I remember her well. A true pioneer…
Monday, August 3, 2009
Sunday, August 2, 2009
Michael Pollan’s books have opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about food, eating and nutrition, but in today’s NY Times magazine, he makes some really good points about the explosion of TV cooking shows… compared to how little time we actually spend cooking anymore. My favorite quote was this one: “A hundred years ago, chicken for dinner meant going out and catching, killing, plucking, and gutting a chicken. Do you know anybody who still does that? It would be considered crazy! Well, that’s exactly how cooking will seem to your grandchildren: something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it!
Check out the whole article:
Sunday, June 28, 2009
People all of the world are analyzing the amazing, perverse and strange legacy of Michael Jackson—and the changes in his appearance over the years are among the many (many, many) topics to discuss. Although born a black male, at the end of his life, he appeared to be closer to a white woman. Some theorize he wanted to look like his friend and fellow child star, Elizabeth Taylor. Others suggest that he was attempting to escape from the negative associations of a painful childhood. Still others simply dismiss him as crazy.
I don’t think anyone will ever know what was going on in Michael’s mind. Perhaps even he didn’t know. But his physical changes point to a larger truth--one he sang about in “Black or White” a song that not only responds to the various speculations about his ethnic identity, but serves an anthem to our ultimate oneness. That truth is simply this: race and gender aren’t fixed concepts. With money and time enough, they can be altered to suit whatever notion of identity we choose. Furthermore, what we appear to others to be on the outside may not always speak to the truth of how we define ourselves.
Michael Jackson had money enough to blend both race and gender lines in a way most of us don’t. But there are many of us who have met a person in some aspect of a gender transformation, either from male to female, or from female to male. Just today, in a photographic essay published in the Washington Post Magazine, I saw some images chronicling the transformation of a young woman from her childhood as “Anna” to her young adulthood as “Logan.” Just a few weeks ago, Cher’s daughter (formerly “Chastity” now “Chaz” Bono) announced her/his sex change procedures. In most urban centers, if only on the street, or shopping or in a restaurant, most of us have seen someone in the process of a sex-change. We—and I include myself,unfortunately—react to them with a double take of confusion, with whispers and stares.
Transgendered people challenge our notions about gender and identity—in the same way Michael Jackson challenged our notions about racial identity. Transgendered people get the same reactions of horror, disgust and discomfort as the morphing images of Michael’s lightening skin and surgically altered face. But our discomfort or disgust with either transgendered persons or with Michael’s racial ambiguities has nothing to do with the object and everything to do with the subject. In other words, it’s not about them. It’s about us.
We like to believe there are some rock-bottom certainties about people that can be determine based solely on appearance alone. There’s comfort in this: it helps us to order and categorize our world. Transgendered people remind us that our categorizes are often too limited—if not flat out wrong. Some people are able to readjust their paradigms to include new categories—and others are so threatened by alternative possibilities that they react with condemnation.
I don’t pretend to be well-versed in the science, but many transgendered people say that all they are doing is changing their outsides to match how they feel inside. Put that way, I can relate to their struggle more easily. Any woman reaching her mid-40s or early 50s who has looked in the mirror, considered her face and/or body and wished for plastic surgery should be able to understand. On the inside, you’re still 25… but the outside? Not so much.
It’s a poor analogy, I know, but it’s something to think of both when meeting transgendered people—and in contemplating the legacy of Michael Jackson. Perhaps, his changes in his outward appearance reflected the desire to bring his physical side in line with his mental image.
Or perhaps---work with me on this--- he found all of these concepts—race and gender and age—too limiting. Perhaps simply acknowledged that skin and hair and noses and chins were simply “costumes” to be changed at will. Perhaps, if he had chosen to explain it, he might have said that what he was inside inside reached far beyond any outer expression. The music in him expressed beyond young or old, male or female, black or white.
Whether it was his intention or not, this “unlimited identity” may be one of his greatest legacies. In both his music and his physicality, he bridged cultures. If you loved him or loathed him, you had to acknowledge his uniqueness—no matter if you’re black or white.
Monday, June 22, 2009
Just as my friends and I were getting ready to leave, we encountered GOP Chairman Michael Steele walking the concourse (probably getting ready to leave himself). He wasn't surrounded by handlers-- or anyone-- for that matter. I'd driven down to event with my friend Rich Schmidt (President of the advertising agency, Fat-Cat Creative) and his neighbor, retired broadcaster Herb Brubaker who is something of fixture in Washington DC local news. Like the good journalist he is, Herb had quizzed me thoroughly on the drive to the Washington Convention Center: who was I, what did I do, what did I write about, etc. So I'd shared with this elderly white man quite a bit about Don't Bring Home A White Boy and what my research had uncovered. So when he saw Chairman Steele, he grabbed me by the hand and said, "Let me introduce you."
Introduce he did. After my name, the next thing out of his mouth was: "She's writing a book about the most amazing thing. Tell him, Karyn."
So I did... and Steele's eyes lit up.
"Girl," he said offering me his last business card. "I need that book. Please send me a copy when it comes out."
He proceeded to ask about my research and to share some of his own experiences with my topic. History, he agreed, was the most salient of reasons why black women date out far less than black men and for a while we discussed black matriarchy.
"I was raised by black women... all women," he told me. "And they do their best to inculcate a resistance to interracial dating to their sons. I remember when I brought home the Italian girl I dated in college." He shook his head, laughing. "That did NOT play. And I see it now with my wife and our two sons. I think it's interesting that black women accept multiculturalism on every other front-- but not on the romantic one." He shook my hand. "You're onto something there-- and I wish you every success."
I had to wish him the same. He struck me as a good guy with an impossible job-- widening the tent of a party that has entrenched itself in some very close-minded social policies. For every effort he makes to drag the Rush Limbaugh contingent into the 21st century, he himself gets mired deeper into those muddy waters of the past. While my hubby and I have some interesting debates at home, even he agrees that the social conservatives hold on his party are their greatest challenge. "I really don't care how other people live their lives," Kevin says all the time. "I'm a fiscal conservative, not a social one."
When I told my husband about my nice conversation with Chairman Steele, he appreciated the irony-- but was thrilled, too. Not enough to wish he'd donned a tuxedo and accompanied me, but thrilled all the same. "Don't forget to send him a book when it comes out," he said, watching where I tucked the business card away, so when I forget where I put it, he'll remember.
Of course, I will send Mr. Steele a copy when Don't Bring Home A White Boy comes out in January. No, I'll send him a few copies. Sounds like the women in his life might need it!
Saturday, June 20, 2009
I had hoped to meet Michelle Obama—for the second time-- at the Radio & Television Correspondents Annual dinner Friday, June 19th—but it wasn’t too be.
My friend Linda Kenyon, a long time radio journalist whose beat is the United States Senate invited me to attend the event which included the opportunity to schmooze at the VIP reception where the President and First Lady were hoped to be in attendance. At the VIP reception, there would be also be an opportunity to take pictures. After various fits and starts in coordinating and getting ready for the event (including several dresses purchased and returned, and my mistaking the date and almost going downtown to the Washington Convention Center a full week early!) I learned that, unfortunately, the President wouldn’t be attending the VIP reception… and the First Lady wouldn’t be attending at all.
While meeting the President would be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I was disappointed, I had really looked forward to seeing Michelle again. I wondered, would she remember me? And if she did… would she remember what I remembered about the time we met before, on the campus of Harvard Law School over 20 years ago?
If my memory serves, it would have been the fall of 1986, at the first and only meeting of the Black Law Students Association that I ever attended. I was a first year student, and the event was billed as a mixer. I was excited: I hadn’t assimilated well with other black students at Mercer University, my undergraduate institution. I was perceived as too “assimilated” because I had white friends, got straight As, decided not to pledge a sorority and didn’t perceive every action the administration took as racist. I bought my fellow students’ assessment of me and had inwardly resigned myself to “OREO” status.
But I had hopes for Harvard Law School. Surely there would be black students’ like me there: black students who had had white friends in undergrad, black students who could be fluent in a culture outside of their own. Black students who had been ridiculed for not being '”black enough” for some, but who knew fully well that they were African Americans?
But if there were black students like me, they kept awfully quiet about it. Indeed, at that first BLSA event I realized that though I’d traveled from central Georgia to Cambridge--- there was NO difference. I still didn’t fit within the prevailing definitions of blackness—and everything I said and thought was pretty much wrong in fellow black students’ eyes.
Michelle Robinson—that was her name then, of course—was black enough for the crowd and happy to be among its most accepted and vocal leaders. I remember her for two reasons: she’s very tall (and I’m very NOT) and as a second year law student at Harvard (a class ahead of me) she was very sure of her place in the black-o-sphere. As a light skinned, middle class black woman who wasn’t mad at white people for everything, I felt her dismissal of me… and that’s why I remember her.
I would like to tell you that we were friends at Harvard: we were not. We came to the school with different purposes, and different agendas—and while not exactly in conflict, I would say that our differences point to just how wide the gaps between people can be, even among a relative small and select group as “black women at Harvard Law in 1986". Though Michelle and I were both black young women at one of the most select institutions in the nation, that was all we had in common. There was little else to connect us in terms of common experience, and we never connected intimately enough to call each other “friend” or “enemy.”
That was almost 25 years ago and I’m certain we both have changed. I know I’ve had many experiences now that have validated my ideas and given me a confidence in my own brand of blackness. I don’t feel apologetic about my experiences anymore, but proud of them. And I wonder if, now that Michelle has left the all black environments that formed her youth, she has come a little closer to understanding the world that I grew up in—one that included multiple cultural perspectives from my earliest memories. I have to think that the woman who married Barack—a man who is biracial, who has admitted his own struggles with race and identity in his book Dreams From My Father-- must have had some moments of awakening and acceptance-- much as my own experiences living in a poor, all-black community for a couple of years changed my own perceptions. Our life experiences over these decades have changed us. I wonder if she might have remembered me and how different we seemed then… and perhaps how much more similar we might seem now.
Unfortunately, she missed the RTCA dinner and I missed my chance to meet her again and remind her that we have met before. Everyone who knows me knows: my style isn’t confrontational. But for those who only know me through the blog-o-sphere, I can tell you with an open heart that, though we are very different women, who have had very different life experiences, I am nothing but proud and happy for Michelle—and nothing I would ever say to her or about her would approach rudeness.
I firmly believe that everything in life happens so for a reason—sometimes we’ll understand it later and sometimes, it’s not for us to know. It’s taken me years to appreciate the racial confusion I felt when I was in my 20s, but now that I do, I understand fully its role in the work I do now, in the things that I write about, in the importance my experiences have in working with others to throw off limiting definitions of identity and exploring a truly multi-cultural experiences.
It’s all good, as they say. And it truly is.
And, because I live in Washington,D.C and Harvard Law’s alumni are active here, I’m optimistic I’ll have another change to meet Michelle for the second time-- and Barack for the first—and point to our slice of common ground.
While the Obamas were not among them, I DID get to meet some other political luminaries… but that’s another post. More later, friends.
Wednesday, June 17, 2009
Several years ago, I wrote an essay called "Escape from Blackistan" in which I explained how, for most of my life, I failed "to fit in" with many of the ideas about "blackness" that most of my peers (even at Harvard) adopted. The essay discussed the difficulties of feeling aligned with other blacks on issues of injustice, and yet completely (and not always unhappily) disconnected on just about everything else. Many of the ideas embraced by those deemed "authentically black" seemed ridiculous or dangerous to me: avoiding education, embracing certain types of music and excluding others, embracing only certain people, hair styles and clothing, living only in certain neighborhoods-- all to "stay black." It seemed ridiculous (especially at Harvard!). Still, when I tired to find a publisher for that piece I had little success.
These days-- as new discussions and blogs on the efficacy of black monoculturalism abound-- I wonder if the time is ripe to re-visit the concepts of Escape from Blackistan.
In the course of completing the research for my upcoming book, Don't Bring Home a White Boy and Other Notions That Keep Black Women Single I have been exposed to lots of new ideas that have given me a whole new vocabulary for the concepts in Escape from Blackistan. One of those ideas is propounded daily by Rev. Lisa Vazquez at her think tank/blog site Black Women Blow the Trumpet. The concept is "divestment" and basically it describes the process by which black women re-examine, then abandon the notions commonly considered to authentically "black". Divesting from these concepts means not only ceasing to believe in them, but refusing to invest any further time, money, or emotional energy in supporting these ideas.
In a series of thoughtful essays, Rev. Vazquez points out that dismantling "notions" that limit the way black women must behave in order to remain "good sistas" is necessary for black women to obtain dominance in a world that increasingly requires us to be culturally fluid in order to succeed. By dominance, she doesn't mean any abuse or misuse of power; she means the necessity of the good use of power in order to achieve success.
For all of us-- regardless of race or gender--achieving success really does require dismantling some of the notions that many of us were taught in childhood. For black women in particular, however, it means taking a careful look at cultural notions like the "strong black woman" or the matriarch image of a woman who shoulders everyone elses responsibilities, putting herself last. It means the habit of giving black men a "pass" when they fail and accounting it to racism. Indeed, it means reconsidering whether it is truly racism or sexis that affects black women more. Ultimately I think many of these notions come down to self or selfish-- and the loaded meanings those words have in the black community.
Obviously, Reverend Vazquez's essays had particular relevance in Don't Bring Home A White Boy, which is also about re-examining cultural dictates. But they also brought back a lot of the ideas I had written about in my Blackistan piece. Are black Americans finally ready to give the idea of a single black voice and admit the truth-- that we are as different and as varied in our backgrounds, tastes, beliefs and value systems as all other Americans? Does that dilute our power and if so, is that necessarily a bad thing in country that is less and less "black and white" and more global than ever? More and more, aren't the differences between people attributable about socio-economic class-- not race or ethnicity?
I don't pretend to know the answer (though I certainly have an opinion). I'll be exploring all of this as I dust off my Blackistan essay and retool it around some of new ideas I've been reading about. It will be telling if publisher's believe there's a market for it now. It may mean that the climate in Blackistan is shifting... and that the center of black monoculturalism cannot hold.
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Perhaps you’ve guessed the stereotype I struggle with?
Just last night, I had a tangle with the ABW as a result of annoying experience in an ice cream parlor. All I wanted was a scoop of chocolate ice cream—not even for myself, but for my soon to be 4-year old who was playing outside with her father. But I couldn’t get waited on. Even though the store wasn’t crowded, even though there were two employees available (all three of the young people working were girls no older than 18), no one spoke to me. It was like I was invisible.
Then a young man walked in behind me. One of the un-busy girls giggled out a “Oh hi,” and immediately made him an ice cream cone (which he didn’t pay for). The boyfriend special, I supposed. The other girl pretended to scrub the counter and refused to look up.
As I waited unsuccessfully to get an ice cream, my efforts at defying stereotype completely failed.
I was angry.
I was black.
I was a woman…
And I was about to blow.
(Un)fortunately, my husband walked in right then to ask what was taking so long. I complained to him that I’d been standing there, watching others get served (free) ice cream and at that moment, the little girl who’d served her boyfriend decided maybe she should ask me if I’d like something, while the girl who had been cleaning the table looked up as though she had just realized I was standing there. My husband, seeing these girls were about to get a tidal wave of an answer, quickly ordered the ice cream, and I took our daughter to a table.
Now, of course, my irritation under this circumstance is justified. And while it was tempting to play the race card (everyone else in the store was white) as I sat fuming, I couldn’t in all fairness blame race. Immaturity? Yes. Poor customer service? Absolutely. Bad teenaged judgment? Yes, ma’am. Worth a letter to their manager? Already written—with special mention of the free “boyfriend ice cream” service.
But in the car home, I thought about my own conduct… and my anger. I could have loudly announced myself sooner… but I didn’t. I could have insisted I was ahead of the young man, but I didn’t. And instead of complaining to my husband (within the girls’ earshot, of course), I could have just gone off about the lousy service and demanded better treatment. I didn’t do that either.
Perhaps, as you’re reading this, you’re thinking: “You should have.” And perhaps, when I make peace with the angry black woman inside me, I will. But for now, she symbolizes something I’m deeply uncomfortable with and I generally choose NOT to express that side of personality in public.
That’s because in black women what would be considered little more than assertiveness in a woman of another race, often gets painted as something much more strident. The slightest expression of displeasure is read as neck-rolling, finger-waving dressing down. Indeed, I have been accused of “seeming angry” when I’m simply concentrating or thinking. A non-black woman wearing the same expression probably wouldn’t be considered angry. A black woman’s neutral face immediately creates that presumption.
It shouldn’t take a study to support that black women get no angrier than any other group of people—but there has been a study to show just that. If you want to read it online, follow this link:
In the 2000 revision of her ground-breaking work Black Feminist Thought, Patricia Hill Collins wrote about “anger privilege” explaining that anger is something rewarded in white males—and largely resented or punished in other groups, in minority groups in particular. In order for black women’s anger to be validated, we have to dismantle white male privilege and eliminate the stigma associated with the black women’s worth in society must be elevated. How to dismantle white male privilege? Education, opportunity, and changing our long-ingrained images about how power is held-- and who should hold it.
I believe these changes are underway—President Obama flies in the face of white male privilege, as did Condi Rice, as do the millions of black people holding supervisory sway all over the country—but obviously, there’s still work to do. The Angry Black Woman image is still pervasive in our media (anyone seen a Madea movie, lately?), still alive and well in our cultural shorthand about what a “typical” black woman is like. And therein lies the reason I restrain myself: there is no typical black woman and the efforts to cast us all in a common mold must be resisted, reshaped and reconstructed.
While these types of incidents point to larger social issues, in the final analysis, however, the question of anger is ultimately more personal. I know I have to resolve my own discomfort with expressing my feelings even in situations that I perceive to be potentially racially-charged or where I might be perceived in terms of racial stereotypes. I have to decide how best to express myself to achieve the results that I need. In this case, I didn’t “go off” in the store and maybe I wouldn’t have, even if Kevin hadn’t walked in when he did. After all, it’s just ice cream.
But I did write the letter to the store manager, and I will send it, copying (as we lawyers do) up the corporate ladder. To me, this seems an appropriate expression of my irritation that will probably get a better result than anything I might have said or done in the store.
I’m betting a well-written missive from an unhappy customer will be the end of the Boyfriend Ice Cream special. You never know who you’re ignoring, right?
Note: I received an apology for my experience at the ice cream parlor from the owner along with a gift certificate for a return visit. What me, angry? Not anymore!