All New Olympics, Same Old Game

If you’ve paid attention at all to world news, sporting news, or Buzzfeed memes, you realize the Olympics are underway. As a global event that celebrates athleticism, grit, and grace, the Olympics has it all: intrigue, drama, racial bias.

In particular, I’m talking about the skewering of America’s former darling, gymnast Gabby Douglas in the national media and the evolving story of Ryan Lochte, the decorated US swimmer, and his teammates lying about being robbed at gunpoint.

On its face, these two stories may seem unconnected. How does the expectation that Douglas should overperform Black respectability lest she risk embarrassing the entirety of the black race (pro tip: she’s not responsible for your feelings) relate to four white swimmers? Both of them involve predetermined opinions about race and behavior.2016-08-13-1471047667-5344011-gabby

In Douglas’ case, she is a young woman who is no longer the bubbly, happy teenager America met in London in 2012. She is the face of several companies, among them Kellogg’s and Nike. She is an author of a bestselling young adult book. Her personal effects are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History. She’s also the centerpiece of a reality show “Douglas Family Gold” on the Oxygen network. She’s no longer a carefree teenager, but a businesswoman in her own right.

Yet the criticism surrounding her patriotism, appearance, and what people assume is a salty attitude in the wake of the success of her teammates Aly Raisman and Simone Biles, has likened Douglas to an ungrateful child.

Douglas is a seasoned athlete and fierce competitor and the criticism lobbed against her has been profoundly sexist. I’ve never heard of any male athlete ridiculed for four years because his hair isn’t perfectly styled after performing dangerous, potentially deadly, feats. The expectation that she should smile more is akin to men demanding women smile as they navigate the world.

As my exceptionally talented friend and actress L wrote, “She’s not here to smile for you.”

Perhaps what has been most frustrating has been the expectation that she should be rooting for Simone Biles because the two are both black, without regard to the women’s off-the-floor relationship (they are rumored to be close, btw.). We expect Douglass to perform happiness at all times, which is ironic, given that gymnastics is a sport that requires cheeriness in floor routines, salutes to judges, pre- and post-interviews, and interactions with the crowd whether or not a gymnast feels like smiling after a poor routine, or like Douglas, losing a coveted spot because of fair play rules.

It seems rather ludicrous that we should demand a woman who is forced to play act all day to fake happiness when she lost a monumental chance to secure her athletic legacy. The dismissal of her feelings is yet another way the public has decided she doesn’t get to have feelings if it comes at the expense of viewers’ desires to see sweet, cheery, happy Little Gabby.

Gymnasts put their bodies through tremendous strain, live away from loved ones for months or years as children, and are under an often ruthless public gaze that they must endure in order to do what they love and secure the money to pay for top coaches, lodging, and expenses. Top-level gymnasts are not excelling at a hobby. They are at work.

The desire to chastise Douglas for being human is the desire to “teach” her, while ignoring that she’s played the game longer than we have and more skillfully than we ever could.

01-ryan-lochte-w529-h352Ryan Lochte played a game as well this week, one of the oldest ones in America. He and his teammates, Jack Conger, Gunnar Bentz, and Jimmy Feigen created a Brown boogeyman to cover up their behavior. Claiming they were robbed at gunpoint in the wee hours of morning, Lochte made statements in the media about the alleged gunmen posing as police officers, putting a gun to his head and robbing him. Currently, officials claim that the swimmers damaged a gas station toilet and paid the manager of the station cash for damages. Their fabrication was an attempt to capitalize on fears of rampant crime in Rio. When the four white swimmers concocted a story about Latin robbers, they also tapped into a generations-old narrative about dangerous People of Color, intent on preying upon white men, women, and children. False accusations against People of Color have resulted in a tarnished international image that has had far-reaching economic, social, and emotional impact. Emmett Till was murdered because of a false accusation. Black and Brown men have been incarcerated for decades because of false accusations. Lochte and crew utilized a narrative as American as apple pie.

While one might argue the swimmers concocted the lie with no regard to race, they intended to capitalize on existing fears among Olympians and their families about the crime rate in Rio. They expected to be believed. They knew if they got caught, they’d be OK. Thus is the power of white privilege.

Coming from a country where black girls and boys are more likely to be suspended or expelled for the same or similar infractions that their white counterparts commit and where hitting puberty creates new fears about being mistaken as a predator like Tamir Rice, I am reluctant to let Lochte and the others off the hook.

Unless they are completely oblivious to US race relations—there is a chance they are that ignorant—they knew that history gives white people the benefit of the doubt, especially when it comes at the expense of someone not white.

While Brian Winter, VP for policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas said the swimmers recalled locals’ irritation of “gringos who treat their country like a third-rate spring break destination where you can lie to the cops and get away with it,” Mario Andrade, spokesman for the Rio Olympics Organizing Committee called those grown men “kids.” Lochte is 32.

Therein lies the rub: Gabby Douglas, who has proven herself as a woman committed to family, country, and most importantly being the best athlete she can be, doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt. She must perform to the exacting standards of an anonymous public that is multi-varied as the colors in a kaleidoscope. She must be more mature than any of us ever could hope to be while Lochte, Conger, Bentz, and Feigen are “kids” who made a mistake.

Rather than pillory someone for how they pay homage to the flag, clap, or style their hair, we should direct our scorn to worthier matters. Gabby Douglas is not here to smile for you.

Raging Black Fear

Some months ago, I was reading an obituary (one of the best parts of the newspaper, IMO) for the actor David Alan Grier’s father, William H. Grier, a respected psychiatrist.  The comedian’s father had been co-author of a 1968 book, Black Rage, which claimed, among other things, that the “psychic tightrope Black Americans walked, their self-image, family structures and worldview [were] distorted by the weight of white oppression,” and that a defining feature of the “black psyche was ‘cultural paranoia’ a justified suspicion of the people and institutions around them.”

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Alton Sterling. Photo credit: NY Daily News

I’ve always had a protective force field around my heart that deflects the everyday racism I encounter. Few people are allowed past those defenses and I’ve created different persona to keep others from knowing my true self. Some call it play-acting or fakery; I call it self-preservation.

When I saw the photo of Alton Sterling, killed by Baton Rouge police on July 5, smiling sweetly at the camera wearing a bright blue shirt that complimented his beautiful skin tone, I felt the first crack in my defenses. His death was yet another in a long list of Black people unnecessarily killed. But I held it together until Philando Castile was killed by St. Paul, Mn., police in front of his 4-year old daughter and girlfriend, just one day later. My heart shattered on contact. The onslaught of white supremacy was just too powerful.

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Philando Castile. Photo credit: KARE 11  Minneapolis St. Paul

Being in public this week has been a testament to my parents, my grandparents, and my ancestors, who have passed down a legacy of endurance. And yet, I want to just effing give up already.

I am Sisyphus, rolling a stone of anti-racism to plug a bubbling volcano of hate only to see that stone roll back down at the very moment I reach the top of the crater.

Each time that boulder rolls back to the floor I am filled with rage. Bright, burning rage at having to constantly argue with the willfully ignorant as to why Muslims shouldn’t need to denounce terrorist attacks by those who pervert their religion in order to prove allegiance to America. Blinding, all-consuming rage at those who question why the LGBT community need safe spaces like dance clubs. And unutterable, seething Black rage at the thought of having to repeat my parents’ lessons on how to act with police to my future black babies.

I wonder if Grier and his co-author Price M. Cobbs would feel validated or saddened that their words still ring true?

The moment we are in as People of Color is one in which the smoldering embers of despair and disappointment are being fed by the winds of injustice, creating the perfect opportunity for an inferno so powerful it will destroy the fragile equilibrium that we fight so hard to maintain.

The pressure to overperform in order to maintain one’s position in the underclass is an experience central to the lives of various People of Color (POC). Latinos toil in dangerous conditions only to be told they are not welcome. Asian Americans are touted as a “model” minority as means to dilute the possibility of cross-racial political organizing only to be denied access to leadership positions and institutions for which they are eminently qualified. “Run faster, jump higher” is shorthand in the Black Community for a lesson we have taught our children for generations: you must always be better in order to even be considered equal.

While some have responded to Sterling and Castile’s deaths in anger—the senseless, unjustified murder of five police officers at a peaceful protest in Dallas is just one response—I find myself battling an unshakeable terror.

This week, I moved to Portland with M, to begin working at a school with people whose work I admire greatly. What should be a moment filled with joyful excitement is instead tinged with fearful uncertainty. As a third generation Chicagoan, I know what neighborhoods are unfriendly, which stores value my money less than others, what times and days to avoid Wrigleyville. In Chicago, I have friends and family throughout the legal, law enforcement, and activist systems. I have a curated and blood-related family that can protect me.

In this new city of unfamiliar white faces, I find myself constantly calculating escape routes. Repeating the self-defense lessons my father, the former Marine, taught me. Memorizing the numbers in my In Case of Emergency contacts.  I have always been religious, but in my new city I find myself praying more and more.

What I pray for more than anything—more than a permanent job, more than financial stability, more than the next big idea—is safety. I pray to feel safe in this not white skin, with this unstraight hair, and this rounded nose and these full lips. I pray that someone will come to my aid when I need it most, despite my beautiful, unalterable, unapologetic blackness.

I am praying, you see, for others to recognize my right to live.

 

 

Thank you, Donald Trump?

As an educator, there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing a classroom lesson reflected in real life and watching students make sense of that moment.

As a rhetorician who studies racial (mis)representations in mainstream US and European media, sometimes the last thing I want is for the bigotry, willful ignorance, and racial dog whistling I document to keep appearing. But then I’d be out of a job.

It’s a hard scale to balance.

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A sign protesting Donald Trump’s political rally in Chicago on Friday, 11 March 2016, at the UIC campus.

This post, however, is a recognition of the impact Donald Trump has had on my (busy, chaotic, when is the next federal holiday?) semester. Trump has energized my lessons on freedom of the press, peaceful assembly, and the First Amendment. Because of Trump, my students past, present, and future at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), gathered last Friday with homemade signs, chanting and marching against what they believed was a candidate who foments racial discord and encourages hateful speech.

My first thought, when I learned of the political rally Trump wanted to hold at the UIC Pavilion was, “Do his people know who’s at this school?”

In 2012, US News and World Report ranked UIC as the 10th most diverse school in the nation. It is designated as both a Hispanic Serving Institution and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institution. In 2014 the university won the Higher Education Excellence in Diversity (HEED) Award from INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine. There also are significant numbers of practicing Muslims. This info is readily available from the UIC Wikipedia page, mind you.

It boggles the minds as to why Trump’s team would attempt to host a rally on a campus known for its social activism and marked racial/ethnic diversity. It seemed like a particularly tone deaf approach to civic engagement influenced by an unrealistically high amount of hubris.

As one of the largest public venues in the city it would certainly make sense that Trump’s camp would consider it a coup to show how loved he is by Chicago when he filled the UIC Pavilion.

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A sign protesting Donald Trump’s political rally in Chicago on Friday, 11 March 2016, at the UIC campus.

But the Trump camp seemed to forget that this is the same city that erupted in 1968 at the Democratic Convention; where several thousand teachers went on strike in 2012; where Black Lives Matter activists shut down Michigan Avenue in the name of stopping incidents of police brutality in 2015; where Chicago State University students shut down the expressway to protest the lack of a state budget which would keep their school open and functioning in February 2016.

Chicago is a city that knows how to stand up for itself.

As I stood silently among the protest crowd listening to the speeches and spoken word pieces (this is Chicago, after all), I tried to think more deeply about the mechanisms in place that made it possible for Trump to spout nativist, blanket statements about the deficiencies of racial/religious minorities and still become the front runner in a race for the leader of a country that prides itself on its racial and ethnic diversity.

I thought about the political environment where voters’ admiration of someone “telling it like ‘it’ is” feels like admiration for telling Brown people to get the hell out and that the American Dream is restricted to a chosen few.

The claims that political correctness is ruining the country is a straw man argument that shields one’s desire to be an insensitive jerk to another person. Remember that political correctness centers on (mostly) avoiding racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, and/or classist remarks.

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A sign protesting Donald Trump’s political rally in Chicago on Friday, 11 March 2016, at the UIC campus.

That people are excited about returning to a time when calling others hurtful names and discriminating against them because of their God-given difference is alarming, not in the least because it indicates a predilection to cruelty.

Yet we, as Americans, should celebrate the renewed vigor Trump’s candidacy has brought to American youth. I have been dismayed at how many of my students—across the universities at which I have taught—have expressed apathy to participating in the political process, to reading the news instead of Buzzfeed lists, and to voting even when politicians make decisions that directly impact their education and future livelihoods.

This political election cycle (can it really be called it a cycle if it never actually ends?) has had my students relating our Moustafa Bayoumi text on U.S. Muslims, to campaign speeches. They have so much to add in our daily “headline rundown” portion of class I have to spend less time talking about theories of reportage because they are taking time to understand it on their own. Suddenly our class lessons on the First Amendment become less about history and more about practice.

There are those who argue that Friday’s protestors limited free speech because their presence stopped Trump’s ability to speak, and for his supporters to hear him speak.

Yet unlike when this country was founded (and until at least 1865), free speech isn’t limited to a select few.

The whole of the electorate has a right to assemble peacefully and speak their peace, whether with bullhorns, spoken word, homemade signs, or chants.

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Signs at the rally were as diverse as the people holding them.

Just like the old woman who was unafraid to act like an asshole and produced a Nazi salute, or the video I saw on a friend’s Facebook page of a young man who told a young Muslim woman while raising his middle finger, “Aaah, get out of America, fuck you,” the Chicago community had a right to make their antipathy toward Trump’s message known.

Trump is a legitimate candidate for office and has the right to say what he pleases to his supporters and to rent whatever space will have him.

But we also have the right to say, “Not in my city.”

 

Thinking Beyond #whitefeminism

Every once in awhile, an image crosses my desk that is so culturally tone deaf, so colossally backward that I wonder if common sense is being taught in the schools anymore. I felt the same way when I saw the Colorlines Facebook post featuring Meryl Streep, Carey Mulligan, Romola Garai, and Anne-Marie Duff, actresses in the upcoming film “Suffragette,” proudly wearing shirts emblazoned with the phrase “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave.”

Wouldn’t it have been nice if everyone had that choice?

Mulligan, Garai, and Duff, as Englishwomen, might be excused for not having a deeper cultural understanding of the term “rebel” as it relates to the Confederacy and “slave” as it relates to black Americans. Yet I honestly wonder, in this present day and age how Streep, an American, could wear that shirt and not see the possibility of it being misconstrued—or doubly read, at least—in relation to U.S. race relations.rebel

That shirt for, many, brings to mind not suffrage, but more recent conversations about the Confederate flag, US slavery, racism, and exploitative economic and social practices that have siphoned resources from Communities of Color across generations.

Streep wearing that shirt showed not only profound ignorance as to the power of words, and a lack of understanding of history, but also a lack of empathy for Women of Color (WOCs).

   Wealth buys many things, but empathy is not one of them, it seems.

Often we think of empathy as someone being kind to another person. In reality, it’s about actively attempting to understand another person’s perspective. It’s about thinking first and then speaking/tweeting/posting. It’s about recognizing that in our positions as sisters, mothers, wives, friends, co-workers, teachers, activists, and the rich and famous, we must recognize that we have an obligation to think about how our actions and words will impact others.

There are moments as WOCs, when we find ourselves fatigued from the battle with #whitefeminism. Let me be clear: #whitefeminism is not a knock on white feminists. Rather it is a critique of the strain of clouded thinking that ignores the importance of race, sexuality, class, and ability in conversations about women’s access to social services, reproductive rights, and interpersonal relationships.

Streep in this shirt, Ani DiFranco organizing a retreat on a slave plantation, Patricia Arquette imploring People of Color and gays to fight for white women’s rights, are just a few of the more prominent ways the phrase “All the women are white and all the men are black,” is reinforced every single day. When President Obama announces an initiative for black men and boys but barely mentions black women and girls. When women’s magazines only offer pictures of white skin to help women self-diagnose cancerous growths. When conversations about suffrage forget to mention Sojourner Truth, and Mary Ann Shadd Cary. When conversations about the Black Panthers ignore the manifold contributions of female Black Panthers. When these kinds of slights, elisions, and erasures happen, they make it ever more impossible for women of all ethnicities to identify with and support feminist causes.

Why should any young brown girl call herself a feminist when only white feminists are given the microphone?

Far too often, intersectionality as a wholistic approach to solidarity building is ignored by and in favor of white women’s experiences. Far too often, the most powerful among us remain silent to this injustice, as if calculating a response according to scarcity theory. Newsflash: advocating for various women will not lessen attainable power for all women.

To be sure, the discussion of intersectionality goes beyond this t-shirt, but the absurdity of claims of ignorance should be loudly noted. “Women helping women” becomes “[White] women helping [white] women” when we default to whiteness in discussions of equal pay and equal rights.

Feminism is big enough for all women to be included, but campaigns organized by people who can’t be bothered to pick up a history book or practice empathy for others will only limit its power and scope in the world.

Only when #whitefeminism becomes #allfeminists can issues with equal pay, exploitation, and political rights be solved.

An Eye for “I”

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By now unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of Rachel Dolezal the black Africana Studies professor and, until just a few days ago, president of a local NAACP chapter who turned out, inexplicably, to be a white woman who kinked up her hair, tanned her skin, and fooled everyone for a decade.

There have been those who have argued that she is suffering from an identity crisis, that she really only passed into blackness to find her authentic self. Let me stop that argument there and point you all to Jamilah Lemiuex’s searing piece about upholding the White Female Fragility Industrial Complex at the expense of delving deeply into issues of white female racism.

For purposes of this post, I am concerned with her act of passing and the visual bamboozlement Dolezal accomplished.

Passing isn’t undertaken lightly. It requires leaving behind one’s family, social connections, and heritage. Dolezal cut ties with her family, moved several states away and began a new life. But unlike others who lived quietly, trying to avoid detection, Dolezal lived her life out loud. She had an active social media presence that showed her protesting for social justice, dressed in tribal colors and paint, and even going “natural” with her hair for her 37th birthday. This is a woman who wasn’t concerned about getting caught. And that, right there, is the way white privilege gave her the confidence to pull off this charade. That white privilege is what makes her claim to blackness bankrupt.

For many POCs there just isn’t the same option to claim another racial identity and that’s part of the conversation I don’t hear enough people highlighting.

Dolezal knew that white privileWe're all African!ge would come to her aid. If she was caught, she had a great excuse: I feel black. For those who still, ridiculously, claim that race doesn’t matter as if all the research about POCs being last hired and first fired, or all those black kids being treated like criminals while wearing pool floaties is faulty, Dolezal is a perfect test case. She has proven that it isn’t what one is, but it what one feels. For the record, I feel like a supermodel, but I’m still 5’2” and round in the wrong places.

Also notice that Dolezal has repeatedly said she didn’t prefer to call herself African American. Of course not! There is slippage in the term “black” that gives her wiggle room. To be “black” leaves one the opportunity to claim a political category of blackness, as in “I have been (politically) blackened.” To claim AA status is a specifically ethnic category, and it would create an impossibility of fact for Dolezal. Her “blackness” could retain some kernel of truth as long as it avoided that ethnic/racial category that we use to classify those with heritage stemming from the African continent (and let’s not get into that whole “but we’re all from Africa” argument that no one uses until they’re trying to argue against Affirmative Action).

The way Dolezal and others are using the term transracial is about one’s individual feeling toward one’s race and not the collaboration between those of many races across many geographies on issues of social justice, racism, exclusion, etc. (h/t to E for reminding me of this). It also does disservice to the adoption community, as Kimberly McKee lays out brilliantly on Angry Asian Man (h/t to L for the link).

Unlike others who pass, Dolezal always had the option to revert, to let her hair grow out, to move to another city and find a new job. Or, she could figure out a way to capitalize on the situation as she did when she literally took food out of the mouths of actual black people and went on paid speaking engagements, and took jobs that rested on the fact of her blackness. Like she is doing with all of those interviews on MSNBC. I’ll bet you 10$ there’s a Lifetime movie in the works.

To be a mixed race black person anywhere without the phenotype of mixedness—light skin, light eyes, unkinky hair—and to claim whiteness engages a constant battle to be seen as one’s authentic self (see: Afro-Germans). So Dolezal’s  use of transraciality for me, is just another argument to privilege whiteness as the beautifying element needed to make the cover of a Time magazine special issue.

There are those who say choice is an important part of this equation and if we really believe that race is a social construct, then we can choose who we want to be. But as I wrote on my brilliant colleague JH’s page: “You *can choose to identify, but at what point should your choice reflect responsibility to those around you? Her choice showed a lack of responsibility to the very community she was imitating/had an affinity for and wound up doing damage to them. She identified as black using her skin privilege to get her there at the expense of others.”

For me, this is fast becoming a moral issue AND one that strikes deep at the heart of individualism. If we should do everything that is best for us, does it matter who we hurt, use, or step on to get to our personal goal?

Dolezal silenced black women in her attempt to find her (profitable) public voice. She figured out how to use the preference the black community still gives to light skinned women and the preference the white community gives to racially ambiguous women to her monetary/professional advantage. Instead of speaking with black women, she attempted to speak for them.all natural

In all the chatter about transraciality, we are forgetting the very real hurt done to black women who are in a near-constant fight to retain their dignity and sense of self amidst cultural representations of them as less than. Less pretty, less refined, less educated, less appealing in every way. To have a woman who attempted to replace them and uses her affinity for the community as justification for that replacement is a violence in its own right.

That Dolezal doesn’t seem to have remorse for her actions also alarms me; it is as if she’s saying: I deserve this. I’ve done the work so this is mine.

That’s exactly the way white privilege works—it fools one into thinking that the playing field is level, and racial bias doesn’t play a factor in how far gets ahead in life.

Of course, we can’t avoid the part where we talk about how Dolezal really went all there with her look. As Kara Brown at Jezebel has noted, Dolezal nailed a pretty difficult aspect of black female personhood: the hair. Dolezal’s hair was so on point I was trying to figure out if she could be my backup beautician.

And yet, excellent floor-length locs does not a black woman make.

Tradition and the Road to Racial Exclusion

One of the most interesting aspects about living in Japan was understanding more fully the importance of naming. As a child I was often told “You represent all of us when you leave the house,” meaning that the actions I took would reflect well—or poorly—on anyone with the last name Singletary. In Japan, I learned that the emphasis on the last name showed how the family unit was more important than the individual—a family’s fortunes could rise or fall based on its reputation.

So when the Washington Post reported on April 3 about Thomas Neger, a businessman and local politician from Mainz, Germany, and his family owned roofing company, I understood immediately his attachment to his name, and to the roofing company started by his grandfather more than 70 years ago.

What I didn’t understand was his attachment to his logo: an anthropomorphic ape with a pickaxe, large googly eyes, and big, white lips.Thomas Neger

Neger is term in German that roughly translates into “Negro” and for many is an invective akin to the N-word in English. While Neger’s name is related to a deep family history, there is mounting pressure for him to change the company logo, which is related to deep racial stereotypes.

For Neger’s supporters, the kerfuffle over the logo is an “abuse” of the term “racist” and reflects hypersensitivity at the expense of a good-natured humor. That argument, however, focuses on racism as located in big scary words and violent acts. Yet racism is structural/social/physical/economic. It is found in fisticuffs as much as it is in daily small injustices like being repeatedly asked the country of one’s origin; being complimented on one’s grasp of the language as if to reinforce one’s perpetual foreignness; or having people touch your skin or hair without asking.

The Post reports that the anti-logo group had 3,000 likes on Facebook; Facebook deemed the logo racially offensive and deleted it. The pro-logo/pro-Neger group, however, had double the support of the anti-logo group. Some even created the “Ein Herz für Neger” (A Heart for Neger) group, modeled after a German charity group “Ein Herz für Kinder,” featuring Neger overlaid on top of a big red heart. How twee.

Yet to claim anti-logo supporters are too sensitive is to overlook how the logo is an obvious play on the family name that marries the racist stereotype of black people as apes with the term neger.

We also must remember that the logo came to existence in or around 1945, as Germans were rebuilding their country after WWII and were subject to sanctions and “invading” foreign troops—many of which were Black American GIs. Many white Germans were opposed to black GIs patrolling their neighborhoods, living in their towns…and dating their women. Women were considered “mothers” of the nation responsible for raising the next generation of German men – for those so-called “bad” German women to raise the enemy’s child was an affront on the highest order for many white Germans.

The logo reflects many of the same stereotypes about black GIs and African troops that circulated in German public culture during and after both World Wars. Therefore, in order for a person to support the “humor” in Neger’s logo, they would need to support that black people are the butt of the joke.

Like many jokes, this one rests on the subjugation of one group in service of another. The inequality that plagues German society when it comes to the social, political, and economic inclusion of black people in Germany, however, means the joke takes on a more serious tenor. Black and white Germans do not start from equal footing in German society, so a joke that asks black people to be the butt of the joke reinforces the racial inequality that blacks in Germany constantly combat.

As my brilliant friend V said, “Germans refuse to have a critical engagement with what the meaning of racism is on all of its levels beyond overt hate crimes and refuse to recognize their own implications in the system of power that is racism as well as their unwillingness to give up that power in such instances.”

Racism’s power lies in its ability to diminish the humanity of another person just by dint of their racial difference alone. It stings just as much to be called “cute” and “adorable” in a job interview as if I were a baby animal, as it does to hear someone call me an animal (Yes, this has happened to me).

So to see an ape with a pickaxe connected with the term, that, unfathomably, many white Germans still defend as being an acceptable term to call black people is, if not racist, then racially antagonistic.

Part of the pushback the anti-logo group is facing is coming from those who see within the logo and in Neger’s name itself, an attempt to change Germany, and to erase tradition.

Yet tradition is often a means by which a dominant culture may argue to extend the usage of offensive cultural rites AND reinforce the racial borders that once defined national belonging. If you are offended by a racialized picture it’s because you aren’t German, Dutch, or French enough, goes the argument.

The argument over Neger’s logo is about more than the logo itself. It is also the banding together of a dominant population frightened of “interlopers” changing the face of the nation. It is an illustration of how the national imaginary can be built—and sustained—on the back of racial bullying.

A Bittersweet Respite

I meant to post this earlier, but I managed to maim myself on the way to school this week and am now sitting with my leg in a splint, waiting for a cast (ugh). This is a post I wrote for a friend of mine who maintains “Black on Both Sides” a super wonderful blog discussing the global Black Diaspora and issues important to the community. 

"Spike Lee" in Kreuzberg kietz, Berlin, Germany

“Spike Lee” in Kreuzberg kiez, Berlin, Germany

When I was 11, I read about a black girl, like me, who was from the Midwest and managed to escape a racial present that all but determined a racial future predicated on ideas from a racial past. I wondered if I, too, could be like Miss Josephine Baker and find the same kind of respite overseas. Was it possible, I wondered, to shrug off the straitjacket of racial certitude—where people thought they knew everything about you just by the color of your skin—and live outside of the confines of race? I’ve been testing that question since I was 15, relishing how my nationality often seems to cause more offense than my race in nearly every one of the 25 countries I’ve visited.

Like Ms. Baker and the scores of American blacks before and after her, I have found Europe to be a space where the twoness I feel at home as a Person of Color and an American weighs less heavily upon me. And yet, if I am honest, the problems of race and racism aren’t ameliorated overseas, rather, they have a different accent. While I have found a second home in Germany, I am protected by my Americanness and my ability to return at any time to the Midwest and my blue house with its pond in the backyard and the cat in the front window. For Germans of Color, however, the problems of racism and racial exclusion cannot be alleviated with a plane ticket and a passport.

When I took my first school trip to Germany as a 15 year old, I encountered two neo-Nazis on the train in Hamburg who looked at me with open hatred. My host brother quickly intervened and soon the two men were asking me about Chicago and wishing me a nice stay. “Why were they so nice?” I asked, shaken. “Oh. You’re not trying to stay here,” M responded, casually. “You bring tourist dollars.” That experience sums up the problems of inclusion that members of the global black diaspora often face: to visit is one thing, but to ask for rights, to seek power, to claimspace is another thing altogether.

It seems odd to talk about racial privilege as an American of Color, but in Germany, there remains a real and persistent threat of political and social disenfranchisement in addition to the threat of bodily harm.  It is impossible not to notice that the warm welcome I receive as a young(ish) woman (with class privilege) abroad is predicated upon a certain degree of hypervisible black American glamour prevalent in US film, music, TV, and other forms of pop culture in Germany.  The spotlight on non-German blackness opens the door for the simultaneous erasure of black Germanness in the German public sphere.  The many representations of blackness in Germany represent North American, Caribbean, or African cultures; it implicitly marks blackness as foreign, allowing the longstanding misconception that all Germans are white to fester. This ultimately creates the “impossibility” of claiming Black and German as a potential category of being.

The overabundance of U.S. American blackness in the German public sphere makes it seem as if the Afro-German population is smaller than it is, or less politically active than it is. Afro-Germans face a battle not only to gain more visibility as always already German citizens, but to also stake a claim in how Afro-German history and identity is relayed in realms where they have been historically disenfranchised. In a recent open letter to the University of Bremen, a long list of Afro-German political groups, academics, and activists condemned the university’s new Creative Unit on Black Studies.  In not offering any one of its graduate or faculty positions to a black person, German or otherwise, they argue, the unit reproduces the very inequality they purport to be committed to solving.   “Although Black German researchers pioneered this historiographical and conceptual work, they remain mostly at the margins of the white German academy or have had to leave the country to seek academic employment elsewhere,” they write. “The research of those Black German scholars, who have been working and publishing on this topic in Germany for many years are only mentioned within the context of a ‘grassroots activism of black diasporic writers’ which is why they – according to the proposal – ‘enjoy only a very precarious visibility on the fringes of academic scholarship or outside of academic disciplines.’ The reasons for this ‘precarious visibility,’ however, are neither discussed in the proposal nor does it lead the authors to consider changes in their own hiring and funding practices.”

The erasure of black Germanness from the German public sphere has long been an irritant for Germans of Color and it is something I take into account when I travel to Germany. I often ask myself if my inclusion is predicated upon the understanding that I don’t want to claim a German identity or foresee having (at least) half black German children who will want to lay ancestral (and economic) claim to the German Fatherland. I often wonder if I am not treated as a threat because even now, several years hence, I bring tourist dollars.

On Bombings and Broken Piano Keys

On January 6, 2015, not even one week after the day, when people around the world celebrate new beginnings, an ugly past was resurrected.

The NAACP office in Colorado Springs was bombed in an act of racial intimidation, bringing to the fore memories of terrorist acts committed by white Americans against Americans of Color in the mid-20th Century. As authorities are working on the Who, I find myself occupied trying to answer the Why. Why would someone bomb the NAACP when there are other organizations that have been on the front lines of US civil rights protests more recently? Why would someone set a bomb in Colorado Springs where the number of Colored People who need help with Advancement has got to be smaller than those in Chicago, LA, or Atlanta? I believe the bomber understood the power of cultural memory.

The bomber chose an organization that is a symbol of the historic US Civil Rights Movement. While people across the world are heralding the concerted efforts to combat police brutality and legal discrimination as a reinvigoration of a national fight for racial equality, in choosing the NAACP, the bomber’s act seemed to signify the reinvigoration of racial terrorism against US Residents of Color.

Living in America as a Person of Color sometimes feels like a professional pianist forced to play a concerto on a piano with a broken key. Entire phrases of beautiful music are marred by the dull thud of a key that can’t be avoided.

We are in an age where the multitude of ways for people to communicate, agitate, and denigrate are digitally enhanced and seemingly limitless. Gone are the days when one major city newspaper (or two if you’re lucky), three news channels, and handful of stations on the radio dial provided our news. The amount of information—and ways we can receive it—is diffuse. Making a widely heard statement takes more effort. But when we call upon a shared (inter)national memory, such as Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, Barack Obama on Inauguration Day, or the man standing in front of tanks in peaceful protest on Tiananmen Square, we are invoking not just a past, but calling all people into the same present. We are asking them, in this moment, to remember together and to teach others to remember. Cultural memory can be a powerful tool in convincing people to protest for positive change—or in the case of events this week, reigniting memories of fear and instability.

The aftermath of a deadly bomb set at a black church in Birmingham, Ala., 1963.  Photo credit: Think Progress.org

The aftermath of a deadly bomb set at a black church in Birmingham, Ala., 1963.
Photo credit: Think Progress.org

At right, is the image that accompanied the Think Progress report about the bombing. It wasn’t from Colorado Springs in 2015, but rather the church bombing that killed four little girls in Birmingham, Ala.—nicknamed “Bombingham”—in 1963. I wonder if Think Progress, like me, saw the images from this week’s attack and thought: “This doesn’t convey the real danger that we are facing.” To choose an event with the same intent but more disastrous results, however, would drive home the point. Think Progress relied upon a cultural memory steeped in fear as well; but while the bomber’s motive was to quell action, Think Progress’ was to encourage it. The events were different but as Think Progress indicates visually, the feeling is the same.

For People of Color, uncertainty is integral to our everyday lived experience. We wonder if we will be physically safe when we visit certain towns, if our color will supercede our individuality (such as when visitors at one of my part-time jobs specifically seek me out to ask me what I think of an artist’s work “as a black woman” not as a Chicagoan, an educator, or a writer), or if our invisibility cloaks will mean we will be ignored and treated as if our money isn’t just as green or our time isn’t just as valuable.

For Academics of Color, this second-guessing can be an exhausting component of an already overwhelming, thoroughly horrible, emotionally debilitating job search. If we take this job in that town, is there a place to go to worship with people from our religious tradition? Are there places to get one’s hair done (Properly)? Are there places to find the culturally specific spices and foods that comfort us? Will we be safe and welcomed both on and off campus? I, and others I know, have avoided applying for jobs in places on the recommendation of friends who have said point blank, “You need to live in the next largest city and commute.” Or, “You won’t be welcomed here.” One might say this is a silly way to live, but many POCs choose personal and emotional well-being over economic prosperity. I don’t blame them.

Although this perpetual state of liminality can seem overwhelming at first, we become accustomed to the uncertainty insofar as it is like the dull thud you hear when you’re playing a beautiful song on a piano with a broken key. We are playing our songs in the best way we know how, using that broken piano key as little as possible.

                “You speak English so well. Are you part white?” Thud.

I love your curly hair. But don’t you think it’s a little unprofessional?” Thud.

“I didn’t own any slaves. What does this have to do with me?” Thud. Thud.

The broken key is unavoidable, but you learn to play different songs, to move more nimbly, so the thud doesn’t disrupt the concerto of our lives. No one wants to compose a life where the only sound one hears is that of the tone of racial microaggressions, racial antagonism, and racial hatred. Thud. Thud. Thud.

As I try and chart a new future for 2015, cognizant of that piano key but trying like heck to avoid it, I think about F, a brilliant anthropologist friend who is also one of the cheeriest women on the planet. At the start of 2013, she sent me a link to one of those worksheets where you write out your intentions for the new year; users choose a word to guide them through the next 365 days. As it’s me, I didn’t fill it out until Summer 2014, but I found that the power word helped me re-prioritize parts of my life so I was better able to accomplish the goals I had for the remainder of the year. This year, I chose a power word (yes, for 2015!) that would help me reconfigure some areas of my life.

When I was writing this post I kept thinking and of the terrifying reality of living in a country where sometimes, to be Brown feels like you’ve been backhanded even when you’ve extended the olive branch. I kept thinking about how hard it is to act when we’re alone. And afraid. And hurt. And then I remembered something my mom, who grew up spitting distance from “Bombingham,” told me: “You must stand up for the people who can’t stand up for themselves.” To that end, I propose we all adopt the same power word for 2015: Bravery.  Let’s shift the narratives in our everyday public lives. Let’s lessen the number of times we have to touch that broken key, or our friends and co-workers have to touch that broken key.

Fear keeps us in our place. It keeps us from speaking up about injustice because we are justifiably worried about risking our lives or the livelihoods for which we’ve worked so hard. It keeps us behind closed doors, only to be seen when those whom we fear deem our presence appropriate. It allows those who interview us for jobs, those who have hired us, or those with more social, political, or economic capital to run roughshod over us, feeling entitled to raise their voices even as they stifle ours. To commit CABs—Concentrated Acts of Bravery—means standing up for ourselves and others, even when it’s scary.

It is just as brave to correct an insensitive co-worker as it is to join a protest. It is just as brave to file a complaint as it is to be interviewed on camera. It is just as brave to call out friends from “home” who have retained the childish opinions of your youth as it is to write a letter to the editor. Bravery exists in ways small and large. In this new year, we should endeavor to commit CABs, to celebrate each other no matter our race, color, or creed. Racial injustice will not be conquered by good intentions. It will be felled by bravery.

Colonial Curry

I’m back! This fall has been a roller coaster in re: having too many part-time jobs, not enough time to think and write, and seeing so many national incidents of racial injustice that I haven’t been able to adequately compose my thoughts, much less a blog post. So I’m starting back “small”… with colonialism. 

Last week, A, E, M and I went to get tacos in Wicker Park, a neighborhood in Chicago known as much for its hipsters as it is for neat food offerings, good bars, and interesting art (Before you ask, yes, it was a hipster taco joint. Imagine that as you will.). On the way into the taco joint we saw the sign for Columbus’ Curry, a soon-to-be-opened Indian food restaurant by Rahul Bajaj and his wife, Michelle. Taken aback was one way to describe our reaction. Disgusted was another. Columbus curry

By now many, if not most, people have heard of “Columbusing” or have seen the super funny College Humor video about it. It’s a tongue-in-cheek term for when (some) white people say they have “discovered” a phenomenon, trend, or activity Brown people have being doing for years, decades, or centuries. The term could be applied to mainstream women’s magazines that rave about shea butter, cornrows, hair straightening, or eyebrow threading which are beauty measures practiced in communities of color for generations. Just this fall, for example, I read a feature story in a magazine raving about the new trend American women *must* begin doing: layering on facial products (eye cream, skin “butter” or oil, and moisturizer) like the women in Japan to slow the process of aging. I thought to myself, “My mother had me doing that in the first grade.” My freshman year of high school, Ma had me start taking Vitamin E, talking ’bout “You don’t want to start looking old.”

It’s not just in the magazines. There’s the “discovery” of restaurants, musical venues, and festivals in predominantly ethnic enclaves that existed for years without attention (no matter how many times we sent releases or directly called the press. Ahem.) There’s the “discovery” of hair dye in unconventional colors, like grey, purple, or blue that blissfully erases how black girls been dying their hair firehouse red, electric blue, and eggplant purple.  Except on black girls it’s considered “hood” or “ghetto,” as Afropunk pointed out more than two years ago. There’s Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls (or more troublingly Avril Lavigne’s “meh” video/song “Hello Kitty”) and the culture of cute that came out of the “discovery” of Japanese pop culture (Hello Kitty isn’t kitten age anymore, and neither are her friends Bad Badtz Maru, Pochacco, and Ahiru No Pekkle). Fashion-forward Japan existed for decades before its discovery by Americans.

There’s a list of trends and events that have been Columbused (e.g. twerking, eating hummus, changing #Blacklivesmatter to #Alllivesmatter See this super response to that move) but what the term really points to is not brown folks’ unwillingness to share cultural and social practices. The point of living on this earth together in harmony is to share with, learn from, and exist among each other. Some might claim that POCs are just as capable of Columbusing, but for me, the term has built within it a racial hierarchy that centers whiteness to the point that it becomes far more difficult for Brown folks to engage in the same level of “discovery” and claim. I should be clear, however, in stating my belief that White

people are not the enemy. White people are not bad for wanting to learn about and experience other cultural practices – just as Brown people do not “own” beauty trends or musical genres.

Rather, Columbusing points to Brown Folks’ frustration that the implicit understanding is that whatever has just been Columbused was somehow deficient before white people began supporting it (hair extensions, RnB and rap music, Anime). As the brilliant and Goddess-like L pointed out, “I think…the weird thing about Columbusing is that it assumes that when POC do something it’s some kind of natural static tradition, as opposed to an active cultural practice that is always evolving.” In short, to be Columbused means to have your contribution to a trend or cultural practice erased as if you didn’t matter in the first place.

So to see Columbus’ Curry, a self-proclaimed authentic Indian restaurant lauding the act of colonization is at best frustrating and at worst, totally infuriating.  Perhaps it wouldn’t be so insulting if the restaurant wasn’t owned by a South Asian immigrant, whose connection to India means that he has a direct connection to the brutality of British Colonialism.

Let’s get something straight: what Columbus did when he “discovered” the West Indies wasn’t an act of making the world a better place.  What he did was this:

I captured a very beautiful Carib woman, whom the said Lord Admiral
gave to me. When I had taken her to my cabin she was naked…I was filled
with a desire to take my pleasure with her…She was unwilling, and so
treated me with her nails that I wished I had never begun. But…I then took
a piece of rope and whipped her soundly, and she let forth such incredible
screams…Eventually we came to such terms…that you would have thought
that she had been brought up in a school for whores.

 Yup. That’s rape.

…[T]he Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry

out massacres…They attacked the towns and spared neither the children
nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed.. They took infants
from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them
head first against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them
into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the
water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!” They made some low wide
gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground,
stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer
and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned
them alive. 

Yup. That’s infanticide and murder in the name of God. There’s more where these came from. A lot more.

To name a restaurant after a man who is celebrated for torturing and terrorizing people in their own land is just as ridiculous as the women who knowingly named their PR company the same name as a song about lynching sung by Billie Holiday in 1939 because they didn’t think  people would know about it anymore. (Sidenote: I have no idea what PR classes those women took, but the professor should be fired. Double Sidenote: I need a full-time teaching position and I am really good at ethical, non-racist PR.)

People of Color the world over should be in solidarity against highlighting acts that diminish Brown Communities.  People of Color and our allies need to adopt the mantra: If you demean one of us, you demean all of us.

There is no such thing as recuperating racist acts and words.

There no such thing as racist acts being committed for the “good” of a people.

There is no such thing as “good” colonization.

While I am sure the food at Columbus’ Curry will be good and the owners mean well, I find it questionable that people would knowingly name a restaurant after a man who subjugated, tortured, and ruined the lives of thousands of innocent people in ways that are apparent even today.


Note: This weekend E sent me a link to a Change.org petition advocating that Columbus’ Curry change its name to something that was welcoming and inclusive of all people. I signed it and I hope you will, too. You can
find the petition here.

Lifting the Weight of Racial Injustice

I tried to take my picture for this blog, but it didn’t come out. You see, I was wearing my invisibility cloak. It’s sort of like the one Harry Potter wears, except I don’t choose when to wear it. It appears on its own when I am in public. There are many times when this cloak is a blessing. On the days when I am tired from working all these freaking jobs while I look for a full-time position, I am glad that the people who push me toward the mud while they take up the entire sidewalk, or stand with their armpits in my face on the train without apology, or ignore me when I’m the only person in the store, don’t see me.

That invisibility is a small price to pay for not having to make the choice of whether or not to point out that the refusal to allow me space or treating me as if my money worth less is related to an age-old problem of People of Color being treated as if they are on earth only to make the lives of non-POCs easier. And that saves me from the shameful realization that I am treating the confrontation of racial bias as a choice and not a moral duty.

But there are times when my cloak is not on. It’s when I’m at home with family, or when I’m talking to a friend who, like me, is involuntarily cloaked. We speak and laugh freely and we forget for a short time, that ours is an invisibility borne of rejection. Although we are bathed in invisibility while we drink our tea, or walk along the streets, we see each other clearly, we hear one another loud and clear. But then something happens and that cloak suddenly is resting upon my shoulders again, as heavy as sealskin dipped in cement. Such is the case this past Friday, when I interviewed a young ballet dancer in conjunction with my and E’s new project on Blasian Americans. As I interviewed him, we spoke freely of race and national identity, of feeling out of place and made to feel unwelcome in our own communities, cities, and countries. I remarked that going to Lincoln Park, a beautiful neighborhood in Chicago that nonetheless has an unofficial reputation among many People of Color as unwelcoming, was “horrible.”

“That’s bigoted,” said the older white woman sitting next to us, not bothering to excuse herself. “What you said about Lincoln Park was bigoted.”

I turned to her and asked her to explain. I listened as she said that as a (white) resident for more than 20 years, she had never seen racism in the neighborhood and her building was filled with people of different ethnicities. She doubted highly, she said, that my feelings of being racially ostracized were accurate.

“Perhaps the problem is you,” she said.

Thus, the cloak that I had happily shrugged off was thrown back over my head, bathing me in a blackness so absolute I could not see where my perception of myself began and her perception of me ended.

Although I tried to explain, she spoke over me, refusing to hear me. When she made assumptions about my class and education level, she refused to acknowledge me beyond my color. She told me about the free park that is available to everyone and how no one in the neighborhood gets upset when the poor (black) families came there with their families to grill. When I finally got a word in, I told her I did not *need* a “free” park but rather welcoming businesses; she replied that understanding how to navigate the neighborhood was an “education” thing. I firmly told her that I have a PhD and so do my friends.

The funny thing about getting older is that while burdens of racial Otherness get heavier and more complex (Can you still be an activist if you marry “out”? Should you bring children into a world where the slings and arrows of racial hatred will puncture their hearts ever more deeply because of the continuing lies of colorblindness and post-racialism? Is it OK to stop fighting some days and just keep your job, your benefits, your way of life?) you get used to the burden and learn how to navigate around it.

It’s like lifting weights. At first you stagger under the fear that you won’t be able to carry such a heavy load, but by the 5th year, the 11th year, the 30th, or the 50th, you figure out that you’re stronger than you thought.

And so I talked over the woman until she stopped speaking. She didn’t hear me, but I made her listen. She refused to see me as a well-educated POC, but I refused to see her as the rightful owner of Truth. I made sure she understood that her colorblindness was in fact, undergirded by a refusal to see racial injustice. I told her that as a white woman, she would never have the same experiences as I did as a Person of Color in highly segregated Chicago. “Just because you didn’t see it, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It means you didn’t see it,” I said. “You don’t get to dismiss my experience because it didn’t happen to you.”

I kept speaking, even as I was shaking with rage. I kept speaking, even as I saw her face contort in anger. I kept speaking as I noticed we were disrupting the entire café. I kept speaking because of the injustice of it all, even as I realized that that white woman would probably never realize that she, in her defense of her neighborhood, was attempting to silence me, to enact power over my life and use her racial, gendered privilege to tell me that my feelings and thoughts did not matter because she, a white woman, said so.

I fought tears that evening and all the next day, thinking about how heavy this invisibility cloak is. But I gave myself a choice. I could cry, or I could fight.

And so I write.