Dear White People Who are Outraged at Colin Kaepernick….

Dear White People (who are outraged that San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the singing of the National Anthem):

Could you please be as outraged by how *some* white police officers treat black and brown people in this country?

Could you please be as outraged by an educational system that often leaves poor white children and children of color at a stark disadvantage for most of their lives?

Could you please stop saying that “soldiers died for this country so how dare Kaepernick disrespect the National Anthem” when these soldiers actually sacrificed their lives for people like Kaepernick to protest the injustices he sees in any way he sees fit? This is America, after all, and not Iran or Syria.

Could you please reread (or just read) the history of Francis Scott Key and the “Star-Spangled Banner,” where you might learn that Key was not fan of black folks and the third stanza of our national anthem actually encourages (and sort of celebrates) the murder of African Americans during the Battle of Ft. McHenry in Baltimore during the War of 1812?

Could you white folks who are still so “outraged” please stop saying that Kaepernick should be “grateful” that he lives in a country that “allows” him to make millions of dollars just to play football? Stop being ok with “allowing” black men like Kaepernick to entertain you while this country systematically incarcerates—and kills—too many black and brown men who aren’t good enough to entertain you on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

To those who question Kaepernick’s motives—after all, he’s just a rich black dude who’s supposed to just throw a football up and down the gridiron (preferably without throwing an interception) and keep his mouth shut unless he’s talking about football—let me tell you what Muhammad Ali said: “I know I got it made while the masses of black people are catching hell, but as long as they ain’t free, I ain’t free.”

Kaepernick says that he will continue to sit during the National Anthem as a show of solidarity with “the people that are being oppressed…. When there’s significant change and I feel like that flag represents what it’s suppose to represent, this country is representing people the way that it’s supposed to, I’ll stand.” Thank you, Kaepernick, for being the voice to the those on the margins and for speaking out when so many other black athletes choose to remain silent to the injustices of people of all colors. “To me,” Kaepernick says, “this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way.”

Dr. King once said, “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’” If you’re more outraged by Kaepernick’s protest than by his message of how America continues to treat some of her black and brown brothers and sisters, you, my dear friend, are part of the problem. Try to make yourself part of the solution, please. Talk to someone who doesn’t look like you because you might hear a perspective you would have never considered. Find a black or brown person and have an honest dialogue about race and racism in this country. Read W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk or Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. Turn off Fox News. Educate yourself.

Before his death in 1993, Thurgood Marshall said:

“I wish I could say that racism and prejudice were only distant memories. We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred and the mistrust…. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”

Whether or not you agree with Kaepernick’s decision to sit during the National Anthem, please turn the volume of your outrage to the left and consider the point he’s trying to make—that America (still) has some work to do to make it the “land of the free and home of the brave” for everyone. Perhaps Kaepernick’s protest will spark some painful but brutally honest and maybe even some fruitful conversations between white folks and people of color.

It’s 2016, America. It’s way past time to do better.

Signed,

Your Black Friend (and Nubian Princess) When You Need One

P.S. Just for the record, I always stand when the National Anthem is playing, but I completely respect Kaepernick’s decision to sit.

14089277_10154002949380958_134378774122171750_n

My Brother’s 49th Birthday

Today, my brother would have turned 49.

His death six years ago was shocking enough, but to learn he had committed suicide made his death that more difficult to grasp. Why would someone as happy and as jovial as he purposely end his life?

There are still no answers to the why, as he never left a suicide note. Of course, I have my own ideas, but I have no evidence to substantiate any of my theories.

I still remember the shame I felt every time someone asked how my brother had died, and even then—in the midst of my grief—I understood that his death would have been much easier to stomach had he been killed in a car accident or died of an illness. A suicide often leaves the survivors feeling both shame and guilt, as if we’ve done something wrong and that we could have done something to stop it.

Though I no longer feel any shame, I still wish there was something I could have said or done to have changed my brother’s mind. Yes, the guilt is still there. The grief is still there, too. As Keanu Reeves once said, “Grief changes shape, but it never ends.”

It’s been 2,284 days since my brother’s suicide, and although the grief has subsided, it still lingers. I’m not sure I’ve gone a day without thinking about him, and I long for the day when I’ll only remember all the great times we had together and not just how he died.

Robert Frost wrote, “In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” Yes, life does go on for those of us left behind. I’ve learned to smile when I wanted to cry, and I’ve learned that it’s ok to just let myself cry. I hope my brother knows that I’ve never judged his decision to end his life because, as Seneca says, “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.”

I hope my brother is happy wherever he is and that he is celebrating his 49th birthday with Donna Summer and Prince. And my Grandma.

eric

 

 

Dear White People:

Dear White People Who Think Obama is the “Divider in Chief” and the Reason Why the Relationship Between Blacks and Whites is So Bad in 2016:

What have *YOU* done to improve race relations?

Do you have any black or brown friends (and by “friends” I don’t mean work friends)? When you organize a girls’ or guys’ night out, does your social group look like you, or is it as diverse as American society? Do you mostly interact with people who look like you, save the workers in the stores where you buy your groceries and clothes?

Did you take a black studies class in college, or did you think those classes were “just for black people”?

When is the last time a black or brown person came to your house to hang out with you and your family? To eat dinner with your family? To play tennis with your family? To watch the Super Bowl with your family? Are the only non-white people who come to (and into) your house folks who are doing work for you?

Do you regularly chat with people of different races about their experiences as non-white persons in America? Have you ever been party to a racial joke or a racist comment by a white friend or family member and simply remained silent because “that’s just how Uncle Bill is”? When is the last time you stood up for someone who did not look like you?

Are you paying attention to the dog whistle politics that colors (pun intended) how so many of you see black and brown America? Turn off Fox News, and learn to think for yourself, please.

Do you live in a predominately-white neighborhood and never really realized it until now? Do your kids go to predominately-white schools where the teachers and those in charge are all white and the custodians are all black and brown? Are you as outraged about our unequal educational system as the non-white parents in those poorer and mostly black and brown neighborhoods are?

Former President George Bush said, “Too often, we judge other groups by the worst example while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” Do you judge all black and brown folks (and other people of color) based on the actions of a few who may not be behaving well? Are you quick to rationalize why black men are shot by the police while finding excuses for why white men shoot up movie theaters or elementary schools?

Please stop blaming President Obama for the racial division(s) we have in this country, especially if you aren’t actively doing anything to make things better.

Go find yourself a black or brown friend, and start having an honest dialogue about what it’s like to be a minority in this society. Years ago, Rodney King asked if we could all just “get along,” but we won’t ever get along if white people don’t join black and brown people in having serious and brutally honest—and sometimes very painful—conversations about what it’s like to be black or brown in America.

You might not find a solution to the racial quagmire in which our nation finds itself today and we might never usher in that post-racial society that Barack Obama’s presidency was supposed to realize, but perhaps we can usher in a post-racist society because, in 2016, race (still) matters.

Signed,

Your Black Friend Who Will Gladly Tell You Like It Is

 

You’ve turned 30 again; please tell us what you’ve learned about life this second time.

Dear Dwonna:

I heard you told your students that you turned 30 again. Please do tell me what you’ve learned about life this second time around.

Signed,

Tiffany

———————————–

Dear Tiffany:

Yes, it’s true. I’m one of the lucky few who got to turn 30 again. (I think my friend Kristin McKinnon Nagovan, my friend from high school, turned 30 again, too.) Here are 10 clichés/quotes that summarize what I’ve learned about life so far….

 1.  “I’ve heard there are troubles of more than one kind; some come from ahead, and some come from behind. But I’ve brought a big bat. I’m all ready, you see; now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!” –Dr. Seuss

After my older brother’s suicide on May 4, 2010, my little brother said to me, “Well, sis, you’re the oldest now, so you’re in charge.” I had spent 41 years being known to many as Eric’s little sister, and when we were kids, I often prayed for an identity other than that of “Eric’s little sister.” I had not been very close to my brother when he died, and I have regretted all the years I had spent being angry at him or convincing myself that he was jealous of me. I wish I had called more, visited more, Facebooked him more. I wish I had left the past in the past and forged an adult relationship with him, but I didn’t. Ann Richards once said, “I have very strong feelings about how you lead your life. You always look ahead; you never look back.” I disagree. Sometimes you must look to the past in order to make a different—and healthier—choice about what to do today.

2.  “You’re known by the company you keep.” –My Dad

My dad used to tell my brothers and me this all the time beginning when I was in 6th grade and wanted to hang out with the kids in the neighborhood who smoked the Marlboro cigarettes they had stolen from their mothers’ purses. I never really understood this until I got older and saw how people would treat me based on the people I was hanging around with. I know that we’re not supposed to judge—the Bible says to “Judge not, lest ye be judged”—but you should be judicious with whom you spend your time. Surround yourself with people who are trying to do good things in their lives and not with those who are satisfied with the status quo.

3.  “Don’t try to be happier than happy.” –Colin Cowherd, Fox Sports Radio

Colin Cowherd, my favorite sports radio guy who isn’t on the radio right now (he’ll soon be on FOX Sports), used to say this all the time. Too many people seem to think that there is some magical place called “happy,” and they give up perfectly good jobs or dump perfectly good people because they think there’s something better around the corner. Stop it. Though I admit that it’s sometimes quite difficult to discern the difference between being content and just being afraid of challenge, content is ok, too.

Last spring, I sat in my office with Bri Stevens, one of my lovely students from Memphis, and we were discussing what her post-graduation plans were. She then asked me how long I had been at Austin Peay and why I was still there. “You’re too good to be here,” she very nonchalantly said. “I just don’t understand why you waste your time here when you could be doing something else so much better than this.” I admit that her words left me speechless, and it’s not the first time I’ve had to defend why I’m at a place “like Austin Peay.” Briana and I have talked about this many times, and although she says she appreciates what she has learned from me, she thinks I should be doing something greater—like being on television or radio or writing a national column.

Sure, I’d love to have a bigger forum where I can tell people what I think, but for now, I’m pretty content showing my Peayness and harassing—I mean teaching—my students to think differently and more inclusively about race and racism. I like that I can help first-generation students as they proceed to graduation, and I especially love helping soldiers transition back to the classroom. Maybe someday I’ll get that job at the University of Iowa where I can buy a farmhouse and rescue homeless dogs, but for now, I’m pretty content at the Peay, Briana.

4.  “The greatest challenge is discovering who you are. The second greatest challenge is being happy with what you find.” –Facebook?

I saw this on FB and immediately fell in love with it. I’ve always been kind of quirky and very much a maverick—just ask my mother who could never understand why I couldn’t just be like everyone else. If my mother had wanted me to be like everyone else, she should have named me “Julie” instead of Dwonna Naomi Goldstone. I’ve stopped trying to be like everyone else—well, let me be frank; I wasn’t really trying to be like everyone else—and I have embraced being the quirky, loud, sometimes obnoxious, oftentimes very opinionated, short black girl that I am. Be you; everyone else is taken.

5.  “When people call you ‘Nigger,’ be so good at what you’re doing they’ll have to call you ‘Mr. Nigger.’” –Satchel Paige, Negro League Baseball player

When I was a freshman at the University of Iowa, two white baseball players told me to “Keep walking Nigger” as I walked by their dorm room on my way back to mine. It wasn’t the first time a white man had ever been called me a Nigger, but this one stung because I thought I had left that kind of racism behind when I graduated from Moline High School. I thought college would introduce me to open-minded people who didn’t use that word to harass and intimidate the few black students on campus. I was wrong.

Shortly after that incident, I read that quote in a Sports Illustrated article about Satchel Paige, and it stuck with me so much that I wrote it on a piece of paper and taped it to my dorm room bulletin board. I have often repeated this quote to my black students who weary about the racism they encounter at Austin Peay, and I tell them that even if white people don’t like you because of the color of *your* skin, at least live the kind of life that means that they will have to respect you. In my case, at least white folks who hate me have to call me “Dr. Nigger.”

6.  “I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned.” –James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker

This is what linebacker James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers wrote on Instagram to explain why he returned his 6- and 8- year-old sons’ “participation trophies.” “While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die,” Harrison wrote, “these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy.” I scream a very loud “AMEN!” to James Harrison. Too many of my students think that they should get a good grade because they tried, but the “benefit of competition isn’t actually winning. The benefit is improving.” My job isn’t to build your self-esteem by giving you something you did not earn, and you can build your self-esteem by doing things that are hard and by challenging yourself every day.

My favorite professors are the ones who have challenged me. At the University of Iowa, Drs. Mae Henderson, Robert Weems, and Darwin Turner challenged me to do excellent work in their classes (the would accept nothing less from me) while fostering and nurturing my love of African American literature, history, and culture. At Brown University, I had an African American professor who called me into her office because she didn’t like the tattered clothes I was wearing, and when I told her that all the white students wore those kinds of clothes, she brusquely stopped what she was doing and said: “Those white boys and girls have jobs waiting for them; you don’t. You’ll have to work for yours.”

Most of you, my dear Austin Peay students, will have to work for whatever it is you want. Challenge yourselves. Enroll in the class with the “hard” professor. Embrace your mistakes, and then learn from them. And, always remember that you don’t get rewarded just for showing up. You’ll mostly get rewarded for doing well.

7.  “Do something every day that scares you.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

I asked my friend Brenda Ford about this, and she gave me a perspective I had not thought of. I’ve always thought that the First Lady was telling me to challenge myself in a big and momentous way—to run a half marathon or to write another book. For Brenda, scary things are “committing to lifelong purposes. Jumping off a cliff with a parachute is scary, but it’s just once, and it’s not forever.” As adults, we learn pretty quickly that the world can be a scary place, from raising children in this sometimes (oftentimes?) chaotic world to applying for a new job to going back to school as an adult learner to choosing to love and to be loved. For some of us, it is scary just to get up and face a world that hasn’t always been so kind. Get up and do it anyway.

Always remember that “Courage is fear that has said its prayers” and that sometimes you just have to “step out on faith” and do that which scares you.

8.  “It’s better to be alone than wish you were alone.” –Ann Richards or my Grandma

I think it was Ann Richards who said something about learning to like yourself because you’re the only one you can be certain to spend the rest of your life with, but maybe it was my grandma who told me this. In any case, don’t settle just so that you can say you have a partner, and don’t stay in a relationship with someone who isn’t good for you just because you’re afraid of life on your own. My students often ask me when I’m going to get married and have children, and this summer one student told me that I would regret never having children “when I got older.” (Clearly, she doesn’t know how old I *really* am.)

Not all of us are destined to be mothers, and women like me should not have to apologize or defend our decision to remain childless. My students are sort of my children, my dogs are like children, and I have thoroughly enjoyed being an aunt even when it means they choose to live with me as adults. (I often say what a cruel joke it is that I’ve ended up with a 19-year-old male living in my house.) Anyway, it’s ok to be alone, and being alone isn’t the same as being lonely. Being lonely is mostly a choice because there are lots of things you can do to stay active in your neighborhood or your community.

As the Buddha said, “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” So, be good to yourself even if it means being by yourself for a while because the “best way to be happy with someone is to learn to be happy alone.” Then, when you find someone, you will be with that person as a matter of choice, and not as a matter of need.

9.  “Look at situations from all angles, and you will become more open.” –Dalai Lama

The one great thing about the United States of America is that people get to make decisions that make sense for them, and one reason there is so much discord between folks in this country is because people assume they know how—or what—other people are thinking or feeling. You cannot know what others are feeling no matter how much information on their life you think you have. Even if you don’t like the choices someone is making, leave that person alone to make choices that make sense to him/her—so long as those choices aren’t hurting someone else. Find empathy and compassion when you can’t—or are unwilling—to understand why the people in your life are doing something with which you do not agree.

Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet or everything the media tells you. Read and study from different sources. Talk to people who are different from you, and really listen to what they have to say even if you do not agree with them. And, don’t judge. As an old Cherokee proverb commands, “Don’t judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes.” I can’t say this enough: “LEAVE PEOPLE ALONE TO CREATE THE LIVES THAT MAKE SENSE TO THEM.” Just because you’re against something—abortion, gay marriage, cremation, just to name a few—doesn’t mean that others can’t do something else.

10.  “If you can’t feed a hundred people, then feed just one.” –Mother Teresa

I must confess that I used to be very annoyed when I would see vendors selling The Contributor, a newspaper sold by homeless and formerly homeless men and women on the streets of Nashville. However, Clint changed this for me. I first encountered Clint, a 50-something black man, on Christmas Eve when I was leaving the Green Hills mall. He stood at a street light and waved at cars that passed, and I stopped to give him a $20 bill and to wish him a Merry Christmas. I see him every week when I go to Trader Joe’s, and I buy his paper for $5 (it sells for $2), and if I only read one article in it, it’s the profile of a current Contributor vendor.

Every week when I pull up in my blue Honda Element to buy a paper from Clint, his grin gets real big as he very cheerfully says, “Good morning, my friend! So glad to see you again!” He seems as genuinely happy to see me as I am to see him, and as I hand him my money, I always wonder how much my small gift really helps him and his wife.

I’m sure that Clint doesn’t know this, but these brief, two-minute encounters have taught me to be so much more compassionate about him and others who find themselves selling this paper. Like many others, I want to judge him for not “getting a real job” and for “begging” on the streets, and then I remember that Jesus tells us to help the poor, not judge them. I want to know how he ended up selling a homeless newspaper in front of a Starbucks in Green Hills. I want to know who he wanted to be when he was a kid. I want to know him as a person because, like many people, I have forgotten that the homeless are people, too. I really want him to know my name so that maybe, when he calls me “his friend,” he’ll really feel like we are on the way to knowing each other, to being friends.

Although I can’t save every homeless person out there, I can tell my friends in Nashville to support a vendor to help him or her get off the streets with this micro business. We must stop summarily castigating the poor as lazy and shiftless, and we can all afford the price of compassion.

DNG4

Is Cutting Ties with the “Dukes of Hazzard” and the Confederate Flag Just, “Pulling the Knife Out”?

Dear Dwonna:

Can I make a suggestion for a possible Dwonna Knows?? What about these outer moves around the battle flag? Taking “Dukes of Hazzard” off the air, the bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest in the state capital, and now Memphis voting to remove his remains. Are these justified actions or just knee-jerk? I’m not black, so I don’t know. LOL!

Signed,

Matthew

———————————————————

Dear Matthew:

A tiny bit of background for those who have been asleep for the last 30 days:

On Friday, July 10—some three weeks after nine African Americans were murdered by self-proclaimed white supremacist Dylan Roof during a prayer service at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina governor Nikki Haley signed a bill that immediately removed the Confederate flag from the state Capitol. It would then be moved to the state’s Confederate Relic Room “to be put in a new multimillion-dollar display.” This Confederate flag—which was placed on state capitol grounds 54 years ago to protest the modern Civil Rights Movement—has been used as a symbol of white supremacy, slavery, and Jim Crow segregation. Dylan Roof—the murderer of those nine black churchgoers—wrapped himself in this symbol of hatred and hoped his deed would start a race war. In some ways, it has, as some white southerners cling to this flag and blame black people for “being divisive.”

Still, there are those who still argue that the Confederate flag is about “heritage and not hate” even as they are presented with evidence to the contrary. As one white woman wrote on Facebook, “It’s the Rebel flag!!!!!! People are killing me. It’s not the damn confederate flag!!!! BTW mine should be here today or tomorrow.” These white folks continue to ignore the South’s heritage of slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, the Ku Klux Klan, the White Citizens Council, George Wallace, Bull Connor, and random acts of violence toward black men, women, and children. Why do these people refuse to acknowledge that the heritage about which they are so proud mostly centers around the enslavement, abuse, and terror of an entire group of people?

Dylan Roof—and other white supremacists—used the Confederate flag as a symbol of their hate because IT IS A SYMBOL OF HATE. Ask the KKK why they waved the Confederate flag at its rally in Columbia, South Carolina. Ask the folks in Oklahoma why they waved the Confederate flag as President Obama’s motorcade drove by. Ask the 28-year-old white man who said in a radio interview that the Confederate flag represents white heritage and his desire to protect his white supremacy and that he didn’t care who it offended. Though I’m certain there are a few Confederate flag lovers who are not avowed racists and who truly believe that this battle flag represents a sanitized version of southern pride to which they so tightly cling, it does not change the fact that the Confederate flag is also a symbol of treason, a symbol of slavery, a symbol of Jim Crow, and very proud symbol embraced by the KKK, white supremacists, and Neo-Nazi groups.

In a late-night speech to the South Carolina State House, Rep. Jenny Anderson Horne, a republican member of the Charleston delegation and a descendent of Jefferson Davis said, “I cannot believe that we do not have the heart in this body to do something meaningful such as take a symbol of hate off these grounds on Friday.” At times shouting and also fighting back tears, Horne spoke about the “heritage” that so many South Carolinians say the flag represents: “I have a heritage,” she said. “I am a life-long South Carolinian. I am a descendant of Jefferson Davis. Okay? But that does not matter. It’s not about Jenny Horne. It’s about the people of South Carolina who have demanded that this symbol of hate come off the Statehouse grounds.”

The State of South Carolina did remove that flag, and though many people argue that its removal is symbolic and does very little to change the long-standing race problem we have in this country, it could be a watershed moment. For the first time in a long time, white people of conscience are standing up to other white people and demanding that symbols of hate be removed from public display. Unfortunately, at the same time, white racists—and their apologists—feel more emboldened to say what used to be inappropriate to say in public. There is no shortage of nasty and vitriolic comments being directed at people of color, all because those of us of conscience have requested that a symbol of hate be removed from public display.

So, is it a knee-jerk reaction that TV Land has removed the “Dukes of Hazard” from its lineup? Is Memphis’s desire to dig up Nathan Bedford Forrest’s (and his wife’s) remains from Heath Sciences Park in downtown Memphis as well as remove his statue an exercise in futility since it probably won’t change how blacks and whites interact with each other? Maybe these are knee-jerk reactions, but it’s long past time for these Confederate symbols to be moved to where they have always belonged: in a history museum. Though the “Dukes of Hazard” might seem like an innocuous 1980s sitcom about rural white southerners, its proud display of the Confederate flag and other Confederate symbols normalizes its place in American society and gives tacit approval to its hateful meaning.

No, the Confederate battle flag in and of itself won’t “harm” anyone, as someone posted in response to my last column, but symbols do have very powerful meanings, and they do send intended and unintended messages to those who encounter them. As my father used to tell me when I wanted to hang out with the “bad” kids in the neighborhood, “You’re known by the company you keep.” Just ask the KKK or any white supremacist what the Confederate flag means to them and how they have draped themselves in that meaning to try to change how people of color are treated in American society. Symbols convey powerful messages without a single word ever being spoken.

Malcolm X once said, “If you stick a knife nine inches into my back and pull it out three inches, that is not progress. Even if you pull it all the way out, that is not progress. Progress is healing the wound, and America hasn’t even begun to pull the knife out.” By taking steps to remove these symbols of the Confederacy from public display, America is, in a small but significant way, beginning to “pull the knife out.” Is this progress? A little. It’s also a good first step toward healing the wounds that continue to divide black and white America.

We do not live in that post-racial society into which many had hoped President Barack Obama’s election would usher America. America is still a racist society where tangible progress has been made, but we have a long way to go to becoming a place where all people will be judged “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” If nothing else, these oftentimes difficult discussions about the “Dukes of Hazard” and the Confederate battle flag are showing the world just how stubborn (i.e., ignorant) some white folks can be while also showing us how willing others are to embrace a more inclusive—and a more kind—society where symbols of hate are removed from public display.

confederateflag3

Is the real issue the Confederate flag?

Dear Dwonna:

I feel like the (Confederate) flag is about ten percent of the issue. I feel like it is being used as a diversionary tactic to keep the general public ignorant of the fact that we are not dealing with the REAL issue, the guns! Perhaps nine lives would have been spared, perhaps many more lives can be saved. Is my white privilege making me view this incorrectly?

Signed,

Liz

——————————————– 

Dear Liz:

I have purposely avoided Facebook as the controversy over the Confederate flag’s place in American iconography is being widely debated in South Carolina and other places throughout the South, and I have to admit that I’ve been disappointed—and at times angry—over how some people I thought were friends have responded. I have held my tongue…until now.

One white man I went to high school with sent me a text that simply said “liberals were winning,” and a former student—a white, feminist, lesbian—wrote on her Facebook wall that there’s no need to remove the Confederate flag since “getting rid of the rebel flag because of a few idiots is like getting rid of the Bible because of the Westboro church. The flag does not have a virus on it that causes people to be stupid.” I have lost a lot of respect for friends and former students I used to like, but I am most disappointed in this white, feminist, lesbian’s stance, mostly because I’ve been a life-long—and very vocal—advocate of the LGBTQI community. Her comment reminds me about why so many African American women like me remain distrustful of white feminists who, when the going gets tough and they must deal with an issue of race, hold on to their white privilege for dear life. Why can’t this former student look beyond her white privilege to see that the flag is a kind of virus that gives its supporters a (silent) platform on which to tell those they encounter what they really think about African Americans?

When I see people flying and/or displaying the Confederate flag—and when I see people defending it as simply a “symbol of southern pride and heritage that isn’t racist”—I cringe, I sometimes get scared, and then I get angry. I am bored with these white folks who tell me that the Confederate flag is simply a symbol of “southern heritage and pride.” Yes, it is a symbol of “southern heritage and pride”: in slavery, in white subjugation of black Americans, in Jim Crow laws, and in state-sanctioned lynchings. I imagine that these people are so proud of their southern heritage because it takes them back to a time when African Americans “knew their place” and did not question nor fight the white power structure in place. Not surprisingly, South Carolina officials placed the Confederate flag on top of its state house building in 1961, at the beginning of the modern-day Civil Rights Movement.

To those who wonder whether or not the Confederate flag is simply a way to distract Americans of conscience from the daily gun violence that pervades our culture, I loudly say “NO.” We need to continue having these very frank, very difficult, and oftentimes very painful conversations about race and racism in this country. Yes, Dylan Roof was able to kill those nine African Americans during a Wednesday-evening bible study at Emmanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, in part because of this country’s lax laws on gun ownership and possession, but let us not forget that Roof felt he needed to execute those African Americans because of what he had been told the Confederate flag stood for: “to maintain the heaven ordained supremacy of the white man over the inferior colored race.” He used the Confederate flag as his symbol of hatred because it is a symbol of hatred.

To my white friends and students who argue that the Confederate flag is simply a symbol of a nostalgic period in southern history and that it, in and of itself, does not “cause” or perpetuate racism, please know this: when I see that flag, fear envelops me. Quickly. I wonder if the person who flies this flag thinks that I am inferior simply because of the color of my skin; I wonder if he (or she) will call me a Nigger and try to “put me in my place”; I wonder if he thinks that I am not worthy to live in the same neighborhood with them because he “knows how we live”; I wonder if they hate me; I really just wonder if I am safe. Please know that your symbol of “southern heritage and pride” symbolizes something else to me and other African Americans: terror and fear.

It’s pathetic that it took the massacre of nine African Americans by a white supremacist who had bought the lies that the Confederate flag is just a symbol of “southern heritage and pride” for companies like Walmart, Amazon, and Ebay, among others, to stop selling Confederate merchandise; they should have done this a long time ago. Still, I’m glad that Alabama quietly removed its Confederate flag from its statehouse and that officials in South Carolina are taking real steps to remove it from their state capitol. The Confederate flag and Confederate symbols—like the Nathan Bedford Forrest statue that stands on the grounds of the Tennessee Capitol—belong in a museum and not in the place where elected officials congregate to do the state’s work.

Listen. I am not so naïve as to think that taking down the Confederate flag from state capitols and making it more difficult to buy online and in stores will immediately change the minds of white supremacists. It is, however, a good first step in healing the wounds of this country’s racist past and sometimes racist present. While I have been disappointed in how some of my white friends have responded to talk of these Confederate symbols, my spirits have been lifted by my white friends who have spoken up to castigate and challenge their white friends to rethink how they interpret these Confederate symbols.

As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don’t know each other; they don’t know each other because they have not communicated with each other.” If Dylan Roof teaches white and black America nothing else, let him teach us to talk to and with each other—honestly, frankly, and even uncomfortably—about race, racism, and prejudice in this country, and then let’s have this same conversation about the gun fetish that the NRA and other open carry activists advocate and promote. Some 88 people die every day from gun violence, and hundreds more are injured daily. We cannot, like President Obama said in his eulogy of Rev. Clementa Pickney, “remain blind to the unique mayhem that gun violence inflicts upon this nation.” Let us remember that, as Dr. King said, “The time is always right to do the right thing.” That time is today.

Virginia Woolf wrote, “Someone has to die in order that the rest of us should value life more.” Let us honor the lives of those nine men and women who were killed during that fateful Wednesday evening bible study—Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Cynthia Hurd, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lance, Rev. Daniel Simmons, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, and Susie Jackson—by using this tragedy to do what we can to make this country a better place for all. Let us continue to work to remove the Confederate flag from all aspects of American life, and let us work to pass reasonable gun laws that include background checks. Let us be the change we wish to see in the world.

10401979_10152812862171783_6205399201608249213_n

Rachel Dolezal and Her “Lie” of Blackness

Dear Dwonna:

What do you think about what that white woman in eastern Washington who was pretending to be black?

Signed,

Gabriel

——————————————-

Dear Gabriel:

For those who are unfamiliar with the story, here’s a brief synopsis:

Rachel Dolezal, a 37-year-old president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, a Howard University graduate, and a part-time professor of African American Studies at Eastern Washington University, has claimed for years that she is an African American. Last week, a white couple from Montana came forward to say that Dolezal is their daughter and that she is actually white. “There seems to be some questions of how Rachel is representing her identity and ethnicity,” her father Lawrence Dolezal said. “We are definitely her birth parents. We are both Caucasian and European descent—Czech, German and a few other things.”

According to Mr. Dolezal, while she was a student at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi, Rachel became involved in Voice of Calvary, a “racial reconciliation community development project where blacks and whites lived together.” “You speak and sound and act and take on the mannerisms of the culture you live in,” Mr. Dolezal said. When she applied to Howard University to study art with “a portfolio of exclusively African American portraiture,” the university “took her for a black woman” and “gave her a full scholarship.”

“And ever since then,” Mr. Dolezal said, “she’s been involved in social justice advocacy for African Americans. She’s assimilated into that culture so strongly that that’s where she transferred her identity.” “But unfortunately,” he continued, “she is not ethnically by birth African American. She is our daughter by birth. And that’s the way it is.”

Here’s a link to the story if you want more information:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2015/06/12/spokane-naacp-president-rachel-dolezal-may-be-white/

So, what do I think about Rachel Dolezal pretending to be black? I confess that I have mixed feelings about this. If race is socially constructed, as most anthropologists argue, then what’s wrong with her constructing a “black” identity into her 20s and 30s? What does it even mean to be black? Must we stay assigned to a racial group—until the day we die—because of whom our parents (say they) are, or is it ok to self-identify with a group you more closely align with when you become an adult?

Some of my Facebook friends have suggested, as Rachel Dolezal’s adopted brother has, that her pretending to be black is racist and akin to blackface. “Back in the early 1900s, what she did would be considered highly racist,” Ezra Dolezal said. “You really should not do that. It’s completely opposite—she’s basically creating more racism.” To these folks who believe this, STOP. NOW. Those who performed in blackface were doing it to belittle, to degrade, and to objectify the black community about which they were making fun. Rachel Dolezal was not doing that; from what I have read, she was pretending to be black so that she could be a better ally to the African American community. The black community needs more allies, even those who are not *really* black.

Many people also seem fixated on what they see as Rachel Dolezal’s lie about her blackness. One FB friend wrote, “She’s a liar; what’s to be on the fence about?” while another wrote, “Having a personal style is one thing; lying about it is another.” Yes, I guess technically she lied about being an African American woman (though she did put on her application that she was white, black, and Native American), if being African American is only about how much melanin one has in her skin. The United States has had a tumultuous—but most often an arbitrary, ridiculous, and absurd—relationship with race and what it means to be black, and at one point, all one had to be was 1/32nd black to be considered black.

Is anyone certain that Rachel Dolezal isn’t at least 1/32nd black? And, does it really matter that she gave up her “whiteness” to “pass” as an African American woman if she did this in order to help the black community? As my friend Andrew wrote, “Aren’t we and don’t we become what we identify with and relate to? I don’t think she is hurting anyone. She has probably developed the ‘background’ to make her more effective in her role. She most likely gets less resistance when relating to black society by molding herself to become part of what she fights for. The bottom line should be does she do a good job?” Yes, Andrew, that is what should matter most, not the race and ethnicity of her birth parents.

I do agree with my friend Randy who believes that the one mistake Rachel Dolezal made was in not better explaining her decision to pass for black. Do we know if she has struggled with her racial identity, much like Caitlyn Jenner said she struggled with her gender identity? Why is it such a stretch to believe, that, just like Caitlyn Jenner said she always felt like she was a woman trapped in a man’s body, that maybe Rachel Dolezal has felt like a black woman trapped in a white woman’s body? Who has she really harmed by passing as an African American woman? I’ve been black for more than four decades, and although I can’t speak for every black person in America, I can assure you that Rachel Dolezal has not harmed me or any other black person by reverse passing. Moreover, I’m still waiting for my white friends who have claimed that she has harmed the black community to explain to me the damage she has caused.

Some people have said that Rachel Dolezal gained an unfair advantage by pretending to be black, and I have to admit that this is one of the first times I’ve heard that being black is, in general, an advantage to being white. Did Rachel Dolezal get her job as president of the Spokane NAACP only because she said she was black? I doubt it, since the NAACP has always been a multi-racial organization that was founded in 1909 but a coalition of prominent black and white civil rights leaders, including W.E.B. DuBois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, and Mary White Ovington. Did Rachel Dolezal get her part-time teaching position in African American Studies at Eastern Washington University because she said she was black? I doubt that, too, since African American Studies has been open to white and non-whites for years. (In fact, my school—Austin Peay State University—recently hired a white woman to teach African American history and a Japanese man to teach African American Studies.)

If we simply look past her skin color, Rachel Dolezal is probably “more black” than I am. I was born and raised in Moline, Illinois, and it is the home of the John Deere Tractor, which should tell you how white the community is. At Butterworth Elementary, I was often one of two black students in my class, and at Wilson Middle School and Moline Senior High School, it was not uncommon for me to be the only African American student in my class. When I went to the University of Iowa, there were more professors who had volunteered to mentor the incoming black students—300—than there were actual black undergraduates enrolled. I now live in a mostly-white neighborhood in Nashville, Tennessee; I go to a predominately white Catholic Church; I hate watermelon, Kool-Aid, and fried chicken; I’ve been told I sound like a white woman; I can’t sing or dance; and almost all of my friends are white (well, gay white men to be exact). I love sushi, Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Neil Diamond, Judge Judy, “Matlock,” “Murder, She Wrote,” and “The Golden Girls.” Even my white friends like Greg Thompson think I should have my black card permanently revoked. (Maybe Rachel Dolezal has the black card that so many of my friends have revoked from me?!?!)

Though my skin color is part of who I am, it is not the sum total of who I am. The same is true for Rachel Dolezal. Who is and who isn’t black and how we define blackness is more complicated in 2015, and though some have accused her of appropriating black culture, she’s certainly not exploiting black culture in the same way lots of other white folks have. By passing as an African American, Rachel Dolezal has gained entry into a life many white folks would never, ever choose for themselves. She seems to have used the privilege of being able to pass for black—certainly no one who looks like me could ever pass for white—to try to do some good.

My point is that blackness just isn’t about how much melanin one has in her skin, and we need to get beyond the “well, she lied” part about Rachel Dolezal. I think that it’s admirable that she was willing to shed her “white privilege” in order to fully immerse herself in the black community in order to be an advocate for change. Having “lived” as a black woman for years, I can only imagine that Ms. Dolezal has experienced what many of us have. While she may not have been “born” a black woman, my guess is that by saying and creating a persona as one, she has come to “experience” life as a black woman and she knows what it’s like to be profiled, to be judged, to be stereotyped, and to not be given the benefit of the doubt.

I think that what most confuses some white people who read this story is why any white person would choose pass for black. Some have suggested that Rachel Dolezal did this for power, but I’m still not sure what “power” she gained. There is no indication that she shed her “black” skin and went back to being white when it was convenient; she seemed to “live” the life as a black woman for more than a decade until her parents outted her. I’m sure this concept of reverse passing seems so foreign to a lot of white people because they can’t imagine giving up all the benefits of being white (and please, white people, don’t act like you’re not aware of the benefits and the privileges of your whiteness). The fact remains that whiteness and white privilege have been violently protected in this country, but too many white folks have spent too much time calling her a liar and questioning her “true” motives while racism lives on in this country.

Rachel Dolezal has said that she “considers myself to be black” and that she “feels black,” and that should be the beginning of a discussion about what it means to be black and what it means for a white woman to spend years of her life passing as a black woman. I think most black folks don’t care that much that this white woman has been passing for black since she’s has used her newly racial identity to help the black communities in which she has lived.

While the nation continues to be distracted by this non-story of a white woman passing for a black woman, black men and women still face a very real and present danger every time they encounter a police officer of any hue. Too many black folks live in neighborhoods where black-on-black crime is rampant and criminals are unapologetic. African American children are often forced to attend low-performing schools with teachers who are mostly there to earn a paycheck, and too many black children are born into unstable homes without a married mother and father.

Can we please focus our attention on the racism and prejudice that ails black America and this country in general and not on this white woman who sometimes wore dreadlocks and put on too much self tanner so that she could misrepresent—i.e., lie about—her race? As Paul Mooney said, “America is racial. America was founded on race. Race is America. The code name for America is ‘race.’” Let’s stop castigating this white-black woman in eastern Washington, and let’s start spending our time figuring out how to help black children—well, all children—create lives that are meaningful and in service to others.

Jan NAACP

P.S. I failed the “Are you Blacker Than a Rachel Dolezal” quiz. 😦

Here’s a link so that you can see how black you are:

http://theurbandaily.com/2015/06/12/askrachel-rachel-dolezal-quiz/