Letter to my White Friends – Part I

You probably didn’t want to talk to me last week. You already know why – two Black men killed by White police officers, in separate incidents, in cities hundreds of miles apart. I could have been either one of those men, just like I could have been Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, or many years prior, Emmitt Till. (Given my inter-racial family, I damn sure could have been Emmitt Till.) It wasn’t that I harbored any hateful feelings towards police officers, or White people, or even White police officers. I just could not put what was swimming around in my head, into words, without first giving a bunch of disclaimers and apologies. But now that I’ve had a chance to reel in my thoughts from running on hyper drive, here is just one perspective (as these issues are complex and multi-faceted) I felt important to share, specifically to my White friends.

Dear (if you’re my friend, and you’re White, insert your name here),

Because the answer to the racial tension we are experiencing as a country is not to retreat to our individual racial and ethnic sides of the fence, and point the finger at the other side as if to say, you’re what’s wrong with this country; but instead, to engage in meaningful dialogue, I am writing to start the conversation.

How are you holding up?

See, social justice warriors would avow that during times like these, we shouldn’t worry ourselves with the feelings of the majority, but instead, with the rights of the minority. And while I believe in this idea on many levels, on one particular level – from my experience in helping bring under-represented groups to the figurative table (as a member of the dominant group you aren’t particularly under-represented, but just go with it) – these are the times when we should be engaging in dialogue with the dominant group. So again I ask, how are you?

I’m guessing you can’t been feeling particularly well. If you’re my friend, that is. Knowing you are part of the larger group that has historically inflicted harm and marginalized other groups. And even though you do not participate in those inflictions, you still benefit from the marginalization. It’s similar to the bouts I face with my own privilege as a male. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot undo all of the atrocities committed by the group of which you’re a part. So, if you are my friend, you undoubtedly have inner conflict over the racial tension sweeping across our nation with flu-like quickness. I’m sure you’ve been scapegoated, and stared at, and had insulting remarks yelled in your direction because of the actions of some of the people who are in the dominant group to which you belong. So I’m writing because I’m worried – unbeknownst to you, you’ve worked so hard at becoming, and remaining, an ally to people of color (as we’ll see below), that I’d hate for you to retreat because of the inner conflict you’re experiencing. I’m also writing because although I can’t tell you with any certainly that the inner conflict will subside, I can offer this: I’m glad you’re my friend.

In looking back on our friendship, I’m glad you laughed with me (and not at me) when I told stories of growing up Black, and poor, and fatherless. I stole a line from the “Fresh Prince of Bel Air” when I used to say, “I’m just a poor Black man trying to make it at Quinnipiac”. And even though you may not have fully understood what I meant, I appreciate that you were willing to try. Like listening listening to Tupac on full blast with me (remember those days?!) or engaging me in dialogue when I told you the reason I couldn’t swim – we don’t got pools in the hood. I’m glad we had those conversations and shared that laughter. Most times, the laughter was really was a cover for the pain.

It’s no surprise I still remember those deep talks we used to have – how your father left your mother for another woman, how there was only one Black kid in your high school graduating class and how he got picked on to no end, how you always wanted to date another girl but couldn’t find the courage. Those talks helped me see the world through your eyes, and how you culture works, like the adherence to your Italian heritage. Those talks helped me connect with you in ways that could never be duplicated in a classroom or some diversity training. More than anything, those talks helped me see you as my friend first, and your racial and ethnic group second.

By having those talks, I now see that we were able to correctly conclude that there’d been historical and institutional injustices committed against damn near every racial and ethnic groups. So when I spoke of injustices members of my family had faced, I could see in your eyes that you felt I wasn’t making it up. That validation has been important to our friendship. To be my friend, I’ve needed to know that you get it, that being Black brings about a certain level of burden. But it wasn’t just Black and White – yesterday it was the Irish, before them, Native Americans and African slaves. Now, it’s African Americans, the entire LGBT community, and our Latin brothers and sisters. Injustices have also afflicted Asians and Italians, Jews and Muslims. As Pastor Martin Niemöller famously wrote, “Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—Because I was not a Jew.” I think it’s safe to say they came for me, just as they came for you. And we’ve remained friends because we spoke up for each other.

I’m also glad we’re friends because there’s a certain level of emotional and psychological safety I feel in your midst. You have, and continue to allow me space to share my organic thoughts when it comes to issues of race. Like the soliloquy I crafted about whether I am truly an American, after the officer who killed Michael Brown was not indicted. Or like all of those times I quoted jokes from Chappelle Show. They weren’t White jokes any more than they were Black jokes. Instead, they were humorous analyses of our cultural differences, because sometimes using humor helps lessen the pain.

See, sometimes you just need a vent session, like when women get together for a Ladies Night. Nothing against men, sometimes women need a forum to share their thoughts and experiences with other women, without judgment, and without fear of offending anyone. Similarly, sometimes I wanted to admit that I didn’t understand how some White people could do (fill in the blank – whether it was kill a lion for sport or not season their vegetables), knowing that I love you and White people, too. I appreciate that you joined me in that space. Never one did I hear I was mentally weak or that my response is just a part of my narrative or rhetoric. Your response to my response told me that I was free to have my perspective in your midst, and that I could be my authentic self.

Along those same lines, I’m better off that you challenged me when I needed it. Whether it was calling me out for being am ableist, exhibiting male privilege, or reminding me that not all White people do (fill in the blank). Even though those were tough conversations, we were able to have them – and I was willing to listen – because you are my friend. Through I may have given you the finger a couple of times during those talks, I can honestly say I’m a better person because you’ve challenged me.

I am particularly grateful that you have been respectful of my experiences, and never asked me to give a black perspective. Instead, you asked what I thought or felt, understanding that MY black perspective may have been different than another black person’s.

Thank you, as well, for celebrating my culture, focusing more on our similarities than our differences, and for not trying to define my Blackness for me (as you’ve seen, you can be Black and listen to Alanis Morrisette!). Most of all, thank you for learning with me. Calling me you brother from another mother was funny. But referring to me as your nigger wasn’t cool. I know I called you that word several times, and I referred to our mutual friend who’s also Black, as my nigga. And sure, we listened and dances to music, where the lyrics seemed to be nigga this and nigga that. Through all of that, I love that you understood my boundaries and respected them.

Within our friendship, we have been able to expose each other to new ideas, and push each other to extend our comfort zones. As I sit here empathizing with you during these times where racial injustices seem like they’re at an all-time high, I have to imagine you feel as if you’re part of the problem, simply because you’re White. While I can never give you a She’s Down card for other Black folks to see, I can let you know that you are an ally and that I value your friendship. When shit goes down, I know I can count on to help stand against the injustice, and for that, I’m proud that you’re my friend. For those, and countless other reason, thanks for being someone I can count on.

So this is your ally card. Though you’ll have to do these same things to the next person of color you come into contact with, in order for the card to remain valid. If you ever need someone to help you process the inner conflict, you know where to find me.

Stay Black!

Abdul

Oh to be a Black Man

Oh to be a Black man in the United States.

…Is to be told (by your elders, who’re also Black) and expected (by the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority) to practice unending patience, while wrongdoings are continually committed against you.

…It means to be listed to, but with only one ear – the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority will listen to music created by Black people, and in the next breath, will not hear decries of equal rights. Sort of like how people will shake their asses to Beyonce, but when she talks of equality for African-Americans, she suddenly becomes too radical.

…It means that, inherently, equal rights do not exist. There is a mainstream, or White, version of equal rights like being talked down when you are clearly in possession of a firearm. Then there are the Black versions, where you can never be equal so there’s no reason to ask for such rights. Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile.

…Not only that, it also means that to some people, your life is less important that an animal’s. There is significant, collective outrage when lions have been killed for sport and dogs have been drowned. Yet, when Black folks are killed (and it happens to often, it seems as though, sport), for the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority, there are little collective signs of empathy or remorse, and Black and Brown folks are asked what they did to cause their own demise.

…Along those same lines, it means there is a larger, uneducated, prejudice majority who may as well be your arch enemy, given how dismissive they are of you, and your pursuits of equality. A dog does not have an enemy, someone who’d rather kill the dog than see it reach its full potential. A cat person wouldn’t shoot a dog because the animal growled or somehow posed a menacing glance. Hell, even those who don’t like animals express sadness when animals are mistreated. When you’re Black though, the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority cares nothing about your mistreatment. In fact, they cause or assist in your mistreatment.

Oh to be Black, it means so much, to so many. And even though the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority will never understand what it means to be Black – in part because they do not have the wherewithal to listen – it does not stop them from offering opinions about what Blackness should mean, calling any dissenting opinions rhetoric or narrative. These words have become the larger, uneducated, prejudice majority way of describing that which is not part of the mainstream (and ignorant) perspective. Wanting better policing is rhetoric, yet demanding educational reform is the sign of a considerate American. See the difference? No? Then you probably understand the inner conflict of what it means to be a Black man (or Latino/a, or a woman, or gay, or any other so-called minority), in the United States.

Working in this Field

A raw excerpt, from a longer piece I’ve started on what I have learned from working in the field of preventing sexual violence and violence against women. Enjoy!

What have I learned by working in this field?

The easy answer is a lot. I’ve learned a lot. A lot about myself, specifically my upbringing, and those lessons that were passed down to me, reinforcing the idea that women are objects – not subjects, but rather, things in the form of sexual commodities.

How many girls you got, Ab, I was asked countless times by older guys on the block, encouraging me to have not just one girl, but several. Years later, those comments would turn into You hit that yet, which was code for, did you have sex with her. Not, Did you two have sex, which commands equality. Rather, Did you have sex with her. Meaning, did you do whatever it is you wanted to do to her sexually. She has no sexual needs, no emotions. She doesn’t even have to have a name. She only needed to have a fat ass that I was supposed to tap, hit, or smash.

After being in this field, however, I have been told that I should simply refute and reject these teaching, as if it were that simple. As misguided as these teachings are, it is not a matter as simple as flicking on a light switch – Click. I will no longer treat women like sex objects.

As in, after attending some training or hearing a speaker, my world is supposed to open up so much so that I change everything about the way in which I see the world, in particularly, my view of women. And if, for instance, an attractive woman is in my vicinity (whether it be Jennifer Lopez on the TV screen or someone at the gym), I am not supposed to gawk at them (rightfully so!); more than that, I am not even supposed to notice them, because even noticing that Jennifer Lopez has a voluptuous physique is objectifying.

Herein lies the complexity of it all. If we are able to freely admit that men’s sexual objectification of women takes years to formulate (and if cannot admit this, we are not critically assessing the situation), we must – in turn – acknowledge that it will take a significant amount of teaching and instruction for guys to unlearn their objectifying values and adopt new ways of behaving. If I’ve learned nothing else, it is that we should be patient when working with men.

Now, this isn’t to say that we should not continue to hold men accountable for fawning over the Jennifer Lopez doppelganger, for instance. Because we should. Accountability is one avenue for behavior change. But how we hold men account needs to come in different forms. Smacking men (figuratively) with verbal insults creates a divide, pitting men on one side, and everyone else looking to change men’s behavior on another side. Telling men that they need to change without acknowledging the complexities of it all (for instance, how media uses men’s values and caters by giving sexual images of female entertainers) is shortsighted. We must approach this as a critical issue, not one with a simple solution. Further, demanding that men change their behaviors towards women (in this case, sexual objectification) without giving healthy alternates is limiting. If we want men to behave better, we should provide examples, namely: how do we show men they can express an attraction to someone, while not treating that person as if they are only a fat ass or pair of perky boobs? How do we teach men they can give a compliment, while not harboring feelings being entitled to attention? How do we teach men they can express themselves sexually, while not treating the person as though their only role is sexual?

Too many times, we present men with what we think is a powerful message – in the form of a one-time speaker, which really just becomes a great optic. But as with many speakers, as time passes and luster of the words fade, behaviors return to the status quo. If we are to help men move along the continuum of seeing, and treating women more respectfully, empathically, equally, we should exhibit patience. If you have a guy in your life, it may take several conversations for that guy to see the issue with gawking at women at the gym. (They may never see the harm.) If you work with young men, it may take numerous programs and events before those guys have a true understanding of how they sexually objectify women without even knowing it. Just like exercising, getting men to change their objectifying behaviors will take repetitions, exposure to new ways of thinking (akin to muscle confusion), and further repetitions. This is not a process that will come about instantaneously like jello pudding, and we must remain cognizant of that. Through it all, we must be patient. Holding men accountable while exhibiting patience.

Oh, and just in case there is any confusion – the message is intended for men, not women. I am not asking women to exhibit patience with men’s behaviors, just like I would never ask our LGBT brothers and sisters to be patient (that is, content) with homophobic acts by the heterosexual majority. So I am speaking to me (primarily), and professionals who work with men (secondarily), to exude patience in getting men to change. In the end, we will not see results overnight. But the lessons we teach now, have the potential to last a lifetime.

My Canvass

Boy did I need a fix today. The white canvass of a blank screen is my drug. Seeing blank print on this screen is like my high – it takes me far away to a magical place where I have no worries (or at least they don’t worry me as much), where positive vibes are the only sensation running through my body, where I can feel, completely and utterly, safe. Safe to just be. Safe to be me. Years ago, in a distant world, it would have been a notepad and a pen. Now it’s a computer screen, providing me a fix.

We all need something to help us cope with the stressors. Nothing is absolute, so maybe not everyone needs something; but I sure as hell do. My father-in-law would say you need something to take the edge off. I guess he’s right…sort of. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many of my family members, and my friends’ family members, hooked on drugs that I could never understand turning to a substance to ease the pain. I remember my uncle getting into heated arguments with my grandmother, past midnight, walking up the whole block. Shouting, cursing. Talking about what she better not do, spitting off about when he is going to do. He was a high as he wanted to be. Probably off hair-ron…or as it is classically known, heroin. Those memories are burned within my conscious, the way an animal would be branded by its owner.

Still, taking the edge off isn’t what it’s like for me. Neither is it as described in New Jack City, when Pookie cried out, “but that shit just be callin’ me man, it be callin’ me.” That which gets my high isn’t calling me, I’m calling it. Feeling all sorts of mixed up inside, with an irritating itch, and only thing can scratch it. To be taken away from this world, even for a brief period of time. To let go of the inner strife – the frustrations and anger and disappointment – if but for a moment. To feel safe enough to just be, and just be me.

So right now, I don’t need a shot or a drink or a glass of wine. That would only make me resent the amount of time I’d have to work out, to work off the calories. No, I just need the white canvass and the blank print. Because what happened today, was some bullshit.

Admitting the Un-Admittible

Now that the dust has settled and everyone’s had a chance to offer a knee-jerk reaction to the Oscars, it feels like a good time to assess, critically, the one line from Chris Rock’s opening monologue that seemed to anger many of us feminists.

The moment the joke left his mouth, I knew there would be criticism. If we can get into heated exchanges over topics with far less depth – like the Starbucks Christmas, no wait Holiday, cups – certainly, there would have to be uproar over the comment, “everything’s not sexism”.

I debated the hilarity of the joke, too. I remember saying to myself, Hell yeah, the moment those words left his mouth. The next moment I thought to myself, Fuuuck.

The internal back-and-forth reminded me of a conversation I’d had with one of my friends (whom I affectionately call my feminist sister), where we both lamented feeling like you can’t say anything without offending someone, and then another conversation I’d had with a former colleague, who chastised me for exhibiting male privilege because I did not agree with her assertions of the rape-prevention nail polish. It was as back-and-forth as a tennis match.

Yes…no. Great point…what are you smoking? Hell yeah…fuuuck!

On the one hand, I get it, Chris Rock even suggesting everything’s not sexism trivializes all that is rooted in sexism – the gender wage gap, the glass ceiling, violence against women, the list goes on. The accomplishments and sacrifices of the women who have fought before us, the plight of those whom we now fight alongside of, are belittled if we accept, broadly, that everything’s not about sexism. Or if we fail to recognize that certain institutions, policies, and practices give women less control, less of a voice, less agency, less room at the figurative table, compared to that which men have. Or if we allow such comments to go unchecked, giving fodder to those who think men’s rights are evaporating like puddles on a sunny day. As progressive and insightful as Chris Rock is, my fuuuck response was fitting. Some things are sexism.

But I used his joke to assess how those outside of the feminist movement see sexism, and how they perceive our view of sexism – what we’re fighting to uproot. This is where some valuable points can be extrapolated.

Although it was not stated directly, Chris Rick was making a clear reference to #AskHerMore, with that particular joke. As in, ask female celebrities more than who she’s wearing. Or why she chose to wear that necklace. Those soft, appearance-obsessed questions that are slow-pitched to female celebrities may not rise to the level of sexism the way our foremothers faced. But they make us feel some kinda way. It may not be sexism from 1960, but it still feels wrong, nonetheless.

From where I stand – as someone who catches a glimpse of the awards’ pre-shows via my wife’s consumption – the interviews are not the actual problem. The true culprits are the awards’ pre-show because they focus on fashion and attire, rate the best and worst dressed celebs, and highlight appearance over talent, like some adult version of mean girls. These shows set the table and provide the environment for those soft and superficial interviews. So it’s no wonder actresses are asked about their gowns and not their crafts, when they’re on the red carpet.

Still, with the #AskHerMore campaign, we are asked to get upset about soft and superficial interviews, but not the entire awards’ pre-show festivities, which allow the superficial interviews to exist. Said another way, we are asked to target the symptoms, but we are not asked to go after the root cause. If we raise our collective voices and ask for a shift in how the awards’ pre-shows are covered – celebrating artistic accomplishments and highlighting challenging roles actresses and actors play, for instance – the interviews can follow suit. Then, perhaps Ryan Seacrest will ask questions that have some level of complexity. As such, one assessment we can glean from Chris Rock’s inflammatory joke is that we should ask more of not only #AskHerMore, but also more of ourselves when we demand #AskHerMore.

When we dig deeper, though, we can extrapolate another valuable point – that is, our collective sexist treatment of female celebrities. Let’s go back to 2015, when everyone was outraged over the 10 hours of sexual harassment one woman faced while walking in New York City. With good reason, most of us were not okay with an everyday woman (that is, someone who is not a celebrity) being catcalled, gawked at, and fawned over, and subjected to sexual comments, which made her feel uncomfortable. Women do not owe you their time, was one of our collective battle cries. Yet, when it comes to actress, singers, and other female celebrities, we seem to be okay with a certain level of sexual harassment and objectification. Of course the complexities here are endless, as some celebrities pose, purposefully, so the camera (and those of us consuming the images from the camera) can get a better glimpse of their bodies. But this is not true for all female celebrities. As P!NK sang in one of her fiery hits, “I’m not here for your entertainment”. Not all female celebrities choose to pose on men’s magazine covers, for instance. But, all female celebrities are subjected to sexual objectification. In this regard, it feels like we have selective outrage. When it happens to the young lady who documented her trials, we labelled it sexual harassment. When it happens to actresses, though, we dub it entertainment. So if we can glean another lesson from Chris Rock’s remark, it is just treatment – that is, let us humanize our female celebrities and not reduce them to a collection of sexual parts. Their crafts should be enjoyed as entertainment, not their bodies.

When I dig deeper still,

I see a field that is so besieged by patriarchy, sexism, and misogyny that damn near everything feels as though it is reinforcing those archaic ideals. And rightfully so. Women in leadership positions aren’t given the same respect as men in those same roles. Some politicians are determined to politicize contraception, taking control from women over their bodies. And even though we denounce sexual violence, we still ask women to take ownership for preventing assaults committed against them. Those atrocities are surely worthy of our attention and outrage.

Yet, while many issues are rooted in sexism, not every issue is. Not every issue reinforces male privilege and not every issue furthers patriarchy. Take manspreading, for instance. You know, where a man is seated on a train, bus, or other public venue, and spreads his legs such that he covers two seats. Taking away seats that other passengers could occupy. Limiting seating options for women. When we delve into this issue, however, we will find that manspreading affects women as well as men. It affects anyone who’s looking to occupy an empty seat, really.  Additionally, a man spreading his legs across two seats is just as restrictive as a person (perhaps a woman) sitting in one chair, while placing their bag in another chair, effectively taking up two seats. So while manspreading may be an annoyance – and an irritation and leave some too intimidated to speak up – it is not a privilege given unto men that women cannot have. Nor does it confine women as second-class citizens. Suffice it to say, I am not part of the feminist movement that believes manspreading is worthy of our outrage. In and of itself, manspreading may not be trivial. But when compared to the gender wage gap, for instance, it is trivial.

So when we voice outrage about issues such as manspreading, and we give it the same level of contempt as we do the gender wage gap, for instance, it comes off as both disingenuous and disrespectful to the latter. If we can glean another lesson from Chris Rock’s joke, it is that our collective outrage can use some perspective.

During his opening monologue, Chris Rock made me laugh and then he made me cringe. But, his jokes forced me to do some self-inventory – Is it the red-carpet interviews or the awards’ pre-shows? Are we okay with sexual harassment or sexual objectification? Do we apply sexism to everything or those specific issues that are truly, unjust? This isn’t giving him a pass – as mentioned above, his comment trivializes many sacrifices and accomplishments. So I didn’t laugh at Chris Rock’s joke because it had strong comedic value. But because it challenged me to consider how can we reach people outside of the movement, and bring them in. If it means admitting “everything’s not sexism”, let’s assess it and have a dialogue. If we hope to engage the masses, we have to meet them where they are, in order to eventually bring them into our mix. More than that, we have to remain open to self-analysis – whether the criticism is coming from someone inside, or outside, of our field. It’s complicated. Not everything is about sexism. But we have to admit some things are still about sexism. Moreover, we cannot let the perception that everything’s not sexism prevent us from addressing that which is about sexism. For so many of us, it is sexism – and its many manifestations – that drive us to do this work. If we’re going to be driving the bus, we have to keep our focus on the final destination, while also remaining open to different routes (in this case, critical assessment) that’ll help get us to that destination.

Please don’t tell me the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird” inspired this piece. This poem isn’t so much of a rebuttal (or in any way disrespectful) to Master Angelou’s brilliant work. Instead, it’s meant to be a different take on a caged bird singing, which I felt like, years ago, when I couldn’t find a job for about half a year, and it seemed nothing was going my way. As with many difficult times, you go through a series of ups and downs. On the good days, I could tell myself to remain optimistic and felt like “Caged Birds” Angelou writes about. On the bad days, though, I felt defeated and downtrodden, like this bird.

“Please don’t tell me the Caged Bird Sings”

I often wonder what a bird trapped inside of a cage does all day;

Sitting on his perch…rocking back and forth…chirping as if someone is listening;

Looking at the same four walls,

Sick of the hideous green paint and yellow wallpaper.

I bet monotony soon sets in – perch…food pellets…water beaker…crash against the bars…perch…food pellets…water beaks…crash against the bars…

His arms probably feel heavy as lead,

For,

Every time he flaps those wings,

He smacks his beak against the cage,

Reminding himself that he’s a prisoner to the cage.

Still,

He chirps high and loud, like birds singing in the trees,

And I wonder if he ever thinks, or imagines, or dreams

What it must feel like to be free;

Does he know what it feels like to have the wind blowing against his feathers as he soars through the sky;

Or to own the skies and have it play second fiddle to a show where he is the brightest star;

Or to fly all the way up to the sun, and kiss her on the cheek, and feel her radiance against his breath.

Alas,

The caged bird doesn’t move much – perch…food pellets…water beaker…crash again the bars…

He listens to their callous laughter, patronizing tweets, and chitter-chatter of how content he should be;

As if they’ve already forgotten what it’s like to gulp mouthfuls of air,

That tastes so pure, and clean, and fresh,

The way he only hears about on those infomercials, which drown out his nightly chirping spree.

The caged bird sits on his branch,

Sulking, and swinging back and forth,

Dreaming what it must feel like to be free,

And chirping

Just to drown out the voices screaming inside of his head

So,

Please don’t tell me that you hear the caged bird singing.

I am that caged bird,

And I am screaming,

And dreaming for the day my soul will find freedom.

Reflections from a Tim Wise Address

Sooooo this happened.

Tim Wise's Autograph - 2

 

Not only did I have the luxury of getting Tim Wise’s autograph, I had the privilege of attending an event where Mr. Wise gave a riveting address. It was absolutely outstanding. To borrow a line from the sitcom “Martin”, it was all that and a pot of grits! I had heard plenty of Mr. Wise’s lectures and talks on online channels, but this was different. Being in the room and hearing the inflection in his voice when he spoke the most salient points, listening to the quickness with which he sometimes spoke (which reminded me of my own fast-talking style), and sensing his frustrations over a student who tried to monopolize the Q and A session, those were just some of the advantages I could have only received by attending the session with Mr. Wise, in person. It was akin to drinking orange juice with pulp. Sure, in essence, pulped orange juice is the same as orange juice without pulp. But the pulp is a flavorful reminder that you are drinking orange juice. Not apple juice or cranberry juice. Not fruit punch of Kool-Aid. But, orange juice. Similarly, seeing and hearing Mr. Wise speak in person, was a flavorful reminder of where I was, and more importantly, why I was there.

The messages Mr. Wise delivers resonates with me for a multitude of reasons. One of those reasons is that he (being a White male, taking on a supposed Black issue, delivering it to mostly-White audiences) has made the discussion about race and racism easier to have, to the extent that discussing race can be easy, that is.

See, I’ve noticed that whenever I speak about race, racism, or racial constructs, SOME of my friends who are White (and even some who are Black) respond that I’m being too sensitive, that I need to have thicker skin, how it’s only a joke. In much the same way my male friends reply that I can’t take a joke because I don’t laugh when comedians who use rape as comedic material. I won’t laugh at the horror suffered by a survivor of sexual violence, just like I won’t laugh at the pains suffered by someone who’s been afflicted with cancer.

It’s almost as if they’re saying, why do you care so much about this. Well, for starters, the discussion about race or racism is not purely an intellectual conversation for me. It goes much deeper than that. Here’s what I mean, I’d suspect that people who have not been targeted because of their race are able to have a dialogue about racism from a purely intellectual perspective. What they think about racism, much the same way one can talk about a fire that’s happening in another state. It’s from a distance. It’s something that someone else is experiencing. So the thoughts and ideas are conceptual or idealistic. As in, if people are experiencing harassment by law enforcement, they ought to comply because, in the end, officers of the law are here to protect us. Well, in an ideal world, yes, that should be the case for everyone. But, we live in America – a land that, while it has its advantages, it is far from idealistic.

So for me, and I’d suspect this to be true of other Black folks, a dialogue about race, racism, and racial constructs is way beyond intellectual. It’s first psychological, then emotional, and then further down the line, intellectual. Given the same example as above, when people of color experience harassment by law enforcement, it stimulates painful memories of an uncle who told stories of cops taking him down by the docks so no one could hear him scream. Or stories about people like Emmitt Till, murdered for supposedly whistling as a White woman. Or stories, and images, of our enslaved ancestors, whipped, kicked, spat on; raped, pillaged, and torn from their families. Harassment by one officer is never just that. For us, it’s always linked to the historical treatment of our people. Treatment that was legal, at one point in time. I sometimes ask myself why in the world would America find it wrong that police harass Black folk in 2016 if it was legal for police, and any other White citizen, to kill Black folk in 1955? Even in 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated? We’ve had some major accomplishments in the past 50 years, but elements of injustices are still alive and well.

Then, it moves to an emotional level. Fear of being killed. Anger for the way my grandmother was berated by a White cop. Frustration at the calculated prejudice, targeting of Black and Brown folks, yet turning the other way when the same actions (criminal, suspicious, or not) are committed by White folks. The agony knowing officers don’t give a shit about you. The hypocrisy stirring inside – sure your great-great grandfather may have fought for this country. But, he had no more rights than a dog. Not able to vote, own his own home, or pursue the supposed American dream. Now in present-day America, while you may have more advantages than your great-great grandfather, you still are without many of those same freedoms.

If you’re able to move past those states, then, perhaps an intellectual conversation about race can be had. But it’s pretty hard to be unbiased, when you’re the recipient of all of the biased behaviors. It’d be like someone asking you to give an opinion about home invasions that does not take into account the thousands of times your home was burglarized. Or having an unbiased stance on drunk driving laws, when your parents were killed by a drunk driver. It’s damn near difficult to not see racism in many of the injustices inflicted upon Black and Brown folks when so much of the historical treatment of Black and Brown folks was racial. In many respects, these two worlds are simply not mutually-exclusive. Not, one, bit.

So, to my friends who are White, that’s where I’m coming from. When you hear about a Black teenager that was killed by a White police officer, it may not even trigger an emotional response. But perhaps, an intellectual comment – so sad. And your empathy is good, so don’t get my wrong. But when I hear about a Black teenage that was killed by a White police officer (or vigilante citizen) – Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown – I shutter, knowing very well, the next Black male could be me (although I am far from a teen). Or worse, my son.

We all have fears. Some are irrational and humorous, like people who fear they’ll be eaten by a shark if they step foot in the waters of Lake George. Other fears, however, are warranted, like fearing you might be killed by a police officer if you don’t comply, or sit in your chair as he barks order, or disobey a command, or look him in the eye, or possess anything that could be mistaken for a weapon (whether it be a toy gun or cell phone box), or makes the officer fear for their life. These sort of justifications sound eerily similar to the reasons slave owners gave for enslaving our African ancestors, beating their slaves who were disobedient, punishing Blacks for wanting more rights and freedoms, and legalizing the mistreatment of Black folk who advocated for equality. It wasn’t that long ago that it was legal, that is, not against the law, to beat abuse and murder Black folks who misbehaved.

If America wants me, and other people of color, to lay down our fears, it first must be willing to lay down the ill-treatment of its non-White citizens. Whether Black men, or Persian women. More than that, we should be prosecuting White police officers who kills Black teenagers the same way we prosecute any other murderer. But also, owning up to the racist past that our country was built upon and working to create a more equal tomorrow.

I’m not asking America to pay for the years of counseling I’d most likely need to get over my fears, anxieties, and paranoias. What I am asking is that America stop breathing life into those fears because Black folks aren’t allowed to have mental illnesses, but that’s another subject for another day.

If you Do it Right

As I continue working on A Matter of Semantics second edition, a NEW lesson has worked its way into the revisions. Here are parts of that new lesson, raw and uncut. Enjoy!

But, if you want this unforgettable, magical, intoxicating sort of college experience, you have to do it right, and give the experience all that you have – the full complement of your time, energies, and focus, as though you were in a monogamous relationship. You have to take advantage of the myriad of opportunities your college experience will present and afford you and not just those that are within your comfort zone. You have to allow yourself the ability to transform as a result of the experiences you will encounter, and not fight reality when you realize you have grown into someone new, someone different, or someone your high school friends no longer recognize.

There is no underestimating the impact of the college experience. It has the ability to change your life, for the better.

This life lesson – of dedicating yourself completely, fully, unselfishly – one you can carry with you in every facet of life. Whether you’re in a committed relationship, on a sports team, involved in an organization, or pursuing graduate studies. If you want to get the most out of those experiences, you have to commit yourself.

Certainly, there’s nothing wrong with being content with your backup role on the soccer team, for instance. Nothing wrong with playing for the sake of playing or just to have fun. Nothing wrong, whatsoever, with being on a team, in an organization, or in a relationship just for the experience of it all.

But if you want get the most out of your involvement on that team, organization, relationship, or in this case, college experience, you have to give yourself the permission to be vulnerable and allow the experience to transform you in ways you never thought possible. You have to give yourself – completely, fully, and unselfishly – to the experience. In short, you have to do it right, and that means going all in.


Reflections from a Student Rally – A Message to my Friends

I attended a powerful student event, yesterday. A group of students organized a rally, of sorts. Whereby all members of the campus community where invited to a forum, where students shared their experiences of discrimination or discomfort, feelings of shame and self-hatred, as related to being a part of the campus community. One student shared an experienced he’d had where a faculty member questioned him, to his face, as to whether he was an engineering major. As if students in the engineering program couldn’t be black. Another student shared her feelings of not belonging – for, although she identifies as Korean, she does not identify with the culture and experiences and expectations of other Korean students. How she has no place to call home. How she doesn’t even know who she is.

These stories resonated with me, loud and clear. Bringing me back to my college experience. I had decided to join the Black Student Union after attending the first meeting where one of the members shared an ugly experience where a fellow student had called her a nigger. It was then that I made it my personal mission to stamp out every discriminatory act I encountered. More than that, I made up my mind that this was my fight. Fighting for equal treatment of those who were marginalized, although I wouldn’t have used that term at the time. I probably would have said second-class citizens. Because that’s what it felt like – all the students of a certain race, or sexual orientation, or religion were of first class, and here we were, the second class. Three-fifths of a person. Looked over, like we were not even there sometimes. Not treated with respect. Not not because we were different – the guy with the tattoo and the girl with the Boston accent were different – but because we were them, those people, their kind, the Others.

And I thought back to friends I’d made in college. Most of whom were surface-level. Non-threatening conversations such as I’m having a party toorrow, you should come by. Then there were a few that were deep and meaningful friendships, where we shared experiences shared of abusive fathers, tumultuous families, even cancer. The drug addictions that rocked my family, being broke as a joke (when it seemed that everyone around me had money to burn), raised by a single mom. With my closest of friends whenever we discussed these matters, I remember feeling comforted knowing that even though my friends who were White didn’t know what it was like to be black, and thus, marginalized or second-class, they never downplayed my experiences. That even if they were ignorant about certain matters dealing with unequal treatment of Black and Brown people, at the very least, they were willing to listen and learn about those experiences. Even though I could not connect with most of my friends on a racial level, I connected with them over shared experiences of feeling like an outcast (for different reasons). I remember my friends allowing me to be myself: “I talk like I walk, with a fucked up pivot”, a line from a song I’d listened to a thousand times describes it pretty well.

But probably the one sentiment that stuck with me the most from that student event, is the sense of not being able to put down my weight not for any kind of brief reprieve, not even for a second. I can’t undo the color of my skin, nor would I want to. I can’t undo the unjust treatment of my ancestors, no matter how much I wish I could. Similarly, I can’t stop myself from thinking, breathing, and seeing the world through a lens that tells me I am an Other, no matter how clearly the Declaration of Independence reads all men are treated equal.

From a pragmatic perspective, this means I can’t not help but feel the stares and glares I receive in certain communities, when I’m just trying to buy a pack of gum. I can’t not express frustration over the senseless killing of Black and Brown folks, not only by police officers, but also by other Black and Brown folk. I can’t not speak up about president candidates who fail to recognize the systematic discriminatory treatment of people of color, women, and our LGBT brothers and sisters, and how their slogans may as well be, Working for a Whiter America. I can’t not do all of those things, and countless others, because I live them, on a daily basis. See, every day I’m reminding that I’m black, and that I don’t quite belong, and that is part of the pressure, or weight, that I feel.

So I thank my college friends for letting me be me, and listening to my stories and for sharing their journeys with me. For accepting and celebrating my plight, just I accepted and celebrated theirs. For standing by me (and even sticking up for me when necessary), and all of my Blackness, just as I stood beside them.

But like a game of tennis, I can’t help but go back and forth. I can’t help think how I might react if some punk assaults my daughter. Rage. Or how I might respond if some coward with a gun shoots my son, for no other reason than being a Black man. Fire. Or how I might spiral out of control if some cop throws my daughter across a classroom. Wrath.

I wish I didn’t think about these things, but I do. The reality is… no, my reality is these instances could happen to me because of the color of my skin. But, they may not happen to someone else for that same reason. Which, on the one hand, is great. It’s utterly fantastic and progressive that someone can go to school, be disobedient, and even disrespectful, and not have to worry about being Tased, or thrown, or killed. On the other than, as a responsible parent, I have to have those conversations with my children. About how the mere color of their skin will determine the unjust treatment they receive.

No, I don’t want to think about how I might react if someone harms my children, or my wife, or my family simply because they are one of the Others. But I do. It’s become part of my weight. That which fills my conscious, casting aside happier thoughts I could have about vacationing in Hawaii, on a beach, under the blue skies, on a perfect day.

It’s my weight, and it means when I speak with my realtor about finding a place to live, we have to talk about diversity. While I can’t protect my family from all the evils of life, I’ll be damned if I live in a community where neighbors bear, wave, or otherwise celebrate the Confederate flag. My weight also means nurturing those friendships that are deep and meaningful, and include tough conversations like one I had with my best friend – the double whammy I felt years ago when I was jobless. Being Black AND unemployed. All the rhetoric of country says that you should be able to get a job. But, for the life of me, for a six month period of time, I could not. The rhetoric also says that Black folks who can’t find work are lazy parasites, mooching of the system. No matter how hard I tried to shake those thoughts, I could not. They reminded me daily that I was a failure.

But that’s my weight, and I accept it.  Like the students who organized the event, I am not searching for someone with a magic pill to take the weight away, or even shoulder it from me while I catch my breath. Instead, I’m hoping that when I struggle from the weight of the weight, that my friends will ask how I’m doing, and not demand that I just need to catch up. Because it’s my weight. And if we’re going to be friends, I need more from you.

There’s nothing wrong with having Facebook friends – those people you rarely see, and even when you do, it’s surface level, how are you, knowing you really don’t want to know. But for my friends who want to really be friends with me – that is, a deep, meaningful connection – you can’t be scared to conversations simply because they are tough. Whether it’s about my drug-dealing step-father who was murdered, the terror and anger I feel every time another Black man is killed by a White cop, or even about how I am struggling, on a daily basis, to become more aware of my own male privileges. No, we must have those conversations if we are to be friends. Those are the thoughts running through my mind. I’m not asking that you agree with them. But, what I am asking, is that you learn to understand why it rocks me on my heels and shakes me to my core whenever another black man if killed by a White cop, or another teenage girl is sent home from the prom because her dress is too distracting, or another presidential candidate talks about deportation, or the woman who wouldn’t grant marriage licenses to LGBT couples. These are my realities. They’re weight that I cannot put down. Not even for a moment.

If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t walk, our friendship would mean sitting on your couch. If you ever hit a point where you couldn’t drink alcohol, our friendship would center around diet cokes and limes. Similarly, if we’re going to be friends, and I hope that we will be, I want you to know that you have to become comfortable letting my Blackness play out in whatever way that feels organic to me, comfortable discussing things that most people don’t want to talk about, and comfortable with being uncomfortable. Because that’s what I live, on a daily basis.

The Long Way Home

I’m taking it waaay back with this piece. This is one of the first stories I composed, in its original form, teenage voice, flaws and all. I was a high school senior and was given an assignment for my creative writing class. I’m not sure what my teacher was expecting, but this is the story that pour itself out, from inside of me. I hope you enjoy it!

The Long Way Home

     Damn!  I knew I should’a waited for the twenty-seven.  I don’t feel like walking down this street, Victor says to himself while riding the bus back to his house.  He looks out of the window and can hardly see anything; it’s very dark outside.  His stop is nearing.  Almost half-heartedly, Victor presses the bell which signals the bus driver that a passenger wants to get off.  He slowly rises out of his slouched position and walks to the nearest exit.  “Back Door” he yells while struggling to push the twin doors open.  The bus driver presses a button on his control panel and with a slight touch, both doors open.  Victor takes three steps downward onto the sidewalk, turns around, and waits for the bus pull off.  He looks straight ahead.  Across the street from the bus stop lies a vacant lot.  Victor is all alone.  He doesn’t like what he sees.  He waits for the cars to pass, looks both ways, and begins his journey:

 

Complete darkness surrounds the city streets as Victor crosses over into the vacant lot.  He again realizes he shouldn’t have taken the No. 13 bus; it may indeed be a long walk home.  He could have waited another five minutes for the No. 27 bus that would have dropped him off around the corner from his house.  Instead, Victor gave in to his impatience and settled for the long walk.  He enters the lot which serves as a short-cut for two adjoining streets.  He flows freely over dirt, candy wrappers, and empty crack viles.  He trots around rocks, broken glass, and used condoms. The sounds of the streets play an unnerving tune on Victor’s ear drums.  He hears random gun shots, police sirens, and skidding stolen cars.  His taste buds are so displeased with disgust that he almost vomits.  Yet, Victor calms himself and tries not to inhale the smells of piss (which has amassed from constant urination), feces (from stray dogs), and weed (from the people standing outside getting high).  Despite the distractions, it’s simply Victor against his journey, one-on-one, man-to-man.  He takes one last step out of the filth and escapes, though he’s far from relieved.

As he continues his journey, Victor comes across a frightening sight from his childhood: a circular, three story gray house surrounded by roaming cats.  He always trembled upon sight of the house and tonight was no exception.  Right next to the lifeless house lies a similar house with a rectangular shape and a huge side yard.  A streetlight shines down in front of the rectangular house revealing its color, a dull green.  Victor begins staring at the two house, noting their similarities and difference.  Suddenly, he hears sounds of swift movement and chains rattling: “Woof! Woof!  Woof! Woof! Woof!”  Two humungous Rottweilers violently charge in Victor’s direction.  He’s saved only by the gates which seals the beasts in their den.  The dogs’ ferocious barks almost send Victor retreating to the opposite side of the street, nevertheless, causing him to walk with more caution and more quickly too.

Victor’s journey is almost over.  He’s now able to see his house on a street which is otherwise, a ghost-town.  However, darkness is still following him.  All the streetlights are out, save three.  A slight joyous feeling enters Victor’s body as he becomes more relieved.  While looking about, grinning, and almost mocking the darkness and horrors of the streets, Victor notices a small animal lying on the ground.  Somebody done ran over another damn cat, he says to himself, shaking his head in disappointment.  The cat’s gray fur is torn and stained with its blood.  The cat’s intestine, guts, and brains are all over the street.  The feline’s internal organs hanging out look like spaghetti and Victor anticipates the horrible odor the corpse will give off.  If I close my mouth and try not to inhale, I won’t even smell the dead cat, Victor says to himself.  Victor takes a deep breath, performs the arduous task, and in an instant, it’s over.  Ha!  He laughs to himself knowing that he has the streets beaten.

As Victor heads for the home stretch, a car on the opposite side of the street drives slowly towards him.  The car stops.  A dark figure wearing a black leather jacket gets out.  The figure begins to walk in Victor’s direction.  Victor looks to his right, sees another vacant lot, and assumes the figure is going to take a leak.  As suspected, the man in the black jacket darts towards the lot.  He unzips his jeans and takes a piss.  Steam rises above the figure in the cold air.   The man in the black jacket turns around.  He zips his zipper and walks back in the direction from which he came.   On his way back, he stops just before Victor, unzips his jacket, and pulls out an enormous handgun.

“Come up off that cash now, motherfucka”, the man in the black jacket says.  Suspecting that he sells drugs, the man demands Victor’s nightly earnings.  He takes a step towards Victor.  Victor can not see his face.  He only sees a dark figure and the large gun.

“C-C-Cash…”,  Victor replies.

“Yeah!  That loot you just got finished making…Hand it over!”  He takes another step towards Victor.  Victor is now able to capture every detail of the weapon: as dark as night itself, its huge rectangular frame conjures thoughts of the house with the Rottweillers; it appears to be a .45mm pistol.  The man’s finger is gently caressing the trigger.  Victor pleads for his life.  He’s so terrified that he can barely speak.

“I…I don’t got no loot.  I just…I just got off the bus man.  I don’t even clock”, Victor responds.  He pulls his pockets from inside his pants.  He offers a handful of lintballs.

“Then what the hell you doin’ out this time-a-night?!”

“I just…I just came from downtown.  I had to walk my girl home”

The man in the black jacket stares blankly at Victor.  Victor looks up at the man as if he was receiving communion from a priest.  Time seems to stop.  The man in the black jacket opens his mouth.  Victor fears the result.

“Get the fuck out my face”, the man in the black coat utters.

Yes!  He’s spared me, Victor thinks to himself.  Victor’s first instinct is to run.  No.  He can’t.  He slowly walks away.  The man in the black jacket returns to his car.  Victor speeds up his pace.  Before long, he’s sprinting.

While Victor is racing home, he hears a door open.  “Where the fuck the money at”, someone shouts.

“He ain’t have none.”

“What the fuck you mean he ain’t have no money!  He wouldn’t be out this time-a-night if he didn’t!”

“Man, get your ass in the car so we can bail.”

“Fuck that!”

“Come on man, let’s get the fuck outta here.”

“Naw!  He holdin’ out on us!”  Someone shouts to Victor, “Yo motherfucka you ain’t leavin that easy!”

Victor hears the voice calling, but cannot turn around.  He continues running.  Suddenly, he hears a series of shots being fired.  Victor falls after being hit multiple times.  Instantly, he loses his sense of smell.  Before too long, he can neither hear nor taste.  Victor’s vision is still strong.  He can see his own blood as a streetlight shines down upon it.  He starts convulsing.  The sight of his own blood is horrifying.  His eyesight begins to weaken.  He soon goes blind.  The last thing Victor feels is a hand taking off his sneakers and wrestling off his socks.

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