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…About Last Night

Last night didn’t go the way I would have hoped.  It was like watching one of my beloved sports teams lose in double overtime.  The one thing I hate about late night competitions is that when they are done, win or lose, after a close battle my body is flowing with adrenaline and it’s next to impossible for me to sleep.  Last night was that and more.  I couldn’t sleep.  I was anxious.  I was scared.  I was sad.  I was shocked.  I was angry.  I was consumed by what I was thinking and feeling.

At 3:30 am I heard the TV on in the living room.  I assumed someone left it on so I got up and went down the stairs to the living room expecting to find an empty room.  Instead, on the couch, wide awake was my 16 year old son.  He was watching CNN and the election results.  I was still encased in my own fog to say much and retreated back to my bed to continue to sort out what this means.

I sat in my bed paging through Facebook hoping that sleep would descend upon me.  As I did I saw several posts from both my sons who were heartbroken about the results of the election.  My eldest was unfriending a friend on Facebook who turned a Trump win in to an indictment against Black Lives Matter.  I wasn’t sure how one related to the other, but it didn’t matter.  Before the election was officially called one of my son’s fears was realized.  Someone from the other camp fresh off of a win felt the need to proclaim, “this win is proof that you don’t matter.”  I didn’t know what to say or do to comfort my son.

My youngest was posting on Facebook how fearful he is now of how this new change would affect him, his young friends of color, his Muslim friends, woman and girls.  I didn’t know what to say or do to comfort my son.

After two hours of sleep I woke up earlier than usual and again paged through Facebook and post after post I saw parents who are raising children of color all say the same thing.  “How do I tell my children about the outcome of this election?”

Last week I sat on a panel of 11 diverse inviduals as we spoke about diversity and inclusion.  I sat between a young Jewish student and a young African student.  They both spoke about how learning about their ancestry and heritage is what created a sense of pride in who they are as Jewish and African woman.  Hearing two young people share quit eloquently that if we don’t know who we come from it’s hard for us to feel pride about who we are was reassuring.

I am a child of color who was raised by white parents and I have taken on some of my parent’s White Privilege.  My wife, a black woman raised by black parents, shakes off injustices much better than I do.  My white privilege has convinced me that I have every right to what everyone else is afforded.  My wife was raised with the understanding that we are part of an unfair system so when disappointment comes you may pause but only momentarily.  The next morning we must forge forward; justice is not a given.

It is with this mentality that generations of blacks have gotten up after what appeared to be a devastating death blow.   Today I tell my children that this is the bloodline that you have inherited.  We have endured worse yet we still stand.  We have been spat on, sprayed with fire hoses, bitten by police dogs and yet we rise.  So pause but don’t break.  That is not what you came from and there are generations who are calling you to get up.  You are descended from royalty and royalty doesn’t bow.  Stand tall my sons.   You are strong, you are valuable, you are priceless, and you are worthy.  This is a lesson in who you come from and through this set back you can find pride in who you are as a person.

Grieving

Grief-Quotes-58Over the past week I have avoided this blog post.  Just didn’t have the energy to move my fingers across the keyboard.  I can’t run from it and writing helps me process things and for my mental health I need to process this lump in my chest.  I gotta get it out, gotta purge my system of this toxin that has infected me.  I don’t know where to start and I don’t know what to address or what to say or how to say so I just sat down and let the writer in me write.  My 7th grade English teacher, Mrs. Scharfenberg would be disappointed in my grammar and punctuation but processing such a great loss leaves little energy for editing.

I’m sick….and tired.  I’m sick of the new hash tags, the new names I have to memorize and make a point to remember.  I add to the long unbearable list Alton and Philando.  I’ve watched the videos and watched their lives burn out on the small screen of my Iphone.  The emotions are familiar and the process is the same.  I see it, watch it, ingest it and move on.  I’m numb to it for a day or two and then out of nowhere the mourning begins.  Last week was a tough week because I had to mourn the loss of two who could have been me, two people who could be my sons.  I remind myself to stop the thinking process at myself.  Those two men could have been me…I have to consciously leave my sons out of it; Can’t let my stream of consciousness go down that tributary.

I wonder what Alton and Philando were thinking.  Did they realize they were dying.

I am sick and tired.

I did this for Trayvon, and young Tamir.  I wondered if they knew they were dying after they had been shot.  Did they realize they would expire with their loved ones away from them unaware of what was happening to them?    I shut that off as well.  It’s too painful….too familiar.  I managed to remain numb for about a day.

On the way to work I turn on the radio hoping to hear someone speak to what I’m feeling.  I turn on the Steve Harvey morning show hoping to get the balm I need to put on my wounds.  They play Marvin Gay’s song, “What’s going on?”  I like Marvin’s calming voice and I drive to work on cruise set exactly to the speed limit.  Marvin wrote this song in the ‘60s in response to all that was going on then.  It’s a good song with some distance so I can just sing and stay numb and not feel the past 2 days.  Then his words strike me.   “Mother, mother, mother there’s far too many of you crying.  Brother brother, brother there’s far too many of you dying…”  Those words shatter my numb exterior and the flashes of Alton and Philando rush back to me.    The video of Alton’s sobbing 15 year old son and Philando’s  crying girlfriend swarm in to my head and I crack no longer numb to the feelings that erupt and pour out of my eyes.  I weep and mourn for the lost lives of two more like me.  I’m tired and it’s not even 8:00am.

I gather myself and head in to work.  I pray no one says anything or looks at me the wrong way because now that I have cried the tears have washed away the numbness and replaced it with anger.  I arrive at my cubicle and begin work in my corner 15 yards away from anyone and I’m relieved.

I work in a small company of about 100 people and I am the only Black employee.  I pray that no one says anything to me and when the day ends and no one has I am mad.  Mad because no one understands I am in mourning and need some comfort.  No one says ANYTHING about what has happened and that saddens me.

Then Dallas happens.

I pray the assassin isn’t Black but that prayer goes unanswered.  Now the familiar process in the media begins.  Microphones are shoved in the faces of Alton’s mother and Philando’s girlfriend and they are expected to call for calm.  It is their role to stop their mourning and call for peace.  Rodney King did it.  Trayvon’s parents did it, Tamir’s family did it and now it is their turn.  They step up and with grace do the expected.  They say how heartbreaking it is for the lives of 5 innocent police officers to have been lost and they call for calm.  I can’t help but wonder why no one from law enforcement stepped up the day before and said how senseless the killings of Alton and Philando were or why no one from the families of the officers are expected to speak or expected to say how heartbreaking it was that we lost the lives of these two men.  The injustice is multiplied by the imbalance which intensifies the pain.  Something else I push to the back of my brain.

Last week when re-telling my story of being born 2 weeks after the riots in Detroit  someone asked me if I thought things had gotten better since my childhood in our country.  I had to explain that I have come to the realization that about every 20-30 years we see this vicious cycle repeat.  In the late 60’s we saw it, we saw it in the early 90’s with Rodney King and we’ve seen it more recently with Trayvon,Tamir Oscar, Ranisha, Eric, Michael, John, and so many others.  But last week to me was the worst I’ve experienced and witnessed.

I’m sick.

I’m tired.

Last week felt like rock bottom.  I pray that it is.  The tragedies of the 7 lives that we lost last week have got to be the greatest depth we can reach.  From pain this red hot comes change.  I have got to believe that cause I’m sick and I’m tired and I can’t breath at a depth greater than last week.

Tamir

Tamir-Rice

He was 12
Playing with a toy
Alone in the park
They were adults
Trained in their profession
They each had a partner
He was given 2 seconds

-One one thousand-

-Two one thousand-

Before they killed him
He was alone

Holding his toy
He was 12

35 minutes in the car each morning to work.

35 minutes in the car each evening back home.

This leaves a lot of time to think. Lately in the mornings while I’m feeling the effects of my morning energy drink my mind floats around and has landed on Trayvon Martin.  The image of Trayvon with his father or the image of a close up of Trayvon’s face shows up across my mind’s movie screen. I can’t wash them from my mind. Part of me wants to and another part knows I can’t forget.

TrayTrayvon-Martin

If I sit on this memory too long, I picture Trayvon lying in the wet grass as blood and life pour out of him and I wonder how scared he must have felt; how alone he must have felt. The realization that his young life was evaporating must have been terrifying. If I sit on this memory too long, my sons replace him on the cold wet grass and that picture, that image is too much. If I sit on this memory too long the tears easily overflow my eyes and run down my cheeks.  I force myself to think about something else; to much—too sad.

His Black life mattered.

From Trayvon my thoughts take flight and land on a street corner in New York and I hear Eric Gardner say over and over, “I can’t breathe!” I recall the time when I was 10 and fell off a skateboard and knocked the wind out of myself. I remember the fear that seized me when I realized I couldn’t inhale. I wonder if that is the same feeling Eric had. I wonder if he knew death sat on the corner next to him that day.

His Black life mattered.

eric-garner

From Eric my thoughts are airborne again and land on a porch in the early morning hours in Dearborn Heights Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. There I picture Ranisha McBride knocking on a stranger’s door asking for help after she had a car accident. I wonder if she heard the gun that was fired through the screen door before she was hit in the face.

Her Black life mattered.

Renisha

My thoughts take flight again, from Ranisha to John Crawford, to Oscar Grant, to Michael Brown, to Jordan Davis, and land on young Tamir Rice. My thoughts sit on the shoulder of little Tamir and I watch him play in the lonely park. I imagine he envisions himself a police officer hunting bad guys as we swings his toy gun around. I see the police car pull up and before the car stops Tamir is dropped to the ground shot once. Another young boy on the cold ground as his young life pours out of him. Another young boy alone dying afraid, terrified, hurt, confused.

His young Black life mattered.

Tamir-Rice

All lives matter!

That is often the retort when there is a Black Lives Matter protest, or sit in or when a Facebook profile picture is changed to show support of the Black Lives Matter movement. I wonder why the retort is necessary.

From the all Lives matter retort my thoughts drift to other causes. Tomorrow starts October; Breast Cancer Awareness month. This weekend NFL players will accent their uniforms with pink to show their support. For the next four weeks attention will be drawn to  Breast Cancer and  Breast Cancer awareness. People will share stories of pain and triumph centered on  Breast Cancer but I won’t hear the retorts. Those that champion Autism or Alzheimer’s won’t defiantly say, OUR CAUSE MATTERS TOO! It won’t be said because being aware of one cause doesn’t mean other causes aren’t important. It won’t be said because saying something like that would be seen as insensitive; it would be seen as unnecessary. Of course your cause is important and by me saying my cause is important doesn’t mean other causes aren’t important.

In the conversation on race, when it doesn’t appear Black Lives are valued, when I express Black Lives Matter, an ally would simply respond, “Yes they do!” In these 6 words, all are heard and all are understood, no one is diminished, and no one’s cause trumps another.

Jordan Davis

Jordan Davis

John Crawford III

John Crawford III

Michael Brown

Michael Brown

Oscar Grant

Oscar Grant

Several times a week my family and I will catch an episode of The Family Feud, hosted by one of my favorite people, comedian Steve Harvey. @IAmSteveHarvey As we sit in our living room, we unconsciously choose sides, and root from one team over the other. In most cases, when there is a white family playing against a black family, we root for the black family. When my wife and I were talking a few weeks ago she used this as an example of bias. Initially, I was taken aback. I thought to myself, “No I am not that shallow. I root for the team who is better, who is smarter, and who has a better personality.”

TV STILL -- DO NOT PURGE -- CELEBRITY FAMILY FEUD -

But then I reviewed who I aligned with in reality shows or other competitions and she was right. The one thing that came back over and over was race. I sided with the competitors who look like me. In them I see me. I connect with them on a subconscious level which it translates to “they are better, they are smarter, and they have a better personality.” The developmental term for it is “in-group preference;” in simple terms: I prefer those in the group that represent me and attribute to them characteristics I have no way of verifying. How do I know if a family is smarter over another by watching them on TV for 10 seconds? I don’t! But I identify with them.

Bias is defined as “a preference for one thing over another.” When we are talking about a game show or a reality show my bias seems innocent and harmless. The world will not stop spinning if I think Rueben Studdard is a better singer than Clay Aiken. The world is still a safe place even if I think Serena Williams is a better tennis player than Chris Evert. In that context, when there isn’t much at risk, my bias is pretty innocent. But what if that bias bleeds in to other areas?

When I was in my early 30’s I was a mid-level manager for a large insurance company. I was responsible for hiring several new employees. There were interviews that I conducted where I felt I had a better connection with some candidates more than others. I told myself that they had a better, more outgoing personality. I told myself this person’s personality would be a better fit in our office. I told myself this person had the ability to provide better customer service. Of the candidates I hired about half of them were black.

During my training as a manager I was taught that when we hire we should try and hire a population that reflect the area where the office is located.  According to those criteria my minority hires were 30% above where they should have been. But I found ways to justify them. My justification was so layered and thick that I didn’t realize what I did until I began thinking about writing this piece 25 years after I made the hires. Even when realizing it I justified it by saying I was making up for the imbalance that was created before me. It is a sentiment that is rooted is justice but less accurate than I care to admit. In all honesty,    I found a way to make those hires work and fit.

When I was unemployed a few years ago, I sat down with the director of the human resources department at a fortune 500 company. He was a fellow church member and he agreed to help me with my interviewing skills. The first thing he told me about interviewing for a job still sticks with me.

“In the interview, you have got to get the decision maker to see you as someone they will want to spend 8 hours a day with during the week.” He told me.  He was trying to get me to see the interview from the other side of the table and he admitted a lot of the decision making process comes down to, “Do I like this person enough to spend my work day with them?” What goes into this important decision are even more questions.  Do I feel a connection with this person? Do we have anything in common? Are our experiences similar? In answering those questions, which I feel is all done subconsciously; we make a lot of assumptions based on our biases. In-group preference joins the decision making and often the people we hire are more like us than we realize. So white guys hire white guys and black-mid-level-managers hire as many like them as they can because the more people I work with like me, the quicker my 8 hours will go by.

I really don’t think the majority of people in the world are racist.   I have to believe that because that makes my life one of hope rather than despair. I think we all have biases and those biases are acted upon unconsciously. I don’t think people say, “I’m not gonna hire any Black people today!”  Rather than say, I won’t hire black people, I think many go into the hiring process hoping to be fair but are conned by their biases to hire people who are most like them; people they are comfortable around. Often times comfort is defined along racial line.

So what do we do? In the conversation around race we have to get honest and admit we have biases and then we construct a system that protects us against ourselves. In this instance, we bring in several people of different backgrounds to help in the interview process and decision making. By doing this our biases fight it out, our biases are challenged, and our biases are kept in check. Having bias I don’t think is wrong because we can’t control that. What is wrong is not admitting we have them and then allowing them to change the world….or keep it the same.

bobevans

Arriving about 30 minutes early  for my meeting I choose to run over to the Cabela’s sporting goods store nearby to marvel at the large selection of animals that are positioned in scenes that make you feel like you are in the forest, jungle, or desert. It is a treat for me to visit a store like this because I’m not a hunter. I like to explore things I’m not familiar with and I get lost in the camouflage, the deer stands, the camping gear, the meat preparation tools, and the animal traps. Before I know it I am now late for my meeting. I turn and walk briskly by the elephant, the tiger, the deer, the rams, and many animals I don’t recognize. In less than 5 minutes I arrive at Bob Evans and find my friend of over 40 years, Mike, sipping coffee and checking his phone for emails at a small table for two. We embrace with a man-hug and I sit down across from him.

We exchange stories of family, talk about our careers, share our concerns with the state of our Detroit Lions and 15 minutes evaporates before we look up. In those 15 minutes the waitress fails to stop by our table. I did notice her floating from table to table around us like a bee pollinating flower after flower but never put much weight in the lack of attention she is paying to us. I am too engrossed in catching up with a good friend. Mike notices it and points it out to me and calls the waitress over. I order an orange juice and Mike and I decide to look over the menu and advise her we need more time.

We dive back into our exchange and another 15 minutes floats by and the waitress fails to pollinate our table…again. Mike is now furious and speechless. He comment s on how attentive she was before I arrived. It must be stated that Mike is white, we are in Dundee Michigan, which is a very White city and I am black and the only person with such a rich skin tone in the restaurant. We both know why the level of service has quickly declined and neither of us is shocked. As a person of color I‘m accustomed to this type of treatment and my level of irritation is well below Mike’s. He can’t complete sentences as we talk about why we are being purposefully ignored. “Can you believe this?” He asks me. “Yep, it happens all the time. I’m used to it.” Today,  I’m not in the mood to fight it. Today, I am not in the mood to dissect it and today I just want it to go away. No matter how often it happens there’s always some element of surprise. This wasn’t something I was expecting to have served with my pancakes. I fight to not concentrate too hard on it because it has the power to ruin my day and I don’t want to concede that power today.

Mike is at a loss and upset about what is happening and feels compelled to do something. He gets up and goes to the front counter and asks for our waitress. He advises her we are ready to order. She follows him back to the table and we order. She never returns after the food comes out to check on us, refill our coffee, or ask if we need anything. Finally, when she returns to the table to drop off the bill she appears this small act is like scaling Mount Everest. The energy and attention this requires is obviously a burden to her. Mike looks at me with a look of disbelief and is once again speechless. His reflexes are still intact though because he is able to grab the bill before I do. He insists on paying and won’t let me argue.

Ironically, our purpose of the meeting was to discuss a project we were working on that had to do with the conversation of race and poverty and the effects of both. Part of me expected Alan Funt of Candid Camera or John Quinones of What Would You Do to come out. It was that over to top, that unbelievable. I was sure someone was playing a joke on us.

We both gather our keys and phones from the table and walk to the front where the cash register is located. Mike states he will meet me outside after he pays and I think this is strange and can’t help but feel dismissed. I leave, he pays and we meet out at his car. He apologizes for what happened over our pancakes and I tell him he has nothing to apologize to me for. He shares with me that he wanted me to leave so he could have a conversation with the person behind the register. He told the young lady he would not be leaving our waitress a tip because of the treatment we received. He made it clear this was obviously racially motivated and that is how we interpreted it. He shared the waitress will no doubt deny this but advised this was our experience in their establishment. When stated this way it closes the door for the typical rebuttal that would argue we misinterpreted the waitresses actions.

On the ride home I had mixed feeling about the exchange. I was upset that it happened. I was upset that this exchange tarnished an otherwise great reunion. I was upset and conflicted with what Mike did. Part of me felt small almost childlike because someone was speaking up for me and I was triying to sort out how that made me feel. Part of me felt honored that Mike choose to say something on a day where I wasn’t up for fighting it and part of me felt that I didn’t need someone to stand up for me.

Often, I get asked what Whites can do to counteract racism and quickly I respond, “Be an ally.” That day in Bob Evans, Mike was an ally and he did the right thing. He knew the impact of two whites having a conversation about an obvious racially motivated action would be more powerful just between the two of them. In that conversation he clearly stated, “I saw what you did and there is no way for you to convince me otherwise.” There was a level he could take the conversation that I couldn’t. If I would have complained they very likely would just dismiss me as the uber-sensitive Black guy. Here is where the power of an ally is most concentrated.  When I came to that understanding it was easier to step back; It was easier for me to be humble and push ego out of the way. I had to realize I can’t request help in one conversation and then when I get it be uncomfortable for getting what I asked for.

So what does an ally look like? It requires whites to do what people of color can’t always do. It means being courageous enough to pull other whites to the side and call them out on their racism. As a white person, the impact you can have with others like you can be more impactful. As a person of color I have to  understand and trust that when I request the assistance of allies I must be humble enough to let them do work where I can’t and understand that doesn’t make me a child or child-like.  Some times I have to concede my ego in hopes of a bigger change.

nwa-straight-outta-compton

Ten days ago I sat in a dark movie theater with my 15 year old son and my wife and watched the movie, Straight Outta Compton. It is a movie that portrays the rise and fall of the rap group N.W.A.

STOP!

For those of you who aren’t into rap don’t stop reading because this movie had less to do with rap and more to do with history.

The movie brought back such vivid memories of the late ‘80s.  It took me back to where I was and how I was feeling as a young Black man in this country.   I had just graduated from Alma College in Alma Michigan and I was angry. Growing up in Detroit I assumed the world was like Detroit. I assumed people of color were abundant and at 18 I felt the obsession the adults had about race was overblown. Then I stepped foot on the white campus of Alma College. It was culture shock and a rude awakening that as a young Black male my voice was not wanted. At the time the student body at Alma was about 1100 students and of the 1100 students 13 of us were Black. I quickly understood what being a minority was about and more importantly I felt what that meant. Me and 12 other students were so out-numbered and such a minority that the school and its population didn’t have to listen to us, didn’t care to listen to us and didn’t know how to listen to us. It was a crash course in what being a minority in this country truly feels like.

I’m sure anyone who went to college with me would read this and be shocked that I saw that experience as I did and how I express it now. I’m sure most would say that I got along fine in that setting. But what most don’t understand is the weight and burden that comes with being a minority in a majority setting. Many don’t understand that the daily microaggressions slowly add up and as Marvin Gay sang, “makes me want to holler, they way they do my life.” I wanted to holler quite often in an environment that was a vacuum.

Up to this point, I lived in a city that had a Black Mayor, Black Police Chief, and majority Black population. There was rarely, if ever, a day in my first 18 years that I didn’t see someone else who looked like me. My college experience was the mirror image of my Detroit experience and it created a rage in me I can’t describe. I couldn’t wait to put in my 4 years and return home to Detroit.

The problem was after that awakening, I was changed. My eyes were open to the inequalities I was blind to and although I returned to a city whose membership mostly matched my skin color, I was still angry; angry at how I and people like me were viewed by the majority; Angry that my college life was a reflection of a larger society.

It was about this time that there was an outcry from the Black community about the unfair “war on drugs” that disproportionately arrested and harassed people of color. It was about this time that the unfair treatment towards people of color by police officers was approaching a boiling point. It was this time that the rage I felt was boiling and I needed a release. It was about this time that the rap group, NWA began to share life from their experiences. It was about this time, Spike Lee and John Singleton; two very talented film makers, were making films that spoke to the Black experience. In film and music they all were speaking, rapping, and showing what I was feeling. It was about this time that I felt heard. I needed that. I needed to feel heard.

The movie, Straight Otta Compton, brought all that back; all that angst; all that rage; all that despair! It did what movies should do. It forced me to remember something I shouldn’t have forgotten. It brought me back to 211 degrees; one degree shy of boiling.  The movie made me remember and feel all that was going on in the early 90s. Then it happened as we sat on 211 degrees.

rk

The video of the Rodney King beating was released pushing the temperature to 211.5 degrees. The acquittal of the police officers involved in the beating pushed the needled to 212 and all hell broke lose and Los Angeles burned. For some it appeared to come out of nowhere but the foot prints were there edging closer and closer to 212.

What scares me is today we are back at 211 degrees. The needle spiked with Trayvon Martin and each additional incident pushes us towards 212. It has been 23 years since the LA riots which occurred 25 years after the ’67 Detroit riots. The needle is moving as is history and once again we sit on the edge of our 20 to 30 year cycle in this country. Every 20 to 30 years a generation has enough and somewhere the needle hits 212. The foot prints are there.

212

As I stated, Straight Otta Compton, has more to do with history than rap music. It is a warning that we are again at this familiar cross roads and if we don’t do anything to stop it the country will shake AGAIN because a group is screaming to be heard. As always, many will wonder where this came from while stepping over the foot prints that told us it was coming.

So what can be done?  We can’t ignore the rumbling pot on the stove.  We have to begin to have an honest conversation about race.  Talking about the uncomfortable will quiet the pot and settle the water.