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Wiley Wandering

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February 26, 2008

Seattle, Senior Citizenry, Sushi and Sisters: Part II

After doing six “Nigger-word” workshops in two days all over Seattle here I was introducing myself to a table of four highly intelligent, very cool, extremely witty, visually engaging women. My buddy, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. and I had been invited to join this eclectic group of professional women for dinner and drinks at Wasabi Sushi in Seattle’s Belltown district after one of our presentations. Because we had arrived somewhat fashionably late they had to relocate from a smaller table to a table that was only slightly larger with the two of us joining them. I decided to demonstrate how considerate I could be by introducing myself to them and apologizing to them for the inconvenience they would be experiencing at our expense. When I extended my hand and said "Hello, I am J.W. and I just wanted to introduce myself and apologize for any inconvenience,” one of the women said "Did you say your name was J-man?" I said "What?" Her friends were all shocked as well as floating between some level of embarrassment and laughter! I looked at her and then repeated what her friend had just asked her. “Did you just call me J-man?” Now I need to tell you that they don’t come too much more chill than this woman. Where most people would have disappeared from what many would label a racially verbal gaffe, unlike that deer lost in the headlights, she looked directly at me and with the slyest undercurrent of a laugh, said “But I thought you said your name was J-man? How is that wrong?”

Aside from her tongue-in-cheek sophisticated way of sidestepping her not-really-a-gaffe moment, she was right, how is it wrong? If she thought I said J-man, how can that be racist? Well, on one hand, it isn’t. On the other hand, it is! Aside from the fact that J-man itself as a term isn't racist, J-man as a stereotypical assumption about a man's name definitely flirts with racism. Calling someone J-man is racist, or perhaps better said, a symbol of the impact of racism—whether she meant it or not—if she heard J-man because of stereotypes associated with casually dressed Black men. Especially if most people would have heard what I actually said when I introduced myself, saying, “Hello, I’m J.W.?, which appeared to be the case with all of her friends, even those sitting further away from me. In other words did she already start to hear, or expect, something like J-man when she saw two black men, not in suits, approaching her table?

One of the things Eddie challenges our audience to consider throughout our “Nigger-word” presentation— and it is one of our most provocative points—is what is the image of “nigger” that we carry with us. Well, not that she was thinking nigger (or not that she wasn’t either, albeit subconsciously), because I definitely didn’t think she was consciously. However, Eddie makes the assertion that because of the weight of the word “nigger” in our society, you can’t escape a dysfunctional image when you say the word. Conversely, as an identifier traditionally directed at African-Negro-niggra-colored-Afro American-black-Black-African Americans, it is hard to not associate it with any negative attribute of people who “fit the description.” This is not always limited to so-called Negroes either. It also proliferates our society in an array of intriguing ways, both by those outside of the Black (for lack of a better term) community, as well as inside of it. Yes, black folk use the N-word as well, which is where some would say the real problem lies. I’m curious though, how many of you have a take or any take on this word? Often people say it is confusing how some use it, some don’t, some think they can, and others state they won’t? What is your take? What are your stories?

Quite an ironic moment occurred prior to our encounter with the women. Earlier in the evening while Eddie and I were maneuvering our way around for lunch, we turned a corner and saw two black men on a corner. It was a downtown area and therefore, during the lunch rush it was fairly crowded. So, though we saw them, I don’t think Eddie or I really focused on them more than anyone else out and about. As we passed them, one of them said to us “Either of you two niggers knows where the Park and Ride is?” Eddie and I, actually on a break from doing one “Nigger-word” workshop and just a couple of hours away from doing another, looked at each other and chuckled a stifled, heavy hearted, laugh at the tragicomic moment we had just experienced. Can you relate, or have you ever had a similar moment? Like comedian Dave Chappelle says at the end of his infamous skit “The Niggar Family,” “This racism is killing me.”

Okay, so back to Eddie, the women folk, and me. The lovely woman who had referred to me as J-man, turned out to be amazing, as did her sister (both Canadian), the woman who orchestrated the dinner, and their feisty red headed friend from high school, also Canadian. We consistently revisited the moment amongst martinis and multiple shots of unfiltered sake that was described by these bodacious women in ways that I can’t go into during the family hour. We actually talked, laughed, assessed, kidded, teased, considered, unpacked, dismissed, cajoled, and digressed. While we only spent about 30 minutes in total ever discussing the “J-man moment,” we probably brought everything to the conversation on J-man and its subsequent implications that most would bring, except ridicule. We hung out in this bar for 210 minutes (3 ½ hours, for those of you who got tripped out about how I chose to give you the time). Everyone was chill, even in the passionate articulation of a point. That was really fascinating. It was like catching lightning in a bottle. It may not happen again, and most will never experience it.

At the end of the day though, the J-man moment still fascinates me for both its simplicity and complexity. Why do you think that is?

February 20, 2008

Soaring to Seattle, Senior Citizenry, Sushi and Sisters: Part I

Okay, so here is the context! Recently I traveled to Seattle, Washington, to co-present six “N-word” sessions with a very good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. Now, you can’t even imagine what a trip (yes, a journey) that was! We engaged the City of Seattle, a community college, a private K-12 school, an organization of professional educators, a large, underrepresented High School, and a community center all in two days. More importantly, the conversation that we immersed all these different groups in was one that almost all of them had never had outside of their comfort zone. Black folk do not discuss with White folk the pain and/or pleasure they find in using the N-word . Mexicans, Asians, and First Peoples don’t discuss their take on the N-word with others. Many White folk seldom if ever examine the moral implications of their bystander status when others use the term around them. But you best believe, all of these groups have a take on this problematic word and it would blow you away to be in an extended conversation with Eddie and I. We are two like minded people when it comes to our passion for social justice, but we are light years away from one another in terms of our ideology of its problematic nature, as well as how use of the word may suggest something about certain types of people that it doesn’t suggest about others!

Eddie is the founder of one of the fastest growing conferences in the country, The White Privilege Conference. Before some of you get too uncomfortable about the name of the conference and what it might entail (though that might be a sign that you have some things you may need to explore, if not address about yourself) this is a conference that attracts a who’s who of white scholars committed to the social justice movement (Peggy Macintosh, Robert Jensen, Jean Kilbourne, James Loewen, Jane Elliott) as well as the usual suspects of underrepresented scholars (bell hooks, Cornel West, Michael ‘Eric Dyson, Lee Mun Wah). Suffice it to say, this conference is large and getting larger. Eddie as the architect has grown quite large himself and so it is real cool for me to have the opportunity to hang with my homeboy, a burgeoning (if not already arrived) superstar himself. Plattsburgh had the opportunity to see Eddie. He came to town and joined me in doing the “N-word” at SUNY Plattsburgh.

On my way to Seattle I departed from Burlington. I sat next to an elderly White woman on my first plane. If I had to guess her age she may have been in her late 60s early 70s. We initially chatted over Delta's tight scheduling and then further bonded when she shared with me details of her previous travel history. I sat and chatted with this woman thinking to myself what a strange world we live in. Here we are today, this beautiful elderly White woman and I laughing and chatting away. 50 years ago we wouldn’t have been able to even sit next to one another. 20 years ago I wouldn’t have said a word to her out of thinking we had nothing to talk about. The other day we were two people who for a moment tapped into our humanity and rolled with it!

I changed planes in Cincinnati and amazingly enough, encountered an elderly Black woman. I was grading papers for a class and I heard an elderly woman’s voice asking me if I could help her. I looked up to see an elderly Black woman needing help with opening a breakfast container. She must have been in her late 70s early 80s. Later, she would request my assistance again opening a water bottle. Beyond those two exchanges the only other conversation that took place between us was her apologizing for all her requests for help! What a sweet woman!

The difference between the seeming health and level of engagement with these two elderly women aside, my wonderment about what age we become the person who needs assistance preoccupies my thoughts now? The slightly younger elderly White woman was vibrant, alive, and intellectually curious. The older elderly Black woman was reticent, reserved, and somewhat shy like. I wondered how different their lives might have been because of their racial experiences. Do you have any ideas about that reality? Both women bore the brunt of living long lives in a society that appeared to enable them to live long lives where they still generated an endearing energy, though one’s energy output was high and infectious, while the other’s was low and in need of a boost. Both of them made me think of one of my favorite sayings. Dr. Lynn Schlesinger told me early in my days at SUNY Plattsburgh that the one community we are all apt to join at any moment is the disabled community. While she said this in the context of ability, it definitely applies to age. If we live long enough we will age and our physical ability will become different, we will become differently abled. We will become physically challenged. When none of this reality is immediately upon us we easily can feel invincible which unfortunately can lead to our being quite inconsiderate. It is this inconsideration, or what I was once accused of, that I want to address.

I once had a conversation with an elderly black man who chastised me about being inconsiderate because I didn't treat him and his friend (a friend I greatly respect) with the respect he felt they both deserved! It is intriguing to have someone chastise me about disrespect when I rearranged my schedule to accommodate a request of his for assistance once. Or went out of my way to encourage his participation in community events in which my office facilitated. But none of this mattered to him. His dropping an unsolicited memento off by my office, to which I neglected to say thank you to him for, and my not making it to his friends big birthday celebration were enough for him to privately tongue lash me and interpret the entire situation as a major piece of disrespect on my part. I had to ask myself if his age was a contributing factor to my possible procrastination! Do you think it could have been?

How many of you ask yourself questions or seriously contemplate various answers about aging? Will I be healthy? Will I have family to assist me? How must it feel to be all alone as you are undeniably playing the back nine? While I couldn’t relate fully to the elderly black man insinuating I was inconsiderate by rudely taking me to task, I wondered would I be taking the same actions at some point in my life to some young man that may think he’s all that, when I don’t. Perhaps the cat is in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon! What are your thoughts on one day being dependent on someone to open a bottle of water for you, or assist you in clarifying a connecting flight’s departure gate? Are we prepared to be our grandparents one day soon?

February 10, 2008

Messages We Send Different People: Why Is Everybody Tripping?

Back in the days when I was growing up in South Central Los Angeles I had a healthy number of friends. Like most people my friends came in different shapes and sizes, with different views and approaches to life as we were living it back then. While it was the hood and no one was living much larger than anyone else, the way people chose to live was intriguing in itself. Some of the neighbors put all their money into their homes. Others put their funds into their automobiles. Many put their funds into their children’s education, sending them to private schools in an attempt to invest in a better life for their children. As an adult looking back on all those different flows my friends had I understand a great deal of the socio-political implications and influences on their parents behavior which ultimately influenced them greatly. But as a child I only knew that my friends represented a wide array of ways, and that it was my boy David who was a stone trip!

Now, when you hear people say someone is a trip, they probably have just bought into a slice of American slang that has become a cultural norm for the relatively cool. The use of the word “trip” without thinking about its’ true meaning is so matter-of-factly done that most people don’t unpack what it may actually mean. For me, when I call someone a trip, it means that experiencing them is like taking a journey, getting away from everyday type activities, knowing I may be headed toward a conversation or front row seat to something out of the extraordinary. So, when I say someone is a trip I really mean that engaging them is almost like going on an adventure! Feel me on this?

Back to David, yes my boy David was a trip! He was a brown skinned Latino who most of the people in the hood would have seen as Black, except his accent told another story. Life was a trip back then! As kids you think you know everything when in actuality all you really know is what you know, nothing more. (Damn, for that matter that would apply for adults as well, though we will argue against that point if pressed to defend ourselves. Oh yes, we are trips in that regard). For that matter, I was positive that David didn’t know who he was. Since his family spoke Spanish, and all the Spanish speaking people in our neighborhood were Mexican, when I got into a rag session with David, while he was calling me “nigger” or “Black chump” I was calling him “Stupid Mexican.” To this he would reply, “F-you Man, I’m Puerto Rican, not Mexican!” I would laugh and tell him he was really stupid, and insist that he was Mexican. I had never heard of Puerto Rico and so, since I hadn’t, it didn’t exist, and since he sounded like Mexicans sound, he had to be Mexican. But what was it in me, or you in a similar situation that would make us insist that we knew more than the kids we were forcing labels on? Is that what we do as kids? Why?

Looking back on it, it is obvious that he knew he was Puerto Rican! He was definitely very different from any other kid in the neighborhood, and I couldn’t figure it out! Going over his house always felt like I was entering a foreign country, yet he always was David. His mother would speak Spanish to him, and attempt to speak so-called proper English with me. His father, like most fathers in my neighborhood, wasn’t there, so his big brother and sister were like pseudo-parents to him. David, who ate different foods, talked different, even watched some different television shows, was always cool! He was always David! Later, as an adult when I realized that I had really embarrassed myself and shown my ignorance by insisting David was other than he was, I discovered that one of the worst things we can do to someone is commit to an opinion we have on them simply because they fit a societal image. As kids we can’t help it! What is our excuse as adults?

My daughter, in the local Wal-Mart at a very young age, saw a differently-abled child walk past her. She saw the little boy as very different from her. I also noticed the little boy. About a second later my daughter decides to turn to her older brother and let him know that the “different” little boy was “weird.” Hearing this, I took my daughter into the center of the store, and told her (and her brother) to stand there and watch all the kids that were/would be passing by. I asked her to “really” watch all the kids that passed by. After about five minutes (an eternity to a little four year old) I asked her if she saw any kids that looked like her. She said no! I then asked her if that made her weird! She almost started crying at the thought that her dad was suggesting she was weird. I then told her if she didn’t like being called weird, she shouldn’t call anyone else names like that, because since most of the time she would be the only black girl anywhere she went, that difference would kind of make her weird. She would go on to call other kids weird, geek, nerd for a bit of time after that, but she either doesn’t do it at all anymore, or hides it from me. So, either the teaching moment that I took full advantage of was successful, or she knows it’s wrong and still does it just because she can’t yet fully comprehend the hypocrisy of the moment. Of course I choose to believe she is enlightened about both treating people the way she wants to be treated (golden rule), is by her actions trying to set an example for others to follow (categorical imperative), or better still, just knows that calling someone anything other than their name is straight up wrong (doing the wrong thing). How many of you take the time to challenge your children about their perspectives, their “ways of seeing?”

I wonder if I had never had a Puerto Rican friend named David would I have even challenged my daughter about her name calling! I would make the argument that not challenging my daughter after realizing what a trip I must have been when I was young would have made me even more of a trip! If you think so, why is that? Why would it have been a trip for me not to challenge my daughter? More so, how much of a trip is it that you don’t challenge more people than you do?

Hey, don’t get mad at me for challenging you in this blog. You must want me to challenge you if you wander with me, which makes you as much of a trip as me, which is why you wander with Wiley!!!

February 5, 2008

Dressed Up with Nowhere to Go: The Complexity of Hypocrisy, Racial Pride & Social Justice!

So, we know the different statements that are made when we are undressed. But what are we saying when we get dressed! When I put on attire that says anything like “I’m black and I’m proud,” what statement is that attire saying to others? What does it say to you?

I remember being asked to engage students at a local school a few years ago on the issue of them wearing Confederate Flag attire. Should that have been an issue at all? Many people—especially a large number of students at the school that requested my assistance—were appalled at the fact that their students would don such garments. Others said it was a symbol of pride in their heritage. The actual mantra defenders of the confederate attire used to advance their position was “heritage, not hate.” I don’t want to offend anyone’s heritage, but I hated that mantra!

Do we have a right to challenge someone’s pride in their heritage? Is it a double standard to challenge one groups’ clothing and not another’s. Why is it okay for black people to have black pride, but not whites to have white pride? Come on, you know damn well that many of you have had this thought before. Let’s talk! Drop it like its hot!

I have a hat that says “BOTA” which means “Brothers of the Academy.” Is that racist? Well, technically the word “brother” could be construed as such, since it implies, more often than not, black maleness. Native American, Latino and Asian males that hang with the home boys often receive that consideration themselves whilst amongst Blacks. Even some white males “with flava” that I have encountered in my lifetime earn those stripes as well (if you don’t know what flava is, you need to ask someone). But is having BOTA on your hat equivalent to having a confederate flag on your hat?. Does the symbol of educated black men within a spectrum of a national organization of college oriented men suggest anything racist? It shouldn’t and it should. It isn’t racist in the sense that it isn’t designed to hurt anyone, only advance a group that has been systematically constrained by governmental policy and procedures within a so-called democratic country. It is racist in that the organization BOTA is all about undermining the privileges of those (mostly white) who have systematically contributed to the internalized oppression of black folk so that they may seek advantage/privilege while appearing as if they aren’t. The representation of a confederate flag or any racial statement on a hat is most likely a symbol of heritage or some type of pride for many. But it is also is a symbol of insensitivity towards many, a symbol of a type of privilege that clearly states I don’t have to be concerned about how you interpret my messages. My only response to seeing any overt statement on someone’s hat is would they be bold enough to wear it amongst a throng of people that might have a problem with the statement. If the answer to that question is no, then they shouldn’t be wearing it, period. If I am wrong about this, please inform me. But first tell me how it differs from telling our children that if they wouldn’t say profanity in front of us, why are they saying ill-gotten words/phrases in front of their friends.

So what about the attire we don in jest? Does it excuse us somehow when we wear certain outfits as Halloween attire? I recently visited a college that had serious concerns about some of their students who did exactly that, donned KKK attire as Halloween garb. Wasn’t it Prince Harry who decided to dress as a Nazi for some costume party? Doesn’t it seem that every 3-5 years in the news we get some type of sound bite about a social insensitivity? Doesn’t it speak specifically to the fact that we aren’t educating our youth early and often enough about respect for differences?

A colleague of mine, a White woman, shared with me that she bought her partner, a White Male, a White Privilege sweat top. She said he was excited to have it, but somewhat uncomfortable wearing it, especially in this area. Perhaps while he didn’t expect to be beat down, or lynched, he knew he could just be socially outcast and on some subtle levels devalued for having too edgy of a take on racism! Both her and him understand that it was a White scholar, Peggy McIntosh, who coined the phrase while acknowledging the privileges her white skin gave her in American society. No doubt, if a black person made the same claim they would be construed as a whiner. However, with a White person saying it, though they may be telling tales out of school, it definitely wouldn’t be interpreted as whining. After all, McIntosh was only making the same claim a man could/would/should make when thinking about his privilege over women in American society. He may not access it all the time, but it is futile for men to argue their gender, their masculinity doesn’t privilege them, often, over women! The same can be said about those who have money in this capitalist system of government that we operate within. If you have money, you can buy honey! You get my point!

I remember as if it was yesterday when my wife and I went to a party years ago over her ex bosses house. He was a director of human resources. Traditionally human resources is one of the more progressive, sophisticated departments within an organization. They are the people-people. They are in the people business. So, we are leaving this guy’s house after having been there about 90 minutes. We were the only Blacks in his home and the only one’s who happened to enter his home through the front door. All the White folk had entered through the side door (my how times have changed). So, we are now leaving through the side door and look to our left and see old antiquated black faced, big lipped, figurines, historical Jim Crow artifacts that were being proudly displayed on his wall. My wife looked shocked at both what she saw, and then became overtly concerned at what I would say. You could see it in her eyes. I pulled my eyes off the wall, turned to him and said “Quite an interesting wall hanging you’ve got there! Quite a controversial piece of art. Do you know that many scholars are in discussion even today about what art like this actually says, historically, as well as what it says about the people who would actually display it in current times.” My wife looked at me, proudly, and then almost immediately transitioned into an awareness that I had just said this to her boss. It seemed as if she allowed all of her social justice instincts to override the fact that, on some level, I had actually been somewhat rude and self-righteous in my judgment on this man whom I was now treating as a perpetrator of social injustice. He was just a man who has been educated in the American school system and by the American media. His perspective is how we traditionally roll. When I fight to not call my son a sissy when he is on the verge of tears, I am really fighting not to become this man. I am fighting against my socialization. Too many of us just straight-out succumb to it without question far too often. What is that about? Before any of you get too sanctimonious about the H.R. director, people who wear insensitive attire, etc. make sure that you are not allowing people in your crew to be comfortable in front of you using dysfunctional language. If you are, then you are the complex person you are simply hastily judging. Damn, isn’t life complex in its simplicity while being simple in its complexity?

February 1, 2008

EPILOG: Mid Day Train to Albany

For those of you who read Midday Train to Albany Part One & Part Two, thanks for joining me on the ride. I travel often enough where it can get monotonous and/or lonely at times. Since the Albany excursion I have traveled to Pleasantville, New York and Paul Smiths, New York by automobile. One trip was with my son who not only "really" saw me present for the first time, but continually tried to finagle his way into the presentation. Oh, should I get overtly flattered when women comment on how handsome my son is, and then later tell me how much he looks like me. Why can’t they just eliminate the middle man (or in this case, boy) and just tell me I’m hot! I guess I will have to just settle for letting my mind “wander” enough to interpret or spin any compliments that are extended to him. This may allow me to overcompensate for the fact that on no one has ever rated me hot. What is that about?

The other recent trip I went on was to Paul Smiths, New York at night. The travel there was a bit anxious for me because it was at night, it felt as if I was traveling through a forest, and I had never traveled on most of those roads that I was encouraged to take. Thankfully it wasn't snowing or their may have been the first instance of a black man experiencing a white knuckle moment. Feel me! Both the Pleasantville and Paul Smiths road trips were experiences that were overshadowed by the events that occurred once I reached my destinations, which literally overwhelmed my consciousness (blew my mind). I won’t go into the details at this point, but talking about lessons learned, stay tuned.

Regarding the Albany trip though, I can only imagine people’s reactions to my fantasizing or lust of a woman outside of my marriage. I know many people would never admit to what Jimmy Carter and I, as well as CB and Steve, all straight up owned. I understand that much of that is peer pressure, or concerns about spousal respect. The peer pressure factor is something to which I refuse to consciously succumb. I just would feel stupid letting other’s opinions of me dictate my life. Yes, no one lives in a vacuum and we need to be sensitive to other’s perspectives on us and the things we do, but if we give other’s opinions of us too much respect we can become immobilized because their opinions are going to always be there, and for the most part those opinions are going to be lacking all the information that they need to be thoroughly informed. Think about it!

The spousal respect factor is huge. No one wants to disrespect their partner, their lover, the mother/father of their children. But if most people daydream, sneak a peek, check others out on the sly (was that a subliminal suggestion for you to check out Foxy’s blog), fantasize, then I believe there is more honesty in talking about it than internalizing it. This is probably why the majority of the women that have been in my life and I have not had problems with discussing the beautiful people that momentarily enter and exit our lives. Here’s a question: Am I the only one who has sat back and discussed whether my date, lover, partner/wife finds the person walking through the lobby attractive or desirable? Somehow I believe in doing that I continue to cultivate an awareness of what the women who have been romantic interests in my life see attractive in men, which in contrast better situates me to see what I am bringing to the table. Perhaps the big difference between me and many, is that I don’t pretend about my fascination with other people, including an appreciation for the beauty and sensuality that abounds in women. While I am not staring, or gawking, I most likely am looking and given enough time, will discuss it. And I love it when the women in my life are comfortable enough to tell me that some other man is hot. I don't necessarily want to know if he is hotter than me though. I am progressive, but not without some level of insecurity!

Another dimension to the Midday Train to Albany blog that fascinated me is the pretension about the way we see one another, and how unwilling we are to espouse our vulnerabilities in terms of our way of seeing. I know there must have been some people reading my blog judging me. I’m not stupid, at least not in the sense that I don’t imagine what people’s reactions might be to some of my blogs. I wrote Part One to entice people who are apt to prejudge-- to prejudge my fantasizing. I wrote Part Two to entice people to empathize with me when I prejudged, though many of those people (did I just say “those people”) may not even process their prejudice towards my behavior as wrong, while sympathizing with me about my prejudice towards the snack bar attendant.

People should be aware if not ashamed of themselves for the way they prejudge one another. When I succumb to prejudging others (prejudice) I am so ashamed of myself. The only good thing that comes out of it is that my dysfunctional behavior stays in the forefront of my mind long enough where I don’t do it for a while. Why is it we uncritically look at one another through glasses that were designed for us to often see one another as one dimensional objects? She isn’t a person who has found love, she is a lesbian! He isn’t a person who didn’t have the opportunities in life that you and I had, he is a bum! She isn’t a mother working to make ends meet for her family, she is a stripper. He isn’t a man who was taught to hate, or not taught to love, he simply is racist! We need to realize that the prescription that enables us to peer through those glasses is not one that really helps us to see better. In the words of Anais Nin: “We don’t see people as they are, we see them as we are!” Well if that is the case, then who are you, and do you really want the world to reflect what you have always seen?