Metaphysical Dilemma

I don't know if you've noticed, but it is actually pretty strange for the name Austin to belong to a black girl. Growing up in the mid-eighties I could usually find my name engraved on little keychains and cups, but they were always in the "boy" section, never the one designated for girls. The teachers doing roll call on the first day of class always expected me to be sitting among the group of boys. I usually had to do jumping jacks to get teachers to see me waving on the other side of the room. When giving the librarian my card, I always got the second degree as if stealing someone's library card was my highest aim at 11 years old. If ever I was out and ran into another person named Austin… always a boy (except one time in junior high, in the Appalachian mountains at a corner store- the cashier was female; we celebrated!) But in my day-to-day life, always a boy. 

Completely fed up with the frustration of constantly being assumed to be a boy, I asked my parents why they gave me the name Austin. My mother's reply, "Your father and I had a terrible time trying to find a girl's name we both liked. Had you been a boy, you would have been a junior. Easy. But we didn't know what to name a girl. So I suggested my grandfather's last name, Austin. No boys have been born to carry on the name into your generation, so I thought you could be the "last" Austin. We both loved it."

"But why?" I insisted. "Why did you love it?" 

Then came the answer that changed everything. "We knew that if you ever applied for a job, wrote a resume, filled out an application for school, people would look at your name and assume you are a white man. We knew you'd be smart and charming enough to make it through anyone's interview. But we had to get you to the interview." 

And something clicked. It was true. The people named Austin weren't just boys… they were all white boys. (Even as I grew up and met a couple more female Austins… still white.) Let me tell you, that far from giving me a complex, it all suddenly made sense. People were curious about me, sometimes suspicious of me. People didn't just ask me once if I was "sure" about my name. (what does that even mean?!) People asked me twice or even three times. The surprise on people's faces lasted far longer than other girls with traditional boy names. I finally understood why. When people read my name, they had no expectation of a black girl waving back. 

Carrying around a white mans name has created some interesting (and awkward) moments. Most are minor- people who have written emails giving me the title "Mr." feel the need to apologize when they meet me in person. Or on the telephone I typically have to say my name a couple times before the caller realizes they do have the right number. Occasionally, though, its a really jolting experience. 

I've applied for a job. I got the interview. Its a group interview. I sit outside the conference room waiting for someone to bring me inside. A person carrying a clipboard emerges. They look at my resume in their hands. They look around the room. They look at the resume in their hands. They look around the room. Tentatively, they ask, "Are you Austin?" I smile and nod, pretending not to notice their confusion. I walk into the conference room. Everyone glances at each other. They look back down at my resume, too. They look at me. I am asked again, "You're Austin?" I keep smiling and nodding. I know what's coming next. "That is such a ______ name." The adjectives vary, but this is always the transition. People need to comment on it to move passed it. Finally the interview begins. 

Now this may not sound like a very traumatic experience. It only lasts a couple minutes. To be honest, the hard part only lasts a few seconds. But its excruciating. It happens somewhere between me stepping into the room and the glances at one another and/or my resume. There is a moment, when all of their expectation are undone. A moment when they must decide if it matters that I am not a white male. A moment when they must determine if their expectations will now be different. A moment when they must glance down at my resume once more to see if my accomplishments now mean something different. A moment when they must confirm with one another in silence by admitting, this is not who I expected. That is the trauma. 

In my body, I know that we have work to do because a moment of adjustment is needed. A moment to gather oneself. A moment to make sense of everything. Usually the moment passes without incident. Usually my parents are correct, and my charisma dismisses any awkwardness from the room. But not always. 

Occasionally there is a presence who simply cannot reconcile that I am not the white male authority that was expected. Occasionally, I find myself responding to questions like, "So who is really in charge here?" Occasionally, it becomes inconceivable that the lesson I taught is as good, as thorough, as meaningful as it would have been if only my name matched the expectations of my body. Occasionally, people aren't entirely sure what to do with me- so they leave the room, or hang up the phone, or ask me for an explanation. How? Why? I think some people genuinely feel deceived.

When I first learned to write my name, I had no idea it would be so subversive. I had no idea it carried meaning, expectations. I had no idea it was tied to race or gender- how others would perceive me. I had no idea. But I experience the "surprise and wonder" pretty regularly. 

Though most of this post has focused singularly on me, my point is actually for all women of color. My experience of being sized up next to my white counterparts, is obvious and sometimes over the top, but in a more subtle way, I think many women of color who spend the bulk of their time navigating white evangelical culture experience this.

Glances back and forth between white colleagues after voicing an opinion. Or worse, being "translated" after speaking our piece.  

Checking and double checking our professional history, "Did you really…?"

Demanding to know how we got here, wherever here is.

The awkward apologies when incorrect assumptions have been made about our lives.

Always wondering if we are being sized up based solely on our contributions or only in relationship to our white counterparts. 

Desperately trying to figure out what people expect when we show up. 

My name is Austin, so I notice the shifting in the seats, the long pauses,  the looks of curiosity. But this is not my story alone. It is one grain of sand in the experience of being a "colored girl" and Ms. Ntozanke Shange's words still ring with truth in my soul, "bein alive & bein a woman & bein colored is a metaphysical dilemma / i have not conquered yet"   


Pause for Celebration

Every now and then I realize that as much as I teach, train, and quite frankly bemoan how far we have yet to go in racial justice (let alone racial reconciliation), sometimes my pendulum swings a little far. Doing this work comes with great sacrifice, and those sacrifices are easy to name. In fact they must be named for the sake of our health. There are so many wounds that must be healed, confessions that must be released, disappointments that must be swallowed, hope that must be found. I think I do a disservice to this work when I am not honest about what it takes, what it risks, what it means. And yet. 

And yet, there are so many reasons why I find this work incredibly fulfilling.

I have some of the most amazing cross-cultural relationships a girl could ask for in this world. I have friends who come alongside me when I am hurt and wounded and tired and overwhelmed. I have friends who know intimately the experiences I describe, who give voice like prose and poetry when they say, "I understand." They validate my experiences with their own scars and let me rest in their arms. I have friends who get angry before I've even realized I've been cut. Friends who cut off the crazy at the pass when I am too tired to respond. Friends who let me take a break, not because they love me, but because they are just as passionate as I am- if I left this earth, their work would continue. Friends who use their power, their influence, their voice. Friends who would let me sleep on their couch. I have friends who make space for my own learning, growth, mistakes. I have friends with whom I don't have to hide. Don't have to leave half myself at the door. They would never allow it. If I actively tried not to talk about how it feels to colored today, the door would be locked until I talked. If I tried to avoid talking about my womanhood, they would bribe me with chocolate shakes or french fries or cheesecake until I said whats on my heart. I have friends with whom I don't have to hide or edit or sugarcoat anything.  

And I have experienced the most incredible worship. Sometimes it is hundreds of people singing in Mandarin and Spanish and English. Sometimes it is 5 women sitting in a circle giving voice to our diversity, our stories, our experience of America, of Christianity. Sometimes it is hearing the voices of "every nation and every tongue" rise in spontaneous prayer across a sanctuary. Sometimes it is one voice in Spanish, my own in English but united in the Spirit. Sometimes it is coffee dates and more cheesecake as I seek to grow in my own understanding of the experiences of other minorities. It is the grace that I receive when I am completely ignorant. It is the trust we share. 

And I have been on the front lines with the most incredible people. I have learned at their feet. Internalized their passions. Been inspired by their lives. Been challenged by their words. I have been protected in their communities, welcomed by their families, considered life-long friends. I have learned about history, given a new appreciation for politics, connected the dots around similar issues. My life has been impacted by kids and adults, students and teachers, lawyers and the incarcerated, social service workers and those experiencing homelessness, kids in foster care and directors of group homes, the hungry and the wealthy- my world is better because of them all. City or suburbs, even the rural appalachian mountains have widen my lens of my concept of justice. 

This work comes at a cost, but I experience life fully. I am not immune to pain but I appreciate healing- I display my scars proudly. I earned them. The disappointments come, but so does change- small wins, over time- lives changed. I have experienced great joy in this work. I have watched women find their voices, come alive, speak truth with grace and wisdom and depth and per-son-al-it-y! I have watched young men alter their educational careers and vocations to be fully devoted to this work. I have experienced the sacrifices of others. I have watched resistance melt into acceptance and become the fire that lights a new path. I have seen guilt and shame morph into anger and passion for making America better. I sometimes witness the ugliness of humanity, but I've also experienced its wondrous beauty.

So, today, I celebrate. 












This, along with the cries of his friends, the last sound Jordan Davis heard before slipping from this earth. 10 shots fired. 9 hit the car. 3 hit Jordan Davis. The circumstance in this case? Loud music. Jordan Davis. Trayvon Martin. Jonathan Ferrell. Renisha McBride. The circumstances are different in each case. They took place in different parts of America. But the thread that seems common among all the assailants in these murders is fear of the black body.

I warn you in advance. The verdict just came and I am a flood of emotion. This is me ranting and raving. I have no intention of doing anything other than sharing my broken heart tonight.

I imagine that if all I knew of black people came from the defendants in these murders, I would be left to assume that black people are absolute monsters. I mean monsters, like the fantasy kind. You know the ones that can pick up cars and throw them across city blocks. The kind of monsters who can scale buildings with superhuman strength. The kind of monsters who posses an unnatural form of power- the kind gained only by chemical reaction, abnormal genes, or a science experiment gone wrong. If all I knew about black folks came from these cases, I'd believe that black skin comes with an aggressive gene. A suspicious gene. A murder gene. Be afraid. Be very afraid. I didn't know, but apparently black people just can't help but be violent. So stand your ground. Be prepared to shoot. Arm yourselves. Get us before we get you. And this is important. It is important that all these young black bodies are monsters, because we don't mourn monsters. People who kill monsters are heroes. I don't watch many cartoons these days, but I'm pretty sure thats how it works. Monsters die and we celebrate the hero who slayed the beast.    

But here is the thing. These kids seem awfully normal. Walking down the street. Knocking on a door for help. Seeking out the police. Playing loud music in the car. Didn't I do these things as a kid? Don't I do them now? 

But this is different contends the gun-toter. These kids did bad things. They slung their jeans low. They smoked. They drank. They cursed. They listened to rap music. These were not ordinary kids, these were those infamous gangsters ready to take my life in a moments notice. I could tell. These were bad kids. 

And as much as I want this to matter. As much as I want to separate myself from the fate of these children, I cannot. I know no child saints- black, white or any other color. I know kids who make mistakes, who experiment, who get into trouble. I know kids who speak out of turn, who are disrespectful, who are angry. I know kids who get suspended and expelled and go to rehab. I know kids who get bad grades and make the day hell for teachers. I know kids who take a long time to mature, to learn from their mistakes, to make better choices. In fact, I hear there are a lot of adults who have these same struggles. But black kids don't have the luxury of immaturity. 

Black kids must be saints. Must be angelic. Must be Jesus.

I want to scream to the world tonight, that black kids are precious. They are beautiful. They are full of life, of creativity, of soul. Black kids are bursting at the seems with potential, with possibilities. Black kids are made in the image of God. Black kids are made in the image of God. They carry within themselves the capacity to love deeply, to give generously, to hope eternally. They could change the world, if only we would let them live. Black kids laugh. They LAUGH. They cry. They scream. They smile.  Black kids experience emotion because they are human. They.are.human. 

Black babies are not immune to the experience of life. They are not immune to mistakes or anger or frustration. They are not immune to peer pressure or instagram or clubs. They are not immune to friendship or media or hip hop. They are not immune from car crashes or walking or needing the help of a stranger. They are not immune, and they shouldn't have to be. 

Black kids should be able to live without needing a defense. They should be able to mess up, to ask for help, to go to the store. They should be able to talk back, to curse, to play loud music. They should be able to do all the things that other kids do without fear of losing their lives. 

Why are the stakes so high for kids who look like me?

Why are the stakes so high for kids who look like me? Why are the normal things of life so costly.

Why are the stakes so high for kids who look like me? 

The best quote I've heard tonight following the Dunn verdict came from Joshua DuBois, he writes on twitter, "I want young black men to know: there is nothing wrong with you. You are worthy of protection. Of care. Of love and of life."

I echo this statement.

Black kids- boys and girls- are worthy. They are worthy.

Black folks are not monsters who need to be stopped. We are your sisters and brothers. We are members of humanity, carriers of divinity, lovers of life. And we deserve to live.  


Black Only?

Okay, so perhaps you agree that having a Black History Month does make sense. I mean we all had to know the names of white Americans to graduate to the next grade level, but the histories of people of color have always been optional, elective, or unavailable. But what about the other stuff? 

Black Miss America

Jet Magazine 


Black professional groups 

Black student groups

and other "black only" things in America? Surely if any of these things were "white only" the black community would be in an uproar! Black Twitter would come alive and ruin the careers of anyone who even hinted that we should have white only versions of these things, right?! 

Well, so much things to say. Lets take this step by step. 

Since 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue this country started a recored of European domination that resulted in a number of "white only" practices. Freedom was white only. Home ownership was white only. Literacy was white only. Land ownership was white only. Voting was white only. Politics was white only. Equal representation under the law was white only. (And many of these were white male only.) So America has a pretty steeped history of racial dividing lines, but that history was created by white people. 

When these freedoms became (theoretically) possible for people of color, white folks quickly adopted Jim Crow laws, effectively barring us from occupying the same space as white people. For decades black folks got creative and began our own alternatives.  

Miss Black America was founded in 1968 when black women were not considered beautiful enough to place in the Miss America pageant. In fact, the first first black faces to appear on stage at Miss America did so in 1923… as slaves in a musical number. In the 1930's the Pageant formalized its racism by writing into the rule book that only women of the white race could could compete. A black woman would not place as a contestant until 1970, and wouldn't win until 1984. The racism of the Miss America Pageant did not hold back black women from celebrating one another. 

Jet magazine was started in 1951 when white magazines expressed no interest in presenting the beauty of African American women. In 1965 Harpers Bazaar used a sketch of a black woman as its first African American on the cover, before allowing her photo to appear. Ladies Home Journal didn't feature a black woman on the cover until 1968. Seventeen Magazine's first issue with a black woman on the cover was in 1971. American Vogue didn't place a black woman on their cover until 1974.  Even now, many of these magazines (and others) rarely feature black people on the covers. Magazines like Jet, Ebony and Essence have been sitting on our coffee tables for decades, telling our stories of beauty and success, histories and hopes of the future. 

BET is a relatively new business venture started in 1980, but it stands within a long history of creating our own media, much like black magazines. The creation of black media arguably started in 1827 with the Freedom Journal, our country's first African American owned and operated newspaper. Since the creation of the Freedom Journal, African Americans have produced newspapers, magazines, and yes even cable channels that are specifically targeted to meet the needs of African Americans. But don't be mistaken, when BET was created, MTV rarely showcased black artists in its video line-up until Michael Jackson broke the color barrier in the mid 80s. The creation of BET took new ground by purposefully featuring black artists and their range of music. 

The first historically black greek organization was created as a safe haven for minority students in a white college. Alpha Phi Alpha "initially served as a study and support group for minority students who faced racial prejudice, both educationally and socially, at Cornell." Other greek organizations started sprouting up across the country to meet various challenges and needs. Greek organizations have a history of service, fellowship, academics, and professional networking. 8 of the Divine Nine were created decades before the Civil Rights Movement. 

As segregation ended and America groaned under the weight of no longer discriminating against people of color in hiring decisions, black professionals realized that organizing, meeting, networking and promoting one another was one way to stay on top of professional opportunities. Many black professional organizations were birthed in the 70's- as a way to stay connected to one another, and as an opportunity to be available to the black community. 

I realize that even after this history lesson, someone still has two questions. 1. Why is all of this still in place now that segregation is over and 2. Wouldn't I still be mad if a group was formed for whites only? 

Let me begin with the first question. Many of these organizations, media, and alternatives exist because of resistance to integration, and have consequently been a part of black life for a long time. Alpha Phi Alpha has been around since 1906! It has a long history and tradition that didn't end just because of integration. Generations of black men and women have participated these greek-life organizations. Jet magazine has been sitting on coffee tables for 3 generations in my family. It is a household staple that didn't disappear when mainstream media finally decided to place black women (occasionally) on magazine covers. Our alternatives have become traditions. And we fell in love with those traditions while white people segregated themselves away. That love, devotion, trust and credibility didn't end with integration.  

Ok, on to the heart of your question about a double standard- Black folks can do this. White people can't.

1. Well, first I'd like to remind you once more that many of these were created during segregation (some during slavery). Our alternatives didn't pop up last week to make white folks upset.

2. America has a long, long history of forming white only organizations. KKK anyone? White neighborhood covenants. White Miss America Pageant. White drinking fountains, movie theaters, hotels, bus stations, bathrooms, hospitals, classrooms, and churches. We should not pretend that white only spaces never existed. "White only" was quite normal only a couple generations ago.

3. White only organizations DO still exist. I know we don't want to talk about them, but white nationalist, separatist groups exist around the world, including here in America. The KKK is but one among many, and the organization still has rallys to remind us where they stand.

4. There are plenty of organizations that don't have to write "white only" into their bylaws for African Americans to recognize whether or not we are welcome. There are still plenty of churches that have all white congregations. There are mainstream magazines that can go a year (or years) without acknowledging the existence of people of color. Television shows and movies can have all white casts. Private elementary and high schools can have all white attendance with only one or two people of color among hundreds of students. The Miss America pageant can go years without crowing a woman of color. (And despite having just done so, the crowning of Nina Davuluri was met with a furry of racist commentary). 

5 .Finally, I think its important to note that white ethnic organizations DO exist! I walked by the Swedish American Museum in Chicago last week. There are organizations for German-Americans, Irish-Americans, Italian-Americans, French-Americans and so on. They may not be titled "white" but it is doubtful there are many people of color in these clubs, organizations, affiliations, museums, alliances and chambers of commerce. Perhaps if African Americans hadn't been stripped of the knowledge of our heritage we would term our alternatives "Ethiopian-American" or "Nigerian-American" or "Angolan-American" but we don't have that luxury. So Black-American or African-American will have to suffice right alongside European- American organizations. 

Here, I can only speak for myself, but I have no need to riot against these organizations. I have written no letters, stated no outcry, nor rallied Black Twitter around this cause. Just as black-Americans have a long history of organizing for various reasons, so too have other white ethnic groups. But lets be clear, white ethnic organizations do exist. 

So, no, I do not consider black organizations to be racist, nor are they a double standard. All of these ethnic affiliations, in one way or another, have risen from our history of segregation. Their continued existence tells us that our integration efforts may not have been as successful as we would have ourselves believe.

Let us continue in this business of learning each other's history, of celebrating one another, of advocating for each other. Let us work to understand one another and our varied experiences of America, whether historic or current.    


***Update*** It is also important to know that most "black" organizations are not really "black only" the NAACP, Greek-Life, Miss Black America, HBCU's and professional orgs are open to others. In fact, the HBCU where my grandparents attended in the early 50s is now majority white.