What are the boundaries of the freedom dream?
I hear the bells ringing.
I smell the dough rising.
I feel the rain falling on the dessert.
And then I wake up.
Last week I had open heart surgery at the Facing Race Conference in Baltimore http://colorlines.com/facing-race-2012/. I was in serious danger of having a White supremacy -related cardiac arrest. The daily stress of race related slights, ignorant remarks, and racial stereotypes in the news, on TV, and in my daughter’s classroom were taking their toll. The unhealthy diet of judging my beauty against the norm, of basing “good, “right”, and “true” on “White”, of wishing for a new nose, different hair, eyes, lips clogged arteries. The pressure to be a strong bridge across the racial divide was pushing the damaged muscle to its breaking point. The everyday news of injustice, inequity, and the needless suffering of people of color, people of gender, people of difference, people, was sapping my will to resist the oncoming collapse.
And then I stepped in to Facing Race. Rinku Sen, editor of Colorlines magazine and executive director of Applied Research Center (ARC), hosts of the conference, stepped on stage. I was breathing heavy. I was walking slowly with the weight, pain radiating.
Rinku Sen was the first responder.
“Transformative is what I am after. I don’t want to reverse the racial hierarchy. I want to take it apart. I want to change the course of human evolution.”
A jolt went through me.
“We are so well equipped to do this. We are such good strategists. We know how to run campaigns. We do this work with so much heart, and so much humor. We have so much resilience. We can survive anything. We can do this. We can take the country and the world closer to a new humanity.”
The weight began to ease inside me.
“If we do our part, then our kids will do their part. And their kids will do the next part and the next kids after that will do more. I am counting on you to do this with me…Our ancestors demand it. The dead demand it. The living demand it. And we can answer them, if we stand together. We can set the path for true human liberation. We must start today. I know that together, we will get there. “
I was revived, still damaged, still in pain, but ready to live, ready to fight, ready to be healed. There is so much more to tell. The power of the speakers, dancers, comedians, artists, children, elders, changed me. All the faces together facing the madness that is White supremacist, patriarchal, heterosexist, ableist, classist hierarchical lifted me up. That weekend, my chest was opened up. Years of toxins were released. New connections were built. I was transformed. I was ready to walk the liberation path again.
I am driving the minivan. My four year old daughter is behind me, strapped into her booster seat. A purple balloon rises up from her wrist, a bottle filled with candy in her lap, her eyes still wet from goodbye tears, her voice twittering with excitement, exhaustion, and complete satisfaction. We are on our way home from her “best friend”s 5th birthday at Pump it up.
A: “Kensington is my best friend mommy!”
Me: “I know. You told me!”
I love talking to her when she is like this. This time in the car becomes more special every day, now that I am working full time – now that she spends long days at her suburban pre-school.
A: “Kensington is 5 mommy! I am 4. But she’s my best friend! She’s in my heart.”
I melt when she says these things. What words will her 4 year old brain spin out next? I ask a question, waiting to be dazzled or amused, to be impressed with her smarts, or chuckle at her silliness.
Me: “Why is she your best friend sweetness?”
A: “Because she has the same skin color as me. Can I have this candy tomorrow?”
My voice catches in my throat. My brain goes blank.
Me: “Uh huh.”
Should I say something more? Is it ok that she is choosing best friends based on skin color? She has moved on to talking about The Wiggles, and something about flying to Mars with her baby doll. But I am stuck. Skipping like a record.
Of course, I had noticed at the party. Asha and Kensington were the only non White-skinned kids there who were not members of Kensington’s family. Both of them a golden brown tone, children of mixed parentage. Kensington’s mother African American, her father Latino. They both played with the other kids of course. They did not band together, or isolate themselves. They did not self-segregate.
This moment is pregnant. It has meaning for me. We are moving to Philadelphia, exploring neighborhoods, trying them on for size, one a weekend, our little family of four, one White, one Brown, two Golden.
Who do we belong with? Where do we fit? On a busy street in one neighborhood, I am the only brown skinned person I see the whole afternoon, except for the Parking attendant. We are strangers to this town but does that mean we should feel strange?
I feel strange when I am the only brown person in the room. It’s no one’s fault. No one has to be doing something wrong. I just feel strange. I search the room for another brown skinned person. I have done this for as long as I can remember. Then I know I am safe. I am not so strange.
Now, I know my golden-skinned girl child feels something like this too. I thank goodness for my question and her answer. I thank goodness for these moments in the car – these windows, these mirrors. I am certain now, I must find a someplace where we fit. I must find a place we all can be. Perhaps strangers together, but together, never strange.
I ride the Regional Rail to work and back again, from outside to in, Center City to Marcus Hook, where the oil refinery shoots plumes of orange flame and the ladies at the diner call me hon. I watch the signs – Eddystone, Crum Lyn, “The Gas Light”. A worn billboard, paint curled, letters faded, stands tall midway. I can just make out the hopeful plug:
“Visit our suburban city, and see what’s new in Glenolden!”
The first time I saw it, I laughed. But the joke is too old, and too sad to be funny. The lost luster of the suburban dream reminds me that I am not as young as I used to be.
I ride the Regional Rail from my hometown, seeing it with my 36 years old, consciousness-raised, social-science eyes. The Chester Transportation Center speaks its truth to me. Promises broken, people unmade, climbing too many stairs just to wait for a train to somewhere else. University City still ten stops away.
I ride the Regional Rail to work, from outside to in, Marcus Hook to Center City, where the fountain at LOVE park shoots plumes of purple water and the lady at the chinese food truck knows I need more hot sauce. The sky scrapers rise up, the murals sing praise songs, and I am young once again. My pulse quickens with the beating heart of the city until it’s time to ride the Rail again.
I drew two pictures, just like the book suggested. I was home alone, beads of sweat pooling in the crease between my thighs and the swell of my baby-filled belly. The crayola box was covered in a thin layer of dust. I selected brown and red and peach and yellow, blue and gold and pink. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply.
Fear: I drew a dark, windowless room. I drew myself lying on a bed. My big, brown bulging form was strapped down by black wires and cords. I drew two women near me and colored their faces peach and gave them long blond hair. I drew word bubbles rising from their mouths. “#*?! ” they shouted. On my right calf muscle I drew a large red X.
Hope: I drew myself sitting up in bed and my husband Jon next to me. I drew a brown-skinned woman smiling nearby. I drew a river flowing out from between my legs and a small brown baby floating atop. In the air above the baby, I drew a star.
A few weeks later: I sat up on a delivery room bed at Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago and pushed. The room was bright. I closed my eyes and went inside myself. I sensed the people in the room: my husband, my blond nurse, and my friend Sandhya. My right leg spasmed and I shouted incoherent commands to this team of supporters. “You!” I pointed frantically towards no one with my eyes closed. “Rub my leg! Up! No, down! Left. More left. No. Outside!!” I felt hands on my leg, easing the cramp into a dull ache.
The nurse’s voice warned me of the next coming wave. “Focus on your bottom!” Words you only hear in a delivery room or at the gym. I breathed in deeply, standing somewhere inside myself in the dark, wondering who this child would be. “Do you want to feel the head?” I reached down between my legs and felt a patch of hard skull covered by soft hair no bigger than a quarter. I wondered why my baby’s head was so very tiny. I imagined I was pushing out a small doll. It seemed very doable.
The doctor appeared between my legs. “Hi Aarati, I am Dr. Starr. Your baby is almost here. Let’s get another good push.” I pushed my soul against hers, willing her into the world. I felt a sudden gush, a rush, and thrust myself against myself. “Wow! That’s a lot of water! Here she comes!”
Asha. Hope. Kimberly. From the meadow of the royal forest. The hope from the meadow of the royal forest was born. All hail brown-skinned, all hail pink-skinned. Born on water and under a star. She is here, she is here, she is here!
Worf: There is the theory of the Moebius. Where time becomes a loop.
LaForge: When we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again.
(Lines from Star Trek the Next Generation, spoken by the show’s two Black actors. )
We are stuck in a Moebius. The eerie deja vu of Trayvon and The Help calling forth Rodney King and Hattie McDaniels. In Ward 8 here in D.C., Marion Barry calls Asian owned businesses dirty and I feel the heat of the L.A. riots. History is repeating itself and has been since post Civil Rights America began taking shape.
In “By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and the Reality of Race” by Leonard Steinhorn and Barbara Diggs-Brown, the authors analyze the post Civil Rights era to assess the effort to integrate America. The authors argue that, since the civil rights movement, Black and White integration is more common in public spaces such as workplaces, schools, and shops. They agree that this has an overall positive impact on the status of Blacks in America.
However, in private spaces, segregation is the norm. People tend to associate with members of their own race. In many cases this is because Whites fear Blacks and Blacks mistrust Whites because Whites fear Blacks. Meanwhile, in TV and movies Blacks and Whites associate with each other far more than they do in the real world, giving our couch-potato society the impression that integration has been achieved. Where time becomes a loop. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown go on. They argue that Whites forget that the long history of White Supremacy and the legacy of Black enslavement taint many interactions that Whites deem “harmless”. Misunderstandings abound. Distance increases. I argue that this is true for all non-Black people. Black people are isolated by anti-Black racism in America.
Politicians from both parties, including Barack Obama, wax poetic about King’s dream of a colorblind society. They carefully ignore King’s belief that America would require a policy of reverse discrimination against White’s in order to correct for hundreds of years of slavery and oppression. Meanwhile, affirmative action opponents use King’s words to make sure this never happens. A colorblind society cannot, in the end, acknowledge the traumatic impact of slavery on Black people in America. But the song goes on. Where time becomes a loop.
Anti-black racism in America is real, occurring now, and unique amongst oppressions experienced by people of color in America. Tamara K. Nopper has a great piece on this in her blog :http://tamaranopper.com/2012/04/20/george-zimmerman%E2%80%99s-minority-defense-and-the-1992-los-angeles-riots/
As an Asian immigrant in America, I do not experience anti-black racism. Nor do I know what it is like to be Black in America. I do not share a history of slavery, and systematic degradation of my entire group. My people have not been called animals or less than human. My people have not been marginalized from work. My people have not been imprisoned en masse. My people are not seen as lazy, or chronically poor. I do not carry the weight of these stereotypes on my shoulders. And when I behave in ways that counter these particular stereotypes I am not accused of acting White.
I have worked in coalition with Black women as part of women of color organizing. I have been enriched by these interactions and I hope I have been an ally to them. But the truth is, our groups’ causes are not the same. Unless I acknowledge this, I cannot be sure that I am being an ally to Black women. Unless I truly get this, the things I do in the name of racial justice for all may in fact be singing the same old colorblind song. Where time becomes a loop.
How can America break free from this colorblind loop? How can America break free from this colorblind loop? How can America break free from this colorblind loop. How can America break free from this colorblind loop?
By seeing the colors and knowing their stories. Steinhorn and Diggs-Brown offer a few ideas on how to do this as it applies to anti-Black racism in America:
1. Stop trying to achieve the integration gold star. Whites and Blacks don’t have to do everything together in order to peacefully coexist. In India we have 20 something states, each with its own language, culture, film industry, and food. People still relate to each other enough that they can have a national government that functions.
2. Do something to atone for slavery. The playing field is in no way level after 400 years of systematic subjugation. Acknowledge it. Make it a national priority. Tell people who don’t like it to suck it up and move somewhere else.
3. Put real race talk on TV everywhere. In shows. In public service announcements. We need some MadMen style campaigns to counter anti-Black bias in America. End tokenism and increase the number of shows that reflect the real internal lives of different groups of people.
4. This one is based on my own thinking and is backed up by Tamara Nopper’s piece. Stop lumping people of color together. And that means non-Black people of color need to get on board with acknowledging anti-Black racism as singular. We need to recognize that justice for Black people is at the core of achieveing justice for all people in America. When Black people talk about how something is racist like “The Help” (see another Tamara Nopper piece http://tamaranopper.com/2012/02/28/be-the-help-campaign-black-disappearance-among-the-multiracial-left/) we need to listen and ground our own actions on analyses generated by Black folks.
That doesn’t mean the struggles of non-Black people of color are not important. Native people in America also experienced a singular oppression based on colonization and genocide. The experience of immigrant people of color is another experience entirely. Chicanos who were crossed by the border fight another battle altogether. Muslims in America today are demonized in ways I can only sense from being mistaken for Muslim. We must see these differences clearly in order to strategize and support each other. We don’t have to stay on the merry go around trying to make our horse go up while others go down. If we do, “when we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again.” Where time becomes a loop. Where time becomes a loop.
Steinhorn, L. & Diggs-Brown, B. (2000). By the color of our skin: The illusion of integration and the reality of race. Plume. NY.
Washington Post Reports that Zimmerman will be charged. How do you think this will change the impact of the Trayvon Martin’s death on the American public’s discussion of racism in America?
“Zimmerman must die.” I live in a predominantly black neighborhood in D.C., a few blocks north of Howard University. My neighborhood is vibrant, home to a number of Afro-centric stores, vegan restaurants run by African Israelites, and sundry stores that serve Howard students. It is generally peaceful. Neighbors are friendly with one another. Old men give my children candy.There is a mix of people from different races and classes People look out for each other.
My daughter attends preschool across the street from Howard and so I walk her to school every morning down the main drag. Yesterday morning, I saw this sign, a sign I have noted for weeks because it has a White hand and a Brown hand each cradling a Samsung Galaxy Note and the sign tells you to “take note!” But yesterday, what I noted were these words.
“Zimmerman must die”. What else could the sign say? “Justice for Trayvon!” “Arrest Zimmerman NOW!”. For weeks now, I have been sensing a shift in the vibes in my neighborhood. I have always been a sensitive sort of person, highly attuned to the moods of people around me. This is why I became a community psychologist, because I believe that communities have their own moods, ups and downs, and struggles. “Zimmerman must die.” Like a dream rising up from the subconscious mind of this neighborhood. While public faces don hoodies of support and make plans for marches. “Zimmerman must die” seeps silently onto a billboard – itself a sign of gentrification – like words written in blood by a horror movie poltergeist.
I see it in the early afternoons at the playground with my kids. We used to be there alone. Now, young Black and Latino men gather in clumps, drinking beer and smoking weed. Clearly, they have not felt the economy improve. But I am sure they see the march of the gentrifiers continuing around them: new restaurants opening in the neighborhood, new condo buildings being built. They are at the playground drinking beer because none of this means jobs for them. “Zimmerman must die.”
And where do I stand? I live in one of those condo buildings. I patronize those new restaurants. I have no jobs to offer. I ask the young men to move their drinking and swearing to another part of the park, away from the slides and the jungle gym. It’s not that I disapprove. What else are they supposed to do? But my children need to play, and I know that underneath their somber expressions, something is bubbling inside these young men. I do not want my children to be hit by shrapnel when those bombs go off. “Zimmerman must die.”
The lumpy, messy stew that is America, is beginning to boil. People are remembering the Trayvon’s in their own communities. Overt racism rears it’s ugly head after a few decades of sneaking and skulking in the dark. Folks are angry for good reason. I fear the coming of a hot summer. History tells us that this is when the race riots begin.
We must all pay attention right now. We must all raise ourselves up to a higher level of consciousness. We must deliberately uproot the ugliness of internalized racism that lies within each one of us. This is not just a White and Black problem. Monica Novoa has a great article in Colorlines discussing the need for White people and people of color to face up to that fact http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/04/life_every_voice_for_trayvon_martin.html
Moments like this can make that happen. Like nuclear energy, we can use it to power the world. “Zimmerman Must Die” can remain a nightmare from which we awaken and begin a new day.