Is “Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford,” driving me against Iconoclasts?

A friend, and I do not use this word lightly…but it is important to note that, this friend is someone I have never met physically. Our friendship started on Facebook, and operates mostly on Facebook. I love him, and loathe him as much, sometimes. Which should tell you, he has great relevance to the human race, and the intellectual community; I do not dispense my time and friendship lightly!

But, this friend has repeatedly said [to me] that, if you do not agree with someone’s opinion or politics, especially the opinion of someone in the public, move on and choose another audience. If that person happens to be a news anchor or TV personality, switch channels. If it is a politician, stop listening to him/her. But, do not censor that person or sign petitions to have them removed from public space — TV, radio or political office, because you disagree with them.

I have vehemently opposed his opinion, and his insinuation that I signed petitions to censor anybody I disagree with. For one, I have never signed any petition against him, yet he spews plenty of nonsense, that personally and directly denigrates and hurts others.

I have said that, we cannot remain aloof to bigots, and giving bigotry room to flourish by conveniently switching our channels with a remote! Especially when the person(s) spreading bigotry has capacity to reach and influence a varied public opinion. Or when the views of such a person could be construed as “speaking for and representing the social group to which he/she belongs”. In fact it is not uncommon that, “unpopular” remarks made by a person of a given social group [say black or muslim], become selfishly co-opted by bigots [like the KKK or anti-muslim radicals] for their backlash against the social group [Blacks].

To make my thought process less cryptic, my friend and I have argued over whether people like Don Lemon, who often, spit [for lack of a kinder word] unpopular views against the black community, for which he is seen as representative —because he is black—should be censored from presenting on public television. I have signed a petition or two against Don Lemon, when his comments have come out insensitive toward black lives.

For instance, when a Black high school student in South Carolina was slammed to the floor by a police office called into a classroom to ‘restore order,” Don Demon hesitated to assign blame to the police, implicitly justifying the police officers aggressive reaction by saying,

“I don’t know.”
“It does look disturbing,” said the CNN anchor. “The part that is most disturbing to me is seeing her thrown around. As far as the desk going over, I don’t know if the desk fell over because she didn’t want to get up or if he pushed it over. I don’t know. I think there’s context to everything. I would like to see what happens before and I would like to see what happened afterwards… It does look horrible. It does look like there’s no excuse for what he’s doing to her, but again, we don’t know… This only show a small slice in time of what happened. I’d like to know more before passing judgment.”

While covering the intense street eruption in Ferguson coupled with police/military tear-gas and gunfire following Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Lemon’s remarks that, “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air,” were misplaced but not far from stereotypes of African American males as habitual drug users.

After the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida, Lemon ’cautioned’ black folks to “pull up their pants, finish school, stop using the “N” word, and stop having children out of wedlock.” Again, popular stereotypes thrown at black people, even though they can be attributed to any group or color in America. Moreover, Trayvon Martin, at the time of shooting was not depicted as “wearing saggy pants” or with “children out of wedlock.”

Donald Trump is another person I find repulsive, and have persistent objection to his hate speech, and would readily sign a petition against his 2016 presidential bid. He has unapologetically slurred anyone and any group of people he does not think highly of: called for “ID tag” for all muslims,” “accused Mexico of sending their criminals and rapists to America,’ and “accused China of stealing American jobs and ruining our economy.” And he continues on a spiteful roll, with ever-growing new targets!

I have no apologies for signing petitions, to take their bigotry out of the public realm. My goal is not to silence all their voices, but to ensure they “Do Harm” to others —nor use their power and platform to misinform, slander, hurt or destroy others, taken away from them. Sure, they are entitled to their opinion, just as much as we, who are opposed to them, will respond by expressing our disapproval in the “Courts of Public Opinion.” They can continue spewing their hate in other fora, just not as public personalities, whose livelihoods and existence is made possible by the viewing or listening public.

I do not believe in turning off the TV, switching to another TV channel or remaining silent, whenever I hear bigoted and misinformed commentary on any group of people, by those with powerful voices and platform. I do not believe, my friend suggests, that I should only speak out, when I am personally offended. I strongly believe that I am not an island, but a member of a shared humanity and shared human responsibility.

Here are some quotes to back me up:

“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.”Dante Alighieri
[Technically, I do not believe there’s a ’special hell,’ except the one each of us creates wherever, whenever!

Another,

“Never underestimate the power of small beginnings. A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” ~ Chinese philosopher Laozi

This one is attributed to Dalai Lama XIV, ~
“If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”

Then,
“Small is beautiful,”
~ title of a collection of essays by British economist  E. F.  Schumacher, one of the very first books gifted to me in junior high, by brilliant mind in my family, who also happened to be an economist.

Or the African proverb ~ “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

And of course, my favorite ~ “Karma is a Female Dog!” 

I am a communitarian. I am human and desire nothing but humane treatment and humane living. I cannot shut up in the face of human misery or humiliation.

Nelson Mandela seems to agree with me ~
“Our human compassion binds us the one to the other — not in pity or patronizingly, but as human beings who have learnt how to turn our common suffering into hope for the future.”

So, I have openly cheered on “iconoclasts,” going after symbols of the racist past — statutes, flags or streets or books around the world, notably tearing down apartheid monuments in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth in South Africa; and removing the Confederate flag from state buildings in Columbia, South Carolina and Danville, Virginia in the United States.

The Apartheid Must Fall spring,” galvanized students at South African universities to bring down or deface apartheid statutes and monuments around the country, in an attempt to erase the visible face of apartheid and colonialism from the country’s education system. “Cecil Must Fall,” brought down the statute of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, who was a controversial British colonial politician, businessman and mining investor in Southern Africa. Rhodes advocated for the expansion of the Anglo-Saxon race, claiming that humanity would be better served by having more of “the finest race” —white race—spread around the world. He is used to have used private military power to exterminate black Africans and sanctions aggressive land grabs from black people in Southern Africa.

Statutes of Queen Elizabeth outside the Port Elizabeth City Library, and King George VI at the University of KwaZulu-Natal were spray-painted. At the Boer war museum in Port Elizabeth, a Bronze British soldier was torn down from a horse, while statutes of former South African leaders Paul Krueger and Louis Botha were defaced in Pretoria and Cape Town, respectively.

Here in the United States, we witnessed the “Take It Down Summer,” calling for the removal of the Confederate flag from State capitols in southern States, because of its association with segregation, slavery and racism. The campaign brought down the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina State Capitol in Columbia, and at the Sutherlin Mansion lawn in Danville, Virginia. Big retailers Amazon.com Inc and Wal-Mart Stores Inc—pulled the confederate flag merchandise from their stores, and from their websites, following eBay, Google Inc, and Sears Holdings Corp.

Opponents of the Confederate Flag view it with as the perpetual legacy of slavery and racism of  Southern states, when the confederate state denied freedom and equal rights to black people. Proponents defend the Confederate Flag as their heritage —a symbol of valor, commitment and courage of those who fought for the confederacy, in the same vein as the United States Flag, and a bastion of “white supremacy”.

Moreover, Dylan Roof, who murdered nine black worshippers at Emanuel AME, a Historical Black Church in Charlotte, South Carolina, posted online pictures posing with the confederate flag, and blamed blacks for “stealing our [white people’s] women”.

Ironically though, state officials and political leaders in South Carolina justified and sold to their public “bring down the flag, as a negative economic cost to their state, not a moral obligation, similar to the abolition of colonialism or slavery, and apartheid in South Africa!

But the most recent controversy on Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, a campaign to remove Cecil Rhodes statute from Oriel College at the University of Oxford, got me re-thinking my “hail to the iconoclasts”!

Ntokozo Qwabe, a student at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom is spearheading this campaign, challenging Oxford to part with a racist maniac equivalent to Hitler, and save its reputation as an international center of intellectualism that attracts many black students from Africa. Historical Oxford, on the other hand, is opposed to the “moral call” to bring down Rhodes statute, because it would undermine the conservation of history. Attackers of Qwabe have called him a hypocrite, denouncing Rhodes statute, yet he is a recipient of the Rhodes Scholarship for his studies at Oxford. Responding to calls to return the Rhodes scholarship, Qwabe has stated that Rhodes did not own the money, but robbed it from the black African peoples and their lands;

“Rhodes did not have a scholarship. It was never his money. All that he looted must absolutely be returned immediately…I’m no beneficiary of Rhodes. I’m a beneficiary of the resources and labour of my people which Rhodes pillaged and slaved.”

Let me clarify that, I do not condone all kinds of “iconoclasts”; like any human, I choose and pick my battles. I believe in the sanctity of each and everyone’s religious beliefs and practices. I do not support the caricature, defacing, devaluing or attack on religious, spiritual or cultural institutions and symbols — books, flags or statutes. While I do not identify with any organized religion, I am not offended by religious symbols erected in public, as long as they are not seek or applied to directly discomfort or harm me, as a social being.

I have taken exception to bigoted historical statutes, books and flags that hurt and discomfort my social existence, which have served supremacist aims, to oppress, denigrate and exterminate a people. When the call arises to correct historical injustices, such histories deserve to be challenged and most definitely defaced, if the disenfranchised see their continued grandstanding as giving power and credit to the oppressor.

The question becomes, where do we draw the line between “erasing history” and “correcting historical injustices”? Ntokozo Qwabe, argues that Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign does not seek to erase the history of Cecil Rhodes, but wants everyone to know his crimes. Quite interesting!

Similarly, I was taken back when I heard the Quaker Friends Central School, in Central Pennsylvania banned the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because, “Its use of the  <<N word>> made students uncomfortable”. The book will no longer be part of required reading for students of literature at the school because it was not “inclusive”. I am thinking, nor is religion inclusive!

I will come back to these two Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But I must say that, I take exceptions to “revisionism of history”; that’s what makes a “good intellectual,” after all, self-contradiction [smile].

For instance, when in Uganda, government renamed streets and roads, from British names, given during British colonial occupation, to names of heroic Ugandans and Africans, I cheered on. The exercise was less out of spite, but assertion of “a new dawn of African leadership.”

Contrary, I am troubled that the Quakers are engaging in the usual [il]liberal attitude of sweeping under the rug, a troubled history, of white America and America’s racial relations, by denying the younger generation a chance to engage and interrogate in a topic, that discomforts but is very vital to forging in-roads to real social justice and racial harmony, a principle which the Quakers so loudly self-identify.

No doubt the Quakers, were one of the groups that so indefatigably participated in the struggle to free black people from slavery in America, and win their freedoms. But like many “liberal”/progressive movements and groups in America and around the world, their internal structures and programing do not always provide genuinely comfortable spaces for interrogating racism. Their “retreats” for young people which I once attended, present a facade of equality and harmony, but have a “deafening silence” and discomfort to in-group complex dynamics and life experiences. The talk about “racism” is presented as what “others” do, not an in-house concern.

Which reminds me a lot about, growing up in a former British colony. I read and learned plenty of European History, language, culture and geography, presented as the victors, saviors, and gallant fighters and humanitarians, who came to save the “Savages,” “primitives,” “child-like,” “diseased” and “impoverished” Black Africans. The African had no agency, not much history, celebratory, before the coming of “the white man”! About Europe and America, I knew all about the glitter and gold they are, but not the true face of racism, exploitation, extermination of the people who welcomed them into their lands, until I made physical contacts with their lands.

So, perhaps Rhodes Might Not Fall in Oxford, but the historical narration of Cecil Rhodes must be revised in curriculum teaching, campus tour, on the statute and all writings, to include his exploitations, racist land grabs, armed plunder and holding into captivity and servitude nations and peoples of Africa. Perhaps Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, should stay on the Quaker schools reading list, to teach young people about the true face of racism, when the legacy of white America did not consider black people as human or worthy of dignity.

Perhaps, letting these historical bigotry to stand in public are good opportunities for the human race to reflect and pat themselves on the back, “Look how far we’ve made it!” Unless, of course, we have not yet made it, and still stuck in sentiments of supremacy.

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!

Who is to Define Who is Black?

Forgive me, but I am still struggling to find fault with Rachel Dolezal. If you’re still not in-the-know, Rachel Dolezal’s name is now ‘synonymous’ with “Identity [re]formulation”; not the Caitlyn Jenner way. By the way, unlike Caitlyn Jenner who become an instant global phenomenon, especially among the people she re-invented to identify with, Rachel Dolezal has not been much embraced. I doubt she’s gonna sign a “Cover Girl” deal soon, like Caitlyn.

Rachel Dolezal’s crime, guilty as already charged by a large section of the ‘moralizing’ public, is “masquerading” as a Black person. She is identifying as an African American, a ‘coveted’ identity supposedly for only those who know suffering, blanket assumption is all Black people. Plenty of America’s Black women are up in arms that Dolezal “is demeaning and devaluing the suffering of Black women, who by no choice of their own are labeled black with insurmountable burdens and negative connotations. “Black womanhood is an identity forged in the lived experiences of black children,” writes Alicia Walters, who, like Rachel grew up in Spokane, WA, but allegedly without the ‘choice’ of ‘performing’ blackness.

Plenty are up in arms, charging Rachel with ‘performing blackness’, and ‘wearing’ an identity that is not her own, so they say. Her parents, as well, are ‘distraught’ that Rachel is misrepresenting her true identity, disagree with her blackness, and concerned that she is estranged from them. They say, she began ‘acting black’ after she went to college in Mississippi, and after the death of her husband, an African American.

I am concerned about the public ‘stoning’ of R. Dolezal’s African American identity as deception, fraud and performing blackness. Call her out for suing Howard for discrimination, or allegedly calling out another Latino for not being “Hispanic enough”. Don’t call her a fraud, because she self-identifies as “Black”!

Who is to say that Rachel Dolezal is not Black, if indeed she identifies as Black? Can we claim that Rachel is not black, by merely looking at her portraits from childhood to present? Don’t looks lie? Especially in our America, where the label is attributed to anybody with just a drop of black blood in their DNA? Can we rely solely on parental visual appearance and self-identity to tell us the racial make-up of their offsprings?

When I saw Rachel’s adult portrait, my first instinct was a recollection of “Skin”, a 2009 movie based on Judith Stone’s book When She Was White: The True Story of a Family Divided by Race. It is about a South African girl born to white Afrikaner parents but officially classified as “Colored” by the apartheid government. Taken prima facie, her facial appearance could have justify the classification as “Colored”, presumably a result of a genetic case of atavism, a reappearance of genes from previous ancestors, who could have been black, in the case of Sandra Laing (Skin).

A similar case is Little White Lie, a book and film based on the life of Lacey Schwatz, who grew up white, raised by two white Jewish parents she was made believe  both were her biological parents. Her mother hid a secret affair with her biological father, an African American man. Well then, maybe parents as well, misrepresent the truth, sometimes?

  1. Who is to say that Rachel Dolezal is performing “Blackness” and “Black Womanhood”?

  2. Why can’t we let Rachel define her identity to us, on her own terms?

  3. Do blacks [in America] have a monopoly over Black identity? And is it true that black womanhood is formed as black children?

  4. Do all black children, really grow up as Black? Or is Blackness attained as a Black child progresses in age, and within specific societies with overt racial categorizations?

  5. Is it not true that, perhaps some black children are ‘shielded’ from growing up with all the encumbrances associated with “blackness’ in America, such as, societal discrimination, underprivileged, physical threat, prescribed acceptable public behavior and actions, pre-defined identity, even if not their entire lifetime?

It is a wide generalization that “Black womanhood is formed as black children. Some black children, including my own, enjoy the ‘privilege’ of not knowing they are black, until later in life or until their parents open the subject of ‘coloring’ and ‘racism’ to them, or until they encounter a racialized experience during their young lives.

Here, I am thinking of Black children growing up in predominantly white suburbs, where they are the lone or one of the very few black family. Many of these children do not, by own confession self-identity with blacks from inner cities and metropolitan settings. Some, again by own confession, are afraid and ashamed of fellow blacks, and see their culture as ‘uncouth’ and incompatible with their lived cultural experience. Their main cultural experience is similar to the predominant white culture where they are growing up and exposed to, in their daily interactions.

For instance, my six-year old, growing up in a predominantly white community and culture, until very recently, identified as white. Until his classroom discussion about Martin Luther King during “Black History Month”, he did not have a clue about racial identity [in America]; he did not think of himself as black, and considered me chocolate not black. Still, I doubt the lesson in his classroom and our conversation at home on racial identity have altered his cultural learnings, experiences, and radicalized identity.

Then, what makes it wrong to accept someone, who personally identifies as African American? Who is to say, Rachel has not experienced or internalized blackness, or does not carry personal struggles identified with black people and black women? Who is to say that Rachel is wearing blackness as ‘a pair of shoes’, according to Alicia Walters? After all, she has been the target of the racist Aryan Nation in her Spokane, WA neighborhood, she found a noose on her porch, and probably a recipient of spite in her community, for marrying a Black man, her late husband.

Has she obtained privilege because of assuming an African American identity? Maybe. But so have plenty of Blacks that take on “Caucasian’-sounding names, and perhaps escape the [not so subtle] profiling in job application screening, or mortgage applications, where candidates with “African American sounding names” are not given the same or any consideration.

Or should we concern ourselves more about how Rachel has used her privilege as an “African American” for the betterment of African American peoples and cultures? In all of the history of African American struggles, white people have used their ‘white privilege’ to work  for the emancipation of colored peoples, forged alliances and immersed themselves into the black struggle, strategically or genuinely. I have white friends, who are as afraid as I am about raising black children in America, either because they are married to Black men or their hearts and life trajectories are intertwined with the struggle for equal humane treatment of all persons. White friends, who are married to black men, not as ‘voyagers’ but because that is “where the heart is”. I have white friends who have spent the greatest part of their lives advocating and fighting for the survival and lives of black people, putting themselves on the frontline to rescue refugees.

There are plenty of Black folks, for whom the “Black struggle” is not in their immediate preoccupation or concern, as much as their personal advancement and status in society. Some have publicly disowned “Blackness”, speak ill of Black culture, or wholly and conveniently embraced ‘white culture’ to their benefit, without seeing themselves as ‘fraudulent’ or misplaced, away from ‘Blackness’.

How can we claim to know what drove Rachel Dolezal to assume an identity so cumbersome in the world, especially in our America? An identity that is abhorred, denigrated and rejected even by the very people who are colored “Black”? Why should we label Dolezal a “fraud”, “deceitful” and “opportunistic”, for identifying with a people, a cause and a human race, within a society where due to her re-formulated identity, she possibly experienced being unwanted, and possibly exterminated by racist and hate groups? After all, she never claimed to be “Black” to obtain admission into Howard! Apparently, the school awarded her admission and a Fulbright scholarship, without the requiring her to disclose her ethnicity, most probably on merit. Assuming Howard awarded her admission based on her picture portrait, doesn’t that speak to the larger complicatedness of ‘Blackness” or Black womanhood in America, which the disgruntled Alicia Walters seems to agree is diverse/varied lived experiences?

If indeed Rachel Dolezal is misrepresenting the truth [I still give her the benefit of doubt, until DNA proves otherwise], so did plenty of folks involved in the Underground Railroad, or Henry “Box” Brown, holocaust survivors, international migrants and refugees or armed combatants. What all these people have in common, is the struggle for freedom and self-determination. The struggle to be set free from the bondages of being defined by others, and strive to create one’s own destiny and identity for the betterment of “the self” and/or the larger society. Don’t we all [re]invent ourselves, at different stages of our human existence?

No doubt, we should be much concerned about honesty, as well as letting others be! We do not know, if the experience of living with adopted African American siblings, and later marrying an African American husband gave Rachel an avenue to ‘find herself’ and find solace among a people with whom she felt comfortable and accepted? Perhaps that gave her the impetus to immerse herself in the lives and daily struggles of African Americans, by recreating her identity as an African American. In my experience, white folks who genuinely wish to be a part of the ‘black struggle’, while welcome and utilized by the [black] communities, are often still viewed and treated as ‘outsiders’. To avoid the baggage of being seen as a “token white woman”, perhaps R. Dolezal figured it would be easier to identify as African American. Perhaps? Well then, what is wrong with that picture?

In Defense of “Strong Women” and “Out-of-the-Box” People

A thought to write “In Defense of “Strong Women” and “Out-of-the-Box” People came to me, following a fb discussion, into which I was co-opted to respond a couple of weeks ago. I was not exactly participating, nor had any intentions of commenting on the thread that I sensed would cause me more unwarranted rebuke and distraction.

Yet, my FB friend, who posted the thread on his [I will be specific, “he” is male] FB timeline tagged me, “Doreen What do you think?”

Immediately after, another one of his FB friends [co-FB friend] shot back, “No no no no!
The thread poster asked, “What is it?” [That is, why are you do opposed to her?]
His response went like, “From previous discussions, she believes all black outrage is because if racism and slavery.” To which he said that he vehemently disagrees!

Well, for one, I didn’t know that he had such strong distaste for my opinions. Two, I didn’t appreciate his generalization of my opinions about specific cases of black public outrage to my views on all black people outrage. The particular discussions I recall engaging in where he was involved concerned police brutality against blacks in America, and the place, conditions and perceptions of African Americans in America.

He expressed my displeasure at his claim, that “it was a knee jerk reaction.” But all too late; I was wounded. Particularly because I had no plans of engaging in that particular discussion on”death rates in Baltimore“, where my views would most likely be caricatured or ridiculed. I know to self-censor myself.

I have learned from my social interactions that I do not have to express an opinion on everything, just because I hold one. I don’t lose a thing from “speaking my truth quietly”, by not uttering a thing. In any case, I save so many heads and hearts from pain over my potentially not-so-popular or appealing views.

If there is anything I am an expert on, it would be not to generalize, pigeon-hole people and speak for others. I have learned from personal experience that our beliefs, knowledge, values are very much a reflection of our life’s trajectories. We cannot assume to know more than we have been exposed to or have exposed ourselves.

Moreover, my professional and academic career, at the intersection of law and social sciences, is very much the “epitome of anti-generalization”. In social sciences, we are required to state if the findings, writings and assertions are specific to a given study group, or representative [of a whole population], or involve everyone in the study population. So, I very much detest anyone who generalizes my opinions or accuses me of possessing “sound judgment” for causes into which I sink myself. Perhaps it is my strong personality, and conviction and out-of-the-box thinking which is a threat to those who are comfortable blinding themselves to social reasoning.

To pretend that the process of passing laws, making political decisions, economic transactions, and building and maintaining social relations does not embroiled in emotional, is to fool oneself that law is absolute of politics and political interference.

Then, what makes strong women and out-of the-box people so unpleasant to those who claim possession of “higher logical reasoning”? Perhaps, it is because strong women and out-of-the-box thinkers and writers allow their vulnerability to play out in the public domain, and are not afraid to of hard talk. They are not afraid of swimming with crocodiles, the fire in the kitchen or running with the wolves.

To choose the opposite is to live a life of misery and lies to oneself. I would not trade myself for “fitting in”. I am as logical, as I am emotional. I do not sink myself into areas where I know next to nothing about. My commitment, my activism, my reason, my actions are very much influenced by my life trajectory, the relationships I have met and kept, the societies in which I have lived, the cultures [socio-cultural, socio-economic, socio-political, socio-intellectual] I have experienced.

Until death doeth me apart, I will continue in the lane of “Strong Women” and “Out-of-the-Box” people. I will not apologize for my critical thinking mind.

We All Have Prejudices, We just Don’t Admit or Know It!

Recently during my son’s Tae-Kwon-Do class, I had a conversation with the other Tae-Kwon mom. Only my son and his kid showed up for class. As is usually the case on Friday, most kids/parents take off the day. I loved Friday Tae-Kwon-Do classes because we get full monopoly of the teacher, when only a few of us show up! My son gets to sharpen up more on our skills. Hopefully, I too, can start Tae-Kwon-Do classes next year, Ensh’allah!
N’way, the Tae-Kwon-Do mom has a three-month old brand new baby. Gorgeous! Of course, we wandered into “baby talk”; what else is expected of mommies smitten with new babies! She told me, baby does not latch on the boobie, so she expresses most of the time and put her on the bottle, while still trying to get her some “boobie time”.
Which reminded me of the “New Moms Classes” I attended at the hospital where I had my baby. All we did was hangout in a room with other new mommies, and exchange “joys and nightmares” our new little humans were bringing unto us. It was a great way to get out of the house, expand your social network, while getting useful tips on parenting, child care and new baby deals. Sometimes, we invited each other out to potlucks in our homes or for a group stroll in the park with our babies.
Personally, I got much more than dinner and a stroll in the park. It was my first face to face with babies who could not latch onto boobies, and mothers who honestly need help with breastfeeding their babies. I must admit, hitherto, I had my prejudices toward women who said they had trouble breastfeeding their new ones. I assumed those were “white people problems” or “lazy mothers excuses” or mothers trying to find excuses not to breastfeed their babies. True, I had heard some expectant mothers in my prenatal classes say that they were not planning to breastfeed because they did not want their breasts to sag. Or that their breasts were for their men!
Don’t we all have prejudices, anyway? Many we hate to admit or are not aware of, as my case illustrates! Think about Charlie Hebdo Cartoons, Race in America, Abilities, Disabilities and Satire, which are all heated debates within the global public.
Back to breastfeeding, that was never a concern I personally encountered growing up or as a new mother. I was breastfed, and all of my siblings. Growing up as the youngest girl in my family, all my sisters [except one] had children before me. All breastfeed their children, except my eldest sister, who barely breastfed her first child, as she had to return to college to sit her examinations. I do not recall any any of my sisters complaining about “difficulty breastfeeding” or “baby latching on”, including my sister who had her first child at fifteen. It all appeared simple and natural! When my turn came around as a new mother, at no point did I experience difficult, pain nor baby failing to latch on. In fact my child latched on soon as he was handed to me to breastfeed in the delivery room. He never at anyone time failed to find that boobie, in darkness or sunlight, sleepy or awake, tired or relaxed! He was an “A+ trooper” at breastfeeding!
But not all my new mom friends had the same fortune with their little ones. Some had nipple issues, others complained about babies bitting them or disinterested. My Tae-Kwon-Do mom friend said her daughter latched on early postpartum, subsequently sliding off and showing disinterest in the breast. Not a fan of substituting with formula, she is expressing her milk and bottle-feeding, while continuing to keep her interested in “boobie time”. Bless her heart!
Similarly, if you grow up around people who look like you, it could be hard not to take life for granted. If every child in you know of found the breast even in the dark and breasted till s/he weaned self off, learned to sit, crawl, walk and talk and hit all other development milestones on time, walked on two legs, had no stutter, eat, played and slept just fine, that is your truth. It is easy to take those abilities for granted, without recognizing, as I increasingly learn, that many kids are born with autism, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell Anaemia, epilepsy, and many other developmental delays. If these kids are raised outside “mainstream society”, denied a chance into formal schooling, or segregated into own classrooms, it is easy not to acknowledge their existence or special needs. Though, my experience working in Special Needs classrooms has opened me to the advantages of providing “specialized spaces”, where they can freely express themselves without the encumbrances imposed by ‘normal’ societal expectations, demands and humiliation!
And, bless the hearts of those who do not see race as a problem in America! While there are outright racists, some are simply blind to their racist actions, reactions, thoughts or tendencies, until it hits close to heart. Recent wave of police killing of unarmed black men have further highlighted the divide in understanding and acknowledging racism in America. There is a section of folks who argue that such incidences would not have happened, if #MichaelBrown did not rob a convenience store or confront the police, #EricGarner was not illegally selling cigarettes on the streets or that 12-year old TamirRice was not wielding a toy gun in a public park.
Yet, Eric Garner was not resisting arrest when the NYPD chocked him to death on July 17, 2014 on Staten Island. Let’s talk about 17-year old ’skitties-weilding’ #TrayvonMartin, shot and killed by Michael Zimmerman or #JordanDavis killed by Michael Dunn over loud rap music, both killers self-appointed vigilantes exercising their Florida state-given right to #standyourground.
Haven’t we heard white folks bearing arms openly, then arguing with the police, walk away without being hit to the grown, detained or shot at? While, #MarcusJeter did not resist arrest, when New Jersey cops swerved into his SUV, causing him to hit his head on the steering wheel, assaulted him physically and verbally, lied about him trying to steal their gun, then turned around to charge him with eluding police, resisting arrest and aggravated assault on an officer.  No!
 
So, No! #Blacklivesdontmatter! Nor does Satire speak one universal language! Manufacturing concern about the wellbeing of the most vulnerable, marginalized and underrepresented in our society, from everybody will always be an uphill battle and insurmountable, because we as a people will never be offended by the same thing at the same time. Hate speech is as relative as freedom of expression or freedom of speech. Not everyone is or will ever be CharlieHebdo or AmedyCoulibaly at the same time. In fact, some will never be either, because both feet are not in the same place at the same time. So, whereas the Swedes interviewed on the streets for their reaction to Charlie Hebdo cartoons may excuse the caricature of other people’s eminent personalities as part of life’s opportunities to laugh off, I suspect they may not LOL [Laugh Out Loud] when the subject of caricature is their mother, father, other loved one of themselves.
Perhaps if we acknowledged our prejudices, recognized that we do not know it all, and opened ourselves to learn, reflect and internalize beyond our comfort zone, the world might start to become a better place.

Kids are Cultural “Whores”: Wait, can you say the “W” with Kids…?

It is amazing how quickly kids switch cultural identify. Well, if like me, you believe that “language is culture”, that’s what I am talking about. Last summer we returned to the US, after three-and-a-half years globetrotting. We left the US immediately following my child’s first birthday, for a much deserved break and scholarly experience around the world.
About last Fall, I noticed my child’s accent changing, become less  “Ugandan” and more “American”. My friends did not help me feel better; they said it would be gone by December. I felt a ‘teeny weeny sadness’, at the thought that my son would no longer “be a Ugandan” with ‘the brand’ accent gone. Alas! I have not been good at making the accent stay! I did not realize how tough it is to teach a child another language in another country with a predominant language. Especially with my multi-national child: African [by ancestry] and American [by birth and ancestry].
Power to parents who succeed at nurturing multi-lingual/multi-national children. Sadly, not many of us Africans are good at keeping children fluent in our first languages, especially when born or raised abroad, but even when born and resident in our own countries to same nationals or foreigners. We get into the stupid “western culture superiority” complex, and deny our children a chance to become fluent in our Africans languages, arguably because ‘they will not develop’ or ‘compete in the globalized world’. Forgetting that we were born and raised speaking our mother tongue, or of parents who spoke our mother tongue.
Yet, many like me, become surprised that our children are ‘losing our culture’ or are becoming culturally distant and lost! I am always shocked when talking to my child, that recollection of our time spent in Uganda are not forthcoming! At times, he cannot even remember part of my family, the playmates he had, we had bathrooms or a kitchen, or that we ate food similar to what we have here in America. The worst, but without blame, he does not remember that we lived in South Africa (before Uganda) during the last couple of years abroad.
So, I decided to give him a “Lesson about South Africa” while we were at our local library recently. I pulled out a book, “South Africa by Pat Ryan”, which talked about how “Africans lived happily” [of course there is an element of romanticization typical of a western writers about Africa]. Then white folks came to South Africa and began fighting with the blacks, took their land, culminating in a system of “Apartheid”, where whites lived, worked, played segregated from blacks.  Black people became poorer than whites, lived in terrible housing, and could not shop in the same places as whites. I showed him the grass thatched huts where black people lived, and still live in the countryside; he thought they were “Weird”.  [btw, thanks to this young man, my love for the word “weird” no more!]; I showed him clothing of f the black people made with beads, which was strange, as well as the men racing on Ostriches. That made him laugh so hard! Well, at least he laughed; which means he learned something, right?
We discussed the book after reading, and I asked him what he had learned from the book. He told me that “brown” [not “black”] people were poor, while white people were rich. “Why did he swooped “black” with “brown”?” I asked him. He said, “Black is like darkness, when you cannot see properly or like the black shoes. But the people in the book were not black; they were brown.” I asked him, whether he knew of any black people, and he said, “I am black.”[ If you know my son, he is not “black like darkness”.] Surprising to me, since he has thought of himself as white, until our conversation not to long ago, about “black-and-white” in America’s racial conception.
Kids are smart ‘cultural whores’; telling it as it is, using their wit to make sense of nonsensical labels. To him identity is defined by color not the labeled per race. He sees brown, chocolate, and pink, He has protested before when I said his playmate “C”, classmates “M” and “S” are white, because “they do not look as white as paper,” he said. For now, he has accepted that label, since the conversation with mom following a class reading about Martin Luther King Jr.
Anyway, happy to inspire a young generation of thinkers, readers and critics. We hope that the reality of his eyes is followed by the reality of race relations when he comes of age. I hope he does not become a victim of racial profiling and racial injustice blatantly metted out against black folks in America, particularly our young black males. I think I am doing all I can to keep him openminded, culturally international in thoughts, ideas and experiences, and innocent to the brutality of life. Yes, I do agree to myself sometimes that “Ignorance is Bliss”!
Still, as a parent of a young black male growing up in America, particularly suburbia America, I worry very often whether this country will allow him to live and grow up without the preconceived injustices? Will he still be that “cute boy” at 12, 13, 14, free to skate around the neighborhood without anybody calling the police on him? Or would he be a sense of uncomfortable curiosity, that even the neighborhood dogs bark uncontrollable at him, just like they do with me. Would he still comfortably ware his jacket or sweatshirt hood over his head? Or walk in the neighborhood without an encounter from nasty neighbors. I believe this is the beginning of a lifelong education about the American culture, that he so innocently takes on as part of him, but that one day, he will fully recognize that it labels him [in fact labeled him since childhood], as a person to be feared, dreaded and be monitored all the time! Perhaps then, he won’t have as much luxury to ‘whore up’ this American culture, and would have to find another geographical and culture to experience and become a part of….?

Not Everyone is Sophie, John, Jane or Matt: Diversity Consciousness in the Classroom

Recently, I was at an teacher training workshop, where the speaker for a session on “Qualities of a Good Substitute Teacher” mentioned the importance of identifying and connecting one-on-one with pupils in the classroom. In explaining why a teacher should know her students by name, she mentioned Sophie, John, Jane or Matt, as the four names off-the-cuffs in her classroom example. 

For me, that triggered something about the ingrained assumptions teachers might make about their students profile. Many of the assumptions reveal conceptions and misconceptions derived from one’s ‘comfort zone’ and surroundings. My assumption is the speaker comes from an ‘environment’ where most children are either Sophie, John, Jane or Matt. Or perhaps her education background was filled with students that fit such profile. That in a way creates an “illusive comfort” that knowing the profile of one’s classroom correlates with being in touch with the needs and special circumstances of each student. Yet, in a classroom environment, each child needs to be acknowledged and catered for/ included to their comfort.

How does a diversity conscious teacher make the classroom experience all inclusive for each one of these children? I asked myself the same question during a visit to the area elementary school. Of the two classrooms I observed: 1) First Grade class had one black kid, a young girl called Hannah; all the other kids were visibly white. 2) A Third Grade all-white classroom. Both classrooms had white teachers, as was the School Principal, and all the school staff I came in contact with.

I am not saying there is anything wrong with an all-white school, if that is the general population around the school district. My concern is whether and how children of other colors in the same school are included in a predominantly-white classroom. Particularly given the potential influence of the preschool experiences and home environment on shaping knowledge formation, knowledge generation, teaching aides and one’s comfort with the teaching and learning environment. In many places, the classroom environment has evolved beyond, S, J, J or M, the typical ‘blonde and blue-eyed’ and Judeo-Christian, thanks to desegregation and immigration of the Abequa, Biko, Horacios, Happy, Ijeomas, Lakisha, Özil and Muhammad into the same classroom. Our classrooms today represent children of varied backgrounds as immigrants, children of immigrants, first generation or generations of American-born or native to this country. They bring varied experiences from their homes, communities and experiences, all of which need to be represented for an enriched classroom experience.

Going back to Hannah, the only black girl in the First Grade classroom I visited. She seemed comfortable with her classroom and classmates, but had another story not visibly captured in the teaching aides and classroom environment I observed. While checking on her writing assignment, she read to me her story about her best friend, “I like playing with my best friend Usnuah!” To me, there was a different story with friendships not represented by SJJM. I wondered if her teachers take time to learn about Hannah’s friends, family and neighbors! Or whether she is offered a chance to share her ‘unique’ family and community background in a predominantly white classroom!

That is not to suggest that all white kids have the same family experience, although their differences [while paramount] are not as visible to the eye as Hannah. Moreover, when we got to engage with “disabilities”,  five students with varied developmental disabilities were ‘paraded’ in front of our seminar room, so we could ask questions for ‘our learning pleasure”. Perhaps the intentions were innocent, but the scenario reminded me of times when black people were caricatures of white audiences as, ‘strange’ study subjects, ‘caged entertainers’ [Sarah Baartman aka Venus Hottentot], the “Human Zoo” [most recently replicated in Norway], entrainment at lynching picnics popular in the South. And up until now, through international aid campaigns and hollywood movies that depict “the black victim” awaiting a ‘white savior”. Interestingly as well, our diversity trainer did not find anything controversial with showing a clip from the movie “Blind Side” to make her point about ‘developmental disability.

Which brings me to another topic covered about English Language Learners (ELLs), the now politically correct replacement of “English as a Second Learning”. The change was pre-empted after realizing that while ESL focused predominantly on immigrants and immigrant children, ELL recognized that some US-born children come from households where English is not the first. The basic assumption, as stated during the seminar was that [first-generation/immigrants] children “have difficulty learning not just English but the entire school curriculum.”

Granted there is truth to it, but with misguided assumptions that: 1) Simply because one does not speak English, they therefore, do not understand anything nor have sound knowledge to contribute to their classroom experience. 2) English Language Speakers are conversant with the English Language and do not need enhancement classes, which as a writing coach is not true.

I work with full-blooded American school children, those whose parents, grandparents, great grandparents and great great grandparents and beyond were born in America. Yet, it is appalling that they cannot spell a simple word like “Pail” in Third Grade! I have found out that their school did not teach ‘phonics’, which I believe is great language learning tool. Nor are they offered English Language ‘Enhancement Classes’ at the Charter School they attend. Yet with ‘diversity’ more focused on ‘cultural’ and ‘developmental’ differences, such cases are fall out of the cracks of ‘special needs education’.

A diversity conscious teacher should ably pay attention to the non-verbal cues from their students, cater to their different needs, reach out and appeal to them, to make each one of her/his students feel included. Perhaps it starts with diversity training, which recognizes the changing needs of a classroom beyond the ’traditional’ diversities of “black or white” in America. There are multiple layers of diversity including physical or mental abilities, race, sex, geographical origin, family background, household and cultural ancestry. Today, classrooms composition includes children of immigrants, first generation Americans or migrant workers, Native American children, Muslim children,  inner-city kids.
Continued and refresher teacher training seminars would be helpful, as well as exposure to varied scenarios that stimulate “diversity awareness” and ultimately “diversity consciousness”. I thought for a minute, during my training, “Wouldn’t it be more powerful if the trainer on “diversity” were a minority? Yes, I am aware that white women in White America are included among the ‘minority groups’, but since the session focused on ‘civil rights’ and ‘disabilities’, a ‘racial minority’ or ‘personal with a disability’ as facilitator would have made a greater visible impact.

Diversity Consciousness would enable teachers and school administrators to understand that, immigrant children and children of immigrant parents might not actively engage in classroom discussions due to deferring cultural learnings about social interaction and authority. Immigrants from countries where authority is hierarchical might not engage as much with their children’s classroom teacher(s) ‘out of respect’ for the teacher or fear of challenging what in their upbringing is an ‘authority figure’ and ‘expert’ in their child[ren] education. I learned from working with Japanese graduate students as a Writing Tutor that it is not in their habit to actively participate in classroom discussions because it is considered rude to challenge ‘seniority’ in Japanese culture. One of my students settled for a lower class grade, even when he knew his response on a classroom test was correct because he did not want to challenge his professor that his response resonated with the experience of his home country. Diversity Consciousness needs starts with the school administration, selection of teacher or substitute teacher trainers, program administrators, school teaching staff and all organs in the school system in daily contact with our children.

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