Feb 29, 2012

Black on Black Bigotry

She said the punk leaned over and said to another student - loud enough for her to hear - "Did you understand what she just said?" His tone was irritated. "Because I didn't understand one word."

She never called him "punk" when she told me the story. I chose the label because it's the strongest non-expletive I could come up with that conveys both his petty ignorance and my aversion to comments like this. It infuriates me that such a thing could happen at my alma mater, the so-called "Mecca" for Black college students, Howard University.

The "she" who shared this story with me is C., a mom of 3 from Cameroon (west Central Africa) who works & attends Howard U. full time. C. had just finished giving a class presentation. The "punk" is one of many American Black students who openly and unapologetically "diss" Africans because of the way they dress, the way they speak, the way their food smells, the sounds they make when they speak their native language, or any other aspect of their culture or being that can be singled out for insult.

I don't have numbers on how common this kind of "Black on Black bigotry" is but I live in a suburb of  Washington, DC, the metropolitan area with the highest concentration of African immigrants in the U.S. and I know a lot of African immigrants. Being ridiculed & humiliated by American Blacks because of your accent is a common experience shared by most if not all African immigrants.

I've often said "it's easier to love Black people when you don't have to be around them all the time." Nine times out of 10, this is the reason I've said it. When Black Americans flip the script and become the humiliator, the rejector, the oppressor to another person who looks like you and could be related to you for all you know, it makes me grind my teeth.

You see I'm married to an African. He has a Masters degree & another post-grad degree. Next year he'll add a Doctorate to his list of credentials. But American Blacks still sometimes ignore him & give me the "what's he talking about?" look when he tries to place an order for fast food, for example. They look at me to translate, like he's not speaking English... or like he's a moron.

It touches a nerve in me every time.

To be fair, I know many of the reasons Black Americans are hostile to African immigrants. They say Africans don't like Black Americans, that they look down on us, and they're arrogant. They say Africans come here and take our jobs. On the other hand, Africans say Blacks Americans are lazy and don't want to work and use racism as an excuse to justify their lack of motivation and substandard achievement.

The disrespect definitely goes both ways.

But here's why I think it's stupid for Black Americans to ridicule African immigrants, especially at an institution of higher learning. Don't they know that the African men and women whom they mock are the ones who will be held up as future exemplars of Black achievement? African immigrants are among the most educated groups in the U.S. The rate of college graduation among African immigrants is four times the rate of native-born Black Americans. Given that rates of college graduation among Blacks are remarkably low, if you remove African immigrants and their children from that "bucket", what's left is pretty pathetic. These same African immigrants are the Blacks that scholars and historians will use as evidence to show that we are capable of ascending corporate, academic and professional ladders of success. African immigrants and their children are among the people whose achievements will be trumpeted so native-born Black Americans can feel good about what Blacks can do.

I've spent a fair amount of time "schooling" Africans who make blanket generalizations about Black Americans. When the opportunity presents itself, I also try explaining to Black Americans the reasons African immigrants don't "get" structural barriers and institutionalized racism and how it still affects or limits  Black Americans.

Call it my little attempt to shift things (minds, paradigms, prejudices, antiquated beliefs) so stories, understanding, compassion and cooperation start going both ways as well.

Black, but not like me: African-Americans and African immigrants often have uneasy bond 
Wikipedia: African immigration to the United States  
YouTube: Black people in America hate immigrants? 

Feb 23, 2012

Redeemed By The Social Animal

David Brooks spoke at a TED conference last year. I listened online & was impressed so I picked up his book "The Social Animal" & flipped to page 111.* And wouldn't ya know it? Eric Turkeimer's name LEAPS off the page. Turkeimer is a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia.

Eric Turkeimer is the reason I don't have a PhD.**

I'd taken his statistics class & I flunked when I earned a C (& I'm sure that was generous on his part because I really was "C"lueless). I'd have to retake his class. No big deal. Just a simple fact.

The result? DEVASTATION.

That situation spelled "FAILURE" to me on every level. And that tells you how much of my identity & shallow self-worth was tied to effortless academic excellence. After Turkeimer, all I could think to do was leave. Which I did.

And now... I'm a stay at home mom. PTA President. Blogger. Writer. yadda yadda. My husband the shrink lists me as a "therapist" with his business (yeah, you can laugh... I know I did). But the cold truth is - I'm a grad school drop out. The reason I dropped out is I didn't pass Turkeimer's required stats class. You want to take the PhD in Psychology, ya gotta know stats.

Thing is, I can vividly remember a lingering sense back then that what I was doing & what psychology as a discipline was working toward... was all bullshit. There are some things you'll flat out NEVER be able to capture using a pencil & paper instrument. On some level, I couldn't imagine anything more mind numbing or more futile than trying to measure, carve up & quantify every known phenomena under the sun in a vain attempt to control & predict human behavior. 

My favorite quote for years after grad school came from Clint Eastwood's movie In the Line of Fire. John Malkovich's character taunts Eastwood on the phone: "A man's actions don't equal the sum of his psychological parts... It doesn't work that way." 

Hot damn, you can say that again.

A successful psychologist's career culminates in grant-funded research & tenure & articles published in peer- reviewed journals that no one but you & your colleagues read. I wondered: didn't you go into this field because you wanted to help improve people's lives? Are you sure those articles you wrote that no one reads is really going to improve the lives of those single moms you collected data on?

I wasn't convinced then & I'm even less convinced now.

What flipped the switch for me about Brooks' reference was how Turkeimer's study was used to illustrate the FAILURE of statistics to determine the causes of Black poverty. Victory bells went off in my head. I could've told him that 17 years ago... and I didn't need a fricking PhD to do it either! 

According to Brooks: "Turkeimer had spent years tring to find which parts of grown up with a poor background produced the most negative results... but when he tried to measure the impact of specific variables, he found there was nothing there." Wow, what's that like to dedicate decades of your life on this approach to problem solving, to have a career based on dissecting & measuring psychological motivation to predict human behavior & have one of your greatest efforts turn up... nothing.  

Brooks explained: "It means you don't try to break down those effects into constituent parts."  No kidding.

According to Brooks, I entered the grad program contaminated with what Turkeimer calls "The Gloomy Prospect", because I was already convinced there's no way to pin down & clarify the causes of human behavior or trace the sources of behavior. Damn straight.

In Brooks' unique narrative, "the lesson was: Fixate on the whole... no specific pieces..."

I couldn't have said it better myself unless I was a villain starring in a Clint Eastwood movie.

* 111 is "good" number for me by the way... whenever I see it, it's like the universe is giving me a nudge

** I'm overstating his role, I admit. Truth is, I quit. But the main reason I quit is I didn't pass his class. I guess that makes him the catalyst if not the cause

Feb 18, 2012

Letter to Christians on Abortion: Put Up or Shut Up

I wonder what most churches would do if Roe v. Wade was really overturned. What would most churches do about all those unwanted babies? Would we see an up tic in sermons encouraging Christians to adopt? Would churches sponsor mass adoptions? Or pour money into a Christian-sponsored fostering systems & orphanages or set up programs to support & mentor young mothers who got knocked up by a guy who's already out of the picture? Many of these women won't want to carry the baby to term but will be forced to because abortions are now illegal.

What supports are Christians prepared to provide when Roe v. Wade has been struck down? 

I may be overstating it, but I'm willing to bet many if not most Christian anti-abortion conservatives are also "small government" advocates. Less government means it's not the government's responsibility to care for all the babies that are born because Roe v. Wade gets struck down. Some conservatives wax poetic about a utopian past (did it ever really exist?) when we looked out for each other, where we cared for others in our community. Here is the church's perfect opportunity to step in and care for the 1 million babies born every year to women who would have preferred to terminate the pregnancy.

I want to know right here and now what churches are doing to persuade women not to have abortions other than publicly shaming them or terrorizing them outside family planning clinics by keeping vigil & carrying pickets covered with photos of aborted fetuses.

Let's say hypothetically 40 percent of women who abort would keep the baby if the could afford to keep it. What would really make a difference to that woman is money & social support to help her care for her child. That is something concrete churches can do something about TODAY... churches could create cross-denominational partnerships & publicize it far & wide TODAY... financial help is something that many women who are torn up about an abortion would gladly accept. And it could make the difference in their decision.

Churches can provide monetary & social support not for the woman (many of whom would be judged harshly for not keeping her legs closed) but for the baby's well-being. Imagine churches doing something collectively to prevent abortion from a spirit of compassion & love? Jesus said the world would know you are his disciple because you love.

For Christ's sake, DO something so the millions of young women who seek abortion will have an "out." Give them the chance to go away to have the baby, know the baby would be cared for and loved if she decides she cannot keep it, and allow her to return to her place in society with the privacy of her decision protected. Or be the buffer she will need to tackle single parenthood.

Isn't there a scripture that says true religion is is to look after the widow & the orphan?

It's 2012 & I'm tired of the rhetoric. Christian anti-abortionists please put up or shut up already.

# 1) What are you prepared to do to help women decide to carry the unplanned/unwanted pregnancy to term?
# 2) How will you care for the orphans that are born?
# 3) Why aren't you doing it?

* Full Disclosure: I'm not Catholic. I didn't research what the Catholic church offers in this area, but I'd wager they have more than other Christian denominations in this area. 

Feb 14, 2012

Imagine Falling In Love With a Sammich

Imagine falling in love with a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. That's the metaphor I used to explain Bella Swann and Edward Cullen to my children. At 11, M. loves to read. Since there is no sex until after marriage in the Twilight series & we love watching the series together, I encouraged her to read it. I tried to explain to them the pain Edward was in whenever he kissed Bella, the way he was fighting the urge every time he kissed her from tearing her throat out.

Imagine you're starving & your favorite food is PB&J. Imagine someone smears a peanut butter & jelly sandwich on your face and you have to keep your mouth closed because if you have a taste you might devour it. And that would be the biggest mistake you'd ever make. You'd never forgive yourself if you did that. That's how Edward felt when he kissed Bella. She smells that good, that appealing, that appetizing to him.

But its more than that. He doesn't just want to consume his Peanut Butter & Jelly sandwich. He wants to marry it. He wants to spend the rest of his life with it. He thinks about it constantly. He kills to protect it. He'll even let someone else he doesn't trust and who he KNOWS doesn't like him & who he KNOWS wants to eat his PB&J sandwich too spend time with his PB&J because he wants his PB&J to be happy.

That's how Edward loves Bella... (I haven't gotten into the mishmash of bloodlust & sexual lust that's also fueling Edward's love for Bella... I mean she's only 11)

Stephanie Meyer gets ripped by many readers for being an awful writer but she tapped into something primal when she put pen to paper to tell Bella & Edward's story. No matter how ridiculous it seems to Twilight haters (and there are legions of them out there), that quality of male possessiveness, that near violent need to guard Bella from harm (even from himself) is something lots of females fantasize about. Teens, tween & beyond. Because you can't sell millions upon millions of young adult novels if grown ups aren't buying & reading them too.

Happy Valentine's Day... Hope your sandwich is as good as Edward Cullen's.


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