Archive for the ‘Racism’ Category

Raising a Woman of Color, Part III: History

June 1, 2010

Lately all I’ve been able to think about is school. Scheduling, classes, homework, papers. I’m nervous about how I might do, even though I’ve always been a pretty good student. As a child, my strength was English; I loved it, and I always got As. My weakness? History.     

I loathed history (or social studies). I just could not understand the point of it. It felt so irrelevant to me, memorizing these dates and names and places that happened so long ago. And I could not get any higher than a C in history, and I struggled so badly to even maintain that. I spent hours studying (and I was not a child that studied for classes; history was the only subject I bothered with), doing flash cards with my mom, and still barely passed. There were a couple of semesters in all my years of grade and high school when I managed to get my history grade up to a B, but my math grade then lowered to a C. I never did manage to hold at least a B in both math and history at the same time, not until college when I got As in both.     

Today, I love history. Specifically, I love learning the truth about history. I had heard of the saying “History is written by the winners,” but I didn’t truly understand its implications until I was an adult. What started my newfound respect for history was, oddly enough, a homework assignment in a college Astronomy class. The question that my professor asked was, “Why didn’t the people of Christopher Columbus’ time want him to sail westward?”     

Now, if you got the history lessons that I did as a child, you would think that the answer was obvious. Columbus got opposition because the people of his time believed that the world was flat, and that he would sail right off the edge of the planet. Of course, they were wrong and he was right and everyone in America all lived happily ever after (Native slaughter? What native slaughter?).     

I did the research even though I was positive that I already knew the answer, and what I found shocked me. The people of Columbus’ time did not believe that the world was flat; they knew better. The disagreement between Columbus and his country folks came from exactly how large the world was; he believed that the world was much smaller than it actually is, and they were convinced that he and his crew would starve to death before reaching his destination. It was his pure luck to come across the western continents; otherwise they all would have died.     

It was at that point that the saying “History is written by the winners” really started to make sense to me.     

 

 [Description: An elderly black man wearing a Confederate uniform is sitting on a chair and looking thoughtfully at the canteen in his hands. A Confederate battle flag is draped in the background.]      

So what does all of this have to do with parenting a black child? Because of who the winners are. The winners, the people holding the power in this society, are overwhelmingly white, male, able-bodied, cis, and wealthy. The history that I learned in school was white male able-bodied cis history; everyone else was either erased from the books entirely, or had their stories twisted to conform to the view of history that made the winners look the best.     

New York, 1880

 

 [Description: A black woman poses in a sepia-toned full-length portrait wearing an elegant dress. She has a huge afro.]     

I don’t know where my family came from or how we came to live in this city. I don’t know the country, the tribe, the language, the faith, or the names that my ancestors had. I don’t know who owned us, and I don’t really have the stomach to sit down and scroll through the cattle lists to find out who bought us and where the marketplace they bought us from is located – the knowledge that my foremothers were livestock for breeding, raping, and working to death makes me nauseous, and I’m not ready to look that truth in the face just yet. All of that African history was taken from us, forcefully, so all that remains is the history of our people living within this country, the American half of our history. And that history as it is taught today is tainted, twisted.     

The Tuskegee Airmen

 

 [Description: Eight black airmen pose in front of a plane.]     

When people have their history stripped from them, they lose a kind of power. They don’t have the ability to learn from their mistakes. Groups that have been harmful to them in the past can more easily earn their trust and complicity when it is not deserved. People who don’t learn about those who came before them and did great things have trouble recognizing within themselves the ability to do great things.     

A young boy touches the president's hair to see if it is really like his own.

 

  [Description: In the Oval Office, President Obama leans over so that a small black boy can touch his head.]     

We didn’t learn about Mississippi appendectomies in my history class. We didn’t learn about the Tuskegee experiments. We didn’t learn about Emmet Till. Blockbusting. Audre Lorde. Malcolm X. Juneteenth. Madame CJ Walker. Kwanzaa. Redlining. HBCUs. Black Confederate soldiers. Henrietta Lacks. La Amistad. Drapetomania. We didn’t learn shit about the people, the places, and the dates that are important to the American descendants of slaves. We didn’t learn our history.     

Young Emmett Till was tortured and lynched in Mississippi for whistling at a white woman

 

 [Description: A black-and-white picture of Emmett Till, a black teenaged boy, from the shoulders up. He is smiling gently and wearing a straw hat.]     

You know what else we didn’t learn? Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day, was originally observed by former slaves who were freed after the Civil War. I just learned this today, the day after my 27th Memorial Day. I should have already known; the truth of that history should have already been taught to me, but it wasn’t. Black contributions have been hidden or obscured and black achievements have been discarded or co-opted.     

I’m sure you’ve heard about what’s happening in Texas, with the rewriting of history books to conform to a more conservative view of things. Among other things, they attempted to rename the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade to the Atlantic Triangular Trade, but relented in light of the backlash. This is part of a calculated effort to control people, to make them easier to win over, by distorting their histories. A person that doesn’t know where they came from or how they got here is just so much easier to control than one who does know. Knowledge of self is power. Knowledge of history is power.     

 

 [Description: A black-and-white photo of two older black women in a booth. The booth has a sign saying “Vote Yes on Women Suffrage Oct 19” across the top of the booth and one saying “Votes for Women” across the bottom.]     

I intend to arm my daughter with that same power, so she will have the tools she needs to fight those who attempt rewrite her origins for their own purposes. Our history is worth knowing, worth learning from, and worth sharing with others. I will not let anyone lie to her about what her people have accomplished and the reasons we’ve made it this far. I will not let anyone take that power away from her.

Raising a Woman of Color, Part II: Hair

May 19, 2010

Like many Black American women, I have had quite the love-hate relationship with my hair. I have “good hair,” a term that I hate because of its implication that there is such a thing as “bad” black hair. My hair is soft, loosely curled, grows quickly, and is easily “tamed” by a perm*. By contrast, “bad hair” is kinky, highly textured, tightly curled, and doesn’t take too well to straightening.

For as long as I can remember, my hair has been a hot topic among the black folks in my life. I wore my hair long for my entire youth, and it was fawned over by many, from my aunts and cousins to complete and utter strangers in the street. I was complimented time and again for having good hair, and was also frequently admonished (even by total strangers!) not to even think about cutting my hair. Among family, I was so proud of my hair. And now, even though the long straight tresses of my youth have been gone for nearly a decade, I STILL have women lamenting the loss of my good hair. Every time my mother looks at my high school senior photo, in which my smiling face is framed by long black hair, she sighs as if I’ve taken something from her.

This policing of hair doesn’t just happen among women. Black men have been just as quick to pass judgement on me for not wearing my hair long, especially if they’d seen pictures of me as a child. On one occasion my mother’s neighbor, a pastor, told me right to my face, “You could be beautiful like your mom if you would just let your hair grow.”

At my predominantly white school, it was a different story. The hair that I took such pride in at home never seemed good enough when I was surrounded by white kids. I was very jealous of the white girls and their hair. I couldn’t understand for the life of me why I couldn’t get my hair to do the things that my schoolmates’ hair did naturally. The other girls had ponytails and all I could ever manage were ponypuffs. I remember slathering tons of moisturizer and blow-drying my hair to death every morning because I wanted it to look like theirs and it just. Wouldn’t. Work.

Every time that my mom permed my hair (which was a painful and time-consuming process, but I always looked forward to it anyway), I thought that my hair would move ever closer to that perfect and beautiful ideal…and of course, it never did. I was doomed to have black hair for all of my life, though I took comfort in the fact that I didn’t have the really “bad” kind of black hair. Never mind the fact that my “good hair” was dry, breaking off, and coming out in tufts due to all the harsh treatment. Never mind the fact that every time I got a perm, I spent a week or two picking the scabs off of my scalp where I had been burned.

When I finally decided to go natural, it was just because I wanted to try something different. The day my hair was cut, even though I was nervous, I wasn’t thinking about all of the social implications of the action. I knew that there were plenty of people who didn’t WANT me to do it, but for God’s sake, I had no idea that they would still be buggin over it a decade later!

Shortly after the Big Chop, I made a new acquaintance: my own hair, in exactly the form that it grew out of my head. Black women are pretty much the only demographic who frequently spend their entire lives not having any idea what their hair really looks or feels like, so this was a big deal and a huge discovery for me. I had no more problems with breakage and the dryness was a lot less of an issue. I decided pretty quickly that I would not be relaxing my hair ever again.

Let it be known that I have no problem with women who choose to straighten their hair. I do, however, have a BIG problem with the characterization of straight or easily-straightened hair as “good” and nappy or natural black hair as “bad” (or unprofessional, or wild, or what have you). For many people it’s internalized racism at its very finest, and the policing of black hair is something that, while I bought into for a long while, now leaves me with a very bad taste in my mouth.

Eve’s hair was the very first part of her body that I ever touched. She hadn’t even been born yet; she was crowning, and in between contractions I took a moment to put my hand between my legs and gently touch the top of her head. I felt her hair first, before I ever saw her eyes or heard her cry or kissed her mouth. First I felt her hair.

I love that hair. It’s grown significantly in the past month, and while it’s difficult to tell what its texture is going to be like later, right now it looks like she’s going to take mostly after me. It’s soft and gently curled, like mine. It’s good hair, but not because of its texture or behavior; it’s good hair because it’s her hair.

I won’t be perming my daughter’s hair, ever. I want her to grow up with the hair she was born with, with the hair that my fingers gently brushed in those moments before her birth. I want her to learn how to respect that hair as well as how to style it. If she ever chooses to get it relaxed (which I won’t allow until she is at least sixteen), she will make that decision with years of experience caring for her natural hair. My mother is already pushing back; she rolls her eyes and laments at how much of a burden I’m going to be saddling Eve with, as if natural black hair were something to dread or suffer.

It’s going to be an uphill struggle, battling white folks and black folks alike about what is appropriate or attractive for black hair (hint: many of them think that natural black hair is, by its very nature, neither) and how that relates to Eve. But I am determined in this. She will know that black hair is good hair. Period.

*Some black women refer to straighteners strictly as relaxers rather than perms. I grew up with perm and relaxer being interchangeable terms, which so far as I can tell is mostly a regional thing.

Raising a Woman of Color, Part I

April 29, 2010

While I was pregnant with Eve, one of the questions I received on a regular basis was, “Do you want a girl or a boy?” It was a question that I rarely answered honestly because the honest answer was too long and involved for casual inquiries. The question for me was not whether I wanted a boy or girl. It was whether I would prefer the responsibility of nurturing a child that would grow to become a black man or a black woman (of course, she may turn out to be neither or both, but that’s a whole other topic of discussion that I’ll save for another day. For the purposes of this entry I will assume that she is a cisgendered little girl until she is able to indicate to us otherwise) in a society that devalues black women and fears black men.

On one hand, I’m glad to have a little girl, because I feel like I will be able to relate to her life experiences. After all, I’m a black woman too. On the other hand, there are so many things that are so common to the black female experience that I wish I could protect her from, and it breaks my heart to know that she will probably experience them as I have.

I identify as a lot of things, but if I could only pick one identifier to go with, it would not be cis, or middle class, or able-bodied, or queer, or female. I would identify as black. It could be my privilege that allows me to consider my other identifications as secondary, especially since not all of my identifications are marginalized, but considering the amount of people of color that are frustrated with their continued exclusion from the mainstream movements of marginalized bodies (and the very reason I eventually ditched feminism for womanism), well…maybe not. My skin color makes me a visible minority. While I am sometimes mistaken for a guy, or for someone with a college degree, or whatever, I am NEVER identified by others as anything but a person of color.

This is not to say that racism trumps any other oppression. I just want to make it clear that for me, personally, when I interact with various peoples, my race is the one thing above all others that makes me feel consistently othered. I can hide my attraction to women, especially because of my marriage to my husband. I can hide the fact that I’m female just by changing the way I dress, because my face is neither particularly masculine nor feminine. But when face to face with other people, I cannot hide my skin color. Ever.

One of the shitty things about being a member of an oppressed group is the lack of fair and accurate representation. After a lifetime of not seeing people that are like you in movies, books, history class, news stations, and positions of power, you can become convinced that people like you must not exist. And when you’re surrounded by a majority that insists upon this same falsehood, it gets especially convincing.

I read a lot growing up. I DEVOURED books, reading at least 4-5 books every week in middle school, not counting my schoolwork. In the VAST majority of books that were at my disposal, there were no people of color. The ones that did have people of color usually only had one or two (at most), unless they were about poverty or slavery or some other POC-related hardship. The mysteries I read were not about black people. The thrillers were not about black people. The only narratives about black people were the ones in which they were depicted as poor victims. There were no stories about black people that did not focus, somehow, on their blackness…unlike the unlimited treasure of stories about white people that did not focus on their whiteness, but on numerous other themes and character details. Black people were never depicted as everyday, average people.

When I started writing my own stories as a child, I focused on horror. I had a variety of characters, ranging from werewolves to average kids to ghosts, and they all had one thing in common: they were very, very WHITE.

I did have the occasional POC as a friend to the white protagonist, to add some variety. But my stories focused on what I had internalized and understood to be “normal” people: white people. I remember specifically, as a teenager, thinking about writing a story in which the characters were black like me. But I didn’t, because I thought that if I added black characters, I would have to change their dialogue to broken English, and I didn’t want to have those kinds of characters. Because despite the fact that I was a LIVING BREATHING EXAMPLE of a person of color that speaks standard English, I was still convinced that my writing could not include POCs that spoke standard English or else it would be UNREALISTIC.

What. The. Fuck. RIGHT????

This worldview was not created in a vacuum. It was based on my observations of the world around me and the media that I consumed. No one that ever read my stories thought it odd that my casting was completely white. It was never noticed or commented upon. I doubt very seriously that it would have gone unnoticed, especially by my white peers and teachers, if all of my characters had been POCs with the occasional white supporting character thrown in for “balance.”

I know that I am not alone in this experience. A couple of years ago, I asked my husband why almost all of the women he drew were white. It’s something that we talked about, and he has since made some efforts to correct this in his artistic expression.

It is because of this that I will be going particularly out of my way to limit the amount of white-dominated media that Eve consumes at home, and offering more diverse media in its place. I have no intention or expectation for Eve to NEVER see or read all-white entertainment; I only intend to do what I can at home to supplement what she sees and deliver a bit of balance. I will probably not buy DVDs of many children’s shows featuring all-white casts (I’ll be focusing on Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer, Little Bill, etc), but I’m positive that she’ll see plenty of all-white shows at her friends’ houses; I will probably not offer to buy many books for her featuring all-white characters, but I know she’ll read plenty of those at school (IF we choose to put her in a school, but that’s a blog for another day), will find recommendations for them in “Best ____ Books” lists (which almost always exclude books from and about POCs, unless the list explicitly focuses on POCs), and will have access to the hundreds of white-dominated books that I already own. I’m sure at Christmas, she will receive plenty of white baby dolls and other such toys from our friends, both POCs and whites alike. While she learns about white history (usually called just “history” but almost exclusively featuring the lives and actions of white people – except in February) at school, I’ll be requiring her to do some extra work at home learning about what people of color were up to during the same time period.

I have every intention of preventing my daughter from normalizing whiteness, because one cannot normalize one kind of body without simultaneously rejecting all other bodies as abnormal. I want her to recognize that interesting characters come in all manner of shapes and colors and expressions. If she chooses some day to write stories or draw pictures, I don’t want her to exclude and erase from her imagination people who are like her, because for her to do so is a rejection of her own self.