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?

Colorism’s Roots & Routes

The simple answer you’ll get from most people about where colorism comes from is that during slavery in the Americas, blacks and whites bore children of mixed ancestry, but according to the law, any trace of black ancestry meant you were black (one drop rule), and children took the status of their mother, which was slave in most cases.

As a result, the spectrum of skin tones among slaves and others who were legally black, grew wider. Slave owners often granted more privileges to the lighter skinned slaves, saw them as smarter and more capable because of their white ancestry, allowed them some form of education or training, and occasionally granted them their freedom.

Visit the new site ColorismHealing.org

Even after slavery ended, similar advantages were given to blacks whose appearance was closer to white, such as first consideration for certain schools and jobs.

The preferential treatment served to create division among blacks. Simultaneously there was resentment for this preferential treatment and the desire to acquire and take advantage of it.

Some might think that explaining the origins of colorism in America is as simple as pointing to American slavery. But it’s deeper than that. Colorism is the result of white supremacist ideology, which is ancient compared to slavery in America.

Social hierarchies based on nationality, religion, class, gender, education, race, and color have existed for millenniums. 

Roots in Biblical & Religious Texts

One story that’s historically been used to justify racism, colorism, and slavery is the so called “curse of Ham.” That’s the story of Noah’s youngest son, Ham, who saw his father naked, then told his brothers. Noah was angry and cursed his son Ham, who the scriptures say is the father of Canaan. Noah’s curse said that Canaan would be the slaves of Ham’s brothers (Gen 9:20-27).

So where would color come in to play for those who use this story as the basis for practicing racism?

It’s a stretch, but here’s the “logic”:

Since Ham is the father of Cush  (Gen 10:6), and Cush is sometimes used synonymously with the regions of Nubia, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Sudan; then Ham and his decedents must be associated with dark skin. If Ham is associated with dark skin, and he’s the one who committed the disgraceful (some say sinful) act against his father, then dark skin must also be associated with disgrace and sin. Even though it was Canaan, not Cush, that Noah said would be enslaved, slavery was still somehow associated with black skin.

Then there’s a later reference in the bible to skin color that further connects Cush to skin color: “Can the Ethiopian  (Hebrew Cushite) change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil” (Jer 13:23).

This interpretation of Ham’s story shows how human pathology causes people to defy logic in order to believe in their own superiority and to justify their oppression of other peoples.

An additional trope from the bible that people point to as one source of how people view skin color is the distinction between darkness being bad or evil, and light or white being good, pure, clean, and holy. (I trust that you can do your own search on this if you’re curious.) While the majority of these references don’t specifically refer to skin color, the distinctions between black/dark and white/light is a symbol in many cultures that has been generally applied to many subjects.

But it’s not just the Judeo-Christian bible that carries such symbolism.

Roots in Indian, Greek, and Roman Texts

In this amazing documentary titled “Shadeism,” by a young woman who’s family is from Sri Lanka, she explains how colorism existed in regions like India even before colonialism . . . long before.

In the ancient Indian scripture of the Ramayana, there’s a scene that depicts a fight between a noble, fair-skinned king from the north, and an evil dark-skinned king from the south. According to an explanation of the Ramayana published through UCLA, this tale may date back as far as 1500 BCE.

A blurb about Benjamin Isaac’s book, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquitystates:

[Isaac] considers the literature from classical Greece to late antiquity in a quest for the various forms of the discriminatory stereotypes and social hatred that have played such an important role in recent history and continue to do so in modern society.

Isaac’s book is said to disprove the belief that ancient Greeks and Romans only held ethnic/cultural prejudice but not racial prejudice.

Routes Around the Globe: Colonialism & Pigmentocracy

Whether or not colorism was present in cultures before colonialism, there’s little argument against the fact that it became ubiquitous as a result of colonialism.

Pigmentocracy describes a social structure in which status, class, education, occupation, etc is determined by skin color. It’s existed in various forms all over the globe, and  some pigmentocracies throughout history have been more operational and institutionalized than others.  Pigmentocracy involves all races, unlike the common notion of colorism, which is that it functions among the people of one race.

America is an example of one of the pigmentocracies that have existed around the globe. While not precisely broken down by exact skin tone, it’s generally true that this country has granted the highest status and opportunity to those of the lightest skin, and denied that status and opportunity to those with the darkest skin, with varying degrees in between.

To trace the routes of Europeans around the globe during colonialism, is to literally trace the roots of colorism. The spread of colorism is a direct result of the spread of white supremacist ideology.

I still wonder what’s the initial source of white supremacy.

In thinking about those ancient texts like the Ramayana and the Bible, I wonder how humans began to equate light with good and dark with bad.

Was it as quotidian as one random person who had a strange thought and then went and shared his ideas with friends and neighbors? Or was it as strategic as some ancient government plotting to brainwash the masses so that they could gain power through some arbitrary characteristic?

Why didn’t the tides of history end up spreading black, brown, yellow, or red supremacy? Not that any of those would be right.

Do we have to rehash every detail about the roots of colorism every time we have a conversation about it?

Maybe we should explain the historical roots to those who claim to have never heard of colorism.

But for the converted, for those of us who already understand the who, what, why, when, why, and how of colorism’s roots and routes, can we finally begin to have productive conversations about the present and future?

I guess my biggest question is: Where do we go from here?

Visit ColorismHealing.org

Colorism: The Truth About Soledad’s “Who is Black in America?”

It struck a nerve.

Got under the skin of blacks, whites, and others.

Since Sunday evening, when Soledad O’Brien’s fifth installment of Black in America aired on CNN, many have asked, “Does it matter who is black in America?”

Visit the new site ColorismHealing.org

Of course, proponents of the “I’m HUMAN” brand, and the “I don’t see color” camp showed up in full force following the documentary.

Several have insisted that people like Soledad pick at the scab of racism and won’t let us heal. That she and others are responsible for keeping racism and colorism alive because they won’t stop talking about it.

Other complaints included “I’m not represented,” or “This documentary doesn’t run the gamut of all black experiences.”

But I have another way to look at Soledad’s “Black in America” series in general, and more specifically at “Who is Black in America?” because it covers colorism, which has been a large focus of my writing since I began blogging in 2011.

Race may be something we’ve created, but created things are real.

Because they have real consequences.

Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine a person’s status as a slave. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine who had the right to legally marry. Socially constructed or not, race was real when used to determine where you could sit, what water fountain you could drink from, and which door you had to enter.

When our social construct of race leads to bullying, physical violence and murder, economic disparities, educational disparities, and psychological pain, it becomes tangible, more than just a myth.

Unfortunately, the institution of racism that’s existed in this land for centuries is still reflected in our lived experiences, whether it’s residual, such as the economic and educational disparities between races, or whether it’s blatant acts of hate, such as bullying or murder.

Race is our Frankenstein. We’ve created it, so now we have to deal with it. I’m glad Soledad has the courage to confront this monster that so many want to run from.

Being “color blind” is not honorable.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with difference. The problem is allowing differences to divide us.

We don’t want homogeneity. We don’t want to be clones of each other, no more than we want flowers to all look the same.

The key is to recognize the beauty in our differences. God created us all unique in some way, not to segregate, but to celebrate. It’s human nature to recognize patterns, similarities, and differences, not just among people, but amid all elements of creation.

Yes, the entire world has a history and way of using differences to establish hierarchies or castes to gain power and privilege, and to oppress others. That’s the evil of the world.

But we don’t have to deny ourselves the blessing of beautiful colors. We need to create societies that accommodate,  appreciate,  and celebrate differences, not try to neutralize them.

Insisting on “color blindness” actually has an opposite effect. It results in making skin color differences taboo.

If what you really mean is that you don’t show differential treatment based on skin color, then say that. But don’t pretend you can’t see skin color.

Talking about race and colorism is part of the solution, not the problem.

On Starting Point with Soledad O’Brien, Michaela Angela Davis said,

Soledad, you’re in the solution.

On the Google+ Hangout with ESSENCE, Perry “Vision” DiVirgilio used an analogy that I like:

If you have an open wound on your arm, and you don’t treat it, it’s not going to go away. It’s going to stay there and fester.

Because I’ve already written about why I kept silent for so long and why I’m not any longer, I won’t go into great detail here.

I will simply ask, when has not talking about a social problem, ever helped people solve it? Would the Holocaust have ended if everyone in the world had just stopped talking about it? Would Apartheid have ended if everyone had just stopped talking about it? Would slavery in American have ended if everyone had merely stopped talking about it? Would women have gotten the right to vote if people stopped talking about it?

No.

Racism and it’s offspring, colorism, will not disappear because people go silent about it. People consistently bring about change in this world by first speaking up, and then taking action.

Consider what happens when you try to put a lid on a boiling pot.

One documentary cannot encompass everything.

It’s not fair to require one blog post, one article, one movie, one documentary, one book, one school, or one person to be the ultimate and final answer to all the world’s problems.

When I began blogging about colorism, I received similar criticism as Soledad did for her documentaries. People wanted to dictate what I should be writing about.

I say, if you don’t see what you want to see, go somewhere else and find it, or create it yourself.

We need all hands on deck. Soledad can’t do it alone. Yaba can’t do it alone. Vision can’t do it alone.

Plus, the documentary is a series. That means what you haven’t seen in the first five episodes, might show up in the sixth, seventh, or eighth. And the documentary is less than an hour long (if you consider commercial time). Let’s be logical about that.

“Who is Black in America?” merely opens the door a little more.

The bottom line is that I’m overjoyed that the issue of colorism has a national stage in mainstream media for the first time ever. In an earlier post on the media, I explained that the media covers weight issues, bullying, violence, interracial discrimination, single mothers, rape, and a host of other painful issues, but has never discussed colorism on such a prominent platform.

It’s been talked about, no doubt, but never in a forum so big as this.

I know the documentary barely scratched the surface of colorism, but it’s fueled the discussion like nothing ever before. Because of that, I applaud this segment of Black in America, and personally view it as success.

Visit ColorismHealing.org