Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Invited to the Table

As a queer woman of color, I have been called to break bread at multiple tables. Activist circles, nonprofit structures, social gatherings, creative projects-- and alongside of noted artists and thinkers. I am aware of these spaces being gifts. It is fortunate that most of these gatherings or "meals" are shared spaces full of like minded souls with similar backgrounds, cultures, and belief systems. However, the the flip side is the "invited space". This is where I am considered an outsider. My label must be worn because it played a part in how I got there. And at times, the troubling acceptance that these are invited spaces is usually hindsight.

I bite down hard on my womanist courage as I enter these spaces, asserting my existence and advocating for my community. Allies are crucial to every movement - just as much as the importance in “assuming best intentions”. I have been to the White House, but certainly on the shoulders of the folks in front of me.

In other instances, I have been the perceived “woman of color” or been labeled as “the black lesbian” in multiple instances and have received community flack and have been treated as a martyr. I was regarded as the one that overlooked my sisters. This is a circumstance of being invited and still being viewed as faulty and irresponsible. The power in the “smoking gun”. Our experiences are emotion filled and deserve real listening, compassion, and a genuine acknowledgement of black and brown women identified folks. We are complicated and evolving across gender and race lines...thus causing us to not engage sisterhood and to truly miss each other. One can only screw on their own head, let alone everyone else's.

But I want more. How do we invite ourselves to the table?

I find this to be even more complicated in my workplace. I inhabit the usual sentiment of the black woman in predominantly white space of power, hustling that “dance to make her dance” in order to use my steps to get some funds. Without actually being considered a part of the collaborative quotient. As the silent black woman, whose work is used, and back is broken, and needs are negated. A white or male perspective is valued in every community, even from the queerest standpoints and most feminist spaces. When I am asked to contribute, I am treated as a representative and never as a collaborator. It is difficult to be heard amongst my white counterparts and queer brothers who inadvertently may repeat what I have already said and find themselves being touted as the owner of my thoughts, opinions, beliefs, and philosophies. Male bodies get listened to. And the formula becomes even more tangled when gender politics surpass race. When the societal oppression that sexuality carries, is set aside and you are still just some black lady at the end of the day. Again, when men of color get served first and white bodies are allowed to enjoy the actual feast. Therefore, I was never actually invited or meant to be invited in the first place.

Who's table is it? And when can it be mine?

One of my artist sisters, has been hitting the ground tirelessly for years as a well known photographer of homeless and transient LGBTQ youth of color, but was quickly overlooked for a highly earmarked magazine portrait of a young woman who is living on the streets, chronicled by a white woman. I could see her digesting this emotional slap for weeks to follow this occurrence. The disregard for our work is REAL and deeply racist. We are silent and it hurts.

And earlier this year, it became a complicated honor to embark on a highly publicized brainstorming session for an anti-violence campaign. I sat as one of the few queer women of color on this board. It was a stark contrast to my previous experiences because I was actually being heard. I have done much work to not hate myself in these spaces. It informs my previous experiences of “being the only” and I “out” myself on a consistent make my point. Perhaps this is a choice, but in these circumstances I don't know how else to live. I have put myself out there for my unheard sisters and deeply want to push for spaces of inclusion and access for folks that will never get to recognize their personal ability to “rise”.

In order to live, women of color adjust our perspectives. We see the way things are, move towards acceptance, and eventually make the changes and enter the roads that perpetuate our truth. Our stories, our innovation. But on these roads, how do we heal?

I will have the opportunity to speak with community and to air my thoughts at a conversation on November 13th. I hope that you will be there. Information to follow.

Friday, August 23, 2013

primary colors

Earlier this year, one of my memoir essays was published in The Feminist Wire. It is called victory and chronicles the phonics of being a black girl in Amish country, praying at the altar of Judy Blume's timeless white girl protagonist, Deenie. Judy Blume colored my life at that time. Superfudge and Tales of Fourth Grade Nothing were on heavy rotation within my pubescant bedroom literature. It gave this black girl/woman a very complicated coming of age. However, victory, shared a small slice into my deeply layered imagery of white role models and sexual performance. More recently, an article called "The Politics of Being Friends with White People", by Brandy Cooper was forwarded to me based on its mention of Deenie and social and racial cues and duties. The writer discusses coming of age as a black person, her experience growing up and out of her white friendships, and how race can become a priority in relationships for some adults of color. I would like to continue the conversation.

I grew up in a predominantly...almost completely white town. I had one black friend. She was the daughter of my mother's principal at the elementary school where she taught. We didn't really spend much time together and didn't actually meet one another until I was in Junior High school. When we hung out, it was as if our mothers plopped us face to face into a sandbox like toddlers in juvenile solidarity saying, "Be friends." It may not have been that archaic or cinematic, even.... but it was certainly deliberate. Our families knew that we needed each other, however we both were resistant. We knew "why" we needed to be friends, but we weren't automatically in dutiful agreement that our race and culture were enough for us to break bread together. For a good solid chunk of time, we actually didn't like each other. We stormed one another with knowledge wars, fear tactics, and shaming. Neither of us knew what was up with our hair, and, for that matter, neither of us liked our small town. But we both had a slew of white friends and was okay with that. We found our actual solidarity in sharing stories as outsiders, amidst the snide comments from white fathers and athletic assumptions - volleyball for her and ballet for me. Our main connections lied in our not discussed girlhood, and sometimes books.

As I got older and moved out of my tiny town, I flung myself into New York City. My sister went to an HBCU, which, at the time was of no interest to me. I was seeking diversity. On long drives, my Dad would ask me what kind of school that I wanted to go to and I would usually respond with "as much culture and difference as possible". A big part of me was yearning, and I wanted to share that yearning with other people that did or didn't look like me. I had the not so unique desire of an eighties baby that was raised in the ninties - to uncover utopia. This glimmer of internalized racism indicates that I wasn't necessarily ready to look at myself as black, I was more ready to be amongst other people that were "different" and then seek safety there. Unfortunately, one of my first experiences with being "black" was when I was questioned as a shoplifter at Urban Outfitters on 6th Avenue. "Let me see that shirt you put in your bag," the security guard said. Tears burned my heart as I walked down 14th Street to Avenue A, wandering East...looking for someone to express my rage to. At that moment, there were few people that I could call to garner support from. My black friend quotient had grown, of course, now that I was in New York, but I was still negotiating these relationships for myself. When I was able to identify a friend to share this experience with, I felt one of my first connections to the importance of my community of color.

"We couldn’t giggle about the same kinds of boys since our tastes fell along racial lines, couldn’t trade makeup or hair products, or move through each other’s social circles with ease any longer, because increasingly these things were defined by race. So I decided that I needed black girls for friends, girls who liked the boys I liked, who went to churches sort of like mine.... girls whose cultural experiences were and would be closer to my own."

My friendship evolution wasn't as "natural" or "predictable" as Ms. Cooper's. I didn't automatically start liking black boys. I can honestly say that the pictures on my walls growing up were of white girls and white boys, fantasies about their lives and public profiles. Sounds like a nightmare of confusion to most of my contemporary black and brown radicals, but it is an actual account of a very queer upbringing. Queer without being named as such. I was raised by powerful black parents that taught me to always think for myself, however my eyes were filled with whiteness. Therefore, my cultural evolution was morally sound but slow going.

The first college club that I belonged to was the Gay Straight Alliance. I was an ally with periodic cornrows and over sized t-shirts. I was a curious closet case that could have had "green" emblazoned on my forehead throughout my entire college career. While tabling during National Coming Out Day, I can remember a new pal asking my home girl, "Is Erica gay?" In my distinctive way, I blurted out, "do I have to be?" It's funny to think of that moment now. It's amazing the things that I thought I couldn't do. My definitions of blackness and sexuality had been wrapped around social duties that I was resisting. I had never really seen myself before.

Therefore, my heart echoed with a lot of the writer's experience. Feeling like a guilty outsider as a young girl was terribly uncomfortable. I shared a sink pretty regularly with a white friend in first grade. When she chatted up her father about the school day, she always included this tidbit. Once he asked her, "why? did you want to see if it would wash off?" She reported this back to me gleefully the next day as we resumed our bathroom dance. I can definitely recall the way those tears felt in my eyes, almost 25 years ago.

"When you are 9, or 12, or 17, it is easy to overlook racist comments. That your friends’ dad does not like black people has little to do with what your friend thinks, right? When you cannot yet vote, the fact that your friends’ parents are Republicans means little. With age, these things start to matter. At 25 or 32, it is harder to overlook the inevitable racially ignorant comment that will come, especially when you have had access to friendships where this is never an issue. At 30 or 35, the fact that your white friends now vote Republican alongside their parents strikes you as a choice that detrimentally impacts your material existence."

There are white people that I will never speak to again because of their political standings. They will never know how deeply their aim towards my silence wounds me. Some of these people are the source of many years of personal shame. Because of this, they can never be a part of my life. However, my father always told me to be friends with my allies as a formula for power and solidarity. Perhaps, this is why I don't hold an accountability compass of racial duty to my comrades to maintain a friendship color quota. I'd prefer for it not to be false or phony. That's just going to make me more uncomfortable. There are certain groups where I am one of few black friends. I don't feel like a mascot; yet I do take note. And, these are also the groups that don't necessarily live within the same arm's length/reach as my more familial priorities. This may change. I do make internal decisions based on some of the convoluted shit that comes out of some folk's mouths. Ignorant people could color the rainbow....some even look like me. This is why I don't find myself requiring such a declared distinction.

I just want to receive respect and honor for my experience in the same way that I expect the same. I feel that the denial of these complications can allow racism to become as real and intrinsic as its definition. Sometimes, it is just black and white, but in this case, I feel that it's not. I think it's a matter of identifying your kinship needs and perhaps limiting preconceptions of binary. Completely eliminating the ones that I love and that love me is not an option. I would like to continue to surround myself with people that believe in love, and have a willingness to unpack their diverse privileges--big and small, black or white. It is deeply profound when that love can be magnified by culture, background, and experience. I find this to be a part of my own personal survival and examination of rage. There is a protocol--I know the specific things that I can talk about with specific friends. But when I look another sister in the eye and discuss the fiery undercurrent of racism I have to regularly surmount at the nonprofit circus that employs me, I breathe a sigh that my mother's grandmother can hear. I also find this to be a safe examination of rage.

I inhabit a variety of circles. That is also a privilege. My close knit crew demonstrates an array of cultures, genders, sizes, ages, and interests. But my best friend in the whole wide world is white and that's rarely what we talk about. That is my identity information. So, I do think that it's political, but personal as well.

I could die of difference, or live, myriad selves. - Audre Lorde

Friday, June 7, 2013


February 21, 2013

The night before my first trip to the White House, I found Frida in a closet. I was staying with a friend in Baltimore and had been searching for a hanger for my dress. There was a calendar of portraits of Frida Kahlo, leaving me taken by her earnest presence in my immediate life. I leafed through the months, vigorously, in need of late night inspiration.

The following morning, I would attend the 4th Annual Black Emerging LGBT Leaders Day hosted by the National Black Justice Coalition. I’d utilized my last ounce of energy leftover from a month of “weekend organizing” to exit the city and head towards DC to "emerge". The NBJC created this as a platform to network and identify as a community of black leaders and change-makers. At times, my identity as a black woman enters rooms for me. And, even, being a "professional gay" is a space that I am privileged to exist within daily. However, this very public acknowledgment as a leader was powerful and certainly validated any additional and unique space my black womanhood does not always allow for. It was a rare opportunity that empowered me to wear my "three pronged" identity very proudly. I woke up expectant and ready, circling my suitcase as I decided between the lipstick from my girlfriend's hands or an additional pair of tights to meet my peers on Capitol Hill. 

The National Black Justice Coalition started out the day with a caucus at the Russell Building. The eagerness in the room of activists was palpable; we all seemed to gain motivation from being around one another. We were given an exuberant welcome by the staff of the NBJC. Their initiative is run by a small group of stellar young activists, fueled by their community's reach. Twitter hashtags were exchanged and folks in front and beside me were rapidly drafting their 170 characters to claim their online “presence”. The founder of the NBJC, Sharon Lettman-Hicks, commanded us to “use this space and act up”, in order to truly benefit from the hard work of our brothers and sisters that may have never even walked nor identified within these halls. The souls of these individuals steered the ship that afternoon.

I met a young sister who attended an HBCU for a semester. She left because she found it difficult to connect with her peers and to also experience consistency within the gay student association there. She also showed me pictures of the damages Hurricane Sandy caused her family and community in Far Rockaway, and how they continue to rebuild and recover. Her attendance at the day's events truly exemplified Sharon's request to “act up”.

After lunch, I exited with my pals from Brooklyn Boihood and boarded the Metro with my newer compadres from the Bois of Baltimore—powerful queer folks prepped to enter the White House and speak about their similar initiatives. We arrived on the steps of the Eisenhower Building, greeted with hugs from Janet Mock who seemed elated to be in DC at this historical day and to gather in solidarity. Janet is a divine sister and an intense voice for our community's emergence. The lot of us wrapped ourselves into the entrance of the Eisenhower Building as we handed off our ID's and buzzed in small cohorts to stay warm and make connections. I observed the network of young, local activism happening in DC from sexuality educators, diversity trainers, policy analysts, and NBJC volunteers. Everyone wanted to help, everyone wanted to support, and everyone was thrilled to be in the room.

We dove right into the briefings from several offices- from the Small Business Association, Foster Care, and Criminal Justice. Our content remains confidential but the room rumbled with questions and it became a bit of a relay to get up to the microphone to air a concern.

The evening was completed with the reception hosted by the Human Rights Coalition. I met up with a pal and brilliant feminist and “politicked” with excitement while getting lost on 17th street. At the reception, we indulged in second helpings of community with performances and folks plugging their initiatives. I left quickly to catch the train and record my inspiration from the day in my fluorescent notebook.

That night, I returned to Frida. She stared at me, silently, as I peeled off my dress and emptied my thoughts. The previous night, I had decided to hang a September portrait of her from 1941. In the photograph, her long braid was coiled comfortably on top of her head and her eyes were slightly weary. Frida was in reaction. She looked ready, and prepared to make a move.