Don’t say that! Huh?

One of the things I know for sure is that common sense or common knowledge isn’t common. We each see the world through a lens shaped by family and family values, life experiences, and acquired knowledge.

I was reminded of this when a white friend commented that she’d never again say that a person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest, having been chastised, strongly and simultaneously, by several Black friends who heard the comment. She continued, noting that while she wouldn’t say it again, she really didn’t know what was wrong with it. She had been describing a person, not actually saying it to someone.

Without an explanation, this friend may have thought that her comment was perceived simply as rude, but there was so much more.

Nuances, history, and connections would never be understood by her, or by other white people, solely by reading books about the Black experience, racial injustice, or Black culture. That academic knowledge must be woven together. The dots must be connected to reveal why that combination of words – describing a Black person’s hair as a rat’s nest – evoked a visceral, negative response by the Black people in that room. Months later, Black friend-to-white friend, the following information was shared.

Rats as a sign of filth.

Neighborhood filth.

Rats are often associated with filth/dirtiness. Rat infestation is seen as an indicator of accumulated filth and a problem unique to some communities. The cleanliness of Black neighborhoods has often been questioned, giving many white people an “acceptable” reason not to want Black neighbors. But few know what Richard Rothstein revealed in his book, The Color of Law. In some cities, in the early through mid-20th century, trash was not picked up with the same frequency in Black neighborhoods as it was in white neighborhoods. It wasn’t the lack of cleanliness by the residents, but the racist practices of the cities that contributed to the rat problem. Is it possible that those practices continue in some places today?

Personal dirtiness

Also built on the connection between rats and filth, a Black person would immediately think of all the myths regarding personal hygiene. The dirtiness – real in some cases, imagined in others — of Black people relates back to enslavement and their inability to have access to soap and water to bathe and, of course, the time to do so. The sentiment of Black skin as a sign of dirtiness continued in the 1800s and early 1900s with Black children depicted as being  washed with a certain brand of soap to become white. Black skin as a sign of dirtiness was seen as recently as 2017 with a Black model in a brown shirt becoming a white model in a white shirt after using Dove soap.  The subliminal message is there: dirty, ignorant, lowly.

Natural hair

Hair is a person’s crowning glory. The connection between hair and your sense of beauty is inextricable. Sadly, until recently, natural hair has often been described as unkempt.  It wasn’t until the Black Pride/Black is Beautiful movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s that many Black people recognized the internalized racism that made them not see the beauty of their natural hair. Until then, many wanted the texture of white hair, using chemicals and applied heat to get it. But even after Blacks embraced their natural hair and natural styles like dreadlocks or braiding, many whites continued to view those styles as inappropriate for the workplace. As recently as 2019, California and New York saw the need for legislation making it unlawful to discriminate against a person based on their hairstyle or hair texture.

All of this information, and probably much more, went through the minds of the Black people listening to their white friend. All of it. In the blink of an eye.  What they had heard was a statement mired in years of subliminal racist messages. But all they said was “Don’t say that.”

Months later, one of the Black people in that room, no longer able to let the comment stand, reached out to the white friend. After hearing the full explanation of why saying that a Black person’s hair looked like a rat’s nest was an awful comment, the white person shared that she had been describing another white person. She thought she had said that, but in hindsight, she wasn’t sure. Wow, had the Black folks simply assumed that she was speaking about a Black person based on their life’s experience? Maybe an in-the-moment conversation would have been clarifying, but not speaking immediately allowed for the more thoughtful, and possibly less emotional, later exploration of the topic. The white person acknowledged a bit of initial defensiveness about what was interpreted from her comment, but also had three important reflections: she wants to learn more about race and culture; she appreciates those who pull her aside and educate her; and she recognizes her privilege to move in and out of discussions about race because she is not living it (hmmm … a topic ripe for a future conversation?).

Bottom line: Friendships are built on trust. Have those conversations that need to be had if not in the moment, have them when you can. We’ll all be better off. Here’s to a more racially just 2022.

Happy New Year!



Three Steps to Racial Healing: REVEAL| Reflect | Recalibrate

“There is no shame in not knowing; the shame lies in not finding out.”

— Russian proverb


In last month’s Daughters of the Dream blog, I shared my thoughts on America’s lack of readiness for racial healing. It’s not that I don’t want us to heal. I do. But I believe there are a series of stages for that healing to occur. As I said then, “Racial healing is a process, not an event.” I offer my process suggestions in three—hopefully, easily digestible—steps shared this month. Look for the posts on my blog about every 10 days. Here’s the first:

Step One: Reveal

Most of us have only seen America from the vantage point of white America (either because you are white or because our country’s educational and media experiences are dominated by the white perspective). Our knowledge of race and racial injustice is cursory.

This was revealed powerfully in an episode of the TV game show, Jeopardy when all of the categories, but one, in the double jeopardy second round had been entirely answered. Remaining on the board—untouched—was African-American History. This was a special episode of the show; the contestants were all college students. Even America’s best and brightest were not ready for this category because little in their education had adequately prepared them. And—this is important—the episode wasn’t from the 1960’s, the early days of the show. This happened in 2014.

Revealing our lack of knowledge and correcting that deficiency is the first step toward healing.

There must be a comprehensive and deep understanding of where we are and how we got here if we are to heal. IMG_4828If you are ready for a deeper understanding, I commend to you the following three books and a recent mini-series to start your learning journey:

  • Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram Kendi. Kendi is a Professor of History and International Relations at American University and the Founding Director of the University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. The subtitle of his book is “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Dr. Kendi comprehensively reveals the historical origins of racist beliefs in a way that most of us have never heard. Be prepared, he is thorough!
  • The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. The subtitle of his book is “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” When one thinks about how much is attached to where we live (see my April 2019 blog, Home) along with Rothstein’s revelations on the intentionality of the federal government in ensuring disparate living areas, we can better understand different life outcomes, by race.
  • Remembering Slavery edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller. This book, subtitled “African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences with Slavery and Emancipation” presents stories told by formerly enslaved people during the 1920s and 1930s to HBCU students from Fisk University, Southern University and Kentucky State University and to researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal. Like Jewish people who proclaim “Never forget/never again” to implore society to never forget the atrocities that happened to their people, this book reveals slavery, through first-person remembrances, a perspective that few know today, a truth that we should never forget.
  • When They See Us is a 2019 Netflix mini-series co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay. It captures the experience of five young African-American men falsely accused of rape, their treatment when the crime occurred in 1989, how the media portrayed them, how the public reacted, their imprisonment, and their exoneration years later when the real rapist confessed. This is an age-old story grounded in the perceived purity of white women, the bestiality of black men, and their lust for white women, that unfolds within a biased and structurally racist criminal justice system.

When you read or view these resources, you may notice that they are hard to watch or to comprehend fully at first. Take time. Read and re-read. Make yourself watch the difficult parts of the mini-series. Is it hard for you to believe that someone would confess to a crime they didn’t commit? Is it hard for you to believe that a private citizen responded by spending $85,000 for an ad in a major New York City newspaper calling for the death penalty? What leads both to take the actions they did? Can you see the layering of prejudicial messages that Kendi traces over centuries that can culminate in the Central Park Five or in the segregationist policies that Rothstein unveils? Do you believe the stories that the formerly enslaved people tell or do you think they are misrepresenting or exaggerating that experience? I hope you will take the time to get in touch with your thoughts and your feelings and think about what contributes to them.

The learning, however, must go beyond a personal level if there is to be real healing for our country. A short reading and viewing list is entirely inadequate to address 400 years of the African-American experience. We must include the study of our racial history in the core curriculum of every elementary, middle, and high school in America. Research has shown that preconceptions and biases based on race emerge at very early ages. We must address those consciously, with structured, well-developed curricula, in school. Then, we must embed a more in-depth study of structural racism and implicit bias into the curriculum of colleges and universities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We must graduate leaders who can see where we are as a country and who know how we got here so they can lead us to a place of racial equity.

The depth, breadth and impact of racial inequity must be revealed if we are to heal as a society.


Check back on August 14th (or subscribe so the blogs come directly to your inbox) to learn about what I see as step two: Reflect. But, in the meantime, please add your reading and viewing recommendations in the comments section of this post. What has opened your eyes to a racial reality that was unseen?



“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.