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.

 

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?

One Question after Watching 42

courage at bat 42He rubbed red clay between is hands when he stepped up to the plate.

No matter what they threw at him–racial slurs, death threats, or fast balls to the head–Jackie Robinson stepped up to the plate over and over again until he changed this country.

While most images of the Civil Rights Movement (which started nearly a decade after Robinson’s debut in the International League) show groups, often crowds of blacks marching, sitting in, picketing, and boycotting together, every day Jackie Robinson had to go alone, out there in the open arena, exposed to the world, one black man in the white field of Major League Baseball.

Though Jackie Robinson played the star role, a whole cast of characters also stepped up to the plate to help him round the bases, so to speak. This was, after all, much bigger than him, and it was way more than just a baseball game.

Rachel Robinson

First, I applaud the brilliant, on-screen display of love and friendship, passion and partnership between Jackie and his wife Rachel.

It’s by far one of the best depictions of a black couple in mainstream Hollywood, partly because their marriage is so central to the story, as it obviously was in real life.

At every home game, Jackie looked to the stands to find his wife. One smile, one gesture between them communicated more than other spectators could ever know.

She could’ve tried to talk him out of it. Told him that he was putting his son’s life at risk. Said she was tired of fighting alongside him. Complained that it was just baseball, just a silly game. She could’ve broken down. She could’ve left him.

Instead, she stepped up to the plate.

I’m sure she had her fears. Some of the death threats were serious enough to get the FBI involved. And of course there were the injuries on the field, intentional throws at Jackie’s head, but she never wavered.

Branch Rickey

The Dodgers General Manager, Branch Rickey, may not be a household name for the majority of us, but his role is undeniable.

He displayed the kind of courage I wish more whites had displayed throughout history. He didn’t wait for an opportunity to change baseball and ultimately the country, because he knew that the opportunity would never come. Someone had to actively create the opportunity to fight injustice.

He could have died saying I wish baseball was an integrated sport, but instead of wishing it, he made it happen.

Rickey gave more than the usual passive “support” for blacks. He did more than merely “not doing harm.” He did more than merely comforting himself with the notion that he would have signed a black player if he’d only had the chance. He did more than sympathize and feel bad about the whole thing.

Whether his motive was money, guilt, or fear of what God might say on judgment day, Branch Rickey took unequivocal, decisive action to integrate professional baseball.

We’ll never know if there was another player that Rickey could’ve called on that had both the skill and the courage to take on the challenge of single handedly integrating the entire sport of professional baseball, America’s most beloved sport, but we should rejoice that there was Jack Robinson.

I do. I marvel at the perfect alignment of Rickey’s determination with Robinson’s will and Robinson’s mental and physical preparedness. It was, as we say, perfect timing.

The “Team”

There were players who preferred to be traded rather than play with Robinson. Others remained with the Dodgers but never accepted him as a teammate.

But there were some players who seized the opportunity to prove themselves to be better men, and they were a better team for it.

There were many others, on and off the team, depicted in the film and not, who stepped in one way or another, like the sports writer Wendell Smith.

The Film

The first important thing about history is that it happened. The second important thing is that we remember it. Third, we must learn from it.

Foolish people insist that we forget the past in order to live in the present and move forward to the future. But it’s our past that got us to where we are in the present, and if we want a brighter future, we must learn from that past.

So, thank you to Brian Helgeland and the entire crew, to all of the actors, especially Chadwick Boseman, Nicole Beharie, and Harrison Ford.

I read a commentary that said that 42 might be a little old fashioned and safe for some audiences. It definitely lacks the firestorm of debate that surrounded Django Unchained, even though 42 does use its fair share of the “N” word. And In terms of its depiction of black characters, 42 infinitely outshines movies like The Blind Side.

I think the cast and crew of 42 definitely stepped up to the plate on this one and possibly hit it out of the park.

Now You

After watching the film twice so far, once with my siblings, and a second time with my mother, our initial reaction to some of the scenes was: This still happens!

There’s a line in the movie that sounds like something Rush Limbaugh would say: “This ain’t the America I know!”

It may not be in the field of baseball, but we all need to step up to the plate when it comes to carrying the torch for racial equality and justice.

We all have a role to play.

So I leave you with one question that Jackie Robinson’s character asks the Pittsburgh pitcher and ultimately asks himself at the end of the movie:

What are you afraid of?

Are you afraid to talk about racism because it’s so passé?

Is it too taboo in your circle of post-racial friendships?

Will it make you seem uncool or too uptight?

Will you alienate yourself from your family?

Are you scared that you’ll come out looking like the bad guy or the victim?

Is it too painful? Too frustrating? Too complicated?

Well, a bad thing won’t go away simply because you refuse to talk about it.

You have to have the courage to confront it.

What are you afraid of?

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