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Why I think Darren Wilson is guilty: a reflection on stereotypes

It’s in my blood. It’s how I was raised. My parents never explicitly told me to not trust the police, but they didn’t have to. Growing up in the inner city during the height of the Crack Epidemic of the 1980s and 1990s, the police were seen as public enemy #1. While other communities may have had “Officer Friendly” on every other corner, in my community, the police were associated with planting evidence to justify murders and arrests, random strip searches on black men after a white woman was killed (by her white husband Charles Stuart), and general harassment for walking or driving while black. Jay-Z said it best in his song “Ballad for a fallen soldier” when he said: “Crack was anthrax back then/back when, and the police were Al Qaeda for black men.” We simply had a hate-hate relationship with the police but it would be easy for me to use that to justify the mistrust I grew up with towards the police. I dealt with it first hand.

One day my mother, PhD from Harvard and all and in her 60s, was using the bathroom in a train station where she worked. A 20-something year old white woman told a police officer that my mother tried to sell her drugs. Without question, the officer arrested my mother. When my father went to find her at the police station, he said that the condition he found her in made him want to kill everyone in the station. We went to court but lost the lawsuit against the city. On another occasion, my brother was badly beaten and arrested by police after trying to break up a fight his white friend was involved in (his friend wasn’t arrested). Police told him that he would never be found and when he did get to call, he told my father they were going to kill him. We had to go on a scramble to find him since the police did not release his whereabouts. My incidents with police compared to these were minor and not worth sharing but I think you get the point and this is the point of many from my community—every black person I know has had or has had a family member have a deadly, potentially deadly, or police-provoked confrontation.

Because of this history, I see the Mike Brown killing through darkened lenses. Through thin rims, whether officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Brown, I see the police working to cover it up. I see them waiting too long to identify officer Wilson so that they could hide him and delete his entire online history. I see them as willing to release video of Brown in a convenience store robbery instead of video of his high school graduation but refusing to release the official photo of officer Wilson because it may make him look a criminal taking a mug shot. Without a second thought, this is what I see. But the question is, what do YOU see and why?

What do the lenses that you watch this tragedy through reveal to you? Do you automatically think that Brown “must have done something” to provoke this shooting? Do you think that if he did not rob the store he would not have been killed though officer Wilson did not know about the robbery? Do you think that black people are always making a big deal about nothing, yet again? Do you think Reverend Al Sharpton is more of the problem then an officer Wilson or a George Zimmerman? Why? What brings you to this conclusion? Have you looked into your own upbringing to see where your innate biases lie? Have you confronted them or is your life situated in such a way that you do not have to?

It is because of my past that I work as a diversity educator and consultant. I travel the country and the globe helping to facilitate courageous conversations on topics such as these. Whether it’s working in our nation’s public and private schools on challenges facing black and Latino boys, or traveling internationally on behalf of the State Department to help alleviate ethnic tensions in developing countries through leadership training, my work is designed to get us in the position to clean our lenses and open ourselves to different narratives. Doing this has caused me to learn about stereotypes I have placed on different groups based on my upbringing. It has allowed me to help others do the same. From the hundreds of thousands of people with whom I have worked, I have learned one simple truth: none of us has it all figured out but working together, we can build something better out of our ignorance.

Today, despite my frustrations with the Brown killing and others, I do not see all police as bad people. I live around the corner from a police station and often greet the ones I see. I know, as was the case in the 1980s and 1990s (though I did not believe it) that most police officers are not corrupt. This helps me look at the Brown case with a bit more objectivity before I engage in a dialogue. Being able to see differing sides of the same story helps build a better country and a better planet. Now that Brown is buried, we need to use this time going forward for continued productive conversations about racism, police brutality, and other issues that plague our global communities such as homophobia, islamophobia, sexism, and anti-Semitism. I love the work that I do but I hate that I have to do it because so much of my work would be unnecessary if we just developed the courage to not only talk, but, more importantly, listen to each other. Someone once said that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in proportion. If we could go beyond the yelling at each other whenever there’s a crisis, we can make real progress as a society but that takes work. Are you willing to do the work for a better country and planet for our children? If so, I’m listening. Let’s talk.

Nappy Headed America

 

Just when I think we in America cannot descend any deeper into the abyss of ignorance, Don Imus saves the day. Don Imus should have been fired years ago. He has made a career off of making derogatory and hateful comments towards people of all races, religions, and genders. The reason that he had been able to preserve his position is because those in the Old Boy Network continue to look out for themselves, Ã la Marv Albert still broadcasting since his sexual assault charges. Don't get me wrong. I do believe in second chances, however, from the White House to shock radio, those in power in America have demonstrated time and again that loyalty is more important than honesty, particularly when the pendulum of profit is swinging. One needs to only bring up the current controversy surrounding Alberto Gonzalez, fired attorneys, Karl Rove's immunity, and missing secret e-mails.

I watched Don's good friend Bo Dietl say Imus should not be fired because of two words. This is not about two words. This is about three decades of Imus making money for himself and his corporate sponsors off of hate speech. Dietl said that Imus' charity work should far outweigh his words and he should be given a second chance. I guess when Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune made Imus promise that he would not call Blacks apes 9 years ago, that did not count for Dietl. Truth of the matter is that anyone who wants to bring up charitable work as a pardon for Imus' negative attacks on innocent people like the Rutgers team or Dr. Maya Angelou must also and immediately pardon Snoop Dogg for his lyrics because he is involved in a number of charity works as well. To me, they both must be condemned for their public profanities.

Now that my thoughts on Imus are clear, I must say that removing Imus is only scratching the surface of a much deeper problem in American society: the fact that hate and misogyny sells. It is not only Imus and it is not only rap music. It's "Jerry Springer", it's "The Family Guy", and it's the American movie industry. On a more personal note, it's most of you reading this, in addition to its author. We live in a society where "jokingly", homosexuals call themselves faggots, blacks (and everyone else it seems) call themselves niggers, Jewish people call themselves kikes, women call themselves bitches and hos, young Latinos call each other spics and wetbacks, Chinese youth call each other chinks, and on and on. Each aforementioned group member who partakes in this says it is OK for them to say it but not someone else. This is the most ridiculous double standard I have heard in my life. Irrespective of who says it, a ho is a ho and blacks cannot take back a word like "nigger" or "nigga", which was never their word in the first place.

If we in America do not use this Imus moment to seriously look at ourselves first before condemning others, we will miss the lesson here. In the past three months alone, we have seen journalists and radio personalities say rape is a good thing for ugly women, that they hate all blacks, and enact La cuca Gotcha campaigns aimed at catching illegal immigrants. We can do better in America but it starts by looking in the mirror. If we could make true strides to change or challenge our language and personal views publicly and privately, we may be able to prevent those wishing to spew such hate and hurtful words from thinking those words in the first place.

In some way, shape or form, we are all responsible for Don Imus and anyone else who spews hateful words for profit or for "play". Let us work as one America to put an end to the negativity that has been at the root of America in some way, shape or form, since its inception. If we cannot do this for ourselves, let us do it for the children of America's future.

Engaging our Differences

They say that our youth are a lost generation
That they do not possess the humanity of previous generations
But if you know like I know and see the hope in their eyes
If you've traveled the world and heard their cries
You would find that our youth are soldiers for humanity
From Ryan's Wells to Craig's Free Kids
Our youth have answered the call to engage our differences
From African advocates of aids like Olivia Natukunda
To peer educators like Miguel Garcia
Our youth daily deliver deeds of dignity
They demonstrate courage in the face of adversity
They fight for access to day care and universities
They add hope to our subtracted faith and disparities
And through their multiple deeds they erase our divisions
See our youth are on a mission
To heal a world so callously cut with the knife of indifference
Punched with the fist of intolerance
Kicked with the heal of homophobia
Suffocated with the gas of anti-Semitism
Shot with the rifle of racism
Subdued to submission with sexism
And smacked with the backhand of classism
But with all these withered wounds our youth thrive
They heal their hurt, help build homes and save lives
They feed the famished and wage verbal wars for peace
With an idealism many of us have lamentably lost
They make our future brighter by lighting a fire
Under our complacency
And so we celebrate Jackie Blitz and Andrew Vanstee
The late Mattie Stepanek and Selene Biffi
For reminding us all to never stop fighting for change
And showing us that peace and justice
Must always be our one and only aim

White Fingers, Black Anuses

 

Never underestimate the power of ignorance, particularly as we kick off a new year. I recently completed my second Empowerment through the Arts tour in South Africa. This year, I took my sister's Boston-based dance company, the OrigiNation Cultural Arts Center. It was 10-full days of learning dance, teaching dance, and learning about South Africa's tragic history of apartheid. Nothing, however, could prepare us for the hands-on learning experience we were to encounter on one rainy Wednesday afternoon.

We decided to take a trip to the Apartheid Museum. The museum captures the essence of that dreadful era of the human experience. Unfortunately, my daughter was in a fussy mood, which led my wife and I to finish our tour a bit early. While waiting on the bus, my sister Muadi came out of the museum nearly in tears and signaled me to get out of the bus, what she told me next will hopefully enrage you as much as it enraged me.

While walking through the museum, there is a larger-than-life image of black men being strip-searched. Check the picture out for yourself here. The picture is being covered by 4 South African artists trying to add dignity to the photo, but you get the idea. While walking through the museum, Muadi noticed several White South African high school female students observing the photo. One of them said to her friends "Wow, cute butts!" She then proceeded to rub her fingers across the behinds of these men, much to the amusement of her friends. Muadi lost it.

Muadi spent the rest of her museum visit "enlightening" the girls about their ignorance but these girls felt very free to continue with their boorish behavior. They called one of our Black students a dog and made symbols with their fists as if they were going to attack us. Once they got behind their chaperones, they began singing MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This." With all of this in mind, I thought I should have a word with the two White female chaperones of these 15 or so White high school female students. The story only gets "curioser and curioser" from there.

I politely asked the chaperone if I could talk to her about what had transpired and she said she refused to talk to me until she got her girls in front of security. Once they were "secure," she proceeded to tell me that what they did was no big deal and that the girl was just touching the behinds, not trying to stick her finger in them. By this time, my other sisters were out along with one of my best friends and a massive debate ensued about the teachable moments these chaperones had denied these students. By the time the debate was over and these girls were rushed to their vans (protected by South African employees of the museum), rest assured their comfort level had decreased significantly (poets do have a way with words after all).

The ride back was the worst of the trip. Most of us were in tears. Though our high school and college-aged youth were all from Boston, this was their first major experience with racism. No stranger to a Klan mask or two myself (story for another day), I was more incensed at the fact that as we begin 2008, there are still seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face as it relates to racial appreciation and respect for others.
What made those girls so comfortable in the shell of their ignorance? Would they do this at theHolocaust Museum? Why is it that, according to my friend and guide Napo, most older Blacks (20 and up) exit the museum in frustration while most Whites she sees leave the museum with smiles and probably wondering what they're having for dinner? Lastly, why is it that most youth of all ages, races, and nationalities, leave the museum with a sense of indifference? Quite honestly, until that incident occurred, some of our own students were bored there and even some Black young South African students I saw came out of the museum as if they were visiting a museum of Greek antiquity as opposed to a place representing their own parents' experience.

I do not claim to have all the answers on this one. What I do know is that the way we as Black people degrade ourselves on television makes it a little easier for others to degrade us. I know that in America as well as South Africa, there are areas where we are more segregated now than during the Apartheid and Civil Rights Era (all the same movement in my eyes). Lastly, I know that if we do not teach our youth of all backgrounds about the turbulent past we have all faced on this planet such as Slavery, the Holocaust, and other atrocities, all of our fallen freedom fighters from Steve Biko to Benazir Bhuttowill have died in vain.

If you are a young person reading this, I encourage you to break the chains of your complacency and really learn about the struggles that led you to enjoy your Ipods, video game consoles, expensive clothes, cars, and cell phones. Use the power of this ever-shrinking world to see (or at least read about) the sweatshops your clothes come from, the millions who die for the diamond necklaces and watches you go into debt over, and the many more millions who die around the world (and in America) simply because they are a woman, a child, Black, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, etc.

For those who are a bit more seasoned, I challenge you to engage our youth and not be afraid of them. The lessons that can be learned from you are enormous, but your silence in the face of the vapid materialism, ignorance, and violence amongst our youth gives the impression of acquiescence. For all of you reading this, just ask yourself one question: would you want someone rubbing their hands on a picture of the behinds of one of your ancestors who gave their life for your freedom? The answer should be obvious. This is a new year. Let us not proceed by repeating old mistakes. It does take an entire to village to raise a child, but it also takes an entire village to raise a racist. Each one teach ten and let's wake up!

The future of youth: when your child gets called a monkey

 

“You’re a monkey.” “I can’t play with brown kids.”

 

If only I was fortunate enough for these to be the only insults I ever heard as a child. If only I had to deal with this instead of white kids wearing KKK masks to school in Boston in 1994 when I ran for class president. If only I had to deal with this instead of seeing my Harvard-PhD recipient mother be thrown in a jail cell because a random white girl told the police my mom tried to sell her drugs and the cop immediately took said white girl’s side (yes, we lost the court case). If only I had to deal with this instead of having police officers drive up to my car, flash the light in to ensure I was black and then pull me over and attempt to convince me that I was drinking even though I’ve never consumed an alcoholic beverage in my life. If only. In reality, the two quotations above are worse than all of the aforementioned experiences because they were said to my toddler daughter 2 years ago when she was 5.

There can’t be anything worse in life than seeing your children experience hardship. By the time I became a parent, I felt like I had dealt with all of my issues of racism. I knew it existed and that it permeated every aspect of American society. I was forced to join the anti-racism movement at a very early age growing up in Boston where my siblings and I were bullied everyday because of our background. Rocks thrown at us. Called all types of names at school. My oldest brother shot in the eye with a metal BB gun. Add this to the fact that between grades 7 & 12, I read one book in school by a black author, which was aptly titled “The Invisible Man.” America didn’t even have to work hard at making feel insignificant. By the time I had my kids though, I felt like I had this racism thing down. That was before my daughter came home and told me what her class[less]mates said to her.

When my daughter came home to tell me that her classmates told her this, it was depressing. I really thought I could shield my girls from issues relating to race until they were at least 7 years old. At that age we could have “the talk” that many black parents hate having with their kids but deem necessary in a world where racism exists. “You have to be two times better than everyone else because people expect less of you,” etc., etc. I was shocked to realize that I actually had to start teaching my daughter to be proud of her heritage at the age of 2 thanks to a little thing we call cartoons.

We didn’t watch much TV with our daughter during her first few years but it is almost impossible to avoid cartoon images when you’re shopping for your kids and they are with you. I remember one day I called my daughter a princess and she said quickly that she wasn’t one. It was easy to figure out why. Every image she saw outside of the house was of a non-black girl as a princess. I couldn’t even find products like pull-ups without these princess images on them. This was years before the movie “The Princess & The Frog.” Before that, not only were the princesses mostly white, their names also suggest that they are the purest girls on the planet. Just think: “Snow White.” “Belle” (“beautiful” in French). “Sleeping Beauty.” These names plus the images of them hold white girls up as the standard of beauty, even up until this day.

It didn’t take long for my wife & I to build our daughter’s belief that she was a princess too. Within a month or so, she was walking around telling people she was a princess and asking adults if they were kings and queens. It wasn’t that we wanted her to buy into this princess model as some needy woman who always needed to be pampered. It was more about showing her that she can be anything including a princess. When “The Princess & The Frog” movie finally did come out, I’ll never forget seeing my daughter just looking at the pillow set we bought her with Princess Tiana’s image. Though she had believed what we told her, children who watch cartoons have this weird belief that the cartoon images are real and real people on TV are fake. The black princess image on TV meant a lot for us and many other parents who heretofore had to buy “Dora the Explorer” merchandise to have an image as close to brown as possible. That’s just real talk right there.

Living with everyday racism as a father means always being prepared for my 2 daughters to come home with stories like this. Their hair is locked like mine so I have no issues when kids tease them and say “spaghetti hair” because I just tell them to laugh it off or play elsewhere if the kids don’t stop. Calling them a monkey, however, is different from calling them an elephant or a cat because of the racist history of blacks being compared to monkeys and apes in America. For a child to say that to my kids, that child had to learn that from their parents and that’s what is the even scarier—seeing racist behavior be passed down to the next generation.

The author William Cross talks about stages of racialized development. In short, he says that as human beings, we have experiences that take us all across the racial spectrum. For example, I was so happy to be a black man in America when President Obama was elected, but I was brought back down from cloud 9 when I went to do my diversity trainings at the schools I work in and my colleagues were told not to talk about Obama in the trainings because white teachers were still pissed off. As a white person, you may have a high when you see a multicultural rally for unity but then feel low as a white person when you see a racist attack by your neighbor against a non-white person. This is what everyday racism is about in America. Some days we’re up and some days we’re down.

My daughters motivate me to work even harder towards ending racism in America. Even if I cannot do that, my goal in my work as a diversity consultant is to at least give people the tools to analyze their own racist behavior or the behavior of others and be upstanders and not bystanders when they witness it. I don’t have time to dream about racism ending one day. I only have time to do the work as a youth speaker and diversity educator and continue on the path set for me by Dr. King, Harriet Tubman, Harry Belafonte, and so many people of all races who fought and fight for peace. I do this work because “deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome some day.”

 

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