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:


It’s not about Race – It’s about Racism

I had the great fortune to read a stunning essay by Tanya Steele about privilege in the wake of the Zimmerman trial. You can (and should!) read her original here: Black Folks, It’s Time to Stop Taking Care of White People.

Among many moments of her grief-informed brilliance is this:

We have to demand that white people speak up in discussions on racism, not race – racism. While we tell our thousandth story about being accosted, turn and ask a white person, “What are you learning from this? How will you change as a result of hearing this? How has the verdict impacted you and your life going forward? What will you do differently in your life, as a result of this verdict?” Something. The parade of black grief while white folks sit and stare has to cease. We did not create the conditions for our suffering.

This rang so true with me, because as a feminist I’ve been saying this for years about male / male-pattern violence—enough with talking about how rape hurts US. There was the time when women believed that saying “this hurts” would change something, and we spoke with clarity and passion and tremendous courage. And then the culture of violent porn exploded, and we realized that the perpetrators KNEW it hurt and GOT OFF ON IT. So the focus had to shift to making men responsible, making them understand what they were doing was not how the world is but rather abnormal, bad, evil, etc. This has now been happening slowly, with great social change campaigns like the “Don’t Be THAT Guy” ads in Canada, the truly radical My Strength is Not for Hurting campaign or the posters flooding Facebook with the items like “If a female friend is drunk, DON’T RAPE HER.” All of these make it clear that as a society we need to be telling potential rapists not to rape than telling potential victims how, maybe, they could not be hurt if they just behaved themselves.

So I, and plenty of other White folks, have been having a conversation about how our attitudes are the real problem, not someone’s skin tone or language or culture. It’s a hard conversation, both when you first start and as your knowledge gets deeper and deeper. But many of have experience with this. We know that race is an invented concept, not a biological one, and that it is about power and privilege, not about skin color or hair or facial features or language. We know the issue isn’t race, but racism, same as we know the issue is femininity but male violence.

So it’s time to just start saying this a million times a day in every situation to everyone we encounter: The issue wasn’t Trayvon Martin’s “race,” it is George Zimmerman’s racism — and the racism of the entire legal structure that gave him the gun once, and now has given it back.

We have looked the problem in face, and it, White Folks, looks like us, not like Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon Martin, Marissa Alexander, and the founding of the US

The murder of Trayvon Martin and jailing of Marissa Alexander aren’t just about racism —they’re about slavery.

Many groups of people face racist violence and discrimination in the US, but what African Americans, or any other people deemed to be “Black” face runs even deeper. This whole damn country was founded on these principles: Black people are the property of white people, and Black people count only as 3/5 of a human.

And these rules aren’t just legacy, but are still our lived realities, every day. White people get away with murdering Black people, every day, every day, every day. And Black and Brown men, imprisoned in large numbers in rural parts of many states (and hey, I’m talking up North here —stop blaming this on “the South”!) count as “population” to determine local congressional seats in the counties where they are imprisoned, not in their homes, yet aren’t allowed to vote for those seats. I think that’s pretty damn close to counting as only 3/5 of a human, don’t you?

Some days I think that if there weren’t for-profit prisons and strong prison guard unions the State wouldn’t even pretend to care about Black-on-Black crime; they don’t actually care about those killed. They only care about two motives: making profit, and maintaining white supremacy. Imprisoning people for Black-on-Black violence serves both of these, the latter by the myriad ways having been imprisoned destroys lives by making employment impossible, breaking up families, destroying education, denying the right vote and on and ugly ugly on.

Imprisoning white people for killing Black people might serve the profit motive, but maintaining white supremacy trumps profit, every time. To have found Zimmerman guilty of murder would be to say that Trayvon Martin was fully, legally, human, and that’s not how this country was set up.

Imprisoning Marissa Alexander definitely serves both profit and supremacy. What in the world would the US do if Black folks thought they had the right to take up arms to defend themselves? And this question goes to the heart of how the US was established to protect a slave-holding social system, for the deepest fear of that system was that the enslaved, who outnumbered the owners so greatly, would rise up.

I’ve already seen many many comments about how “The system is broken” or how this was a “travesty against justice.” But THIS IS HOW THE SYSTEM WAS SET UP TO WORK. And while the acquittal is a travesty against the abstract concept of Justice, it is exactly what the US justice system was set up to do —maintain the vision of the founding fathers. Who held generations captive in violently enforced slavery, raped women held in slavery, and sold their own children from these rapes as slaves.

Where, in those founding principles, does anyone possibly think Trayvon Martin’s murder would matter?

And, finally, because I found this on Facebook this morning and it so brilliantly sums up the situation, a quotation from Frederick Douglass’ My Bondage and My Freedom:

The slaveholders, with a craftiness peculiar to themselves, by encouraging the enmity of the poor laboring white man against the blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much a slave as the black slave himself. The difference between the white slave and the black slave was this: the latter belonged to one slaveholder, while the former belonged to the slaveholders collectively. The white slave had taken from him by indirection what the black slave had taken from him directly and without ceremony. Both were plundered, and by the same plunderers. The slave was robbed by his master of all his earnings, above what was required for his bare physical necessities, and the white laboring man was robbed by the slave system of the just results of his labor, because he was flung into competition with a class of laborers who worked without wages. The slaveholders blinded them to this competition by keeping alive their prejudice against the slaves as men, not against them as slaves. They appealed to their pride, often denouncing emancipation as tending to place the white working man on an equality with negroes, and by this means they succeeded in drawing off the minds of the poor whites from the real fact, that by the rich slave master they were already regarded as but a single remove from equality with the slave. The impression was cunningly made that slavery was the only power that could prevent the laboring white man from falling to the level of the slave’s poverty and degradation. To make this enmity deep and broad between the slave and the poor white man, the latter was allowed to abuse and whip the former without hindrance.