Why We Need to Talk About Jussie Smollett

Reading Time: 4 minutes
 Just because someone yells ‘wolf’ when there isn’t one, doesn’t mean wolves  don’t exist.
In the weeks since Jussie’s attack, social media, black twitter and conservative pundits have voiced everything from outrage to disbelief to condemnation to ridiculous and such outrageous alt-right conspiracy theories that I won’t even waste my breath (or your time) to repeat or debunk.
Hard side-eye.
Undoubtedly, the news coverage around the #Smollett case has been an absolute emotional rollercoaster.

What was said? 

What was done? 

What was worn? 

Who was suspect? 

Who wasn’t suspect? 

Who could we really trust? 
The list goes on. And on. 
For many, the “safest” thing felt like silence. After all. What was known for sure? Others unequivocally condemned the event.
 While yet others decided that this was the best opportunity to decry Jussie with a “I never trusted that basic fool anyway…” 
Admittedly, my bias is to believe the victim. As someone who tries to work towards and for intersectionality, I believe it is my duty to believe and trust PoC. 
So, after reading initial reports, I openly condemned the attack without much thought regarding if the initial report was true. 
Because, and I will say this louder for the folks in the back, regardless of the Smollett outcome, we should not be sorry for believing and sympathizing with the victim. Our first instinct should always be that of compassion and empathy. Even one hate crime is one too many.

The most recent Smollett insanity began when it was reported that two suspects of interest were being questioned by the Chicago Police Department (CPD), both of which were of Nigerian descent and one of which apparently worked with Jussie on Empire
Things continued to spiral out of control when, after a series of tweets, news stations (ABC27, WGN, Variety) reported that Jussie staged the attack in order to avoid being written off of Empire. While others speculated that Jussie staged the attack because previous threats weren’t taken seriously.
To stave rumors, Empire writer’s room and co-creator, Danny Strong took to Twitter to debunk the rumors and Fox also released an official report debunking the hoax reports. 
Even CPD denounced various tweets saying that the alleged “sources” were deemed “uninformed and inaccurate.”
Did I mention this was a hot mess?
As I watched in disbelief at the social media cluster (because this IS a cluster), I couldn’t help but notice a few takeaways.
  1. Insta-Culture Prompts Insta-News. Everyone loves to be first. Whether it is a shot of Gaga performing live or a live video of the latest #challenge, social media has granted people an insta-platform unlike any other. Critics suggest it is important to identify what is gained by insta-culture. After all, who benefits by fragmentary news? But, quite certainly, social media and insta-culture has also provided new access and opportunity for marginalized voices to share and name stories of hate
  2. The depiction of PoC & LGBTQIA Communities as “non-credible sources” is a direct result of White Supremacy & Heteronormativity. Say it again for the folks in the back.
  3. This event caused harm. From first reports of “alleged hate crime” to Jussie’s indictment to Don Lemon’s scathing (and quite honestly, bewildering -because, let’s be honest, what was the point of his spiel?) condemnation, this event caused and will continue to cause harm to vulnerable communities. We cannot overlook this. Unfortunately, all too often, persons from a minority community are “representational” of all persons from that specific community be it race or sexual orientation or religion. This event caused harm.
  4. CPD has an overwhelming history of reinforcing and perpetuating institutional racism. 
  5. Allies don’t know how to react when persons from marginalized communities harm marginalized communities. I cringed writing this. Already, I can hear more of my more conservative relatives muttering things like “black on black crime.”  Another hard side-eye. In my *unpopular* opinion, we do ourselves a disservice when we refuse to name harm. In situations like these, white allies often talk about “taking advantage of goodwill…” etc., celebrities prematurely end Go-Fund Me’s (ie: Jazmine Barnes), and nationwide activists search frantically for a new soapbox. In their effort to find language to name harm, maintain their status as the “woke” ally and deconstruct whiteness, they often ignore these types of situations. Or, they center their phrases around constructs which center whiteness. For instance, the idea of “goodwill” is inherently connected with power and privilege. Who gets “goodwill.” What stories are allowed inherent belief? What stories are incoherently suspect? What kind of people get goodwill and what kind of people get unquestionable belief until proven guilty? To be fair, Smollet’s case was (perhaps rightly) suspect for a number of reasons. However, the ways in which “goodwill” and respectability politics colored the reporting is and was telling. When a black, gay man lies all black and gay people are suspect.  
Here is what I know. Some people will lie. 

Most notoriously, perhaps, like the case against Emmett Till. Or, as my more conservative acquaintances point out: Smollett. 

People will lie about something race related and something critical happens. Do we catch it? (Hint: often it relates to innocence of the victim with wider implications toward a specific community).

Do we notice the power breakdowns across race, gender and sexual orientation? Do we notice whom the media classifies as “bad.” Do we ask or demand better? Do we interrupt our own friends and communities? Do we identify it as a “race/gender/sexuality” “issue,” and ignore it? 

Speaking truth comes at a cost. And, speaking truth consistently requires vulnerability and risk. But, as advocates for equity and inclusion, naming and speaking truth is critical towards creating and maintaining sustainable and effective change. 

What does it mean to name injustice and untruth in communities in which “represent” us? What does it mean to talk about Smollett in majority communities? What narratives do we need to challenge? What emotions do we find in ourselves? 

What have been your thoughts about Smollett?
Shalom always.

6 Tips for Engaging in Political Discussions this Holiday

Reading Time: 4 minutes

If you’re anything like me, you might be dreading the upcoming holidays.

I mean, midterms, am I right? And, of course they were strategically placed on day 6 of the Gratitude journey to Thanksgiving. Because – reasons!

As a (pretty opinionated, and the youngest) black woman in a white (mostly moderate, also very opinionated) largely conservative family, you can imagine that I have all the feels about the upcoming holidays.

Maybe you can relate?

So, if you are feeling anxious about the upcoming holidays, I wanted to share a few resources which I have found helpful, as well as my own tips and strategies for promoting holistic conversations while navigating difficult subjects.

Though, if you need an out, when I asked one of my girlfriends if she had any suggestions, she said: “Tip 1-10: DON’T.”

Anyways, here are 6 Tips for Engaging in Holiday Political Discussions. What are the tips and/or strategies you have developed?

1. Take time for self-care. Okay, so maybe this one sounds obvious, but if you are anything like me it is easy to skip the “obvious” solution. Don’t. Manage your expectations and set appropriate boundaries. It is okay to say that you need a break. It is okay to refuse to engage in devolving conversations. It is okay to ask for what you need. For me, this sometimes looks like setting specific boundaries, ie: I am invested in this conversation and what you have to say is important to me, but I need a ten minute break before we resume…

2. Identify and assess your goals. So, maybe you’re like, what? Goal identification and assessment? This isn’t a business meeting. And, you’re right. But identifying your goals before you enter into an -often emotionally charged – conversation is crucial for managing your expectations. What do you want from the conversation? Do you want to be heard? Do you want the other person to agree with you? Do you want to know that you are valued and loved? When you are able to identify and assess what you need it becomes easier to develop an effective strategy.

3. Check in with your body. Okay, so this one requires some willingness to be intentionally self-aware. And, it’s not always the easiest. But, as you are able, check in. Do you have what you need to feel supported? Are you able to dialogue in a safe place (ie: really distinguish between safe and uncomfortable. There is a difference. For example, a safe white space does not automatically correlate as a safe POC space). Are you hungry? Are you tired? Are you irritated?

No one is always in a “perfect” place to dialogue. People have tough conversations all the time without checking in. But, by doing a check-in it helps us to identify and uncover both our needs and our capacity to have sustainable, holistic conversations.

4. Ask meaningful follow-up questions. Are you that person that likes to be snarky? Maybe you inadvertently weaponize intelligence? When feeling desperate, sometimes I give a low blow. Reminder: These conversations -though, if I’m honest, any conversation – are not the place for these snark attacks. Respect one another to ask meaningful questions (ie: questions in which you actually want to know the answer and questions in which you don’t know the answer). 

5. Evaluate your Racial/Social/Political Goals. About a year ago, I was challenged to intentionally identify my racial justice vision and then develop a clear strategy. To be honest, I had never considered creating a strategy with clear identifiable steps for racial justice. But, I am so glad that I have as it has helped me identify how to engage others.

For me, part of my Racial Justice vision includes promoting and attaining sustainable relationships. Understanding this goal has helped me to identify that humanizing and valuing the ‘other’ is important to me, and it has also fundamentally shifted the way in which I engage with the ‘other.’ ie: if I care about the ‘other,’ I will refrain from disparaging, hateful speech. This does not mean that I will not speak truth, but it will mean that I won’t call Trump…well…a lot of things, etc., Additionally, this means the way in which I speak to my more conservative family members centers on humanizing and valuing their concerns in order to focus conversations while also promoting my own needs and concerns. 

6. Be kind. Okay, so I used to hate this phrase because I was pretty sure it was white fragility dressed up as a 10 Commandment…But…I have started to shift my thinking. Growing up, “be kind,” was that phrase your mom used if you said something a little too true to your sister. You know the, “that shirt is ugly,” type of thing. It was a warning to rethink what was coming out of your mouth. It was an invitation to be passive aggressive (I mean, it was an opportunity to exemplify tact). Whatever you want to call it, I had the opportunity of working in education and this fun little phrase somehow became our theme the past two years, and I discovered something. Being kind doesn’t mean being indirect, and it doesn’t mean letting someone walk all over you. I can be kind and still think you are racist. I can be kind and still ask you to check your privilege. What if kindness is a wonderful opportunity of telling the truth in love? Yeah, I know, overused phrase. But, something that I’ve been trying to practice.

Additional Recommendations: 

1. Christena Cleveland. Yes, I pretty much shamelessly promote this woman because…investing in black women (particularly those whom are invested in spirituality and justice practices) is critical. Recently, Christena began a biweekly newsletter entitled Justice & Renewal. And, this week she gives tips and strategies for engaging in difficult conversations over the holidays. Click here for access.

2. Dr. Amanda Kemp. Check out Dr. Amanda Kemp’s blog here for some vulnerable and reinvigorating strategies.

Shalom always,

Anger as a Site of Struggle

Reading Time: 11 minutes

Do you remember a time you were critiqued for being angry?

I’m guessing it isn’t hard to conjure up a recent memory.

Because we know how racism particularly exploits white fear of black anger.

Historically, black anger is the “ultimate” nightmare. And, it’s from this which ‘we’ “protect” white innocence.

 The expression of emotions, particularly ones such as fear, anger or sadness, have always disproportionately affected women but women in minority groups remain particularly vulnerable. Socially, western society categorically associates these emotions with unreliability, flightiness, weakness and poor leadership.  

It’s the masculinity box concept all over again. But this time with a racist edge. Consider characteristics associated with masculinity. In a (problematic) workshop I attended last Spring by Bryan Hurt, I found myself intrigued by the idea that society socializes men to portray characteristics within a certain masculinity box.

  And, if a male displayed characteristics which were not in the box, society would socialize/punish him back into the correct box by utilizing language like
“Man up” “Don’t be a sissy/baby/girl” “Don’t be gay”
It is constructive to also think about femininity in similar ways. Certain characteristics are “acceptable” and even expected for women. I don’t have to think very hard about ways in which my behavior is often ‘critiqued’ and sexualized by my peers. Not only do I, like other black women, remain vulnerable to critiques about femininity but because of our inherent intersection, critiques rely on racist tropes as well.
For example, in a recent display of frustration with a colleague, I said “I feel frustrated because…” before my early 30’s, white male colleague abruptly cut me off with the following humiliating 

*quick 3 finger snap* “Oh no you didn’t,” and “Tell me how you really feel”

My emotions were being critiqued vis-à-vis overt racist tropes of stereotyped “ghetto” black anger. And, these tropes were utilized in order to

1) Inherently devalue me as a black woman  

2) Invalidate my anger

3) Humiliate and degrade me as a black woman

4) Reduce my own (and black female) emotions as irrational and unregulated

If I could be reduced to a simple stereotype than it was easier for him to “validate” his inherent “white innocence” because I was being emotional/hysterical/unreasonable.

If I could be reduced to a stereotype than I could be dismissed.

If I could be reduced to a stereotype than I didn’t matter.

This logic remains inherently problematic but often goes without challenge primarily because the realm of emotional validity remains firmly fixed within that yet murky and tense site of colonization, struggle and political resistance. It is important to situate the ‘validity of black anger’ in clear juxtaposition with white colonization since historically and contemporarily political actors ultimately create and perpetuate policies and practices which further devalue, decenter and denigrate black and brown communities. In a hark to bell hooks’ Choosing the Margin as a Space of Radical Oppression, I offer this overt leitmotif: anger is also a place of struggle.

The use of anger as a site of emotional colonization and political resistance is not inherently unique. I am familiar with the experience of emotional colonization, with the friendly white modifiers, the reminders to ‘behave like a lady,’ to ‘smile more,’ to ‘behave like a young lady,’ to ‘not let anger cloud my judgement.’ Anger is also a place of struggle.  

I have been working to change the way in which I allow my anger to travel through me. Anger in the western world often smacks of individualism rather than corporate, communal, remembering. Often the radical one utilizes the act of anger as a practice of holistic historical remembering rather than as an act of individualistic reaction. For is it not radical to consider location of voice, place of struggle as a historical act of remembering rather than to struggle alone?  It is no easy task to incorporate or even always locate multiple voices within the struggle, but this task remains critical towards intersectional liberation.

My anger as a woman and my anger as a black person are consequently vulnerable to critique because of my inherent intersectionality. But indeed, my anger as a black female is also critically intersectional with the experiences of other black and brown women. As I think about my own experiences navigating racist emotional inequities, I also remain acutely aware of the dog whistle politics embedded within the recent racist caricature of Serena Williams by Mark Knight. The caricature in itself does not employ any new strategies. Instead, the caricature relies on historic Jim-Crow era overtures vis-à-vis the animalization of the “big scary black woman,” the reliance on the trope of white innocence and the debase, inhumane, bestial locality of black and brown women. Anger is also a place of struggle.

James Baldwin offers this particularly powerful insight:

“To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage”

Photo obtained from The Herald

In an excerpt from The Root, “When Australia’s [right wing] cartoonist, Mark Knight, tweeted an image of Serena Williams disagreement with Umpire Carlos Ramos in the finals of the US Open, he responded to public criticisms of racism by asserting that ‘it has nothing to do with gender or race,’ according to Melbourne Australia’s Herald Sun.”

Anger is also a place of struggle for black and brown communities precisely because it remains a site of present day aggressive white colonialization practices.

When speaking about the difficulties of expressing oneself in the language of oppression, bell hooks offers this awareness in her essay, Choosing the Margins as a Space of Radical Openness.

Often when the radical voices speaks about domination we are speaking to those who dominate. Their presence changes the nature and direction of our words. Language is also a place of struggle. I was just a girl coming slowly into womanhood when I read Adreinne Rich’s words, ‘This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need it to talk to you.’ This language that enabled me to attend graduate school, to write a dissertation, to speak at job interviews, carries the scent of oppression. Language is also a place of struggle. The Australian aborigines say ‘that smell of the white man is killing us.’ I remember the smells of my childhood, hot water corn bread, turnip greens, fried pies. I remember the way we talked to one another, our words thickly accented black southern speech. Language is also a place of struggle. We are wedded in language, have our being in words. Language is also a place of struggle. Dare I speak to oppressed and oppressor in the same voice? Dare I speak to you in a language that will move beyond the boundaries of domination – a language that will not bind you, fence you in, or hold you? Language is also a place of struggle. The oppressed struggle in language to recover ourselves, to reconcile, to reunite, to renew. Our words are not without meaning, they are an action, a resistance. Language is also part of struggle.

It was particularly powerful for me to consider this passage rewritten in the context of anger. Consider this reworked passage: Dare I show anger to the oppressed and the oppressor in the same voice? Dare I rage to you in a language that will move beyond the boundaries of domination – a rage that will not bind you, fence you in, or hold you? Rage is also a place of struggle. The oppressed struggle in anger to recover ourselves, to reconcile, to reunite, to renew. Our rage is not without meaning, it is an action, a resistance. Rage is also part of struggle.

Part of my practice as a Jesus follower relies on considering the politics and interconnectedness of faith as the practice of resistance and liberation. My experiences of anger and faith, while not exclusive to only these characteristics, are also inherently connected to my experience with location and space.  As a part of this practice and as a part of my own self-critical process, I have considered and reconsidered my own life choices, space and location in a practice of remembering. Or, as bell hooks so aptly states, “our struggle is also a struggle of memory against forgetting.” For too often we remain complicit with a system of that easy yet persistent practice of forgetfulness.

I have often found myself rethinking my own journey from small, rural, Pennsylvania Mennonite-town to Waldorf and Mennonite education to small churches to a small, ‘sheltered’ college in Kansas to a large, public, state university in Pennsylvania. From places in which I was called all sorts of racist words to places and spaces in which I was first introduced to liberation theology, critical theory, womanist and feminist scholars like bell hooks, Lorde and Harris-Perry, to spaces in which I now educate and am educated.

I vividly recall efforts to quell my blossoming racial awareness as well as tone deaf efforts at best, racist at worst, efforts to appeal to my sense of ‘white practicality.’ This practice of remembering remains critical to the practice of cultivating space for a more holistic and strategic plan for liberation. And, this practice of remembering also invites other voices and memories into a space where healing can occur.

For me, the art of remembering is inherently interconnected with my faith as well as connected with the practice of allowing space for and validation of my own anger and rage. When I remember, I can also name and notice. When I remember, I find space to give voice to truth. When I remember, I find space to heal. Remembering is also a site of struggle.

Historically, who’s memories do we remember?

This practice of remembering also compels difficult personal truths as I consider my own political evolution. Not all of which are easy to name or to notice. And yet, I have found that it is wise to consider how various modes effect Faith practice particularly in regard to archetypes of anger and rage.

The experience of space and location, like the experience of anger and rage are not reliant or exclusive, nor are these experiences identical from one black or brown person to the other. Indeed, postmodern modes as well as statuses color each persons lived experiences. Some folk must continually engage in actual political struggle against and within their communities. Some folk may ‘enter universities or privileged cultural settings, unwilling to surrender every vestige of who [they] were before [they] were there.’ Not all oppression is the same but all oppression is the same. This is logical and right. And yet, all of members of these communities are visible symbols of Otherness. “Our very presence is a disruption.”

It is important to notice and name the reality of this physical disruption when considering how black bodies are located and situated within white frames of location and space.

It is reasonable to suggest that Serena’s physical presence on the tennis court, regardless of her verbal confrontation, was a disruption despite her historical presence as a tennis legend.  

It is reasonable to suggest that Serena’s presence was a disruption because of the very nature of her being: black and woman, the same two entities in which was demonized and degraded for in the now infamous Australian cartoon (and, because each of these characteristics have been discussed at length, I will not spend time articulating the inherent racist overtones in the cartoon, nor will I spend time articulating why the cartoon is offensive). 

And, it is reasonable to suggest that from the margins, Serena’s insistence, her physical ‘no,’ her cry of wrongdoing came from a deep down place of resistance. Remember, anger also is a site of struggle.

It is this broken cry cast deep into the struggle which I believe holds universal tenants that resonate within black and brown communities of color. And, it is this broken cry that I believe is equally important to link with faith and liberation theology. For Faith is also a site of active resistance and struggle.

And anger can, too, when emboldened by love, be an effective agent of social change, political resistance and liberation. Let me be clear. When an action is completed out of anger rather than love than the offense is committed not only by the offender but also that in which whom is carrying out the offense. For love is the greatest gift in which we have been endowed. Doesn’t the Bible instruct us to love our neighbor? How then can we struggle for liberation if we are still yet shackled? How then can we break the other’s chains if we are still fastening chains of our own created by chain maker? No, I tell you truly, social change will only move into fruition when this comes to pass: when those of you whom are struggling for liberation struggle out of the deepest love that comes when one fully knows that one’s own liberation is interconnected with the other. This, to me, is the love for the neighbor.

I am often reminded of Jesus’ anger in the synagogue. And, I imagine, in present day, what would that look like?

·         Are there groups of people in which we anger do we find acceptable?

·         Whom do we expect to be angry?

·         Are there any specific adjectives we would ascribe to people whom are angry, and why?

While, this deep down cry is one in which often feels lonely and alienating. And yet, I am heartened by Jesus’ reminder that “in this world you may have struggle, but take heart, I have overcome the world.”

While it may seem like a false equivalency to link Serena’s verbal confrontation with the global struggle for racial and social justice (ie: isn’t she an elite black woman with some privilege and white adjacency?), I think that training ourselves to practice noticing the similarities within the struggle for liberation equally liberates and reinvigorates our commitment towards intersectional justice.

Indeed, Jesus calls us to be forces capable of announcing justice. We are transformative beings created for such a time of this: to announce injustice by being intentional radical agents of healing and transformative change.

When I intentionally adhere to noticing and naming problematic patterns of my own Racial Justice praxis, I find myself inherently convicted that the work of Jesus happened predominately from the margins. Situating the work of racial justice then into a marginal frame, I find myself able to then ask a new set of questions. Instead of wondering what is the risk, I find myself asking a ubiquitous Lorde phrase: what is the worst thing that could happen to me if I tell this truth? Today, when my boss pulled my extensions, I found that I could respond to her from a place of love rather than a place of anger situated in resentment.  

By owning my own marginal status, I liberate myself to do the work without the shackles of disillusionment. When I step into my own anger and my own rage at ‘the system,’ with love not only do I validate my own experiences and truth but I also empower myself do to the Jesus work of the radical struggle.

And yet, for far too many, this work often feels isolating and lonely. When we live at the margins, one may be quick to consider the risk. To assess whom will be lost. For, there will be losses. And, the risk is great. And sometimes the losses are great. This is accurate. And yet, I have found that if we continue to center fear as the way, then we have already lost our way. We have already lost the struggle. For there will be risks. In fact, the ways in which we locate ourselves and in whom we locate ourselves will change. To borrow from bell hooks:

Indeed, the very meaning of ‘home’ changes with experience of decolonization, of radicalization. At times, home is nowhere. At times, one knows only extreme estrangement and alienation. Then home is no longer just one place. It is locations. Home is that place which enables and promotes varied and ever-changing perspectives, a place where one discovers new ways of seeing reality, frontiers of difference. One confronts and accepts dispersal and fragmentation as part of the construction of a new world order that reveals more fully where we are, who we can become, an order that does not demand forgetting.

This experience of living on the margins effects the way in which we anger and rage. And, this does not effect a person or a community universally or equally or identically, although there may be similar themes. Anger and rage are unique qualities in which may affect one but may equally silence another. And yet, anger and rage are often indicators of deeper truths and sadness’s. Anger too is a site of struggle.

I am speaking to you from a place of anger and love. I am speaking to you from the margins. I am asking you to consider what it means to be angry and to love. I am asking you to consider what it means to be black and woman. I am wondering if you can hear me.

There are those whom speak but do not listen, and those whom will ask you to tell you your pain so that they can rewrite your pain, bestialize your pain, debase and degrade you until you will not recognize your story but it will be called your history. It will be your story, but only if you let it, they will tell you. They will tell you that you can choose your calm. I am telling you that it is okay to be angry. I am telling you that it is okay to love. I asking you to locate both. 

 It is okay to be angry in love. You can hold this duality. You can see both ways of being.

This is an intervention. This is a call to anger and love and to awareness.

 This is a call to do the human work of loving one another.