continue to occur around the world.

Canada

“Cree Ballah models the hairstyle she was wearing the day she says two managers at the Zara store she works at tried to change her hair in full view of other employees.”

                                                                          -Philip Lee-Shanok (CBC News; Toronto)

Desktop6-002.jpgIn March 2016, in Scarborough, just outside of Toronto, Zara store employee, Cree Ballah, went into work with box braids and was asked by her manager to first take her braids out of the ponytail they were in and then along with another manager tried to fix her hair to fit the so called “professional look” that Zara was trying to maintain. Not only was this experience unprofessional and discriminatory, it was also humiliating for Cree as her managers tried to fix her hair in front of the store in a busy mall and in front of her co-workers. When this happened, Cree said she would likely quit her job as well as file a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. This is yet another common example of discrimination against black women and their hair. (See this story from BBC News, ‘Wear a weave at work – your afro hair is unprofessional’.)

South Africa

“High-School Girls in South Africa Are Protesting for the Right to Wear Their Natural Hair”

-Claire Landsbaum (The Cut; NY magazine)

29-pretoria-girls-high-school-protests.w710.h473On August 29th, 2016, students at Pretoria Girls High School in South Africa, protested against the school’s hair policy that many students and parents deemed to be racist. The policy indicates that natural hair is “messy” and suspends students for wearing their hair natural. In response to the school’s policy, a petition with close to 18,000 signatures was signed along with the protest by the students and support pouring in for them via social media. The students even had the support of Arts and Culture Minister Nathi Mthethwa, who tweeted, “Schools should not be used as a platform to discourage students from embracing their African identity.” The protest, petition and support appeared to work as the high school suspended the rules about the hair policies a few days after the protest. Another triumph, but a bittersweet one, as these situations expose the deep rooted racism against people of colour across the world.

Why the Double Standard?

Justine-Skye-purple-natural-hair-vs-Katy-Perry-purple-hair.jpgIn another article, written by Elle on Black Girl with Long Hair, the author does a comparison of the inconsistency between black and white women who colour their hair and how it is seen by the general public. It is seen as “hood and ghetto” when black women colour their hair and “creative and cute” when white women do it. This issue, along with black women’s natural hair, goes deeper than just the issue of hair. As other posts on this blog have discussed time and time and time and time again, there is deep-rooted systemic racism at play here, even down to the trivial things such as a person’s hair…the hair that they were born with.

So no, the issue is not just about hair, but about the continuous racism directed towards black people and the constant effort to try and dehumanize us and make us feel “less than” in every aspect of society and life.

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More stories of the “problems” with natural hair:

Positive and uplifting stories:

And a few more great posts on the subject…

 

UPDATED RESOURCES (These are stories, articles, etc. added after publishing.)

Black Panther, black women, and the politics of black hair – Al-Jazeera

When Black Hair Violates the Dress Code – NPR