Black History Month Interview Series: Isaac Etter

Isaac Etter. Photo Credit: Sam Interrante Photography

In honor of Black History Month, I have been excited to jumpstart an interview series with several of my lovely and creative Black and African friends, and Black and African inspirations.

So often, the national conversation about Black History Month focuses on and centers Black celebrity voices and stories. While this is critical and important, I often feel that everyday activists, dreamers, visionaries, storytellers, artists, teachers, family members and creatives are missed.

Part of Black History Month is recognizing the unique and beautiful abundance of Blackness by insisting that Black is not monolithic.

The stories I am highlighting are the stories of trans-racial adoptees, immigrants, first-generation Americans, dreamers, artists, scientists, business professionals, entrepreneurs, and creatives.

My hope is that this series will inspire the everyday folk by providing stories, advice, and emotional honesty from other everyday folk. These stories are the stories of my friends – new and old. Their courage and determination inspire me to do my best, and to show up in the spaces that I frequent and speak truth to power boldly. And while these stories are their own, maybe – just maybe – they are also the story of all of us.

The best thing about Black History Month is that it reminds me that across history and in every age, there are Black folk leading and dreaming, reenvisioning and re-centering, questioning and bridging, inspiring and revolutionizing, loving and showing up as allies and all demanding equity and equality in the ways in which they can. Black History Month reminds me that there have always been local leaders and activists and every day folk striving to create sustainable change for all people. The great thing about racial activism is that we are always accepting new members. New allies are showing up. New voices are speaking up. And, these voices have power. You have power – never forget the power of your voice. This month, I have had the profound opportunity to listen and learn from my friends. You also have the amazing opportunity to learn and to listen to and with your friends and community members.

So, identify issues in which you are passionate and lean in. Ask questions. Find a mentor, teacher, educator that inspires you and then dive in with critical listening, education, allyship, and activism.

For all my Black and Brown readers, these stories are especially for you. Whenever anyone tells you that your dreams aren’t achievable, that you need a nickname in order to have better opportunities, that your language or identity or skills are not enough, that the color of your skin or the curl of your hair isn’t professional, I want you to remember that you have a community of people right there in that room or space with you, cheering you on and encouraging you. We grow by lifting others. We create space at the table by bringing new folding chairs. We cross bridges that our ancestors made from their backs.

For this month’s interview series, I asked each of each of my interviewees the same set of sixteen questions. Then, each had the opportunity to choose to answer the questions in which they felt comfortable and/or applicable. The questions were:

How, if at all, do you racially identify yourself?
Did or has this identification change(d) over time?

If it has changed, how and why has it changed?
How, if at all, do you feel that your geographical location has helped to shape your identity?
How, if at all, do you feel that your gender identity has helped to shape your identity? How, if at all, do you feel that your familial experience has helped to shape your identity?
How, if at all, do you experience Black HER/HIStory month?
What (if anything) does Black HER/HIStory Month mean to you?
What, if any, hopes do you have for Black HER/HIStory month?
What, if any, hopes do you have for racial justice work?
How, if at all, do you find sustainability in the practice of racial justice?
Where, if any, do you find hope in the practice of racial justice?
How, if at all, has your geographical location and/or identity influenced or informed your racial justice practice?
What supports and/or assistance do you find critical towards your work in racial justice?
Who or what inspires you to continue to work for racial justice?
Who or what inspires you during Black HER/HIStory month?

I am so inspired and encouraged by my friend’s vulnerability. All interviews are as close to word-for-word as possible. However, I did edit out some speech disfluencies when they did not hold specific value to the content (ie: fillers like, “um,” “you know,” etc).

I truly believe in the value of equity and paying minorities for educational and emotional labor, so I also compensated each of my interviewees. If you feel led and/or inspired, encouraged, or challenged by what you read and hear, I invite you to Venmo or Cashapp the interviewee, because accessible work is important. And, recognizing the value of ones work and emotional labor is equally important.

To start off my Black History Month interviews, I started with my friend Isaac Etter, whom I E-met on a Facebook Group for transracial adoptees. Check out his site here.

Isaac Etter is a passionate, energetic, and determined business owner of an adoption consulting firm. Isaac is also a transracial adoptee and often utilizes personal vulnerably in order to connect with audiences.

I hope you are encouraged and inspired by Isaac’s energy, vulnerability, and willingness to dive deep into complex issues of race, identity, and nurture vs. nature. If you live near Philly, please feel free to support Isaac’s work. I am a big believer in the power of networking. Share Isaac’s business profile, re-post Isaac’s FB posts, and financially invest in Isaac’s emotional labor.  

Because I learn best by listening and by reading, I wanted to include Isaac’s full interview via audio as well. The full interview is just about an hour and twelve minutes. So, if you have a little time – feel free to check out the full interview included below!

Also note that because, my interview with Isaac was so lengthy, I have not included a full written transcript. If you want to read the transcript and then start the audio, the transcript ends at 27 minutes.

Isaac Etter Interview

How, if at all, do you racially identify yourself?

I racially identify myself as Afro Latino: I’m half African American and Dominican.

Has that identification changed over time?

Yeah, so I think that my identity has changed in the last two years because I think that I wasn’t really in touch with my Dominican side, like at all. I really wasn’t in touch with the Latino side of me until more recently. For so long, I was trying to figure out like, I’m a Black person so I how do I do that, so I just like – this Latino thing has just been newer, and I never really appreciated like, both sides of who I am. But, you know – being Black in America and like learning about race on my own just kinda, it took such a forefront for me that it was like it was in the back of my head that I was Dominican. So yeah, I think that is why it changed.

…and, it is hard because High school especially boxes you in to one identity.

Yeah, a lot of job applications are like, are you African-American, and then in parentheses like, ‘Not Hispanic or Latino,’ and like, what am I supposed to click here?

Tell me about what prompted the identity change specifically?

When I moved back, I was running back into a lot more Latino and Spanish people, and well, you know, I look very Dominican. Like, I get that all the time. So by default, I get a lot of people speaking Spanish to me, and I was spending time with Dominicans and Puerto Ricans and I just started to lean more into that, you know I knew I was half Dominican so I tried to spend time in the culture, like – you know, I don’t think I have to be one thing or the other but I really wanted to like explore that side of who I was. And, I think being in that kind of setting where I was already spending time with a bunch of Latino people helped.

How, if at all, do you feel that your geographical location has helped to shape your identity (or not shape it)?

I was home-schooled. My parents were very Conservative-Christian and they were reformed Presbyterian, so I didn’t grow up in very diverse areas at all, and it helped me to not shape a racial identity because like, I was the only Black baby.

As I got older, I learned about racism and all these things. I’d say that it [geographical location] didn’t help. But…I dropped out of college when I was 18 and I went to live in Georgia and that is really where I was able to really kinda gungho-it. At least, figure out who am I also as a Black person. A big part of my story is having to battle Conservative people over race. You know, I was at Lancaster Bible experiencing racism. And, I was also experiencing backlash from my family because I was talking about race and stuff. And, you know, especially like going through all of that, I was thinking…I don’t know if there is anything for me to go back to.

The thing about race is that it feels very personal, and so I left for Georgia just believing that I was going to figure out, okay: why was I in this fight, and why was I involved in this fight. And, you know, for adoptees, we can be in this unique position for like we never have to answer for racial issues in America because we are really protected by whiteness and proximity. So, it would be very easy for Black people who are adopted into white families to just ride that cultural value and become Republicans and like Kanye and all that kind of shit (laughing). Yeah – it’s very easy. And, I think that is just who I was born to be, like how I was raised, like everybody that with my soft skills and everything I was really about to be the next, like, Black Republican.

People have been telling me that I should go into politics since I was young, and when I saw myself doing advocacy work, it just rattled so many cages – but there was something in me that knew that I couldn’t stop. It has been a hard journey when it comes to geographics. But, if I hadn’t gone to Atlanta and gotten the training that I got and the experiences that I got, I wouldn’t have been able to come back in the same way.

How, if at all, do you feel that your gender identity has helped to shape your identity?

Okay cool, so I am going to do a roundabout for this one, because I am a Queer person as well. You know, between the ages of 18-25 for people are very formative years, and adoptees have this unique experience that we have to go through because unlike everyone else who is just trying to figure out, ‘here is who I am,’ and ‘here is where I fit in,’ we also need to figure out like, well, ‘I don’t know my real family,’ so I also needed to figure out that. If you are a transracial adoptee, ‘I’m not with my race.’

And, I think gender identity either comes steamrolling down the middle or it just kinda hits you. And for me, like, I have known I was Queer forever. And, as I was kinda figuring out who I am as a Black person, and who I am and where I am going and it became so clear to figure out what was next, rather than to have like a pause, or two to three battle of who I am as a Black person and like coming out.

I think my gender identity and my sexual identity have created this fullness – like where I am now and what I’ve gone through, it just couldn’t happen if I didn’t go through it all. When people hear me speak – because I do bring it up – people realize that there is a fullness to what I am bringing rather than hidden pieces. And that is important because we are talking about real people’s lives and vulnerable journeys, and I think if I hadn’t gone through coming out to my family and the ups and downs and coming out to my community, then the work that I do would still be missing a piece. And, I think it has just really created a full form of me.

How, if at all, do you feel that your familial experience has helped to shape your identity?

My family not really understanding has been the biggest battle. I mean you go through all the teenage years and you do all the fights and then it was almost like- me talking about race like wasn’t what they wanted. I had members from my church calling my parents, and others were weird about it. And, not everybody was on #teamIsaac.

I remember finding some of the original posts that I made and they were like “Jesus wouldn’t have done this” and they were like, very still on the straight and narrow, but they were still outside of the ideals that white conservatism is on and so they just hit so many nerves.

And, you know, [I was] talking about the Terence Crutcher murder, and Donald Trump, and that was a very tense time in our nation as a whole, and I was getting deeper into my studies about racism and white privilege and I think that with all the back and forth, it defined a lot of why I knew I needed to do this [work] more.

I’m so proud of my parents on how far they have come on like, becoming woke, and I think the progress in my family was the push I needed to do it in other families.

How, if at all, do you experience Black history month?

It gets so blown out of actual, you know, like celebration of Black people. All of a sudden, everybody who doesn’t care about Black people any other time of the year suddenly gets their time to shine instead of a lot of things that are important about Black history. It’s not that I have anything against it, but it is just one of those months that has become kinda like Christmas. I mean, we can glorify this thing for a month and a year later..and it’s the same idea of Christmas. It’s like there is this Christmas month, December, and then in January we are done with Christmas. And it [Black History Month] is feeling kinda a bit commercialized now, and in all communities it isn’t. But, in a national way it is very commercialized. I mean, people change their colors and buy T-shirts, and people post an MLK Jr quote every other week. And, I think that Black History month never starts a conversation but is just like…where did we drop off last year?

It doesn’t on go throughout the year. And, like what are we learning in this month that kinda carries us through this year, rather than what are we doing for this month? And I think that is one of my biggest critiques of like the national idea of Black History Month. A lot of institutions and schools do Black History Month.

If we are going to celebrate Black History Month, and we are going to say that all this happened, then there also needs to be an effort to not suppress Black History too. You are not un-suppressing the history if you only take it out of the vault once a year.

There needs to be a lot of work in terms of how we do cultural appreciation and it is a really big issue across the board. And everybody in 2020, like we are still hyper-focused on the issue of diversity that we are really missing the inclusion part of things. And, so if we are not taking the diversity that is out there and creating spaces that actually empower them, then we are losing the point. You can’t create an environment that fuels and empowers Black people if only once a year you’ve decided you are going to celebrate them as employees, students, faculty, whatever.

So, you have to figure out, this ongoing trend even if it is monthly where we recap what we’ve learned. What are we actually doing in Black History Month that is a path to learning? We all know about Martin, the Panthers, and slavery, but there are so many other powerful historic Black people that are scientists, doctors and all these things that they can really fit into – so I’d like to see that more.

What, if any, are your hopes for Black History Month?

Yeah, so I definitely have hopes for Black History Month. Like, including people that actually fit what we are doing. Like, if you own a tech company, why are you not talking about Black people in tech? Like people in specific industries, not just MLK Jr and Malcom X…and, it is so easy to just do the cheap thing that I’d like to see people, companies, universities, actually take pride in what does it mean to actually create things that look like they took work. There is still white dominance in every field, especially where the money is.

 What, if any, hopes do you have for racial justice work?

I would say that I kinda, well, I didn’t do an official rebrand because I think that is kinda corny, but maybe I should have, but I did this inner rebrand from calling myself like an activist and organizer to calling myself a community builder. And, by that, I think that my work really transcended typical advocacy work and not in the way that it was better than it, but in a way it was doing more work that was very, very personal with people and individuals. A lot of advocacy work is with people but not necessarily in the same way. I’m doing a lot of conversations and one-on-ones which is a little different than typical advocacy work.

And, one of the things I am trying to accomplish is how do we treat other people and see other people as feeling. When we think about racism and sexism and you know, abuse, all of those things we think about those people, even for a second, as less than human, less than us.

If we have that kind of bias flowing through us than it doesn’t really matter what we post or what we get out there or what speech or rally you attend… there is still that hate that flows within us and outlives that. So, I’ve become really, really, intentional about how we break down bias and how we talk to others about how we see ourselves.

As always, thanks for engaging and joining The Ebenezer Project as we ask questions and dig in – stone by stone.

Shalom always,

Where Do Black Girls Go to Cry?

“The one person who will never leave us, whom we will never lose, is ourself. Learning to love our female selves is where our search for love must begin.”

-bell hooks

Dear Black girl, Dear Black woman, Dear Blackity Black Black You –

Black girls don’t cry. Maybe you know this phrase. Does it hit you in the gut? Maybe in the arm? Where do you carry your pain? Where do you go to cry?

I want to tell you that I cried a lot as a child. I want to tell you that as an adult I didn’t realize how hard I had internalized this adage, until I cried at work. Because, I don’t cry at work. In fact, I don’t cry – period.

Because nobody has time for tears that won’t change anything. Right?

Dear Black girl – wrong. Tears affirm our body’s validity. Tears affirm our righteous resistance to injustice. Tears affirm our alive and still here and breathing breathing breathing.

Tears affirm me – I am not ashamed to share that with you. And, I bet they might help to affirm you. To affirm your experiences. To affirm your enough enough enough. Your experiences matter. You matter. I hope you one day believe that with every single cell of your beautiful melanin.

A few months ago, a coworker noticed me wiping my eyes and asked me what was wrong. A retired judge and guest mediator was saying sexually explicit things to me, I explained, self-consciously wiping the remaining moisture from my eyes.

“I’ll take care of it,” my coworker promised. “I just – you always seem so strong – I have never seen you cry.”  

To be fair, my coworker probably didn’t even realize the connection between ideologies of strength and black womanhood.

 But I bet you know the stereotype. I bet you feel it in your arms and shoulders – carry it on your back that has been a bridge for so long it doesn’t even know it shouldn’t be anything else.

I bet you know it in your smile stretched so wide face feels like it is about to bust because you are so busy breathing breathing breathing.

I bet you know what it is like to live with it. Strong independent Black woman – it’s supposed to be a compliment. But we know the statistics. Statistics like because medical professionals believe Black women to have a high pain tolerance, they are routinely prescribed less pain medication than white women. Statistics like Black women in the United States have the highest maternal death rate. Statistics like – in a recent poll; medical professionals believe Black women have a special tolerance to pain.

Because they aren’t statistics. They are stories. They are last Thursday. They are last year. They are tomorrow. They are you. They are me. They are my PCP asking me twice in a row if I eat fried chicken. They are my friends saying they were denied pain medication. They are us.

We carry these stories in our chins and foreheads. We carry these stories in the tips of our fingers and the clack clack clack of our shoes. We carry them in our lips and hips and bellies.

We carry them today and yesterday and tomorrow.

We carry them and carry them and carry them.

Someone once wrote that just because you carry it doesn’t mean it isn’t heavy.

Just because you don’t cry doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.

Dear you,

When they ask you about Weinstein or Nasser or Kelly, it is okay not to answer. It is okay to walk away. And, it is okay to center the stories and narratives of Black women. Of Black Girls. Of Black Trans. Of Black Folx. Of you.

So many people want to discuss white men violating white girls and women so they can avoid discussing the violation of Black folx. So many Black folks are used to being relegated to the margins that vocally prioritizing the wellbeing of Black folx feels difficult at best and futile at worst.

Dear Black you,

Let me tell you this: You deserve to be protected.

You are equally as important and worthy and valuable as any other person.

And, it is okay to center your story and narrative.

It is okay to tell the stories of Black folx exclusively.

It is okay to cry. It is okay to cry. It is okay to cry.      

So much love,

For Colored Girls in the Era of Brexit or When the Royal Family is Enuf

‘Not a day goes by when some young woman somewhere isn’t doing a for colored girls monologue, making the voice her own, finding her own infinite beauty once again.”

– Ntozake Shange

This week, the world has watched in shock and awe at the emancipation? liberation? of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.  

And, as per normal, there has been a lot of speculation.

Why the change. Why the “drama.” Why the need for deliverance.

I must admit, as a Black woman in an interracial relationship, I have found myself particularly intrigued and perturbed by the assumed catalyst – now fondly nicknamed – Meghan thee Markle.

Because, while I obviously cannot relate to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’ life – I do now what it is like to be the recipient of stereotyped tropes.

I do know what it is like to be a Black woman married to a white man.

I do know what it is like to have people compare me to a monkey and ask invasive questions about my sexual preferences.

I do know what it is like to need boundaries – a lot of them.

And, I also know that in the era of Xenophobic Brexit, Trump, and Blue Lives Matter –a royal interracial marriage would do nothing to quell decades of unabashed and violent racism and deadly and invasive media practices.

Racism is deadly for everyday Black folk. And, living in a violently intentional crooked room in which Black women continually have to figure out which way is an impossibly brutal feat.

And, while historically the Duchess has remained relatively silent on race – the British media immediately began painting her as an angry Black woman with the dog whistle name: “Duchess Difficult.”  In Jeneé Osterheldt’s thoughtful article, “Meghan Markle becoming a Duchess could not overcome her black reality” she offers this:

Last year, BBC broadcaster Danny Baker compared Prince Harry and Meghan’s newborn Archie to a chimpanzee. He was fired. BBC also aired a blatantly racist animated depiction of Meghan as an angry black woman. Being biracial does not give her a get out of racism free pass. Everything from her baby shower to her guest-editing of British Vogue has been vilified.

Boston Globe

A few months ago, in an interview – the Duchess articulated that she was not okay. This was the same month that Prince Harry announced that they would be suing the British tabloids.

“There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behaviour, because it destroys people and destroys lives,” the statement read. “…Though this action may not be the safe one, it is the right one. Because my deepest fear is history repeating itself. I’ve seen what happens when someone I love is commoditised to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces.”

Perhaps not being okay and feeling isolated are two of the more enduring realities of Black womanhood. Aside from tropes, Black and white communities alike often perpetuate the stereotype of the strong Black female. And, too often this practice results in extreme isolation, deterioration in mental health and stress.

As a Black woman, I have found the story of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle particularly intriguing because they continue to renounce old customs by insisting on space for everyone.

The Duchess has a history of remaining relatively silent on racism – which her critics have often named (rightly) as problematic. But she also has a history of sharing her privilege and creating more room at the table – which was well documented on her (now defunct) lifestyle blog, The Tig.

Both the Duke and the Duchess have a pattern of insistently centering marginalized issues: mental health, veterans, environment, education of women and girls and ses equity.

And, it is equally important to note that Prince Harry and the Duchess have a history of making public and deliberate joint decisions, so it continues to unnerve and infuriate me that the Duchess often bears the brunt of public blame.

Too often in my own personal life, I have been named solely culpable for any decision which results in familial and/or relational distancing – despite the joint nature of the decision.

And while I understand and appreciate this historical moment, I also remain hopeful, awestruck and empowered to watch a Black woman stand straight in a room which was never meant for her to stand at all.