Time to Flip the Script: Let’s Change How We Talk About Racism

By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks

jurien-huggins-jLWlA1HQMbE-unsplash (1)

Photo by Jurien Huggins on Unsplash

First thing to know about me: I’m not interested in “talking about race.” I see no point in it. Nor have I ever seen, heard, or been aware of any such conversation actually making a difference in the presence or prevalence of racism.

Second thing: When I say racism, I focus mainly on the systemic institutionalized kind that impacts our options and quality of life. Racist thoughts, feelings, and individualized random acts are important of course, but I prefer to concentrate on addressing it at the institutional / policy level.

Now that we’re clear, the point of this post is to say that it’s time we flip the script to talk about racism in a different way. Many of us—self included—have fallen into the habit of lamenting the ways in which Blackness is viewed, targeted, and responded to in this world. Each incident, from annoying to infuriating to tragic, tends to be described along the lines of reminders of how how dangerous and frequently deadly it is to  #BreatheWhileBlack #JogWhileBlack #PlayWhileBlack #WorkWhileBlack, etc. The list is endless and always growing with yet another example that racism is based on the premise that we re never seen as or considered fully human.

So when I saw the Facebook post below, it hit me upside the head (in a good way) and helped to clarify an immediate change that we can ALL make when we talk about racism:

Maisha ONgoza change narrative

Reading this post from Maisha Ongoza gave me the same kind of aha! moment I had years ago when I first saw a meme saying that instead of focusing solely on teaching girls how to avoid rape, we should teach boys how not to rape. (Side note: I’m aware that sexual violence happens between all genders. That narrative needs to change as well…so that we’re saying we need to teach people how not to rape).

Back to the main point: There is incredible power in changing the narrative, especially when we are shifting the focus from victims to perpetrators. There is strength in the specificity of language that we use to describe our experiences and perspectives. And there is great energy when we work collectively to create these shifts.

So when we describe and depict acts of racism, we can frame them differently to provide the accurate and appropriate context and focus and emphasis. The problem is racism. The issue is the racists. Not the Blackness of the victim’s skin. Not their speech, their body language, or their culture. Not whether they raised their hands too rapidly or too slowly or seemed to be reaching for “something.” Not their hair. Not their skin. Not their nationality. Not their politics. Not their religion. Not their heritage. Not their attire or their stance or their perceived “attitude.

Racism.

White dominance.

Racism.

White violence.

Racism.

And the systems and institutions that were created and exist to maintain it.

It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of framing Blackness as the problem, the reason, the probable cause. Made even more tempting because most media and entertainment encourages that flawed and dis-empowered narrative. Even some Black media, quiet as it’s kept.

But we can make this change! Let’s use our influence to empower ourselves and each other. Now!

It’s never the fault of Blackness.

Only White racism.

Every. Single. Time.

And while we’re at it…

inhumanity of whiteness tweet

Let us please take this opportunity to follow Layla Thee Ancestress’ suggestion. Let’s resist the constant urge to prove the humanity of Blackpeople, of Blackness. Let’s keep shining that spotlight on the inhumanity of Whiteness–NOT White people. Systems and institutions–NOT individuals. This is a critical distinction in all references to, conversations about, and depictions of racism.

While these suggestions might seem like linguistic nit-picking to some, I assure you that they are not at all petty or insignificant. I hope we all come to recognize and embrace the power of specificity in the words we use to think, to speak, and to write about our experiences.

The energy that is behind language is sent into the world with every word we think, speak, and write.

Please join me in shifting our language. We can flip the script and change the narrative. We can continue to grow our own consciousness, and encourage others to grow theirs.  No effort is insignificant. Every tool and weapon we can wield in the fight against racism is worth considering. Each step forward counts as a victory.

As my favorite James Baldwin quote reminds us: “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Let’s use our language to face the truths of racism while we work for the change we deserve.

 

SWIRL GIRL BOOK COVER FINAL FRONT

 

TaRessa Stovall is an author / blogger / identity activist. Her hot new memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Coming of Race in the USA is garnering praise for its bold, insightful take on how a Mixed-race girl grows to be a Black woman while honoring all of her Ancestry — living “AND” in a world of “EITHER / OR.” Check reader reviews here. Enjoy a FREE sneak peek of SWIRL GIRL here. 

Connect with TaRessa! Facebook logo TaRessa Stovall  Twitter logo @taressatalks  Instagram logo @taressatalks

 

The Tables Are Turned: See What Happens When I Am Interviewed!

Swirl Girl triplicate

By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks

My fabulous fellow author Chandra Sparks Splond went behind the scenes of my new memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Coming of Race in the USA to give you the tea on me!

Check it out…

Chandra: Why did you write SWIRL GIRL?

TaRessa:  When then newly elected President Barack Obama called himself a “mutt” on global media, I was yanked from my life and creative/business pursuits by my ancestors, who insisted that I write this book. I tried to protest, but resistance was futile. I wrote SWIRL GIRL so no other Mixed-race child has to  Read More

 

Whiteness Requires Black Suffering: Requiem for Hashtagged Lives

Screenshot 2020-05-07 at 11.12.48 AM

By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks

Today I am reporting from the crossroads of Weary and Fury.

Intersecting with Trauma and Devastation.

Because as if grappling with the unrelenting terrorism of the Corona virus (and many of our “leaders’” responses to or their so-called management of the virus) isn’t enough to test us to our very limits…

We have at least two high-profile murders of very young Black men to remind us what we’re up against from the time the sperm hits the egg to spark Black life:

amaud aubrey - Google Search

Ahmaud Arbery, 25

On February 23, 2020, 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was jogging near his home in Brunswick, GA, when two White men—Travis McMichael, 34, and his retired police officer father, Gregory McMichael, 64, chased Arbery for no reason other than he was Black. When Arbery tried to grab the shotgun from Travis, he was shot and killed. Travis then rolled the body, leaving him with blood on his hands. The police report recorded the McMichaels’ version to paint Arbery as the aggressor and make him responsible for his own death.

Today, nearly two and-a-half months later, the case is getting publicity. Predictably, some folks are calling for the McMichaels’ to be arrested, and one prosecutor wants the case to go to the Georgia Grand Jury. Of course grand juries are suspended in Georgia due to the ‘Rona virus.

As I am writing this—on the eve of Ahmaud Arbery’s May 8th birthday, news comes that the McMichaels’ have been arrested. According to The New York Times:

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation said that both men had been taken into custody and charged with aggravated assault in addition to murder. Travis McMichael fired the shots that killed Mr. Arbery, the state police agency said in a statement.

Even in the unlikely event that the McMichaels’ do any hard prison time or get the death penalty, any sense of relief we might feel will be fleeting at best. Because we know better. We’ve done this dance too many times to believe that any form of real, lasting justice will be served. No matter the outcome, nothing can ever be done to restore the life of a young man snuffed out simply because of his race. Nothing can temper his family’s endless grief, or fill the gap left by this travesty.

Sean Reed REAL

Dreasjon (Sean) Reed, 21

Yesterday, on May 6, 2020, some Indianapolis, IN police officers shot and killed Dreasjon (Sean) Reed, an unarmed 21-year-old Black man, who was running from them after a car chase. The officers didn’t know that Reed was recording it all on Facebook Live. Not only did the recording contradict the police report falsely claiming that Reed was armed, but it caught a detective laughing and joking about Reed’s funeral.

So here sits Black America at the oh-so-familiar intersection of Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired, processing these two horrific but, sadly, unremarkable takedowns of Black human lives as we struggle to navigate a global pandemic that also seems to have us in its crosshairs. As Al-Jazeerah reported on April 28:

Preliminary nationwide data released by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests black Americans make up about 30 percent of COVID-19 patients, despite the fact only 13 percent of the US population is black. But much of that federal data is missing information on the racial identity of those who have contracted COVID-19 – and some state and local figures paint an even bleaker picture. In Louisiana, black people account for 56 percent of those who have died from COVID-19 but only 32 percent of the general population. In Michigan, black people comprise 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths but just 13.8 percent of the state population.

If there’s one thing we know, it’s that Black lives are as fragile as they are precious, and as endangered as they are promising.

The collective Black response to this dynamic is spelled out clearly in this viral social media post (author unknown). Please say each of the hashtagged names aloud as you read.

Black people are so tired.

We can’t go jogging (#AmaudArbery).

We can’t relax in the comfort of our own homes (#BothemSean and #AtatianaJefferson).

We can’t ask for help after being in a car crash (#JonathanFerrell and #Renisha McBride).

We can’t have a cellphone (#StephonClark).

We can’t leave a party to get to safety (#JordanEdwards).

We can’t play loud music (#JordanDavis).

We can’t sell CDs (#AltonSterling).

We can’t sleep (#AiyanaJones)

We can’t walk from the corner store (#MikeBrown).

We can’t play cops and robbers (#TamirRice).

We can’t go to church (#Charleston9).

We can’t walk home with Skittles (#TrayvonMartin).

We can’t hold a hair brush while leaving our own bachelor party (#SeanBell).

We can’t party on New Years (#OscarGrant).

We can’t get a normal traffic ticket (#SandraBland).

We can’t lawfully carry a weapon (#PhilandoCastile).

We can’t break down on a public road with car problems (#CoreyJones).

We can’t shop at Walmart (#JohnCrawford) .

We can’t have a disabled vehicle (#TerrenceCrutcher).

We can’t read a book in our own car (#KeithScott).

We can’t be a 10yr old walking with our grandfather (#CliffordGlover).

We can’t decorate for a party (#ClaudeReese).

We can’t ask a cop a question (#RandyEvans).

We can’t cash our check in peace (#YvonneSmallwood).

We can’t take out our wallet (#AmadouDiallo).

We can’t run (#WalterScott).

We can’t breathe (#EricGarner).

We can’t live (#FreddieGray).

We’re tired.

Tired of making hashtags.

Tired of trying to convince you that our #BlackLivesMatter too.

Tired of dying.

Tired.

Tired.

Tired.

So very tired.

Our quandary is eloquently expressed by Dr. Farah Jasmine Griffin, Director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University, who wrote on Facebook: “This recent spate of violence, including murder, of black people, along with the heavily armed, white supremacist storming state capitals (carrying nooses, swastikas, and confederate flags and called good and decent people by you know who), and the obscene death toll of this cruel disease, is infuriating to say the least. One fluctuates between rage and despondency.”

Ah yes, rage and despondency. We know that combination all too well, don’t we?

Because we’re human, we’ll give into our weariness for a while. We’ll search for the tiniest frisson of hope, even knowing that this story will repeat on an endless loop of racist terrorism aimed at snuffing us out mentally, emotionally, and psychologically, if not physically.

We know that for every precious human life turned heartfelt hashtag in the endless quest to remind ourselves, and maybe to convince the killers that Black Lives Matter, there will be another one too soon. And many more after that.

A seemingly endless litany of names, faces, dates, circumstances.

There is nothing extraordinary about these racist murders, either by the police, or by private citizens. Nothing unusual at all.

Therein lies the problem, and the terrifying truth.

We understand that, after all of the grieving, mourning, raging; beyond the viral rants and eloquent think pieces; the marches, petitions, the prayers, the hymns, and the supplications…that there will be many more to come. If we have learned nothing else in nearly 500 years of ceaseless racist oppression, we know that.

And we know the reason why, though it’s not easy to admit. Not comfortable to face. Because racism stripped bare leaves us quivering in the face of its most naked truths:

That the Whiteness that defines and drives the USA requires a constant infusion of Black blood, Black tears, endless Black suffering, to feed its bottomless pit of hunger.

This Whiteness demands sacrifices of Black minds, bodies, and souls on the altar of its self-proclaimed magnificence, the notion of its inherent supremacy that underscores every aspect of life in this nation and throughout most of the planet.

This Whiteness is a vampire unable to be fully sated; craving and demanding enough Black trauma to keep it “alive” another day.

And it’s a helluva trickster: These notions of White “Supremacy” have been so efficiently internalized by some Black people that they can even manifest as “Black-on-Black” murders where we destroy ourselves and others like us.

As unsettling as it is to acknowledge this, we can’t ignore the fact that ultimately, the nonstop horror show that is racism is just business as usual in the USA.

Has been business as usual in some form since at least 1619 when the first enslaved Africans hit these shores.

America is the beast that demands our suffering and destruction; requires it to survive.

So at the crossroads of seemingly impossible choices and insurmountable odds, what’s our next move?

We will do what we always do:

Have a seat, take a breath—or several.

Meditate, mourn, and grieve the madness. Mull it over, breathe it in until it ignites that spark deep within that speaks to us of balancing these ugly truths with the power of the Ancestors whose journeys made our lives not only possible, but rich with possibility.

Even as the names that we call to the skies and immortalize in tear-soaked hashtags etch themselves like tribal markings onto our weary souls.

Even in the face of the eternally stalking, snarling beast.

While we might be set back or knocked down for a while, ultimately, we will reach back to those egun whose survival ensured our existence to replenish our parched souls until we stumble to our feet again.

We’ll rally the DNA that fortified our foremothers and forefathers through the Middle Passage, centuries of enslavement, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the present-day reincarnation of all those as the prison pipeline, police brutality, and random Whitepeople wildin’ out.

We’ll remember, as the saying goes, who we are and whose we are. And though we know that there’s no end in sight for our nation’s blood lust, we will nonetheless gather our trauma-weary selves, our simmering fury, and we’ll rise to face the beast another day.

Because no matter what horrors and dangers stalk us, no matter how fury and weary intersect within us, no matter how mightily our own nation insists upon trying to destroy us, we’re not going to silence our screams of grief and outrage. We refuse to passively accept these attacks or accept them as something we deserve.  Put the beast on notice: just as those upon whose shoulders we stand did in times gone by, we are never going down without a fight.

Speaking of fight, here are some actions you can take in the name of Amaud Arbery:

Sign this petition on Change.org

On May 8, 2020–Amaud’s birthday–join runners around the world in honoring him and protesting his senseless murder 

SWIRL GIRL BOOK COVER FINAL FRONT

 

TaRessa Stovall is an author / blogger / identity activist. Her hot new memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Coming of Race in the USA is garnering praise for its bold, insightful take on how a Mixed-race girl grows to be a Black woman while honoring all of her Ancestry — living “AND” in a world of “EITHER / OR.” Check reader reviews here. Enjoy a FREE sneak peek of SWIRL GIRL here. 

Connect with TaRessa! Facebook logo TaRessa Stovall

Twitter logo @taressatalks

Instagram logo @taressatalks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dear Rashida Jones: The Truth About Our Trifecta

By TaRessa Stovall @taressatalks

Dear Rashida Jones:

We’ve never met, but we have a lot in common. We’re both #BLEWISH, light-skinned and racially ambiguous-looking. And we know what that means: many people feel compelled to discuss, debate, and dissect our identities in relation to our appearances based on their own prejudices, presumptions, and preconceived notions. I get it daily on a small, anonymous scale. As a successful actor / producer and the daughter of two superstars—Quincy Jones and Peggy Lipton–you get it publicly, often trending and making headlines.

This time, it’s due to your role in the new Kenya Barris series for Netflix, “blackAF,” which seems to be a dramatized take on Barris’ real family Hollywood come-up to the echelons of the rich and bourgie. Social media and Black Twitter are pontificating about you, the way you look, and trying to challenge your identity. Again. 

While I never see ANY such chatter about the equally #BLEWISH actress Tracee Ellis Ross, who has long portrayed the TV wife of Barris’ alter ego on “black-ish,” you being cast as Joya, his latest onscreen spouse, has activated the Identity Police

The Identity Police are folks who are so thrown by our ambiguous appearances combined with our Mixed backgrounds that they decide they know more about us than we know about ourselves. They can’t wait to question, challenge, and / or criticize us based on their know-it-all worldviews. Like this Huffington Post article, which analyzes the roles you’ve held in the context of Hollywood’s legendary racism and colorism:

“Jones is what some white casting directors might describe as ‘ethnically ambiguous.’ Her hair doesn’t really curl, her skin is light, her eyes are hazel. The 44-year-old actor has often played characters who were explicitly white or whose ethnicity was sort of left up to the audience to figure out. On “The Office,” she played Karen Filippelli, an Italian American woman. On “Parks and Recreation,” she played Ann Perkins, a character described only as “ambiguously brown.”

Jones has played explicitly Black or mixed characters in the past — she guest-starred on ‘black-ish’ as Rainbow’s younger sister, Santamonica — but the majority of her best-known roles have either glossed over or actively avoided her blackness altogether. Racial ambiguity is seemingly so much a part of her narrative as an actor that when certain netizens took to social media to discuss “#blackAF” the day it premiered, many declared that they were genuinely unaware that she was mixed, let alone the child of legendary producer Quincy Jones.”

 

That context–within and way beyond Hollywood–impacts every aspect of life for ALL People of Color. It’s not specific to Mixed folks. Not specific to light-skinned folks. Not specific to racially ambiguous-looking folks. But for those like us who hit this genetic trifecta, it shows up in these, um, interesting ways.

Never mind that, as you’ve stated in interviews, you have never passed for White. You speak for all of us ambiguous types when you issue the reality check: “I had no control over how I looked. This is my natural hair. These are my natural eyes! I’ve never tried to be anything that I’m not.” The thing about acting is you take the roles you’re offered. (I love that, like your father, you’re also a producer with the power to create images and narratives, especially those beyond the status quo.)

Why are folks upset at YOU when Barris’ real-life spouse is another member of the trifecta: Mixed, very light-skinned and racially ambiguous-looking? And WHY are people pretending that they thought you were White when your name and face make it abundantly clear that you’re not? Never mind the ones who swear they had no idea of your lineage…yet feel entitled to judge-and-jury your identity by their standards.

We are born into this Black vs. White binary. We don’t choose our appearances, or the environments in which we come of age. Having Light-Skinned Privilege (LSP) wasn’t a choice—though we do have the option of deciding how to utilize this form of racialized currency, and the opportunity to weaponize it against racism. As for being racially ambiguous-looking, that is completely in the eye of the beholder.

Like most of us in this category, different people see different things when they view and assess me. Their assumptions run the gamut on a near-global scale. (My experiences are detailed in my new memoir). Thing is, these Identity Police are ultimately playing themselves. They don’t realize that their assumptions, presumptions, challenges, debates, and projections reveal everything about them, but nothing about us.

While they often have plenty to say, the fact is that these folks don’t want to actually see or hear our experiences or perspectives. While they’re comfortable talking about and even at us, we’re rarely invited or even welcomed into these conversations, even though we’re the point of discussion. They talk all the trash, but rarely ASK us about ourselves. And they almost never listen to find out where we fall on the identity spectrum. How we navigate a world that regards us with such consistent unpredictability. And where we find and maintain our footing on the shifting sands of definitions, categories, and cultural tropes.

The biggest irony, Rashida, is that these folks will swear on their lives that we’re confused. And the more confident we are, the less comfortable they seem to be when we do speak up. Which is part of the reason I insist on being in their faces all loud and proud. I bring that old-school dynamic: if you’re gonna say it behind my back, you’d best be ready to say it to my face. The work I do is designed to open up these conversations, to make them inclusive and reciprocal in pursuit of the greater good. And while you represent this overall dynamic, I do not presume to speak for you or for anyone other than myself.

What I appreciate about you is that, while I’ve grown up seeing lots of light-skinned actresses and a few that are actually Mixed (in real life and their roles), I haven’t been able to relate to 99% of them. I’ve never been quite as satisfied as I am seeing YOU, a rep of my specific trifecta, doing your thing. Because it’s not your characters that I relate to as much as the specificity of what you represent. It’s you being you and remaining unbothered about what the Identity Police have to say. Because truth rules, and representation always matters. Everyone deserves to look at a screen and be able to relate to what they see. You do that for many of us. And we thank you!

 

SWIRL GIRL BOOK COVER FINAL FRONTTaRessa Stovall is an author / blogger / identity activist. Her hot new memoir, SWIRL GIRL: Coming of Race in the USA is garnering praise for its bold, insightful take on how a Mixed-race girl grows to be a Black woman while honoring all of her Ancestry — living “AND” in a world of “EITHER / OR.” Check reader reviews here. Enjoy a FREE sneak peek of SWIRL GIRL here. 

Connect with TaRessa! Facebook logo TaRessa Stovall

Twitter logo @taressatalks

Instagram logo @taressatalks

Why I’m a ‘Woke’ Hypocrite & You Might Be One, Too

Here’s my latest Complexion Chronicles column for Multiracial Media:

Being “woke” suggests a relatively new dawning of awareness or consciousness. One can be exposed to information and even digest that information intellectually before it trickles up to actual awareness or activism. And when someone does achieve a new level of wokeness, that doesn’t fast-track them to a flawlessly consistent brand of political consciousness in all of their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors.

Real growth, real consciousness-growing is messy, inconsistent and full of our human contradictions and flaws. Especially when it comes to race, religion and gender-sexual identity—all of which most folks have very deep feelings and ideas about. Some of us are born into families, cultures and communities that program us about ourselves and those considered “other.” Others develop these feelings and attitudes en route to adulthood. Whatever our beliefs and actions, they’re unfolding against a backdrop of institutionalized programming so deep, wide and pervasive that it’s unreasonable to expect most of us to zoom from “woke” to absolutely consistency without traversing the difficult, awkward obstacle course of real growth and activism.

This reminds me of the lyrics to Tower of Power’s 1976 jam, “Can’t Stand to See the Slaughter”:

I can’t stand to see the slaughter

but still I eat the meat

I can’t stand dishonest people

but still sometimes I cheat

I can’t stand that air pollution

but still I drive a car

Maybe them’s the reasons why

things is like they are

Political activism cannot wait for or rely upon everyone to be completely free of their own contradictions, biases and hypocrisy. Social movements don’t have the luxury of requiring political purity.

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Just Because I’m #Woke Doesn’t Mean I Won’t Swirl: At the Intersection of Race, Sex & Black Activism

Fasten your seatbelts: we’re venturing into that messy, murky place where racism and sexism clash with individual choice and cultural significance; where the personal and the political are inextricably intertwined; where triggers are activated and views will collide.

The disclaimers:

  1. This is not a post opposing interracial dating, romance or marriage.  (I’m first-generation Mixed, remember?)
  2. I believe that folks can and should be able to be with whomever they choose
  3. The celebrities cited herein are used as high-profile examples because they live in the public eye, have strong brands as pro-Black activists, and serve as screens upon which many of us project our various views, feelings and cultural programming.

My thesis statement: When a high-profile, successful Black man elects to leave a Black wife and children for a White woman, the realities of the USA’s historical dynamics and cultural programming might cause these actions to be viewed against a backdrop of racial and sexual complexity.

In other words, it might raise questions about individuals who, while they certainly have every right to be with whomever they choose on the personal level, have made choices that cause us to assess these actions through a broader political and cultural lens.

Current case study: actor/activist Jesse Williams who, almost a year after rocking America with his swoon-worthy sound bites about Black pride and resistance, is in the headlines for recently announcing a breakup with Aryn Drake-Lee.

GQ, Nautica, and Oceana World Oceans Day Party

WEST HOLLYWOOD, CA – JUNE 08: Actor Jesse Williams (R) and Aryn Drake-Lee attend the “GQ, Nautica, and Oceana World Oceans Day Party” at Sunset Tower on June 8, 2010 in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by John Shearer/Getty Images for GQ Magazine)

She is his wife of four years, mother of their two toddlers, the natural-hair-wearing Black woman real estate broker who’s been with him since he was a teacher of African History and Diasporic Studies.

jesse minka

Jesse Williams and actress Minka Kelly

Since splitting with Aryn, Jesse is said to be dating actress Minka Kelly, who is White. So………on one level, hearing about a celeb divorcing the spouse who traveled the road to fame with them isn’t that newsworthy. And rumors that Hollywood was whispering in Jesse’s ear that he could pull a star more big-screen glam than wifey would be understandable if they’re true. But when you add this race-gender triad to the picture, the story can take on added significance.

This isn’t about woke Black men swirling being good or bad. It’s not that simple or simplistic. This is about America and her racial history…and the cultural programming that impacts us all.

Clarification Pause: Yes, Jesse is a first-gen Black/White Biracial man with a White mother. And we can debate whether the rules and expectations around this leaving-a-Black-woman-for-a-White-one dynamic are the same as for a non-Biracial Black man. But since Jesse’s recent brand and off-screen popularity seem built around his being a very aware, conscious and unapologetically down-with-the-people Black activist, we’re going to take that big-picture view of him for this discussion.

Jesse Williams Epitome of Woke BETTo wit: Jesse skyrocketed into the national Black consciousness in June 2016, when he was honored as a humanitarian at the BET Awards. His award highlight reel featured superstar testimonies to his stellar and very Black-focused activism:

“Jesse chose to use his power and his platform to put a light on things that people would never ordinarily expect him to speak about,” said friend and mentor Harry Belafonte. (Jesse reportedly plans to produce and star in a Belafonte biopic).

“He is amazingly conscientious about the world in which he lives,” said actress/director Debbie Allen, with whom Jesse has worked on the hit Shondaland TV series, “Grey’s Anatomy.”

Jesse’s activist resume is very impressive. He pushes for social change through his work with www.questionbridge.com, described as “an innovative transmedia project that facilitates a dialogue between a critical mass of Black men from diverse and contending backgrounds and creates a platform for them to represent and redefine Black male identity in America.”(Side note: when I went to the QuestionBridge website to see what it’s about, it opened with a video conversation about this VERY TOPIC! Since I’ve been doing some heavy vacillating about writing on this subject, I took that as a sign to keep going). 

Plus Jesse executive produced the documentary, “Stay Woke: The Black Lives Matter Movement,” which premiered on BET weeks before the Awards. He also serves on the boards of the Advancement Project, a multi-racial civil rights project founded by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers, and Sankofa.org, Harry Belafonte’s social justice organization. Not to mention that he and Aryn created “Ebroji,” described as “the first “curated GIF keyboard, designed specifically to enhance the way we already communicate.”

jesse williams on colorism

Hell, Jesse’s so woke that he candidly addresses his light-skinned, blue-eyed privilege. Clearly he knows what’s up.

Thus, in addition to being a hot TV star, Jesse has some well-earned Black activist cred, which went viral after his BET Awards acceptance speech gave America a massive racial orgasm.

Big-time mainstream media outlets were gaga. Time.com ran the transcript, as did the Washington Post, who headlined it as “one of the most memorable speeches in award show history.” From WaPo:

Before we get into it, I just want to say I brought my parents out tonight — I just want to thank them for being here and teaching me to focus on comprehension over career. They made sure I learned what the schools were afraid to teach us. And also, thank you to my amazing wife for changing my life.

“Now, this award, this is not for me. This is for the real organizers all over the country. The activists, the civil rights attorneys, the struggling parents, the families, the teachers, the students that are realizing that a system built to divide and impoverish and destroy us cannot stand if we do. All right? It’s kind of basic mathematics. The more we learn about who we are and how we got here, the more we will mobilize.

“Now, this is also in particular for the black women in particular who have spent their lifetimes dedicated to nurturing everyone before themselves. We can and will do better for you.

“Now, what we’ve been doing is looking at the data and we know that police somehow manage to deescalate, disarm and not kill white people every day. So what’s going to happen is we’re going to have equal rights and justice in our own country or we will restructure their function in ours.

“Now, [standing ovation] I got more, y’all.

“Now, the thing is, though, all of us in here getting money that alone isn’t going to stop this. All right? Now dedicating our lives to getting money just to give it right back. To put someone’s brand on our body when we spent centuries praying with brands on our bodies and now we pray to get paid with brands for our bodies. There has been no war that we have not fought and died on the front lines of. There has been no job we haven’t done. There’s no tax they haven’t levied against us. And we pay all of them. But freedom is somehow always conditional here. You’re free, they keep telling us, but she would have been alive if she hadn’t acted so free.

“We’ve been floating this country on credit for centuries, yo. And we’re done watching, and waiting while this invention called whiteness uses and abuses us. Burying black people out of sight and out of mind, while extracting our culture, our dollars, our entertainment like oil — black gold. Ghettoizing and demeaning our creations then stealing them. Gentrifying our genius and then trying us on like costumes before discarding our bodies like rinds of strange fruit. The thing is, though, the thing is, that just because we’re magic doesn’t mean we’re not real. Thank you.”

 

The visuals at the BET Awards were equally evocative: cameras lingering on Jesse’s White mom and Black dad standing together as he praised them for raising him with strong political consciousness. Not to mention Jesse’s wife Aryn, which might have led some Black women to exhale and say, “Yes. He chooses to be with one of us.” And then those words that that went straight to the hearts of many sistas:

jessie-williams-bet-awards

What made that statement significant is not only that a light-skinned, blue-eyed brothah with a White mom said it on national television, but the fact that we see and hear so few Black men EVER publicly speak up on behalf of Black women, or promise that they “can and will do better for you.” This facet of Black life and love created so much excitement because it is so rare.

So between the celebrity accolades, the impressive activist resume, the super-woke comments and the family visuals, it’s safe to say that Jesse Williams positioned himself to be considered a certain way when it came to his life choices. Not constrained, not judged, not condemned–but considered. 

Still we must ask: is any of that diminished–his legit activism, his impassioned statements, his demonstrated commitment to Black causes–if he leaves a Black woman and takes up with a White woman? THAT is the question we’re grappling with here.

I’ve seen lots of social media convos around this very question, with some Black women fan expressing their disappointment, and some Mixed-race and swirling White women expressing their annoyance about the Black women’s questions and disappointment.

THIS is the dynamic that we need to discuss. THIS is the very powerful racial reality that must be acknowledged because it’s running in the background 24/7, and activated every time a successful, desirable brothah proves Kanye West’s prophecy from his mega-hit, “Gold Digger,” reminding Black women that “you stay right girl, and when he get on, he’ll leave yo’ ass for a White girl.” (Pause: Kanye is not part of this conversation, since he hasn’t been and is not an activist for Black anything. I’m still salty about him calling us Mixed girls “Mutts,” but trust that his daughter North will straighten him out on that front).  

Oooh but those words “when he get on, he’ll leave yo’ ass for a White girl,” echoed the many messages of my personal life story as a light-skinned, ethnically ambiguous-looking Biracial #BLEWISH girl with a Jewish mom and a Black dad and a lifetime of growing up in swirl-friendly Seattle, Washington where this topic was such a constant obsession that I moved across the country to escape it. Where, adding insult to injury, local media reported back then and even now about how Black hetero women in Seattle should not expect to be desired or sought by Black men. 

Where my swirling Black father routinely called Black women “bitches,” and wouldn’t let my Black friends, male or female, cross the threshold into his house. Where, starting in elementary school, many of the Black boys and men in my neighborhood and schools went out of their way to inform us Black and Mixed girls of all the ways in which White girls were superior to us. I never heard this stuff from the Mixed guys; it was the Black-Black guys with Black moms and dads and sisters and grandmothers. And they didn’t exempt me or the other Mixed girls–we were included in their condemnation and branded undesirable from the same early age as the other girls. (Deets in my upcoming memoir).

So, steeped in this messaging, I knew by adolescence that I was already seen by my father and my Black male peers as “less than” a White girl. Any White girl simply by virtue of my non-Whiteness. Less beautiful, less desirable, less worthy of love and protection, less everything I might want to be. As a young adult, some of the Black guys I had crushes on passed me over to swirl, then eagerly sought my approval of their new relationships. I knew the pattern all too well.

harry-belafonte-sidney-poitier

A young Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte during the Civil Rights Movement. 

Jesse isn’t the first and he won’t be the last and again–this is not a personal indictment of him but rather a look at the background context against which we are made to process these incidents. I grew up watching this drama play out with countless guys in my environment as well as many Black male celebrities. But the ones who got my attention were popular actor/activists, like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, who left Black wives and children to marry interracially.

swirl sellout

And while there is nothing inherently wrong with interracial dating and mating, I am concerned by the sentiments I’m seeing from some Mixed women and non-Black swirling women that criticize Black women for feeling some kind of way without acknowledging the thorny and painful history behind their feelings. Discrediting someone’s truth because it’s different from yours is something we all have to stop doing. It’s not easy, but it’s the only way we can move forward.

When I see Blackfolks criticized for not being kumbaya about swirling, I laugh because my Mom was Jewish. Since Jewish identity is traditionally defined as passing down from mother to child, and a large number of Jewish men “marry out,” that form of swirling is a BFD in many Jewish communities. Some Jewish parents have been known to disown their sons and even sit Shiva for them while they’re still very much alive. Point is: humans are tribal by nature and the instinct to preserve tribal identity is not unusual. Nor is it necessarily a sign of racism. We are constantly challenged to evolve as a species but in the meantime, dismissing folks’ feelings and the history behind those feelings doesn’t contribute to the process of growth.

cosmo 2015

White women are consistently portrayed as more beautiful and desirable than Black women, as evidenced by this 2015 feature in Cosmopolitan magazine.

In considering the question of whether a Black man can be both #woke and swirling, we must also consider the nonstop optics and messaging that White girls and women are inherently beautiful and desirable, and Black girls and women are not. And yes, the Whiter-looking non-White girls and women are deemed more desirable in all aspects of popular culture than their darker-skinned sistren, but make no mistake: when these men choose to cross the line, few of them are half-stepping. From the regular news stories about famous Black men publicly decrying the value and beauty of Black women to the endless stream of commercials, advertising and images in across pop culture, to reports that Black women are the least desirable on various dating websites and apps, the message is loud and undeniably clear: Black women, you’re not wanted.

Acclaimed educator/author/activist and former Bennett College President Julianne Malveaux recently shared on her Facebook page an incident where a White woman’s leashed dog pushed open the gate to Julianne’s yard. Julianne gave the woman a dirty look. And a dreadlocked Black man walking behind the White woman said to Julianne (who, despite her property boundary being breached, had not uttered a word), “What is this about? Why you got an attitude?” Then the Black man loudly told the White woman about “evil Black women.” As Julianne wrote: “Bad enough that Becky and her dog think it cool to push into my space. Worse that Dead Dread feels like he has to rescue her. Who is rescuing Black women?” 

Black Women are Trash

As I was writing this, I saw this tee-shirt advertised on Facebook for sale until a bunch of folks pushed to get it taken down from the social media platform and website.

Lest we forget how the gorgeous, gifted, super-classy Michelle Obama and Serena and Venus Williams and countless Black women in private life and the public eye are ROUTINELY denigrated, dissed, compared to primates and other animals, described as “manly,” and endlessly held up as inferior to White women. This form of ridicule is practically a staple among some Black male celebrities/sports figures who feel the need to publicly spew these messages. It’s so common that many people–including some Blackfolks–don’t even consciously notice it; they simply accept it as a given. And many have internalized these attacks to accept them as truth.

What IS the real deal about crossing color lines in the name of love? How common is it anyway? There is research to suggest that most Black men are with Black women and only a small percentage swirl. But what’s pushed at us in mainstream media reflects the popular narrative of White supremacy in all areas. Why should beauty, desirability and popularity as romantic partners be any different?

Research also tells us that there’s enough sexual swirling  going on to make Multi-racial babies a booming demographic, with Census reports that the “two or more races” population is projected to be the fastest-growing over the next 46 years.” According to this research from Pew, “Rapid increases in mixed-race marriages have likely fueled much of the rise in the share of multiracial babies in the past several decades. Since just 1980, the share of marriages between spouses of different races has almost quadrupled, up to 6%, a new Pew Research study on multiracial Americans has found. At the same time, though, a large share of mixed-race babies (43%) are not living with a married parent, suggesting that it’s probably not just interracial marriage, but interracial dating in general that is driving the demographic change.” Keep in mind that behind every statistic is a human story. Or two. Or three.

barack and michelle 2

From the cover of Ebony magazine.

And on the topic of Biracial Black men and their romantic preferences, we must stop here to acknowledge one POTUS#44 Barack Obama and the fact that many of us were intrigued but wary of his personal racial expressions until we were introduced to Michelle. One look at her and our questions were answered: he LOVED and valued this unapologetically  Black woman. Beyond his obvious political charm and viability, the love he demonstrates for Michelle Obama, the adoring desire when he looks at her and speaks of her–those are priceless and precious to many Black women–again, because they are just so rare in the public arena.

jager_sheila

Sheila Miyoshi Jager

Yet, as I’m writing this, news breaks of a Mixed-race Dutch/Japanese professor Sheila Miyoshi Jager, (described by some media as White) sharing the revelation that POTUS#44 twice proposed to her, but that they broke up because he believed that having a non-Black spouse would be bad for his political career. While “going low” by sharing this story publicly, Sheila pulls the “he’d have preferred to be with me, but chose the Black woman for political reasons” card, which is just another version of the same old “Black women are undesirable” trope. Key point: whatever the reasons for either of their marital choices,  it’s the ongoing message behind Sheila’s “revelation” that fits into this dynamic.

The thing is that none of these public choices take place in a vacuum. Absent the gnarled context of these collisions of racism and romantic choices, Jesse, Harry, Sidney and others are simply individuals making very personal choices. Do they ever look in the mirror and ask themselves about these dynamics? We’ll probably never know. But when their words and actions are considered in the context of their pro-Black activism and projected upon a public screen for our consumption, we can’t ignore the complexities of the optics, the triggers embedded in the messages and the way they’re likely to impact different groups of people based on their own lives and racial histories.

This isn’t about woke Black men swirling being good or bad. It’s not that simple or simplistic. This is about America and her racial history, about how notions of beauty and desirability shape all of us in our formative years, inform our adult choices, and set us up to have to wrestle with these issues in personal and sometimes very public ways.

There is no consensus to be reached or conclusions to wrap this all up in a neat, post-racial package. The point is to have these conversations as honestly as we can, sharing our differing–and often divergent–perspectives with full acknowledgement that each person’s truth is valid, knowing that sometimes our experiences will bump up against each other in uncomfortable ways. But if we’re serious about addressing racism to create something better, we must heed James Baldwin’s wisdom that, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

And we must continually work to untangle the personal from the political and honor the sometimes ugly truths of each others’ lived experiences if we are to ever find common ground. Long after we have forgotten Jesse Williams’ name and ceased to care about his personal life, the underlying dynamics will remain to challenge our choice to either maintain the status quo, or believe that we deserve and can create something better. If we’re genuinely down to tackle that hurdle, then maybe we’ll get to the point where celebrity activists’ personal romantic and sexual choices can truly be just that, and nothing more.

Until then, a luta continua, the struggle continues.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crisis Communications 101: Lessons to be Learned from Luvvie’s Fauxpology

The planet Mercury is retrograde, mucking up communications like nobody’s business. Maybe popular blogger/influencer/author Luvvie Ajayi is more deeply impacted by these communication misfires than the rest of us. But I’m not quite ready to give her a planetary pass for the fauxpology she recently issued after publicly trashing unnamed Black and Mixed-race activists in a Facebook post, then spending most of the week defending her rant.

 

luvvie fauxpology snip

 

I’m going to analyze this from two of my areas of expertise: as both a Mixed-race identity activist, and and as a veteran strategic communications expert with special cred in crisis communications. My receipts in this area include Spelman College and other HBCUs, the Children’s Defense Fund Black Community Crusade for Children, speechwriting for high-level government officials, and teaching public speaking at Temple University, along with more than a decade of executive consulting in the public and private sectors.

 

Let’s break this down:

First–context. Now that Luvvie’s platform and spotlight are shining way beyond her blog and social media presence, her words and messaging are impacting other people and platforms beyond her own. It is possible that her being featured as one of the most “Woke” women in the new issue of Essence magazine, might have spurred someone in her circle to help her to realize this. And since monthly magazine content and covers are typically wrapped up weeks or several months ahead of publication, Essence was loving Luvvie long before her problematic FB post.

luvvie essence group

Luvvie is 3rd from left.

Reference: Here are her original offending rant and my response.

Now for our Crisis Communications case study analysis:

  1. She begins the fauxpology by centering herself in the narrative and talking about what a bad week it’s been for her and her spirit without taking any responsibility for having created the “shitstorm” in the first place. This sounds like she’s complaining about the natural consequences of her choice to trash the activists rather than feeling any actual remorse or experiencing a real revelation. Solution: Reference yourself, not the victims, and stick to owning your offense and taking full responsibility for the impact and outcomes that it created.
  2. Unlike in her original post, the fauxpology has a glaring omission of Black people and a total focus on Mixed-race folks. “I should not have broadly generalized a whole group of my people based on a few people. My mixed race comment offended a bunch of you…”  Where is the reference to the Black activists who were the focus of most of her rant? Why the singular focus on only Mixed-race and light-skinned people who were clearly not the main target? Rather than saying, “My mixed race comment offended a bunch of you,” an apology would say, “My comments about both Black and Mixed-race activists were offensive.” And P.S. to everybody: You don’t upper-case Black and lower-case Mixed-race, or vice versa for that matter. Just: No on that passive-aggressive foolishness.
  3. “To my mixed race and light skinned folks, I’m sorry I made you feel like I was questioning your Blackness.” Here you see the classic fauxpology move: I’m sorry I made you feel like I was…” putting the burden on us for what we felt in response to her comments versus a more sincere, straightforward apology for what she said and inferred. She could have simply said, “I’m sorry I questioned your Blackness.” Although, to be clear, she was not “questioning” our Blackness. She was trashing it. There is a huge difference.
  4. She was also being patronizing and condescending while policing our identities. Your Blackness is not for me to judge … Your #BLAXIT passport was never revoked or in jeopardy.” Luvvie still seems to see herself as qualified to confer Black and Mixed-race identity upon folks. Does she not realize that we are born with all the Blackness and any other DNA we need, no external recognition or validation required? She seems to be claiming authority while continually showcasing her lack of basic knowledge and understanding about how these things work in the real world. Then she demonstrated more cluelessness by throwing Rachel Dolezal into the conversation as if Dolezal is Mixed. You can read my column on that hot topic right here.   Solution: she could have said, “I have no right to question, challenge or insult anyone’s racial or identity credentials and I will not do it again.”
  5. Biggest issue: Why is this entire message limited to Mixed-race and light-skinned folks when the bulk of the originating crap-fest specified Black activists? Why aren’t they even mentioned here? Maybe she reached out to them separately. But without knowing that, this just plays like that age-old, beyond trite and tired attempt to divide us: house vs. field; light vs. dark; Mixed vs. Black, etc. Does she really think we don’t see this obvious ploy to favor us at the expense of Black people? To prioritize us and our feelings as if they’re somehow different or more important?
  6. This is the same game the world runs on us each and every day. I don’t know if her advisors pointed her in this direction, or whether she came up with this bright idea on her own. But pitting us against each other just spotlights the underlying problem of her original rant, subsequent defenses of that rant, and now this fauxpology: no evidence that she has any desire to further unity or solidarity. Solution: since she mentioned Black and Mixed-race activists separately and to different degrees in her original post, this response should have covered the same ground in the same proportion and order. Crisis communications require absolute specificity to be effective. Solution: To simply say, “It was not my intention to promote divisiveness between Black and Mixed-race or dark and light-skinned people. I am striving to better understand this dynamic so that I do not inadvertently make the same mistake in the future.
  7. Attempts at humor. Luvvie is a very talented and successful humorist. However, there is nothing amusing about any of this, or any place for this kind of messaging in a crisis communications response. Whether citing Rachel Dolezal in a Mixed-race context or falling back on her popular reference to not coming for her “edges in the name of Jamaican Black Castor Oil,” these read as attempts to deflect from the gravity of the topic, which help to render it a fauxpology rather than the real deal.
  8. Skip the low-key self-referential promotion. The “I should’ve known how important my words would be to people” comes off like a humble brag. Of course she knows how important her every word is–as a blogger, social media influencer, #1 New York Times bestselling author and one of Essence magazine’s “Most Woke Women,” what else could she possibly think? Any real apology focuses on the offender taking full and unequivocal responsibility while centering the offended and their experience to the original offense(s). And promoting her book just felt even more self-serving and less authentic. Solution: delete all of these references before posting.

One thing is clear: If you build your brand on the concept of you judging people, you are seemingly not trying to understand or respect them or their point-of-view. It’s never a good idea to convey a mix of superiority and cluelessness when responding to a communications crisis, especially when you created that crisis in the first place. She’s many days late and several dollars short with the fauxpology, which should have run immediately after the “shitstorm,” and she blew the opportunity by trying to play colorist divide-and-conquer politics while opting out of taking actual responsibility.

Big picture takeaway: Beyond Luvvie, everyone experiences communications crises from time to time. How we respond can have more long-term impact than the original offense. And when done properly, the response can neutralize damage and sometimes even turn a negative into a positive. Let’s recycle this “shitstorm” into a teachable moment for us all.

A study published in the May 2016 issue of the journal Negotiation and Conflict Management Research outlines the essential elements of an effective apology:

1. Expression of regret

2. Explanation of what went wrong

3. Acknowledgment of responsibility

4. Declaration of repentance

5. Offer of repair

6. Request for forgiveness

See how simple an apology can be?

 

MRM logo snip

And on a more personal note: Anyone who sincerely wants to know about Mixed-race people from the source is invited to visit Multi-racial Media, where a large and varied group of us very ably represent ourselves in all of our complicated glory. This is my very respectful request that all non-Mixed public commentators and anyone else who is inclined to trash, police, and/or play to us at the expense of any other People of Color, please cease and desist immediately and forever. We are more than capable of speaking for ourselves. And when it comes to potential conflicts, the old-school rules apply: Don’t start none, won’t be none. Because you don’t need to be any kind of communications expert to understand that common-sense wisdom.

merc retro sorry

Finally: As any communications expert can tell you, Mercury goes retrograde 3 to 4 times each year. Do your homework so you’re not misspeaking and you might not need to apologize in the first place.