“We did everything adults would do. What went wrong?”

“We did everything…” from the book Lord Of The Flies by William Golding 1954

I saw a post on Facebook that read “if black and brown children are old enough to experience racism, white children are old enough to learn about it.” In Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility, her whole premise is that white people believe themselves entitled to safety and comfort when it comes to confronting race. Since white is seen not as a race itself, but merely the baseline for humanity, white people who’ve grown up cloistered with only other white people see themselves as innocent of any knowledge of or complicity in racism. Black people who’ve similarly come of age in all black surroundings are not afforded the same pass. Therefore, as it concerns children, this innocence we speak of appears to only be a birthright of whites.

There are a lot of videos on various social media platforms with very young children of different races holding hands, embracing in enthusiastic hugs, or claiming to be undetectable twins because they’re wearing the same outfit. They usually have captions about the beautiful naivete of colorblindness. One of my favorite memories is of an afternoon I was at the home of a white friend whose baby was just at that stage where she was experimenting with this whole thing called “walking.” I was on the floor, back against the wall with my black legs stretched out. She wobbled over, bent down, stretched out her tiny little index finger and swiped my shin. She looked curiously at her finger as if expecting some of my color to rub off. She stared confused for about ten seconds, decided this mystery of why I was so much darker than anyone else she knew wasn’t going to get solved today, and went on as unattached as anything to the next grand curiosity of life puzzling her. What was so humorously beautiful about that encounter for me was witnessing this child noticing our difference, but with a complete lack of needing that difference to mean anything. About me, or her. Kids are aware of differences. Earlier than we realize though, they pick up some notions about what those differences mean.

In my 20’s, I and a white girlfriend were poking around the tourist-y part of Niagara Falls with her two children. I was holding the hand of her little boy. He was walking but not fully verbal yet so I guess he was around three years old. As we strolled from shop to shop it became impossible not to notice that white people were observing the two of us out of the corners of their eyes. I could feel it through the back of my head even, as if they were wondering “is that her child? What decent white man lowered himself enough to impregnate that trash?” Without me saying or doing anything, even the three year old picked up on their reproaching glances. Just to be a little smarty pants he giggled, squeezed my hand a little tighter, and at the top of his lungs shouted “mommy!” He wasn’t old enough to put together coherent sentences, but even at that age he was already aware that the two of us together meant something and he was in a position to screw with people about that meaning. That kid was not innocent. 

For years I worked as a live-in nanny. I was in a white suburb with a well off family from India. In some random conversation, the American born ten year old daughter said to me just as matter of fact as you please “everyone knows it’s all the black people committing all the crimes anyway.” 

Everyone knows, she said. She was getting this message, with certainty, as were all the kids she associated with. I was caught quite off guard. The rules of engagement under white fragility were well understood by me to mean that I couldn’t make her uncomfortable in any way or my livelihood and living situation could be in immediate jeopardy. She was entitled to her “innocence,” born of ignorance. I was deserving of no more than as much would protect the innocence of her youth, and it was my job to bear the sting on my race and keep the peace.

I worked for another white family where the mom was a Harvard educated doctor with the CDC. There were three kids. I usually had my wards address me as Miss Nan. Adding Miss lets the kids know look, I’m not a circus clown your parents hired to entertain you. I’m a grown-ass woman. When I tell you to do something, it’s because I’m responsible for your safety and well being. I don’t imagine they called their teachers at school by their first names so surely the idea of adding an honorific when addressing an adult was nothing new to them.

Ay dios mio, the hoops these kids jumped through to avoid calling me Miss were insanely extravagant. When speaking to me, they’d start in the middle of the sentence and skip over mentioning my name all together. If they were a distance from me where they’d need to call me in order to get my attention, they’d instead stop what they were doing and place themselves in my eyesight before starting to talk. Anything to avoid the debasement of addressing this lowly house worker with some dignity and respect. Already they knew they were white, I was black, and that distinction had meaning.

I was teaching the kids a new card game. While dealing the next hand, the ten year old boy prattled “this must be some affirmative action kind of game and that explains why you’re winning.” Dr. Mom was in the room and didn’t utter a word. With having a roof over my head on the line, I understood that it was my job to lodge this kid’s “innocence” and bear the tasteless joke with grace. If he felt a plenary lack of censure saying that not only to me but in front of his mother, imagine what the non-white kids in his circle are expected to put up with on a daily basis. The white fragility rules of engagement are learned early by them too, and they understand they’re not entitled to the same “innocence” as their white friends.

In the late 90’s I was a regular attendee of a Unity Church. My white boyfriend Donald was the coordinator for kids’ learning. One Sunday morning I was sitting next to Donald, and in answering a white kid’s question he very ordinarily referred to me as his girlfriend. “That can’t be your girlfriend,” the white kid blurted out. I asked why not. He just sat there closed mouthed and dumbfounded. He knew there was something out of place about his white teacher and a black woman being together but he didn’t have the verbiage for it at the tip of his young tongue. Despite our involvement in a particularly progressive church, there was nothing innocent about the racial messages this kid was already picking up about the world.

Kelly Ann Lamb of Easton, MA, founded an organization called Raising Multicultural Kids after she and her husband, both white, adopted three children. The oldest two are of mixed heritage with skin that easily blends into their 90% white town without notice. The youngest, “April”, is as dark as me. Kelly told us in one of my Sunday webinar sessions of “April” being followed around at a children’s party by a white boy calling her mud face. Another white girl told her daughter that, because of her skin color, she looked like poop. For nearly two weeks, whenever the family went out together “April” refused to remove her coat and show her dark skin. Already the white kids around her were picking up the societal message that the difference in their skin colors meant something and that could be used to hurt others and elevate themselves. Already “April” was learning that it was her job to change and shrink herself to manage white people’s discomfort around her because her very safety was at stake. It doesn’t matter where in particular these white kids were getting it from. DiAngelo says messages of superiority rain down on white people from everywhere in our culture. Those messages reach babies as young as three, as the Niagara Falls episode shows us. 

On their last day of kindergarten, a white classmate called Kelly’s daughter a nigger.

I want you to really chew on that. The last day of school. That kid was so aware of the power of that word, he consciously sat on it until the last day of school when he could know the repercussions of using it were unlikely to have time to blow back on him. Kids raised in all white enclaves are not innocent folks, not at all. They’re just misinformed, because the comfort and investment in an aggrandized self identity as good people on the part of the adults in their lives is more important than telling kids the truth.

Kelly’s message is a paraphrased version of the Facebook post I quoted at the beginning of this piece. If her child is young enough to be experiencing these racially insensitive occurrences, with such frequency no less, then your white children are cognizant enough for you to begin to have real conversations with them about race. As for how to go about these conversations, hey, I’ve done my work for the day. Now it’s time for you to Google or make the trip to your local library or bookstore. I will say though that I think the most important change you can make is this. Look around at your social circle and begin to be intentional about making access to non-white people common place in your family’s every day lives.

Yay, A Vaccine (?)

Nervous about Needles? - InfoAboutKids

Some of my white friends might be hearing a lot of chatter these days that’s new for them about an unusual number of black people harboring a peculiar mistrust about the arrival of our long awaited coronavirus wonder drug. On 12/14/20, the first television image of an American taking a vaccine approved to fight the coronavirus was of a black woman doctor administering “the shot heard ‘round the world” to a black woman nurse. The import of this image is likely not obvious to many. That’s because our general knowledge of American history, from kindergarten straight through to a second master’s degree, is as full of holes as a block of swiss cheese. Full of holes and intentionally so, in order to preserve our sacred mythos of white advantage as the product of grit, meritocracy, and equal opportunity. Most importantly, our learning of the history of only the last few decades is woefully inadequate, allowing  so many white people to interrogate any contemporary claims about white privilege with “my grandparents didn’t own slaves, what does all this have to do with me?” 

You know black people are contracting the virus at greater rates than white people. There’s more to the story, though, that made seeing those two black health care workers notable and ties it into today’s #BlackLivesMatter discourse.

Surgeon J. Marion Sims is heralded as the father of modern gynecology. He finished his studies with no particular calling to medicine except as a vocation like any other likely to afford him an excellent living. That is to say, he wasn’t necessarily motivated by a deep love of humanity and a desire to abate suffering.

He had probably the most thriving practice of any surgeon in the state of Alabama during his time. Plantation owners brought enslaved women to him and he made a name for himself perfecting radical new surgical techniques on black women without anesthesia starting in 1845. Crawford Long first used ether as an anesthetic during a surgical procedure in 1842. Black women were seen as not worthy of the extra effort and expense. It was also a commonly held belief among whites that black people were capable of withstanding greater amounts of pain, undoubtedly as a way to justify the extreme working conditions and harsh punishments blacks were subjected to. 

Women were literally held down to the table while Sims cut into their genitalia. Their pain did not matter, only the pursuit of advanced medical techniques to be used later on paying, anesthetized white women.

Sims went on to found a groundbreaking women’s hospital in New York City.  He famously treated European royalty, and was unanimously elected president of the American Medical Association.

Mustard gas is a chemical warfare agent first deployed as a weapon in World War I. Exposure to it is known to cause severe chemical burns, mutations to DNA, leukemia, and a host of other ailments. During World War II, black soldiers (along with Puerto Ricans and some of Japanese descent) were locked into chambers and purposely exposed to mustard gas. The military was looking to test the hypothesis that black skin would be more resistant to its effects stemming from the belief, again, that blacks were capable of withstanding greater amounts of pain.

Professor Susan Smith at the University of Alberta surmises that the long term intent was to prove it feasible to send black soldiers out to the battlefront first and more frequently, potentially sparing white soldiers’ lives (because, you know, “all lives matter” equally). Soldiers were threatened, with dishonorable discharge or court martial, to keep quiet about the experiments. Decades later, when related illnesses began to manifest, they couldn’t talk openly with their health care providers to steer them toward effective treatments. Thus a black man with mysteriously flaking skin might continue to be uselessly treated for eczema and puzzling his doctor with the lack of a positive result. 90% of soldiers who claimed Veterans Administration disability benefits as a result of mustard gas exposure continued to be denied. You’ll be surprised to find that data from these experiments came to produce some of our earliest cancer chemotherapy treatments.

It’s only as I’m writing this do I realize the potential historic connection to the fact that my own grandfather, a veteran, was taken to his resting place by leukemia.

Gregory G. Pincus and John C. Rock were two white Harvard professors whose interests in the areas of conception, fertility, and overpopulation led to the development of the hormonal birth control pill. They first tested their product on a handful of women committed to a Massachusetts asylum. It was the 1950’s and the U.S. had pretty inflexible laws in place against birth control distribution, coupled with a moral sensibility against it. When it came time for large scale testing, the scientists knocked on doors in a neighborhood of farm laborers in Puerto Rico.

Poverty and desperation brought a steady pool of participants. The women were only told that this drug would prevent pregnancy, not that it was experimental, and weren’t given any heads up about possible risks. When they reported side effects of deadly blood clots, nausea and unexpected bleeding, the researchers dismissed their claims as being all in their petty little girl-y heads. Years later the original hormone levels were veritably deemed to be dangerously high and adjusted down. Three women died (“all lives matter!”). It isn’t known if their deaths were related because they were hastily buried without the benefit of a postmortem pathological examination.

The trials showed the pill to be effective, “Big Pharma” managed to get America over its squeamishness about contraception now that there was lots of dough to be made, and it was approved by the FDA in 1959. Rock and Pincus packed up their laboratories and made a cool fortune selling the sexual revolution to American women. Having outlasted their usefulness, the “Taínas” were left uncompensated for their participation and priced out of having the pills regularly accessible to them.

You’re probably hearing about the “Tuskegee Experiment” a lot lately. In 1932 the Center for Disease Control and U.S. Public Health Service enrolled 399 black men from Macon County, Alabama, barely eking out a subsistence as sharecroppers who were diagnosed with syphilis. They weren’t told of their illness. Another 201 otherwise healthy black men were also included as a control group. The incentive for participation was the promise of free health care. The men weren’t getting treatment of any kind for their illness, just testing, lies and placebos. Scientists wanted to observe the long term effects of syphilis left untreated. Originally the study was to last six months, afterwards the infected men would receive what treatment was available at the time. By the mid-1940’s penicillin was in common usage for syphilis. Information and treatment were withheld from these men for 40 years. As the men died and their wives and progeny were knowingly infected, doctors continued to tell them they were being treated for a diagnosis they were calling “bad blood.”

There were whistleblower attempts as early as 1955. All were easily dismissed and quieted because no one cared enough about a group of poor black men (say it again—“all lives matter!”). In 1966 Peter Buxtun, a white employee of the Public Health Service, began his attempts to bring about the study’s end. Federal forces doubled down on the importance and value of seeing the study through until all the men were dead and autopsied. Buxton went to the press and the project became front page news in 1972. After a public shaming and a congressional hearing, it was finally terminated. We’re not talking colonial slavery times people, I was in grade school in 1972 and some of you reading this were on your second or third child by then.

In Washington, D.C., the black population is reported to be around 46%. Of the Covid related deaths in that city, 74% were black people. Except for a lot of hootin’ and hollerin’ after a player kneels during the national anthem at an NFL game, black people aren’t seeing a lot of evidence that “all lives matter” includes us when said. Pregnancy related deaths for non-white women over 30 are nearly fives times the rate of white women. When black people were dying because of heroin in the 60’s or crack in the 80’s, the police were sent in. This millennium’s opioid troubles mostly touching white populations–now it’s time for recovery programs, federal money and understanding.

If you read this piece and all you’re left with is “oh, that’s just awful, I can’t believe those things happened. Why did we never learn about them in our schooling?”, then you’re missing the point. For one, non-white people in America have empirical evidence from history, and present day, that the prevailing thought when it comes to us is that our lives in fact do not matter equally. We have repeatedly been made the proverbial canary in a coal mine for advancements meant primarily to serve white people with barely a passing disquietude for ethics or the suffering of the subjects. Secondly, non-white folks’ experience has shown that public health officials have not always told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Look, I’m not here to cast aspersions on our new vaccines. I’m in as much a hurry for them to get here as many of you are. I just want to give you some historical perspective to help you understand why some of your black neighbors may not join in on the dancing in the streets just yet.

“#Racial Learning Groups So White”

Academy reverses plans, will air all awards live at Oscars | KECI

In response to a piece that appeared in the Rochester Beacon newspaper.

To echo what Howard said, I am finding that too many white folks are in fact relying on all white spaces for all their racial learning. A slew of studies show that 75% of white folks in the US report only having regular contact with other white folks. All they can do then when talking about race is echo back their own white frames of reference to each other. In my black experience, that’s exactly what they do. This echoing appears as “doing this work” and substitutes for real activism.

Marketers pay big bucks to a select group of tweens and teens who report back to them what is trending and what is on the twilight to becoming “so yesterday!” among their peers. If you want to know what teens want, asking someone who studies teens will always leave you two or three steps behind interacting with actual teens. And with billion dollar product launches on the line, the question is never “I think that…” or “don’t you think that…?” It is always “what do you think?” followed by a sincere, hungry silence that is more than just an obvious invitation to echo back to the inquirer what a clever marketer he is.  

Yes, black folks get frustrated and tired of being “the go to” guy all the time. That’s mainly because white people ask us the same questions over and over and over, “wearyingly predictable,” as you said.  Moreover, they tend to not really be questions about understanding black life. They’re white questions about how to fit something they don’t understand into a white frame (“don’t you think that…?” or “I don’t see why…”). 72% are simply one of a myriad of rewordings of “I’m one of the good ones, right?”  I’m going to lose a lot of points for saying this but here goes. The popularity of SURJ and other analogous groups has to do with the fact that it’s a space where white people can talk about racism and still have their own whiteness be the center of their discourse. Months ago I attended the same SURJ workshop you mention on combating racist remarks. I kept waiting for when the instruction was actually going to get around to defending black people. Instead I was disappointed to find it all about how to suffer fools and keep your cool while doing it.

If I want to find out what a quinceañera is about I accept an invitation to one. The learning is in the preparation leading up to it (what’s an unsuitable gift to bring and why, appropriate dress, the proper greeting,…) and the actual experience of being there. The same with a bar mitzvah or a Hindu wedding. I wouldn’t go to these events asking a million questions expecting people to divert attention to the fact that I’m here. I wouldn’t talk everyone’s ear off bragging about and quoting all the books and blog posts I’ve read (“I saw Schindler’s List and  I cried through the whole thing…”). I would go, observe, do what I see others doing, and humbly shut the flip up! Offer to help serve punch, maybe. My white friends, I’m afraid you can’t escape us black folks. The only way you’re ever going to invest real skin in the game is to bring yourselves to black spaces. Sorry guys. That’s just the way it is.

In a lot of the workshops I’m leading, lately I continuously hear whites say they’re afraid of being among black people and saying the wrong thing and I’m calling it out for the vestige of white supremacy that it really is–“J’Accuse!” There is a simple mathematical remedy for this fearful situation, stop talking so damn much.

Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says “we work on ourselves in order to help others, but also we help others in order to work on ourselves.” White people are used to seeing themselves as the smartest one in the room, they come expecting to be heralded as the leader that has finally arrived. Bring yourselves to us with a true desire to learn something you don’t [think you already] know, and accept the authority of black opinions and black points of view on what racial equality needs to look like, the best way to get there, and what supporting role you could play that would indeed be most helpful. 

And once again I’ve written an entire essay answering someone else’s post while neglecting my own blog so I’m going to cut-n-paste, kill two birds with one stone, and go to bed.

Coronavirus in “Black & White”

These days, happily, a disproportionate amount of my energy is going into

1.) staring at the new treadmill I bought while I go all in on another bowl of Breyer’s collaboration with Snickers candy bar (this ice cream is the dairy equivalent to crack, if you’ve never had it before do yourself a favor and leave it alone!!!)

2.) planning topics for my wildly successful series of Sunday webinars, so I’ve fallen behind on posting new essays. I’ve read two pieces recently from other writers though who offer a fresh, original perspective on why the coronavirus is hitting the black community so disproportionately and the medical community’s response to those numbers. It’s lengthy reading. But hell, we’ve all got more time than anything else right now.

Decolonizing Nursing

What people are saying about my Sunday webinar series–

“YES!!! THIS is the conversation I was looking for!”                                                  Sonja N

 

“I just attended Nanette’s first online workshop. The discussion of ‘White Women’s Tears’ was eye opening. We were challenged to listen to the Black person’s experience and not make our reaction about us.”                                        Jean, Rochester

 

“Preach, Nanette! Give as generously as you can! Nanette is giving us such a gift of her time, energy, and wisdom!”                                                                             Laura, Boston

 

“She really is – I’ve been struggling with where to have these conversations and learn without placing demands on anyone else’s time or energy.”         Shellie, Arizona

 

“THANK YOU NANETTE!!! Many questions that both B. and I have been asking ourselves have ‘clicked’ today. LISTENING to you is ALWAYS completely enlightening :)”                                                                                                      Chris, Rochester

concentrated women surfing laptop in cafe
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

“Thank you so much, Nanette!!! What a pleasure this has been!!! Thank you for being you!”                                                                                                                   Jillian, Florida

 

“I appreciate Nanette’s sense of understanding for white experience, while at the same time her frank ability to lay it on the table when addressing the blind spots that we white people tend to carry around.”                                                               Peggy C.

 

“You’ve woven these stories together with absolute wizardry Nanette!”                                                                                                                                                         Brittany, Rochester

 

“Nanette’s Sunday session was really great! She doesn’t sugarcoat serious topics but still comes to the work with a generous spirit and enthusiasm for healthy cross-racial dialogue. Her advice to white allies is super concrete and applicable to everyday life. Highly recommended!”                                                                           Murphy

 

“Thank you So Much for today’s lesson! I learned a lot of nuanced lessons that I would not have learned in any other setting. I appreciate you!”                                     Lillian S, NY

“Hi, Nanette! Wanted to reach out to say that your webinar today already has me thinking differently about how I approach learning and “being.”  I have so much gratitude for you sharing today (thank you so much for doing this).” Audrey

Hi, Nanette. I am belatedly sending a note of thanks for your work with the Sunday afternoon webinars on White Fragility, as well as for inviting me to participate. Your effort and dedication are obvious! Also, it seems to me, “putting yourself out there” in this effort is courageous and generous, as well as beneficial for the attendees. I felt I learned a lot. Thank you for all of this. Heather T.

Howard’s Way

So I got an email Sunday morning from Howard J. Eagle of Rochester, N.Y., accusing me and a list of others of “race hustling.” That afternoon I was hosting a paid-access virtual meeting (which I will be doing every Sunday until we’re let back out of our homes) discussing white privilege and fragility and had advertised it widely by email and Facebook.

If you  live in Rochester and are involved with any effort around race, you’ve heard of Howard Eagle. Now in his sixties, this black man taught social studies in the city’s public schools for some thirty years and was an adjunct lecturer at one of the nearby universities. He holds a master’s degree in secondary education so if the issuing of a master’s degree means anything, Eagle knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the realm of educating children. Without question he is the very opposite of an unsophisticated, blow-hard simpleton.

Eagle has run for the city’s school board six times, and came out on the losing end in all six contests. Google his name and an early result shows a 2019 newspaper story where in a very public meeting, Eagle called a school board member a “vicious, compulsive liar.” She in turn questioned his financial solvency, made a personal dig at the appearance of his physical well being, and accused him of acting like a child. A commentator compared the meeting to an episode of the reality t.v. show Love & Hip Hop.

At one time a respected writer of editorial pieces for the Rochester newspaper, Howard has been banned and locked out from commenting on any of the paper’s other formats. I personally know of several people who have told me they’ve put in the time and effort to block him from every single one of their social media accounts.

Before I did my first workshop in Rochester in August of 2019, I got a series of emails from Howard expressing his cynicism (in length and detail) that my presentation could make any difference. From one of those emails:

“As you know, considering the old, historic existence, ongoing devastating nature, numerous disastrous manifestations, and overall socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural impact of the Tripartite [individual, institutional and structural racism] Beast And Illness — being able “to participate in conversations about interpersonal and structural racism [,especially only within] their own [super-limited, minute, so-called] personal spheres of influence” (as opposed to the need for mass, ongoing, societal, dialogue EVERY DAY) — only represents a baby-step…. 

We acknowledge that taking the first baby-step (TALKING — OPENLY, HONESTLY, AND CONSTANTLY ABOUT RACISM) is of course important. Yet, in the final analysis, for us to accept that (as late as 2019) [emphasis Nanette’s], such minuscule, gradualistic, efforts are to be applauded or celebrated relative to impacting the Beast And Illness (in significant, concrete, measurable ways — in our lifetimes — as opposed to the abstract, distant bye-and-bye), actually serves to help prop up, reinforce, perpetuate, and prolong the deeply entrenched, thoroughly pervasive, systemic, racist, status-quo. “

 

In November I was leading a workshop again in Rochester and one of the white participants asked me specifically about how to respond to Howard Eagle, as many in that room had come up against his ire on various message boards and online forums. I told them look, no doubt Howard is an uncouth, overbearing, near impossible pain in the ass. Howard is a black man who came of age in the middle of Rochester’s infamous 1964 race riots. It was a time when this city’s crown jewels of employment were Eastman Kodak and Xerox. Both companies were not only not hiring blacks beyond their lowest paying positions, they put up active resistance to doing so. Now, a comfortable new generation of white people–whose parents worked for those employers, affording them good housing and schools– want to have polite, “sacred conversations” where they can explore their relationship to race and what it all means at a non-grievous pace they get to dictate.

Frank Staropoli is somewhere around the same age as Howard. He authors a blog called A White Guy In Rochester. As I write this, Frank is “wintering” in Florida, retired and sitting pretty atop all the opportunity that Howard and his generation of black men were de facto and de jure excluded from. Instead, Howard’s generation was being pushed around by officers with german shepherds for demanding some such absurdity as the right to live wherever they want and a fair opportunity to prove themselves at a job like anyone else. The older, middle-class white people in my workshop had time to listen to me that weekend afternoon while working age black people in Rochester were scraping away at low paying jobs still trying to catch up to the wealth disparity that Howard watched three generations of redlining and job discrimination produce.

Rochester is often cited as one of the three poorest cities in America. Some say that is only true if one doesn’t count all of its metro area as an aggregate.

That’s just it, though.

The public schools of Rochester proper are now over 90% black while suburban counties–born of white flight from 1954’s federal court decision desegregating public schools, and restrictive covenant deeds forbidding home sales to black families–buttress the city’s borders. On one block is a city school that’s just had to lay off dozens of teachers to trim their budget deficit. Three blocks over, just beyond the city line, is a white school with probably a swimming pool and a library stocked with enough books, each student could take three home and there’d be plenty left for a censorship-and-decency committee to host a hardy bonfire.

Last year the Monroe County legislature passed a bill imposing stiffer fines and jail sentences against prohibited harassment of first responders (in real language, that means people taking video during questionable police interactions) seemingly out of nowhere. No one asked for this remedy. No one. Even the county sheriff and several area police chiefs publicly declared the law mootable and expressed their intention not to enforce it until a higher court examined it. Clearly that law was not intended to target Saturday morning soccer moms. If you tell me you can’t see who would have gotten hurt by this law, I’m going to say clearly you haven’t picked up a newspaper in ten years and I’m quite certain that’s not true.

When new county administrators came in later,they immediately put the kibosh on that law all together.

Jobs, housing, schooling, disproportionate interactions with the police–from Eagle’s and other blacks’ viewpoint, it almost sounds like it’s still 1964 in Rochester.

Over fifty years  and three generations later, watching his brothers, nephews, cousins, neighbors being left out still, Howard Eagle doesn’t have the time or patience for “sacred conversations”. The studies, the numbers they produce, and the stories of blacks’ lived experiences bear out the facts. The only question is in what way are you, as a white person concerned with racism and inequality, prepared to show up and effect a measurable change?

Black public intellectual celebre’ du jour, Ta-Nehisi Coates, admitted when asked about it that he too is perplexed by the popularity of his very Afro-centric, no-holds-barred writing style among white consumers. “I’ve never seen white people embrace the idea of a black man talking about a world in which they are not the center of the narrative (for better or worse).” That explains the popularity of the writings of Robin DiAngelo and Debby Irving, a subject for another essay.

The retelling of suffering among blacks is not just a whetstone offered up to whites to sharpen their character and further center themselves and their growth. If preparing yourself for actionable, measurable change for others is not why you’re here on my page; not why you’re reading Frank Staropoli’s blog, going to monthly SURJ meetings, organizing rides to protests, or posting about the latest incident of racial injustice on Facebook then please,… 

get out of grown folks’ way so we can get to the real business at hand.

I am intent on stirring a call to action. If all white people feel compelled to do after one of my workshops is pat themselves on the back and check off the “racial justice” box on their to-do list, then Howard is right and I am no more than a race hustler. And as long as I keep it breezy and centered on personal revelations, I could get away with that for years and make a nice living for myself off of enough white folks’ desire to merely appear engaged. I’d sooner go back to waiting tables at Friendly’s Restaurants, scooping Fribbles with my bad back and flat feet before I dishonor all the black persistence, dreams and blood that came before me in such a way.

I was brought in as the guest speaker at an all white suburban church one Sunday around the time of Martin Luther King Day. I talked about MLK’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail. In it, the icon expressed his disappointment that the southern towns’ white religious institutions weren’t emptying their pews to support the cause of fair treatment for blacks.

At my finish a woman in the front row said “wow, I don’t feel better after that.” I guess they were expecting we shall overcome and I have a dream. Yesterday a letter from the city arrived for my former upstairs neighbor– $900 fine for jaywalking. Jaywalking. He’s going to be sitting in the Erie County holding center someday soon while his already financially beleaguered family is trying to decide whether they should pay the rent this month or get him out of jail before the weekend. Over crossing the street while black.

I didn’t drive all the way down there to give back rubs, I came to reiterate that “faith without works is dead“. If anyone was feeling a lack of solace after my message it was because in their hearts they knew, like I do, that we have a lot of work to do towards our perported goals of racial equity. So let’s get to it.

I’ll probably get a nasty letter from Howard saying “I don’t need you to speak for me, how dare you represent that you know what I’m thinking, blah, blah, blah” ‘cause that’s how Howard rolls. That’s all right. I don’t really mean in this essay to single him out. I’m using him to make the point that your black friends and neighbors are waiting to see white folks do something. The time for talk and exploring our feelings is past us. As far as Howard, well, extremes serve the purpose of keeping the middle from getting complacent. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as the idiom goes. Or to quote from the 1995 movie Dolores Claiborne, “sometimes, being a bitch is all a [person] has to hang onto.”

The N-word: To Be Or NOT To Be?

I undertook an hour’s drive to a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., the other day. The Greece school district was inviting all comers to a most improbable congress; an open forum on the use of the word “nigger.” Yep, you read that right. A local friend gave me a little background explaining that this particular town has become a popular destination for black families looking to flee Rochester proper. In a short time, the demographic of its public schools has gone from all white to around 30% black.

An hour’s drive may sound like a stretch but a.) I lived in Atlanta for over twenty years where an hour’s drive is called “my morning commute” and b.) I thought “oh, I gotta’ see this train wreck with my own eyes. I’m not waiting for the viral video.”

The parking lot to the host school was packed. I mean people parked in the grass, on the painted yellow lines, I thought there was a sectionals basketball game happening at the same time or something. My unscientific glance counted the audience at about 70% white, and mainly adults as opposed to students. I was expecting a Jerry Springer-style town hall brawl. To my surprise, there was a very sincere, attentive audience of concerned community members who were clearly here to learn something from each other.

Dr. Sean Eversley Bradwell, an assistant professor from Ithaca College, started his lecture by asking how many of us spoke another language. I learned Spanish in middle school. I was exposed early in my learning of the world to the notion that often languages will have a word or phrase that just doesn’t translate cleanly into English because the idea it conveys doesn’t really exist fully fleshed out in Western culture. I flashed back to a man from Columbia I overheard years ago talking with his sister over the phone and referring to her frequently as “Gorda.” The literal translation of that word is “fat.” The softness and tenderness with which he uttered the word each time he invoked it, though, made it clear he was doing anything but admonishing her on her eating habits. An attempt to explain his meaning makes the term, actually, lose all its meaning.

In my early twenties, I traipsed through the Buffalo bar scene with a gay male crowd [shout out to City Lights]. The men often called each other “girlfriend” so I did too. A friend tried to explain how that might not always be apropos for me. I thought what is he talking about? I’m just one of the gang, surely everyone knows I mean no harm. I look back now and I think on how I could walk downtown streets at night holding another man’s hand without fear of being attacked, I didn’t have to hide my authentic self at work for fear of being stripped of the means to support myself, I could go to church, join the navy, adopt children. I could hop in and out of this world at night for a few laughs and drinks at my leisure. Since they could not do the same, they were entitled to a few things partitioned as solely theirs without needing the blessing of my understanding why for it to be so. Like “girlfriend.”

Black folks my age and older use the word “stank.” It is, again, one of those words that as it travels across cultures, the need to explain it renders it unusable all together. Hip hop super duo Outkast named their 2000 album Stankonia. (I know, my pop culture references are SO old.) I doubt they had many interviews where journalists bothered to ask them to decipher its meaning for speakers of The King’s English. I told a fellow salesperson at a job once that I was having trouble driving a male business owner to close this deal. My coworker, being appropriately familiar with me, told me “you need to kick that stank, girl!” As we both enjoyed a good chuckle, I knew exactly what he meant but I couldn’t even begin to spell it out in this essay and do it one modicum of justice.

In the 1997 movie Liar, Liar, white actor and comic tour de force Jim Carrey prattles off this ditty without even a hint of tongue-in-cheek side eye:

“Where would Tina Turner be right now if she’d rolled over and said ‘hit me again Ike! And put some stank on it!’”

That line is operating on so-o-o-o-o many levels that to take it apart for whites,…well, you either come from a social and cultural background where you get it and you pee your pants at the recondite comic dare he took, or you just have to let that one go and keep it moving. Now understand that Jim Carrey spent his formative years on a comedy show with an almost all black cast. A black cast where most of them were siblings and cousins too, so he witnessed the kind of humor that comes from the laxity only being around black family upends, and could know how to deliver that line in such a way as to both say it properly AND manage to parody his own white self at the same time.

Hmm. And I’ve still never heard him assert any right to use the word “nigger.” Discuss.

I, for the record, detest the word, and its pop culture augmentation “niggah.” I acknowledge black comedian Dave Chappell as all the genius he’s been heralded as, but I never watched his t.v. show during its original run. My ears couldn’t tolerate his overuse of that word. I do not run in the kinds of social circles where that word is used frequently, and anyone’s insistence on using it regularly around me, whether they be white or black, is a deal-breaker for me.

One audience participant came to the microphone during the Q&A and asked theoretically what possible affirmative value is there for white people in using that word? That got me to thinking and for I think the first time, I got a pure glimpse of why some black people would still see an affirmative value in it.

After America chained us, beat us, legally declared us ⅗ of a person, broke apart our families, burned us out of our legally acquired homes and land, lynched us by the thousands, deprived us of channels to competent education, told us without cessation that we’re nothing, and bestowed upon a people every degradation one would heap upon a group so debased as to be called “niggah”, we’re still here. Still rising. So, in a way, for blacks to use that word among themselves is to spit in the face of a society that would rather we just quietly go away and to say “call us whatever the –eff you want. We’re still here! What other names you got? We’ll –eff that up too, and keep coming!”

Even with that, I still will not be using the word. And if this is a best case scenario for its usage, it begs the question again what possible affirmative value is there for white people in using this word? Kinship? Not if, like in my earlier example “girlfriend” with my gay cohorts, white people can jump in and out of what that word means when the going gets really tough.

Ultimately Bradwell gave this excellent reasoning for abolishing use of the word among kids during the time school officials have charge over them. Faculty has a responsibility to the safety and wellbeing of each and every student. In the same vein as not allowing “fire!” in a crowded theater, curtailing some speech and other liberties of individuals is a part of that responsibility. Drop the mic right here, you can’t argue around that.

A young man approached towards the end, strong and tall as an oak, and told us he has both black and white parents. His white friends assert their right to use that word around him despite his objection, and can’t understand why he’d be bothered by it since he is part white himself. The young man asked Bradwell for advice on handling that situation.

Man, if that ain’t white supremacy in its boldest incarnation I don’t know what is. Can you imagine an entire school district of adults needing to parcel out an evening of their week because the peers of white Richard want to challenge his right not to be called Dick?”

“Most people never listen.” –Ernest Hemingway

In Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow, she told the story of a black youth who came to her, as a lawyer for the ACLU, complaining he was being targeted and framed by local police. He had stacks of paper, dates, reports, evidence, but Alexander didn’t believe him. At this early stage in her legal career, she was still operating under the good faith assumption that the criminal justice system was a positive agent with only a few outlier episodes of racism or deliberate police misconduct. The young man threw his hands up flabbergasted.

 “Nobody will listen to me!”

I recently went online and my eyeline couldn’t escape a piece of click bait on the Forbes.com website by executive business coach Hanna Hart. It had a huge image of writer Ta-Nehisi Coates as its draw. 

“What???,” I gasped. “A white business coach quoting Ta-Nehisi Coates in the bible of ‘we’re white men we don’t have to listen to anybody else’ magazines? This I gotta’ see.”

Hanna used an interview where Coates was asked a question that he decisively answered with “I don’t know”. 

I’ll be darned, did that just happen? The caliph of “I don’t give a –eff what white people think I’m going to write my truth” just got quoted as having something valuable to say to business exec’s.

I find the hardest part about discussing race is conveying to white people that I know what the hell I’m talking about. That I, an ordinary black woman sans pedigree or the bona fides of letters after my name, am a credible and valuable source for worthwhile information regarding the realities of race in our culture. Seeing Coates quoted on Forbes.com grabbed my attention because I’m not used to black voices being regarded as having anything valuable to offer when there are so many other white voices to choose from first. 

Even when it comes to race, we are regarded as incapable of being dispassionate and objective. An 80-something year old retired white real estate lady in Georgia once said to me “oh, you’re just hung up on all that racial stuff because you’re writing a book about it.” Would it ever occur to anyone that after all her years in the trenches, she would be dubious as a credible source for advice on how to sell a house? Could it be that I’m not “hung up” on race, but I have decades of experiences that give credence to my positions?

Debbie Irving woke up white in 2009, then made a wad of dough when thousands of white people woke up with her in her 2014 book about coming to realize how white privilege has indeed buoyed her life circumstances. The book White Fragility by white author Robin DiAngelo lorded over the New York Times best seller list for over a year and all she did was restate all the things white people haven’t been listening to black people tell them for decades. But a white lady with some degrees puts it in a book, now everyone’s ready to pay over a hundred dollars when she comes to town to essentially read the book back to them– the book she already got twenty five dollars out of them for once (“nice work if you can get it”). Anything but, God forbid, go to the black side of town, sit at these people’s dining room tables and listen to them like their stories really could stand on their own.

(To be sure, both of these books are excellent reads for white people wondering what all the hullabaloo around privilege is about.)

“Where’s the beef???”

I just wrote this long-ass reply on someone else’s blog, then realized hey, I just produced a whole new essay. And I ain’t posted on my own site in months. Why am I out here just givin’ it away like that? So here it is. The following is in response to a white writer at his site about what his recent self-examinations have brought forth…..

Hi Frank. Been reading your posts and I appreciate that you are a white man who is consciously on the path looking at white supremacy and where you fit in it. Two thoughts I want to leave here.


You talk about how combating internal racism and implicit bias in white populations takes daily effort and consciousness. That this is true is a real testament to the potency of the brainwash socialization job that’s been done, not just to white people, but to all people. And we really have to start asking ourselves why that’s so and who it benefits. That’s the million dollar question. Then we can focus on what it’s really going to take to see change. I often marvel in my head while I’m standing at the front of the room leading my own workshops “wow. These white people had to pay money, and carve out an entire afternoon of their time to hear me say ‘treat all people well just because.’ That’s the society we live in.” And to do simply that is a day-to-day, ongoing struggle. When you really, really think about that—damn!

Moreover, black people have to put just as much energy into fighting the negative messages we’ve been given about ourselves. Ibram X. Kendi said “internalized racism is the real black on black crime,” and I’ve come to agree with him wholeheartedly. Racism has torn from all of us our very humanity. Our belief in ourselves as good people, and our belief in others as simply inherently worthy. And that is why combating it is important. Not just to “help those people.”

Secondly, I read a piece online recently about Robin DiAngelo’s book White Fragility that was subtitled: “Robin DiAngelo’s idea changed how white progressives talk about themselves—and little else.” I attended a workshop months ago that was entitled “How To Respond To Racist Remarks.” I sat in because I thought I was going to witness how white folks are arming themselves to be defenders for non-white people and I wanted to affirm and amplify their efforts. The whole afternoon turned out to really be about how white SJW’s (social justice warriors) can take care of themselves and their feelings while being about “the work.” I busted out in a huge fit basically saying “how is any of this about helping non-white people????”

People just thought “poor dear, she’s ‘triggered,’” and my entire point was lost.


Too much of white folks’ musings and ruminations about race only lead in a circle back around to—-themselves. The whole point of white folks contemplating their conditioning and their role within white supremacy is supposed to be to un-condition yourselves SO THAT YOU CAN NOW GO OUT AND BE OF REAL USE IN DISMANTLING WHITE SUPREMACY AND RACIAL INEQUALITY. I submit that it’s not enough anymore just writing and talking about what looking at these issues has helped you see about yourselves as white people.

Non-white’s struggles and suffering…we are not your whetstone upon which to sharpen and improve yourselves. We’re real people out here getting shot at by the cops, denied for home loans, being turned down for jobs because it’s too difficult to pronounce our name, getting short changed on our children’s education because municipalities don’t see the point in installing great teachers and “throwing good money after bad”—and being gaslighted and blamed for our lot in life produced by the down the line effects of those actions. I don’t mean to put you on the spot personally, this is for all the white people reading this who see themselves in your meditations. If your realizations are producing out here in the 3D world more than just new awarenesses about yourself, I’m not seeing it here. I don’t just mean what meeting you’ve been to, what committee you signed up for, what other college educated blacks you sit around talking with about racism (because only listening to other blacks who possess “the” socially approved bona fides only further recognizes white supremacy). I mean black people whose lives have been improved measurably for your change of mind. Black people sitting at your dinner table bringing the real baked macaroni and cheese. Black friends who just call you up to say hey, or whose phone calls you return with urgency because you recognize their needs as fellow human beings are as urgent as yours.


As I read this over, I guess I’m just re-saying what Howard’s been saying to you forever. Where are all these new awarenesses showing up in life where the rubber meets the road?

“Where’s the beef?”