Sharing what it’s like to be Black in America

August 14, 2016

Required reading if you’re trying to understand what it’s like to be Black in America

By Kari Cobham Digital content manager for @COXMG TV. Past: social data geek, social EP @WFTV. Runner. Writer. Book editor. Trini. Print journo @ heart. Mom to #mayabear

As a Trinidadian immigrant, I’m sometimes hesitant to speak about issues in the U.S. because I’m not American and I didn’t grow up here. But in America, I am black, I have a mixed race daughter, and this has become our struggle.

I have had tearful conversations with dear friends and written painful letters to family about what that’s like. I have shared much of this publicly on how white journalists can respond, read everything I possibly could to get a fuller understanding of what has been happening and its impact on the Black community. And so much has been said, far, far more eloquently than I could ever express.

Many of these I’ve shared on social media, but here’s a round up of some of the pieces I’ve found most impactful.

Please read. Please share with those who need to read them, too. Please share the stories that have impacted you in the comments and I’ll continue updating this list.

On the Black experience

  • “Walking While Black”: A powerful essay by journalist Garnette Cadogan on otherness, on race, on home, on being a Caribbean immigrant in America and learning to navigate new, unwelcome spaces.

When we first learn to walk, the world around us threatens to crash into us. Every step is risky. We train ourselves to walk without crashing by being attentive to our movements, and extra-attentive to the world around us. As adults we walk without thinking, really. But as a black adult I am often returned to that moment in childhood when I’m just learning to walk. I am once again on high alert, vigilant. — Garnette Cadogan

While adults around them protest and demand criminal justice reform, young witnesses of the carnage are reeling from their losses and harboring pent-up depression that often comes pouring out in panic attacks and breakdowns, relatives say, Alcindor writes.

I needed to get to work, but the last thing I wanted to do was make small talk about inane things with people for whom this might be a tragedy, but an abstract one. To many white Americans, the killings of black men and women at the hands of the state, are individual incidents, each with a unique set of circumstances… But for black Americans like me, the killings of black men and women at the hands of the state with no justice to be had, is among the oldest and most familiar American stories. — Nikole Hannah-Jones

Between the four adults, we hold six degrees. Three of us are journalists. And not one of us had thought to call the police. We had not even considered it.

We also are all black. And without realizing it, in that moment, each of us had made a set of calculations, an instantaneous weighing of the pros and cons. — Nikole Hannah-Jones

“The logic of racial authenticity,” Matlin writes, “stipulates both that black intellectuals have a particular responsibility to represent, in both senses of that word, ‘their’ people, and that, as racial insiders, they are uniquely capable of doing so.” — Matthew Clair

  • “Racism’s psychological toll”: Jenna Wortham does an insightful Q&A with Monnica Williams, a psychologist, professor and the director of the University of Louisville’s Center for Mental Health Disparities, on the real mental impact of facing racism, obvious and not.
#BlackLivesMatter protesters take to the streets of downtown Atlanta. (Photo/Sean McNeil)

On White Fragility & Discomfort

  • “I, Racist”: This is a phenomenal piece by John Metta, delivered to an all-White audience at the Bethel Congregational United Church of Christ in Washington, on white fragility and the difficulty of talking to white people about race. I’ve found that even progressive, educated liberal whites who recognize racism and are very much against the systems that reinforce it are still not always open to exploring their own missteps or personal unconscious prejudices.

White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. But arguing about personal non-racism is missing the point. — John Metta

  • “Why I’m racist”: This essay by Jeff Cook is one of the most honest things I’ve read by a white person about race. (Added Aug. 14)

Until I can acknowledge that I feel more uncomfortable talking about racial inequality than people who have been forced to deal with it every single day of their lives, I will never be able to get over myself enough to be a part of the solution. And if I’m not a part of the solution, I’m a part of the problem. — Jeff Cook

I have often felt unseen in your home, your home in which I was in many ways expected to live up to the myth of colorblindness. Your love alone does not protect me from the fact of my black skin. — Mariama Lockington

  • A flowchart for people who get defensive when talking about racism”: So accurate it’s eerie.
  • This comment under this post on over-sensitivity and victimhood. It’s a good example of the deflection, dismissal and denial that Blacks deal with every day after speaking up. I’ve learned how to craft measured responses. Most times I don’t respond at all. Because thou shalt not argue on the internets. But I’m sure comments like this, some more articulate than others, will keep coming. Stay tuned. Tiring, isn’t it? (Added Aug. 14)
  • “The real reason why white people say ‘All Lives Matter”: John Halstead’s piece in Huffington Post talks about colorblindedness, institutional racism and what whites can do.

The problem with being “colorblind” — aside from the fact that we’re not really — is that it is really a white privilege to be able to ignore race. White people like me have the luxury of not paying attention to race — white or black… Black people, on the other hand, don’t have the luxury of being “colorblind.” — John Halstead

The story behind this series of photos: My husband and I usually let each other know when one of us is on the way home. Brushes with mortality have taught us this routine. This night when he didn’t call, I called him. It turns out he had walked out of CNN where he’s a photo editor, and directly into #BlackLivesMatter protests. He did what any photographer would do: Pulled out his camera and got to work. I was anxious because this was not long after the police officers in Dallas had been shot and killed, but I told him that we loved him, to stay as long as he could and capture everything. (Photo/Sean McNeil)

What now?

… truly transformative change depends more on thoughtful creation of new ways of being than reflexive reactions to the old. What is happening now is very, very old. We have some habits of responding to this familiar pain and trauma that are not serving us well. In many respects it’s amazing that we endure at all. — Michelle Alexander

  • My White Boss Talked About Race in America and This is What Happened: Mandela Schumacher-Hodge, founder of The Startup Couch and portfolio services director at Kapor Capital, writes about the first time her white boss initiated a conversation about racial injustice in America. Schumacher-Hodg also offers tips on what white colleagues can do to be more empathetic colleagues.

The fact that a White colleague in a work setting made it a point to make a point about racial injustice in America and acknowledge the Black community’s pain, hurt, and anger over it…the fact that she didn’t just act like today was “business as usual” — that meant more to me than any free lunches, office perks, or holiday bonuses ever could. — Mandela Schumacher-Hodge

I am writing today because the lives of black members of my community matter to me, and I want to know that my taxes are going to pay the salaries of police officers and public officials who also believe that black people’s lives have value. I want to know that racist policing practices are not going to be tolerated in my community, that police officers are and will continue to be properly trained, and I need to know that in the event that a police officer unjustly kills a black member of my community, that officer will be brought to justice. — Dese’Rae L. Stage

  • “The Cohort: How can I help? Advice for white journalists”: Katie Hawkins-Gaar, digital innovation faculty at Poynter, reached out to black colleagues for their take and dedicated an issue of her regular newsletter to exploring through the eyes of others what can be done. Thoughtful insight from allDigitocracy founder Tracey Powell and WCPO’s Tasha Stewart. Full disclosure: I’m also included in this piece.

What I need White allies to understand is that this violence isn’t just happening to “Black people.” This is happening to ALL of us. This isn’t just a Ferguson thing. It’s not just a suburb in Minnesota thing. This isn’t just a Cleveland or Baltimore thing. Martin Luther King said an “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” So please know this is ALL of our problem, not just something that happens to “those people.” Your son may not be Black like my nephew, but today they come for me; tomorrow it very well may be you. — Tracey Powell

An excerpt from a homily on The Good Samaritan, a couple weeks ago:

a headline from The Independent that sums this up quite nicely: “Charleston shooting: Black and Muslim killers are ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs’. Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?”

I’m gonna read that again: “Black and Muslim killers are ‘terrorists’ and ‘thugs’. Why are white shooters called ‘mentally ill’?”

Did you catch that? It’s beautifully subtle. This is an article talking specifically about the different way we treat people of color in this nation and even in this article’s headline, the white people are “shooters” and the Black and Muslim people are “killers.”

Even when we’re talking about racism, we’re using racist language to make people of color look dangerous and make White people come out as not so bad.

Just let that sink in for a minute, then ask yourself why Black people are angry when they talk about race.

The reality of America is that White people are fundamentally good, and so when a white person commits a crime, it is a sign that they, as an individual, are bad. Their actions as a person are not indicative of any broader social construct. Even the fact that America has a growing number of violent hate groups, populated mostly by white men, and that nearly *all* serial killers are white men can not shadow the fundamental truth of white male goodness. In fact, we like White serial killers so much, we make mini-series about them.

White people are good as a whole, and only act badly as individuals.

People of color, especially Black people (but boy we can talk about
“The Mexicans” in this community) are seen as fundamentally bad.
There might be a good one — and we are always quick to point them
out to our friends, show them off as our Academy Award for “Best Non-Racist in a White Role” — but when we see a bad one, it’s just proof that
the rest are, as a rule, bad.

This, all of this, expectation, treatment, thought, the underlying social system that puts White in the position of Normal and good, and Black
in the position of “other” and “bad,” all of this, is racism.

And White people, every single one of you, are complicit in this racism because you benefit directly from it.

This is why I don’t like the story of the good samaritan. Everyone likes to think of themselves as the person who sees someone beaten and bloodied and helps him out.

That’s too easy.

If I could re-write that story, I’d rewrite it from the perspective of Black America. What if the person wasn’t beaten and bloody? What if it wasn’t so obvious? What if they were just systematically challenged in a thousand small ways that actually made it easier for you to succeed in life?

Would you be so quick to help then?
Or would you, like most White people, stay silent and let it happen?

Here’s what I want to say to you: Racism is so deeply embedded in this country not because of the racist right-wing radicals who practice it openly, it exists because of the silence and hurt feelings of liberal America.

That’s what I want to say, but really, I can’t. I can’t say that because I’ve spent my life not talking about race to White people. In a big way, it’s my fault. Racism exists because I, as a Black person, don’t challenge you to look at it.

Racism exists because I, not you, am silent.

But I’m caught in the perfect Catch 22, because when I start pointing out racism, I become the Angry Black Person, and the discussion shuts down again. So I’m stuck.

All the Black voices in the world speaking about racism all the time do not move White people to think about it– but one White John Stewart talking about Charleston has a whole lot of White people talking about it. That’s the world we live in. Black people can’t change it while White people are silent and deaf to our words.

White people are in a position of power in this country because of racism. The question is: Are they brave enough to use that power to speak against the system that gave it to them?

So I’m asking you to help me. Notice this. Speak up. Don’t let it slide. Don’t stand watching in silence. Help build a world where it never gets to the point where the Samaritan has to see someone bloodied and broken.

As for me,
I will no longer be silent.

I’m going to try to speak kindly, and softly, but that’s gonna be hard. Because it’s getting harder and harder for me to think about the protection of White people’s feelings when White people don’t seem to care at all about the loss of so many Black lives.

I can't breathe

MARCH FOR JUSTICE. Protesting police shootings and racism during a rally in Washington, D.C., in December 2014.

Ihave struggled to find words to express what I thought and felt as I watched the videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being killed by the police. Last night, I wanted to say something that hasn’t been said a hundred times before. It finally dawned on me that there is nothing to say that hasn’t been said before. As I was preparing to write about the oldness of all of this, and share some wisdom passed down from struggles of earlier eras, I heard on the news that 11 officers had been shot in Dallas, several killed from sniper fire. My fingers froze on the keys. I could not bring myself to recycle old truths. Something more is required. But what?

I think we all know, deep down, that something more is required of us now. This truth is difficult to face because it’s inconvenient and deeply unsettling. And yet silence isn’t an option. On any given day, there’s always something I’d rather be doing than facing the ugly, racist underbelly of America. I know that I am not alone. But I also know that the families of the slain officers, and the families of all those who have been killed by the police, would rather not be attending funerals. And I’m sure that many who refused to ride segregated buses in Montgomery after Rosa Parks stood her ground wished they could’ve taken the bus, rather than walk miles in protest, day after day, for a whole year. But they knew they had to walk. If change was ever going to come, they were going to have to walk. And so do we.

What it means to walk today will be different for different people and different groups and in different places. I am asking myself tonight what I need to do in the months and years to come to walk my walk with greater courage. It’s a question that requires some time and reflection. I hope it’s a question we are all asking ourselves.

In recent years, I have come to believe that truly transformative change depends more on thoughtful creation of new ways of being than reflexive reactions to the old. What is happening now is very, very old. We have some habits of responding to this familiar pain and trauma that are not serving us well. In many respects it’s amazing that we endure at all. I am inspired again and again by so much of the beautiful, brilliant and daring activism that is unfolding all over the country. Yet I also know that more is required than purely reactive protest and politics. A profound shift in our collective consciousness must occur, a shift that makes possible a new America.

I know many people believe that our criminal justice system can be “fixed” by smart people and smart policies. President Obama seems to think this way. He suggested yesterday that police-community relations can be improved meaningfully by a task force he created last year. Yes, a task force. I used to think like that. I don’t anymore. I no longer believe that we can “fix” the police, as though the police are anything other than a mirror reflecting back to us the true nature of our democracy. We cannot “fix” the police without a revolution of values and radical change to the basic structure of our society. Of course important policy changes can and should be made to improve police practices. But if we’re serious about having peace officers — rather than a domestic military at war with its own people — we’re going to have to get honest with ourselves about who our democracy actually serves and protects.

Consider this: Philando Castile had been stopped 31 times and charged with more than 60 minor violations — resulting in thousands of dollars in fines — before his last, fatal encounter with the police.

Alton Sterling was arrested because he was hustling, selling CDs to get by. He was unable to work in the legal economy due to his felony record. His act of survival was treated by the police as a major crime, apparently punishable by death.

Alton Sterling (l) and Philando Castile (r)

How many people on Wall Street have been arrested for their crimes large and small — crimes of greed and fraud that nearly bankrupted the global economy and destroyed the futures of millions of families? How many politicians have been prosecuted for taking millions of dollars from private prisons, prison guard unions, pharmaceutical companies, oil companies, tobacco companies, the NRA and Wall Street banks and doing their bidding for them — killing us softly? Oh, that’s right, taking millions from those folks isn’t even a crime. Democrats and Republicans do it every day. Our entire political system is financed by wealthy private interests buying politicians and making sure the rules are written in their favor. But selling CDs or loose cigarettes? In America, that’s treated as a serious crime, especially if you’re black. For that act of survival, you can be wrestled to the ground and choked to death or shot at point blank range. Our entire system of government is designed to protect and serve the interests of the most powerful, while punishing, controlling and exploiting the least advantaged.

This is not hyperbole. And this is not new. What is new is that we’re now watching all of this on YouTube and Facebook, streaming live, as imagined super-predators are brought to heel. Fifty years ago, our country was forced to look at itself in the mirror when television stations broadcast Bloody Sunday, the day state troopers and a sheriff’s posse brutally attacked civil rights activists marching for voting rights in Selma. Those horrifying images, among others, helped to turn public opinion in support of the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps the images we’ve seen in recent days will make some difference. It’s worth remembering, though, that none of the horrifying images from the Jim Crow era would’ve changed anything if a highly strategic, courageous movement had not existed that was determined to challenge a deeply entrenched system of racial and social control.

This nation was founded on the idea that some lives don’t matter. Freedom and justice for some, not all. That’s the foundation. Yes, progress has been made in some respects, but it hasn’t come easy. There’s an unfinished revolution waiting to be won.

Michelle Alexander originally posted this piece on her Facebook page. She is on EmbraceRace’s National Advisory Board and generously agreed to repost here.

And please see Sick & tired of police brutality and lack of accountability? 5 organizers point the way forward.

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