I am not Trayvon. But I AM the woman in the elevator.

The whole country seems to be unsettled now that the trial is over and George Zimmerman has received zero punishment for the undisputed fact that he provoked a fight with and then shot and killed an unarmed teenager named Trayvon Martin. All I keep thinking is imagining myself in his parents’ shoes, my baby killed and getting no justice. But the truth is, despite all the folks saying “We are Trayvon,” I’m not, and my babies *aren’t either. We are *unlikely to be perceived as threats based on our race. We *are unlikely to be held to a higher standard of suspicion. We *likely won’t be required to moderate our clothes or behavior or whereabouts in order to make others feel safe and thus ensure our own safety.

And Questlove has written a great piece about what it feels like to be like Trayvon, to be black and male in this country, to constantly be worrying about how others perceptions of his danger level affect his own safety. And I think we should all read it, and I think we should all think hard about the way racism and segregation affect our own day to day lives, and the fact that a lot of us live in neighborhoods where seeing a black man walk down our street would be so unusual as to be perceived as a threat. My friend Kyran, for example, has been asking some great questions about the intersection of economic and racial injustice in our communities.

But at the same time, the central story Questlove tells, about how hurt he felt by a woman who lived in his building clearly perceiving him as a threat when she was alone with him on an elevator, well, I am that woman, and I can’t say I blame her. If Questlove wants us to all walk in his size 14 shoes, then he needs to know a thing or two about that woman’s high heels, about what it means to be a woman in rape culture.

We are told over and over again that rape is something that happens to girls who aren’t vigilant enough. Who walk down the wrong streets at the wrong time in the wrong company. Who have too much to drink. Who wear the wrong clothes. Who send out mixed signals. You are constantly on your guard or you “get raped,” a phrase that has always bothered me because it’s like “got milk?” As if I went and picked it up at the store or had some say in the matter.

I’m not often alone in public these days, but I chronicled lots of harassment and intimidation from the days when I used to be, which you can find under my Bus Stories tab. It was daily, and the general message I got was: to be female, alone, in public is to be at risk.

When I am alone in an isolated place, my keys are between my fingers in case I need to use them as a weapon, and I have my phone out and ready to dial 911 if I need to. I would certainly be wary to be on an elevator with a strange man of any race, because an elevator is an isolated place. And this vigilance is exhausting and numbing, and there were days I have come home and literally cried because one more man yelled something ugly and intimidating at me as he drove past.

To be a woman in public is ALSO to be told you “aren’t shit,” as Questlove says he’s learned. It’s to be told you are an object for the taking, a message made clear not just by words shouted out of moving cars like “HEY SUGARTITS,” but also in the looks, and in the ways people talk about those unvigilant girls who get themselves raped.

I think, somewhere, there’s a place where Questlove and that woman in the elevator have something in common: patriarchy tells them both they ain’t shit. They both have varying levels of privilege, him as a man, and her as a white woman. It’s only in taking down the patriarchy that they can both feel safe in public.

*Words changed slightly from original post in response to comments and in an effort to make clear that I am attempting to recognize the privilege afforded to women perceived as white in this country. I don’t want to leap to the assumption that we are never seen as threatening by others, simply recognizing the fact that we usually aren’t.

**Traffic and comments keep rolling in on this post, and while I’m really happy with the attention it’s received, I’m also busy chasing 16 month old twins, and don’t have time to reply to every comment. I would also urge you to check out this beautifully-written, painful post that’s another take on the woman in the elevator. The comments and responses to this post have been thought-provoking and inspiring. I’d say a great step toward dismantling the system I believe hurts both the “woman in the elevator” and Questlove is to think about our fears, confront and examine them. I believe there are reasonable steps toward self-preservation, but there are also walls and barriers that separate us from one another. I need to focus more on reaching out.

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Dr. Laura & Racism

So, last night Jon and I happened to catch some of Anderson Cooper on CNN and learned about the whole Dr. Laura racism-on-the-radio debacle.  If you haven’t heard the scoop, here’s the basics: a woman called into Dr. Laura’s show for advice (if you ask me, anyone who would call that horrible woman for advice is less than bright, but certainly not deserving of what came next).  The woman, Jade, said that she’s in an interracial marriage, she’s black and her husband is white, and that she has been hurt by her husband’s friends and family making racist comments, while her husband does nothing about it.  Dr. Laura managed to call the woman hypersensitive, dismiss the idea that the comments were racist, make gross generalizations about black people as a monolithic entity, use the N-word many times, and suggest that people who can’t put up with racist comments from friends and family members shouldn’t marry outside their race.  While many outlets are simply focusing on Dr. Laura’s use of the N-word, as you can see/hear, the rest of the exchange is really what drips with racism.  You can hear the whole audio and read a transcript over at Media Matters.

Before I respond, here’s Jamelle Bouie:

What Dr. Laura said was RACIST.

Dr. Laura asks Jade, the caller, for an example of a racist comment she’s been hearing from her husband’s friends and family, and Jade replies:

CALLER: OK. Last night — good example — we had a neighbor come over, and this neighbor — when every time he comes over, it’s always a black comment. It’s, “Oh, well, how do you black people like doing this?” And, “Do black people really like doing that?” And for a long time, I would ignore it. But last night, I got to the point where it —

SCHLESSINGER: I don’t think that’s racist.

CALLER: Well, the stereotype —

SCHLESSINGER: I don’t think that’s racist.

Memo to Dr. Laura: that IS racist. Assuming that all people of a certain race think/act alike and expecting an individual from that race/group to be able to speak for/represent the whole group, well, that’s racist. Just like people who think all women are alike and expect any one woman to represent/speak for the entire sex are sexist. Seeing an entire group of people as if they aren’t as diverse and individual as your group of people is racist. Full stop. There’s no hypersensitivity there, and I can see where this woman would feel hurt by her husband’s friends and family constantly making generalizations and stereotypes about her race and expecting her to be the ambassador for all black people.

Then, after stating that generalizations about black people aren’t racist statements, Dr. Laura forges ahead and makes a couple of generalizations about black people, namely that they all voted for Obama simply because he’s black, and that they’re all good at basketball:

A lot of blacks voted for Obama simply ’cause he was half-black. Didn’t matter what he was gonna do in office, it was a black thing. You gotta know that. That’s not a surprise. Not everything that somebody says — we had friends over the other day; we got about 35 people here — the guys who were gonna start playing basketball. I was going to go out and play basketball. My bodyguard and my dear friend is a black man. And I said, “White men can’t jump; I want you on my team.” That was racist? That was funny.

Nope, Dr. Laura, that entire paragraph is racist. And after that, as if her words are a little racist snowball rolling down the hill, Dr. Laura decides to get something off her chest: how deeply jealous she is that “black guys on HBO” can use the N-word but she, a white person, cannot.  She literally says the N-word over and over again.  It’s a common racist/sexist tactic to get upset that minority groups take words previously used to oppress and hurt them and turn them into something they use for their own power.  It’s not quite the same as the N-word, but it reminds me the way I and some of my favorite blogger friends have reclaimed the word “harpy.” If some man called me a harpy, I’d be downright pissed. But I jokingly call myself a harpy all the time.

After a commercial break, Jade, the caller, makes some very wise observations about race relations in this country.  She points out that older white people in this country seem more frightened and emboldened about racism after Obama’s election to the presidency.  This isn’t crazy stuff, folks like the Southern Poverty Law center have been pointing this out for over a year now.  You only have to look to footage of Tea Party events to know that some racists in this country are flipping out and feeling comfortable expressing very racist ideas in public.  But Dr. Laura tells the caller that she obviously has a “chip on your shoulder” and suggests she has “too much sensitivity.”

After a bit of arguing about the N-word, Jade hangs up and Dr. Laura concludes:

SCHLESSINGER: All right. Thank you very much. Thank you very much. Can’t have this argument. You know what? If you’re that hypersensitive about color and don’t have a sense of humor, don’t marry out of your race.

Talk about an epic fail from a professional advice giver!

If Jade had called me for advice, I’d definitely answer differently.  I’d validate her feelings that her husband’s family and friends are making racist comments.  I’d affirm that yes, expecting one person to represent her entire race, with the belief that the entire race thinks/acts alike, is racist.  I’d tell her that whether her husband agrees with her that the comments are racist, it’s her husband’s job as her spouse and as the one with the primary relationship with these people to tell them to cut it out.  If your spouse says your friends/family are hurting his/her feelings, you tell them to knock it off. You refuse to tolerate it in your house.  You inform them they will not be welcome in your house so long as they continue to say things that hurt your spouse.  Period.  It’s not that difficult to see that that’s the right answer to that question.

Because Dr. Laura did not take this opportunity to state the obvious, that spouses should have each other’s backs when someone is hurting one of their feelings, I can only conclude that she’s had these feelings of racial resentment, the ones that came bursting through in the exchange, for a while.  I’m not saying that Dr. Laura hates black people, or that, as a person, she’s a complete and total racist. But that exchange definitely revealed her racial resentment, and her words were racist.

To top it all off, Dr. Laura’s “apology” is of the “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings”variety rather than the I’m sorry I said what I said variety.  She primarily focuses on the use of the N-word.  Her use of the N-word wasn’t even the half of it! She needs to do more than apologize for using an abhorrent word, but for the entire hateful exchange.  And she needs to examine her issues surrounding race, perhaps with a licensed therapist.

does racism have anything to do with it?

Image via Think Progress.

Yesterday, I wrote about what I believe is willful ignorance on the part of some of the loudest and most visible opponents of President Obama and his agenda.  I asked why so many people choose to believe the most terrible things, things which could be disproven by means of a simple internet search.  I wondered why people who have heard the truth explained to them over and over again still refuse to believe it.  Then Jimmy Carter went and offered an explanation: racism.  And the whole country flipped out.

In an interview, former president Carter said,

I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African American…And I think it’s bubbled up to the surface because of the belief among many white people, not just in the south but around the country, that African Americans are not qualified to lead this great country.

And you know what? I agree with him. Continue reading “does racism have anything to do with it?”