By Samantha Harris
A few weeks ago, a meme circulated through my newsfeed, that gave me a chuckle. It said, “Do white people know that the dogs in Flint (MI) don’t have clean water, either? Have we tried that approach?” I didn’t share it until I saw someone else do so. It prompted both humor and discussion. A disclaimer, before we continue: I intend to be as gentle in the delivery of my plain truths as possible, but I cannot guarantee that all feelings will be spared. Because I see a problem.
Last year, I lost my home and my beloved cat, Ollie, on the same night. The manager of a place where I had lived and worked, had decided to oust me, and my child, on a Friday night, over the word of a neighbor. For a year-and-a-half, I had lived surrounded by people whose worldviews were antagonistic to my well-being. I did my best to stay to myself. I code switched when I was not able to. More often than not, I found myself being emotionally abused by someone who felt I should call her friend. When I created distance, she would track me down, and give me a tearful apology and a poor explanation. The problem was that I was too different from these people, for them to tolerate.
I still see it in my everyday life. Neighbors, who have wronged me, hide behind their fears of my race in order to not face what they have done to another human being. There is always at least one person per day, who is utterly disturbed by the sight of me. I’ve watched children stare, mouths agape. And then there are the stories I hear from my other friends of color out here. There are so few spaces where we feel safe. And to this day, I fail to understand the fear that my neighbors have of me. I have done nothing to them. In some cases, I have been their victim. And yet, no matter what, no matter what they do or say, I am always the aggressor.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve seen a media buzz about a local pet place, that abused a dog in their care. Like everyone else, I was horrified to see how that animal was treated. I don’t take issue with any of the local outcry or organization that went into advocating for this pup. Nor do I take any issue with all the work done locally for animals; reuniting them with their parents, the care of the ferals... It’s encouraging to see people organize to right a wrong. It’s what we’re supposed to be doing.
The thing that gets me, though, is that I do not see as much passion in the white community for people of color who are oppressed, as I see their passion for animals. So it’s cool to drive across country to get a kitten you’re going to foster (dude, that’s awesome), but when a pregnant black woman is shot by a cop who she’s been harassed by before, somehow, she deserved what she got...or no notice from you at all? Why? And for those who say, “well, the pet is innocent,” true, but in this nation, we’re all innocent until proven guilty. One of those pesky human rights...
I see two types of comments from the white majority when it comes to brutality towards animals, and brutality towards black people, and other people of color. When it’s an animal, across the board, this is horrible. I’ve even seen pet experts in the comments of a video of a pet, that some may find funny. There is always someone there (usually white), who gives factual knowledge on why the animal may not be enjoying itself as much as it’s human is. Cool. For me, that’s good info. You want to be a good pet parent when you have one. Or so, most people think and feel.
But skip on over to the comments on just about ANY black issue. The majority of white people on those threads are critical, no matter what. There’s the tried and true (played out) reference to black-on-black crime. And even when you point out that people are more likely to be killed by a member of their own race, for multiple reasons, you might as well be bouncing a tennis ball against a brick wall. Your words always come back to you, having made no dent in the worldview of the other person.
I’m totally against the abuse of animals. I have one more kitty, that I didn’t lose that night. She was gone from me for several months. Her transition back into my house has been rough. But I knew the real adjustment had to be on my part. You know, another living being. She’s now my lap kitty, and she sleeps on my feet. I still think about my Ollie, I miss him, and I so hope he found a friendly doorstep. He hasn’t turned up. Losing him still hurts.
But, y’all...come on, why is it that so many people within the white community are still defensive towards any suggestion they could treat their fellow human beings of color, better? Why? What definitive proof do you have in every instance where you feel we are at fault for our own oppression, that we have brought it upon ourselves? Are we less than dogs?
All I’m saying is that I’d love to see the same energy the white community gives towards animal rights, thrown at the human rights of black and brown minorities. We are no threat to you. We want to live in peace, just as much as that adorable lab mix you adopted. I’m just saying.
This system of oppression, it is a machine, within which we all are some gear or another. We can change the function of the machine by changing our function within it. It costs so little to forward info about a missing black child. It costs so little to just read an article about minority (this includes black) struggles in your private time and consider it. Consider how you may be contributing to this system. It costs nothing to see where perhaps your life is better due to unearned advantages. And it costs nothing to realize white privilege is not the only privilege, and no one is saying your life was a piece of cake.
Honestly...living out here...I feel like I am less than a dog. Because I can practically taste the hostility with which some of my neighbors treat me. I’ve done nothing past live among them, and yet they see me, and my friends of color out here, as such a threat…
Are we less than dogs? If not, please look up and be aware of the active white supremacy around you. If you are not racist, then call out those who are. I’m sorry, but you wouldn’t care about your uncle no longer speaking to you if he believed animals should just be abused. You’d cut him off. So why not us? We’re human, just the same as you. Call out the people who have 1488 on their persons, vehicles, whatever. Look up what that means. Educate those who fly confederate flags; that the only history that flag represents, is racism, the South lost, and Colorado wasn’t even a state during the Civil War, so we for real have no dog in that fight out here. Understand that Black Lives Matter doesn’t mean that ONLY black lives matter, it means that black lives matter, too. And if you think we are just spouting hot air, then perhaps you should know that the history you were taught about this country, is diluted. And for those of you of faith, to ignore anyone who is suffering, well, that goes against the primary dictates of every major faith in existence.
Are...we...less...than...dogs? If not, here are some practical things you can do, to help.
If my words have upset you, I cannot say that I am sorry. I regret you feel discomfort, but I speak the truth. More often than not, it seems like the white community has more compassion for animals than it does for unarmed black people who die at the hands of law enforcement.
We just want to live in peace. That’s very difficult to do when you know the ruling majority sees you as a danger to be hopefully eliminated.
“I'm going to cry, I'm sorry” was the phrase uttered by Katrina as we concluded the exercise that the other coordinators for Black Lives Matter designed to help elicit emotions for some of the problematic and racist experiences of people of color who live locally. The exercise was handed out on note cards and each note card had a fear on it that someone of color had expressed to Jon Williams at one point. “My son is mixed, and I am scared for him” was the card that Katrina got, Katrina is a mom and said she gets mad when someone bullies her son already, she can't imagine children having to deal with something like that, because childhood should be beautiful and safe.
Unfortunately for so many people childhood is nowhere near beautiful or safe. The phrases were things like “I don't wear an afro in public because I am scared people will touch it” and “I am scared my child will be murdered by the police”. Things that we read about and hear about that we can feel sorry for but we can never understand the fear, the threats, and the inability to change or take off the reason people hate you. To try to relate anything in my life to the fear that people of color face on a daily basis proved to be impossible and I, typically with a lot to say had very little, and what I did say was through tears. I can't imagine being scared like that 100% of the time. As a woman I can sometimes do things to make myself less appealing, there is nothing a black person can do to make them less black.
The point of this exercise at a meeting about the confederate flag was to help the white people who attended see the inherent fear of being black, the fear that comes from all directions for things that as a white woman I have never thought about, so that when we confront people waving the confederate flag proudly without an ounce of remorse we can use these emotions, we can help people realize that the human thing to do is to take down a flag with a background in white supremacy, a flag that was used by the KKK as their symbol, a flag that causes unnecessary intimidation to people of color. A flag that represents a treasonous south getting upset that they were going to lose their slaves and fighting for the right to have them. Fighting for the right to literally OWN a human being, and in owning slaves forcing them to fight for the right you have to force them to fight. Dying in fields because you said so. That is what the confederate flag is. The confederate flag is white slave owners raping and then killing black women because they ended up pregnant. The confederate flag is every riot that happened during the civil rights era, the tear gassing of MLK Jr on his march to Selma, every “White Only” water fountain or restaurant, every picking cotton joke and every time you have locked your car or crossed the street when you saw a black person. We all know what the confederate flag means, to keep defending and pretending it doesn't mean what it means diminishes every step we have made to make Grand Junction more inclusive.
By Samantha Harris
What if I told you that saying that you don’t see color is not as benign as it seems? I know that many people see this statement as a show of solidarity, but as Donald Guillory so aptly put it, in his book, The Token Black Guide, “When you ‘don’t see color,’” you fail to acknowledge a portion of me that has helped to shape my history and my identity. You are saying that this history doesn’t matter, nor should it be considered. The color of my skin and race do not solely define me, but they do play a vital role in who I am. It leads to the likelihood that you will not recognize the injustices that people of color suffer. Colorblindness makes one blind and deaf to inequality, prejudice and discrimination. It renders you indifferent and uninterested in pushing for change. You are not colorblind, you are actively choosing to ignore reality.”
This is a strong accusation, but one with which I agree, because it is true. Saying you don’t see color means you get to not see when your neighbors treat POC poorly. When it’s subvert, you get to tell your POC friend to grow a thicker skin, even though these “tiny” events mark the daily lives of minorities in this society. When it’s covert you get to push away the conversation about what’s really going on, by pleading for civility. Because if everyone would just get along, everything would be alright? Right? Well, we can’t get to the root of the problem until we actually state what it is. And it’s not POC deserving the treatment they get because they’re less moral than white people. This simply isn’t true. Taking the actions of a few and using it to justify the oppression of that entire group is no more acceptable than any person of color equating every white person with Westboro or the Klan. Folks, you’re going to have to both give POC the benefit of the doubt, as well as engage those you know, who hold negative beliefs about POC. Those beliefs lead to apathy, aggression, and can lead to death. This is a life and death matter and saying you don’t see it won’t make it go away. In fact, it will only make the roar resound more loudly within your ears.
Within minority communities, we have this thing we call “code switching.” Granted, this phenomenon is not exclusive to those of us considered to be “other,” but we find ourselves using this behavior a lot, in spaces that aren’t friendly towards the things about us that make us different. Code switching is when a person changes their language or behavior, the better to assimilate (mainly for safety’s sake) within majority white spaces. This often involves downplaying the very things that make us unique. In a society where goodness and propriety are based upon the defaults of one culture, it can be necessary at times to keep your vernacular, or your quirks to yourself. What this creates is a scenario in which people assume the very things that make you who you are, are things you can put on and take off like clothing. When in reality, these things aren’t actual physical clothing that you don and doff, it’s a subconscious need to align with the behavior of the majority, again, for the sake of personal safety. The “clothes” are the code switching, the cautious movements, the tempered speech.
Code switching is nothing less than carving off pieces of yourself to protect those pieces from people and situations that are intolerant of them. This can be an uncomfortable process, and one that often turns into invalidation, once the people you find yourself code switching for, come to see your affected behavior as the default.
Having to constantly suppress your cultural quirks can be exhausing, when you have to do it daily, like at work. It’s well known that white collar spaces can be intolerant of POC and who they would naturally be outside of the workplace. “Professionalism” has become code speech for having to make yourself appear to be as Eurocentric as possible. For Hispanic people, this could be barring your native language at work (which happens all the time). For black people, women especially, issues of hair and texture are often brought up. I have seen countless stories of black women called into HR and told to straighten their hair. If you happen to be Muslim, you might face questions about the necessity of wearing a head scarf, or even having a beard. Folks, these things aren’t just red herrings we’re throwing out due to boredom. They are real events, and they are painful.
America boasts about being a melting pot, a place where people can come and live out their own version of the American dream, which ultimately boils down to safety and a chance to actually live, rather than just survive. Yet, for many minorities in this country, the realization of said dream comes with a very high price…denying the very things that make you unique, so that society at large can swallow the differences that you absolutely cannot hide. I believe that we as a nation can do better, and this starts with actually recognizing and acknowledging race in a way that doesn’t automatically assign negative character traits to POC. Choosing to not see color means that you also choose to not see the violence acted out upon the bodies of minorities, every day in this society. I’ve heard many people say that they can’t do anything about race issues in this country. Yes, you can. Recognize that the construct of race will not disappear, simply because you don’t want to see it. See that I am black. See that I face different challenges than you, living in America. See that the collective stories of minorities in America are not necessarily an individual indictment, but a call to action. And yes, you can do something about race relations in this country. Call out the racist. Even if it means you’re doing so, standing alone, in front of a mirror. This is not about judgment, it’s about progress. Our society is moral to the point of ignoring its own flaws.
The one thing that I think many people miss in this conversation, is the fact that we essentially live in the Matrix. We are being programmed, according to who this society thinks that we each are individually. We are programmed to be at perpetual odds with one another, due to media influence as well as our fears of actually sitting down to talk about these issues. I’ve learned that there are four things that each human being on this planet desires: to be seen, to be loved, to be understood and to be accepted. This is part of the human condition, and regardless of cultural differences, we have this in common. Imagine how much more we could all access the above things (love, etc.), if we were to stop being so afraid, and just reach out to one another.
To paraphrase Mr. Guillory above, when you come across a POC, forget that they are of color…but in the back of your mind, do not forget. Do not ask someone to become more like you for the sake of your own individual comfort. I would ask, that when you are faced with someone who is different, go back in your mind to a time when someone wanted you to conform to their standards that didn’t fit you…and how you felt. And strive to not pay such feelings and emotions forward to another. We can do this, we can actually live up to what the American dream is supposed to mean. Once we stop living in fear.
Dear White Women,
It was asked of BLMGJ what YOU can do to be good allies to women of color, this is how Samantha (a woman of color and coordinator for BLM GJ) responded:
Listen to us, please. Please don't pull a "Mrs. Millie" (Color purple) and get upset, telling us about what you do for us when you feel challenged. Personally, I am tired of seeing that. If all this work was done, black women would not be in the situations they're still in, in this nation today.
Being an ally requires constant emotional readjustment. I'd implore you when you read, hear or see something on this journey that doesn't sit well with you, do not immediately respond. Stop and think, ask yourself what exactly bothers you. Then continue the discussion. It is human nature to assume that the things that make you comfortable are based in truth. That is not always the case.
After election night, I decided to become more aware of transgender issues. And I loudly declared myself an ally, asking my new trans friends to teach me. Their response? "Um, no." And at first I got mad, and I was about to pull my ally-ship. But I'd read this article just a few days before about emotional labor. So I decided to do my own, and I realized that it was wrong of me to ask someone so exhausted from trying to navigate this system, to stop and teach me would I could learn myself.
Read black literature. I'm sure they have some Maya Angelou and Toni Morrison at the local library, albeit kinda hidden. I'd suggest reading articles from publications like The Root and Very Smart Brothas, to start. There's also a page here on FB called Not Without Black Women. Just peruse, and also understand that there is a lot of anger out there right now, and it's justified. It is. I'm sorry, but it is. We're human too. We're more than the labels this society has placed upon us, to cover up all that they've made us carry on our backs.
I will warn you, though. In the wider world outside GJ, the interaction with black women may have a bit more of an edge, given all we've been through. I try to temper my words as much as I can. I have my limits, though. Please take a good while before you jump into dialogue, for your own sake. Just read, and if you find something that just doesn't sit well or compute and you have questions, you can always ask BLMGJ. We may not always be able to give you a satisfactory answer, though. Some things just are, and I've learned as of late that there are people who consider themselves to be progressive, who stop short at issues pertaining to people like me. And that is very sad.
by Jon Williams
I was told before the MLK march that some black folks didn’t want to participate because they thought it was thrown by the city of GJ, so the city of GJ could be considered less racist. I assured him it was thrown by members of the black community and he should attend. . .
I’ve lived in GJ over a decade and I’ve always walked the line of knowing my place and how to be #AliveWhileBlack here. You listen, don’t create any fuss, speak well, don’t have polarizing haircuts or clothes, let people speak for you and fight your battles.
A few months ago, a black friend of mine explained that he recognized that his experiences while being black and living downtown were different, and people tore him apart because it shook the core idea of the city we live in. . .which is that racism doesn’t exist here (as said by the previous mayor)
When I helped start Black Lives Matter, it was to help educate the community on racial hardships. . . With a heavy heart, I have to admit I was wrong about something. You can’t educate a community who is unwilling to listen. . .
I’ve been told by many people that I admire that I speak in a way that isn’t polarizing to non-people of color (by using phrasing like non-people of color versus white people).
I interacted with four black women today and asked them to share their experiences of racism in this town versus what my experiences are. . .and black women in GJ suffer and hurt here. . . Maybe not all of them (cause I haven’t met all of them) but I’ve heard shared experiences from women who don’t know each other. It’s a discussion of racism.
You have to wake up GJ. Listen to these stories, check your privilege and truly listen.
Our black women need us, and it’s up to each of us to hear their stories, protect them, and share what we’ve learned.
I used to think this city tried to hide its racism. . .
It’s not hidden,
It’s just directed at black women
And it’s time we noticed and stopped it.