Speaking Up and Out
About one month ago, Dr. Maimouna Barro of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign e-mailed me, along with many other ‘black’—people of African descent—graduate students with an invitation to speak to a class of “white, middle class” graduate students who intended to be counselors. The objective was to sensitize these counselors in training to issues of [racial] diversity concerning the different types of people they’d serve in the future. I volunteered to be included on the panel: the scheduling came at a convenient time as all my school obligations were to be satisfied and I’d be looking for meaningful activities. Normally I’ll say yes to events and opportunities like these, particularly if the timing is right. The experience proved to be more fruitful to me and my soul than ever I could have imagined or expected.
A night or two before the Saturday morning meeting, I asked myself, “What do I want white people to know about my experience as a black person?” At first I started with
“10 Things I Want White People to Know About American Blacks”
“10 Things I Want White People to Know About American Blacks--Or Just Me”
which later became
“13 Things I Want White People to Know About American Blacks—Or Just Me”
which then became
“15 Things I Want White People to Know About American Blacks—Or Just Me”
which eventually became
“15+ Things I’d Like White People (and Many Black People) to Know About American Blacks—Or Just Me.”
As you can see, I struggled with titling the document, as it encompasses so many layers of identity including socioeconomic class, gender, region and education, but I had much less difficulty populating the list. I e-mailed a version to the instructor, Rebecca Tadlock Marlo of Eastern Illinois University, and it read something like this:
“15+ Things I’d Like White People (and Many Black People) to Know About American Blacks—Or Just Me
1. You can be born at a disadvantage. And spend the rest of your life fighting to balance and rectify that situation. We live in a stratified society. Please see Peggy McIntosh.
2. There are illnesses and conditions that are very prevalent among American blacks. Among them are obesity, AIDS and what I’d generally term malnutrition or poverty of access to nutritious food. And prison.
3. Many laws are designed to be punitive against certain populations. We’re one of them. Think crack vs. cocaine.
4. Real life is not a petting zoo. My body is my person and therefore it is my choice to share or not share it with whosoever I wish. That doesn’t make me sensitive; that makes me human, civilized and aware of my rights.
5. We can tan. I’ve never owned a pair of Nikes. I can’t name any member of the Wu-Tang Klan. My father is an immigrant from a non-African country and yes, he is still black. My mother is lighter than café au lait and has hazel eyes and yes, she is still black. The African slave trade was not restricted to the United States. Brazil, Colombia, Haiti, Ecuador, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Belize, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Chile, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Guyana and more all have black populations. [Please see Bartolomé de las Casas.] One legacy of slavery is miscegenation. And being black today in Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles are all different experiences.
6. Because you ask a question and you’re curious about my experience and you think I’m exotic and/or attractive does not mean I am under any obligation to answer, respond or engage you.
Scene 1: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Feel the need to identify yourself.
“I’m sorry; I don’t think we’ve met. What’s your name?”
“Hi, I’m Katrina.”
“Nice to meet you. How do you know the host--?”
“—And you are…?”
Scene 2: Recognize boundaries. Do people ask you to recall your most painful experiences in consumable soundbytes in public so they can better understand your background?
“I’m not denying that racism exists or anything. But what’s the most racist thing you’ve experienced?”
Scene 3: Respect rights. Have you ever spent time with me outside of class or work? Are we really friends? Are all of our interactions restricted to the hours we spend in class or the 9-5, Monday-Friday blocks?
“Are you gonna add me on Facebook or what?”
7. Microaggressions are real. We experience them every day. I identified my first here while being driven through Chicago for the first time by a campus administrator along with some white peers. I was the only black person in the car.
Campus Administrator (CA): Oh, we’re on the Southside now.
CA: Yeah. You know. It’s a pretty dangerous place. If anything happens, we’ll just say we’re part of Katrina’s family! [Followed by laughter.]
Does this mean that because I’m black I am exempt from danger, violence and criminal aggression? I receive some sort of ‘pass’? Does this mean criminals are automatically my acquaintances and therefore protect my perceived ‘entourage’? What exactly does that comment mean?
8. Just as Will Ferrell, Tom Cruise, Megan Fox and Britney Spears do not represent your experience, Beyoncé, Denzel, Li’l Wayne and Li’l Kim do not represent mine.
9. We have all the same essential needs as you do. The need to breathe, to eat, to sleep, to have shelter, to have a sense of belonging and community, to garner respect and esteem and to seek self-actualization. Please see Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
10. We don’t all agree. We, African Americans, do not all agree on all the same social issues. I don’t think you’re an enemy; I also don’t assume you’re a friend. Until I get to know someone well, black, white or other, s/he is on an indefinite ‘trial’ basis.
11. There are some issues we’re going to be hypersensitive about. No one else gets to determine how we feel or how we respond to stimuli. For example, I have intentionally not seen 12 Years A Slave. There were certain scenes in Django Unchained that made me uncomfortable. And I can’t erase a violent scene from my memory once I’ve seen it. However, Peeples, a much ‘safer’ comedy, is not exactly cinematic gold.
12. I don’t know where I come from. That information was lost long ago. It’s difficult for an African American to feel a heartfelt connection to Africa. After all, we don’t speak the indigenous languages, we aren’t familiar with the foods, we don’t know what region we come from… so much is foreign. The United States is what we’ve come to know as our home, despite its frequent hostility and widespread inequities.
13. Even I, a black person with no criminal history, feel tense around security guards and maybe even police officers.
14. I change my behavior to make others more comfortable. Like crossing the street when I’m unintentionally trailing someone late at night. Like lowering my voice and monitoring my diction. My goal is always to be non-threatening because the U.S. insists on painting people who look like me as loud, abrasive, aggressive, angry, violent, promiscuous, etc. So, I live my life attempting to disprove these things. Do you feel the need to do that?
15. I could not be more proud of our resilience. I think that a segment of the black American population is making profound strides, specifically women. I feel that a large segment of the black population is remaining stagnant and at times complacent.
Bonus: Hair is a big deal particularly among African American women. ‘Going natural’ frequently has layered, political and complex meanings. Please see anything Curly Nikki. I will be impressed if you can tell the difference between braids and Senegalese twists; a weave, a front-lace wig and extensions, too. I’ve been fooled before.
Bonus: Giving back is an [unspoken] expectation. If I come from an inner city where people live paycheck-to-paycheck, where gang warfare is a norm, where teenage pregnancy is expected, where college is far from a priority, I am expected as a professional to dedicate my education, service and profession to bettering this community. I don’t know if doubt members of the dominant culture are threatened with being labeled “sell outs” if they embrace their success and reject forget their humble beginnings. Please see the Dr. Dre controversy.
Bonus: We feel pressure as minorities in predominantly white institutions to represent our whole race. (What is ‘race’ anyway?) Can you imagine trying to represent all white people with your one, lone voice? We do it every day.
Bonus: For nearly every 7 black women pursuing post-secondary education, there are about three black men. Our men are being lost to prison and the streets. This not only creates a dating disparity, it has serious implications for reproduction. The more educated a black woman is, the less likely she is to ever marry and/or have children.”
So as not to have the document dominate and direct the discussion, I asked Rebecca if it could be handed out after the panel shared with the group. She was more than compliant and graduate students from Sierra Leone, of Nigerian descent, from Senegal, of Ugandan descent and I began to tell of our experiences.
Why was this experience fruitful for me? Sometimes I don’t know I have anything to say until I’m asked. The space was safe. The panel was supportive and not to mention especially articulate and communal about ceding the floor to others who wanted to share. I got to know my peers in a way that I may not have otherwise. I challenged our listeners to be more curious about the world and to avoid allowing their educations to be restricted to classrooms and job trainings. I was affirmed, over and over again, by people I respected. The last of these was perhaps the most important of all. When I gave, I also received. May some of the items on this list be enlightening to you and may my eyes, ears and heart be open to more opportunities like these in and for the future.
My name is Katrina Spencer. I'm a librarian.