Tiny braids...

I have given a great deal of thought to my own bias over the years. It is not something I discuss or parade around and showcase. I have also given a great deal of thought to braids.
white person hair texture braid with flowers
(Photo by Melissa Mjoen on Unsplash)

Race relations have always fascinated me and I have long struggled to understand why it is that one marginalized group wouldn't band together with another as their plights were so similar. I believe that is what we are seeing with "BIPOC"...finally...

I am not labeled as a person of color, but I am a part of this rainbow and my story goes something like this...my black and brown-skinned friends have been my dearest friends and best teachers.

A teacher at my daycare center used to braid my hair in tiny little braids all the way down to the very ends. I knew inside this was unusual for white hair and that she was sharing a piece of her culture with me and I LOVED it. She was my "go to" person and I remember her defending my behavior or tears and being a fierce advocate for me.

I met Nikki Cooper in second grade Germany...Jewish and black, she taught me how to draw the Star of David. I was 7. Her lips were full, her hair opposite mine in that it was curly and coarser - I was allowed to braid it. She expressed herself with her hair and some of the most creative braids and clothing I had ever seen and she helped me feel safer to do that too. We met again in 7th grade back in the states...grew close, fell out...mature learning all the while...

In third and fourth grade Michelle Mendez and I were fascinated by the human body and would build the cool anatomy model she had at her house. She always had to change from school clothes to home clothes right when we would arrive. verything was folded perfectly within her drawers. Also, their whole house was spotless and she had the "good" band-aids. She wore her hair in two long braids half the time. All black, straight down.

Beatrice and Annabelle and I would emulate The Mandrell sisters and perform in the living room for both sets of parents (or anyone in base housing we could convince to come up!) and I was always the sister no one really wanted to be, but I didn't care because I loved to be at their apartment, hanging out with them and being a part of their warm and loving Mexican-American family. Beatrice had that one large black braid that was thicker than my arm!
I sat and wondered a great deal alone about the black man who spoke German I met somewhere. I was a little bit of a free-range child - relegated to a certain area of base-housing but with the feeling of freedom to stub my bare toes or dig for death worms anywhere my eyes could see...

Bradley and Spencer in 4th grade, always made me laugh and treated me like I was smart like them. We spent hours puzzling. Taco flavored Doritos take me back, every time. I still have the postcard of Queen Neferti Ms. Sharon Wyle brought back from her trip to Egypt that I later used as my inspiration for a crayon drawing in my 5th-grade school. I still have that, too.

Michael Jackson was the stuff in 5th & 6th grade in Florida, where Nikko and I would challenge one another on the track, ultimately joining up for the relays and cheering one another on. Me, with my Aquanet feathered bangs and she with her traditional Black braids. As kids, we just let the tension that we had heard was there, be, and then we felt our way through it.
I don't think we should be doing this any more differently now. 

Peaches (her real name was Agnes!) and I would sing and choreograph for hours and hours in 7th grade to Stacy Q, "Two Hearts that Beat as One," sometimes some TLC. She was there when I tried to do that backflip on the backyard trampoline and seriously injured my ankle. I almost tried out for the basketball team because she believed in me more than I believed in myself. She returns to our family these days in a story where my baby brother (3 or 4 at the time) asked about her skin only because he wanted to be certain it didn't hurt.

In 9th grade, I learned a little about Thai culture through Morakort. I went to her home and I saw beautiful brass decorations that were different from those I knew and we dined in her family's restaurant regularly. I learned that according to Thai Zodiac, I could claim Ox as my animal and I quite liked that better than the more well-known "rat." She gave me a stuffed bear on my birthday and that bear became my little brother's special lovey and is still "around."

In high school, I was besties with "Nacho-Average Woman," Natasha and we talked openly about the lesbian cashier at the local grocery store. We shared a love of poetry and Albert Camus...and The Cure, of course. We talked about things in a matter of fact way and didn't pass undue judgment.

I didn't quite understand the club that formed at school, Harambe, but I honored that if students felt they needed to connect with those who have a shared experience that I need not take it as a rejection of me. Wade Meier gave me a marble that had been boiled and I cannot ever forget it as it was one of my most prized possessions in all the world...

Those folks are my Perks of Being a Wallflower...a lily-white, yet olive-complected, Native American, Irish, British, and Greek jumbled flower.

In college, I met Jimmy, who gave me a place to live and a bicycle...It just doesn't end...Walter, the chef at Jumer's who always had a smile for me...oh, and man, the things Tracy taught me about inequities...
I truly do not know what I would have done without my professor, Marvin Sims in college. My world was falling apart around me and I had no real safe and reliable space except in that independent study in Acting I was able to take with him. I learned about myself and my craft and I felt seen. I still am sad that I missed his residency at Tennessee Arts Academy that took place in one of my first years of teaching theatre myself. It would have been one of his last.

Back in 2002 there was a fascinating tool online I had found through my graduate-level psychology class that I shared with my students. It was a kind of knee-jerk reaction to black versus white faces and really spoke to ingrained bias in a way that is rather undeniable. I felt this was absolutely within my scope as a theatre arts teacher outside of Memphis, Tennessee. I'd bet a couple of my students from then even remember that.

I also engaged in week-long professional development in my first years as a teacher outside of Memphis through its locally founded Facing History and Ourselves. Now an international organization with copious free resources that I still use to this day...The then-Executive Director Rachel mentioned that it is truly remarkable the lengths we go to NOT understand another person and that has stayed with me. I want to be the one who understands.

So I attended my student, Amanda's sister's funeral at the COGIC (Church of God in Christ) church in downtown Memphis in 2000. I experienced what a Celebration of LIFE (for a 16-year-old girl!) was like with laughter and JOY. An unregulated empath at the time, I balled all the way through it.

About this time we moved to a brand new phase of a neighborhood where we got to know our whole street. Angela and Jimmy were our real friends and our kids would look out for one another. Couldn't really ever get them to hang out with us at the pool, but we sure had a good time running some barbeque grills and closing off the street for a block party.
When Janelle's mother really connected to me and then extended an invitation to a Mary Kay party in a part a town I'd not usually travel through or to (Frayser, for my Memphis readers) I pushed myself to go to see if I could "lean in" to the discomfort of being "the only." This was in 2002, before "leaning in" was a thing.
I didn't hesitate to attend the visitation on Linden Ave for Chris Lacy when he lost his Mom in 2003 and stuck out like a "sore thumb," but I quelled my feelings of "other" and "white" and I cried alongside them all.

I asked about culture - difficult questions, like, why are so many individuals so LOUD?! It was an observation I made and I was able to get to an understanding of why one would feel like they needed to BE loud to be seen and heard. As a survivor of childhood and adult trauma myself, I *felt that need myself, and then I was able to see that behavior in a different light - through a different lens.
We read Sandra Cisneros and I fell in love with Mango Street and I knew viscerally, the experience of "All Brown All Around."
I love this piece by Cisneros, Hair.

I taught about the underground Black Hollywood and white representations of Black culture misshaping the narrative. This was a week-long component in a semester-long class -  turned major player in my curriculum. We watched the documentaries When the Levees Broke and Three Little Girls in Advanced Film class and studied diverse filmmakers when I was building a program.

I met Loung Ung when she spoke to my students at our school and shared openly with her about my "white woman" struggles of sexual abuse and assault and I spoke to her through my tears comparing my own struggle to hers and minimizing my own. This warrior woman endured the deaths of her father, mother, and siblings as a child fleeing from the Khmer Rouge (i.e. The Killing Fields) and she told me in no uncertain terms that ALL our stories matter and trauma is trauma and I absolutely need not minimize my own experience.

I might have a Cambodian daughter right now had they lifted their ban on foreign adoptions when I was looking into it. I read everything she wrote...I still do. You should start here: First They Killed My Father

In 2004, I SAW Tony. I'd drive past him playing basketball at the court where a lot of the black kids who went to this suburban white-collar school went and I felt his mother and how fierce she was in her pursuit of a good life for him and noticed his shirt showing a photo of a baby Tony with his father, reading "RIP." I ASKED Tony about his father.

I was gobsmacked when, after Trayvon's murderer went free, I got the news that Tony, by then a basketball star in college, where he was studying to be a math teacher, was also in a wrong place, wrong time event. There were few white faces in that crowd in that church where I was honored to have been asked to speak as, "Momma Paulo" the day we put his body in the ground. I am still blessed by this love.

Lucas's first best friend was Logan and later, he met Miles and his parents...all lessons in love and compassion. I cannot grasp what it might be like to be the mother to Miles and his two black brothers and have that pit of despair in my stomach when they leave the house. I can imagine and I can empathize, but I can never sympathize. I. Do. Not. Know.
Seventh-grade scholars in inner-city Memphis who grappled with poverty themselves explored Langston Hughes with me and we also studied A Raisin in the Sun and read it Reader's Theatre style. With my freshmen theatre and film students, we went deep with Fences, starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. I never shied away from the tough stuff and I think my students appreciate that about me.
My own son, himself a scholar of Facing History and Ourselves when he was in 7th grade, says it was the best class he has ever taken. He is a world-class scholar and thinker.

Once here in rural Texas, where the civil rights struggle is brown v white more so than black v white (a super simplistic representation for brevity), I saw so many similarities. The trauma, the abject poverty...the sheer weight of always having to worry where the next meal will come from or having a parent incarcerated (often for possession of a plant that grows from the earth that was criminalized in the 40s TO marginalize BIPOC - educate yourself). I cried REAL tears wondering IF I could bring Javier, a 17-year-old homeless youth, into our home.

Now, I work in East Austin, where I travel through an African-Americans in Austin history lesson via street art, to drop my younger son off to his beautiful diverse, urban school. We have the means to work and live in a lot of really nice and comfortable places and we CHOOSE to live and work and GROW here.

Through FHAO and my study of The Holocaust and second-generation survivors, I learned that German youth are vocal about not claiming the atrocities of Hitler as their burden to bear. The need to do that in America resonates in me; however, my experience tells me - and yours too, now - that our youth have this figured out. We're at the point where just about everyone gets this but we are now having to SCREAM it for the 10% still holding on to and trying to ingrain old ways into the future, where there is no place for them.

I have a darker brown birthmark (overactive skin pigmentation) on my arm and hardly anyone notices it (or says anything anymore), but I tried for years to fade it with creams and Porcelana (?!) and then it just didn't matter anymore. Maybe God was gonna make me black but changed his mind. ;)

Not usually my style of music, but I fell in love with P¡nk when I heard she said that she chose that name because we are all pink on the inside. Tori Amos also sings of "the pink." I FEEL this to my core.

We ALL see color. What happens in the next nano-second determines your heart. Can you hear and then throw away the old stories you have been sold, even if some of them are true? Can you look at this person before you, peer through their skin, and find the pink? I can. I do. And I always will.

I am grateful that I do not feel compelled to globalize a movement to illustrate that MY life matters and I believe anyone who is offended that we are screaming Black Lives Matter might be missing some key details. Forgive them their ignorance. When we know better, we do better.

In the deep south, they say, "You can kill more flies with honey than vinegar." I know that's true. I also know that the fly situation can get out of control in a hurry and the fly strips sometimes have to be put up, humane or not...

I have not protested this round. I did that in college. I have spent 25 years planting the seeds of compassion and inclusion in our youth. My husband, mother, and grandmother are all at risk and I also know that my role is not that this time.

I happen to have given birth to an angry white boy. He's not mad at people of color...in fact, he has said before that he "kinda" wishes he were black...no, I have a child who does not come with a natural understanding of his tremendous capacity for empathy. He has very little access to an advanced (or even age-appropriate) emotional vocabulary so most of his upset turns to anger as a default.
Dave Chappelle just said (days ago, see the video here) white women need to sit down (basically) and I have chosen that route this time. My role in this is to raise these white (75% something else, but adoption...) boys into young men who will continue this work to ensure peace and equality in this world...while we're here.

I can do the work by teaching empathy and compassion. So can you. We have to BE the mirror...mirrors do not lie.

Neither do I. That's one thing that sweet angel who used to braid my hair said while shaking that same finger she ran through my hair in the air to the other adult in my defense. She saw the pink. She saw my heart and knew it was pure.

I see your pink. I know who you are and I am NOT judging your silence OR your wailing. I am choosing compassion and to love you. Choose to love me in return. But first, have compassion for yourself when you look in that mirror...that is my most important work...teaching others to love the shadows that reflect back to them...there IS freedom there. 

We are intertwined ... you and me. Just like the hairs in a braid. We bend so we don't break. We move together and we stand together. We create beauty together. It has always felt so for me and I believe that feeling is true for most everyone else too.

Would you agree?

1 comment

  • Muchas gracias. ?Como puedo iniciar sesion?


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