Musings on Whiteness and Mammy…the Toxic Sea Or Level 200

“The reality is that African-American women face discrimination through both their race and gender. Spheres of social identities—from race to gender to sexuality to disability—operate on multiple levels, creating multidimensional experiences.”
Kimberlé Crenshaw

When I first started writing about racism back in 2003, barely anyone wanted to touch what I was selling except other people of color and a few hardy white people who had swallowed the red pill and had the intestinal fortitude to touch the uncomfortable. Ours is not a culture that willingly embraces the uncomfortable yet, in recent years, technology’s ability to capture what has been normalized for centuries in this country—that is, to literally show people proof of what Black people have been saying has been happening to them all along (and rarely being fully believed)—has made discussions of racism almost hip and trendy.

Talk of white privilege and white supremacy has now entered the mainstream lexicon and, while many are genuinely making the effort to labor for racial justice, the reality is that we don’t have a shared vision of what racial justice and racial equity actually look like. It should be quite clear by now, for example that a few well-placed people of color in highly visible roles or in positions of wealth doesn’t indicate a post-racial era and words on pages (notably, anti-racism and civil rights laws) often fail to lead to actual justice for victims of racism. More people are aware of systemic racism and institutional bias and all that thanks to the growing evidence, video and otherwise, shared online and elsewhere, but that awareness hasn’t brought us any closer to solutions…yet.

Instead, what we are actually often doing is working for the continued existence of whiteness as the cultural standard bearer and as the baseline norm, with the vision of bringing marginalized people into that norm. It’s the old assimilation thing in new clothing in many cases. Applying a form of justice to everyone that continues to support whiteness as the best and most normal standard. Or maleness or any other privileged class as being the standard.

We often talk about how Black and Brown people in this country have been dehumanized but what is truly dehumanizing  is how whiteness as the cultural norm doesn’t recognize individual or collective humanity nor does it often respect cultural differences. It demands the blood and sweat of all and it rarely sees the individual. And yet we hold this concept of whiteness up as our norm and something to aspire to.  It should instead be destroyed…and to be clear, I am not saying that white people should be destroyed. I am however saying that the cultural norm of whiteness should be destroyed. After all, a “value system” that cannot see people’s individual or cultural worth is not healthy for anyone, regardless of race. Whiteness benefits white people but it is not a healthy benefit even for white people; for all that it gives, it demands the soul in return.

True racial justice should honor the inherent worth and dignity of all people and should not require one standard of “normal.” But it doesn’t, and as someone who works in the racial justice and anti-racism world, it has become increasingly clear to me that much of the work that we do is especially harmful to women of color. Because just like in other areas of life, women of color (and particularly Black women) are asked to serve as the pack mules for the greater cause.

For the past several months, I have found myself quietly noticing how women of color are treated on an interpersonal level and after a conversation with a fellow sister activist of color, frankly I am dismayed. Given that we all live within the context of whiteness as our cultural norm, we live with a system that devalues women of color and particularly Black women in the United States. Black women have historically been relegated to one of several archetypes,  with the most popular being: Mammy, Sapphire, Jezebel and the Angry Black Woman.

Even in 2016 with talk of race and racial justice being an almost daily occurrence, rarely are we willing to discuss how we still put Black women in the boxes that whiteness created for them even in the context of dismantling racism. Far too often, we expect the Black women in our lives to be our personal Mammy, to be of service to us all. To nourish us, to teach us, to lift us up, to carry the loads. And yet when do we see their individual humanity? When do we really grasp the intersectionality of a a Black woman’s life with other groups and classes of people? (For example, in feminism, Black women’s racial concerns are often glossed over because the goal is often more focused on white women’s equality first and foremost.) Do we really concern ourselves with the special struggles they face, or do we just pay lip service and throw around jargon while feeling good about ourselves and passing out collective high fives because we think we know a little something?

To be a Black woman in America is to hold multiple identities that start at the intersection of Black and woman and, as Kimberle Crenshaw states, it creates a multidimensional experience. To exist in many spaces and to be validated in none of them. A life with many facets that is rich, complex, and often disheartening but rarely appreciated except in the private spaces where Black women hold each other up…rarely understood except by others at that same race and gender intersection.

Right now in America, the only person who truly sees a Black woman is another Black woman because patriarchy and misogyny often creates too many layers for even a Black man to see a Black women without the frame of whiteness and its unreasonable expectations.

We can talk about race, we can join groups, we can write, we can attend conferences, we can educate, we can march. But at some point we need to shift the discussion to realize that we are all swimming in a toxic sea called whiteness that threatens us all. The cure requires more than the busy work of showing up; it actually requires nuance and intentionality at a level that is frankly missing in many racial justice spaces. If your praxis creates harm to women of color, then your ally-ship is not enough. 
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For My Mentor and All the Black Women Who Hold Us Up

There are people who come into your lives whose presence changes the entire trajectory of your life; for me personally there have been three such people, two of whom I married and the other who was my first instructor when I went to college in my mid-20s. As I have recounted over the years, I was not a stellar student in my high school years (partially a lack of dedication to class attendance and homework but mostly an inability to pass gym classes). So much so that at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I simply decided not to return, instead running off a few months after turning 18 and getting married and then becoming a mother a few weeks after turning 19. Statistically, my life should have been a wrap given that my decision-making at that stage in life wasn’t great but sometimes the universe has a plan that you can’t even begin to imagine.

My early adulthood journey would take many twists and turns and at 25, I would find myself enrolled the School for New Learning at Chicago’s DePaul University (a program aimed at older and other non-traditional students) where my first class was “Women in the Black Church,” taught by gregarious and warm, middle-aged Black woman with a deep laugh, a sparkle in her eye and a slow and measured way of speaking. Cynthia Milsap spoke with authority, but she was warm and inviting and in that first night of class, she asked us to share about ourselves and, in my self-deprecating manner, I said something to the effect that I probably wouldn’t be in this class too long because I wasn’t known for being too book-smart. Cynthia looked at me quietly and told me that “That was not going to happen” and that she would be with me on graduation day.

What can I say? If I had been a betting woman, I would have lost that bet because Cynthia was correct. Over the  years Cynthia would become not only an instructor but my adviser, my mentor and a dear friend. Cynthia saw me not only getting through my undergraduate years but excelling in a way that I could not have imagined. I completed my undergraduate degree in three years, working full time while mothering and being a wife.

During my last months as an undergraduate, Cynthia saw my passion for African-American studies blossom and strongly suggested that I consider applying to graduate school. I did and much to my own surprise, I was accepted to every program that I applied to, even ones that were extremely competitive.

From that point on, Cynthia would serve as my unofficial mentor over the years. When I relocated to Maine, Cynthia stayed in touch with me through the years and every major transition of my life since my late 20s. If too long went without contact, it was not uncommon to get a call (or several) reminding me that with faith all things are possible. Cynthia’s love and support has nurtured and nourished me over the years and she saw in me (and many others) infinite, unlimited potential when no one else did. Much of what I am right now is directly because of Cynthia’s unwavering belief in supporting Black women and all marginalized people. Cynthia was not merely an adjunct professor, she was a minister with a deep abiding faith. She also spent many years serving as executive director for a Chicago faith-based nonprofit, The Night Ministry, and over the years was a researcher and consultant who wore many hats and worked tirelessly for change.

Hence my surprise several weeks ago when I heard that she has been ill since late June and receiving care at Chicago’s free hospital since that time. Turned out that Cynthia had no health insurance and furthermore was at risk of losing her place since with her hospitalization, she hadn’t been able to work and her landlord was getting ready to start eviction proceedings. Several friends put together a crowdfunding campaign to stave off the eviction.

It shook me to my core that a woman who had given so much of herself over the years would be in this situation but it is the unspoken reality that affects far too many Black and Brown women who nurture and nourish others in a world where economics don’t favor women like us. It’s the unspoken reality that pushes me because I saw both my own mother and grandmother die with little in the way of material comforts.

Unfortunately my beloved mentor, Cynthia Milsap passed away this weekend after receiving a diagnosis of kidney disease and systemic lupus.

There are no words. There are only tears because, as I have learned with the other women whose shoulders I stand on, our time on this rock is limited and yet we carry the essence of our personal change-makers with us wherever we go, hoping that we can be half as good as they were.

There was only one Cynthia Milsap but in countless communities there are Black and Brown women like Cynthia whose unwavering faith and belief in nurturing the human spirit plants seeds that sprout in untold places. Women who give so much of themselves, sometimes to the exclusion of themselves, and we (like that greedy boy in Shel Silverstein’s dark story “The Giving Tree”) rarely think about how we can give back.

Rest well my dear friend, big sister and mentor. This is only goodbye for now, until we meet on the other side.
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Raising her, saving her: a Black mama’s pain and reality

Lately, I look at my daughter and it’s increasingly clear that the childhood years are coming to a fast close. As the dolls and stuffies that used to be in daily play rotation lay untouched and our evening talks center more on the intricacies of managing friendships with the occasional questions about more mature fare, I look into her beautiful face and see signs of the young woman she is becoming—a sensitive, headstrong, occasionally verbose being who still believes in fairness and goodness in a world that is often anything but fair or good, especially for those of us with darker skin tones. I also find myself scared shitless thinking about the current state of the world she will be coming of age in.

When my son was little, I knew that the world would judge him harshly. He was a Black boy; that’s just the way it is and was. By the time he was entering his tween years, I saw the looks that no longer regarded him as a cute kid but saw him instead as a potential threat. It hurt my heart but he had our village to help steel him against the realities of Blackness and maleness.

Yet I was naive when my daughter was born. I didn’t think that she would face the same racialized tensions that her brother would face. Oh, I knew there would be challenges as a Black girl but the events of the past year have really driven home for me how unprepared I am for the realities of raising a Black girl in this current climate.

I am raising this almost at times ethereal soul in a world that finds justification in the degradation of Black women and girls. A world in which a white police officer can sexually assault 13 Black women and girls and the mainstream media can barely be bothered to report on his trial. The same officer whose guilt or innocence will be determined by a jury that has nary a Black person on it. A world in which a foster child is attacked viciously in school by the school resource officer for the “crime” of typical teenage behavior, with far too many adults believe that she should have done as she was told and, in some sense, deserved that wanton violence.

This year we have seen the cry of Black Lives Matter yet far too often that cry excludes Black women and girls and as a Black mother raising a Black girl, I cannot sit comfortably in that reality even when I know that my son and his peers are under attack for their Blackness and their maleness. What about my daughter? Hell, what about me?

I knew that I would have to raise my daughter to deal with the very real microaggressions that occur when existing in white spaces. The “friends” with the backhanded comments about appearance, hair, family…I lived that life as a girl, I still live it to some degree as a woman. But the acceptance of Black womanhood and girlhood as permanent second-class status that is worthy of state-sanctioned violence? No, I can’t accept this; I refuse to accept it. Yet what can I do? I have no pearls of wisdom other than my own lived experience. The last female member of my immediate family died six weeks after my daughter’s birth. I have no mother, sister, aunts or cousins to surround my girl and give her the strength she will need to rise above it.

Black women and girls have always existed in spaces that elevated white womanhood, but what we are facing now is more than just the elevation of whiteness and femaleness. It is a systematic attack on Black women and girls. It is an attempt at complete erasure of our lives and our experiences.  In a world where one missing white woman or girl is broadcast on a 24/7 loop, it is agonizing to know that only the degradation of Black women and girls is worthy of media coverage. Rarely is the humanity of Black women and girls deemed worthy of acknowledgement. It is enough to make a mama weep. How do I raise her? How do I save her in this cruel and ugly world that sees no beauty or worth in girls like us? 
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