FWD – Fundraising While Black – Survival Tips

What we internalize, and how we respond and engage, very much reflects our lived or learned experiences, or the fabric and dynamics of the society(ies) in which we operate, and shape our social interactions and belonging.

Over the weekend, during one of our family activities I had a piercing experience of Fundraising While Black (FWB). I am not claiming the experience of FWB is uniform to all Black folks, but the visibility of color, race, Blackness, is the ‘sad’ reality, of living in America.

Particularly, as a Black person in America, even a simple act of hanging “Scouts Popcorn Fundraisers” door-to-door in Popcorn Door Hangerpredominantly White suburbia neighborhood, can be quite traumatizing! Don’t be turned off, I am not gonna badmouth my neighbors as nasty, racist and mean-spirited; I do not know plenty of them to opine about their sentiments toward me. Perhaps, that is a problem, on its own.

The ones I have met and interacted with, are a mixed bag. Some, are really good people, who I have meet while dropping off or picking up our children from the bus stop, or while walking in the neighborhood, with their dogs, at the mailbox or enjoying the outdoors. They have stopped to say hello, and we have engaged in extended conversations. Others have seen me running on snow, sleet, rain, humid, pollen days, and let me know they were in awe of me!

Friends in my neighborhood have also introduced me to friends. Engaging in community activities has also broadened my social network, like Valentine’s Day celebration at my immediate neighbor’s, Child of Mine’s “Kids Patrols Laurel Lake CleanUp” on Earth Day, or Halloween “Trick-Or-Treat”, or selling icy’s with my child’s cousins this summer.

But there are also neighbors who don’t give a rat ass whether I exist here or on planet. Some won’t respond when I give them a, “Hi” or smile. Others will not control their dogs charging at me, while running on the streets past their house. Sometimes, the dogs unexpectedly run after me, before their owners reluctantly call them back. But the Oscar for “worst neighbor” goes to an old man we met this past summer, while chaperoning child and his cousins to sell Icy’s in the neighborhood.

One of our immediate neighbors, who we had never met, accused us of “importing immigrants from abroad to live in America on his tax revenue, then sending them to NYC for school.”I tried to explain to them that, “No, those are Child’s cousins, who come over from New York to visit.” Instead, threatened to call the police on us, to investigate us, and spelled out his Penn Law degree credentials. I apologized for knocking at his door, gathered my entourage and left his home immediately. But Child was already and sobbing, terribly traumatized by the mean nasty old man threatening us. He has since vowed never to walk by his house again…[except, the times he did not seem to recognize the house each time, we have passed by].

Anyway, back to FWD. This weekend, we decided to step-up our Cub Scout Popcorn sale to “Support Our Troops”, with only a week left. We went around hanging flyers on doors in our neighborhood, avoiding to knock at doors, unless we personally knew the occupant(s). We felt safe to put the Door Hangers with information about our fundraiser, name of Cub Scout, contact phone number and email address.

Still, it was quite a scary exercise, entering people’s yards and walking up to their doors. Even if the inside door was opened, we simply hang the flyer and left, unless the owner saw us and came up to speak with us. We literally crept away from the door, and out of their yards, ensuring we were not visible. We caught a couple of prying eyes peeping through windows; some open the doors, others did not come out.

Moreover, because we are black, I made sure we took extra caution. I gave Child extra ‘warnings/instructions’ and “Do Not List”:

  1. Do not wear your hood on your head, or you might look like Trayvonn Martin.
  2. Do not run to and away from the door, or you might be mistaken for a thug and trespassing. 
  3. Do not look through people’s houses or windows, but stand in front of the door, or someone could shoot you for peeping.

Yes, he is just a 7 year old. But, this is Our America!

I know he does not understand right now all these “Don’ts”, but he will understand when he grows up. When his innocence, as another school, community and neighborhood kid and friend, is stolen from him, because of the color of his skin relative to his society. No doubt, some people are already judging him, from the little they see and know of him, by the way he speaks, the way he walks, the way he carries himself.

At seven years of age, this Black Child of Mine has the responsibility to carry himself to “Societal expectations”. I should not appear scared or scary, or he might look suspicious.

Once, shortly after his fifth birthday, someone close to him told him, “Don’t shoot me; we have to learn to live together,” because he said he did not like her [in reality, he was not yet comfortable with her].

I told him people could shoot anyone caught peeping through their windows or trespassing on their yards, and would not go to jail because they can say they were defending themselves. More over, chances are higher, if you are Black; there is not much safeguard to hide behind, not even for a Cub Scout.

How I wish we could raise money standing by the streets! But that has not been practical nor fruitful in a neighborhood without sidewalks. Maybe, if we were in the city or in a more familial environment, like Uganda, less traumatizing about standing out or more optimistic about friendlier reception. Somewhere I would feel I have the Right to Belong, where I could just knock at the door, with my child, without the politics of race, color laden in my head. That’s all I wish.

Throughout all my years of fundraising, I keep learning new lessons about “identity formation” or “identity contestation”. Who I am, in the particular society, who knows or does not know me, and how that shapes their engagement with me. This time, I am learned first hand, the burdens and responsibility of FWB – Fundraising While Black!

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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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IT is [NOT] “Know Thy Neigbor[hood]!

ImageYeah! I know this is a loaded title. I bet you are wondering whether I mean “Know Thy Neighbor” or “Know Thy Neighborhood”. Sounds strange, huh! 

Strangely that occurred to me on my run last Sunday, and again this Friday morning, in two different neighborhoods. And it took me back to the Trayvon Martin murder trial, where Zimmerman got acquitted for murder and manslaughter. I am sure it aint politically incorrect to bring up the Zimmerman case again. Everybody has and still is expressing their views loudly on this one. And we are lucky enough to know that in the 21st century -2013, America is still NOT beyond the color line. So, we are gonna suck it up and keep finding a piece of this place we call home….beyond or before the color-line. 

Ok, back to my central topic on “My Neighborhood and me”. Last Sunday, I went out jogging from Camp Creek in West Atlanta to Union City in South Fulton. It was not an easy run, with steep climbs under the scorching sun, with a few areas of concrete, but mostly no footpaths or running trails. I had to brave it, and compete with incoming traffic. Luckily in America, at least for the most past, most motorists will respect a runner or pedestrian and share space, unlike in Kampala where you would most likely get run over by stray drivers as happened to me back in 2011. Story for another day. So, it was very daring and rewarding. I ended up doing 13 miles, touch down! Been a while since I was able to go that far due to change of geographical location. 

Same story this past Friday, while running in Norcross, GA, North of Metro-Atlanta. I got into places without footpaths or running trails.  At some point I lost track of where I was, made a u-turn in some places, while in others I needed human help with directions. I could have done better, like in the first case on Sunday, with running off-roads through the woods, but that was not feasible.

It struck me that, while in most of America we do not “Know Thy Neighbor”, we better be smart enough to “Know Thy Neighborhood”! See, Trayvon got accosted, shot at and killed because he did not “Know Thy Neighborhood”, by a stranger -Zimmerman who did not care to “Know Thy Neighbor”. See, for a teenage black male living in America, society puts a VERY high responsibility on them to “Know Thy Neighborhood”. I guess I will have to tell this to my Black African American son (recently turned 5-years), when he becomes a teenager. I hate to think that I might have to do this too early, for instance, which one of his K-class friends he can go to play with, living in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood uhm!

In my case, I am a Uganda American [yes I claim that] and mother of a child with an African American man. The many years of living in America have allowed me to learn and appreciate the history and historical struggles of African Americans to belong to this space: “currency of race”, the writings, the education and miseducation of African Americans”, and their journey to self-liberation. In many ways, this experience have provided me a deeper insight and understanding of the “Miseducation of the Negro Race” worldwide, including those who escaped, survived or were unfortunate to miss the slaveship (trust me, some continental Africa confess to that feel), and remained back in Africa. And I use the “Negro Race” in honor and respect of those who came before me, and conquered the word “Negro”, in the pre-1960s, and appropriated it to build intellectual histographies about us in art, music, poetry, civil rights struggles, spiritual healing, sports, education and economic empowerment. Notably I acknowledge Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcom X, Bob Marley, and many more. It is also true that the word “Negro” is still used in contemporary America in reference to the United Negro College Fund and the Negro league in sports, which have their historical significance. As well, while its usage is falling out of favor around the world, it is still a neutral word in the Scandinavians, for instance, and in Russia. I should CATEGORICALLY state that I neither endorse nor condone its usage NOR in any way suggest or find any semblance with the use of the word “NIGGER”, which I detest.

In many ways the use of the word “Negro” is as fluid as “Know Thy Neighborhood”. In my experience, it depends both on who you are, and where you are. As a black person jogging around a seemingly predominantly black neighborhood of Camp Creek and Union City in Atlanta, I still could not dare jog out in the woods in the backyards. I feared that I could be shot at for “trespassing”, including by a black person. Yes! it is the nature of America, the “fear of thy neighbor” is colorless in many places. Black can negatively profile black as much as white profiles black. Although, black may not profile white the same. 

The ABC video of a white male, black teenage male and white female, all trying to “steal a bike” seems to qualify this statement. When the white male got asked by passerby if the bike was his, and said, no, but it would become his when he took the chain off, nobody offered him a hand but nor did they confront him harshly or call the police. When the black male teen tried the same thing, several white folks were seen confronting him harshly, and some went ahead to call the police on him. For the white female, same story, confessed theft –but one male went ahead to offer her a hand to break the bike free so she could take it. Interesting, two female black women, when asked why they went past the white male breaking a bike chain, the responded that they did not think he would take property that was not his. 

What does this tell us? That either black people have a high level of trust in white people, and would not consider them thieves. Or it is far-fetched to assume that black women would confront a white male in a predominantly white neighborhood – his comfort zone. I say, it is both. Yet, again, as a black woman, I cannot assume that a black person living in America would not shoot me if I went running in the woods in their backyard. And I bet a white person would either immediately call the police, confront me or try to shoot at me.

ImageInterestingly, when I did the Hash [my international running group] with one of the metro Altanta Hashes, I went through backyards, front-yards and woods in a pre-dominantly white neighborhood with ease. Perhaps because I was with a predominantly white group, and the only black person running, in addition to the Grenadian couple [one looking more Hispanic] who walked it. But I could not replicate that comfort zone, when I ran all by myself this past Friday, in a predominantly white neighborhood, to follow off-road trails and into the woods. For once, all the other runners I saw were white, yet only one said hello. The other did not care, although runners, like smokers tend to pride themselves in acknowledging each other with a “hi”. When I lost track of how to get back home and had no one on the road to ask for directions, I could have branched off and knocked at one of the doors in the neighborhood or asked a motorist. But I could not dare, afraid they would consider me a threat and call the PoPo. 

So, either way, black like me cannot win in a white or black neighborhood. It is different in most of the Africa I have lived, I can run anywhere with no fear of the neighborhood, unless of course the State House. I know that many folks who have never lived the “American Experience” within geographical America wonder why, “we are SOO obsessed with race and racism”. I say, until you get that opportunity and allow yourself to internalize “the American Experience with Black America”, you better be sure you, “Know Thy Neighborhood”. Image