Why is your Colin making you Uncomfortable

Today’s post is written by a very special contributor, L. David Stewart, MBA, MSRE, a Black man who also happens to be my brother. As a Black man, he has words that I believe need to be heard. 

Race is for me is never as simply as the proverbial “black and white.” Folks I know on both sides HATE talking about it… so its Friday l want to make some folks uncomfortable and think.

As a Black MAN in this country (Black WOMEN have a separate sect of things to deal with, including from some of us as Black men, but that’s for another discussion…and I point you to PLENTY of women who are experts on my Friend’s list, including my Blood sister, for more about that) my very EXISTENCE makes people uncomfortable. Why? Because if I am the stereotypical assumed [insert, thug, drug dealer, extremist, etc.], that scares people for presumed safety reasons. And maybe they should be scared, but for other reasons, as I may be more dangerous to their comfort zone in other ways. I am educated (two master’s degrees and working on a doctorate), well-traveled, and all these other things that by society standards, say “well you made it so you have nothing to complain about.” Au contraire!

Some of my own accomplishments I don’t share because, to be honest, folks don’t believe me.  My dad, a Southern born and raised Black man, told me in my 20s: “Son, with the things you have done, if you were not Black, you’d be on Time magazine and fast-tracked for infinite growth!” I hated hearing that, but it was true. I have known racism first-hand since I moved to the North Side of Chicago. I played baseball for 12 years and was scouted actually by a MLB team. One year, I was denied the best pitching award, because well…you can figure it out. You may say “Well, maybe you weren’t the best.” Except the numbers said I was. But the golden boy of the league had to win it. Press ops and the like. Did it motivate me to defeat him in the championship game? Damn skippy! That’s when I thought, JUST BE BETTER!

If you are Black in this country, you have most likely heard “You have to be TWICE as good to be where THEY are.” I took it further; I feel you have to be TWICE as good to be half as far, so to be even you have to be four times as good, and to be TWICE as good you have to be eight times as good! What am I basing that on? I worked in architecture from 1996-2009. My undergraduate degree is in architecture. My initial dream was becoming an architect. I tasted racism in high school when I was told I could NOT be an architect. (I was the only Black youth in the room). I tasted it working in firms, when I was not exposed to the same things other interns were in the form of opportunity.  In undergrad at a prominent university where I graduated, it was obvious, but systemically obvious. Was I called a N*GGER to my face? Only once and well, thankfully, I had some restraint. However, any time race was discussed I was told indirectly to not make it racial. I remember vividly my freshman year, discussing race, and these twin male students, who were White, and blessed to live and come from good money, told all of us that were not White: “You have no excuse! You are hiding behind race and need to get over it; you are here, what is the issue?” One continued to opine on the socioeconomic plight of the South Side of Chicago (where I am from) and how it’s “THOSE PEOPLES” fault. Now I professionally rebuked him and invalidated all of his claims, but it reminded me that Black men only comfortably exist when it’s comfortable to be in an accepted space. If it’s music (certain types), if it’s entertainment (certain types), and if it’s negative (all types), it is comfortable for the general society.  Cultural pride or social awareness makes non-People of Color NERVOUS PERIOD!

As I got older I went from the overly militant, to moderate to trying to take race out of it.  DIDN’T WORK!  I’d lead discussions with my education to make people feel better. I would HIDE the fact that I am a hip-hop artist (www.refgenmusic.com, artist name NIZM) because I would be stereotyped. Other co-workers can talk about the cool things they do, and when they do perceived “Black things” like rap or are into hip-hop it’s cool.  When I as a Black person say I am in to Modernist architecture I get told I am “acting White.” All of this subconsciously builds and you learn to either numb yourself or face it. I learned to face it.

As an educator, racism welcomed me with her pungent aroma when I became a college professor. I was literally prevented from going into a faculty office because of my attire. (P.S. it was at an art and design school and almost everyone at an art and design school looks like a student, lol).  From there I was forced to revisit this. If I was a non-POC with ripped jeans and Birkenstocks and a t-shirt, and said I was a PhD student, there would be NO QUESTIONS ASKED! Might be a weed head but you know “kids these days” (insert Ryan Lochte HERE lol). Meanwhile if I got some fly gym shoes, a fitted hat, a t-shirt and jeans (that don’t sag), I am thug. I was motivated to dig into this with my first exhibit called “Hear We Are” (www.thehearwearexhibit.com) showing 10 Black male educators.  These men are well-educated but if you saw them on the street, it would be negatively inferred the worse. WHY?

So all that said, Colin Kaepernick! His stance, (or non-stance, lol) hits because when he was just being a quarterback (which is a LOADED position for Black males in NFL history in itself), he was adored. Now he has a position OUT OF HIS COMFY SPACE and folks are burning his jersey. The counter is that he is rich and he was raised by White parents so he has no basis to show his “contempt.” As I paraphrase James Baldwin, to be Black in this country is to be in a “state of continuous rage.” When you are an athlete and winning, it’s cool!  Living in the South now, I chuckle at how folks I KNOW don’t like Black people ROOT on their favorite college or professional Black athlete in sports. When that athlete becomes aware of cultural matters particular to him or her, they are immediately vilified. Why? To better illustrate this, if a non-POC athlete addresses something like domestic violence (which is no laughing matter) or their own country’s wrongs it is saluted. However, history has shown time and time again, that when Black athletes do it, and in this case Black males, it’s reminiscent of a “N*gger forgetting his place”

Now I can opine on this for MUCH longer, but I will transition to a potential solution. What are we asking for? Respect! “Put some Respeck on it!” Also, don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable about Black people and the history and things we went through and still go through. Privilege allows for you to NOT understand. This is no different than what women of color go through. I do not nor will I experience the world as a woman. However, that does not excuse me from being sympathetic, empathetic and aware. Issues like rape and domestic violence I give the same zeal for as I do Black male issues. Also overcome your stereotypes and bias. Black people in America alone have a diversity that is unrivaled. If for nothing else, we have merged with many cultures in different geographies, and systemic issues have forced creativity that, to be frank, is envied and emulated the world over (exhibit a, hip-hop fashion; exhibit b music; etc.) Lastly, as you accept your “un-comfort,” don’t patronize or antagonize. Admit it scares you and help those that want to help themselves and step BACK! If invited to the discussion then you give feedback and in an assisting capacity. Racism is as much of this country as is the flag. It will NEVER dissipate; however, real conversations can go a LONG way toward UNDERSTANDING each other and why we are the way we are. And if Colin NOT standing for the Flag which has HISTORICALLY oppressed Black people (not theory; facts) bothers you, be man or woman enough to confront yourself and ask WHY it bothers you. If you do, you will understand why Colin, and many more of us, continue to remain hesitant about a lot of other things from expression to existence that you dare not consider.

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Feeling the economic legacy of racism or what we don’t talk about in polite company

Despite the fact that I am Black, I was born Black and I probably will be Black until the day that I die (can I do the Rachel Dolezal and identify as someone else?) and while I  understood since childhood that there were people who didn’t like Black people, it took a lot of years of being earthside to understand that racism is a system; an institution. To quote Charles Blow, who quoted the Aspen Institute “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”

A recent conversation with my first husband reminded me of the first time that I truly recall glimpsing into the face of systemic racism, yet at the time I didn’t know that what I perceived as personal racism was indeed part of the larger system of racism that impacts Black lives regularly. We were a young, dumb and in-love couple who had married early, like straight-out-of-high-school type early.

As newlyweds, we needed to secure a permanent place to live and this was before the Internet and Craigslist, so we went through the classified ads placing calls as we used to do back in the old days. I called about an apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview area. I remember clear as day, all these years later (24 to be exact) speaking with what appeared to be an older white woman on the phone. I explained that we were young newlyweds, looking for a place, she seemed excited to meet us and told us we could come view the apartment right away.

Less than an hour later we arrive, ring the buzzer, get buzzed in, my then husband, a white man walked ahead of me going up the stairs. He warmly greeted the woman, she responded with warmth. I was a bit laggy as I was with child and it was several flights up. A minute or two later I arrive, and her warm smile vanished at the sight of my then very slight, brown body. She looks at me and says coldly “The apartment is no longer available.” Obviously we go back and forth but it is clear that she has no intention of renting to us, a mixed-race couple. Hell, she didn’t even want to show us the place! (And I got to experience the same apartment-rental treatment, sans pregnancy, after I had hubby number two, except that time the landlord-not-to-be was a middle-aged white man.)

At the time, I had no idea that what felt like personal shame was part of business as usual in how Blacks and other non-whites have been kept out of good neighborhoods. That what felt so personal and ugly was just part of the system, the institution.

It would take a few decades for me to start seeing racism as a system whose impact still resonates with Black people today yet is often invisible to many white folks thus creating what I call the silo of whiteness.

I have shared before that my father was born and raised under Jim Crow in Arkansas. He spent most of my early years avoiding talking about his childhood other than how he had to pick cotton as a kid and how he was 11 years old before he lived in a place with indoor plumbing. Growing up, I knew that I had uncles who hated white people and for many years it didn’t make sense to me.

However, it started to make sense several years ago, when my father, in recognizing his own mortality after my mom’s death, made a series of tapes for our family. In these tapes, my father spoke more in depth about his life in Arkansas. How his childhood dream of being a scientist was shot down when midway through high school, a white teacher told him that was being a scientist was not something for colored boys but that he could be a good janitor. He spoke about the man who allowed his family to sharecrop on the land that my grandparents stayed on; he also shared how they left that land and ended up in the first public housing project built in his town, in large part because my grandparents wouldn’t give over one of their daughters to that landowner. Much of what my father shared made me proud of the resilience of my family but it also made me mad at what was denied. It made me mad at how much of this recent history is brushed aside by white folks who seem to think that slavery ended in the 1800’s and all became well for Black folks.

Recently I have started thinking of the economic impact of slavery, Jim Crow and racism of the past on today’s Black folks as I grapple with the reality that my father (who is now retirement age) has no retirement other than Social Security. That whatever he had, he and my mother put into my brother and I. That as the eldest kid in a family with only two kids, I find myself wondering how can I secure my own old age, finish raising my daughter and ensure that my father who already lives hand-to-mouth doesn’t end up in a cardboard box with a can of Alpo.

A few years ago, a white friend asked me why I helped my dad out and why hadn’t he planned better? It was the type of question that knocked me over at the time. I was still steeped in the shame and personal responsibility game and asking myself the same questions.  Yet now I can answer that question and answer it without shame: In a country that systematically denied access to opportunities for its darker inhabitants, my father like many found himself unable to plan for any future, much less save for it. He gave all he could to ensure that my brother and I might just do a little better than he did and I stand on his shoulders and in recognizing that honor, I give back because it is the right thing to do. I know that for every Neil degrasse Tyson (and who are we kidding, the sciences are not exactly overrun with Black folks), there were many who simply could not break those barriers and that doesn’t make them any less human, just that their excellence exists in other ways.

If it happened now, I would ask that friend: Did you ever question why your parents were able to help you? Have you ever thought about how wealth is created in the United States? Have you ever thought about the wealth gap and why it exists? Generational wealth is harder to obtain when you enter the race dead last and have to support parents and grandparents who were systematically denied any chance to build even a modest amount of family wealth.

In light of the Charleston tragedy, it seems we are attempting to talk about race as a nation, yet I would caution that no discussion about race is complete unless we delve into not only the institution of racism (and how it continues to be maintained) but also the real legacy of racism on Black people and how its effects can still be felt today despite this notion that all is fair and equal. Any less of a discussion and we are fooling ourselves about creating racial equity.
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Life on the intersection of class and the shame

In a nation with growing income inequality, we rarely seem to talk about what that means on a personal and lived level. Instead we all call ourselves middle class never commenting on the fact that today’s middle class includes people in well heeled communities earning more than $150,000 a year as well as families scraping to get by and playing financial three card monte who bristle at the idea of not being middle class. No one wants to be poor and really no one wants to be rich, but the reality is some of us are closer to the ends than we are to the middle.

I live on the intersection, I am a Black woman, technically I am middle class according to the numbers reported annually on my 1040 but I prefer to consider myself working class. I am a class straddler, I am aware that my place in the middle class is tenuous at best and dependent on my ability to work and earn a certain amount of money. For those unfamiliar with the term class straddler, we are the people who were born working class or poor but who over our lifetimes have moved up the class ladder. America has always had its share of class straddlers, as a nation of upward aspirations, it’s hard to not know someone who is a class straddler. Some of us blend in well and some of us struggle with our place further up the class ladder; I would be the latter.

Like race, talking about class or even money is uncomfortable for many, so we coast along on our assumptions, never realizing that just like the assumptions made about race and racial matters, assumptions about class also hurt.

Growing up, my parents were working class when times were good and when times were bad, I knew the miracles of government cheese and butter. Like many from similar backgrounds, who live life as a class straddler, I have often at times tried to distance myself from my childhood because of the shame. Yet shame is a powerful and destructive force because it keeps us locked in a dance of inauthenticity where we fear being ourselves, we fear sharing our truth and that fear is a destructive force.

In the past year, while I have talked more openly and honestly about race in this space than ever before, I have sidestepped the class issue entirely due to a misguided sense that with my change in professional positions, it would be harmful to share. Yet it’s tiring to pretend and as I get older, I just don’t do artifice well. In fact it’s antithetical to the life I am striving to lead and the person I want to be.

A series of recent conversations sent me in a spiral and I realized that my downward spiral was a result of personal shame…shame because I have never traveled abroad. A well meaning person suggested that I should travel abroad to gain a better perspective on anti-black bias and racism. I would love to travel abroad but I cannot afford to do so at this stage in my life. Hell, I couldn’t even afford to visit my dad this summer which was very shameful…but I digress. For many first generation removed from broke folks like myself, we often carry a heavy financial burden, often comprised of family members in need of help and other obligations that our peers who were born higher up the class ladder may never face. In my case, parents who never had more than two nickels to rub together as well as early parenthood have meant that my ascent up the class ladder has come with baggage, baggage that weighs me down at times.

My story though is not unique, I know far too many other straddlers in the same place, juggling the professional face of success and the financial rewards that are reaped yet at the same time helping out family members, paying off astronomical student loans often the same loans that allowed us to gain access to the world that changed our class status. It’s a lonely place at times because never are you fully comfortable in your new world or your old world. Friends and loved ones in your old world make assumptions and often assume your life to be what it isn’t….if I had a dollar for every distant family member who assumes I am rich. Chuckle. Or for new friends who I must hide my life from. I am tired of it all. Tired of wearing a mask that isn’t real, we cannot help the circumstances to which we are born, we can only do better if the opportunities and resources present themselves to us.

There is no shame in being who we are and as I journey in this middle stage of my life, I finally see that the cost to pretend or not be fully authentic is more than I wish to pay. So, yes, traveling to see the world is a great idea yet in a country where only 2 out of 5 Americans regularly fly, I am hardly alone in staying close to home. That said, if you want to pack me in your bag, the next time you are off to see the world just let me know. Until then, I am joyful for what I have and always mindful that in a world where many struggle to make ends meet and toil at jobs where human respect and dignity is lacking that I have a chance to make a difference in this everchanging upside down world and that my kids have never known the miracles of government cheese and butter or the horrors of spoiled food from the food pantry.