Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Voice For The Silenced

**This post was submitted and published by the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Women In Student Affairs (WISA) Blog**

Over the past few months I have been fortunate enough to be in spaces where my passions have been discussed. I have always been a person who enjoyed talking about oppression, privilege, dominance, and social issues. Even more so, I enjoyed being that voice for those who were not present. As a child, I was always seen as the weird one. I was too “Pro-Black” in high school because I found enjoyment in speaking the lessons I had learned about the Black community in America and was the “feminist” in college because I voiced my concerns regarding women equality. I was raised to be aware of my identity (black and female) while being aware of the society in which I lived in. One thing out of many that I contribute to my career choice has been being taught to appreciate difference by my parents. I was always encouraged to know who I was and what my historical context had been as a racial group in the United States; but I was always taught to appreciate others who contributed to our history as U.S. citizens. Because of this appreciation and awareness, I somehow found ways to insert my voice for others in settings where they were not present.

In the beginning of my career, I started out at a Historically Black University (HBCU) where I found myself speaking out for the LGBTQA+ students. It was not until I was approached by a few students who identified as LGBTQA+ that I actually noticed that I had become one of their biggest supporters. Being that they were able to see me as someone who could understand their experiences gave me great interest in being their voice on the administration side. During my time there, I became the advisor for the student LGBTQA+ organization which prompted me to find the courage to share publicly that I too identified within the LGBTQA+ spectrum. For that environment, it was challenging to be the voice. Many did not understand the experiences of the students or why the students wanted something that spoke to them.

After spending eleven years at what were both my Alma Mater and my employer, I chose to expand my horizons. I decided to try my hand at Predominately White Institutions (PWIs). When I did this, I was one hundred percent nervous. For a large part of my life, I can recall messages from the media or society telling me what I should or should not be or do; as a woman, you shouldn’t be too outspoken; as a Black woman make sure you smile more; don’t be a product of your environment if you are from the “hood”. All these messages I took with me to my new home. And low and behold, some of these messages began to ring true.

During my time, I have been celebrated and shunned for being outspoken. I have been told that I do not smile enough and that it made some individuals uncomfortable. And I have been ignored from conversations that concerned my office and possibly collaboration opportunities where I was told that they would prefer to speak to my director, who later forwarded me the opportunity. Or that someone who identified as White and Lesbian was the overarching voice of the LGBTQA+ community since they had knowledge of the legalities that affects the LGBTQA+ community; and the fact that I did not identify my experiences with theirs for we show up in society completely different. On all occasions, I learned that I was now speaking my own voice. Prior to these experiences, I found myself speaking for others and with little emphasis, adding my voice to the equation. I realized that it was now my turn to be un-silenced. Being an introvert, Black, female, queer identified and single, and in my 30’s has been some of ways in which I have felt oppressed and silenced.

There had been times where I was told to be careful how I engage certain colleagues because of who they knew. Or that I did not want to be seen as the ‘Angry Black Woman’; which was a great conversation after a workshop during NASPA 2013 in Orlando. Either way, I interpreted these messages as “play nice” or “try not to stir up mischief”. And ironically, these were from other women of color. I was not quite sure how to digest what I was hearing. Being encouraged to speak up was how I was raised. I was taught to speak up for myself because no one else would. I was taught that to be seen, you have to have a voice. But now I am being told that being vocal is not acceptable if you want to make friends in the field.
I write this blog in hopes that someone finds courage and strength in my words and actions. Understanding that we all have experiences and many of us look to create allies, it first begins with accepting one another. Share your voice. Be present in that space. If I have not learned anything from my eight years in Higher Education, I have learned that being vocal can be a gift and a curse. Proudly, I accept it as both. I spend a large portion of my life sharing awareness around Multiculturalism, Diversity and Inclusion. For me to be silenced would be like sitting in the back of a crowded room. I would be able to see the environment around me, but no one would have the pleasure of getting to know me.

The State of Black Youth

This morning, I entered my office to find the article from the Huffington Post that I was reading yesterday still available on my screen. The article was acknowledging the efforts of the Black students from The University of Michigan taking to Twitter with their #BBUM (Being Black at U of M) to share their experiences; whether good or bad. As I followed their tweets, I received my emotions. From some of the posts, I was happy to see the positives and the celebratory messages that highlighted what it is like to be a student at U of M. But then I also felt pain and sadness that some of their posts were still happening to us today. And in all honesty, I was not surprised but it affects me personally to hear how cruel people can be to others. In a setting of higher education, I am always challenged to hear that students still receive oppression of any sort.

As I left the Twitter feed and actually found time to read the Huffington Post (which is rare), I ran across another article that read Renisha, Jonathan, Trayvon ... The New Strange Fruit? written by Avis Jones-DeWeever. Although I enjoyed her article, more things became brighter in my light of awareness. I have always found myself to be one who recognizes signals and symbolism, particularly in heightened moments. The first thing that I noticed was that after listening to India.Arie's rendition of Billie Holidays Strange Fruit, I have heard this song in many places, quite often as a matter of fact. And it was even more interesting that I had just heard it last night on the latest episode of Criminal Minds; which was ironically the title of the episode. But it has hit me as the latest way to define the inhuman treatment of our youth. Of our people.

Reading the many articles and petitions for change that are flooding the media, I am moved to share my thoughts regarding (1) identifying our youth as strange fruit and (2) the cycle that has plagued our community since our arrival into the United States. It is hard for me to accept the idea that we are still in a time where Non-Blacks are still surprised when they see a Black person in their physical presence. Because of the work that I do, I am highly aware that Blacks internationally are received differently but to believe that we are seen as "Strange Fruit" still in 2013 is mind blowing. What is so strange about us? About our youth? What is more strange about us that isn't any stranger of other cultures, ethnicities, or races? Why have we accepted this term to define the treatment of our young? Our people? I have younger cousins and nothing about them is strange - maybe the music but that changes with time. If one is to listen to the words of the song, it may become even more unsettling to connect that context to our Trayvons, Jordans (whom I reference further in the reading), Renishas, and Jonathans.

The Black students of The University of Michigan receives many kudos from me. As someone who promotes and encourages individuals to tell their story, I was moved by their efforts to bring attention to the reality that is their lives. Being an Alumnae of a Historically Black University, I have no reference to what it is like to be Black at a Predominately White Institution, which further defines why I am appreciative for those students to share and inform. But why are we still encouraged to inform that these experiences are reality? With so much conversation around everything else that is taking place in our society, it is evident that we have not healed from all that has occurred to the African Americans. And by no means am I lessening the experiences of any other culture in the U.S. but because of the context, I am mentioning this particular group.

And as I continue to read various articles still reciting the names of the latest incidents that have affected our community since the death of Trayvon Martin, I am challenged to see that many have already forgotten about young Jordan Davis, a young man who was killed in November of 2012 in Jacksonville, Florida at a gas station for being in a vehicle that had its music too loud, according to his killer Michael Dunn, who is still awaiting trial. We recite the names of Trayvon, Renisha, and Jonathan, but we have already forgotten about Jordan. Why? Why have we chosen to pick and choose who we advocate for? Why have we allowed society to determine which cases receive our attention? There are many young blacks who have lost their lives from coast-to-coast and the conversations seem limited to the most recent publicly displayed tragedies. Why?

After George Zimmerman attempted to use the infamous "Stand Your Ground Doctrine" to justify his actions, many were unaware that the same defense was being attempted but denied for Marissa Alexander, another resident of Florida. Although a life had not been taken in her case, she was still within the parameters of usage according to the law. As all of things have taken place, I reference back to the Trayvons, Jordans, Renishas, and Jonathans of my era; the Amadous Diallos & Sean Bells; and of course, they were shot by Police Officers but their deaths are no less than those who have been take by the hands of civilians.

The state of black youth is a statement and a question that many are posing in hopes that it (1) brings attention to the disproportionate treatment of Blacks in America, (2) encourages conversation and action around taking back our communities and protecting our lineage, (3) shows that we are aware of what is going on in what has been said is our country, and (4) proves that as much as we would like to say we have overcome, we are still faced with more obstacles to cross.

A War On Humanity?

December 14, 2012 - Newtown, Connecticut - 26 lives are taken at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Assailant takes their own life, totaling a total of 28 fatalities.
September 27, 2012 - Minneapolis, Minnesota - 7 lives are taken at Accent Signage Systems. Assailant takes their own life, totaling 8 fatalities.
August 5, 2012 - Oak Creek, Wisconsin - 9 lives are taken in a Sikh temple. Assailant take their own life, totaling 10 fatalities.
July 20, 2012 - Aurora, Colorado - 12 lives are taken, 58 are injured in a movie theater. Assailant was later arrested.
May 20, 2012 - Seattle, Washington - 4 lives were taken at a cafe and 1 later during a carjacking. The assailant later takes their life, totaling 6 fatalities.
April 2, 2012 - Oakland, California - 7 lives were taken in a Oikos University nursing classroom. The assailant was arrested.
February 22, 2012 - Atlanta, Georgia - 5 lives were taken in Su Jung Health Sauna, a Korean spa. Amongst the 5 fatalities lies the assailant.

…And this list could go on through the past 30 years                           

Many will argue that there are cultural wars taking place within the U.S.; a war on Black America (specifically Black Male Youths), Immigration/Immigrants, a war on the LGBTQQIPAA community, & etc. But I think there is a more overall war on human kind. Each day, as we watch our daily dose of our local news, we become aware of another life that had been taken over night. And just looking at the statistics for 2012, there has been an average of at least one mass killing per every month and a half. Within this data, we have lost a total of 77 lives to mass killings.

If Whites are killings Whites, Black are killing Blacks, Whites are killing Blacks, Blacks are killing Whites, Hispanics are killing Southeast Asians. Southeast Asians are killing Indians, & etc, who is to say that one is targeted more than the other? When we have mass killings, not every time is their a particular targeted group. Of course with the Sikh temple shooting, that was specific. However, the most recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary was not. Matter of fact, the victims were unarmed children.

So I guess the question is, who are we at war with?

Looking at the past 7 mass killings, none of them are similar in who was targeted. Not knowing the specifics in demographics, it’s hard to say what population was most represented but we can assume, but I am sure that it is safe to say that the human population was the most represented. Regardless of race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, age, etc. each victim was a human being. They were, in some capacity, a contribution to the advancement and mobility of society. From the innocent laughter of little children to the passionate fire to promote change as a police officer, each human being had a vital part to play in our progression.

So, I ask, how do we combat this epidemic?

Again, many would argue that we need better gun laws. Others would say that we need to do away with gun possession all together. And another group would argue that we need to provide better services to our citizens with mental illnesses. I think that it is all of the above. I would love a society, a world, where we did not have crime or violence but this would be impossible for we are a combative and protective world. 

Everyone wants to fight for what they believe is right, which they are right, in their own right (this is a subject that I will avoid discussing for this particular posting. I may revisit at a later date). Mental illness, however, is something that is either not taken seriously or is not diagnosed soon enough to provide assistance to these individuals who are committing these crimes.

If we create a stricter gun policy, would this really eliminate our challenges with crimes, more so, with deaths? Currently, for one to possess a handgun, they must have a clean criminal record, proper id, go through a background check, and etc. however, illegal possession hasn’t declined. So I think stricter gun policies would not change much. If we took all of the guns and melted them into scrap metal, that would just force individuals to be creative and find other ways to take lives. So again, I doubt that would change anything.

Either way, I believe that we need to begin with the source — the assailants. Not knowing the ins and outs of mental health diagnosis, I am sure that our health physicians are helping protect all human beings by properly diagnosing their patients with mental illnesses and are keeping record of all of their actions or urges.

But I guess this is all something that may be considered as wishful thinking.

A Guide to Mass Shootings in America - 1982-2012
http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/07/mass-shootings-map?page=2

Hypersensitivity

This past week I attended the Institute on Social Justice. For my profession, this Institute gave me a lot to ponder on. For me personally, well, let’ s just say that it was a confirmation that I wasn’t crazy. During this conference, I was engaged in conversations around privilege, race, sexism, heteronomative thinking, systems, and biases. All of these things are not new topics of conversation for me but to have them all presented to you in a 48 hour time frame can be overwhelming. After I sat through the two-day institute, I felt full. I was full of meaning, questions, curiosity, regret, patience, and interest. I began to think more about who I was when it came to defining my social identities as well as a professional of Social Justice Education.

Then I had to return to work. My private, liberal arts, privileged institution. An institution that I couldn’t have thought twice about when I was searching for my Higher Education. An institution that thinks that their diversity spectrum has been fulfilled by their predominately Black and Hispanic/Latin support staff. An institution that fails to notice their lack of accessibility for people with disabilities. An institution that can count on one hand the number of female faculty of color — don’t bother counting the Blacks, there are none. All these things I knew, noticed, and have been aware of for the 7 months that I have been here. But then I began to think deeper, something that I tend to do often. I began to notice more.

I began to notice everything that dealt with race, class, gender, and education. I noticed that I was being treated differently. But as I said, ISJ confirmed that I wasn’t going crazy noticing these things before. But it did confirm that I have now become hypersensitive to the behaviors. During the Institute, Dr. Shakti Butler screened her film Breaking the Codes and it displayed every experience that I have encountered in my 30 years of living (of course, I can probably only speak on 20 years of cognitive awareness). From someone of the opposite race jumping the line in front of me & acting as though they did not see me standing there waiting, to spending a large amount of time deciding how to respond to an offensive situation and not being coined “angry or hostile”, to being treated differently because I do not have the degrees of the majority, to being seen as only being accessible for “my people” when I am here for all people. All of these experiences have been more prevalent with my recent move.

Recognizing one’s differences in life/society, allows them to determine their involvement. Being hypersensitive to the actions of others further determines how they will be involved. But being a Woman and being Black, tends to raise a higher sensitivity. Acknowledging these experiences makes me ask numerous questions. I instantly think back to Dr. Maura Cullen’s 35 Dumb Things Well Intended People Say and begin to question if they are really “well intended people”. Or are they just dumb people saying dumb things. Or for this conversation, are they dumb people doing dumb things?

The Angry Black Woman

Black America has a very interesting reputation and expectations. As Black Women, we are even more interestingly categorized. From the way the media portrays us, if we are aggressive or assertive, we are angry. We have a point to prove. We have a chip on our shoulder. Why can’t we just be annoyed by the stupidity that we encounter on a daily basis? Why can’t we just be tired of all of the expectations that society places on us? Why can’t we just want more for ourselves to where we refuse to subscribe to the societal expectations?

I decided to write this blog after having a week of various encounters. It has been one thing after the other, but all I could think of when responding was, be careful how you respond, you do not want to be coined as “The Angry Black Woman”. No matter what takes place, one does not want to be perceived negatively, so you have to calm that raging voice inside that says “Speak up”. But by doing this, I feel as though I am silencing my voice. And for me, doing so means that I am allowing the situation(s) to continue.

Regardless of the situation, I am not angry. I am annoyed and frustrated. It is annoying to receive a sexually explicit photo of yourself after we’ve parted ways after meeting for the first time. It is frustrating to have someone of the opposite race jump in line in front of you after you’ve stood there waiting patiently for your turn to make your purchase. It is frustrating for people to assume your upbringing because you can relate to others who they cannot. It is frustrating for people to judge one group based on their limited knowledge of that group but yet they have determined the consensus for everyone who is a part of that group. And it is frustrating to see someone speak the language but not walk in their sermon.

Why can’t our anger just be seen as either passion or frustration? Why must it be seen as we are never satisfied or that we are hypersensitive (a prelude to my next blog)? Why must it be seen as us being unhappy?

I have said it once and I will profess it here, I claim my anger and believe it is in justifiable right.

Signed,

Your Angry Black Woman

Honestly, Who Really Cares?

As children, we are programmed to always think about what we allow people to see of us. We must be mindful that we are always on our best behavior when we are out in public. We do not want to give people the wrong idea of who we are. As women, we were encouraged to “act like a lady” (whatever that meant). As men, they were encouraged to be strong, be a man (uh huh, sure). But then, as adults, we are encouraged to live our lives. Enjoy it to the fullest, with no regrets. To make the most of the time that we are given and never take it for granted. And to say what we mean, and mean what we say. But, we cannot help but to revert back to our upbringing & think about our behavior and how we would like people to perceive us.

I can recall back to my undergrad experience when during a workshop held by the Office of Career Services, we were told to always be on our “P’s & Q’s” for we may never know who may come to campus looking for the next best thing. Or, again, be sure to act like a lady, we do not want to make a bad name for ourselves. After hearing all of that, I began to wonder, who am I doing this much work for & why?

The other night, as I sat in my living room after a long day’s work, I began to revisit conversations with my friends regarding the amount of effort we put into “altering” ourselves just to make a good impression. We would constantly debate on whether or not it was conforming just to make other people happy. Of course, no one really seen it the way I did, which for me confirmed that I would have to conform my thoughts just to be heard. But often times, I would be encouraged to try to “soften” my personality for some people to get to know me. Or I would be asked to “smile” just so I would give the impression that I was approachable. And after all of this I would ask, why?

Another conversation that I revisited pertained to a request that I received from a colleague who wanted to know why (1) she could not find me on Facebook and (2) why we were not friends on Facebook. Now, I had a few reasons that I wanted to share with her as to why she could not find me on Facebook & why we were not friends, but I refrained from doing so because I wanted to be sure that I made a good impression ( :-D ). But after all of that, I simply stated that I choose to keep my personal life separate from my professional and for me, Facebook is personal. In a society where everything we say, do, think, and feel is put under a microscope, where will we be able to be ourselves?

And after all of this thinking, over analyzing multiple conversations, I began to ask myself, do people really care what my thoughts are? How I am feeling? Or whether or not we are friends on a social media site? If we really think about it, do we really care how someone is feeling? That they do not like pizza today? That their dog just ran away? Or that they are no longer friends with the person that they went to Junior High School with? Does it really bother us if people are overtly honest? Are we really that sensitive to someone sharing their thoughts on critical social issues? Are we that controlling that even a simple blog post can cause so much uproar that the site removes it because it was the honest truth?

As a human being, I can say, I really do not care. I would love to think that I live in a society, a world where everyone is honest regardless of how it may make someone else feel at the end of the conversation. But hey, I live in this society, where we smile and say we are doing fine when in actuality we are mourning the loss of a close family member or the fact that we lost our job.

How Much Longer Must "We Wear The Masks"?

Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem, “We Wear the Mask” translates to a guide of how to allow someone else to control your actions just to save them from being uncomfortable. Well, at least it does to me, particularly where we are in 2013. This poem represents the facade that one must put on just to “make nice” with someone, a culture, a society, and/or an environment.
As a child, I was always told that I should smile more. I was told that I looked as though I was angry at the world. I was told that if I smiled, I’d be surprised by whose day I made by smiling at them. In my teens, these were statements that meant little to nothing to me. I was not unhappy. I was not angry at the world. And I do not recall anyone saying to me that I made their day just by smiling at them. And no one who made these assumptions could tell me what weight I had by walking around looking like the Joker from the Batman movies would give me. So I never put thought into it trying to “soften my face”, whatever the hell that meant.
Now that I am older, I am being told the same thing but now I am being told this because adults are not sure how to approach me. Now, this is where I am lost. Being in my 30's, with 2 college degrees, and working in a setting of assertive, educationally confident, socially capable individuals, you do not know how to approach me. And then I ask myself, what is the worst thing I can say, “no?” So, often I am told, yet again, “you should soften your face.” Here is my challenge. Now unless I intend to walk around looking like the Cheshire cat, what exactly does “softening” my face mean and how does that work?
With this request, I feel as though I am being told to “be a good girl, so you can make nice with the other kids, go put on that mask so they’ll feel comfortable to play with you.” Just re-reading that makes me twinge my face. Why must I wear a mask just to make other adults feel comfortable with engaging me? I have grown comfortable in my skin to be okay with the fact that we may not get along, we may not always agree, and we may never find common interest, but that should not hinder your ability or willingness to engage me. Too often is it made to seem as though I am the “Typical Angry Black Woman” just because I do not find a smile as I casually walk through life.
I, for one, am tired of wearing the mask. I would like to finally be myself and not be seen as the unapproachable, disengaging, angry Black Woman, just because I refuse to make you comfortable.
Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)
We Wear the Mask
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!