Qualifying for the Slurs

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

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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

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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”?

 

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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?

Beautiful Dark and Light Our Souls

Welcome to my obsession.

TaRessa in Red Linder pix 008Having lived my life at the extreme light-skin(ded) end of the spectrum, I’m hyper-aware of colorism. For 20 years, I’ve worked to contribute to healing this insidious mental and psychological disease that weighs us down, holds us back and keeps us fighting among ourselves.

But wait–don’t we have far more urgent issues to address as a people and as a nation? In the last week, we’ve ricocheted between Paula Deen’s nostalgia for plantation life, the start of the heart-wrenching trial of Trayvon Martin’s accused murderer, and a double-whammy from the Supreme Court trying to roll back both affirmative action and the Voting Rights Act.

As my FB friend Elaine Porter noted, it’s starting to feel a lot like 1968.

dark girlsAgainst this backdrop, we’re processing the documentary “Dark Girls,” which aired last weekend on Oprah’s OWN network. I’m thrilled that actor/director/producer Bill Duke and producer/director D. Channsin Berry chose to tackle this topic, and to focus on the perspectives of my sistren at the other end of the colorism spectrum.

Dark girls deserve a forum in which to speak out. Some might find it strange that someone of my pale hue would feel that way. But we can’t move forward without being honest, and it’s dark girls (and guys) who bear the brunt of this form of oppression, not just from society—the whole world, really—but from their own people, often their closest and most beloved family and friends.

Their mistreatment often grows into a resentment of light-skinned people, who are accused of “thinking you’re so cute, so smart, all that,” often before we have any idea what’s behind the accusations. Then when the topic arises, we’re bludgeoning each other with our pain, wounded, weary and wondering why we can’t seem to break this vicious cycle of distrust and hostility.

We can break it, but we must—all of us–be willing to listen to—and really hear—each others’ truths in order to validate our own. Light and dark: we are two sides of one coin. Or, as Curtis Mayfield sang in  “We People who are Darker than Blue,”

                “High yella gal, can’t you tell, you’re just the surface of our dark, deep well…”

FB friend author/activist Kola Boof asked me to discuss the tendency of some light-skinned women to suggest that dark-skinned women’s pain is caused by their own self-hatred. I’m glad Kola raised this point, because it represents some of the many fallacies we have about ourselves and each other.

Colorism is a potent form of collective self-hatred that was planted in our ancestors throughout the Diaspora. Our dark sisters’ experiences, truths, pain and testimonials are not signs of self-hatred, but rather the logical effects of the whole world devaluing you based on how un-White you are.

When dark girls testify, they’re not just telling their truths, they’re telling mine—and yours—as well. And it is through their truths that we see the equally damaging and insidious nature of light-skin privilege. Yes, light-skin privilege is real—obviously, I know. It’s well-documented that the lighter-skinned, straighter-haired and more White-looking you are, the more beautiful/handsome, desirable, intelligent, charming, pleasant, and just generally appealing you are perceived to be.

The worldwide epidemic of skin bleaching—yes still—isn’t taking place because people are crazy. It’s because life generally tends to be better for those who are closest to White.

Light-skinned people do nothing to deserve this privilege—we’re born into it, based strictly on our looks.  It’s not foisted upon us because we are somehow worthy. This preferential treatment is a ploy to use us to maintain the dynamics of a system based on the mythology that White is Right.

“Dark Girls” is not the first contemporary documentary to tackle colorism. In 1992, my homegirl Leasa Fortune invited me to be part of a documentary made in Washington DC by two young Black women. Paula Caffey (light-skinned) and Celeste Crenshaw (dark-skinned) gathered sisters of all shades to share our tales of skin/hair and how colorism had shaped and affected our lives.

Black women onThat documentary, “Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang,” took years for Celeste and Paula to finance (in the days before crowd-sourced fundraising). Years after they shot the footage, their documentary was aired on PBS stations around the country, earning an Emmy Award.

Unlike “Dark Girls,” “Black Women On: The Light Dark Thang” presented a rainbow of women from different countries. Celeste was the on-air host, providing context and introducing each segment. Our stories were candid, our emotions were raw, but there was not a speck of tension anywhere.

OPS authorsThat inspired me to join sister-author-friends Tracy Price-Thompson, Elizabeth Atkins and Desiree Cooper to write first book in our Sister4Sister Empowerment Series, “Other People’s Skin: Four Novellas” dedicated to “healing the skin/hair thang between Black women.” Read an excerpt

OPS coverAnd I was honored to be interviewed for Marita Golden’s ground-breaking book, Don’t Play in the Sun: One Woman’s Journey Through the Color Complex.

Last month, I traveled to New Jersey to discuss colorism and identity with young women (including my 19-year-old daughter) in the Sister to Sister Mentoring Program at Montclair High School. The students, along with a few mothers and adult female mentors, were deeply engaged, listening intently, sharing freely, and bursting into spontaneous applause at the end.

I shared with them an excerpt from the popular “Willie Lynch Letter,” explaining that whether Willie Lynch was real or mythological, the dynamic used to turn slaves against each other so they’d be less likely to try to harm their masters or escape, was not only real, but still controls us today.

 And I explained a few basic facts about colorism:

1.       It’s a by-product of racism, which is a tool of White Supremacy. The society in which we live encourages us to keep it going, but we have the power to stop it.

2.       Colorism is not unique to Black people in the USA or anywhere in the world. It’s a global disease and no matter what the cultural variations might be, the root cause is the same: domination based on the myth that some people are superior to others.

3.       Light-skinned privilege is, as we used to say, a trick bag. It pits us against each other to fight over  crumbs from the cake of power and privilege tossed our way to keep us from uniting to confront  the people who not only own the cake, but the means and ingredients to make it.

This is a tough battle, but I’m convinced we can overcome this form of madness. Fortunately, a movement is building:

yaba blayDr. Yaba Blay, co-Director and Assistant Teaching Professor of Africana Studies at Drexel University, expert on Black identities and colorism, wrote the definitive, affirmative and healing, Color Me Beautiful: A Dark Girl Reflects on “Dark Girls,” which states in part:

“Yes, I am a dark-skinned woman, who was once a dark-skinned little girl who grew up in New Orleans, Louisiana and therefore knows all too well how colorism can break you if you let it. But I didn’t let it. And what Dark Girls was missing was that voice. The voice of the confident, assured, self-affirming, self-loving, “I wish you would tell me I’m not the ish” sister, who although she can relate to the pain refuses to stay stuck in it and has somehow figured out how to find beauty in her reflection.

“We needed that voice, not to distract from or to negate the experiences of pain, but rather to balance them with the capacity for triumph, if the purpose of the dialogue is in fact our healing. If we truly want to heal, we have to stop talking at each other and start talking with each other. And to do that, we need all voices at the table – dark, light, and every shade in-between – without the “vs.” While not with equal measure, colorism does impact us all.”

dr. cheryl grillsOprah.com featured an essay by Dr. Cheryl Grills, a psychologist in “Dark Girls,” describing what she and her colleagues at The Association of Black Psychologists are doing to promote “the emotional emancipation of Black people”:

“In the midst of colorism, we are not without tools to protect ourselves. … Basic practices can be put in place in neighborhoods and communities, schools, the media, and in the home to foster positive images for the young, thus changing the negative effects of colorism.

“One effort being launched by The Association of Black Psychologists, in conjunction with the Community Healing Network, are Emotional Emancipation Circles (EECs). EECs are community-based gatherings of African Americans working together to defy the lie of Black inferiority and embrace the truth of Black Empowerment. These self-sustaining community gatherings seek to promote resilience and resistance to colorism.”

And a group of Black psychologists offered “11 Things You Can Do for Your Dark-Skinned Daughter” on Oprah.com as well.

I’d like to add a few suggestions of my own:

1.       Tell every child—all genders, every hue—that they are beautiful, brilliant, important and valued—every single chance you get. And if you don’t get a chance, create one.

2.       Don’t assume that light-skinned people think they’re better, or that dark-skinned people are angry, resentful and jealous. Examine your own assumptions—we all have them—and challenge yourself to grow.  Then help others do the same.

3.       Think about who you consider desirable, and why. Might your preferences have grown out of colorism-inspired programming? No shame, no blame–just an exercise to encourage awareness.

4.       Check your language—and that of others. Lose the qualifiers: “She’s pretty for a dark-skinned girl.” Let her be a pretty girl. Period.

5.       Break the habit of getting into a war of the wounds, comparing battle scars to see who has suffered more, and remember that we are all in this together.

Matter of fact, this is a perfect time for us to be addressing this issue. After all, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has famously admitted that his anti-Black policies on the bench stem from how he was treated as a dark-skinned child. His pain has influenced national policy—to our entire community’s detriment.

As we witness the next chapter in the tragedy of Trayvon Martin, react/respond to and regurgitate the freak show that is Paula Deen’s Pathology on Display, and reel from the Supreme Court’s overtly racist actions, it’s obvious that unity is our only hope for progress. If recent events prove nothing else, it’s that field or house, we were all slaves in one way or another. And these days, we are the only ones with the power to set ourselves free.

 

 

Guess Who’s Coming to Breakast

How did a bland breakfast cereal ignite a racial controversy?

 cheerios box

By featuring a Black father, White mother and Biracial daughter in a 30-second commercial, Cheerios went from being a geriatric cholesterol-buster and go-to snack for moms desperate to calm fussy toddlers to a symbol of forbidden love, lust and social progress.

 

Some ad honchos decided to spice up the blah Cheerios brand with a guaranteed button-pusher, something to make the cereal look progressive, edgy, ahead of the curve. They went for shock value, but seemed shocked themselves at the strings of racially-unfriendly comments inspired by the sight of a tri-colored family in prime time. And coverage of those comments became the story that went viral, shooting Cheerios into the national consciousness.

 

Next thing you know, Cheerios are a symbol for acceptance and support of interracial love generally and Black-man-White-woman-Biracial-child families specifically. Mixed people are flooding social media with photos of themselves holding Cheerios boxes. I’m now using “Cheerios” as shorthand/slang to refer to such couples and families—a welcome replacement for the antiquated “Jungle Fever.”

 

The pundits and pontificators jumped on the bandwagon, weighing every possible pro, con and nuance–not of the commercial itself–but of the string of racist comments. Cheerios  got another gazillion dollars worth of free media by announcing that they were standing by their ad despite the now-disabled racist comments. The actress who played the mother spoke up publicly, and the Biracial child actress appeared on news shows with her real Cheerios parents, saying she thought all the fuss was because of her great smile. (As far as I know, the Black man who portrayed the husband/father has not joined the fray).

 

Blacks and Whites alike veer between professing a what’s-the-big-deal acceptance of these families and not-so-quietly wondering whether all this mixing means they’re headed for extinction, doomed to a future dominated by racial mutants.

 

But with all of the point-counterpoint, slur-slinging and hand-wringing, everyone’s dancing around the real reason that this is such a big deal. :

 

Hint: this isn’t about cereal. Or commercials. Or even the cute memes:

 

cheerios meme

 

Or parodies, whether clever, or corny. 

 

Why, in 2013, when interracial marriages, while not even close to the number of same-race unions, are at an all-time high, acceptance is steadily growing, and our nation wrestles with legalizing gay marriage, did this Cheerios ad ignite such strong reactions?

 

It’s simple. What’s really going on is nothing more than the USA’s ongoing obsession/fantasy/fear of Black men luring White women from their pedestal of racial and sexual “purity,” and making “What about the children?” babies together.

 

Let’s not pretend this is new, or that we’re over our nation’s tangled racial history. The real backstory is the iconic threat of Black maleness that took root when slavery ended and free Black men were perceived as a danger to White manhood and power.

 

The newfound economic and political access enjoyed by Black men after emancipation—including the rights to vote and hold political office—fueled this fear of emasculation, loss of control, and the very premise upon which the United States of America was built: supremacy derived from a power structure based on “majority rules.” At the core of it all was a national phobia about Black men raping White women and “staining” White America with “impure” blood and genes. That fear grew into the mythology that drove anti-miscegenation laws, Jim Crow segregation and lynching.

 

At the turn of the twentieth century, that fear was fed by waves of new immigrants and the knowledge that, due to centuries of slave-era rapes, some Blacks could pass for White and infiltrate the DNA of the ruling class. White men wanted to guard White women’s sexual purity to ensure that they’d have White babies.

 

Today, even with a Biracial POTUS, this obsession and anxiety persist.  Between the browning of America—with White babies now officially in the minority—growing Black political clout as exemplified by President Obama, the surge of Latino immigrants and an increasing Mixed-race populace, anxiety about White women giving birth to the “wrong color babies” is still very real.

 

This is one of our nation’s most enduring phobias. It didn’t lessen when Loving v. Virginia struck down laws against interracial marriage in 1967. It has led to countless Black boys and men being slaughtered and lynched without a hint of due process at the mere suggestion that they perhaps laid eyes upon or deigned to speak to a White woman.

 

Fear of Cheerios unions has been and continues to be a button-pusher for all kinds of Americans. And not all of them are necessarily racist, even if they express their disapproval in unfriendly ways.

 

Let’s not front: this anxiety isn’t one-sided. Songstress Jill Scott spoke for many Black women when she expressed her discomfort with interracial couples in the April 2010 issue of Essence magazine. Jill described “wincing” when she walked past interracial couples. She cited historical reasons for her stance, touching off a debate between the magazine’s readers. The truth is that some Black women and men worry about racial and cultural extinction, just as some Whites do. On the flip side, more Black women are encouraging each other to date outside the race, since they perceive eligible Black men who want to date and mate their own to be in short supply.

 

Meanwhile, that “ravaging savage” mythology still dominates, holding our nation in its sway. And it’s not going anywhere. Fear of the Black man is as American as apple pie, and as much a part of the national consciousness as the Pledge of Allegiance.

 

This has been and continues to be a button-pusher for all kinds of Americans. The ad agency and Cheerios knew that, and banked on the “taboo” boosting their brand, notoriety and cultural swag.

 

Still, they played it safe, flirting with controversy, but careful not to go too far. As W. Kamau Bell, a comedian with a Cheerios family noted, at no time in the commercial do you see the Black husband/dad actually interacting with his wife and/or child. The viewer is left to fill in the blanks, with imaginations steeped in the lore of forbidden love, lust and tragically confused and rejected offspring providing the subtext that sparked the reactions that turned a cereal ad into national news and a social media darling.

 

Why? Because we might think we’re reacting to a contemporary family in a cereal commercial, but in fact we are responding to the images running in the background of our national psyche.

 

What America really sees is the iconic image of big, black King Kong leering at tiny, White Fay Wray as he holds her hostage. The smooth veneer of Sidney Poitier as the super-genteel Black suitor of a rich White woman in the groundbreaking 1968 film, “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The face of OJ Simpson superimposed on a TV screen next to his blonde ex-wife and alleged murder victim, Nicole, as he fled in a white Bronco. And the April 2008 Vogue magazine cover featuring NBA star LeBron James and supermodel Gisele posed to echo the King Kong-Fay Wray image—which experts decried as a “flop,” surprised that the taboo optics didn’t boost sales as expected.

 

lebron-james-is-king-kong

 

Today, the mythological ravaging “savage” is hawking breakfast cereal; tomorrow, who knows? One thing is certain, though: Black male/White female relationships will still be “taboo,” still push buttons, stoke fears, fuel controversy and possibly sales. Because love it or hate it, American can never get its fill.