See Me/Know Me

“If you can’t see past my name, you can’t see me.”

― DaShanne Stokes, noted author, thought leader and sociologist


June is often the month for graduations. A hallmark of these events is the reading of the graduates’ names. A friend, who this year has that responsibility, has been practicing pronouncing names. At her school, each graduate records his/her name so those charged with announcing them can hear the correct pronunciation. Good.

Many of us have names that may be outside of what someone perceives as ordinary, i.e., white, Eurocentric, names. Our names may be common in our country of origin or cultural homeland or names created by parents wanting to celebrate a child’s specialness or names that are just… different.

My name is one of them: Tamara. It doesn’t look all that hard, but the options for how to name tagsay it may be more than you think. TA-Mar-a is correct, not TA-mare-a or Tam-A-Ra or TA-Mere-A. My name is TA-mar-a. From birth through high school, my name was almost always pronounced correctly, maybe with just a one-time correction. That was true even though it wasn’t commonplace. I didn’t meet another person with the same name (or spelling) until I was an adult.

So, why did I become Tammy in college?

Well, I didn’t at first. When fellow students mispronounced my name or tried to give me a nickname, I would correct them. Eventually, however, I thought their fear of mispronouncing my name prevented them from saying hello or engaging with me in any meaningful way; so, for four years, I responded to ‘Tammy.’ Only in hindsight did I recognize that the black students at my primarily white institution had no problem pronouncing my name. In fact, one of my black college classmates laughed out loud when I recently mentioned being called ‘Tammy.’

“Tammy,” he howled. “Where did that come from? You’re definitely not a Tammy.”

“Definitely not a Tammy,” well what did that mean? I guess more often than not, “Tammy” is perceived of as a white girl’s name. So, were the white students being intentionally disrespectful by giving me that nickname? I don’t think so. I think they were trying to be friendly. Upon reflection, however, I wonder if, consciously or unconsciously, they were trying to make me more like them.

If you watch the ABC network show, Blackish, you may recall the episode when the African-American parents struggled over the name DeVonte for their new son. The father wanted this name. The mother said it was too ‘unconventional,’ i.e., too black-sounding. The show proceeded to highlight what research shows: DeVonte will be less likely to get a call back on a job interview than say Chris or Jack or Nick.

Just as Tammy may be a racialized name, DeVonte probably is as well, but why does research show that ‘DeVonte,’ an African-American sounding name, produces thoughts of an entire, full-blown, imagined life story—usually negative—based solely on the name? Does ‘Nick’ bring forth a story on its own? What about ‘Tammy?’

So what is a name?  It’s a label, of sorts, that often provides a shorthand of information.  Almost immediately you believe that Reverend Nick Bright will know a lot about religion. Dr. Nick Bright might be a PhD well steeped in a particular subject matter or an MD skilled in medical diagnosis and treatment. Those titles reveal something about their education/their knowledge, but nothing about them as people. Another layer of assumptions is probably added if the name changes to Reverend/Dr. Jamal Bright. Again, we know something based on the title—and maybe based on his first name—but our ‘knowledge’ doesn’t get close to the critical level of character.

It’s positive that the fictional, upper-middle class, black, Johnson family in that TV show named their infant son DeVonte, knowing he would be assumed to be black and celebrating that. It’s positive that academic institutions are taking the time to learn how to pronounce ‘unconventional’ names as graduates walk across the stage. At the same time, the notion of conventional names is changing. While ‘Barack’ hasn’t made it – yet — to the  U.S. Social Security Administration’s list of the top 1000 American names, i.e, the so-called conventional ones, the name is rising in usage and no one today, except maybe very, very old friends, would ever think of calling Barack Obama by the nickname he once accepted, Barry. And, I can’t imagine a moment now when I would accept being called Tammy.

It seems that slowly, but increasingly, we do not expect names to conform to a dated sense of convention. We’re not there yet, but we do see growing acceptance and celebration of diversity, including in names.  So, today, I ask that you listen carefully when being introduced to someone, respect the person’s name, and try to pronounce that name correctly. And be mindful of any stereotypes that may race through your head based on that name. Clear your mind to fully meet the person.



Beyond Data We Find Humanity

“I know few significant questions of public policy which can safely be confided to computers. In the end, the hard decisions inescapably involve imponderables of intuition, prudence, and judgment.”

—John F. Kennedy


I just finished my second year co-teaching a course on philanthropy and racial equity. Here’s the remarkable part: the students—all graduate students in public policy—reported that they had never had a course on racial equity. They were required to learn about economic practices, statistical procedures and, broadly, about ethics, public management and creating public policy. My course, like others on racial equity, is an elective at this university. It took me a while to figure out why I was bothered by this. Finally, I got it. Where is the balance between empirical data and experience? Where does humanity enter? How is the data about disproportionate outcomes, by race, revealed?

When I pointed this out, a colleague cautioned that it is the research-base that appeals to Georgetown (3)students. The students drawn to this campus want to create policies that are driven by data. I agree data is invaluable in creating sound public policies. But I believe there is a large realm of facts that isn’t being considered. A full exploration will occur only by consciously including an examination of what has contributed to racially inequitable public policies. For that to occur, racial equity education must be in the public policy curriculum, not as an elective, but as a requirement.

Last year, I heard noted author and academic Robin DiAngelo talk about white privilege. Midway in her remarks, she commented that one aspect of white privilege is never having to understand racial inequity. She noted that most people will go through college, many graduate programs, law school or medical school without ever taking a course on race, racial equity or racial justice. She continued by noting that even though few are taught this topic, many continue to believe they understand the issues. How can they? Her question and mine is how is that knowledge acquired? Why is it that so many people believe they understand racial equity without ever having been taught this? It seems they think of it as a lesson in politeness. As long as they treat people with respect, there will be no inequity. That’s not true. In fact, the most detrimental inequities are those embedded in public policy. This has to be academically taught, not casually learned.

It is incumbent upon public policy analysts and practitioners to delve beyond merely presenting, aggregated data. We must ask questions to find answers (and solutions). Why are there more people of color incarcerated than white people? Why are the educational outcomes for black and brown people worse than those for white people? What are the zoning policies that have disproportionately placed more halfway houses in communities of color? What are the policies and incentives that enable more economic growth in certain communities than in others? How is the schedule of actions as basic as street cleaning or bulb replacement in street lights determined from community to community?

If you’re not thinking about racial equity, your analysis will stop before it reaches the crux. You’re unlikely to discern disproportionate impact based on race unless you look. And without being primed to the possibility, you are unlikely to look. A policy might appear race neutral when it’s not.

It’s noteworthy that I’m co-teaching this course at Georgetown University. I only mention that because Georgetown has been in the news lately both for acknowledging its role in perpetuating the sale of enslaved Africans and for the recent vote by the student body to charge an additional attendance fee to create a reparations fund for the descendants of those enslaved people. It’s  commendable that institutions of higher learning, like Georgetown and my alma mater, the College of William and Mary, are addressing historical, racially-driven, wrongs.

That lens on past actions is important, but without intentionality and probing, we might miss the wrongs of the present. It took me a minute to see the potential impact right in my academic backyard. Not requiring public policy students to learn about racial inequity just doesn’t seem like good policy.

I’m still working to become fully woke!

What are you missing in your backyard?





“Perhaps home is not a place but an irrevocable condition.”

― James Baldwin, Giovanni’s Room

Home. When you say it, what images come to mind? Family? Neighborhood? Playing with your friends as a kid? How does the word make you feel? Content? Happy? Melancholy? Such a small word fills your heart with powerful emotions. Not only does it bring forth memories, but the reality of that place has implications throughout your lifetime.

I think about growing up in the Northside section of Richmond, Virginia. It was a beautiful part of the city with Four Square style houses from the early 1900’s, manicured lawns, mature trees, and sidewalks to play hopscotch on. I think of security and peacefulness.

The author’s childhood home in Richmond, VA

As a kid, I didn’t know my parents had secured a part of the American Dream that wasn’t available to all. My family was among the first wave of African-American families to move into Northside in the early 1950’s. Because my parents were moving into a white neighborhood, they could qualify for a bank loan, from a white bank. That’s right. It wasn’t financial capability that made them able to secure a loan with good terms; it was timing.

I hadn’t heard of redlining until I was in college. As I recall, it was discussed briefly in an urban sociology class. Neither the professor nor I focused much on it. While the term wasn’t coined until the 1960’s, the reality of the federal government refusing to insure loans in undesirable areas—literally drawing a red line around neighborhoods on a map—began in the 1930’s with the Federal Housing Administration. It wasn’t until I heard a presentation by Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, that I understood. The federal government had intentionally suppressed the likelihood that African-Americans could purchase homes by designating all black neighborhoods as undesirable. By doing that, the federal government quietly and powerfully said it wouldn’t insure loans for home purchases in black communities.

Now that didn’t mean that black families couldn’t buy homes. In fact, somehow both sets of my grandparents had purchased homes. It was just more difficult, often with less than desirable loan arrangements.

In my grandparents’ day, I can only see three options: 1) pay cash—a choice that was very unlikely for most black people; 2) purchase from an owner by signing a contract, often with a white owner, for payments to be made over 20-30 years. While the length of the loan was not different from the length of a mortgage today, there was a significant risk and potential for swindling. For example, the contract could state that if one payment was late or if repairs were not made, the agreement was void; causing the buyer to lose all that had been paid; or, 3) secure a loan from a black-owned bank. The last option was viable, particularly in Richmond. My home city had several black-owned banks dating back to the late 1880’s, but their ability to lend and the conditions of the loans were typically somewhat less desirable than those offered by white-owned banks merely because they had fewer resources.

I suspect that my grandparents, particularly my paternal grandparents, secured a loan from St. Luke Penny Savings Bank, the one founded by Maggie Walker, the first woman in the United States to charter a bank. She and my grandparents lived in the same neighborhood and knew each other. I can imagine my father listening, with pride, as my grandparents discussed the importance of saving at Miss Maggie’s Bank as it was called.

It was my father who taught me the value of owning property. He told me repeatedly that a homeowner could live in his/her home, rent it out in whole or in part, or use it as collateral for a loan when extra money was needed.  He understood that a home was far more than a place to live, a place to create memories. It was an investment.

Only in recent years have I come to know that where you live dictates much about the quality of your life. People in African-American neighborhoods have shorter lifespans than people in white neighborhoods. In the Greater Washington, DC area, where I live, that difference can be as much as eight years. Environmental toxins are more prevalent in communities of color. Educational funding, and the quality of education is driven, largely, by local property taxes based on home values. And, too many recent incidents have shown the difference in policing practices depending on where you live.

Today, as white people move into black communities it is disturbing, but perhaps not surprising that the term “gentrifying” is used. The “gentry”—the upper class—has come to the neighborhood and the community is seen to be on the rise. In my parent’s day, black people moving into a predominately white neighborhood was seen as signaling decline. Not much seems to have changed. The underlying narrative remains:  black is bad, white is good.

And still, for all of us, home is where the heart is.






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.