Believe Me, Too

Last week, at the pinnacle of the viral #metoo movement, I shared an Ebony article on Facebook. It was a passionately-worded piece wagging its finger at all of the #metoo hype, as if to say, “Hey! We’ve been saying this for a decade and the movement was started by a Black woman!” While the article did feel a bit ragey, with its give-credit-where-credit’s-due feel, it highlighted several things:

  • Black women are overlooked
  • Black people’s problems tend to *stay* Black people’s problems
  • Celebrities with high-profile scandals have a vast reach
  • White celebrities can get ish done

I even wrote a disclaimer on my article-share, warning my friends and followers to not be turned off by the title and tone. I urged my friends to read it. Read it becausmetoo snipe hey, this isn’t new. This is all races, all sexes, all genders. And it’s a whole lot easier to ignore abused people – especially when we’re shouting from the margins.

Well, I had a friend. That one (sometimes three) friend(s), that did have to say something about – by my own words – “playing the Race Card.”

He expressed his thought that justice is great, why bring race into it? Just be grateful this is getting attention! 

I saw red. I saw flames. If I had laser eyes to shoot at his fingers on the keyboard via the inter webs, I would have aimed and fired. We went back and forth a little, but then he did something amazing that I never expected. He took it to the DM.

And it went down. But it went down beautifully.

He asked me to explain how we missed each other, why his challenge to my article-share insulted me, and how he can be a better ally.

Yeah. He asked how he could serve me

And by the time we exchanged stories, we were both in tears.

We saw each other. We heard each other.

He asked …how he could be a better ally.

This is my DM response to him, (some parts edited for this blog and names removed), and it’s   something that all well-intentioned white people should read before they roll their eyes at yet another angry Black woman that makes everything about race and gender:

[TLDR Version: Privilege is real. We live in a constant state of gender and race humiliation. It happened to me, too. Believe us. Whether its racism or sexism, believe us.]

 

PRIVILEGE

The first time I ever saw white privileged was when I was going through my divorce. Yeah. I know it sounds weird. My first time. But when you’re Black in America you only see the negative attitudes towards your own race and not the actual privilege of being white. That’s not our side of the story. When he and I decided to split, I was the one that was depressed and miserable in the far burbs so I was happy to move.

But I had spent the majority of our marriage as a full-time mom/student with part time gigs. I didn’t have a resume, savings or a sustaining job. Every day while I was still home with the kids, he would come home and say: did you get a job yet? How many applications? Any interviews? How about an apartment? When are you leaving? The pressure was maddening. I wanted to punch him and throw up and run away crying all at once. Every. Day. I felt unwanted and lazy and rejected.

But then I realized he wasn’t deliberately bullying me. He just had no idea. He didn’t have a resume. He’s never had to sell himself on a piece of paper to strangers. He’s never asked strangers for a job and he’s never not gotten an offer for a job he asked for. He lives in a bubble of privilege where he’s never had to go without or rely solely on his own talents. He’s never had to worry that he wouldn’t get an interview because his name sounds “exotic” or “weird.”

He’s never had to worry that someone would look at him and think “a man can’t do this” or “a dad can’t do this.” That is privilege. But people always think a woman can’t do this or a mom isn’t as committed as a childless person. These are things I choke on daily.

He had no idea how difficult it can be to get a job especially when you’re not a white man.

HUMILIATION

You aren’t humiliated by others for the color of your skin.
I just got a lotus tattoo for my birthday. Beauty and blessings springing forth from the mud. X— made some mud comments about me in sixth grade. Again, not your reality. Not even on your radar. But it was stinging and humiliating. It made me feel ugly and less than and unlike and unaccepted and rejected and reminded me that I will never be one of you.

My new ink is my peace with that. I know now that I am beautiful and talented and radiantly intimidating. In first grade I had to change for gym class alone because my changing buddy’s mom found out she was undressing with a black girl and didn’t want me around her daughter. And that, too. All the time: Black girl. I hate it when people say, “so this Black person — no offense — was talking…” Why is “Black person” offensive? I’m not sorry I’m Black. Does my Blackness offend you? Why are you apologizing? I am Black! Say it! Black isn’t a bad word. N** is. Black isn’t. Neither is white. Say it. We are our colors and we all deserve to be seen.

BELIEVE ME

With all of that said, it is SO crushing then, when I say to someone, for example, a white significant other, “Babe I had a weird experience today and I really feel like it was racially motived,” and he says, “nahhh I don’t think so. Maybe you did something wrong.” That’s the most devastating thing. When people in the majority point fingers at me and accuse me of playing the race card.

When I experience something and feel sad and violated and discriminated and someone that couldn’t possibly be able to relate blows me off and says they don’t believe me — it’s a terribly crippling feeling. It’s gaslighting. It’s crazymaking.

If I say “this feels racist,” BELIEVE ME. Please. This is my world, not yours. Please believe me that something hurts and it’s not fair. What if we went to the doctor complaining of illness and he doc says, “Mmmnah I don’t think so. Stop whining!”

#METOO

The last place I worked my coworker rubbed my knee under my dress when the two of us were alone in a conference room. Later he “brushed” past me rubbing his body on my butt. Twice. And then when we were leaving that hospital site, we were alone in an elevator and he stroked my face. Twice. Because I looked tired. I wanted to slit his throat and set myself on fire.

When I reported him to HR, the woman said,” nahhh I don’t think so. That doesn’t sound like X—. Maybe he meant…”

By this time I was numb and tuned her out. Here’s a woman WHOSE JOB IT IS TO TAKE MY REPORT and she didn’t believe my story. #metoo

This happened to me! And she didn’t care. Now, sidebar, there is another dynamic between women where unsolicited sexual advances by an attractive man are not crimes but compliments. Part of me wonders if she was jealous that X— was flirting with me and not her?? Who knows. I don’t care. The point is that she didn’t believe my experience. But she’s not me. Don’t tell me my truth is not true. Now this part is for you and your brilliant girls: when they come to you, and they will, and they say, “Papa someone made me feel weird today,” BELIEVE THEM.

Don’t ask what or if they did anything to deserve it. Don’t tell them “nnnnnno I don’t think it’s like that. Why are you forcing some issue into this?“
Don’t assume they’re just girls making things up or being dramatic or being emotional or too sensitive or being [insert negative idea about women here].

Listen. Believe them.
They will need you to just believe them. And hold them. And validate them. And tell them it’ll be ok. And tell them you’ll do something.

And then… do something.

~OR

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Avoid the Side-Eye: Dos and Don’ts When Working with Black Women

A cartoon I saw yesterday left me with a knot in my throat. It showed First Lady Michelle Obama looking masculine and irritable, when compared to her potential replacement of the Republican-Party-Hopeful persuasion. There are so many things wrong with this image of her that I had to look away. It infuriates me that a strong, educated, strikingly beautiful American woman can be drawn so viciously. I refuse to link to it here and glorify the artist for his disgraceful work.

But then I considered my own identity issues as a Black Woman. I thought about how we’re shamed for not being good enough, pretty enough, educated enough…but then we’re shamed anyway, even when we blow those expectations out of the water. The truth is that we can never be good enough because someone will always find a reason to complain, nag, and diminish our value (enter the first stop on my Road to Relovery: validate yourself first) – even if you’re a double Ivy League graduate and the First Lady of the United States. I thought about how the physical attributes that kept me away from the cool kids table 20 years ago are the same things the cool kids are spending millions to have synthesized today.

beauty goals by octavia reese
Standard of Beauty 1996-2016

I wasn’t allowed to be Black growing up. As I was taught to strive for greatness, the image of greatness was not Black greatness. The image of greatness I saw did not look anything like me. The image of beauty I was shown was 90s heroin-chic; long, cadaverous, pale, curve-less. And the image of success I was shown was…well, any lawyer or doctor (or both) with a giant house, beautiful kids, 90s heroin-chic wife, fancy car, multiple vacation homes…yep, the upper-middle white man of the 90s was my hero.

But before I go too deep on the double standards I’ve watched evolve over the last decades that absolutely turn my stomach (again, the shame and rejection of the Black woman’s figure by mainstream media, “Omigod Becky look at her butt,” to the booming booty boosting industry giving non-Blacks our shape; the cannabis industry turning from Black street crime and thousands of imprisoned business-savvy young brown people to a legal, medical multibillion dollar industry profiting non-Blacks, etc.), I want to offer the following tips to assist in a successful interaction with the Black goddess of today:

  1. Do know my name. Do everything within your power to call us by our own unique name – not to be confused with that other Black woman you met once, talked to, worked with or grew up with. In school, I was The Token for many years and everyone knew me by name. Enter new Black family stage right; suddenly everyone started calling me Nora. Not my name. I realized I was just filed under “The Black Girl” in their minds and when there were two of us, ERROR 404: Black Girl Name Not Found.
  2. Don’t conditionally compliment me. That means, don’t be surprised that I speak a certain way or have a large vocabulary. Don’t say “wow, you speak well …for a Black girl.” And while you’re at it, drop the mom clause too, i.e. “wow, you look great…for a mom…”
  3. Don’t ask if our hair is real or ours. Assume it is, close your mouth and move on.
  4. Don’t compare us. I am not Michelle or Whoopi or Kerry or Serena or Beyoncé or Iman or anyone else that you’ve seen on TV. Unless it is a comparison to compliment, just accept that many of us don’t fit into your boxed definition of Black Woman. Best once again, to just close your mouth and move on.
  5. Do join us. Women are strong, powerful, divine vehicles of life and yes, we can do all of that thing that you’re doing pregnant and in heels. Men, please stop asking us what we can do for you and let us do our thing or maybe even, dare I write it, offer to help us. And to my ladies, women of all colors, cultures and creeds need to stick together. Stop the girl-girl hate, cat fighting and competition. How about we take each other out on friend dates.
  6. Don’t tell stories. We don’t care about that one Black person you know. It’s ok if you don’t know any other Black people. Actually, no it’s not ok, but if it’s your reality, then so be it. You don’t score “OK With Blacks” badges by telling us about someone you met or asking if we saw the last Tyler Perry movie or episode of Scandal or Empire. Just relax and act normal.
  7. Do let us be ourselves. We’re not all comics or athletes. Again, relax. And maybe just keep the lips sealed one more time.

    be yourself
    Do let us be ourselves
  8. Don’t say “I’m not racist.” You are. We all are. It just depends on what you do and say with your initial prejudices.
  9. Do be aware of your prejudices. Name them. And if you’re a forward thinking human-loving being, then you’ll know better which thoughts and reactions to push aside and how to move on without being awkward.
  10. Don’t admit to not understanding #blacklivesmatter. Just don’t. Close your mouth. Google it.
  11. Do understand police tensions. It’s not right that young Black kids dislike or fear the police, but it does make sense. It is sad but true and don’t forget that our Black history with law enforcement is drastically different from your non-Black story.
  12. If you’re going to assume anything, do assume we’re just as American as you are. I’ve been asked so many times where I’m from. Here. I’m from here. Just like you. We sing the same national anthem, cheer for the same teams, and drive on the same side of the road. If you haven’t noticed, America is actually quite colorful. And it is an astoundingly beautiful thing.

~OR

Oblivious 

ob·liv·i·ous

/əˈblivēəs/Submit

adjective

not aware of or not concerned about what is happening around one.

“she became absorbed, oblivious to the passage of time”

synonyms: unaware of, unconscious of, heedless of, unmindful of, insensible of/to, unheeding of, ignorant of, incognizant of, blind to, deaf to, unsuspecting of, unobservant of;

Oblivious. This is how I perceive many decision makers of the ethnic majority that hold leadership positions in large influential companies. It is a consistent pattern I have noticed over my three-plus decades on the planet. Certain issues are simply not on their radar, and often, the lie entirely beyond their realm of reality. For them, issues that affect those of us Of Color are nonexistent.  I could also generalize and include people at or below the poverty level and other “invisible” groups. The truth here is that all of us have a box of normalcy in which we reside and build blinders over time. And before we know it, we are completely ignorant to issues that are just out of reach of the edges of our Safe Zone.

And before we know it, we are completely ignorant to issues that are just out of reach of the edges of our Safe Zone.

Due to oblivious screenwriters, I passionately rejected TV shows like Friends, Seinfeld, Sex and The City, (and reluctantly slightly snubbed 90% of my beloved sci-fi/fantasy epic adventures) because not one of the main characters looked like me. I intensely avoided several apparel stores in the malls – which is hard to do as a teenager! – because people that looked like me or were shaped like me were never in their promotional images. These writing, editing, marketing and advertising teams were oblivious to what I needed to relate to for role models, life scenarios, entertainment, and fashion.

Even Hollywood leaders are sorely clueless. While much of Hollywood boasts forward-thinking inclusive agendas, when it comes down to actually taking notice of and rewarding our Brothers and Sisters Of Color, we still don’t seem to make the cut. They are oblivious to their inherent exclusion – unless a Person Of Color flawlessly portrays a character trapped in a nauseatingly negative image of blackness (i.e., abusers, slaves, servants – these roles are rewarded, glorified, honored).

While much of Hollywood boasts forward-thinking inclusive agendas, when it comes down to actually taking notice of and rewarding our Brothers and Sisters Of Color, we still don’t seem to make the cut.

This is why I write. This is why my characters are brown. This is why The Hibouleans Series is for all the little brown girl epic-adventure-lovers that have yet to see one of us take a Chosen One role in a bestselling novel or on the big screen. So what images, then are my little brown girls being shown?

A NYTimes article circulated on Facebook today, naming the recall of A Birthday Cake for George Washington (now of course a #1 Bestseller).

The book sounds cute enough. It sounds harmless enough. It even sounds like it might just be educational, too.

But when you’re a little brown kid reading a book about our first president’s slaves happily baking him the best cake ever, it is a subliminal suggestion that paints a sunny – jovial, even – façade over the disgrace and horror that was slavery.  Not only is it confusing because it implies slaves might have taken pleasure in being nonhuman objects of possession, but it also implies that everyone is still OK with that image today.

As an author, writer, illustrator, feverishly hoping to one day live on my book sales, I know the steps involved in this incredible process – from the twinkle of concept to hard copies on shelves.

What I find most disturbing about this whole thing is that not only is the book’s tone and feel a product the author is proud of as one of her creative babies (and honestly, congrats on having a concept, most people don’t even get that far) but through the hands of a DIVERSE team of beta readers, editors, illustrators, contributors and publishers, not one of them thought “hmmm this might be a bad idea…”

“hmmm this might be a bad idea…”

And yes, a diverse team let this happen. But according to NPR, this isn’t the first time a book depicting happy slaves made it this far, only to also be pulled; that one by a team of Ethnic Majority. Perhaps this second attempt was pushed to be produced by a more diverse team as if to get a “pass” with the public? If so, FAIL.

Did they really have no clue how this would affect readers? Were they that inconsiderate? Or did this one slip through the filter around their world of what is appropriate? Were they as oblivious as the college president that couldn’t acknowledge the mistreatment of his students until the issue cost him his job?

It takes exceptional leadership. And I mean truly extraordinary leadership – to be able to connect and empathize with their team, their partners, and ultimately, their audience to foresee issues that adversely affect those they are actually trying to serve.

The option to abort this project could have been enforced by several people at any point over the probable year-plus it took to bring this book to life. And not one of them spoke up.

So while I shake my head in disappointment at Scholastic leadership for letting this work slip through the net, I still applaud the company for responding to the public and accepting that the depiction of happy slaves is vibrantly destructive to the America of tomorrow.

Maybe they can further redeem themselves by publishing a foreshadowing book where 60% of Fortune 500 companies have Leaders Of Color by 2030

People, take off the blinders.  You have to TRY to NOT be oblivious to the pain of others. Compassion and understanding take real effort.

~OR