Posts Tagged ‘poc’

Props For a Radical Mama

July 30, 2010

Today’s post is kind of fanwomanish, I’ve got to admit. I visited Mai’a’s blog, Guerrilla Mama Medicine, and discovered that she collaborated in the creation of a web zine called Outlaw Midwives. Mai’a describes it as:

featuring visual art, poems, essays, and practical tips from women globally. about abortion, pregnancy, birth, and babyhood, colonialism, structural violence, anti-oppression work, and revolutionary love.

Which is right up my alley. I’m definitely going to be keeping an eye on thaura zine distro as well:

we, aaminah al-naksibendi (who lives in michigan, usa)  and mai’a (who lives in cairo, egypt), started this little zine distro to share zines, stickers and other cool stuff centered in the lives and work of folks living on the margins: women and genderqueer of color, third-world women, working class, mothers, and survivors.
in arabic ‘thaura’ means ‘revolution’.

I just love finding woman revolutionaries. You go mama!

Shake the Shit Out Of ‘Em!

July 29, 2010

Fuck Feminism.

Guest blogger Mai’a said a lot of things in her post entitled “ain’t i a mama?” on Feministe yesterday, but for some reason, “fuck feminism” seems to be the only thing that a lot of people heard. 

The notion that feminism might not be such a great and awesome force for ALL women (and not just middle class, cis, white, able-bodied ladies) seemed to blow many minds, to the point that they bounced from the site altogether, never to return (or so they claimed). The idea that feminism might actually be an OPPRESSIVE movement and a THREAT to many women (ESPECIALLY trans women! Exclusion of trans women from feminist and women-friendly safe spaces is actually super fuckin’ common! And do I have to start listing the radfems who have actively called for their genocide?) caused many a Well Intentioned White Liberal Feminist to literally shit themselves with rage!

The comments section of this post is absolutely golden. There is plenty of racefail, but there are many good and thought-provoking points (as well as some free education) that make it worth the ride. Here are some of my favorites:

From bfp:

I think it would be an *amazing* conversation to talk about why feminists will “reclaim” bitch and cunt, but find “mama” just too fucking goddamn offensive to even think about

IrishUp:

have we USians internalized some thing(s) about being a mama or mothering that might need unpacking? What about having internalized that mothering and mama = cis het female? The OP, and other commenters strongly identify with mami and mothering in the context of their social justice work and their sense of nurturing – myself included. That should be OK in a feminist space, and I think there is a lot to learn from the WHY’s w/r/t OP’s identification with mami over feminist.

Nanette:

My reasons may be different from that of others – to me, centering children means centering life. And it means centering *all* children – loving by any means necessary, as you say (I love that!). Imagine a world where the children were the center, and the parents/adults were the satellites – people would pull out all stops to make sure that no child went hungry, that they were not bombed, that no child was ostracized because they were gay, or trans, or gender queer, or not abled in any certain way, or poor, or of any particular color or ethnicity, or born to a certain group of people in a certain place, or… well, I could go on, but I think that’ll do. What a world it would be when they grew up – not perfect, because there is no such thing, but maybe… different.

And, by way of centering children, centering life, it naturally follows that women are centered. Whether they are biological parents or not – that is not really important (to my way of thinking) to the centering of life (not wombs, specifically, by the way).

Mamita Mala:

I chose and choose mami on purpose. I am not a mommy. I am not a mama. I am a mami : mami because it has been cooed at me by ancestros who have passed as a term of love even when I was a child and clearly not a mother. mami because as soon as decided to identify as a young woman of color it was hissed and yelled at me in the streets by men across racial/ethnic lines, mami because it has a sexual context attributed to women like me: poor single women who have had children and are struggling. Mami because my mentor helped me learn how to work in the streets with other mamis whose children had been murdered by police and racists (which usually have been one and the same). Mami porque yes, I have two hijas but oh so much more. Mami for all the white men who wanted to call me that as their way to trying to own my ass. Mami for all the men I give my ass to…

And for me mami is not gendered. I want to be clear on that. In my community mami is not gendered. Yes, I identify as a cis-mujer pero I can think of sooo many people whom I call mami with love and soo many people whom are called mami with love who are not.

One of the things that I learned from the post and the comments it sparked is that what I as a middle class American think of when I hear the word “mama” is not the same thing as what someone in another country or culture is going to think. The childfree discussion that is going on misses the point, in that for many cultures outside of the white American middle class demographic, “mama” is really not limited to who can or has borne or raised children.

I try to be aware of my privilege as much as I can, but my American privilege is one that I pretty consistently forget to check – the rest of the world does not revolve around me and my US-ness. It’s something I need to keep working on, and I’m grateful to Mai’a for giving me an opportunity to look at myself and my assumptions from a different viewpoint.

I also loved where Nanette was going: that if we stop oppressing children, we stop oppressing everyone. Having a goal of raising children in an environment that is free from transphobia, homophobia, sexism, racism, ableism, and classism means eliminating those things entirely – in which case, everybody wins. Challenging the memes and myths that are the building blocks of rape culture and slut shaming means starting early; it means respecting the bodies and lives of all children with the hopes that they will grow to become adults who respect the bodies and lives of others. Bigotry is learned behavior and if we ever hope to fully eradicate it from our society (which I know will never happen, but it’s still a goal worth pursuing), then that requires not just unlearning that bigotry in ourselves, but actively refraining from teaching it to the generations that follow us.

The title of this post comes from the movie Ink, in which one character asks another how he plans to wake up a child that has fallen into a coma. His answer: “Shake the shit out of her!” Of course he doesn’t mean this literally (and I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film), but I love the idea of shaking the shit out of someone – of giving them a rude awakening, taking them out of their comfort zones, and just doing what you have to do to snap them out of the dream they were stuck in. Mai’a did exactly that in her post, and I do hope that despite all of the derailing and bickering, that at least a few people have woken up.

—-

Edited to add: Another fabulous quote from bfp (emphasis mine):

to be clear, when I say “reclaim” mama, I am talking in the white centric US centric sense of the word, I am NOT talking about mama in the way mai’a is using, the way I am using, the way mamita, etc are using. mama, mami, mamita, m/other, etc–all these call for a decentering of the US white heteropatriarchy dominant imposition of “mommy” on the entire world.

When I say “reclaim mama”–I am asking white dominant US centric feminists who think I am calling them a stupid lazy bitch or a mythical child eating cunt because I *do* organize around mami–to consider why “mama” is so infantilizing, offensive, horrific, etc to them. And if you can reclaim a word like cunt, when it is used to hurt you, why can’t you reclaim a word like mama when it is used to control you and hurt you? I am not saying “embrace your inner granola girl”–i’m saying, if sexist pricks don’t get to control “cunt” then why do they get to control “mama”? 

Mumbling and Grumbling

July 22, 2010

Today, a white coworker, R, was griping to me about L, another coworker, who is black. L really doesn’t like R and doesn’t try to hide it. When R asked her a question about something work-related, L kept mumbling the response and forcing R to repeat the question. Every time R repeated herself, L got more and more agitated and continued to mumble the answer. It was an understandably irritating situation.

When R told me about this, she added, “I was tempted to tell her to stop pulling that black shit on me.”

I honestly thought that I hadn’t heard her correctly, and in response to my confused look, she added, “Black people do that shit on purpose. They mumble. You know how you can’t understand what they’re saying when you go through the drive-through? A janitor told my mom that they mumble that shit on purpose.”

I really really wish that white people would stop thinking of me as their Honorary So-Intelligent-That-She’s-Not-Really-Black-So-I-Can-Unload-All-My-Racist-Bullshit-And-She-Will-Agree-With-Me Negro Friend. She talked to me, a black woman that she has known for years, about black people and what “they” do and why “they” do it, as if I weren’t actually a part of the group that she is stereotyping and disparaging.

I am not white. I am NOT white. I AM NOT WHITE. So don’t fucking pull that shit on me!

Oh, and to state the obvious: When a black person does something obnoxious, it’s because they’re black and they’re just pulling “that black shit.” It’s never because they, as an individual, are obnoxious. It’s because black people do shit that is obnoxious (and she knows! because a janitor somewhere told her mom! so it must be true!).

I’m fucking ready for my vacation.

Oscar Grant Lives Here

July 11, 2010

I can’t stop seeing his face.

I can’t stop thinking about him, or the child that he left behind, or the friends and strangers that watched him die. I hear his mother’s words – “My son was murdered” – over and over like a hymn, and I hear Tony Pirone screaming “Bitch ass nigger!” at him again and again before the bullet entered Oscar’s back, came out the front of his body, ricocheted against the platform that he had been restrained on, and re-entered his body only to lodge in his lung.

I hear the shocked split-second of silence in the train station, before the people watching and recording the execution on their cell phones start to scream.

Johannes Mehserle was convicted of involuntary manslaughter by a jury that did not include even a single black face, for shooting a prone unarmed 22-year-old man in the back. He may serve as little as two years.

The news itself was distressing enough, but I am sick with the discourse that has occurred in its aftermath. The hurt, the rage, and the fear that we feel over the killing of another one of our sons has been dismissed, minimized, ignored. I’m sick with the derailing and the strawmanning and the arrogance. I am sick of white people telling me that they understand why I’m frustrated when they can’t possibly fucking know what this feels like.

A black woman called Mehserle a murderer and a white man said, “I don’t think you can call it murder.” So she responded, “Fine, then. It’s not a murder, it’s a fucking genocide.”

And that is exactly what it feels like. Black men are dying in the streets and in execution chambers, black women are dying of AIDS, black children are dying in their homes, black babies are dying less than a year after their birth. We die and there is no justice served, no peace given to our families. We die and are told that we brought it upon ourselves. We die because too many people consider us subhuman, undeserving of compassion, unworthy of consideration, primitive, beastly. We die because too many whites still see our bodies as their property, to be used for their gain and profit without regard for our lives or the health of our communities. We die as Oscar Grant died, with hatred and contempt ringing in our ears.

Oscar Grant lives here with me.

Oscar Grant is my husband. I look at him and I see a nerd, a lover, an artist, a father. Others look at him and they see a threat, a hulking black mass just waiting to wreak havoc.

Oscar Grant is my brother. He may be a member of the police force but that is not enough to keep him safe. He carries his weapon on his person more often than not, even in plainclothes. When police see a white man with a gun, they think that he may be a perp, a cop, or a man exercising his rights and they act accordingly. When they see a black man with a gun, all they see a criminal. Black cops are killed by white cops because it doesn’t occur to white cops that a strange black man can be a just black man.

Oscar Grant is my father. Oscar Grant is my baby nephew. Oscar Grant is my childhood friend. Oscar Grant is my classmate. Oscar Grant is every black man and boy and baby, so vulnerable to persecution, prosecution, execution. Oscar Grant is food for the machine: the prison-industrial complex that profits off of his incarceration; the tv news anchor who gleefully reports on his deviance; the white father who warns his daughter that he is by nature a horny raping beast; the politician who cements his disenfranchisement into law by taking away his right to vote for the rest of his life.

 Johannes Mehserle gave Oscar Grant a public execution. It was Tony Pirone who made it a lynching.

What Happened to the Honey?

June 24, 2010

Years ago, when I first started talking to white folks about race, I used to tread lightly. I knew that the vast majority of white people can quickly get very defensive and shut down easily in discussions of race, so I bent over backwards to accommodate them. I would spend hours typing out huge responses that were as pleasant and non-accusatory and educational as I could possibly be.

And what happened whenever I did this? I was accused of calling people racists, even though I had specifically gone out of my way not to do any such thing and never even used the word. I was accused of playing the race card. I was accused of being racist myself, because I dared talk about race and my experiences with race and didn’t pretend that race is meaningless.

I can’t pretend that race is meaningless. Pretending that race is meaningless would mean pretending that racism is meaningless. And since racism costs actual lives (as in, racism MURDERS people of color), that’s not something that I can brush off of my shoulder.

I learned, over several years, that my tone did not matter. How many educational links I posted did not matter. How many statistics I referred to did not matter. How carefully I coddled the feelings of white folks who just couldn’t stand the thought that they might not be the shining beacons of tolerance (which, by the way, is a word that I hate) that they hoped they were did not matter. And I learned that my hurt, my exclusion, the deaths and demonization of my people, did not matter. Any time I dared speak about race, I was labeled a racemonger. I was considered an angry black bitch, no matter what I said or how I said it. I was dismissed, ignored, or actively antagonized.

And so over time, I tossed the honey to the side. I stopped making up nicer ways to frame the truth. I stopped hiding my anger. I stopped beating around the bush and started telling white people the things that they were and are doing to us, to me, and to my daughter. I stopped being afraid to use the phrase “white privilege” and stopped playing the role of friendly, non-threatening, smiling happy black girl (whose heart was secretly breaking with every racist attack).

I’m an angry black bitch and I agitate. I call out racefail. I use exclamation points, sarcasm, cuss words. And I’m not sorry, not one bit, for any of it. I’ve found that the most efficient way to separate the wheat from the chaff, the true anti-racist white activists from the self-serving snivelers, is to be honest. And so that is what I do. I have no interest in white folks whose only concern about matters of race is how to make themselves look good; whites who do not want to destroy their racism but only want to hide it are of no use to me, and need not apply. We have work to do, and those people are only going to hold us back.

And I ain’t holdin back.

Raising a Woman of Color, Part IV: Intelligence

June 7, 2010

Last night my family (including my brother and parents) was invited to a cookout with family friends. While we were there, we were introduced to Blokus, which turned out to be quite the addictive game. During one of the many rounds that were played, I watched as Marcus competed against my brother, my parents’ friend Mark (who was a little silly and drunk on wine, drawing many eyerolls from his wife as the night progressed), and his daughter Morgan, a young woman whose pleasant demeanour became very quiet and serious during gameplay.

Morgan and Mark played competitively against each other, with Morgan defending her corner of the board and Mark trying his best to weasel his way in any way that he could. Finally she made a bad move, effectively blocking her dad but also locking down her own corner in such a way that she could make no more moves. Everyone watching (and playing) the game winced a little when they realized what had happened. She was out of the game, and Mark teased her a little, gloating cheerfully.

I said, “Wait until she turns nine, Mark. You won’t stand a chance.” Everyone burst into laughter. My brother added, “That puts things into perspective, doesn’t it?”

Morgan is seven years old, and she played the game just as competitively and confidently as any of the adults around the table. She didn’t win, but she certainly could have. “Smart” doesn’t even begin to describe this child, who started speaking in full sentences at 16 months.

Morgan receives frequent praise for her intelligence. She attended my parents’ daycare for the first 4 or 5 years of her life, and my mother brags about her almost every time she comes up in the conversation. Last night, everyone at the table (myself included) expressed their amazement at her ability to compete with the adults at least once.

So today I’m thinking about intelligence, especially in regards to children, and how we treat children that we perceive as intelligent. To do that, first I’m going to have to define intelligence. According to Wikipedia, intelligence is:

“an umbrella term describing a property of the mind including related abilities, such as the capacities for abstract thought, understanding, reasoning, planning, problem solving, communication, learning and learning from the experience”

Well, that’s a start. I consider some parts of it arguable, especially about communication, but let’s just go with it for now. The vast majority of people that I know can agree that having the abilities as outlined above is a good thing. But why is it a good thing? The answer that first comes to my mind is that intelligent children have a better chance to accomplish their goals, to have their needs met, and to find the tools that they want and need to find their own happiness. But again, I have to ask why. Why do intelligent children have these advantages?

The easy (and in my opinion, wrong) answer is, “Because they’re intelligent!” There is a common assumption that intelligence itself – and nothing else – is what allows people to succeed. I don’t think so. We, as a society, treat people that we perceive to be intelligent differently than “other” people. As kaninchenzero of Feminists with Disabilities so succinctly put it in her ableist word profile about intelligence:

“…we can’t talk about intelligence without talking about stupidity, and stupidity is all tangled up in ableism. If some people are intelligent, some people are stupid. It just falls out that way when you start sorting people on a hierarchy of value. Some are capable of more — so we allocate more resources (money, education, employment, health care) to them — and others are capable of less, so they get less. Less money, less education, worse housing, more abuse.”

There is no question that those who are deemed less intelligent or of below average intelligence are given less and abused more. For example, at least 70% of women with developmental disabilities (I’m giving FWD a lot of link love today!) are estimated to experience rape in their lifetime, a statistic that is breathtakingly horrific. Despite this reality, rape as an issue is frequently framed by mainstream feminists as being mostly the concern of temporarily abled women; the experiences of those who rank lower on the hierarchy of intelligence are rarely – if ever – mentioned at all.

So how much of an intelligent child’s ability to, as I mentioned above, accomplish their goals, to have their needs met, and to find their own happiness is a result of their own intelligence and how much is a result of the willingness of others to praise them, to give them second chances, to offer them opportunities, to push them towards success? How many children that have been deemed unintelligent are even asked about their goals, their needs, or their happiness? How many are actively discouraged from dreaming big?

Morgan was praised many times for playing a game with us, even though she made mistakes and even though she didn’t win. Would a child of “average” or “low” intelligence been praised? Would any other child even be allowed to play, let alone invited? If a child without Morgan’s level of intelligence lost the game to a table full of adults, would that be used to confirm our preconceived notions about that child’s abilities? Would I still have quipped, so quickly and without much thought, about such child’s supposed future abilities?

Children are taught early on that “smart” = “good.” When we say to a child, “You’re so smart!” we are not praising them on how hard they study, or on how willing they are to ask questions, or how graciously they accept losing or making mistakes, or anything else that is actually within that child’s control. We are praising them for being born the way that they were lucky enough to be born, and we are privileging a quality that they cannot help or change, while at the same time sending the message that those who were not lucky enough to be born that way don’t have anything to be proud of because…well, who wants to be stupid?

Intelligence (or the perception of intelligence; more on that shortly) is an unearned privilege. It opens doors to those who happened to be born that way while simultaneously shutting out many others. Children who have this privilege are nurtured, challenged, bragged about on their parents’ bumper stickers. Children who do not have this privilege are looked down upon and frequently treated as nuisances. (And while children who are privileged by their intelligence are frequently treated like adults, adults who do not have this privilege are frequently treated like children.)

Now. About the perception and measuring of intelligence. The fact is that there is no ironclad method of measuring anyone’s intelligence. IQ tests are inherently flawed; at best, they only accurately measure a person’s ability to take IQ tests. To borrow from this comment from reader Baskelia on a Racialicious article about the “theory” that black people have a lower IQ than whites:

“And even when discussing the black white IQ gap, proponents of the difference in IQ theory stay away from studies that buck their conclusions. None of them can explain the Flynn effect.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flynn_effect

None of them can explain variances in IQ scores taken at different times (i.e. I have a 10-15 point variance)

None of them can explain how programs described in Arthur Whimbey’s Intelligence can be taught can take minority children from an IQ of 80 to an IQ of 115 in such a short period. Whimbey’s techniques are essentially techniques that middle and upper class individuals already use. The SAT correlates to IQ tests. If IQ was genetic, then why do people spend so much money prepping for the SATs (Kaplan etc).

None of them can explain Stereotype threat and that whites actually perform poorly on tests than blacks if they are primed with the suggestion that the test in question is one that whites normally do worse than blacks on (a message that we blacks get every day of our lives).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereotype_threat

In addition to the fact that IQ tests are flawed even for those of us with typical communication styles, how accurately can a population with a certain method of communication design and administer a test for those who communicate or process information differently? What happens when a child with autism takes a test designed by and for neurotypical people? As this article notes:

“Mittler (1966) was one of the first authors to acknowledge the possible adverse affects of autistic symptomatology on intelligence testing. He noted that intelligence scores of individuals with autism may be inaccurate, especially when refused items are counted as failures, as they are on most performance scales. Mittler also stated that verbal measures of intelligence may be inappropriate because of the language deficits often present in children with autism.”

Kaninchenzero has this to say about it:

“Stupid is a perception, usually based on the perceived ability to communicate. A person with communication impairments is going to be perceived as stupid. The same word means ’stupid’ and ‘unable to speak’ for a reason…Someone with cerebral palsy who requires that the rest of us slow down and wait for xer to communicate at xer speed is going to be perceived as unintelligent. Someone who can’t speak under stress (I stammer and eventually become dysphasic on bad days) is going to be perceived as unintelligent at those times. Deaf people are perceived as unintelligent. None of these conditions have a damn thing to do with cognition and everything to do with communication.”

You don’t even have to be actually unintelligent to lose the privileges of intelligence; if people assume that you are unintelligent, based on your methods of communication or your disability or your gender or your race, then they will treat you accordingly and close off those opportunities, withhold praise, and roll their eyes when your perceived lack of intelligence inconveniences them in some way (even if that inconvenience is really only imagined on their part; the time it takes to sit down with a gifted child and teach them how to understand a concept that they are struggling with is frequently not given the same value as the time taken to sit down with a “slow” child and teach them how to understand a concept that they are struggling with).

I remember being a child in summer representation band, which was a program for the best musicians in the local Catholic schools. A few children from each school in the Archdiocese were handpicked to play a huge summer concert together. The music was significantly more challenging than anything we ever played back at school in our tiny band, where I was the only trombonist. There were about 8 trombonists in representation band; I was the only female trombonist and one of only a couple black kids in the entire band, so all of the other trombonists were white boys. During one band practice I remember the conductor going down the line to see who was playing off-key at a certain part in one song. When it was my turn, he asked me to play the note once, which I did; he then snapped at me and told me that I was to only pretend to play that measure during the actual concert, that I shouldn’t even bother trying to play it. When he got to another trombonist, he spent five minutes unsuccessfully trying to coach that boy into tune, and finally told him, “Don’t worry, we’ll work on that.”

Same measure, same note, same instrument, but we received wildly different treatment from the conductor. I was told to not even bother trying (and I was no slouch – this band was made up of the area’s best players), while another child was coached and further encouraged to work on it. Whether or not this difference in treatment was a result of sexism and/or racism is irrelevant right now; what I’m trying to illustrate is that the director’s perceived impression of my ability had a dramatic impact on the amount of help that I received (in my case, none), on the conductor’s tone and attitude, and on the promise of help in the future (which was, again, none).

Another issue I have with “intelligence” is that there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on which kind of aptitudes count as intelligence (and are therefore of value) and which aren’t. In the Racialicious post I linked above, Nancy Leong asks:

“Well, first, ‘intelligence’ itself is a notoriously slippery concept. Intelligence at what? At trigonometry? At sentence diagramming? At computer programming? At analogies? What kind of intelligence matters, and how can we measure that – and nothing more or less – on a test?

…Intelligence tests don’t measure qualities like charisma, judgment, creativity, work ethic, collegiality, foresight, and drive – qualities that have far more to do with success in most fields than the skills measured on a typical so-called intelligence test.”

I can’t do even simple math in my head, but I can figure most stuff out if I write it down or use a calculator. I can dogdge a ball but I sure as hell can’t throw one. I can read faster than anyone I know, but I can’t retain much of what I read even a day or so later. I know the meanings and spellings of lots of big words but I can never remember how to pronounce many of them. I got a 1250 on my SATs but just a 14 when tested in fifth grade on the US states and their capitols (and I studied my ass off for that test). I have a talent for relating to many kinds of people but I’m absolutely lousy with plants. I can ride a unicyle but I can’t change a flat. I can read music but have absolutely no imagination for writing it. Which of these things about me are indicative of my intelligence level, and which are not? Which of these things matter and have value and say something about my value as a person, and which do not? Why do some of these things, each of which undoubtedly make up a part of who I am, count towards marking my ability to learn and understand, and others do not?

You may be wondering, after reading 2300+ words, what all of this has to do with raising a woman of color? It’s simple. Intelligence as a concept has been and continues to be weaponized against women and against POCs. A lack of intelligence is the excuse that was given for European colonialism: the natives were too stupid to use the land “properly” so whites had the right to take it forcefully, and Africans were likewise stupid and therefore needed whites to “care” for them by enslaving them. Women were too stupid to understand politics so they were withheld the right to vote, among other things. Even today there are plenty of white people arguing that black folks are genetically wired to be less intelligent than whites.

For far too many, the color of Eve’s skin is going to be a sign that she is less intelligent and therefore less deserving of resources and protection from abuse. She is going to be marked as less capable, and she is going to have to prove herself over and over again that she is indeed an equal to her white and/or male peers, not only in the capacity to learn but in every way possible. She will have to put in three times the effort to get half the recognition, and at the end of the day, she is still going to have people calling her value as a human being into question.

So why not, as both Nancy from Racialicious and kaninchenzero of FWD ask, do away with intelligence (or at least, measuring and ranking intelligence) altogether? Does the concept really have any value, especially when it is so frequently used to dehumanize people with disabilities, minorities, and women (there goes that pesky intersectionality again)? Should children who are intelligent be praised for their intelligence, or should they be praised for their actions?

Many people, my husband included, have remarked many times before and since Eve’s birth that they hope that she is smart. Most of the time I let the comment go, but sometimes I have to ask, “So what if she’s not?” Would she be any less deserving of support, of education, of encouragement?

Before she was even born, I told Marcus that I don’t care if Eve is smart or not. What I care about is her ability to find her own happiness, reach her own goals, and achieve her own success. What I care about is if she is kind, compassionate, considerate. What I care about is if she loves herself enough to be herself and to be proud of herself, regardless of what any IQ or SAT or whatever tells her. Being smart doesn’t guarantee that one will be loving or hardworking or happy, and these are the things that hold value to me and what I will encourage her to find value in as well.

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.

My Lorde!

May 6, 2010

[The image shows a book cover with the title Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches by Audre Lorde and additional subtext New Foreword by Cheryl Clarke. The design is of a pair of stylized faces with recognizably African features such as full lips and cornrowed hair over an olive-colored background.]

Last night I picked up a copy of Sister Outsider, a collection of essays and speeches by Audre Lorde, a poet and black activist with whom I am only just starting to acquaint myself. It’s only recently that I realized that if I’m going to convince Eve of just how amazing women of color can be (and if she’s like I was as a child, bombarded  by the anti-woman and anti-black messages that permeate this society, she WILL need to be convinced), I need to familiarize myself with amazing women of color. I know more about white celebrities, white history, white politics, white entertainment, white cultural norms, and white pop culture more than I do about people of color (or also, for that matter, about people with disabilities, or gay people, or trans women and trans men). This has to change. Amazing things have been said and done by people who are not white, cis, temporarily able-bodied, wealthy or middle class, or straight, and their histories deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated. (And in fact, Audre Lorde was a lesbian of color and also legally blind – hooray for intersecting identities!)

Anyway, about Audre Lorde. So far I’ve only read two chapters out of the book: her essay “Poetry Is Not A Luxury” and her open letter to Mary Daly (aptly titled “An Open Letter To Mary Daly”), the radfem white lesbian whose recent death sparked a bit of controversy when many feminist bloggers mourned her death uncritically*, failing to acknowledge her racism and abhorrent and unfettered hatred for trans women (to the point that she actively called for their Nazi-style extermination… yeeeaah), and in fact those bloggers became defensive and let their racism and transmisogyny really fly when called out on it.

I liked “Poetry” well enough, but the letter spoke to me in a big way. In it, Lorde expressed her exasperation, her anger, and her exhaustion as a result of dealing with white feminists, who, for all their talk about equality, had no problems using the same oppressive and silencing tactics against women of color that men use against women. (My summary of it does it no justice and I really would recommend that you read it for yourself – you can find the full text archived here.) I identified strongly with Lorde’s experiences with and disappointment in white feminists, and she does it with such eloquence that I pretty much want to get every beautiful scathing word tattooed on my forehead just so that I can read it again as I brush my teeth every morning.

There is a reason that I identify as a womanist and not a feminist. I started calling myself a feminist about a decade ago, and over time, as I became more aware of the fact that white feminists, by and large, are only interested in securing respect and equality for a very specific kind of woman (a definition that, more frequently than not, excludes me and mine), I started to distance myself from the label.

A situation that sticks out in my mind is of a pages-long debate in a pro-choice group, in which a pro-life man who apparently did not like the direction that our debate was going suddenly said to me, “Let’s not fight, let me tell you a joke. Why is there cotton in pill bottles?”** Suddenly, all of the women who were so quick to call out posters for their use of sexist slurs, slut-shaming, or victim-blaming were silent. Not one member of the group called him out on his very explicitly racist attack, save for a moderator who intervened at my request (and even then, her admonishment was pretty lukewarm, along the lines of “I’m disappointed that you would think slave jokes are funny”). The man, who had been banned before for his sexism but never for his racism, was free to engage openly in as much as racism as he wanted, and no one ever said anything but me (that incident was only one of many with him). The very same women who had been right beside me when defending a woman’s right to abort would suddenly distance themselves and become silent when my race was used as a weapon against me (and some of them cheerfully joined in on the attacks). Eventually I quit participating, as it just became too much for me to deal with.

Too many white women who will freely discuss what it means to navigate this society without male privilege will shit themselves in violent denial whenever white privilege is mentioned. Attempts to discuss race are either discarded as irrelevant, unimportant, or worse, actively antagonistic. The mere mention of the fact that women of color frequently experience sexism in a racialized context is decried as either playing the “race card”*** or muddling up the discourse by taking time and energy away from the “real” (read: white) issues.

Suffice to say, I am excited to have discovered Audre Lorde’s writing and am looking forward to reading more of her works. It’s cathartic to discover that someone has managed to put words to my experience as a woman of color with such nuance and power. I’ll leave you with this quote, which I found to be a simple but powerful reminder of why I am making myself speak out against racism and oppression, and I probably really WILL have it tattooed on me someday (although not on my forehead, I promise).

“Your silence will not protect you.”

Likewise, my silence will not protect her.

—-

*This particular blog post by Sady Doyle entitled “Acts of Contrition: Feminism, Privilege, and the Legacy of Mary Daly” is, unlike most of the posts regarding her death by cis white women, a terrific read and I highly recommend it.

**The punchline to this grotesque little joke is “To remind black people that before they were drug dealers, they were cotton pickers.”

***For an insightful look at just how ridiculous the notion of a race card is, read Tim Wise’s “What Kind of Card is Race? The Absurdity (and Consistency) of White Denial”

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.