Stop Promoting Racism with Your Tragic Mulatto

 

miss mulatto

So I’m scrolling through Facebook minding my own Biracial Black and Blewish bizness when a Black woman posts subtle snark about a contestant on Jermaine Dupri’s new rap competition show who calls herself Miss Mulatto.

The commenters weighed in with presumptuous slings of #TragicMulatto, along with virtual side-eyes, teeth-sucking and freely expressed contempt at the young rapper’s choice of label. Which made me realize that it’s time to speak up and out against Black people identity policing us. Not because it’s offensive or hurts our feelings, but because when Black people perpetuate the #Tragic Mulatto stereotype and disdain our claims to self-identify, even with the locked-and-loaded, perpetually controversial M-word, they are inadvertently feeding White Supremacy.

Dear Black People:

I am reaching out with love and respect to request that you STOP identity policing us Black/White Biracial people. We are all well aware of the history of folks like us in this country, and throughout the Diaspora of Africans who were enslaved by White people. We know that most Black women were routinely raped by White oppressors, and that many Biracial/Mixed/Mulatto children were born from that horrific trauma. We know this created the hierarchy of light-skinned privilege—as in, often we were assigned to work in the Big House rather than the field—that still exists today. We are fully aware of colorism and how it appears to operate in our favor when in reality it works against us—the Biracial us, the Black us, the global us. Those deeply-rooted, underlying tensions are part of what keeps us from unifying and truly joining forces, working together for the greater good.

So this is a plea to just stop!

What I’ve experienced for the six-plus decades that I’ve been speaking up from my POV is that people in general and Black people in particular (because, truthfully, unless and until the topic bumps up on them in a personal way, few White people pay us much attention or care about how we self-identify), are accustomed to and therefore comfortable with being in charge of our identities.

And the problem with this is?

one drop rule

On the one hand, Black people like to cite the slavery-based “rule” that anybody with a single drop of Black blood is Black to demand our allegiance. On the other hand, a great many Black/White Biracial people are insulted, chastised, challenged and often rejected by Black people in their youth as “not really Black,” or “not Black enough.” When these mixed messages (pun intended) cause us to experience some very real cultural dissonance and/or ambivalence, we are quickly labeled “confused” about our identities. Of course, we’re not the ones who are confused—but you can read all about that in my upcoming memoir.

We’ve never been in charge of the language that is used to identify us in the USA. I grew up with the term Mixed which I still prefer because it is inclusive of any and all Mixed folks, and unlike Biracial, it doesn’t sound like a failed science experiment. I use the term Biracial because it’s popular in the lexicon, but I hate it, mainly because nobody asked ME what I wanted to be called or gave me a list of potential labels from which to choose. Which brings us to the uzi of Mixed-race labels: Mulatto.

I discovered the term Mulatto in my youth, back when research took place in libraries. I loved the musicality of the word, and the feel of it rolling off my tongue. And the first thing I read was that it is said to be a derogatory Spanish term comparing us to little mules, or asses. M’kay. Nothing surprising about that, considering the overall context of enslavement throughout the Diaspora, and the racism that fueled it. I wasn’t insulted; my feelings weren’t hurt. After all, White people the world over believed themselves superior to me and other folks of color. I tucked the word away like a delicious secret, loving its complex, painful backstory as much as its pretty sound.

The history of Mulatto, the caste system it represents (still in full force whether or not we want to admit it), and the rapes that created it make it easy to understand why so many Black people reflexively disdain and push back against the word. It’s painful, it’s ugly and to many, it’s divisive, at least when WE use it to refer to ourselves or others like us.

Interestingly, Black people are okay with using the term when talking about or at us, most always in a denigrating manner. So when a Mixed-race person has the audacity to claim the term and flaunt the specifics of their conception, all kinds of triggers are activated.

not tragic mulatto tee shirt

And the first thing that far too many Black people like to spit at us is the accusation that we are Tragic. I’ve been fighting that stereotype for decades. As a young child, I sent a reprimanding letter and poetic clapback to my literary hero Langston Hughes upon discovering that he was promoting the Tragic Mulatto stereotype. So I have had decades of experience in this realm.  (You can read all about it in my upcoming memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Confessions of a Racial Outlaw).

It seems that the concept of the Tragic Mulatto was created by White novelists and filmmakers in the early 1900s, promoting the idea that we are inherently tragic because we  are only half and not fully White, and defined by the fact that dwe hate and are repulsed by Black people and culture.

The Tragic Mulatto caught on with both Black and White folks, and was further popularized in White author Fannie Hurst’s novel, Imitation of Life, and the two hit movies of the same title—even though the allegedly Mulatto character was told by her Black mama that she was NOT Mixed—her daddy was “just real light-skinned.” But details be damned–the much-beloved stereotype was in full effect.

The problem is that obviously these White folk created and were promoting a super-racist stereotype that has, until the last couple years, been the SOLE interpretation of Black/White people—especially women—in American history, literature, culture or art.

But the mold was set, with White and Black Americans alike swallowing the propaganda of our deep misery hook, line and sinker. This allowed both groups to make prejudicial assumptions about any person born of a Black/White union, while distancing us as inherently problematic, and looking down upon us as naturally inferior. And many Biracial people, not having any other representation or point of reference, end up embracing it for themselves. Racism and White Supremacy shoot and score!

You see, the real tragedy deep down in the hearts and minds of both White and Black  Americans, is that in the present context and discounting instances of rape, our parents CHOSE to come together, were mutually attracted to each other and decided to have sex, knowing they ran the risk of procreating.

 

cheerios family

Cheerios knew that showing a Black/White interracial family would push buttons and create controversy.

Despite many Americans’ claims that they are all kumbaya with Black/White interracial couplings, there is still a lot of resentment and discomfort around the actual fact of it. This is proven when a child comes into the picture, and people immediately start projecting their prejudicial notions, fears and fantasies upon us. Then they want to claim that WE are confused, rejected and Tragic. Mind you, this is a conversation they have only with themselves and others like them. Rarely do they ask us to share our stories, our truths, our realities, or respect our right to self-identify, since it collides with their preconceived notions and rules about what we are supposed to do.

So the FB friend and her friends’ sophisticated, educated snark about a 17-year-old Biracial rapper forcing folks to deal with the realities of her conception and identity by calling herself Miss Mulatto (which seems to me a pretty tame moniker in the overall rap/hip hop genre) reveals a few things:

  1. Most Black people believe they are in charge of identity policing us Mixis, determining what we should be called and how we should self-identify
  2. These same Black people would not like it if we tried to do the same to them
  3. Blacks and Whites are so accustomed to centuries of talking at and about us that the notion of our speaking up is strange and uncomfortable for them. It’s so rare, in fact, that sometimes it’s uncomfortable for us too!

But My People, we are in the 21st century.

It is time for Black people to stop feeding racism and White Supremacy by perpetuating the Tragic Mulatto mythology. While we might not have spoken up in the past, we are here now and we will not be backing down or shutting up. Newsflash: you no longer have to police our identities. We’ve got this. Trust me. You might not like how we go about it, or the dynamics of each individual’s life and identity choices, but it’s time to cross that off your list of what you’re responsible for overseeing. Take us or leave us on an individual basis—based not on what you presume because of some racist stereotypes from days long past—but on the truths, however uncomfortable and seemingly convuluted, that we bring to the table.

If and when we use the term Mulatto, understand that we have our reasons. Maybe ASK us about that rather than assuming you know and comin’ for us based on your assumptions. Chances are, we’ve been waiting a very long time to be invited into the conversations about us. Even if you disagree, it’s past time to turn a monologue into a dialogue.

mutts like me

AND…unless you were upset when POTUS Obama—in his very first news conference after the 2008 election—referred to himself and by extension, the rest of us Mixed folks as mutts, then you are disqualified from getting riled up about our use of Mulatto. (That historic moment is why I’m writing the dang memoir in the first place. Read the first few chapters for FREE! ).

Speaking of POTUS Obama, you might have noticed that our self-identification is not always one-dimensional. We can be Mixed/Biraclal AND Black, or any other thing that suits us. Our doing so does not mean we are in denial, delusional or rejecting any part of ourselves. It doesn’t mean that we think we’re cuter/smarter/inherently better than Black people, despite propaganda to the contrary.

Just as there is zero consensus in the Black American community about whether folks prefer to be called Black or African American, we can all learn to live with the ambiguity and fluidity of Mixed-race identity and the various terms we embrace (with the exception of mutt). Maybe next time, rather than assuming, you’ll ask. Maybe rather than flinging your presumptions at us, you’ll listen when we speak. And maybe you’ll stretch your worldview to accept that one young woman calling herself Miss Mulatto is not proof of anybody’s tragedy anywhere, nor is a threat to the strength, beauty or value of Black people in the USA or anywhere on the planet.

We need you to stop identity policing, because it is distracting us from coming together to work on the far more urgent issues around those other kinds of policing. Let’s not alienate each other when solidarity could mean the difference between life and death. If I didn’t accept it from Langston Hughes, I’m damn sure not gonna let anybody else–icon or mortal–get away with it. He didn’t know any better. I’m willing to invest in the possibility that others can grow into greater awareness and help us move forward.

Because the only tragedies that matter are racism and White Supremacy. And we can never slay those dragons if we’re sweating the small stuff, assuming rather than asking, and contributing to petty divisiveness in service of the forces that refuse to recognize our humanity, no matter what we’re calling ourselves or each other.

Onelove. ‘Nuff respect. Peace out.

TaRessa in red

If you liked (or hated) this, PLEASE contribute to my crowdfunding for the SWIRL GIRL memoir. It is time for ALL of us to tell our truths, share our stories, bring our voices and our visions to the world. Your support would mean absolutely everything!

 

What Everyone Needs to Understand About Taye Diggs Saying He Doesn’t Want His #BLEWISH Son to Identify as Black

taye and walker

Okay, so actor Taye Diggs says that he doesn’t want his young son, Walker, 6, to self-identify as Black and the internet explodes.

Why is that?

Biracial identity is often a hotly contested topic—especially when the Biracial person in question is a mix of Black and White in the USA. (Walker’s mother and Diggs’ ex, singer Idina Menzel, is Jewish and I don’t technically count Jews as White, but for the purposes of this discussion, we’ll group her in that general category).

Black/White Biracial identity is ALWAYS controversial in a racist environment (pretty much the whole planet). It’s frequently a big deal, and many people—especially Black people, White people and B/W Biracial people—have strong opinions about how we Mulatto types choose to self-identify.

Firm, forceful opinions that often collide and clash and sometimes cancel each other out in the perpetual warzone of Black vs. White that is the foundation of this nation’s cultural and societal dynamics.

Some ridicule any suggestion that we are other than Black; others consider those who do identify as Black as rejecting their White side. Neither of these notions is completely accurate, but they’re popular because the people expressing them don’t understand the real dynamics that go into shaping our identities.

mixed me

So Diggs makes this statement, guaranteed to generate headlines, and perhaps not coincidentally, promote his new children’s book, Mixed Me! Controversy sells, and this brouhaha over Diggs’ stated preference about his son’s identity obscures the fact that he is in NO way qualified to be writing a book or even talking about being something that he has never experienced and cannot possibly understand. Being the parent of a Mixed child is one thing, but it doesn’t confer any expertise upon the parent related to how said child might choose to culturally affiliate or self-identify. It simply means that, assuming that Walker is Diggs’ only Biracial child, he has a few years of interracial parenting under his belt. So he is qualified to write about that. But not anything about being Mixed.

chocolate me

It was appropriate for him to write his earlier children’s book, Chocolate Me!, about his own life experience. He mentioned this when responding to the backlash about his statement that for Walker to self-identify as Black means he would be rejecting or ignoring or disrespecting his “White” ancestry.

He also mentioned that he made that public statement about Walker’s potential future choices because he had LISTENED to Biracial people talk about their experiences and choices. I want to pause and give Diggs a STANDING OVATION for that alone. Because very few people of any race or background—particularly Black or White—want to hear what we have to say. And while they feel free to beat us over the head with their feelings and views, they rarely ask us questions or seek our opinion, even though this topic is clearly all about us and our choices.

I realize this is because our speaking up is so new and unusual as to cause cultural dissonance, even among those who are closest to us. They’re accustomed to talking about us and to us, and most of all AT us, having appointed themselves the authorities on the topic of our identities. But the notion that we might not only talk back, let alone insist that we are in charge of our identities without any input or permission from them often seems to cause shock and dismay. And sometimes even anger.

So YES, we are pausing here to give Diggs all the credit and love for not only listening to people who represent his son’s experience, but factoring what they shared into his own public opinion.

How-some-ever…

What Diggs—and many of the people sharing their very strong opinions about his very strong opinion—might not realize is that it is simply not his place, nor his parental duty, to try to impact how Walker self-identifies, regardless of the choices that the boy makes as he grows up.

Yes. I. Said. It.

Many of the Blackfolks in my FB world reacted, predictably, by slamming Diggs as a self-hating denier of his own Blackness. But here’s the thing. In my life experience growing up in one of our country’s leading havens of Black/White interracial coupling, I assure you that it is not unusual for the Black partner in such a union to express these feelings. I’ve never seen or conducted official scientific research, but many folks view themselves as having created someone who is “more than Black” while being “less Black.” Yet the fluidity of their child’s identity choices seems something they want to clamp down on and control.

Let me emphasize here that this is some Blackfolk who mate and procreate interracially—NOT all of them. But I grew up hearing the popular notion that there was something inherently wrong with self-identifying as Black if you’re Mixed with non-Black ancestry on one hand, and that you were in denial and contributing to the national erasure of blackness if you did acknowledge that other ancestry.

So for me, it’s an old familiar song, one that young Walker Diggs will likely come to know well. And yet it is SO not the focus of the conversation. As my son, a Multi-generational Mixie, shared with me, Diggs is well-intentioned but missing the point because WHATEVER form of self-identification either parent pushes, Walker will predictably rebel against it as a normal, natural and healthy part of individuating as he grows into his own person.

That is the takeaway I offer here for parents of B/W Biracial children: while it might seem like a good idea, trying to impact, define, control, influence or police your child’s racial identity and cultural affiliation not only isn’t your job, it’s really none of your business. And it’s pretty much guaranteed to backfire and work against you and your relationship with your child once they’re grown.

You see, we don’t fashion our sense of self based on what our parents—or anybody—instructs us to do. Nor should we! As the authors of our own identities, we are the only ones who really have a say, and our decisions are ours alone to make and to live with. As any parent with children in or past their teens knows, the only thing that all children are guaranteed to do is to push back, reject, and rebel against whatever you try to force down their throats.

BUT WAIT, many of you are thinking…Walker is/will be viewed and treated as Black in a racist society.

Yes, that is a true and obvious fact. Even if he’s light-skinned with the “awesome” hair (pause here for an eye-roll) which Diggs mentions first thing in the book. And that is the other part of the equation that is so vital for parents, caregivers, grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins, etc. of B/W Biracial people to know: how they might self-identify as they grow and once they’re grown never negates the fact that they MUST learn to understand the political realities of navigating racism as someone who is part of the Black collective in a racist environment.

Even if they don’t visually appear Black or choose not to affiliate in any way with Black people or culture once they’re grown, they absolutely need to know the truth about racism, to understand it as an objective reality. They need to know how to navigate the complexities, nuances, contradictions, booby traps and hidden bombs in the minefield of racism. Period. No exceptions. THAT is where Diggs needs to focus.

Fortunately, my #BLEWISH sisterfriend, Lisa Williamson Rosenberg, a psychotherapist specializing in these issues, appeared on NBC in New York to lend some real expertise to the chatter, along with famously #BLEWISH filmmaker Lacey Schwartz. So at least one media outlet had the good sense to go to the source for an opinion, though their inclusion of Ebony.com Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux suggested that they didn’t quite consider the opinions of two brilliant and accomplished Biracial women sufficient without also repping the “official Black” point-of-view.

If Diggs is wise he will realize, as all parents do, that Walker is here to teach him, and not the other way around. And maybe Diggs will learn that the best thing he can do for Walker is to write and speak and honor HIS truths and experience rather than trying to influence how the world sees his son, or how his son views himself.

We look forward to seeing how Walker schools his daddy when the time comes. Meanwhile, I might send the kid a #BLEWISH tee-shirt to help that process along.

Qualifying for the Slurs

“I’m embarrassed by how race is treated in the Jewish community.” –Ben Faulding

Image

Ben Faulding wears the word that expresses his identity insecurity in Steve Rosenfield’s provocative “Jews of New York What I Be Project.”

Sometimes your Ancestry collides with life in the nexus of conflict and contradiction.

And the force of that collision is summed up in a single word.

“The potentially inflammatory pejorative ‘schvartze’ — the Yiddish word likened to the N word — was scrawled across the forehead of … Ben Faulding, a 30-year-old Biracial Hasid from Crown Heights whose father is Black,” wrote acclaimed #Blewish journalist Simone Weischselbaum, for the New York Daily News.

The image of Ben Faulding, with schvartze painted on his forehead, is the question, the answer, the thesis, antithesis and synthesis. It’s bloody chains and swastikas. Middle passage and pogroms. Holocausts–plural--blossoming into the PTSD that snakes through our DNA.

When you are born and live at the intersection of two contested tribal identities–African American and Jewish–you know that even though some Jews fought in, supported in and died in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, the one core rule to attaining the “White” status granted to immigrants who play the assimilation game is that you must consider Blackpeople less than whatever you happen to be. And your password into the club is a slur.

Ben Faulding wasn’t attacked—he volunteered his forehead as canvas for Steve Rosenfield’s “Jews of New York What I Be Project,” featuring photos of young people with provocative words and phrases written on their bodies. Rosenfield selected the messages based on interviews with each subject.

Schvartze” on Faulding’s brown forehead captures the “squeeze” of being born to warring tribes. In the hierarchy of Jewish religious practice, Hasids are at the top—considered the most devout, literal practitioners of the faith. Though Faulding identifies as Hasid, he can’t escape the racism in his tribe.

The image, Faulding told the Daily News, “’[Is]…about me expressing my insecurities. I am embarrassed how race is treated in the Jewish community … It’s completely personal,’” he added. “’I didn’t expect it to spread.’”

It spread because it represents not just Ben Faulding’s situation, and the well-documented beef between Blacks and Hasidic Jews in Crown Heights, Brooklyn over the years. It also represents Israel’s apartheid-like treatment, of Ethiopian Jews and Black, non-Jewish migrants from other parts of the African continent hoping for asylum in “the Holy Land.”

As Haaretz Jewish World News reported in the piece, ‘A Schvartze is a Schvartze is a Schvartze—Affirmative Action for Ethiopian Jews, “4000 Ethiopian Jews died in 1983-85 trying to reach Israel. Some were murdered. Many starved to death. Many more died of dysentery and other diseases … Still, to Orthodox Jews (except for parts of Bnei Akiva and Shas), especially Israeli haredim and American Orthodox Jews of all affiliations, Ethiopian Jews are simply schvartes, with all the negative connotations that word implies.”

Some Israeli people aren’t too happy about non-Jewish Black Africans either. As Independent journalist and filmmaker David Sheen, who documents anti-African racism in Israel, reports, “…May 23, 2013, marked exactly one year to the day when a thousand Jewish Israelis ran rampant through the streets of Tel Aviv, smashing and looting African-operated businesses and physically assaulting any dark-skinned person they came across. Sadly, the Israeli economic, political and religious establishment – who were in large measure responsible for the pogrom – did not respond by working to quash the racism, but rather ramped up their efforts to expel all non-Jewish African people from the country.”

Watch the video

I feel squeezed to near-suffocation when I see news reports of Israelis acting like they’re in the Ku Klux Klan, screaming, “I’m proud to be a racist. It is our right to be racist,” and “We don’t need to wait…round them up!” at anti-African rallies.

And the few Israelis who stand up for the Black Africans are met with comments like, “May you be raped!” “I’ll stick a pole up your ass,” and “You’re married to a nigg**–get out!”

None of this is surprising, given Israel’s relationship with Palestinians or the United Nations’ occasional claims that “Zionism is racism.” But I view that conflict through a political lens, knowing that my financial support as a US taxpayer trumps any opinions I might have about that apartheid. I feel Israel’s treatment of Ethiopian Jews and non-Jewish Black Africans much more personally.

Wherever I go, just as in America I am branded nig***, in any Jewish context on the planet, I am a schvartze. While there are levels of Judaism, I don’t see levels of nig***-ism—not here, not in Israel, not anywhere in the world.

Those universally recognized code words for White Supremacy have only one meaning:

“I  am better than you, I am in power, and I always will be. You are dirt, you are scum, you are less-than-human.”

These slurs words contain the whistle-and-sting of whips, the clang of chains, the hiss of skin split open, and the collective agony of unhealed wounds. We are branded by every letter, every syllable, and every message they bear. Ben Faulding has the courage to broadcast the “squeeze” he finds in his personal crossroads and contradictions.

So while folk on both sides debate whether we #Blewish folk qualify to self-identify as Black or Jewish according to their ever-shifting “rules,” one thing is clear: we sho ‘nuff qualify for the slurs—undiluted, uncut, unambiguous—each and every time.

 

Is Sophie Okonedo the first #Blewish Tony Winner?

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The 2014 Tony Awards were mighty chocolate, with five big wins celebrating The Great Black Way.

  • Kenny Leon for Best Direction of a New Play (A Raisin in the Sun)
  • Audra McDonald for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play (Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill)
  • James Monroe Iglehart for Best Performance by an Actor in a Featured Role in a Musical (Aladdin)
  • A Raisin in the Sun for Best Revival of a Play

Image

And best of all: #Blewish Sophie Okonedo for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role—Denzel Washington’s wife, Ruth, in A Raisin in the Sun.

“In a gracious, emotional speech, [Okonedo) thanked producer Scott Rudin, who ‘somehow had the vision that a Jewish Nigerian Brit could come over the pond and play one of America’s most iconic parts,'” reports the Jewish new site, Jewcy.

Watch the video

“Okonedo, who is a graduate of London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, was born to a Jewish mother and a Nigerian father. She attended a Reform synagogue in London with her Yiddish-speaking grandparents, who were immigrants from Eastern Europe.” Read more

Please join me in sending Sophie a heartfelt “Mazel to the Tov” for bringing #Blewish flava to the Tony Awards!

 

A Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder in the Land of Civil Rights

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When I couldn’t find a #Blewish Seder in Atlanta, I did the next best thing: took my son Calvin, 22, to a Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder in The Temple, a local synagogue.

The Atlanta-slash-Black Jewish Coalition has held this event on alternate years since 1982, when they forged an alliance to ensure that the Voting Rights Act was renewed, and stayed together ever since.

ImageThis Seder was held 11 days before Passover, on Thursday, April 3, to honor the eve of the 46th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Calvin and I had attended a Black-slash-Jewish Seder in 2007, when we lived in Montclair, NJ, a liberal, progressive town outside of New York City. My late mother, Rosalyn, came with us and as “a mother who speaks Yiddish and jazz,” (to borrow a phrase from #Blewish author Lisa Jones Brown), she was thrilled. But Calvin, then a teen, wasn’t so interested in his roots, the food was bland, and conversation stalled when I tried to explain being Black and Jewish to the folks seated at our table.

So I didn’t have high hopes for the Atlanta Seder. I knew much more about Black Atlanta than Jewish Atlanta and had next-to-no experience with Southern Jews.  I prepared to be annoyed at best, and deeply disappointed at worst.

But I was pleasantly surprised. The people at our table (a good balance of Blacks and Jews) took Calvin’s explanation of our identities in stride (perhaps because he slightly resembles famed #Blewish rapper Drake), the conversations were pleasant and the food was fantastic.

I don’t usually like matzoh balls, but theirs were superb, floating in chicken soup that rivaled my mother’s (and beat any NYC deli I’d seen). The brisket was truly divine, and I even had more than one helping of gefilte fish, which I normally avoid. In a nod to Black culture, fried chicken sat next to the brisket, and there was a side of mashed sweet potatoes.

The heart of a Seder is The Haggadah–a script for a choreographed ritual meal. Haggadahs can vary widely in style and tone. This one, read by Father Jeffrey Ott, O.P., of Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church and Rabbi David Spinrad of The Temple, hit just the right notes.

Along with the traditional Jewish script (which had sufficient English translations of the Hebrew for everyone to follow along), their Haggadah included relevant quotes from Julius Lester, Bob Dylan, Nelson Mandela, Langston Hughes and Barack Obama. References to the enslavement of Black Africans were interwoven with the story of the Jewish exodus from Egyptian enslavement.

ImageAnd a sign of progress: an orange on the Seder Plate to represent gays, lesbians and others who are marginalized within the Jewish community.

Sure Calvin and I seemed to be the only #Blewish folk in the room of about 200. And there were no great moments of synthesis. But the Father and the Rabbi did a great job, the energy was positive, and it was a beautiful way to honor a moment of blending traditions in a part of the country that still bears blatant signs and attitudes of Jim Crow. As the room vibrated with the traditional song of gratitude, “Dayenu,” and the strains of the civil rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome,” I felt my mother’s spirit smile down upon us.

Every group should have the equivalent of a Seder: a yearly ritual meal where each bite symbolizes ancestral history, tradition and culture. From time to time, different groups could share their meals with people they view as different from themselves. The 2014 Atlanta Black-hyphen-Jewish Seder was still very much about the hyphen, but it was also a warm, enjoyable reminder that when people reach past barriers to break matzoh and explore commonalities, the results can be deliciously divine.

Harry B and Jay-Z: Are We Missing the Point in this So-called “Beef”?

 

 s-JAYZ-HARRY-BELAFONTE-large

What does the so-called “beef” between 86 year-old singer/actor/activist Harold George “Harry” Belafonte, Jr. (aka Harry B) and 44 year-old hip hopreneur and major cultural force Shawn Corey Carter (aka Jay-Z or Hov have to do with how we address the urgent issues consuming us today? .

First, a quick recap:

In August, 2012, Harry B was asked by The Hollywood Reporter if he was “happy with the image of members of minorities in Hollywood today.” He said,” I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example. Give me Bruce Springsteen, and now you’re talking. I really think he is black.”

(Note: I have to give a Blewish side-eye to Harry B, trying to challenge Jay-Z’s “Blackness” when he left his Black wife and children to marry a White, Jewish woman).

Beyonce

The following week, Beyonce fact-checked Harry B via the Wall Street Journal with a list  of her charitable activities.

Harry B “declined to immediately return the [Wall Street] Journal’s request for a comment.

Jay-Z remained mum about his charitable deeds, listed in Look to the Stars.

Magna Carta Holy Grail

Nearly a year later, Jay-Z responded via lyric on the “Nickles and Dimes” track of his new “Magna Carta Holy Grail” CD:

“I’m just trying to find common ground/ ‘Fore Mr. Belafonte come and chop a n*gga down/ Mr. Day O, major fail/ Respect these youngins boy, it’s my time now/ Hublot homie two door homie/ You don’t know all the sh*t I do for the homies.”

Read the full lyrics here.

 

That lyric rekindled the public debate. In response, Hov said in an interview with RapRadar that, “I felt like Belafonte he just went about it wrong.Like the way he did it in the media, and then he big’d up Bruce Springsteen or somebody. And it was like, “whoa,” you just sent the wrong message all the way around…Bruce Springsteen is a great guy. You’re this Civil Rights activist and you just big’d up the white guy against me in the white media. And I’m not saying that in a racial way. I’m just saying what it is. The fact of what it was. And that was just the wrong way to go about it.

In that same interview, Hov explained his commitment, and respectfully extended the olive branch to Harry B and other elders:I have to challenge even our guys that have done so much for us…I have to challenge them to be honest and … to at least have the dialogue with us to understand. Of course you hear these buzz words, “Hublo homie,” … but you don’t understand …  this song is about dealing with survivor’s guilt and how to go about charity.  So let’s have that dialogue, period, and let’s hold each other accountable.  

He shared his approach to philanthropy, and his claim that “my presence is charity”:”Things that I feel are important, I help … sometimes it’s on TV, sometimes it’s not and that’s cool with me. I connect with the things that I think are important, I help in my way. This is going to sound arrogant, but my presence is charity: you know how many people are inspired by my story [of growing up poor in the projects].

Days later, a year after his initial jab, Harry B went on MSNBC singing a different tune: “I would hope with all my heart that Jay-Z not take personally what was said. I would like to … say to Jay Z and Beyonce: I’m wide open, my heart is filled with … hope and the promise that we can sit and have a one-on-one to understand each other.”

So while they’re at least talking about taking this to a higher level, what are WE doing to address the urgent issues (insert your own list here) threatening our non-celebrity lives?

Countless folk in social media have invested untold hours pontificating on this high-profile spat. But the real conversation isn’t about celebrity antics. If they can set aside their differences to potentially join forces for the greater good, then something useful might come of this situation.

There are urgent, life-and-death issues demanding our attention. We need to transcend this rush to bash-the-celebrity and let their antics fuel our own R/evolution.

We all have our differences. But if we can’t move beyond the ego-fueled obsession to be more “right” than the person who sees things differently, we are doomed.

If we can’t understand that true and lasting change, the kind that makes life better for people, comes ONLY when folk can “put their egos at the door,” and decide that their common cause is more powerful and important than the fact that have varying perspectives, then we’re giving in to the status quo.

It’s about priorities.

It’s about understanding the nature and requirements of social change.

It’s far too easy to be social media “keyboard activists,” squandering our time, talents, energy and emotion on knee-jerk social media responses to what celebrities say and do while our lives and futures are in danger.

I don’t care whether you think either of these public figures was right, wrong, or justified in their comments. They are relevant only as a mirror in which we can observe ourselves and opportunities to evolve, individually and in community.

We’re never going to agree or reach consensus on how we see the world or experience the many aspects of this life. Forget that! Better to study the REAL nature of social activism, of movements that have achieved positive change and contributed to tangible progress. In every case, folk agree that the larger cause is worth setting aside individual differences for the greater good.

Caricom

Witness the recent example of the leaders of 14 Caribbean countries joining forces to fight for slavery reparations and genocide, from France and the Netherlands. There are differences in their cultures, and perspectives, but they seem to be setting those differences aside in the name of justice.

If Harry B and Jay-Z can do the same, then every one of us—before we rush to choose “sides” in this or the next celebrity “beef,” should examine where OUR prejudices, biases, criticisms and judgments might be holding us—and our communities—back.

Martin and Malcolm

Just imagine if Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. had joined forces.

In the spirit and in tribute to WHOEVER you admire, and WHATEVER inspires you, let’s use celebrities as inspiration rather than distractions, and be about the business of saving our lives, our children, our families, our communities and our world.

Harriet Tubman if only they knew

Let’s not be the ones that Harriet Tubman described when she said:

I freed a thousand slaves. I could have freed a thousand more, if only they knew they were slaves.

Let’s KNOW what we have to do and set aside our differences to get it done. Otherwise we’ll be forever enslaved on the plantations of our minds.

Let’s NOT Talk About Race … Here’s Why

What would it be like to go a whole day without thinking, emoting or talking about race?

I can’t even imagine…

Sure, I might manage it if I were in some kind of retreat setting with zero access to external information and technology—probably some environment where everyone is restricted to a code of absolute silence. Maybe then.

But in the real world, especially for those of us who are finely-attuned to social/cultural/political issues and plugged into news and social media, that seems an impossible task.

Since the 2008 election of President Obama), it seems that race-related situations, stories, thoughts, feelings and opinions are more prevalent than ever.

Especially the last month or so: between the Paula Deen incident, Supreme Court rollbacks, and the trial of George Zimmerman for murdering Trayvon Martin, race-related everything seems to be in overdrive. This layered on top of the everyday tragedies of police-on-Black violence, Black-on-Black violence, the cradle-to-prison pipeline, substandard public schools, increasing attacks on women’s reproductive rights and bodies….and the list goes on.

Race remains central to our processing of these and other incidents, often in the online public sphere, where everyone is a pundit eager to share their views.

These conversations can become overwhelming, since they’re never neutral or objective. We all have strong views and feelings, and social media provides every opportunity for sharing, responding, debating, and processing in community.

Meanwhile, there are always well-meaning people who say that we need to keep talking about race.

I disagree.

I see no point in talking about race, not if the goal is real progress in the seemingly endless but still essential struggle for justice and equality. I’m not even sure that a constructive conversation about race is possible in these United States, or whether it ever has been.

So how do we address and grapple with issues of justice, equality and the ways in which identity and categories are used to maintain an imbalanced power structure?

I say we go to the root cause of the issues, the problems, the contradictions, the complexities and the conundrums.

Forget race. Let’s talk about racISM. And by ISM I mean Institutionalized, Systemic and Malignant oppression based on categories designed to ensure an unjust and unequal system.

A wise man, Ronald Steele, with whom I worked years ago, gently schooled me on what seems like a fine distinction: “It’s not race. It’s racISM that is the problem, the issue and the core of what’s wrong.”

That simple observation opened my awareness.

You’ll notice that there is nothing in the title or tagline of this blog that mentions “race.”

Yes, the focus includes things related to color, culture, identity and community. Which naturally include race. But since my goal is to create some positive change and contribute to whatever progress we can manage to engineer, I want us to focus on the REAL issue.

RacISM.

More recently, Ronald Steele took his guidance a step further and reminded me that the root cause of racISM is White Supremacy.

Again, he’s absolutely right.

The entire USA was founded and built on the notion of White Supremacy. It is at the core of every law, ruling, policy, institution and tradition in this land. RacISM is the system required to maintain White Supremacy. And race—which is now popularly dismissed as a “social construct” and therefore not something that really exists—is the concept required to feed the racISM machine.

Those same notions are part of every aspect of popular culture, entertainment, and the nation’s educational systems. All are strongly biased in favor of one group, and against those deemed not good enough to be part of that one group.

Those who encourage endless discussions of race seem to believe that the root of our problems is a blend of ignorance and prejudice, and that if we talk enough, if we share enough of our stories, our pains, our truths, our realities, the dominant group will have a giant Aha! moment, wake up and rush to right the wrongs of over 500 years.

How likely is that to really happen?

It’s human nature to be tribal. To be biased. To be prejudiced. And to discriminate. That isn’t going to change, and it’s not where the bulk of the real damage occurs. The real damage is in the institutionalization of that bias, prejudice and discrimination to limit the options, opportunities and quality of life for a specific group of people. If it’s gender, that’s sexISM (and I include discrimination based on sexuality in that category). If it’s age, that’s ageISM. And so on.

Talking about race never seems to contribute to real progress. Why?

1.       We’re not objective and tend to take everything personally, resulting in hurt feelings and endless, non-productive back-and-forth about who is good vs. who is bad; who is right vs. who is wrong; and who is the most victimized.

2.       There is no commonly agreed-upon language that allows for a useful conversation about “race.” The very labels and categories that define our society are both weapons and shields that contribute to a culture of conflict.

3.       People of all races compare wounds and victimization, going around and around in circles that leave everyone frustrated, drained and no more enlightened than they were before the conversation started.

4.       The categories of Black and White were created as opposing groups, and it is the tension in that inherent opposition that is the foundation of this entire nation, from governance to culture to everyday life. Others, such as Asians, Latinos, Native American Indians, etc., often complain that race is more than Black and White. They’re not acknowledging that unless and until the ongoing warfare that is inherently part of everything in the USA is confronted and changed, White vs. Black will always be the dominant dynamic, theme and topic of conversation.

5.       Few people—and none in the public arena—ever enter into discussions of race with the goal of honestly confronting the core issues and working towards solutions that actually advance justice and equality. The goal seems to be “winning” a debate rather than conversing with a common goal.

Truth is, most conversations on race seem to end up like Sly and the Faily Stone’s classic song, “Don’t Call Me N***er, Whitey. Don’t Call Me Whitey, N***er. So let’s forget talking about the surface symptoms and focus on root causes. Let’s stop trying to prove who’s right, who’s wrong, who’s the victim and who’s the villain, and acknowledge that we are all infected and affected by the disease that is racISM. Then, let’s gather those who are genuinely interested in finding solutions, and discuss how we can work together to find a “cure” for this insidious epidemic that controls our nation and rules our lives.

Now that is something I can imagine.

Can you?