Snorkeling, Racism, and the Mahotella Queens

In my Facebook feed this morning I found this great piece from singer/songwriter/rocker/Blues goddess Nedra Johnson about the first time she went snorkeling and about well-meaning white folks who don’t really get racism. Her entire post is below, here’s a taste:

It would be nice though if well meaning, yet racist, people started being willing to put their face down into the water and look at both the beauty they are missing and the effect that them not even realizing we exist is having on us.

I love snorkeling, won’t come out of the water until I’m blue and shivering, yet the image that came to mind as I read her words wasn’t fish, but a concert by The Mahotella Queens I experienced in Philadelphia in the 1990s.

Why that show, that clear mental image of the women dancing and singing tirelessly as members of the audience who were African danced and sang along?

Because I grew up in a viciously, openly racist culture in an all white town (except my mom wasn’t white – long story for another time). Because I worked so hard to find all that ugly in myself and unlearn it — workshops, classes, conferences, hard conversations, reading reading reading reading books by women “of color” (such an odd term for a group that represents the overwhelming percentage of humanity).

Because I was learning to get it. Then I went to see the Mahotella Queens. Holy crap. They got together the year after I was born and I was exhausted just watching them perform. As a woman with a big butt I was CHANGED that night — the way they used the motion of their butts to highlight the rhythm of the dancing, the way their skirts were designed to focus all the shaking going on. Why had I never seen this before?

And at that moment I knew why, and some of the ugly boiled up, a voice in the slightly-southern accent of my hometown, saying horrible things around the concept jungle bunny. I heard that voice, and I watched these women, and I just started crying. All the beauty that had been kept from me, all the beauty and power the holders of that voice would never ever see because they refused to see. All that beauty I was starving for, that I vowed to do even more work to get to witness again and again.

And the thing is, as Nedra says below, most folks “of color” don’t even demand that I prove myself to have been utterly wiped clean of racist white privilege crap, only that I’ve learned to keep the worst of it at bay. Same as the fish didn’t demand that Nedra have a track record of, say, eating only sustainably harvested sea food — only that she stop stepping up them, shut up, and look down and praise the wonder.

The first time I went snorkeling I was kind of eh about the idea. I mean I’d been to the beach hundreds of times in my life. Like ok… now I am going in with a mask… big deal…

Now mind you, most of my beach experience was Santa Monica and Venice area of CA. That’s where I grew up for a good many years. This snorkeling adventure was in New Caledonia which is surrounded by the world’s largest lagoon. So you could walk out quite a ways and not be in all that deep.

There I was trudging best I could with the mask half on and the flippers making it hard to step. But I got to a certain point and my friend Adam was like… “ok now you’re going to turn around and just fall back cause it gets deeper right there.”

And yeah… completely different all of a sudden. Big splash. But OK all is fine. I’m treading water. So he is like…. “OK so just put on the mask and the look down and float.” And so I have in mind that when I do this I will be seeing… mostly sand and a few sea plants and then occasionally… “Ooh! I think I saw a fish!” — kinds like shooting stars…. like ok it happens… but it’s an elusive experience….

I looked down into the water I had already been treading in and it was like the NYC of fish. I freaked out and had to turn up for air like “WTH?!?! How could I be here treading water and ALL THIS was happening without me knowing.” Like I wasn’t bumping into fish or anything and seriously… there were enough in a million different shapes, sizes and colors RIGHT THERE. And I didn’t know it.

Adam kind of laughed at my surprise. I prepared myself again with this new understanding and went back to floating and just looking at how amazing everything I was seeing was…

A friend of mine has a phobia about fish. And she wanted to push past it. So she committed to herself that she would try snorkeling. But it was huge and scary and she had to talk about it with LOTS of people to work herself up to finally doing it. And then when she came back to tell us about it, she said,

“Oh I get it. On the other side of uncontrollable fear lies unspeakable beauty.”

– – – – – – – – – – – –

I am reminded of all that because I was having a conversation with someone who I imagined myself trying to explain racism to using a light switch. Like… you are in a room that is dark. And you think you understand everything that is in the room, because you are accustommed to it as you have always known it. But when a light is turned on, things you may never have imagined are also there. Then I remembered my own experience with the fish.

The thing is… once I got in the water the fish knew about me. They swam about avoiding me. I’m sure it was easy enough for them to navigate. But I’m sayin’… It wasn’t until I put my face down into the water and looked that I even realized any of that was RIGHT THERE the whole time. Before I saw that, in my mind, all that was there was Adam and I.

I navigate racists, and I mean likely very well meaning racists, all the time. I avoid overt displays best I can, and I buffer myself against the barrage of micro-aggressions.

It would be nice though if well meaning, yet racist, people started being willing to put their face down into the water and look at both the beauty they are missing and effect that them not even realizing we exist is having on us.

Not sure what I mean is clear. I realize it’s a little woo woo and a bummer probably too to end a sweet fish story with talk about racism. I just know that I am exhausted by the racism that would exist if none of us ever talked about. And that is only amplified by the racism we are trying to talk about and having denied.

And speaking of great music and fat bottoms, here’s a clip of Nedra Johnson’s Fat Bottom Girls singing “Anyway You Need Her” at MichFest:

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