Invisible … Coming into focus?

Do you see it? Probably not.

Why? Because it’s largely invisible, at least to many white people.

What is it? Racism.

For compassionate, empathetic people, it is hard to see, or maybe even believe, that the world revolves around you. No one wants to think they are that self-centered, but as the saying goes. “it’s not personal.” You have not created this dynamic, it’s systemic. But you benefit, and if you are not actively paying attention and fighting against it, then you are complicit, a part of the problem of race in America.

I understand you may not believe me, but just read for a couple of minutes.

White people are the standard, the default, the given in America. When I was in high school, the census had two racial categories, white and non-white. While that is no longer true, even today when you are reading stories in the newspaper, if no race is noted, the person in the story is almost always white. Sometimes a person of color isn’t defined by race if a picture is included with the story. Check it out the next time you’re reading a book or a news article. Does the story just proceed with people or characters being introduced until it says John’s Latino neighbor or Sue’s African-American colleague? Neither John nor Sue will have been described racially. That’s because they are white and our minds have been programmed to immediately and unconsciously perceive them as such.

out of focusSometimes it is not as obvious. You have to dig a little deeper. You have to focus for the picture to become clear and then compare to see the pattern.

When Paul Manafort was sentenced to 7.5 years in jail, did you think it was a fair sentence? He could have been jailed for up to 24 years in one court and 10 years in the other. Fair—maybe, maybe not—but when you compare, something appears. Black people know it. They may not have known the exact sentence, but they remember Kwame Kilpatrick, the black mayor of Detroit who received a much, much longer sentence for similar crimes. Twenty-eight years (the maximum was 30). When one compares the nature of the financial crimes they both committed, the thought isn’t necessarily that Kilpatrick’s sentence was too harsh, but that Manafort was sentenced on white standards for similar white-collar crimes. It is not just Manafort compared to Kilpatrick, it is white defendant after white defendant.

The rules are different. It isn’t our imagination. This disparity is real.

Do you remember the response to Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte? In Rio for the Summer Games, he and his friends made up a story about being held up at gunpoint. Then a video emerged showing Lochte and his friends kicking down a bathroom door and fighting with a security guard. A big deal? No, not really, except that his story played into a perception that Rio is a dangerous city. The issue of race comes in with the response from the International Olympic Committee, “We have to understand that these kids came here to have fun. Let’s give these kids a break. Sometimes you make decisions that you later regret. They had fun, they made a mistake, life goes on.” These ‘kids’ were in their early 30s.

But when dealing with black kids, actual kids, a study from the American Psychological Association found that “black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their white peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, be perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime.”

Is that what happened to 12-year-old Tamir Rice, playing in a Cleveland park with a toy pistol, when he was killed within seconds of the police arriving?  A caller had reported that someone was in the park playing with a gun. The caller had even noted that the gun was probably fake. ‘Life goes on’ is not the carefree reality for all.

The invisibility of racism has been made clearer to me as I have heard one phrase repeatedly from many white people. As they read my book, Daughters of the Dream, or as they move along their own racial justice learning experience, many say, “I had no idea.”

Even though they were relatively close to me, a high school or college classmate or a professional colleague, they had no idea of how I experienced America, how different it was from their experience. I understand. It is hard to see what has been invisible to so many for so long, but I hope the truth of America is coming into focus.

“I’m woke” say many.

Are you? Are you really?

I hope so. A just future for America, and for all who live here, demands it.

The “N” Word, Blackface: Enough!

A couple of weeks ago, Maryland State Delegate Mary Ann Lisanti admitted to describing Prince George’s County, Maryland as “That ‘N’ district.” After acknowledging she made the statement, she apologized. But when asked by the Washington Post if she had ever used the ‘N’ word, she said, “I’m sure I have… I’m sure everyone has.”

Am I that naïve? Is this a regularly used term by everyone? Surely her ‘everyone’ doesn’t include black people. And do all white people really use this word casually and routinely?

I know it is popular for some young black people. It is used throughout certain music lyrics and is sprinkled, by some, in conversation. Several years ago, there was a notable conversation between Jay Z and Oprah. He said the ‘N’ word was just a word and that its power came from the intention of the user. That is one view. It’s not Oprah’s, and it’s not mine. I have never said it. When I hear it, it has a harshness. For me, that word evokes hatred, degradation, and vileness, but then I am more of Oprah’s generation than Jay Z’s.

When I first heard of Lisanti’s comment, I thought her ‘everyone’ might mean all white people. I hope not and really don’t believe that. What I am inclined to believe is that it is an acceptable term among her friends and family. In her community, I fear, no one would give a second thought to using it, and no one’s head would jerk back to see who said it. ‘Everyone’ is everyone in her world. That’s a problem, a serious one. An elected state official believes that everyone uses the ‘N’ word. She believes that everyone sees black people in such a way that black or African-American isn’t the term of choice. No, it’s ‘N’ and with it comes a fully formed narrative about who that person is along with a recognition that those sentiments reflect what is in her head and in her heart.

Ralph Northam. blackfaceAs we have recently learned from Virginia officials, racial insensitivity and ignorance are far more rampant than most would like to think. The Virginia Governor and Attorney General both admitted to having been in blackface. The First Lady of Virginia recently offered raw cotton to 13- and 14-year-olds touring the Governor’s Mansion so they might think what it would have been like to be a slave (Note: Tobacco was the cash crop for Virginia. Why did she choose to use cotton?) This is not only happening in Virginia, my home state. Before a recent election in Florida, one candidate urged voters “Not to monkey it up.”

Just as Ron DeSantis was using this negative, animalistic trope to refer to his black opponent, Lisanti was directly referring to the mostly black population of Prince George’s County. She was not using the ‘N’ word as a term of endearment or brotherhood as Jay Z suggested. She was using it as a derogatory reference to the fact that 65% of the residents of the county, according to the last census, are African-American. And just as a boutique in Paris didn’t care or didn’t know how much money Oprah Winfrey had when the salesperson refused to show her a $38,000 handbag, I suspect that Lisanti either didn’t know or didn’t care that 5 of the 10 wealthiest black communities in America are in Prince George’s County. And at one time, this county was touted as having the largest number of black millionaires. The color of their skin and what that means, or suggests within her value system, was the issue, not their economic status.

Lisanti has been censured by the Maryland House of Delegates. They have taken away her subcommittee leadership position, but as of this writing, she still sits as an elected leader in the state of Maryland, Governor and Mrs. Northam still occupy the Governor’s Mansion in Richmond. Mark Herring is still the Attorney General of Virginia and, even with his coarse comment, last November, Ron DeSantis was elected Governor of Florida. And these aren’t just the recent ones, they’re just the ones we know about.

What does having these leaders in Virginia, or Maryland or Florida mean for the people of their states? Whose needs do they understand? Which citizens do they fight for? Who do they see as the contributors to the success and promise of their states? Who do they believe are the dregs that detract from their states? Your word choices and actions reflect what is in your head and your heart and they have significant ramifications, consciously and unconsciously.

I do not believe you can fully represent the needs of people you denigrate, people who you do not value.

Elected officials who belittle and demean cannot be removed from office for callousness or ignorance. They have done nothing against the law. They have, however, revealed their inability to represent the needs of their entire constituency. When that has been shown by the words they say and the actions they take, they should apologize, and they should resign. That—perhaps—might help them regain, at a minimum, some integrity.


Why I Wrote Daughters of the Dream: An Anniversary Story

Sometimes parts of your world connect in ways that are only clear in hindsight.

It happened seven years ago. It was February 2012 when I started to write Daughters of the Dream. Initially, it had been my friend Renee’s idea to write a book about our lifelong friendship — eight girls as we grew to become women —  but she didn’t have the time; so it became my project. New author, same focus. Then, on February 26, 2012, a tragedy happened. Trayvon Martin was killed.  His death changed the story.

My son, AJ, was roughly the same age as Trayvon (born 366 days apart). I kept seeing AJ in that situation and knew only fate had led Trayvon, not my son, to that horrible destiny. About a month after his murder, I wrote a post for The Daily WRAG, the blog produced by my organization, the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. In the post titled “Trayvon Martin, Silent. We Must Speak” I openly shared my feelings about Trayvon’s murder and discussed talking with my son about how he should negotiate everyday life events, like driving- and shopping-while-black, to lessen the likelihood of a similar situation and threat to his safety.

Following the post, many white colleagues expressed surprise I still had to talk with my son about discrete behaviors because of his race. That is when I knew it. They perceived me to be like them. They thought my life experience was like theirs. In some ways, we may have presented to be similar—education, family background, community standing—but our worlds were very different.

tlc. bookOnly in hindsight did I recognize these factors as  all contributing to how I approached the book: Trayvon’s death, my WRAG blog post on his death, and then my clarity on the lack of understanding of what my world is like from some of my white colleagues. And lastly, it was February, Black History Month. Subconsciously, I was processing all of this as I began to write Daughters of the Dream., a book initially only about a lifelong friendship.

The first conscious shift from a focus solely on friendship was my decision to frame our story within the context of black history. My structured education on black historical facts stopped when I left segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School, but at least I had had that foundation along with a black family and a black community that ingrained in me an understanding of the accomplishments and challenges facing black people.  As I wrote, I wondered how, or if, white people learned black history,  that is black history at any depth.  I knew that they got the high level information: slavery occurred, it was terrible, maybe something about Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, then the exceptionalism of Frederick Douglass, skip to Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, maybe Malcolm X, and then the election of Barack Obama. Perhaps they received a quick introduction to a few other black leaders during Black History Month, but there was no immersion in facts about the black experience in white people’s day-to-day education.

The recent incident in Virginia, my home state, of a picture unearthed of someone in blackface and someone else dressed as a hate-filled Klansman revealed a lack of understanding of the viciousness of such imagery, or maybe it revealed a more base lack of caring.  Perhaps if those in the picture had an underpinning of knowledge about black contributions to America and clarity about the oppression and degradation of blacks by whites, their actions, and those of others, would have been different – perhaps. For far too many white Americans, their knowledge about African-Americans is  very limited, coming primarily from personal experiences or the media. Far too many in white America still do not understand black Americans.

I wanted to use my book to introduce white readers to ordinary black people, living everyday lives. I wanted them to see that there were families free of the pathology they so often heard about from the national media and, at one time, even from leading sociologists and psychologists.  I wanted them to see parents who were not living in deprivation, but who worked through their daily lives in the positions available to them while preparing their children to rise to the next rung of societal opportunity. And, I wanted them to see those children as adults, similar to them, but with issues of race and racism swirling about them everyday, realities of which many white readers may be unaware.

And, I wanted black readers, particularly younger ones, to recognize another aspect of black history from what they typically learn. I tried to reinforce that the struggles of Selma and Birmingham were real, violent, and important, but so too was the gentler resistance of the Richmond34 protesting the segregationist practices of the two major Richmond department stores or the get-out-the-vote efforts of the Crusade for Voters working to elect leaders who would understand and represent the issues of all Richmonders.  The fight for racial equity has taken different paths, but all black people have been a part of the fight.

As I wrote  our story, I recognized that over the years, whenever my girlfriends and I gathered, we would go to a black-themed art exhibit or see a black-themed movie. We would follow that with lunch at a black-owned or Southern-themed restaurant. And, always our talk was, and is, of some current event that affects black people. Why? We are always thirsty for black culture, knowledge, and for balance. We swim in a white world,  moving upstream against  erroneous white narratives of criminality, dysfunction, incompetence, and immorality. Our group offers a needed space to process the events of our world, to re-fuel our souls, and to develop the inner strength to go on.

So, yes Daughters of the Dream captures our friendship, but it also captures our history, our normalcy, and our desire to shape America to be the country that recognizes all who built it and all who contribute to its place in the world.  We may not all have been visible, named leaders, but each of us played, and continues to play, a part in the ongoing push for racial justice.


The Green Book Movie: Don’t Let the Imperfect Be the Enemy of the Good

For the last couple of months many have celebrated the movie ‘The Green Book’ at the Golden Globe Awards, the Critics Choice Awards, the Screen Actors Guild Awards and soon at the Academy Awards. The accolades for Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen come amid criticisms about the accuracy of the movie, the manner in which African-American concert pianist Don Shirley was portrayed and his relationship with Tony Vallelonga, his Italian-American driver, during a concert tour in the 1960s through the Deep South. The movie has been called racially tone deaf.

I don’t want to get into the debate. Really, I don’t. But I also don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I had never heard of the ‘Green Book’ until I was an adult, long after it was useful and needed. That doesn’t mean my family didn’t use it. I just don’t know. We traveled a lot, but primarily to visit family in the mid-West and in the North. Driving was typically done in one day, no lodging necessary and we always packed food for the trip. My sole hotel experience as a young child was a family trip to the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City. On that trip, I only remember seeing African-Americans at the motel where we stayed. ‘The Green Book’ may well have guided my Dad in knowing where to stop for gas or even in knowing of the motel where we stayed. If he used it, he didn’t talk about it. Like I said, I knew nothing about it until it came up in conversation with a family member.

img_4151My mother had undertaken a genealogical study of her family. When her 950-page tome was printed, instead of calling it The Descendants of James and Keziah Charity of Charles City County, Virginia, its official name, the family has always referred to it as ‘the green book’ referencing the bright green color of its cover. On one occasion, someone mentioned ‘the green book’ and quickly added, “Not the original one, I’m talking about Aunt Edna’s book.” That was my prompt to ask, “What original one?” Not until then had I ever heard of Victor Green’s reference guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book.

Just as African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson was unknown to me until I saw the movie Hidden Figures, I had never heard of Dr. Don Shirley until I saw the movie, ‘The Green Book.’

Some younger black viewers or white viewers may be unaware of the degradation suffered by African-American performers, talent sought after to play or act for white audiences, but still not able to eat in the local restaurants or at the performance venues. The threats to black performers in the South and the manner in which they had to live while performing was portrayed in the movie. I know that the greats of the ‘40s and ‘50s who came to my hometown of Richmond, Virginia—names like Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington—could play in the white venues, but when it came time to eat or sleep, they were in Jackson Ward, one of the all-black enclaves in Richmond, in hotels and restaurants on Second Street. The movie even references a 1956 event in which Alabama native son, crooner Nat King Cole (father of Natalie Cole) was about to perform in Birmingham when members of the Ku Klux Klan came on stage and beat him with clubs in front of an all-white audience.

So many of the contributions of African-Americans to this country are rarely revealed, seldom studied, hardly taught. This flawed, but beautifully-acted, movie has revealed parts of history, American history, to many who never knew it. I am conflicted. Do I want an accurate portrayal? I do, but those who could attest to accuracy—Shirley and Vallelonga—are both deceased and the movie notes it is ‘inspired by,’ not a documentary.

I want to celebrate the revealing of another hidden figure of African-American history and culture. I want to celebrate Mahershala Ali’s powerful portrayal of an African-American virtuoso who had been lost to history. I want to recognize that ‘The Green Book,’ the movie with its imperfections and ‘The Green Book,’ the guide, reflect the reality of separate, and unequal. Together they—the book and the movie—have prompted another conversation about racial injustice. That is good, good for all of us.