Paper Cuts and Fatal Bullets

In my current job, I create and facilitate bystander intervention trainings for student leaders. We focus not only on sexual assault prevention, but other instances where we may need to step in as active bystanders. This year, we’ve added a section around microaggressions, and students have about a million and seven questions about them. Which is fine when the questions are respectful, because students are all in the sessions to learn (and my problematic self didn’t even learn the term until my senior year in college, so I’m one to judge). I’m excited students come in eager to gain knowledge, but whew!

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Besides the basic:

  1. “what is a microaggression” (answer: “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” [Sue, et al., 2007]), and
  2. “are White girls who wear Ugg boots and drink PSLs targets of microaggression? “(answer: no)

a question I’ve heard this year, and have gotten in the past when talking about microaggressions is “why are microaggressions a big deal? They’re like…tiny aggressions. They aren’t a big deal as killing someone, so why are we talking about them?” (This is a mashup of direct quotes from different individuals telling me or other facilitators that microaggressions aren’t a big deal. Most of these are from White folks, p.s.)

If you can’t tell, this particular question bothers me to no end. Hold on to this thought.

Two days ago, I saw a notification on my phone that #TerenceCrutcher was trending on Twitter. At this point, I, like many others, have an unfortunate sixth sense about names that trend as hashtags. I assumed the worst. Today, like other days, I was correct. Terence Crutcher was a Black man murdered by the police in Tulsa, OK last Friday (yes, Oklahoma, the same state where former Oklahoma City Daniel Holtzclaw sexually assaulted 13 Black woman). He was tasered, then fatally shot. The Tulsa Police Department released the video tape of his death was released today, and right before Terence was killed, a police officer said “That looks like a bad dude, too.” I would like to point out: Terence did not have a weapon on him, or in his car. When he stepped out of his vehicle, he had his hands up. The police still killed him. I would also like to point out: he was on the middle of the road because his car broke down.

Yesterday, I learned that Keith Lamont Scott was shot and murdered by the police in Charlotte, North Carolina. Police reported him coming out of his car with a handgun, and said they gave him multiple warnings to drop his gun. His family reported that Scott was disabled, and he was reading a book in his car while waiting for his son to head out to school. The mayor is telling protesters in Charlotte to be “calm, ” and the police wants people to know that what the police are investigating looks different than what’s said on social media. Never mind that many a White terrorist with guns have been taken in alive. Never mind that police can’t confirm if he did indeed point a gun at them.

Last Wednesday, Tyre King was murdered by the police in Columbus, Ohio. He was 13 years old, and was fatally shot three times because he pulled out a handgun out of his waistband. That turned out to be an air pistol. Two things: Tyre was less than 5 feet tall, and weighed less than 100 pounds. It’s reported that any one of the three shots could have killed him. Also, the police were after Tyre King because they said he matched a description of robbery suspects (And as you read up, Keith was also known to be holding a gun when he exited his car). Last time I talked about Alton Sterling on Facebook, a Becky got up in my post about “supporting a criminal.” I don’t have much patience for that nonsense this time around, especially since Tyre was just a baby at 13. So I’m just going to put this here:

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Whew. Okay.

I’ve heard microaggressions described as “death by a 1000 paper cuts” (Nadal et al., 2011, p. 234). When we quote this, we often talk about how racial microaggressions “create a hostile and invalidating climate for people of color, saps their spiritual and psychic energies, and their cumulative nature can result in depression, frustration, anger, rage, loss of self esteem, anxiety, etc” (Sue, 2007). They’re a big deal to individuals who have to go through bullshit upon daily bullshit, so to say microaggressions aren’t a big deal is to completely dismiss the experience of marginalized folks.

But we need to remember with the “death by a 1000 paper cuts” metaphor, microaggressions could actually lead to just that: death. Because police aren’t just killing us out of nowhere. The police officer who claimed Terence was a “bad dude” didn’t just wake up that day thinking Black men look like bad men. The police officers who determined a <100 pound teenager a threat didn’t start believing that Black children could carry a handgun and be monsters five minutes before Trye was killed.  The police officers who shot Keith to death didn’t instantly have a shoot-to-kill bias against Black men. There’s previous, deep-seated bias that led the cops to think Black men/teens=scary=less than human=kill them . And often times, these biases first manifest themselves into microaggressions before they snowball into full-blown aggression. When we ignore racial microaggressions, or say they’re not a big deal, we’re giving permission to these biases. We’re saying that it’s okay to treat folks of color as less than human, or not normal. We’re essentially laying the groundwork.

No, the act of murdering a Black person isn’t the same as touching our hair. The act of murdering a Black person isn’t the same as mistaking us for another Black person. The act of murdering a Black person isn’t the same as thinking my name isn’t “normal” isn’t the same as ignoring me at the grocery store isn’t the same as dressing in Black face for Halloween. Congratulations for figuring that out. And guess what? I, and others who often experience microaggressions know that too, so don’t patronize us by pointing this out.

But let’s stop pretending this issues are so far removed from each other, spinning in opposite orbits in different planets. We work to stop racial microaggressions to make sure people of color can belong, and so others can stop seeing us as less than human. Because, as we’ve seen today, this week, and time and time again, the consequences for institutions–such as the criminal system–assuming we are less than human  are potentially fatal. The question “microaggressions aren’t important, so why are we even discussing them” is totally ignorant of this fact. And, quote honestly, the “they aren’t as bad as xyz” point/question is one people make usually because they have a tough time letting go of their racist-ass behaviors.

I will entertain all other questions on microaggressions. But don’t you dare try to tell me that they aren’t a big deal. And don’t you dare use the bodies of slain folks of color to make your point.

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Keep your phalanges out of my follicles, a.k.a stop touching my hair.

I’ve decided to draft up a manifesto of proper Black girl hair etiquette. Because apparently, the theme of February 2016 was “How Many Black People’s Hair Can You Touch Without Consent?” and everyone lost their damn minds. Now, this isn’t my first rodeo with non-Black people and their need to touch my hair without asking, As some Black people can attest to, many people think our hair is a magical unicorn of promise of hope and youth, and they try to touch our hair like it’s a good luck charm. I’ve literally had a guy reach up, touch my natural hair, and say it wasn’t as “great-feeling” as “normal” hair (but that’s another microagressional tale for another time), But my God, this month. Since I braided my hair in February, the number of people who have reached up and grabbed (yes, grabbed) onto my locks have tripled. My theory is that people are drawn to my braids even more than ever because the ombre blue calls to them like the sea calls to a privileged dolphin. I understand, my braids look cool. This month, I’m serving mermaid realness, and you want to bask in my pretty glow.

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But whatever the reason, I don’t really care. It bothers me so much that many people (mainly White women) have felt the need to pull on my hair like it’s the secret key to everlasting youth. As someone whose least favorite love language is physical touch, this has been a nightmare. And as a Black woman, this has been insulting.

When you touch my braids (and my afros, curls, or weaves), when you randomly ask if you can feel my hair, you’re sending me a signal that you think my hair is out of the norm. I feel, in a sense, othered. Because while you’re trying to tell me that you think my hair is cool, you’re also saying “Wow. I’ve never felt hair like this. This is so…weird.” My braids are not “normal” to you. They are strange, my hair regime is strange, my non-Eurocentric beauty is foreign to you. Because think about it: we rarely grab onto White hair. Or if it happens, there is a mutual understanding of only asking close friends. But often times, people even bypass the step of asking and just reach out grab my hair. Actions like this make me feel more like an object than a person, and make me think of the history of colonization and ownership of Black bodies.  Why do people automatically assume they have the authority to touch me? Even check yourself right now. If you feel yourself getting irritated with this post, that you’re “just touching to be nice and to learn about different hair textures, GOD!” ask yourself: why do you feel you have the right to touch my hair, even though your intent is tell me I look good or you want to learn about how I do my hair. Why don’t you just tell me I look good and allow me to talk about the process if I feel like talking about it? 

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From heavenrants.tumblr.com

If you’re a White person who thinks this isn’t a big deal, that you wouldn’t mind if someone, a stranger or otherwise, touched your hair, please know it’s completely different. To me, my hair is more than just a fashion statement. It’s political, my own way of rebelling against that “normal” standard of beauty. It speaks of a long journey of personal acceptance towards the way I carry myself. It stands as a “so what” to society’s claims that Black hair is dirty/unprofessional/ugly/”not as great feeling.”  Please know: I am not an advocate of randomly touching anyone’s hair. But please also know: you touching my braids holds different weight.

Obviously, there are exceptions. I would be a liar if I said I didn’t let ANYONE touch my hair. However, the list* of acceptable people is very specific:

  • If you’re in any way related to the Taiwo+Adesida brand. This includes many Nigerians, and my two partnered queer friends who lovingly refer to me as their daughter. If you haven’t raised me in any literal or metaphorical way, keep your phalanges out of my follicles.  
  • If you’re anyone who’s ever been involved in my hair journey for over 5+ years, a.k.a. we know each other like that. If you haven’t logged over 8 hours of natural vs. relaxed conversations with me and/or held me as I’ve sobbed into various pillows, you don’t have permission to touch me.  What’s funny is that the people who I consider good friends typically always ask before feeling my braids.
  • If we’re having a good, productive discussion about the softness/thickness of my hair, and I offer you my glorious locks to touch. Case in point: my boss and I had a fake argument about who’s hair was the heaviest. I ended up braiding, and then allowing my boss to touch in order to demonstrate how my two braids could whip someone out. Not only was it awesome, it was consensual, and she double checked to make sure it was okay.
  • If you’re another Black girl and we’re talking hair and we need to compare notes about thickness/color/style. Fun fact: I never touch random Black women’s hair without asking, and Black women who don’t know me also always ask. This is because we respect the general human code called personal space.

*this list is Tolu-Taiwo-specific, and may apply differently with different Black people, because we are all individual people and I don’t speak for the entirety of Black people. I don’t even speak for the entirety of 25-year-old American-born Nigerians.

White people and non-Black folk, please get your friends. Yes, obviously I need to stand up for myself. And I do–I’m starting to figure out when it’s safe to have conversations about hair touching, and when I need to smile politely in the moment and rant later (i.e. this blog post). But it really helps to have awesome pals in your corner, like how one of my friend-dads went to BAT for me last month and called out everyone who grabbed my hair, or how I can always count on one of my best friends from college to jump in when strangers touch me without permission. I don’t want to speak for every Black woman, but I personally need some assistance. I’m tired of the awkward shuffle of calling your acquaintances out and then looking like the crazy one in the group. I’ve found that it’s almost impossible to call people out without seeming like the angry Black girl, or fearing passive aggressive actions from my coworkers/superiors. It would be great if you could gently tell your besties to kindly get their fingers out of braids, or remind them, when they get that “I Just Wanna Feel Tolu’s Craaaaazy Textured Hair” look in their eye that I’m not a petting zoo. Show your friends this article and have a discussion circle, I don’t care. Just please help me out.

Honestly, between you and me, I’m kind of tired of talking about people touching my hair. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing it. There have been a thousand glorious think pieces and videos already written and created about this. I’m sure I’m not the only Black person who has articulated this to you in some form or fashion. This is nothing new. But as long as strangers, coworkers, students, and other people continue to put their fingers in my braids, I’m going to continue to talk about it. So don’t discredit this post as ramblings, and don’t be mad because I’m calling this behavior out. Don’t even feel shamed if you think you’ve touched my hair in the past. Just know that my aquamarine hair is here to stay for another month. The likelihood of getting more braids in the future are high. And it would be a lot more fun to whip my hair back and forth if I could do it sans hands near my scalp. 

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Manifesto, over and out. Thank you for your time.

 

 

Things that bring me joy: AMANDLA STENBERG GIRL I LOVE YOU

Last week, Amandla Stenberg, creator of the video “Don’t Cash Crop on my Cornrows,” portrayer of Rue in the Hunger Games, caller-outer of all things cultural appropriation, and all-around badass, came out. She CAME OUT, everyone. LIKE. OUT. AS BISEXUAL. On Teen Vogue’s video line/Snapchat video/something for youths that I’m fuzzy on. And I know it’s probably old news, but I don’t care, because it will always be new news in my heart, so there you go.

Please don’t think I’m over-exaggerating when I said I almost cried when I saw the video. Granted, I almost cry over a lot of things (pictures of polar bears, wedding gowns, missing my mom, dropping my phone on my face, etc.). But for real, the video brought up some real emotions. Maybe I missed the announcement and there’s been five other Black actresses who have come out as bisexual in the past year. But since my Android has me on news alerts for “Black girls” and “bisexuality,” I don’t think so. I’ve often seen us exist within spaces meant for each other (Facebook groups, niche magazines, certain podcasts) and around trusted friends. But never so openly, especially in a mainstream publication. Until now.

There isn’t enough bi-visibility, not to even to talk about Black women bi-visibility. And if you’re tired of hearing that, I’m sorry, but it’s true. Yes, let’s not forget there are some awesome celebrities championing the bi and pan cause. And let’s not forget the media’s portrayal of bisexual women is still not great. For every Brittany and Bo and Brenna, we have the sneaky/crazy bisexual trope, or the wishy washy bisexual trope, or the “I’m not that into labels” trope. I am hard-pressed to come up with a character who has actually identified as “pansexual.” Hard-pressed. Not to even mention the complete lack of Black bi or pan girls on television. Of course Tiana, from Empire, comes to mind. But she’s been gone for OVER HALF THE RUN OF THE SHOW, and her bisexuality only was mentioned for a few episodes (and sometimes, not in a super-positive way). #WhereisTiana? Come on, Fox. Do better.

(Frederic: sick of your shit since 1972).

I’ve been lucky to have supportive friends who totally understand my bis/pansexuality. And it isn’t always positive. Besides my general “I do NOT want to come out to my family narrative” right now, I often don’t feel comfortable coming out to certain people, including surrounding lesbians and gay men as well as straight allies. I’ve heard that so-and-so’s bisexual identity is probably a stop before inevitable straightness/gayness, and that my sexuality is probably a phase. Not to even mention that people sometimes straight up forget. Like. Just straight up forget that I’m a queer woman.

And that’s why Amandla’s coming out video is so important. How cool was it that she felt comfortable enough to mention it on Teen freakin’ Vogue’s video Snapchat thing. This isn’t to downplay how tough it is to open to conversation and be vulnerable (she talks about how hard this video was at the end), but to praise her directness and willingness to state who she is so strongly.  She was just like “I’m Black and bisexual, deal with it” (not a direct quote), and then talked more about how Black girls cannot be suppressed because “we are meant to express our joy and our love and our tears and be big and bold and DEFINITELY not easy to swallow.” YES, Amandla, yes. You better get on your Audre Lorde “if I didn’t define myself for myself” train.

May this start a movement: there should be no TIME to argue with fools about how your bisexuality is just a mere trend, or to convince potential suitors that your bisexuality does NOT equal a three-way. I’m going to start wearing a button that says “Please don’t ask me about my bisexuality after I tell you about it unless I feel safe enough to initiate conversation or you are also bisexual and we are going to take a moment to bond over it. Do not define me. Just let me live LET ME BE BOLD.” Maybe not, because that sentence was long as hell, and I’m not quite out to my parents, so a button probably would be unwise. But still. STILL.

To have a Black girl, a well-known, vocal Black girl, come out as bisexual is wonderful. I know that not all Black girls and women share the same story–maybe we’ve came out since we were 5 and Amandla’s video did not phase us; maybe we couldn’t dream of coming out and are nowhere near this stage of declaring our bisexuality; maybe we DID come out and are now facing emotional and economical hardships that this video will never be able to fix, that are bigger than this girl–and I want to acknowledge that. I do not claim to be the voice of the entire population of Black bisexual women, because our journeys are all different. But for me–a Black bisexual woman who, quite frankly, often allows herself to be crunched into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive–I needed so badly to see another Black bisexual woman tell everyone (on social media through a publication that reaches A MILLION PEOPLE)  “there is nothing to change. We can not be suppressed.” And I feel like at least one other Black bisexual woman needed to hear it, too.

So thank you, Amandla. And lemme know if you want me to make you one of those sweet buttons.

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YES LORD. Go ahead with your badass self, girl. Caption credit: instagram.com/amandlastenberg

 

Things that bring me joy: Gender Equity Book Group

One of the great things about where I work is that they take quality in-house professional development seriously. Case in point: in early October, Human Resources emailed everyone about starting a “book group that focused on gender equity and higher education.” The book in question? Disrupting the Culture of Silence: Confronting Gender Inequality and Making Change in Higher Education.

Um. YES YES YESSSSSSSS.

Me and bae, TOGETHER AT LAST

Me and bae, TOGETHER AT LAST

Believe me when I say I signed up for this so fast. To be placed into one of the five groups, the main organizer asked for an explanation on why we’re interested and how it would benefit us. I think she was looking for a blurb, but I busted out an essay about working in a male-dominated field and wanting to examine what gender equity looks like when you add in racial identity. I would have done tap dances and back flips (read: probably not, as I am as nimble as uncooked pasta) to get into that Book Group, because it has two of my favorite things: discussions about gender with other people, and reading. My inner nerd was all about this.

After I got in, I started to read the book and look at the book and hug the book. Because HOLY BATMAN, Disrupting the Culture of Silence is awesome. By no means does it tell the story of every identity within a gender lens (at least, I think. I am on page 65), but there is some variety. The selections on being a women of color in academia and student affairs are vast and plentiful. Do you want to talk about work-family politics, or queer facility experiences? Done. And there are CASE STUDIES, YA’LL.  Case. Studies. Case studies are personal narratives with a learning-centrist twist. I. Love them. Emmergawd. May my workload never keep me too busy to thoroughly read and process this book, please please please.

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And I am so glad the university created this Book Group, because it is absolutely needed. My work community is great, but no school can escape the realities of gender inequality in higher education, and we need to talk about it. As you look up in the student affairs ladder, the number of women in leadership positions get smaller and smaller. According to 2014 data, only 26% of college and university presidents are women, which is interesting when you consider that 57% of college students are women. Female Chief Student Affairs Officers are less likely to aspire to university presidency than their male counterparts. And this is just looking at data that’s exclusive to VPSAs and presidents, not to even talk about the personal anecdotes I’ve heard from trusted mentors, or some of the (to be honest, horrific) experiences told by members of my book group last week.

I have been very lucky to work in environments that, for the most part, get it. And sometimes, people don’t get it. And I need this space because I want to both make sure I don’t perpetuate inequality through my actions, and because I want to fight for gender equality in higher education. What does that work look like when I have limited control over institutional oppression? Some days I don’t know, so I’m glad that for now, I have this Book Group, this space, to help me figure it out. Because I personally need a space to talk about gender inequality in student affairs as well.  Continue reading