Find My Friends [Part 3/4]: Aversive Racism

Good Morning! I’m writing this week’s post in Seattle. I’m here for the annual BurlyCon event that always challenges me and helps me to grow. This year, I spent a lot of time with People Of Color (POC) within the Burlesque community. As some of you know, I’m also taking an Ethnic Studies class @ Cal State specific to Interracial Sex & Marriage. All of the conversations that I’ve been having lately have highlighted a type of racism to which many people subscribe. Aversive racism is when a person may “profess egalitarian beliefs, and will often deny their racially motivated behavior; nevertheless they change their behavior when dealing with a member of a minority group. The motivation for the change is thought to be implicit or subconscious.” The people that often fall into this category are those that claim to be colorblind. We’ve heard the rhetoric before, “I don’t see color! I don’t see race! I don’t allow it to affect my decision!” While studies have been conducted to prove otherwise, I’m writing to make a request that all who claim to be colorblind get their awareness checked by a Social Justice Optometrist (that’s not a real thing).

My friends and lovers in my life can see color/race. The people in my life can see the challenges that I face, however they don’t define me by those challenges. No one in my life sees me as a victim, but they do empathize with my experience. When I hear a potential friend claim that they don’t see race, I run the other way. We do not live in a post-racial society. Racism is alive and thriving and not just in America. Racism manifests in different ways in different parts of the world. I want people in my life that are aware of the social injustices in the world and not averse to those acts. When I look back on the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s I see Blacks and Whites working together to over come injustice in this land of the free. In marches through Selma, Detroit, Los Angeles, and other places across the US no one was colorblind. Everyone saw race and while some openly expressed their hatred based on race, others openly expressed their compassion and solidarity because of the treatment of other races.

Racism isn’t dead, it’s just wearing a new outfit so it’s easy for the colorblind to miss. I’m writing this as a proclamation to my future friends and lovers. I need you to see my race. I need you to see my color. I need you to treat me like a human being and fight against internalizing any media-driven stereotypes. I need you to do these things for all people of color, not just me. Here’s what that looks like: When you see someone that looks like you and you greet him with a simple, “Hey, howya doin?” Don’t change the way you talk or act around me. Don’t add bass to your voice and say “‘sup” because you think that’s a greeting to which I’ll respond. If you shook his hand, don’t offer me a goddamned fist bump. I need you to see my color and see how your dumb ass is acting around me because it may be uncommon for you. *spoiler alert* “Colorblind people tend to have very few friends that fall into the societal-defined other categories. Maybe that’s why they “don’t see race”, everyone around them matches.

So, here’s the question of the day. If you’re reading this and you’re not a POC, prick up your ears (or adjust those reading glasses) please. Have you ever made a statement priding yourself on not seeing race? If so, please stop. Please stop conditioning your kids to think that race isn’t a factor in this country. Look for some diversity in your friendly sphere of influence. Make the effort to create a strong sense of diversity with your child’s playmates. Here’s a true story from La Jolla, California. I was working in a restaurant and I walked over to a table (not mine) to fill up their water. A little White girl (aged three years-if I had to wager a guess) pointed at me and laughed. “Daddy, that man’s face is black! Hee Hee.” Because she’s a little kid, it didn’t bug me, I actually laughed because… kids. The Dad tried to cover her mouth and shushed her as he looked my way to see if I heard her. I played it off as if I didn’t and I just never went back to the table. The first problem with that incident is that it’s obvious that those people had no one in their life that looked like me. That little girl had not even seen someone with skin as dark as mine. WTF!? The second problem was the Dad’s attempt to sweep it under the rug instead of talking to her in that moment. (Did he wait until later and talk to her at home? I doubt it.)

I want to be your friend. Do you promise to see how I (and others like me) are treated in this society? I’m not saying that you have to do anything about it on a grand scale. But, if your empathy can stop a racist joke from being told (at least in your presence) then that’s a start. If your empathy can feel the frustration that I feel when people cross the street to avoid me (yes, that still happens in 2015), then that’s a start. If you can listen to my challenges with my fellow human, of a different race, and never suggest that I’m playing the mythical race card just because I’m telling you something that you could never imagine experiencing. Promise to see me as a human being. Before I am black, before I am male, I am human first. Don’t claim to be colorblind in hopes for absolution of any guilt by association. See me, hear me, feel me, and support me as your friend with compassion.

In part four of this series, I’ll be writing about how other people’s drama makes it easier to find my friends.

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A Pejorative Term

DISCLAIMER: This blog post includes racially charged topics and an abundant use of the (unedited) N-word. If that bothers you, stop reading now. This post should be read in its entirety before forwarding to others lest you be accused of passing on NSFW materials. Know that I wrote this with love in my heart. I’m not mad. I just felt the need to address an issue.

I conducted my first sociology experiment before I knew what the word meant. I was 14 and working my first Summer job at a hospital in Detroit. The program was a part of Detroit Public Schools and it afforded the opportunity for teenagers aged 14+ to work over the Summer with their parents permission. There was at least a dozen black teenagers working in different areas of that hospital for about two months. During that time I was studying African-American literature and I was reading a lot of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Nikki Giovanni, et al. In a lot of classic African-American literature and history books the word nigger took on a few different tones. At the root of the word and the intention of the user, there was no kindness. Negro may have had roots in describing skin color. Over time variations of the word have become increasingly pejorative and offensive. But, for the sake of this post I don’t really need to give a history of the N-word, as it’s commonly referred to today. I’m writing this post because the definitions of words should be more important than how we mean them. If you find yourself saying, “I didn’t mean it like that” then you’ve done a poor job of communicating. I’m also writing this to remind all who read this that no variation of the word nigger should ever be considered acceptable. I’m writing this for all humans of all shades, colors, and backgrounds. Most importantly, it is not our word as many black people choose to describe it. Now, back to that sociology experiment.

When I noticed all of my teenaged colleagues calling each other nigger, I began to wonder if they knew what the word meant. I wondered if they were aware that use of the word implies a general lack of intelligence and sophistication. So, I decided to use a different pejorative term when speaking to them. In place of the word nigger I inserted the word fool. “What’s up my fool!” “Fool, you trippin!” “Fool, what!?” As you can imagine, I received a few confused looks. As Cornel West points out, there is a certain rhythm to using the word nigger and replacing it can create odd sentences. “There’s a certain rhythmic seduction to the word. If you speak in a sentence, and you have to say cat, companion, or friend, as opposed to nigger, then the rhythmic presentation is off. That rhythmic language is a form of historical memory for black people… When Richard Pryor came back from Africa, and decided to stop using the word onstage, he would sometimes start to slip up, because he was so used to speaking that way. It was the right word at the moment to keep the rhythm together in his sentence making.” [citation] I inserted the Cornel West quote to highlight the rhythm of colloquial dialect, not to defend the use of the word nigger.

I continued using the word fool despite the awkward rhythm of my sentences. Then something interesting happened. My friends started to get annoyed. Some got upset and one cat even threatened to beat my ass. “Man! I ain’t gone be to many more ‘fools’! Stop calling me that.” His fists were clenched and he was ready to fight as his chest heaved with frustration. At that point I chose to end the experiment. I gave them all a quasi-apology as I explained my actions. “You all call each other fool 100 times every day. You just wrap up the word fool in the familiar package of nigger. If you paid more attention to the meaning of the word than the word itself, you’d be angry with each other for the constant disrespect you have for one another.” No one really gave a shit about my soap box speech. They kept calling each other nigger this and nigger that. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them when I moved away from Michigan after high school. That was when I began to hear the word in different contexts.

I moved to Atlanta after high school for my first degree. As a black person, your attitude towards the word changes when you’re called a nigger in the south. Since then, I’ve lived in Las Vegas, San Diego, and now here in the Bay Area. I’m not going to recount all of the times/situations in which I’ve been called a nigger. I want to point out the four nigger situations (not to be confused with a nigger moment) that bother me the most.

1.) When white people are offended by the usage of the word nigger. A woman once called me an “asshole nigger” as I asked her to leave my restaurant. She was loud enough for most of the diners to hear her. A white woman became audibly upset and made many dramatic gasps as a result. Why did that bother me? a.) Because no one was fucking talking to her! b.) I wasn’t that upset about it so why was she? c.) Most importantly no one has ever called her a nigger (at least not with the intent to disrespect). Dear White People, You have the right to be upset by whatever you choose. You also have the privilege of no one ever calling you such a hateful word. Please stop being so goddamned dramatic when you hear/read a racially-specific pejorative term that’s not directed at your race. Don’t make this about you.

2.) When black people call me nigger. I was driving (admittedly) too fast through a neighborhood. As a black man jaywalked across the street, he shouted at me. “Slow down, nigga! We got kids here.” Why did that bother me? Because I didn’t know that fool! When any stranger approaches me with hostility it sparks my fight or flight response. Dear Black People, Can we have a conversation without calling each other niggers or fools? Can we just treat each other like humans? That would be nice. Honesty note: Yes, I have used the word nigger in casual conversation with my peers. I’m not pretending to be blacker than thou or beyond reproach on this matter. Why have I used the word? See above for Cornel West’s quote on the rhythmic properties of the word during conversation within black culture. That brings me to my next point.

3.) When black people attempt to defend nigger as our word. When I hear black people try to distinguish between “nigga” and “nigger” to claim that there’s a difference in the intended use of the word I want to slap those fools. I hear blacks claim that nigger is our word and that white people shouldn’t use it.Why does that bother me? Dear Black People, If you call your momma a bitch all of the time, people will recognize that you don’t respect her. People will begin to think of her as a bitch and it’s a matter of time before they call your momma a bitch. If you call your friends niggers or fools, people will recognize that you don’t respect your friends. People will begin to think of your friends as niggers and fools and it’s a matter of time before they call your friends niggers and fools. Don’t ever call yourself something that you don’t want to be called by lovers or strangers. (This also applies to women that call themselves and their girlfriends bitches. You don’t want men calling you that so don’t set the precedent.)

4.) When non-black people use the word nigger to refer to themselves, their non-black friends, or black people (as a misguided attempt to be affable). I’m a student at the most racially diverse campus in the continental United States. When I hear a mixed race (non-black) 20-something casually use the word nigger to refer to his friends I want to slap that fool. Why does that bother me? Because that kid with an Asian mother and a Russian father may have been called some pejorative terms during his life. I’m willing to bet that he’s never been called a nigger as a means of vitriolic contempt. I’ve never been called a FOB. I don’t know what it feels like to hear that term thrown my way. Therefore, I’m not going to call someone a FOB. Another instance occurs when non-black people have been listening to music with an abundant use of the word nigger and they think it’s acceptable to call me a nigger at a party. “What’s up nigger!”, said the white guy at the house party before I told him to shut the fuck up. My buddy reminded me to stay cool and not turn it into a thing. I left the party soon after when all of these 20-something non-blacks were singing along to nigger-filled lyrics. It just wasn’t my scene.

A note on my use of the word black to describe my race. I’m not African-American. I’ve never even visited Africa. My momma is from Fairfield, Alabama and my poppa is from Detroit. Their parents were also born in this country. Is it possible to trace my bloodline back to Africa? Possibly. My skin color is brown. My identity is black. I don’t feel the need to coat my identity with a politically correct sugar glaze. Don’t over think it or over analyze it. I am not a negro. I am not your nigga. I am not a nigger. I’m black and proud of it.

A Case For Physical Education

Recently, I heard a college student talk about how she completed her high school physical education (P.E.) requirement online. I want that to sink in for a bit. Her requirements for the class was to “be active” and submit a report on a weekly basis of what she did. This isn’t a problem for a naturally active child. But, the way she told her story she used phrases like, “I just turned in something to meet the requirement”. I try not to assume. But, there’s a chance that she wasn’t doing her homework. I found myself frustrated with our dualistic system of education that views physical education and intellectual education as separate and unequal. At the same time I heard this, I was writing a paper for my Sport History class based on my Aunt’s experience as a black female athlete in the 1960’s. I wanted to share the paper with all of you that still see the benefits of afterschool programs for kids. Please travel back to the 1960s and read on as I share the An Oral History According To “Jet’s Auntie” (her real name is not printed here for privacy reasons).

In 1962, a black girl the age of nine took off like a shot in her first foot race. That girl was my aunt. The way she tells the story, she was just “playing around” until she felt the high that came after winning her first race. It wouldn’t be her last race she was hooked. The track coach noticed and recruited her on the spot. This was happening at a crucial time for racial perseverance in her native Detroit. Just one year later, June 23, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would lead a march of 125,000 people down Woodward Ave. in a rally for racial equality.  She was maturing in a social climate on the precipice of change. Her commitment to track & field and the necessary conditioning workouts helped to keep her on a positive path. That was in the 1960’s. When my aunt recently told me that she wanted to participate in track & field events again, I was happy to hear that she still had a desire to be physically active but I had some questions. I began to wonder what motivated her to get back on the track at the age of 61. So many questions raced through my mind as I began to wonder about her experiences during her younger years as a track & field athlete. I had a frank discussion with her about racism, sexism, classism, and her opinion on what’s changed about track & field over the years. This interview with a black female athlete from the 1960s hopes to make a strong case for young women of today to train harder and the importance of physical activity programs for inner city youth of all genders as a means to keep them off of drugs.

During our interview, I asked about Auntie’s experience as a black athlete competing against predominantly white schools in the 1960s. I expected the conversation to be about racial prejudice in the civil rights era of her term. On the contrary, the differences in competing with predominantly white schools were subtle. “…[white schools] seemed to have more equipment. They had better facilities. The track seemed to be in better shape as well as the asphalt. So, the big difference in competing against white athletes was that they had better equipment than we did.” Auntie recalled. She went on with more specifics, “For instance, they had well maintained grassy fields and if there was someone that threw shot put, we might have two and they had twelve. If they did javelin, we might have two javelins and they had twenty. You know so I always remembered that the facilities and equipment were nicer.” There were some racial stereotypes that were perpetuated during training. Auntie pointed out that blacks didn’t run the longer distances. When I asked her thoughts on the reason this was her reply, “I think that it was the culture. I think the assumption was that black athletes just didn’t have stamina to run longer distances. We didn’t practice [long distances]. I remember running in my track club for over 10 years and I never knew anybody who really practiced anything above 880 meters. Never anything like a mile. We never practiced that. It was always something that we didn’t have the stamina and endurance for the longer races. We were speedy! We did well in the shorter races and that was the assumption. So the coaches of our day didn’t really spend a lot of time training us for longer races.” Racial prejudice was a contributing factor. However, as our conversation continued she was unable to recall any stories of blatant racism in her athletic experience. This goes against the common assumption of the decade. Via television and film, popular culture recalls a decade of ubiquitous racism in 1960s athletics. The images painted for us by films such as “Pride” or “Glory Road” point to some high profile cases of blatant racism in 1960s organized sports. Auntie’s experience, while limited to her own scope, tells a different story. I’m not going to argue that racism isn’t alive and thriving in our society. Racism was a problem for athletes then and now. However, it was not a problem for all athletes. Auntie’s story is proof of that.

Training as an athlete in the pre-Title IX era, I asked Auntie about her experience with sexism on the track. Title IX (bringing equality to female sport programs in schools nationwide) passed in 1972.  By 1972, Auntie had already been running track for 10 years. There were some unique attributes to training in a time when schools weren’t required to provide the same opportunities for boys and girls. “I think the training for us [as opposed to white schools] was tougher. Because the white girls trained with white girls and boys trained with boys. We trained all together. The girls had to train with the fellas. We had to keep up with them.” Auntie laughed as she answered my questions about sexism. When I asked if she dealt with any explicit deliberate sexism she had this to say, “No. As a matter of fact, the guys that I ran with were encouraging. They made us work! They made us keep up with them! I couldn’t slack off. The only sexism [that we encountered] wasn’t when we were competing. The sexism was more off the court. Our uniforms were [supposed] to be kept clean as well as our shoes. If we were out to eat we were expected to serve [the men] or that kind of thing. But, when we were competing I always felt like they wanted us to be equals when running together. So, if it meant that they had to help us then they would. And we had to keep up with them in everything that they did so I didn’t feel like they were sexist in terms of competition.” While Auntie’s experience doesn’t debunk sexism, again this was only one person’s story, her answer does force us to look at two important things. If all sports were played with mixed gender teams, treating each athlete as an equal based solely on individual skill there would have been no need for Title IX. A societal change as significant as that is only wishful thinking. The second societal shift that we’re forced to consider is the end to the feminine frailty myth. “Remnants of the frailty myth continue to cast a shadow on women’s involvement in athletics. In the late-20th and early-21st century the female athlete triad, which consists of disordered eating, amenorrhea, and the onset of osteoporosis, deluged the medical discourse on female athletes.”  In the film “Dare to Compete”, it was said (in reference to the last place finisher of the women’s marathon in the 1984 Olympics) that women were finally allowed to be exhausted in public.  The concern was that if women were perceived as frail, the myth would hold. Auntie’s words should help to encourage women that subscribe to the patriarchy and believe themselves to be frail.Auntie spoke more about training with the men and being challenged to keep up, “…for me that actually helped me in my strengthening because I had to keep up with the guys. But, the soup up they would give me was the biggest thing that I remember being so distinctive in competition outside of Detroit when we had to run against white schools.”

In addition to her high school, Auntie ran for the Motor City Track Club. I wanted to hear about any issues of classism that Auntie may have encountered. I asked if there were any assumptions that came along with people from inner city Detroit that were competing against groups (high schools or private track clubs) outside of Detroit. “There were assumptions that the black athletes would win the shorter races. I think it was the 400 meters. It was assumed that the white athletes would win races that were longer distances and it was always assumed that you wouldn’t see very many black athletes entering the longer distances. It actually wasn’t assumed, that was actually so.” As Auntie mentioned earlier in the interview, the coaches only trained the black athletes for the races they would most likely win, the shorter distances. Because of that mentality a cycle occurred that created a class system amongst runners. Blacks were known for running short distances fast while whites were known for their ability to maintain stamina. Thus was born the endurance class and the sprint class. These two classes existed in the 1960s and continued to live on until coaches changed their manner of training their athletes. In some cases, I’m sure coaches still train to their athlete’s strength. At the very least we know that the old class is no longer the common assumption. On the contrary, in every major (Boston, New York, Chicago) marathon most fans of track & field expect a Kenyan to win.

Growing up in Detroit, and running track briefly, myself I saw the benefits of training and commitment first-hand. I saw how important it was to have a positive means of biding my time during my teenage years. Auntie had a similar occurrence on the East side of Detroit and it began with positive coaching experiences. “I had a great relationship with the coaches. They kept me from falling into the cracks of where we grew up in Detroit. I think that if I didn’t have track I wouldn’t be where I am now. You know if I hadn’t had track I’d probably be a drug addict or an alcoholic! I just think that it does so much for self-esteem, motivation, the spirit of competition, and good sportsmanship. The coaches were like father figures. They were like big brothers. They were the ones who really pushed me and it brought out things in me that I didn’t know that I had. Not just in my track career but in my personal development. So, it was a good relationship with my coaches. I remember each one of them fondly. I think that they have a very special place in my life to this day.” Auntie went on to tell about other teammates of hers that did fall victim to drugs and crime. “When I was younger, around 10th grade. I think that a lot of them (friends) when we got to high school started dealing in behaviors that were conditioning them to do crack. By the time we’d reached high school, we had already been running track for 10 years. So, some of them were tired and they started participating in a lot of activities that worked against their track careers. A number of them were pulled away in to drugs and alcohol. If they did the same level of conditioning they did when we were younger they might not have had the same desire. Track can be very grueling! I really wanted to run in college and most of them didn’t see their careers going forward into college or they didn’t think that they would make it.” Using the discipline that she learned from track, Auntie was able continue running for the Motor City Track Club even during her time in college. She never began any destructive habits that would sideline her career goals. Her example could be used to illustrate an example of not being a product of one’s environment. Her example could also be used to point out the importance of after school fitness programs for children.

After years of dealing with racism, sexism, and class systems within track & field, it was track & field itself (and the discipline of the conditioning) that made Auntie a strong woman both physically and mentally. The racism she encountered was in the form of ignorant racial prejudice. While that’s not to be condoned, she was able to shake it off and move forward. The sexism she encountered happened off the field and was countered by the support and sense of family cooperation she received on the field. The class systems were self-propagating instead of a societal imposition and have faded over time. So, after a 52-year love affair with track & field, what’s changed? “It’s hard to watch it now because of all the incidents of dope. I never thought of dope before. Now it breaks my heart because I can’t really trust it when I see an athlete running. I can’t trust that they’re doing it because they’re really that good or they’re that good because they’ve done some dope. That’s what breaks my heart about it. I can’t trust it. But, I often hope that they’re not. I never thought that folks would say that about track and field. That’s what’s changed.”

This interview should shine as a beacon to all women that have ever believed they can’t do something strictly because of their gender. Use Auntie’s example and train with someone that challenges you to keep up the pace. I’ve recently heard stories of high schools that have online Physical Education classes. The class offers PE credit if the student submits activity reports in lieu of actually attending a physical education class. Auntie’s example can be used to highlight one of the many reasons that style of physical education is problematic. Find an athletic endeavor that you love so much your passion spans decades. When asked about her current desire to compete, she had this to say, “You know just this year I have thought about that. Dekalb County had a senior track meet that was put on by AARP. So, this year was the first year that I thought about actually doing that. But, I don’t know. I think that I’d want to get myself in shape before going out there. These seniors out here are really serious. These are old athletes. Just this year was the first time that I thought about getting back out there and being competitive.” When asked what the appeal would be for competing at the age of 61, Auntie had this to say, “I love track. As soon as I step on a track and watch kids compete I get that same feeling I had long ago. I love the smell, feel, and excitement of it. I just love the environment so much. I know that I love running. I love the freedom and the sense of accomplishment after all of the hard work that I put into it. But, of course I love the track meets. So, the appeal is that it’s something that I still love doing. I even love the conditioning for it.” The message is simple, do what you love, love what you do, get stronger in the process.