Obama Talks Race

On Friday, July 18, 2013, President Barack Obama ended the week with a show stopper, something that would keep all media outlets busy for the entire weekend and beyond. In the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin case, Obama talks race, more directly, more personally, and more candidly than he as at any other time during his presidency. If you haven’t seen or heard about it yet, you can watch the video at the end of this post.

The very fact that this topic makes so many people uncomfortable or even angry, makes this a brave move by President Obama. It’s courageous because he knew that millions of people would criticize, spew hate, say that he’s causing racial division, and complain about how there are “too many other, more important things that he should be dealing with,” yet he spoke anyway. I’ve written before about having the courage to speak. What Obama did on Friday is a great example of what I was talking about.

Obama’s speech was important because there are non-blacks who voted for Obama under the assumption that he’s “different” than regular black people. Because they know him, they can’t imagine that they’d ever be afraid of him because of his race, or that they would clutch their purses in fear that he might try to mug them, or that they might prejudge and misjudge him and therefore take his life with a single bullet.

For those non-blacks, Obama’s speech informed them, very eloquently, that he is NOT any different from the average black man in America. In fact, “Trayvon Martin could have been [him] thirty five years ago.” Obama brought about the revelation, for many, that the young men being racially profiled, harassed, denied decent customer service, stopped and frisked, and even murdered because of racial biases could very well be (or have been) the future President of the United States of America, just as he was.

One of the most courageous conversations we can have as a country and as communities and as families is an honest conversation about the lingering effects of building a country on the foundation of white supremacy.

I read a courageous post this week by a fellow blogger. She titled it: “Facing My White Privilege.” This is another side of the “race talk.” It’s not an issue that should be left to blacks to hash out. It’s our national issue. As long as we’re Americans, we have to face race.

 

Please Let Me Testify: An Open Letter to Rachel Jeantel

First, thank you for having the courage to take the stand, for having the courage to testify on behalf of your slain brother, a responsibility too many of us have been shucking for way too long. Most of us choose to plead the fifth, afraid that we’ll be judged just as you have been, and in our silence, the blasts of gunshots resound ever louder right in our own backyards.

I hope that other young people are not gagged by their fear of malicious tweets, but are encouraged by your example, encouraged to speak up and share their sides of the story, whatever that story might be. I pray that more black girls speak up and tell their stories. There are hosts of people, who try to dismiss, disparage, and downright silence voices like yours, but I tell you, little sister, you have been heard.

Second, not only do I hear you, I also see you, and you are beautiful.

I know that the mere color of a person’s skin and a person’s class too often discredit everything they say and do in the eyes of the prejudiced ones. I know that racism is the reason so many blacks and non-blacks have come to consciously and subconsciously devalue dark skin. I know that’s the reason they feel so comfortable maligning you in your moment of grief.

But I’m feeling you. How could you not be annoyed and frustrated in the face of these men, who in many ways embody the source of an entire community’s anger? How could you not be frustrated and bitter about these men who are claiming that your beloved friend deserved to die, and that the person who murdered him was actually the real victim and deserves to live the rest of his life peacefully and free? When I saw the demeanor and heard the tone of the prosecutor, I knew exactly why you rolled your eyes. I’ve often rolled my eyes at people who are trying to “play me,” trying to be condescending and mocking.

Some of us only have respect for those who reflect the image of who we think we are or wish we could be. Some of us believe that only those who speak like us have a right to speak, and we’re deaf to the songs sung by birds of other feathers. Some of us think that only those who look like us have a right to be seen, that only those who live like us have a right to live.

Rachel, I don’t know you, but I’m all too familiar with the way our culture breeds bullies and the way we’re taught and encouraged to tear each other down and rip each other apart. I’m all too familiar with the way society has to make examples out of a few so that the rest of us will be too terrified to simply be ourselves and say what we need to say. Although we’ve all been the bully before, we don’t have to accept the worst in ourselves. We don’t have to accept the worst in our world.

I hope that justice wins. I pray that you, the young vessel that was left to speak on behalf of someone who can no longer speak on behalf of himself, I hope that you find the hope and the healing that you need to go forward from this period in your life and always be beautiful and brave.

Visit ColorismHealing.org

 

The Courage to Speak

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microphone for the courage to speak“According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.” ―Jerry Seinfeld

The Shame in Speaking

We’ve all been in a classroom, workshop, or meeting when the leader asks a question and there’s dead silence from the audience. Perhaps you’ve been that student or employee who had a good response, maybe even the “right” one, yet you were afraid to speak, just like the rest of the trembling hands in the room.

Who can blame you? The shame that could ensue if you gave a “stupid” or “wrong” or “unconventional” answer is tough for anyone to handle, especially with an audience of peers.

I’ve definitely been that person several times in the past 28 years. Sometimes I’d speak, but I’d dilute my true opinions and feelings depending on the audience. SMH.

The Consequences of Speaking

Saying the wrong thing, or saying the right thing in the wrong way, can cause us to lose our jobs, lose our friends, lose our family, lose our place in society . . .

We might be made fun of, laughed at, harshly criticized, investigated, imprisoned, or murdered.

There’s no doubt that what we say and how we say it has real, tangible, negative consequences in many cases.

I’m hosting a screening in New Orleans on June 19 of the new documentary Free Angela & All Political Prisoners. Davis became one of America’s most wanted, was imprisoned, and faced the death penalty because she had the courage (audacity) to speak. She’s one example among thousands throughout history and in present day society.

The Power of Speaking

Words are powerful. Language, speech, communication is powerful.

Most of us are taught how to be humble, kind, considerate, modest, respectful, obedient, and safe. But few of us are taught how to be powerful, how to embrace and wield our power to change our world. Instead, we’re taught how to maintain, or at the very least, not disturb the status quo.

Speaking is one of the most profound human fears because speaking itself is so profound and so powerful.

When others try to silence you, or stifle your speech, they’re trying to take away your power, most likely to maintain or increase their own.

The Tipping Point

And since many people struggle to speak (speak honestly) even when they’re directly asked, it’d seem like suicide to speak without the direct prompt of some authority figure. (Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to is a terrible thing to teach children.)

Why would anyone speak up without first being asked to?

Probably because they’re prompted by a situation rather than a direct address.

The stranger in the checkout line pays our grocery bill, and we’re prompted to say, “Thank you!”

We’re watching a movie, and a potential victim is about to get into the car with a serial killer, and we’re prompted to yell at the screen, “Don’t go with her! She’s the stiletto stabber!”

Another good example is the intriguing television show “What Would You Do?” with John Quinones where strangers often speak up when they see someone in a potentially unethical or dangerous situation, such as a man slipping something in his date’s drink.

Whether it’s someone with their zipper down or government sanctioned apartheid, we find the courage to say something when we believe the consequences for not speaking are worse than the consequences for speaking. It’s at that tipping point where we decide to act despite our fears―courage.

The Time I Spoke

Some things aren’t as scary to say as other things, right? The more controversial or personal the message, the more we hesitate to get it out.

There was a message I’d wanted to give for over twenty years. It was both highly controversial and deeply personal. If you’ve ever heard about colorism, then you might understand why.

I wrote two posts about colorism that explained my tipping point―why I hadn’t talked about colorism (the negative consequences for speaking), and why I decided to start (the negative consequences for not speaking).

It was the first time I’d ever really opened up about the issue, and it was in a very public way. I actually winced while writing because I was exposing myself to the blows of shame and criticism. My heart raced when it was time to publish, and it took me a long time to press the button, like standing at the edge of a diving board, looking down into the abyss. I trembled. But what a rush when I finally jumped.

I surfaced with a new found freedom, and realized that I survived, not completely unscathed, but stronger because I faced my fears.

I did lose one friendship over those posts, and people told me to shut up, that I didn’t know what I was talking about. But none of that was as painful as it would have been to remain silent.

It’s hard to replicate that experience (maybe because not much else makes me feel so vulnerable), but I continue to look for opportunities to build my courage. I’m not always successful, but I make the effort.

And You?

Tell us about a time you spoke despite your trembling voice, shaky hands, and sweaty palms.

OR

Think of something you really want to say and weigh the pros and cons of remaining silent against the pros and cons of speaking up. Have you reached your tipping point for the courage to speak?

5 Life Changing Lessons I Learned from a High School Haircut

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metal scissors on blue background to depict lessons i learned from a high school haircut“Sarah is brave,” whispered the girl at the back of my high school math class.

I’d never considered myself brave or particularly courageous. In my head, those adjectives were reserved for people who rescued kittens from burning buildings and other fictional personas like Indiana Jones.

But having one of my peers call me brave simply because of my choice of hairstyles?

I let that idea simmer in the deepest parts of my teenage brain. In high school, I chose to stop using chemicals to straighten my hair. I simply let it grow from my head the way it naturally grew from birth.

The way it naturally grew from birth.

And I needed bravery to do that?

To let my hair grow the way it naturally grew from birth?

It baffled me in some ways, but I did understand why my classmate would consider my hairstyle choice to be an act of bravery.

When we don’t fall in line with cultural norms, we run the risk of social punishment, either in the form of bullying, alienation, rejection, or something worse.

My hair in its natural state defied cultural norms, especially for women.

It was short and nappy.

Some women might get away with one or the other, but daring to don a do that was both short and nappy at the same time was sure to get a girl ostracized.

But it’s what I wanted.

And that’s what this post, no, this entire blog is about–living the life you really want.

So, in many ways, this post is bigger than anyone’s afro. It’s about hair, but it could just as easily be about any natural inclination you have, however mundane, that goes against the social grain. We all know that friend who pretends to hate/love something just because “everyone else” hates/loves it. (Yes, I like the Twilight movies, and I don’t care how many “cool” kids claim to hate them.)

We all (you and me and everyone) long to do things that might break some unspoken (or spoken) rule.

“Every man in this family is either a doctor or a lawyer.”

“Real men don’t dance.”

“Good women stick with their husbands no matter what.”

“Pretty girls have long, silky, straight hair.”

“When you submit your will to someone else’s opinion, a part of you dies.” ―Lauryn Hill.

I got my fair share of teasing, insults, and well-intentioned disapproval because of my hair throughout high school and beyond, but I’d decided that my freedom felt way better than the acceptance of others who were too afraid to break free themselves.

And from that high school experience, here are five lessons I’ve learned that I hope will encourage you to change hairstyles, change careers, or do whatever’s on your heart.

1. A little social punishment won’t hurt as much as the pain of knowing that you’re not free to be yourself and live the life you really want.

2. Whatever decision you make, people will get over it. If they don’t, then get over them. “Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.”

3. Some people who haven’t found the courage to do a certain thing will try to put down those who have.

4. Courage develops over a lifetime, but only if you work at it.

5. Being yourself is a lot more fun and a lot less work than trying to be someone else.

What did high school teach you about courage?