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Sunday, October 28, 2018


I have traced some of my ancestors in the United States as far back as the late 1600s. Most were enslaved until the general emancipation. A lucky few were free well before that. But the first ancestor I have found on a voting roll was one of my great-grandfathers who registered to vote in Los Angeles on August 21,1888. During that period he was in his twenties, and like many blacks in Los Angeles before the twentieth century, he lived in the downtown area now called the historic district. The neighborhood, heavily populated by non-white people,  featured a street called Calle de Los Negros, or more immediately pejorative in English, N-word Alley. Some people called it that for decades even well after the name was officially changed to Los Angeles Street in the late 1800s. My great-grandfather worked as a waiter and porter at various venues, including the Los Angeles Athletic Club. The club, founded in 1880, was created to offer a leisure space for "the best young men in the community." Women were welcome only at a few events. Like many public spaces at the time, blacks were entirely barred at the Athletic Club except as workers until the 1960s, and for at least a dozen years after that blacks were rarely admitted. This was the same club where I held a student membership 100 years after my great-grandfather had worked there. I was one of very, very few black members at the club, even then.

I am struck by two things. First, as someone born into a family of Louisiana gens de couleur near the start of the Civil War, my great-grandfather may have been one of the very first people in his family with access to the vote. Members of his family who stayed in Louisiana likely could not vote until after the Voting Rights Act, and even then they may have had difficulty exercising their rights. Sadly, impediments to voting for people of color have never quite gone away, and suppression seems to be on the rise.

Next, with whatever else was going on in my great-grandfather’s life in the summer of 1888, including living in segregated conditions and working at segregated job sites, he managed to register to vote. His willingness to participate in the political process likely helped to shape the opportunities I have today.

Vote. Vote like your life depends on it. Because some of our lives do depend on it.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

The Absent Racial #MeToo and Rekindling Intersectional Identity

It is times like this, as the United States Senate confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh unfold, that I am reminded that I dwell at the margins of this club called feminism. Moments like this remind me that mainstream feminism frequently requires tamping down my intersectional identity. This is neither surprising nor necessarily a bad thing.  Strategic essentialism is a well-known mechanism for fighting oppression. But when the flames of intersectional identities are tamped down too often or too forcefully, they are in danger of being extinguished all together.  So here I speak, hoping to stir the embers.

Like many people, feminists included, I think that, generally speaking, false sexual assault accusations are relatively rare. But as a black woman whose family has lived in the United States since before the United States Revolutionary War, I am also painfully aware of the fact that false sexual assault and sexual harassment claims lodged by white women against black men are an age-old tool of oppression. For generations men in my family were advised to avoid contact with white women because even a look, never mind touching, unwanted or not, could mean a death sentence. This is not hyperbole; it was reality for all too many of us, my own relatives included. Even now, though interracial black male-white female interactions and relationships are not forbidden by law, they still raise some eyebrows. There are still sufficient amounts of anti-black prejudice for me to bear in mind that my black sons and husband may be falsely accused of some sexualized crime against white women.

But while I recognize that cross-racial false allegations of sexualized crime are potential perils for my sons and husband, a far greater peril for the black men, women and children in my family is that they will be gunned down, beaten, or otherwise abused by police or by white citizens who perceive them as a threat. This is my reality Every. Single. Day. No amount of advanced education, middle-class living, or professional dressing will make these perils go away. We can run, but we cannot hide, not even in our own homes, as the police killing of Botham Jean in his own home shows.

In recent days I have kept quiet as I watched women, mostly white women, talk about how painful and triggering it is to see a person who alleges sexual harassment or assault come forward and be disbelieved or mistreated by authorities or by members of the public. I understand this; I have also experienced the pain of being disbelieved about sexual harassment (see my blog article "Me, One"). But I wonder if many of these women have thought about how endlessly dismaying it is for black people to see black men, women and children killed, assaulted, or otherwise abused because they are perceived as threats, or as undesirable, only to have authorities or the public try to somehow justify our mistreatment. Some days, many days, I am at the edge of tears, at the edge of an abyss, hoping that the abuse will stop, and knowing that without massive public and private acknowledgement and action, it will not.

Just as many women in general have experienced varying degrees of sexual harassment and/or sexualized violence, so, too, have many black people suffered varying degrees of racist abuses. Just as women in general have been coached to attribute it to our own shortcomings, forget about it, keep silent, act as if it didn’t happen, so also have black people been coached to ignore racist treatment. The coaching is sometimes explicit; other times it is implied from the ways in which complaints about racism are treated in our society. To complain too much, or at all, is to invite being labeled as a black person with an Unfounded Grievance. We are supposed to smile, keep moving forward, and act as if nothing at all is wrong.  


There is no racial #MeToo. Or at least, not one that most people care to hear about.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Focusing on the Finish

On days when I feel as if I have a lot of tasks before me, like today, I always think of the story of how, when I arrived for my freshman year at Princeton, I immediately had grave doubts.  I had come to Princeton sight unseen, from 3,000 miles away, from a family in which I was the first person to obtain a regular high school diploma, much less to attend college. I had arrived a week before the start of fall classes to take part in a pre-freshman trip to New York City.

My mother was the second person in our entire family to have visited New York City, and she had done so only seven years before my freshman year.  We were long-time Westerners; it was rare that anyone in my family traveled east of Las Vegas, Nevada. In fact, we rarely traveled at all. We still spoke excitedly about the time that one of my great-grandmothers had traveled from Muskogee, Oklahoma to Los Angeles, California in 1906. 

When my mother heard that it was possible for me to spend three days in the city with my Princeton classmates, she insisted that I go. Never mind that it took her all summer to save the $90 cost of the trip. We were struggling already under the cost of my family’s assigned financial contributions to my education, with both my mother and stepfather having taken on extra work to meet the payments, in addition to money that we had all borrowed. I arrived at Princeton that late August bearing the full weight of my mother’s expectations and sacrifices.

After I was installed in my dormitory, I walked over to a phone booth at the Dinky train station late that afternoon to call my mother to let her know that I had arrived at Princeton, and that I would be heading to New York City the next day. My mood was somber; I had been badly unnerved by meeting some of my other early arriving classmates. They were so smart and self-assured, and they chatted easily with each other. I was mostly tongue-tied in these early meetings, and I stood on the periphery of every group interaction.  

I started to tell my mother all of this. In the middle of sharing these woes my mother said, “Well, you had better figure out what hotel I’m going to stay in.” I had no idea what she was talking about; was she coming to get me, I wondered?  I knew that she could not afford such a trip, and I felt even worse thinking that I had worried her so.  “I am coming to see you graduate in four years,” she said in a tone that defied me to contradict her. My mother spoke in that tone whenever I showed any sign of backing down from a challenge. Eventually, that became the tone of my own internal voice. “Before you know it, that time will be here. Get yourself ready.”

My mother was right. And now that time has come and long gone.  My mother always focused on finishing, not starting, and she reminded me to do the same.

I have heard the expression "eyes on the prize" for my entire life, and certainly my mother was neither the first nor the last person to adopt this philosophy. In the context of exercise psychology there has even been research showing that "attentional narrowing",  or focusing on objects in the distance, is a mechanism that helps distances to appear shorter, helps exercisers to move more quickly, and makes the task seem easier overall.

But my mother's reminder to me to focus on the finish was neither a lofty platitude nor a conclusion reached after scholarly endeavor. It was plain language drawn from a lifetime of overcoming obstacles large and small. That was perhaps one of my mother's greatest gifts to me.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Gender Collaboration and Choices

Happy New Year.

Yesterday in a class my daughter, who attends an all girls school, was assigned to play a game typically known as lifeboat. It involves assigning roles or identities to each person in the room. The students were then told that there were only 10 spaces in a lifeboat that remains after a shipwreck. There were 21 girls in the room. The teacher’s assignment was for the girls to decide who should get a seat in the lifeboat, and who should not get a seat, based upon the roles each person was assigned. Those not getting a seat were being consigned to death. The teacher expected that the deliberation would take all of the 50 minutes or so of class time. It took 5 minutes.

Me: How could you all possibly have decided who would live or die that quickly?

Daughter: First, we all read our roles. Then, one girl stood up and asked: “Who thinks that they should die based upon their social contribution or importance?” Eleven people raised their hands. Perfect; we then assigned the people with their hands down to the seats in the lifeboat and we were done.

Me: Wow. It's interesting that the question was who should die instead of who should live. Did you raise your hand?

Daughter: Yes. The role that I was assigned was of somebody who didn’t seem to have any responsibilities to take care of anybody else; some peoples’ roles were described as healthcare workers or caretakers of relatives. My role had no information about whether I had those kinds of responsibilities. So it made sense to volunteer to die.

Me: I am not sure whether or not I should be impressed with how quickly you all resolved this. Do you think that your classmates, or you, would be that self-sacrificing in real life?

Daughter: I don’t know; maybe. On the whole I think we’re pretty caring people. And these girls seem to collaborate way better than when I went to a school that included boys. But I am sure that part of the reason we finished so quickly is that we understood that it was a game. The idea that anyone would sit there and rationally deliberate on life and death when there’s a lifeboat waiting is pretty unlikely to start with. As long as we are behaving in a way that is unlikely, we may as well behave in a way that comes out with the right answers.

Me: There were right answers?

Daughter: Mom, these morality games always have right answers, no matter what they say about choices. 

My daughter's story left me in deep thought, consternation, and admiration. I think that whether or not they know it, my daughter and her classmates engaged in a powerful illustration of the ideas of public and private morality, efficiency, and ultimately on the nature of autonomy (is their behavior Kantian? I am still working it out.). Sure, these girls are in high school, so some cynicism is to be expected, and even encouraged. I still want them to play such games "in the blind," that is, without acknowledging real life constraints. But perhaps they are better off if they raise the blindfold.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Me, One: Sexual Harassment and the Single Voice

I am disquieted by the “me too” campaign that is going around social media. It involves people, mostly women, repeating a statement that they, too, have been subjected to sexual harassment or abuse. The apparent purpose of the “me too” campaign is to show just how pervasive sexual assault and harassment are. Another purpose is to lend support for, and, I suppose, credibility to the women who share their stories of sexual harassment and abuse.
Public testimony is an important element of having a message heard. But why must so many say what one voice should be able to say just as forcibly and believably?  Yes, it happens all the time. I wrote about sexual harassment in the workplace a few years ago in a blog post titled Clarence Thomas, Bill Cosby, and the Absence of Memory. And though the personal episode of harassment I wrote about occurred many years ago when I was a law student, that was only the first of many such experiences. Me, one.

On the topic of the "me too" campaign, I find instructive a series of Tweets by Ijeoma Oluo:

You don't need my "me too" and I don't need yours.
I believe you. Even if it's only you.
It's not only you. But you knew that. I knew that.
Because we believe women. If others don't, they need to start. Not because it's 100 women. Not because its 1 million women. Not because it's 1 in 5 women. But because it's each woman who says she was. Each one.
One woman should be enough.
The gendered history and weaponization of sexual assault aims to silence and shame you. It aims to keep your numbers from even being known.
I'm not coming for what y'all are doing. Or to force anyone to justify why. I'm saying you shouldn't have to. Again.>>
I’m with Ijeoma Oluo.
I will also add to Ms. Oluo's comments that, sadly, some women are complicit in this culture of silence around sexual assault and harassment. I have seen and experienced having sexual harassment used as a weapon by women who perfectly well know that it happens, but choose to ignore it, not out of fear, nor out of not knowing what to do, and not out of having no power to act. Rather, some women use sexual harassment  as a way of hurting or marginalizing other women. For some women there is a grim satisfaction when the monster with the potential to harm us all catches one of us that is disliked or devalued by others. So it goes sometimes.
Perhaps worse yet are the allegedly sympathetic friends who "want to believe you" when you tell them, but they have doubts, because "he's such a nice man,"  and "he never did that to me." Only when they see it for themselves, or when it happens to someone they care about, does it dawn on them that you are a truth teller.
I wish us all the best in this campaign of shining light on the problem of sexual harassment and abuse. However, I think that we may need to consider some reframing of this notion of needing the voices of so many to show what one voice should be amply able to show. Because me, one.