blacklisted 

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The city was no exotic landmark for any of us homegrown New York surburbanites, but we still all scrambled for bus seats as we headed to New York City for our high school Fashion Design field trip. We were seniors, caught in that giddy sort of post-exams state, knowing graduation and all that lay beyond it was only three weeks away. Decked out in our best Forever 21 and Charlotte Russe couture, we dressed the part of adults for the day and forgot we were riding a bleached-out public school bus.

After stopping by a design studio, we headed to Fashion Ave for our pilgrimage to the high-end stores there. My friend Hillary and I stepped into Henry Bendel, and my mouth dropped open. The store was a museum, several tiers of gleaming marble with clothes draped over the polished hangers with the effortless grace of a Greek sculpture garden. The black-suited saleswoman waved us inside the golden doors with a pearly smile, her heeled shoes clicking delicately behind us as our group drifted apart to explore on our own.

Hillary and I wove slow circles around the store’s highest level, inspecting each piece of clothing with the kind of quiet reverence usually reserved for cathedral halls. My fingers stroked the butter-soft brown skin of a leather jacket, and as I moved towards another display, I heard a few soft clicks nearby. I paused. Tap, tap. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the saleswoman who greeted us earlier hovering several feet behind me, partially shielded by a tree-shaped jewelry display. She wasn’t smiling anymore. I turned my head slightly, and I saw hers swivel to the side, gaze now fixed on the nonexistent flick of dust on a white tunic hanging nearby.

I moved even more slowly around the perimeter of the floor. Tap, tap, tap, tap. The heels followed me, drummed the marble in a methodical rhythm that seemed to grow louder even though I knew the volume had not really changed. Every sense heightened, my heartbeat thumped against my chest, and I sped up my steps. As the saleswoman’s gaze razed my back, I decided to make this, whatever it was, a challenge. I wound in and out of the clothes’ displays and searched for a place where she couldn’t see me.

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I suddenly had the ridiculous urge to laugh because this was crazy, like some kind of warped Pacman game brought to life, and I was fleeing a lipsticked ghost.

It lost the novelty of being a game when I glanced to the side to check who was trailing Hillary, and I saw no one.

Two high school girls stood four feet apart on a store floor. One roamed without notice. I was followed by the saleswoman for the rest of the trip. The only difference, the only rationale I could point to was this: my friend was white…and I was not.

Two years later, I had a conversation with one of my white college friends about how I felt like eyes were on me every time we talked about slavery in class or when I walked around our predominately white Illinois college town. “Aren’t you just being paranoid?” she said. I didn’t know how to respond, but I remembered the alien sensation that creeped along my skin while evading the Henry Bendel saleswoman. I remembered all the moments since then where I was acutely aware of a white person’s gaze on me. In those moments, it was if there was a force field separating me from everyone else in that space, and I was more conscious of my body than ever before.

The stakes were lower for me. In that clothes store I lost the privilege of feeling comfortable in my skin. I didn’t lose my life. And as the unending list of hashtagged obituaries reminds me, so many people DO lose their lives because of our society’s need to soothe white people’s anxieties at the expense of black and brown bodies. My country gives me evidence every week that a black person’s detainment, incarceration (no matter how brief), and execution is a necessary inconvenience to make a white person feel safe when even the most minimal level of discomfort is breached.

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Image from Common Dreams

The Cost of Black Anxiety

As humans we have schemas, mental frameworks that help us organize and interpret information about our environment. Our schemas shape the way we view people and our interactions with them, and they are profoundly influenced by the messages we receive from our family, the media, our governing bodies, our religious institutions. These messages don’t need to be blatant to be internalized, and often the most deeply-seeded concepts about race are conveyed subtly: a step aside on the sidewalk when a black man walks past, an lingering glance when a group of black kids enters a restaurant.

Other messages are less subtle.

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From Caricatures of African-Americans: The Brute
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Hide yo kids, hide yo wife! Movie poster from 1923

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The Scary Black Man Trope: Actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje gets stuck with this role a lot…

(Images from Game of Thrones and LOST)

American society has taught us to be scared of black people for a long, long time, and this fear isn’t even isolated to non-black people. This makes it even more frustrating when there is an outpouring of surprise and shock when a black man gets arrested for trying to get into his own house or when a black teen gets shot at for the crime of asking for directions.

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It’s not just Starbucks

So either all these black people talking about racism are under some mass delusion of victimization…or there is some truth to their stories that deserves more attention. And if there is even the remote possibility that what they say is true and this racism thing is big enough to shape their treatment in every neighborhood and state in our country, then we should be seeing more non-black people willing to consider their experience instead of instantly trusting the testimony of white cashiers, store managers, and police officers. The everyday nature of racism requires this kind of reckoning–especially by white people. Without that self-examination and communal repentance, as a diverse national community we will not be in a position to dismantle the sway racism has over our interactions with each other.

A View of One’s Own

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I can easily point to those first experiences that educated me on how non-black people might respond to my skin in a way that made me feel like I didn’t quite belong. I can also gather all the stories over time that have reinforced that reality until I could no longer deny the weight of it. Black scholar W.E.B. Dubois describes this experience:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

The Souls of Black Folk

Dubois’ understanding of double-consciousness helps me make sense of my struggle between how I see myself and how I recognize others may see me as a Black Latina woman. When you notice enough times that your body, your way of moving through spaces provokes different responses in comparison to white people, being called paranoid for pointing it out feels incredibly demoralizing. It feels even more unfair when it is that very hyper-consciousness around race that leads to white people calling the police on black people for the most mundane things–like hanging around a Starbucks.

The reflex to respond to a black person with fear or hesitation is a paranoia given far more legitimacy than a black person’s anxiety when they perceive they are being treated unequally. In more cases, we indulge the paranoia that black people are inherently threatening or reckless, coming up with all sorts of reasons to prove why the black person in this-or-that situation is wrong. Maybe they were too loud. Maybe they were holding a pencil that looked like a gun. Maybe they shouldn’t have been in that place at that time. Maybe they just should’ve known better.

This eagerness to downplay or dismiss a black person’s heightened awareness of how race affects them misses the mark entirely because in the effort to prove that a situation “isn’t about race,” the root sources contributing to that black person’s isolation and hurt go completely unacknowledged. The humanity of their experience goes unacknowledged because it’s easier to attribute an event to a simple misunderstanding than call it racism. To attach a racial element to it leads to uncomfortable questions we’d rather not ask because of what they might reveal about our own distorted perceptions or our country’s racial sins.

Not everything is only about race, but race plays a role in everything because our country established years ago that our race matters. Our history as a nation made race and racialized bodies matter, and so now we must honestly grapple with the aftermath in order to seek restoration of our individual relationships and our institutions. You cannot be family when you fear your neighbor, and I can’t be fully free when I am followed wherever I go. 

 

watch your tone as you mourn the body

After my second time watching Black Panther, my friend and I (both black women in our 20s) could not stop texting each other, overwhelmed by the urgency to unpack the film in all its layers. While we dived into a number of topics (the brilliance of all the kickass black women being one of them), we kept circling around this: We could not forget Erik Killmonger, or N’Jadaka as he refers to himself later in the movie. This character’s presence weighed on both of us, though for different reasons:

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“So understandably weary,” my friend texted back, and we paused together. Images of black leaders old and recent materialized in the silence, and I realized that my first response wasn’t entirely correct. Yes, I resonate with T’Challa, his desire to see good in others, his patience and measured approach…but I hold the rage of Killmonger in a way I would not have several years ago.

I use the word rage intentionally. Rage is not a word used often in American circles, especially those which are predominately white and Christian. Instead it’s reserved for descriptions of the wrath of God or maybe an episode of particularly bad weather. And what is rage? The Webster dictionary frames it as “a fit of violent anger” or “angry fury.” But that clinical definition carries inherent judgement. It is incomplete. It tells me nothing about the circumstances that deserve rage as a response or whether rage can exist in diverse forms apart from uncontrollable violence.

Meeting N’Jadaka

I grew up relatively shielded from the kind of racial oppression that ignites riots and fuels the rage of the Killmongers of the world. In my fairly well-off suburb, I could count my black friends on one hand, residing in that strange limbo where you never blend into the white majority, but the lines are blurred enough that you could be considered exceptional (aka not one of “Those Black People”). I only saw glimpses of the black anger simmering beneath American soil during visits to Civil Rights museums, the documentaries my mom and aunt made us watch, the occasional news headline…until college.

In college I met my N’Jadakas. In the dorms, on the couches within our multicultural student hub, I interacted with black students fully conscious of how much racism had screwed up their lives and those of others–and they were angry about it. Not only that, but they demanded an overturning of the status quo that allowed Whiteness to be the norm at our school. They demanded those in power to listen.

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Whispers from the white students told me that these were the “militants.” Many were my friends, but their loudness, their upfrontness made me uncomfortable. When they went on about white supremacy, I squirmed inwardly, wishing their words were softer, more diplomatic. When they ranted in the student center hallways about how we only learned about the history and theology of old white men (the fact that I even used the word rant then is telling), my eyes darted every way, wary of being heard by other white students–or worse, offending them.

There are names for my reaction. The worse would be “Uncle Tom” or “Oreo.” Probably closer to the truth would be “colonized.”

In black circles, a colonized mindset implies that your way of thinking and moving through the world is dominated and shaped by the same harmful ideologies and practices used to oppress your people. Because the foundation of this mindset is the historical trauma of racism and the fear of upsetting the majority group (white people), it is a shade of internalized racism.  In my case, this incarceration of my mind and heart informed my dismissal of the depth of racial pain my black sisters and brothers were experiencing. Instead, I prioritized the comfort and stability of white people around me over their alienation–and my own.

This kind of posture leaves little room for intimacy with black rage and the suffering underlying it. It was only when I finally chose to shut up and actually sit with the stories my black friends were telling me that I realized how much I had sinned against them by telling them to lower their volume.

I had always been taught not to let the sun go down on my anger, not to sin in my anger, and I still believe in that value of that. Nevertheless, it was black women and men who showed me that there is not a dichotomy of anger and faith. They taught me what it meant to grieve over being black in America…and that I was allowed to be angry about it. Experiencing fury over the injustices black people face and loving my neighbors (black AND white) is not mutually exclusive. In fact, part of God’s character as an entity of justice is embodied in the rage of those positioned as inferior in their society.

Seeing the Body

Isaiah give us a narrative of a persecuted people far from home. The minor prophets of the Old Testament rail against those who deny justice to the poor, the immigrant, the widowed. The Bible is deeply conscious of people who have been wronged and demonstrates God’s compassion towards them–and his response to those who inflict harm upon his beloved ones or ignore them. Jesus defined his ministry by drawing near those of lesser status in his time (women, paralytics, the poor) and acknowledging their pain even as he called those same people to salvation.

It begins with that acknowledgement of pain, physical, emotional, and systemic: We need to “see the body,” as Soong-Chah Rah explains in his book Prophetic Lament. All too often I observe White Americans skipping this crucial step, quick to judge people of color for being too “harsh” or attacking them by “bringing up race too much.”

“Why can’t we just discuss this calmly?” 

“Why do you need to protest when it only makes things worse?” 

“Okay I see what you mean, but what if the officer was just afraid? You’re being emotional, not logical.” 

I have heard all of these responses and more every time a racial “controversy” happens. And I need my white sisters and brothers to hear me when I say that not only are these responses uncompassionate, they are patronizing. 

You (white people) are not the experts of a black person’s experience with racism. It is not loving nor helpful of you to police the tone of people of color when they are working through and responding to those experiences. It stings when I hear you using Scripture to justify your distance from the issue of racism when black people talk about it with more than a level tone. In those moments, the burden is consistently placed on the black person to refashion their legitimate anger and grief into something white people find palatable enough to discuss. If our presentation does not meet certain conditions, it is likely that our words won’t be taken into consideration by you at all.

Do not say you love justice if you are not willing to to commune with those who have been sinned against, and do not assume they need to be polite or restrained to spare your feelings if you are White.

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NYC protest after Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s murders in 2016

We (black people) march in the streets and are called hateful. We bend the knee on the sports field and are called selfish. We make movies about race and are called controversial. We give Ted Talks on race and are called divisive. These are not just generalizations. I have seen these responses pervade Christian spaces, reminding me that no matter how many racial reconciliation conferences we have or multicultural dinners, the complexity and tension of black pain must somehow still find expression on the terms of white people. 

I propose an addendum to Mr. Webster’s definition: Rage is a suffering heart’s response to violent neglect. I choose to center my understanding of rage on the pain of people experiencing oppression in that situation rather than on the anxieties of those surrounding them.

A Lament for D’Jadaka

Erik Killmonger, D’Jadaka rejects the idea of accommodating solely to white people’s sensitivities, and that is why he strikes a chord within so many black people. An inheritor of a broken American Dream, he is not apologetic in speaking to the desperation and suffering of people in his hood. He has never seen the institutions of his country benefit people like him, and so he demands them to be torn down and rebuilt. He sees the dead body and is tired of it being ignored.

The expression of his rage contains problems (I don’t think arming all black people and killing “all our oppressors and their children” is the answer when racism is so embedded into our social, political and psychological frameworks); however, that does not absolve us of the responsibility to approach the sources of his pain with integrity and with love. We can seek the Eriks of the world like Jesus did. We can wrestle with what they share with us and receive them without trying to speak over them as if we know what they’re talking about better than they do (T’Challa learned this lesson by the end).

The discourse of Christian lament in America is relegated to the meditative and solemn, meant for candle vigils, quiet tears, and special services. It pleads for unity without any of the effort to see the depth of our (America’s) wounds. And so is there a place in the Church for black rage? Not much of it right now, but there should be. 

The Two Days Between

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The Funeral of Stephon Clark

When I heard Stephon Clark was shot, there was no Wakanda to retreat to. The tears were ugly, the weariness unbearable. And for many black people experiencing that loss, there is not always a church willing to receive them as they are: grieving. I know I hesitate to open up about it because previous examples suggest that the rage I feel about Stephon’s murder will be offensive to many White Christians. If they grappled with the pain alongside me, it would invite a whole host of other issues to deal with, including the devastating notion that their worldview may in error and their Whiteness is part of a bigger problem. Who would willingly go through that kind of suffering with me?

Someone who loves you. Someone like Jesus.

Yesterday we acknowledged Good Friday, the day another man was murdered and laid out for public view. A man who willingly died not because we were good, but because while we were sick, he loved us.We sit now in the two days in-between. As a Christian, I know we are guaranteed the Resurrection, and yet we are given two days to mourn the body. We are given two days to diagnose what killed the body, and the Gospel invites us to mourn the conditions of the human heart (sin) and the poisons in our society that contributed to that person’s death–Jesus’ death.

This is our story of redemption, and because the dawn of the Resurrection is guaranteed, we should be lavishing even more grace and patience upon those who suffer in the days between the Resurrection and the final coming of Christ. Since we don’t have a timeline charting the end of racism, the rage of marginalized peoples must matter to us. Their rage reminds all of us of the deeply-rooted evils still at work among us, that the world is still not as it should be. As truth-seekers we should demonstrate a compassionate curiosity to understand what fuels that rage rather than fixating on our discomfort with it. That is putting our neighbor before ourselves.

The fires of our neighbors’ rage illuminate the wrongs still to be righted, and it will not allow us the privilege of complacency when there are more bodies to mourn. As those seeking to love like Jesus, we are called to nothing less.

going global

These days, it’s easy to be a “citizen of the world.” Within a minute, I scan storm updates for the Caribbean on Twitter, get an email alert from one of my French advisees, and dig into a burrito from the joint next door as I sit in a dress made in El Salvador. Without breaking a sweat, I participate in a network of nations I may never physically step into. And if I’m feeling extra-cosmopolitan, I can add a filter to my Facebook profile picture to showcase my support for the most recent country facing disaster. I could even send money to them.

Sarcasm aside, this is not to say we are all laissez-faire in the way we approach global issues, but we should acknowledge we have a low bar to jump when it comes to being interconnected with the rest of the world. We simply are and always have been. And when disaster and controversy strikes, it often shakes us enough to start reevaluating our borders. Then we can decide whether to huddle within them or reach out to the people on the other side–or reform the borders altogether.

Borders perplex me because when you really think about it, they are so antithetical to how human identity and living works. We literally have these lines on a map that some powerful people decided would separate where I belong from all that is Foreign. In one sense I get it: as humans, we block information, people into categories to order our understanding of the world. On the other hand, I keep asking: When we live in a country created by and composed of people from the entire globe, what are America’s borders?

In a childhood bookmarked with Melting Pot coloring pages and Diversity Day fairs, I found myself confused by this question of borders when I asked my white classmates about their background, and they answered: “I’m just American.” I never answered with “American” first when asked the same question (which I was–constantly) because I had become conditioned to respond with my racial and ethnic identities first. People were not looking for or expecting me to say I was American first. I wasn’t white, and so it felt like my peers wanted to figure out the foreignness in me before placing me safely in the “American” category.

Even in elementary school, it was made clear to me that despite our professed love for diversity, Americans are selectively global. Not only that, we only seem to embrace our global identity when it either suits our economic interests or preserves our image as a beautifully inclusive and mixed nation.

The increasing use of rhetoric that champions the cause of “Made in America” and “America First” offers striking evidence of this posture. With each new Executive Order, our national gaze draws further inwards as we anxiously survey our borders, afraid that the threats out there have already infiltrated our land and must be purged.

Why? Because there is the American identity (“the” not “an”), the purest notion of what it means to be an American–and the people we fear don’t fit into it.

No one will say outright that “Being American means you’re white and have lived here for 7 generations,” but our history as a country reinforces this definition of American identity as the norm. Newly-instated policies are preceded by other attempts to reconfigure who deserves to count as American, some of the earliest being the Naturalization Act of 1790 (citizenship limited to white persons) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which lasted a decade and gave way to other stigmas).

Suggestions to accept more Norwegians over African immigrants provoke deja vu when you remember that white-passing Cuban elites were airlifted to America first during Fidel Castro’s regime while poor brown and black Cubans were over-represented among the “Marielitos” fleeing on homemade boats. (La Lucha for Cuba: Religion and Politics on the Streets of Miami by Miguel de LaToree sheds light on this dynamic). Our country has made it pretty clear in the past what immigrants are undesirable.

Our hyphenated labels also index what we value, separating the “regular” Americans from those who are conspicuous: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Arab-Americans, etc. The Unhyphenated become the standard, and their legitimacy as citizens, residents is rarely questioned. Whiteness buys you this buffer: your lack of hyphen projects that you have deep roots in this country, worked hard to earn your place here, and followed the law like an upright model of the American Dream (unless you have a noticeable accent that isn’t posh or sexy–there you’re edging a little too close to being “ethnic”).

Awareness of this standard grows when you examine its inverse: the Hyphenated.  In contrast to American residents deemed White, those classified with hyphenated identities are reflexively set at a distance. They aren’t in our murals of Americana, ploughing fields, building skyscrapers, and dancing under red, white, and blue. Their belonging is not secure, and our well-chronicled efforts to get rid of our undesirables prove it.

We prove it when we criminalize those of Latin American descent even as wring profit from them. We prove it when we reduce Asian immigrants to accents and stereotypes, casting them as foreigners when many have roots here for the same 7 generations as many White Americans. We prove it when we insinuate that Black Americans-some immigrants who moved here and others descended from peoples forcibly brought here-still need to prove themselves worthy and polite enough for their lives to be equally valued and defended. We prove it when we say nothing as our president diminishes the humanity of immigrants and signs order after order shoving out peoples who traveled here as long as decades ago to seek asylum, prosperity, and, ultimately, another home.

In America, we internalize suspicion towards people in the hyphen, people who are visibly non-White. Even if they play by our rules, their loyalty is constantly questioned, their every action representative of a whole population still being assessed as worthy. A Muslim woman wearing a hijab must prove what she isn’t (a terrorist) before proving what she is (an American). And even then, the security of that identity is never assured. If one person in her community missteps, the whole group suffers the fallout. White Americans get to be individuals; everyone else needs to maintain the goodwill towards their people group lest the tides change again.

The kindly image of the Melting Pot is replaced by the series of hurdles to jump over before you can even enter the pot. Then you will be allowed to keep your color, maybe a few trinkets of your culture (because in America we love to collect the exotic things of others), and then make the highly recommended and profitable choice to melt away into AMERICA. Whiteness determines how many ties to the countries outside of American borders you will be allowed to hold onto. Too much and the purity of the pot’s mixture gets diluted.

“But that’s not what America is!” you tell me, and after all, I live in New York City and see the evidence of a very different country teeming with people from all over the world with all their garb, practices, and languages. So if we have these proud beacons of multiculturalism right in the U.S.A., why this concern about policing each others’ American-ness?

Our anxiety remains because America is positioned as a White nation, not a global one.

We are caught in a disturbing paradox when we can declare we care for the poor in Africa, the trafficked in India, the homeless in the Caribbean and Mexico hit by storm after storm and remain conveniently silent when our national leaders tell us our neighbors from those “shithole” places are dangerous. Rather than wrestling with the multiplicity of our national identity, we build walls, deport even once-legal residents, and shun refugees. We are reactive instead of curious about how people come here and deeply ignorant of how America’s historic actions often contribute to migration because of the harm we have caused other nations (the book Harvest of Empire by Juan Gonzalez speaks to the stories connecting Latin America and the US).

This is how we counteract the narrative that America is a pure nation whose heritage must be enshrined in glass: we reject the call to prioritize American self-interests when “just American” is only a synonym for White. White Americans must examine the sense of entitlement that results in the racialized picking and choosing of who can come to our national table. True equity-building will require the humility of those who are racially and/or economically privileged to accept the invitation to the tables of marginalized peoples and collaborate with them.

When this happens, our political actions, even our conversations with friends, begin to rise above the charged rhetoric that splits our country into “conservatives” and “liberals.” We linger in the tension of tougher questions: how to exercise compassion and mercy towards people different from me, how to be faithful in stewarding our country’s resources, how to take ownership of wrongs committed against other nations.

And this question above all: what borders of the heart determine the ones of the soil? If my heart has already decided to shut certain people out, I will not permit them into my house. I will not call them American. I will not call them my sister or brother.

The borders our nation has laid out, however you feel about them, are eclipsed by the borderless love of Christ. This does not negate the need for national security nor the pressing interest for economic stability; instead, Christ’s love positions all other concerns in hierarchy under the commandment to love and delight in our neighbors without preexisting conditions. We begin here, and our vision of our diverse country clarifies and gains durability. We begin here, and our steps forward will dignify each other rather than divide us from each other.

Americans’ selective globality renders us incapable of envisioning a country where cooking jollof rice and arroz con pollo and curry chicken and hot dogs are all deeply and equally American. Not ethnic, not niche–American.  As Moana’s father tells her in the movie: “Our people are not out there–they are right here.”

The world isn’t just out there in the places where people send aid and missionaries. It’s not limited to the places that resource our coffee and bananas and cell phone parts. The world is right here in America, spilling over our borders and reminding us that if we say we are “global citizens,” we must also choose to be accountable to the people our lives touch everyday and share this land with us. 

do it again, do it again

New recipe. New job. New shoes. New movement. New haircut. New leader. New year.

We love beginnings–I love them. There’s a giddiness to that first step, leap, and bound. Possibilities ahead, the disappointments of the past cast behind, and you plan and dream for that dewy, shining land stretched before you, waiting to be conquered.

I remember when I started my first full-time job last fall, how I scrambled out of my blankets before the alarm went off and paced back-and-forth at the train stop, thrilled to begin another day. I tacked sheet after sheet of paper above my desk, scrawling all over them with new ideas to improve school programming, bright blue diagrams and arrows pointing to the results of yet another brainstorming session over lunch.

I remember how those first months took organic shape, how I knew with bone-deep certainty that I was in the right place and the work was a natural fit.

Looking back upon this year, I can see how the months have worn into me like denim taking the sun’s beating, changing color over time. Mistakes made (mine), emails piling, student crises spiking, spreadsheets looming, and more mistakes chafe at the mystique and wonder of a new job until you start having those moments where you need reminding of why you’re there.

It’s easy to fixate on everything that went wrong or was lacking. It seems to be human nature that we inflate our failures and linger in our losses. January 1st appeals to us because it’s our reset button: we get to start over. But how long does that anticipation nurse us before bad news, boredom, or just sheer doneness sets in again?

I don’t want to start 2018 the same way I started 2017–or frankly, the way I start most things. In the past, I would hinge all my hopes on the list of goals I drew up and sailed through the initial days, expecting that everything will be different once the clock struck twelve. Then when things got hard, when I found myself caught in the same routines, I got tired and those dreams collected dust, discarded as winter rolled on.

There are reasons for this weariness. 2017 has been a year where I’ve seen the division of my country sharpen and splinter. It’s been a year of destructive storms and shootings and conversations cut off. It’s been a year of uncertainty and unjust laws. It’s been a year of crying, raging against the same problems. It’s been a year where we all got tired of the daily grind and the daily headlines.

But as I prepare now for 2018, here’s the difference from December 31st, 2016: it’s no longer only about beginnings. 

Yes, the first day of January comes, symbolic and stainless. But for everything else outside the calendar box…it continues. The struggles of the previous year and years are still there, the hurt is still-deep-in there, the living people who matter to us are still there, and the work in our hands is still there. They may have lost their glamour and we may have lost our fire, but that doesn’t mean we stop there and pretend we can start again from a vacuum.

No, we build upon what we had before, and above pursuing the changes we want to see in ourselves and in the world, we pursue Christ first, who orients us to rightly engage all other things of weight. This is persistence: instead of only chasing the attraction of the new we can accomplish, we continue to labor in the soil where God has strategically placed us to bring renewal. 

We invite God to extend our vision and work through us so we not only think of “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy” as Philippians 4:8 invokes, but our daily actions and choices will also testify to all facets of God’s glory.

The words of Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton in his work Orthodoxy come to mind now, words shared with me during a Faith and Work class I took a few months ago:

“Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

These words resonated powerfully with me when I first heard them, speaking to me in midst of the sleep-deprived doldrums of my work. They refreshed my soul then, and I offer them to you now as a reminder that a year cannot be defined solely by the mountaintop experiences of our greatest successes and milestones, but rather by every single seemingly-mundane moment in the valleys between them. 

It’s hard to move forward and know that even while you work towards the growth and change that is needed, there are many things around you that will remain. There will be emails to address and political reps to call and protest signs to make and meals to cook and friends to pray for and meetings to attend and headlines to grieve and alarms to answer. But I invite us to move boldly through these everydays not with grimness and resignation, but with confidence and compassion, knowing God already goes before us.

We get to choose everyday to work with everything we’ve been given, love with all our God-given capacity, and build slowly towards dreams that cannot be contained within a day, a year. We live and endure along a road to eternity where even our routines are worship to God.

I take ownership of what has been laid in my hands and the burdens laid on my heart. I confess my passivity, my pride, and my fear that prevent me from taking a stand and trusting God to sustain me through the struggles and hard work to come. I confess this and lay it before God-knowing I’ll be tested in these areas again and again-with this declaration: I am not a static character in a stale book. No, I am changing and learning as I endure the long race, mirroring my Savior who endured the cross to scorn its shame and bring freedom. So I’ll wake up and go to work and write about racism and check in on my friends and pay bills and plan events and thank God for it all.

I realize now that I didn’t write as much this year, and while I could feel guilty about that, I won’t fixate on things not done. A new year comes, and with faith, with hope, I will keep going. For me, exercising persistence will involve everyday choices to pray, research, and write. I will continue as a scholar, servant and advocate, acknowledging that the capacity for blessing others through these roles is only fully realized when I pursue Christ first.

Persistence fueled by divine hope shatters unjust strongholds and welds communities together where there was once estrangement and ignorance. It illuminates, clarifies, and clears a way for a world still waiting, still yearning to unfold.

Wake up tomorrow and do it again. Do it again, do it again, and watch the world change with you.

Thanks for reading, commenting, and reflecting with me in 2017. I hope alongside you for the new year, and I look forward to continuing together. 

being ethnic: part II

Read part I here

In middle school, there was this expensive Japanese procedure that promised to straighten your hair–permanently. It was trending among some of the girls in my class, and I remember when the girl who sat next to me in Social Studies had it done. Her hair flipped over her shoulder, glossy and gleaming and smooth in a streamlined shape. I started to fantasize about my hair looking the same way, liberated from the frustrated tangle of curls that got too frizzy in the humidity and were just overall too big and wild. My hair didn’t cling to my face gently like the hair of my white friends or drape in loose, soft curls down my back.

Nope. My rebellious strands were determined to explode out of my scalp, reaching out to the air at all angles. Since apparently my hair wouldn’t cooperate with my noble efforts to blend in better with my classmates (thanks again Hair), I tried other ways of standing out…less. I wore muted pastels when it wasn’t spring. I smeared that awful Limited Too roll-on glitter gel onto my cheeks (popular then but ultimately a bad life decision). I stayed quiet in class, eyes on the paper in front of me.

Despite these efforts, I remained-to my dismay-blatantly different. I was curvier, curlier, and considerably browner, and not in a lotion-tan-from-summer way. People already commented on how exotic my sister and I looked–so I finally decided by the end of high school that’s what I would be. I would be mezclada (mixed) and wear it as a badge. There was no point in fighting it anymore.

Hands positioned on my hips, I twisted my tongue to sound “ghetto,” brash and sassy and defiant in ways I couldn’t dare be otherwise. I dropped references to “my culture” into conversation, helped by my leadership roles in our Latino heritage club and attendance at other “ethnic” soirees. By my first year in college, I was blaring merengue in my room and wrapping my body in bright colors and patterns, coordinating and clashing and stepping out of my dorm determined to be noticed.

I zipped myself into the costume of the Other, slipped into it any moment I felt out of place. At least if I exaggerated my difference from my peers, it was my choice rather than being made an anomaly and feeling hyper-conscious of my race when I was the only person of color in the room (which was often in a white-majority college). There was a certain headiness, a power in walking through campus with tribal prints on my back and wooden earrings large enough to scrape my shoulders. I wore diversity on my arms, all flavor and spice and inescapable brightness–and I would never be called white inside.

It was a performance. Not all of it, because part of me genuinely experimented with my blackness, figuring out what could feel natural to me. But somehow I had gone from an exercise in self-exploration to making my ethnicity, my race an idol. I craved the comments, the praise my perceived exoticism won me because for once I controlled the narrative of how I was seen. I was no longer the awkward mixed girl from the suburbs whose blackness and Latina-ness felt inadequate and inauthentic. Using my clothes, my hair, my voice, and my embrace of my communities’ historical suffering, I staked my place as a Cool Minority. I belonged.

Once, I wanted to de-ethnicize myself. Now I was in danger of making my ethnicity the only thing of value I had. My frustration took fire because I was tired, so tired, of seeing  whiteness as the norm on TV, in school, and so I centered myself on the defiant resilience of people who looked like me and the cultures born and shaped out of our marginalization. Ironically, in challenging the sway of racism over me, I found my vision dominated and shrunken by the effort of resisting it because I still tethered my worth to my racial identity.

Black is beautiful and latinidad is pride, but they are not God.

I can’t point to the moment where I realized this, when I saw how far my pendulum had swung to the extreme. My gaze cleared, clarified, and I saw my efforts for what they were: a defense mechanism. I had hid my hurt deep under the celebration of my cultures and the defense of them against injustice. I hid it deep enough to believe that I was taking ownership of my racial identities when in reality…I just felt lacking. I had never been dissoluble in white spaces, but I didn’t feel fully integrated when with people of color either.

There is a keen sense of tragedy in living as a slave to insecurity when you are a daughter, received and loved exactly as you are. I needed to be reminded that I wasn’t just born with brown skin and curly hair and with a family whose heritage spans continents–I was designed with all of this.

God intentionally made me brown and black and called it beauty because he is the originator and source of Beauty. He made me knowing how the world I was born into would constantly cast my value into doubt. He has crafted my story even through the lies I’ve believed and the ways I’ve tried to grasp my own power and maintain it. I still forget so often that I serve the one Most Powerful, one who has already given me access to power and hope and a future free from pleasing others because of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross.

My world needs to be less Afro-centric and more Savior-centric because I’ve been saved by Christ to recognize the inherent value in the cultures that have shaped me and the dignity of not only my ethnic communities, but also my Euro-American sisters and brothers. When that is my anchor, I am actually truly free to take ownership of my story still unfolding.

So what does it mean to be ethnic? From the still-distorted lens of my racialized country, it means you’re not white, you’re not one thing, you’re not categorizable. You are framed as desirable for having “culture,” but you will always be foreign. Your story will be forced into archetypes and tropes to make your identity accessible to white people.

But I’m not black, Latina, mixed in the ways I thought I had to be. I didn’t grow up with rap or hip-hop; I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish; I didn’t grow up tortured over a splintered racial identity.

I did grow up in a grassy suburb where my best friends were white and I loved them. I did have lunches of Costco freebies and went to pottery painting birthday parties and wore flared jeans and my mother’s colored blazers. I did dance to 80s pop music by myself in the kitchen and warbled Motown duets with my father. I did go to Civil Rights museums and Disney World. I did let my hair grow even when I didn’t know how to take care of it. I did visit my Abuela in the Bronx and go on picnics with Cubano sandwiches and batida de mango. I did watch Sister, Sister and Star Wars, and High Noon because my parents wanted us to get the references dropped in newspaper articles and fancy parties. I did learn to dance bachata and went home to eat curry chicken and rice and peas.

My story is not “ethnic.” It’s normal–complicated and imperfect, but normal. It always has been.

(so is yours) 

 

#metoo

I cheered when Diana Prince climbed the trench ladder and walked onto the battlefield. Incoming bullets smashed her steel wrist-plates and flew apart as her arms raised to meet them, and in that moment I think a lot of women felt a jolt of validation as we watched her charge forth across No Man’s Land.

Only a week later, I was walking along a sidewalk in West Harlem to pick up dinner, glancing at my phone here and there to check if I was going the right way (my friends know my sense of direction is…severely limited), and then my eyes flicked back up, catching something before my mind could compute it. Then it registered that my path forward had just narrowed. My eyes traced the lines of men framing both sides of the walkway, lounging, chatting, eating, and already I felt my heartbeat accelerate.

The space in the middle seemed to constrict, forming a tighter and tighter V, and I had seconds to make a choice. I could weave around to cross the street and keep going from there. I’d done that in the past where I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. This time I steeled myself, trapped in my stuttered breath and tried to keep my pace even–and I walked forward.

My gaze fixed on the corner bodega on the other side, and I tried to focus on anything, anything but the weight of eyes sliding over my body and the words already forming in the mouths of those who would judge it.

Hey sweetie. Lookin’ good. Sexy. Hey honey. Nice ass. Nice. Nice. 

Worse were the appraising nods I could sense but not see, but the corner was approaching and I was almost there, almost there–THERE! It was over. I made it. I let myself exhale but stayed vigilant, my eyes already on another group of men two blocks ahead.

I wonder now if No Man’s Land only exists in wars and myths because from what I could see as I navigated the sidewalks in NYC, everywhere is All Man’s Land.

What I don’t think a lot of men realize is that their bodies take up space in this land differently than my woman’s body does. Anyone can be a victim of crime on the street, anyone can be harassed, but when my body, presented as woman, walks through New York City, the space then made available to me targets its vulnerability–my vulnerability. That vulnerability is intensified by my identity as a woman of color because now I have this idea of the “exotic” attached to my body as well, a label that gives others license to define my sexuality and take advantage of it. This reminds me that more times than not, I will need to be hyper-conscious of the way I move through spaces dominated by men and prepare myself for all the ways it can go wrong.

I learned as a brown girl in a predominately white middle school that even in spaces where the gender demographics seem pretty equal, things can go wrong. I learned this when a white boy reached out his hand to grab my butt, smacked it, laughed, and then sauntered off through the hallway because he had nothing to be ashamed of. I stood still, mind blank, not sure of what to think or feel, not even later when I told the vice principal and she fluttered about me in distress, trying to get to the bottom of it. They never found him.

They never find a lot of them–the men who hurt my sisters, the ones who harass them, assault them, linger in the memories they try to forget, the ones who expose the grim reality that the space we take up is often less valued because the anxiety and pain that comes with it goes unacknowledged and unaddressed. I can only speak for myself and what I’ve seen and experienced, but I know of the stories of deep pain that were not trusted to be legitimate. I know of stories where my sisters did not know comfort, did not know justice. We all do. They may take up the space of a news byline for a day, but that is not enough. It never is.

I believe we have been created in God’s image and cherished as such, and I am disturbed when the dignity of that is threatened. We should not be in a land where I am used to having my body inspected and commented on by men, where I am expected to respond to their “praise” with smiles because I’ll be seen as ungrateful or rude if I don’t. We should not be in a land where the weight of this expectation compresses our space, inhibits us from moving fully within the freedom God intended us for.

And this space isn’t always physical. You only need to look at the way we talk about women in the media because apparently if we talk frankly about these things we’re framed as crazy, emotional, bossy, demanding liars in the workplace and in the home who want too much and hate men. I’m not even going to dignify the latter with more words than it deserves.

To present as woman involves this unspoken demand by society to tuck yourself in and resign yourself to the space allotted to you. I am to accept the space between the walls of catcalled words and reaching hands and should not expect or ask for more. I should not expect to take up more space in a conversation with a group of men without being interrupted or questioned. I should not expect to challenge attitudes that feed into rape culture and win.

I am expected to fear nights (and days) walking alone and carrying pepper spray and my mother’s stories.

But the God I serve did not design me to settle for fists clenched in fear, eyes averted, and a mouth clamped closed. I was born into a minefield with a desperate need for #metoo, but I’ve been liberated by Christ to be a conqueror, wondrous and woman all at once.

Charge into this truth together. There is much to conquer, and we need each other.

storm progression 

I saw a spider once. I was 14, absently pushing the lawnmower forward across my front yard, and then I froze. A web hung only inches from my face, suspended between the spiked branches of a fir tree. And there it was–the spider. The size of a glass bead, it watched me with a dozen black eyes that dared me to step closer.

Pincers whirling as they wrapped the mummified remains of a now-silent mosquito, the spider showed no awkwardness as its legs flit along its geometric net. The strands caught the dim afternoon light and became silver, and in that moment I forgot ever learning that only giants-the big and strong-deserve mention. Here was a tiny spider holding court on a kingdom of thread, and its every movement resonated as a defiance of gravity.

It probably felt the drops before I did. They began in whispers, falling through the fog that thickened the air, making every breath more labored than before. A drop fell here and there, dampening my jeans in spotted patterns.

It lay in wait for several seconds. Then the rain pounced, bulleting my skin, water dragging my hair down in tangled wet ropes. I fought to keep my head up as the rain roared, the threat of thunder bristling within now glowering clouds. No light remained, and still I stood there, hovering over the spider.

Legs only flickers in the gloom, the spider darted in circles, spinning defenses into every line that tied the web to the tree. But there was no way to evade the drops, no way to diminish their weight, and with another roar the wind soon joined them. The web swung and shook as the wind hammered it, and through the slit of my eyes still open, I saw the spider center itself in the web and go still. The clouds sagged further and unloaded their wet wreckage upon us, muffling a teenager’s prayers for a spider’s survival.

I don’t remember what happened next. Maybe I returned to the warmth of my house and wrung out my wet clothes. Maybe I stayed longer. But I remember the spell of watching the spider, palms slick and grasped together as I waited in the dark to see if it would hold on.

A childhood of Animal Planet documentaries taught me that the world is treacherous. A sudden surge of rain can rip a creature’s home apart, ending lives in an instant. But pain, tragedy, can also be an insidious slow crawl. It starts with whispered hints of wetness, innocuous, soft, cleansing. Then it builds and builds, saturating the earth until it’s drowning and choking the air until finally all you see are walls of water crashing around you. And sometimes…it’s both at once. Sometimes it depends on who is the spider and who is the one watching.

That is how oppression works. It’s not one incident, one blatant display of violence. It’s in the murmurings about “those people,” the slipping away of black people from neighborhoods they once lived in for decades, the slow encroachment of hotels and chain restaurants on indigenous land. It’s in the measured accumulation of choices that prioritize the interests and livelihoods of the chosen groups over the less favored.

This is the hardest part for the privileged to grasp: the rain that parches their thirst and feeds their fields can be the threat of drowning for a spider.

Certain storms pass (hey we don’t have segregated bathrooms anymore!), but the additional danger rain presents is that it can oh so easily wipe away all the evidence of what happened before, giving us license to pretend that we don’t walk upon soiled ground.

We could pretend for years that we have progressed differently than we have, and that we have become all-enlightened in that span.

We have progressed. We have progressed from Mamies to the black nannys I see pushing strollers of white toddlers through Washington Square Park. We have progressed from plantations to prisons where black bodies outnumber white by a nearly 5 to 1 ratio. We have progressed from ni***rs to thugs as names to frame our undesirables. We have progressed from auction block sketches to our body parts partitioned and sold in the form of butt lifters and lip plumpers and tanning lotions. We have progressed from lynchings to black boys left bleeding out on streets because they still looked too threatening to be given the benefit of the doubt.

Rain is recycled, moving from pools and reservoirs to the well of mouths and then back to earth and returned to cloud. In a similar way, oppression (simply put: the unjust and often exploitative systematic treatment of a group of people for the benefit of another group) is recycled. It takes new forms, finds new ways to seep into the next generation, and it feels utterly normal…except to the ones who feel the wetness as a threat rather than a giver of life.

But here is where the analogy ends: unlike rain, the repetition of oppressive forces like racism is not natural. It is deeply unnatural as it is a distortion of the intimate community God designed us for. As a friend put it to me: It is “incompatible with the Gospel” many of consider our core truth, yet it is diffused into our everyday life because our world is imperfect. With each new history I learn, I realize how long and wearying this constant threat towards your personhood must be for the people who have lived to see the same patterns emerge in the next generation.

This is not to say that nothing has changed: I sit here typing as a black and Latina woman, educated with a Master’s degree, and I sit on buses with white neighbors and walk through the city most days after sundown. My sister is happily married to a white man who cherishes her; my brother is studying engineering. We are our ancestors’ great hope.

Yet this coexists with the reality that racism and its foundation in white supremacy very much persist in our country (and globally I might add). I may not fear sundown, but many with my skin color fear what will happen their children when hooded and playing after dark. I may have an advanced degree, but I have also been in schools in the South Bronx where too many black girls and boys sleep in a shelter or have a family member who is incarcerated. Interracial marriage is embraced far more easily now, but my darker-skinned sisters are still not approached as equally beautiful, equally desirable, and not defined solely in terms of their strength and stoicism and sass.

As a member of communities in my country that face these struggles, standing through a storm means I hold two truths in tandem and in tension:

  • The first is that you stand on a home, the good things that have been crafted from the labors of those you came before you. They toiled for your benefit so you can live out their unrealized dreams, and opportunity is more available for you now than they could have ever imagined. There is hope wedded to that reality, that there is much for you to receive and then also so much more for you to give back so others can be lifted too.
  • The second is that you stand under threat from the same forces of division and loss and death that your ancestors faced. It can be demoralizing and so, so tiring to feel unsafe within your skin and feel like you are crying out for an end to the injustice and few people around you are listening or are willing to stand by you. Whether you stay quiet or scream out, seeing the evidence that your people have been positioned as less valued in your country is a very real and daily hurt.

But there is this: there is also progression when you are in motion as the rain falls. Despair paralyzes our movement-and how tempting it can be-but when you have hope tethered to a truth outside of yourself, you will not crash to the ground. I believe I have found that hope in Jesus Christ, and the only reason I can challenge what is evil and wrong in this world is because he loves me and cares about all those things too–and definitely more than I am capable of. 

Sometimes getting up each day with a prayer on your lips and your eyes open is an act of defiance. Sometimes watching the news, having a conversation with a friend, going to work the next day is an echo of resilience. Helplessness is an easy sinkhole when you are struck just how much pain is around you; I felt it many moments these past weeks as I watched the events in Charlottesville, in Texas unfold. It feels sometimes like I am doing the bare minimum by just waking up and mentioning these, but if the alternative is checking out entirely, then I choose to give what God enables me to give.

I want to end by affirming you, my sisters and brothers who are black, for weathering the storm–not because you are heroic or romantic or tragically noble, but because you are making choices each day to keep going.

I affirm you for choosing to get up each morning, even if you find yourself too heavy-hearted to walk out the door or too tired to watch the news again as you head to work.

I affirm you for teaching in schools where others might have have given up on the “bad kids” and fighting for those children.

I affirm you for building friendships outside of your race, for intentionally reaching out to build bridges even when it’s hard to share your stories or keep explaining how real racism is for you.

I affirm you for forgiving those who hurt you, even if they never understand why the impact of their actions looms larger than their individual selves.

I affirm you for creating hair products that embrace our God-given features and clothing that connects us to homelands we were taken from and homelands we migrated from.

I affirm you for studying our histories so you can shed light on what’s been hidden.

I affirm you for listening to your friends when they are depressed and angry–and for laughing with them and celebrating good times together.

I affirm you for challenging the powerful through your voices and essays and blog posts, for preaching resistance and lament and reconciliation to your communities when bitterness and separation would be so much more bearable.

I affirm you for hugging your kids and telling them they are precious.

I affirm you for cleaning our buildings and restaurants and parks and making at least a few spaces cleaner than what the world would abandon them to be.

I affirm you for staying on top of not only what’s in the world news, but also what’s happened down the street from you–for cherishing the local and making it matter.

I affirm you for celebrating the diversity of us, whether that be from the Caribbean or West and East Africa, or from distant parts of Europe and Asia, or a line of ancestors rooted in this very soil.

And I affirm you for resisting the rain and declaring: “This day it must end.” It may not stop with that charge, but neither will it dampen the ground where you take space and keep it dry.