Everyday, I have to understand Racism

Dr. Jeremiah Gibbs, a white married christian male shared his “coming of age with racism in America”, when he wrote, The Day That I Started to Understand Racism, inspired by his experience as an adoptive/foster parent (with his wife) of a black child.

“Our first weekend together we were on our way to a birthday party and had to stop to get a last minute addition to our gift. We had to stop at a store that was in a town not far from our own. That town had a long and well-known history of racism. So as we got out of the car to walk into the store, I began to run scenarios through my head. What might I do if someone in this store makes a racist remark to this boy that has been given to my care? Should I just ignore it as if the comments don’t matter? Surely I cannot let that be OK for my new son. Should I confront the racist jerk and tell them how ludicrous their comments are? I couldn’t imagine what I might say. Would I just respond with violence and stand up against injustice? That didn’t seem like a Christian response and no one likes to go to jail.(March 18, 2014, http://jeremiahgibbs.com/2014/03/18/the-day-that-i-started-to-understand-racism/. Accessed May 13, 2014)”

I can perfectly related to all these questions, even though I am neither white nor a parent of a white or multi-racial (white and black) child. I am a black woman of continental African origin, living in suburban America. I am a mother of an African American child of lighter skin color than myself, that he has sometimes thought of himself as white. Well, he is five-years old, and recently returned to America from living abroad where racism or race was not a fronted identity or discussion. He is just a lovely baby, an American baby, and since I have lived in America for most of my adult life, I consider myself an American.To my friends and family back in my country of origin I am an America, though not the same with my American friends here. In a way, this is a good and a bad: good because it gives me “a pass” with white friends (“You are not like those black people,” I have been told more than once). A bad because it allows me that uncomfortable pass, which I ride with, because I do not want to “disturb the status quo”. Partly, this is why I can relate to Dr. Gibbs’ story, most especially when I am running outdoors, and when I go around looking for work.

Let me tell you why running in my neighborhood revokes feelings of fear, anger and insecurity in me, similar to Dr. Gibbs’ experience. I love running and jogging in my neighborhood, through the trees and waters. I barely see anyone running in my neighborhood. Perhaps they do, but not at the time I go out at 8:30am, when many are either out for work or are on their way, during the week, or sleeping in over the weekend. My neighborhood has plenty of older retirees, who got tired of the back and forth vacation travel up here, and decided to settle for good. The neighborhood is within a ski mountainous zone, attracting plenty of winter sports and vacation in the mountains. There are, as well, middle-age couples who got tired of the bustle and hustle of city life in New York and New Jersey, and settled here with family. Many commute everyday to work in New York City and New Jersey. That group is for the most part open-minded to folks from all walks of life; in typical NYC experience. Then there are the “original settlers” or long-term residents, some who still have the confederate flag on their big trucks. That group scares me.

Generally, I run around my neighborhood with no incident of disrespect or attack on me. I run mostly along the roads/streets but without pedestrian walk/run platforms, most motorists politely move over to allow me running space. Sometimes, I get a High-5 or honk, and sometimes I catch a smile. Most often I do not make eye contact, in respect of the “societal taboo” against staring at people, but as well due to my inner “insecurities” of running in a predominantly white neighborhood. I fear offending anyone, if I am caught looking at her/him. True, I get the rude pushovers. I have been honked at rudely, literally ran off the tarmac, given a finger, and near spat at by a drive-by male in a passenger seat. I have also been intentionally hit with leftover foods. Please believe it! One Winter Sunday, while running back home on my last leg, a car slowed down while approaching me with two middle-aged white folks. They threw leftover foods out of their window targeted at me, and drove off. Fortunately, it missed me by a thread, but I did not survive a bruised ego. I cried running my last leg home, and I wished that I had recorded the registration plate, said something or chased the vehicle to the stoplight and told them off. Since my instinct is not to fight, especially when dealing with a people of ‘higher’ societal privilege, I let it burn. Still, it haunts me, and I cry again sometimes when I remember that incident. I ask myself similar questions like Dr. Gibbs, how can I let such evil acts flyby? But I did.

But there is another very vocal resident of in my neighborhood that repeatedly outwardly disapproves of my presence in the neighborhood – “Holy dogs”. That fact that white people’s dog generally hate and bark at black people is hidden in plain view. That these dogs generally do not like black males or look-a-like males is also an established truth, especially if you are walking or running in their neighborhood. And if like me, you have low cropped hair, typical of a male, I wonder if that is an additional disadvantage. It is so humiliating when dogs – small, large, old or puppies bark at me through their house windows, fences or chase after me from their yards when I am running on the main street, not on their property. I have been bitten by dogs, so I do not take “my dog is sweat, nice to us and our cats and eats from our plates” crap. I also believe that dogs are trained and socialized to respond differently to different people. Most white people’s dogs are socialized [intentionally or not] to respond to black people harshly. From experience running in my neighborhood, I have witnessed a white person walk past a home in front of me without the dog(s) barking at her. When I came in sight, they started barking. There is a house by the road, where dogs chase after me from their yard, even after seeing me run past multiple times. Another time while running through the neighborhood, a dog charged me and barked at me repeatedly, while its owner sat on the front porch merely calling it back. I stopped running but the dog would not bulge. Each time I tried to move, it charged toward me. I begged the neighbor for what seemed like five minutes to come restrain his dog, until he felt ‘kind’ enough to get up and call his dog back home, by throwing a bone or play toy at it.

Once again, I asked myself why I did not notify the police? I guess my hesitation to involve the po po comes from my internalized understanding of racism in America, and fear that racism could prevent the police from responding to me. Even as an educated woman from an elite US university, sentiments about the unfair US criminal justice cannot simply fed away. So, I keep on running, hoping my neighborhood and the dogs would get used to my face and body, and accept that I am not gonna stop running unless they knock me over or eat me up. But for now, I keep on the main streets, and wear bright neon colors, to avoid giving anyone an excuse to run me over because, “they did not see me; I was too dark”. As much as I would love trail running, I keep away to avoid stirring anyone from shooting me for “trespassing” in their backyard. It is a privilege white folks can risk, well, unless you are a German exchange student at a high school in suburban Montana (http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/father-german-exchange-student-killed-montana-homeowner-slams-u-s-gun-culture-article-1.1775600).

Similar thoughts came to me once, while trail-running with a team in a predominantly white neighborhood or Marietta, Georgia. We run through woods and streams, and in people’s backyards, without anybody shooting or shouting at us or calling the police on us. Well, I was running with a predominantly white group, and the only one of two black folks. A week later, while running in South West Atlanta, I did not feel brave enough to trail-run by  myself, ironically in a predominantly black neighborhood. Why? Randomized surveys done on street racism have showed that blacks are as much likely as whites to profile black people. In a staged “bike theft” in a public park, part of ABC TV series, “What Would You DO?”, results showed that when it was a young white male cutting a bike chain off a stand,  people looked on, asked questions and expressed shock when he told them the bike did not belong to him. All except one (out of 100) continued on without confronting him or calling the police. Even more revealing, when the “staged bike thief” was a white female, as passerby’s offered her immediate help to free the bike from the chain. Only one woman protested to her husband helping free the bike, and another called the police after she had left the scene. However, when it was a young black male wearing identical clothes as the white male, passerby’s immediately (white and black people) confronted him, congregated, confiscated his tools or immediately called the police. When asked to account for their actions, both blacks and white people pointed to their biases against “personal appearance”. Black people said “first impression matters”…..and…”they thought the white guy worked in the park.” White people generally said they were looking out for private property, some even claimed race did not matter. So, there you have it!

Sometimes I worry about running into a serial killer or kidnapper along my route, especially while running new, quiet and isolated neighborhoods. I guess it comes from watching too many “Forensic Evidence”, “Unresolved Mysteries”, “20-20” and “48 hours” TV shows. Pretty much all of the crimes featured happened in suburbs similar to where I live. I have heard from moms at my son’s bus stop that they are plenty of drug users in the neighborhoods, and some have been busted in the police. Then I worry whether, being a black person, anybody driving or walking by would care if they saw a guy forcing me into his car? On my recent Saturday long distance run, while trying to discover a new running route in the neighborhood. I got onto a new street with a few houses. From a distance, I saw three white males and a white woman standing by the road and “burning something”; there was smoke likely from a fire. My heart skipped, but I was scared of showing my fears by turning back. I worried they could chase after me, so I proceeded on. I guess they sensed my fears and said, “hello”, when I got close to them.

Perhaps I am too paranoid, but that goes to show how institutionalized racism is experienced differently by black folks. I always wonder whether a white person would have to skip a beat at such an encounter! The feeling of “I do not belong here” is so real to me everyday in this neighborhood, even when I am inside my home. I hate it when sometimes I say hello to person across walking or running in my neighborhood, and they do not respond.

Similar experience and sentiments with finding work in this neighborhood. I took a break from online application and decided to walk-into several professional establishments in the neighborhood. As the black people in the “bike theft case” said, first impressions matter. Pretty much every place here is staffed with white folks. Like I say, “You know the place is white, if McDonald is predominantly staffed with white people.” Welcome to my neighborhood! Although, I did not look for work at McDonalds. I went to Doctors’ Offices, Departmental Stores, Restaurants, Grocery Stores, education institutions, and several small businesses. At most places, I was asked to apply online, or bring a resume – including restaurants! I know times are tough, and jobs are not coming by easily. However, when you do not see anyone who looks like you in most workplaces, including the front desk, it is hard not feeling unwelcome. Still, I did all as requested, with follow-up call back and walk in, but no rewards yet.

I bet some of you are wondering, why I am still living in this neighborhood, if it is that traumatizing to me? In the words of Dr. Jeremy Gibbs…

“This isn’t the only thing that we learned from raising our son (that we gladly adopted last year). We also have learned that parents that want the most for their children are often faced with a dilemma (even when they have the means to make educational choice) about whether they will give their kids a school environment that is supportive of their identity. Or shall we choose a school where lots of children look like him and he can learn about being black in America? Usually the schools with large African-American populations are struggling and under-resourced. Do I use the means that are within my reach to send him to a school with opportunity that will ensure that he has very few friends that look like him? Is that somehow better? The thing that I’m learning here is that racial minorities have to ask questions that majority populations get the privilege of ignoring. I still don’t know all the questions that I need to be asking.”

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Embracing the Rejection Letter

What is your first reaction when you receive a Rejection Letter?
 

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I know plenty of us share that experience; from a job application, a lover, a rental application, loan or business proposal. Here I am talking about Rejection Letters from a Job Application.
 
I have had mixed experiences and reactions with a rejection letter: kicking myself, crying, or cursing the institution. Nowadays, I take a positive attitude as an opportunity to learn, either embrace and acknowledge the rejection letter or write back to where the rejection letter came from.
 
Sometimes, you apply for that job that “speaks to you”, one you say, “this is mine”, then things do not work out the way you hoped. After graduate school, I wanted to move back and work in Africa, so badly. So, all the career jobs I applied to where in Africa, while busting tables and retail sales in the United States on the side. I applied for almost any job that came up in human rights or program management at the African Union, printed, photocopied and notarized job application documents, and airmailed applications to Addis Ababa. Do not ask me how much it cost me; that is what the AU wanted as opposed to the US-way of applying via email. I never received a single response from the AU. I did not give up, but switched attention more toward Africa regional organization in Eastern and Western Africa, and in South Africa. 
 
I remember  a job in The Gambia as Deputy Director of a regional human rights organizations. I went through round one of interviews, then round two, and then called for an in-person interview. Yes, the organization flew me from Boston to Banjul, put me up for two nights all expenses and gave me an allowance for time taken and personal expenses. I went through a face-to-face interview with the board and Director, and took a written and computerized test. I was told, the organization was looking for someone who would double as Ag. Director, since both the Director and Deputy Director were leaving. I was told we were three finalists, although only two showed up. I did not the other person, until I met her in the taxi we shared to the airport on our way out of The Gambia. A Ugandan, woman, lawyer, Legal Officer of a refugee organization I helped set up years before I left Uganda. She pretty much had resume, expect she was still working “on the ground”, while I was “theorizing human rights” based in America. Plus, there is always that ‘subtle’ quizzical look that sometimes rears its ugly head as a question to Diaspora Africans seeking opportunities to return to the continent, “Why would you like to live “the comfort” of the United States to come back and live and work in “DDD -Dirty Difficult and Dangerous Africa”? But when I saw Ms. Lady, my gut told me, she had got the job. Needless to say, our ride back to the airport was about her “scheduling her date of resignation from her job in Uganda and moving to Banjul.” That’s how I found that the end of a beautiful dream and received my unofficial Rejection Letter on my ride back home to Boston
 
Then came a job with a regionalized organization in South Africa to work with Civil Society Resource Mobilization. With all my donor, grant making and grant seeking expertise, I knew this was in my bag. Believe me you, threw out my vow that I made when I left in 2000, never to return to work in “xenophobic South Africa”. I wanted a job, with a regional focus, and several organizations in South Africa do exactly that, including plenty in security, natural resources and international politics, which were the fields of my professional interest and scholarly focus. The South African job gave me a tingle too, and put me in cloud 7. For one, one of my referees was a reputed civil society activist known in most of Africa, and to the organization. Secondly, a friend had worked with the organization, and he gave me plenty to know about the organization. So, I thought I had this in the bag. This time, I pulled out all the lessons learned about “interviewing over the phone and computer”. !) Before the interview, do a mock interview with a friend, and looking at yourself in the mirror, paying attention to your intonations, your vocabulary and flow of communication. 2) On a telephone interview, stand upright to allow your voice projects better to the person(s) on the receiving end. 3) Smile over the phone as that reflects in your mood and the way you speak on the other end of the phone. What else didn’t I do? Yes, I also did a long written test, pouring my heart out! Alas! Rejection Letter came via email! Oh! I cried so hard! I reached out to my BFF (RIP), who had helped me prepare for the interview, cried to her, and she consoled me.  After wiping away days of tears, I wrote to the organization that had rejected me, and asked why they had rejected my application. Instead of sulking and hating the institution, I gained more insight into what organizations look for. 
 
I backed off applying to Africa regional organization, and went back to my previous dream – the United Nations, and added international organizations working in Africa – like Oxfam, International Rescue Committee, Care International, plus more. I uploaded my resume to many databases of international development, human rights and humanitarian consulting groups. My professional profile got registered, among the first by an agency that recruits on behalf of UNHCR Legal/Protection. Until I ‘unkindly’ expressed my dissatisfaction with being short-listed for several opportunities but not succeeding with any. I got struck off the list, and my cries and efforts to be reinstated were unwelcomed. But I learned a valuable lesson, “Speak your truth quietly”, and everyone is looking for a job, not just you, some with higher qualifications than yourself. 
 
At least an Italian Brick Oven Restaurant in Somerville, MA did not reject my application for a Hostess position, even though I did not get the waitress position, because my experience in the position was only mental. It gave me a little paycheck to look forward to, and afford me pay the monthly electric bill and personal expenses, while I housesat for my professor who had away from the brutal Boston winter to was India. Note to self: Always have Plan B, to help offset the financial burden when you are looking for work. With access to my professor’s full house, a computer, internet electricity, hot shower and a bed, I could sit in his study and type all job application letters.
 
Finally, the one thing that I have always believed in more supreme in success  -social networks -happened to my job search. It was not all my lucid applications and interviewing, but my social networks that found me the job I took. Don’t get me wrong, I got other job offers, five in total, thanks to my resume and personal interviewing skills. Three of the jobs were with the institution that shaped my decision where to go for graduate school -the United Nations. I got a call from the UN Mission in Sierra Leone, The UNV and UN Human Rights Office in Senegal. I also got a call to interview for a consultancy with the World Bank Resettlement Project in Chad, while shopping for shoes in downtown Boston on a Saturday. By then, I had already made up my mind to move to New York City. I dropped the UN for fear that “the recruitment process and final move would take longer, when I was tired of being underemployed and really wanted well-paid employment. I guess, my “work abroad obsession” had waned off, and considered the opportunities of moving to NYC, working with an academic institutions, and potentially enrolling in my PhD [still hoping to do it]. But why five jobs at once, when I could not get one when I desperately needed it? The lesson learned, you can never predict success and winning. I had learned much more about myself and my resilience. I sharpened my resume and cover letter writing skills, my interviewing skills. In fact, I have sent “Thank You for Considering My application”  letters to some organizations that have sent me a rejection letter. One was so grateful and wrote me back, “I wish everyone would take a negative response as diplomatically as you did.”
 
Now that I look back at al the rejection letters, and I am back into the job search, I am applying all the skills I obtained from multiple applications over the years: get on your feet and go look for work, apply and apply for as many opportunities as you can, refine your resume specifically for the position you are applying for, keep your friends in the loop that you are looking for work, and remind them of “that resume you sent”. Though, there are changes to my job search, some of which are beyond my control and design. The economy is not doing are good as it used to. Gone are the days, when I could walk into a retail department store or restaurant, apply for a job and told to start tomorrow. Ultimately, a Rejection Letter is not the end in itself. Nowadays, even a restaurant hostess position requires a resume!
 
I am keeping my options open, and casting my net wider. I am now grateful for any institutions that writes me back, even with a rejection – at least somebody looked at my application, so I tell myself. Ultimately, somebody will wash away all the “Rejection Letters”, and send me that one “Acceptance Letter” that I need.-