“Look for the Helpers”

Juniors Mural

The incident of slain teen Lesandro “Junior” Guzman-Feliz continues to devastate me and so many others I’m sure. It’s a story that is so horribly tragic and it leaves at least seven families forever traumatized.  There’s Junior’s family, overcome by grief, struggling to understand why a “good student and good kid who enjoyed playing Nintendo” met such a gruesome end.  There are of course the families of the six young men who dragged Junior out of the corner bodega and ultimately murdered him; then there’s store owner Modesto Cruz, who despite trying to hide Junior from his attackers, came under boiling hot criticism from the community that he hadn’t done anything to help Junior, and was forced to close his store. The only comfort I can find to lean on in all of this is the belief in spiritual agreements, and that this senseless and brutal taking of what seems to have been such a tender young life, will bring about something extraordinary; something necessary; and/or something beautiful. At the very least, that is my hope.

On so many levels, there are lessons to be learned from how Junior’s death came about; so many teachable opportunities.  I mean here we are, living in the moment of a thousand hashtags:  The #metoo and #timesup anti-sexual assault movements, as well as the #noslutshaming twitter movement,  are all aimed at empowering women.  Yet, the young woman involved in the sex tape tied to Junior’s murder now shoulders the weight of the death of a friend, because she felt the need to lie to her brother about consensual sex that she had with her boyfriend, a young man who Junior unknowingly took the ultimate fall for.  And then there’s the obvious cost of #hypermasculinity: a psychological term for the exaggeration of stereotypical male behaviour, with an emphasis on physical strength and aggression in particular. There are countless movements that simultaneously call for justice, and now, in the midst of them all is probably one the most tragic calls for justice, the #JusticeforJunior story having to do with all of these very complicated elements.

Above all, this is a story of the fear and pain that so many families feel on a day to day basis:  Coming to terms with the harsh reality that despite our natural instinct to keep our children safe, there are simply some things beyond our control, for each day we send our children out into a world – out onto these streets, that we never hoped for them, and couldn’t possibly have prepared them for; and though we won’t admit it, a world that we help create either by the things that we do or the things that we don’t do. There is a reason why a young girl engages in sex with multiple partners and at least seems ok with it being videotaped, and then lies about it.  There’s also a reason why not one young man in the group of the six who murdered Junior, fully understood that there was nothing “just” and nothing “manly” about the street justice they were seeking.  Somewhere along the way, we all failed these young people.  We are all complicit.

There’s always the line in the retelling of any story that gets you.  The line that leaves you with a serious lump in your throat or that causes you to burst into tears.  It’s the place in a story where all the big stuff falls away and you’re left coming to terms with the sheer vulnerability of life.  Likewise, there’s always that moment in the aftermath of a story that also gets you.  That reminds you that amid the injustices, the trials, and the sorrows of life, there is what I like to simply call “Goodness.”  It’s similar to the place in a story or happening where the late and beautiful spirit Mr. Rogers beckons us to “look for the helpers.” It’s the place of tenderness, love, rebuilding, and restoration.  Two days after Junior’s murder, I read a statement from his mother online: “My son stayed under me.  He was always with me.  He didn’t even know how to fight. He was a good boy”  After having read that, a huge lump formed in my throat.  It reminded me of the picture I’d seen the day prior; the still frame of Junior’s horrified face, his fingers clenching a wall or pole or something, literally holding on for dear life.  He[was] a good kid.  I could tell. He wasn’t ready to die, and had the world been a world that his parents had hoped for him, the world that the parents of Junior’s murderers had hoped for them, that Modesto the bodega owner hopes for his children (if he has any), and that you and I hope for our little ones, Junior would still be with us.

Yesterday, I read the New York Post story about Adela Moreira.  Ten years ago Adela’s 15-year-old son was killed in a random drive-by-shooting as he headed home from visiting a friend.  She reached out to Junior’s mom Leandra Feliz to let her know that she shares in her pain and to encourage her to “call on God to give [her] strength on a day-to-day basis.”  Adela says that after things settle down, she is going to visit Junior’s mom and try to give her support and help her heal. I also read a follow-up article about Modesto Cruz.  He’d known Junior since he was a boy and had, in fact, tried to help Junior on the night of the ordeal.  In addition to two confirmed calls to 911, surveillance cameras show Cruz pulling Junior over the store counter in an attempt to hide him from the killer gang. In the video, he seems just as panicked as Junior, yet, I can see he is pulling with terrified strength to get Junior over the counter.  These are the two moments in this emotionally harrowing story where I burst into tears.  This is where we can find the “Goodness” that still exists.  Modesto Cruz and Adela Moreira are the helpers.  When all the big ugliness of this story falls away, this is where there is tenderness, love, rebuilding, and restoration: two strangers who however small their efforts may seem to some, are doing their part to create the type of world that we are all still hoping for; a world where amid the injustices, the trials, and sorrows of life there is kindness.

The Pink Elephant – The Race Conversation That We Still Haven’t Had

pink elephant“There are some people that carry negativity in their spirit.  They do their best to try and belittle you because your greatness is palpable and because you don’t succumb to their mediocrity.  I am so grateful that my destiny is not at all tied to them.” – Stacey Joseph

Friends, thank you so much for your input, your support, your shared anger and disgust at the experience I had yesterday with a woman who proudly displayed her white privilege in the parking lot while threatening to call the police on me over a parking spot.  Your reactions, responses, and lifting up is a shining example of Ubuntu, and I am thankful that I have you as my tribe.  For those of you who suggested that I make my post public, thank you for wanting to do your part to expose this woman’s racism and indecency.  I decided that I would not make the post public because as I mentioned, my son was with me when the incident took place and he had some very strong feelings of his own surrounding the event.  We have had many conversations about race and color and how they manifest in our country, and those have been heavy and difficult conversations to have.  It’s a complicated and delegate matter, and he is still just a boy.  He is still learning and we will continue to have conversations that help him make sense of it all.  I have to respect his experience and his privacy.

Additionally, I don’t know that I believe that funneling yet another example of racism through social media is as effective as I once believed it to be.  I do think there is some value in it but only in as much as it causes people to have open, honest, and difficult conversations about race and racism.  I posted my experience because I have been working through and perhaps coming to terms with a theory about racism in America and who the key players are.  You may have seen my posts with the hash tags: #pinkelephant #aintmypussypink #notyourfeminist #womanism  .  It is a theory that I have had the opportunity to speak about with some people but it’s a difficult theory to unfold because it implicates a group of people who have been placed in a position of being untouchable to some extent.  The truth is, this wasn’t the first time I’d had this experience, and I’m pretty certain that it won’t be the last.  This wasn’t the first time that I had come in contact with her*.  Unfortunately, throughout my years I’ve been involved with this woman on several occasions.  Some like yesterday have been pretty confrontational, and other moments not so much.  What has remained the same is this dynamic of disregard, asserted privilege, and then the seemingly vilification of me, in an attempt to render me as “other.”

The first time that I can remember sharing this similar experience with her, the one where she believes she is entitled and I’m not;  the one where my calling her out on her privilege is offensive to her in a particular way;  I remember meeting her in high school.  She came in the form of a housemate who didn’t want share the same shower stall so she closed off the bathroom and claimed the shower stall as her own, despite the fact that there were 7 of us and 2 bathrooms. She wouldn’t admit that it was because she didn’t want to share the shower with Black and Latina young women, but I called her out and eventually, she couldn’t hide behind her bias.  Eventually, she would become a life-long friend who has not only made great strides in healing her own racism but has worked with others to do the same.

I met her again during my sophomore year at Vassar.  My friends and I had reserved the room to watch one of the few black series on TV at the time and “Becky” and her friends wanted to watch Beverly Hills 90210 and so they came in and changed the channel.  When I explained that we had the room reserved and they would have to watch their show elsewhere and then changed the channel back to our choice, she called me angry and said: “You’re being threatening.”  She reported me to the RA the next morning.  We were forced to go into mediation during which I was told by the RA (also a white woman) that I was angry and that I should I apologize.  I would not apologize.

After college, I would meet her in grad school classes, at work, out and about here and there.  I saw her in a bar a few times, she touched my hair without permission then whispered to her friends “look at her hair!” don't touch my hairI sometimes bumped into her in line at some random store like Lord & Taylor or Zara. It was always the same sort of thing.  I was in line and she got right in front of me.  It was as if she couldn’t, well [didn’t] want to see me, but then with hair like this, like magic, and with the uprightness of a queen, it’s near impossible [not] to, so I knew the dynamic was about something else.  A few years ago she ended up working for me.  Weeks in, I overheard her talking about me on a conference call.  She and another employee joined the call late and rather than putting two and two together to figure out that I would’ve been on time and on the call silently waiting for them, she assumed I was late to the call and didn’t think twice to use the time to badmouth me.  She was telling her friend that she wondered how I got such a position and  “who does she think she is, wearing those high heels.”  Part of me wanted to sit in silence and see where the rest of the conversation would go, but the professional in me cleared my throat and announced, “rather than have this call remotely, why don’t you both meet me in my office tomorrow.” I can’t lie, there was a part of me that wanted to add “so you can talk this shit to my face,” but I kept it together.  The next day in my office, with my 3.5 inch grey peep toes on, I shared with her all that I’d heard.  When I confronted her she said with a chuckle “I think you misunderstood.”  I thought it funny that that’s how she explained it. [She] got caught speaking ill of me, [her] supervisor, yet [I] was the one who misunderstood.  She and her friend later resigned.  They couldn’t keep up with the level of responsibility assigned to them. Work that I ended up doing all on my own because in corporate America, it’s often okay that people of color do far more than their fair share of the work.

Shortly thereafter I would be in somewhat of a friendship with her. Because we were friends, she thought she could randomly one day say to me “I don’t think you should be with a white man. I think you should date a black man.”  This after I had already been seriously dating, and was then engaged to a man who happened to be white for over a year.   I asked her why she thought I shouldn’t be with a white man and further why she thought that was okay to say, she chuckled softly (again this chuckle) and answered: “I’m not sure, but I just don’t think you should.”  On the inside, though I considered her a friend, I knew that she was uncomfortable with me dating a white man because perhaps she felt some entitlement to white men, and she felt that I was somehow taking something that perhaps should’ve been hers.  Eventually, she displayed other signs of  privileged ‘whitewomaning,’ and in an argument about why I hadn’t shared with her that I had gotten engaged, I ended our “friendship,” and told her “Take care of your good self!”

For about a year or so I hadn’t seen her.  I didn’t miss her. I was actually at peace with the reprieve of not bumping into her, and moving past her offensive, privileged, deflective, and racist ways.  And then Trump ran for president, and it was as if he blew a make america great againspecial sort of life back into her.   At least that’s what I attribute her re-emergence to.  And I’m not just talking about the 53% of white women that voted for him.  It was also a portion of the 47% that didn’t vote for Trump.  It was a portion of the white women who voted for Clinton; who were livid and hurt when Hillary lost.  The ones who conveniently looked past Hillary’s racism and privilege and would never hold her (Hillary) accountable for the part she played in the rise of injustice i.e. the school to prison pipeline. The ones who had witnessed Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and countless others be unjustly killed, but only turned activists because Hillary lost to Trump.  Those were the ones, to be honest, whose pre-Trump passivity had hurt the most.  Because all the while I thought they just didn’t have social activism in them. I thought their white privilege had somehow blinded them to the realities of women like me: Black women, with big magical hair, who couldn’t hold the line of feminism because feminism in any form seems to almost always marginalize women of color and issues pertaining to us and our communities.  But then I saw them. I saw them organize, and become revolutionaries in their own right, and literally take to the streets in their pink pussy hats.  And never a mention of  100 African girls taken and never returned.  And never a mention of the black girls gone missing all over DC and Baltimore.  And sure, science is science and in science “there are no alternative facts.” But never a mention about how 500,000 black girls were sterilized by vaccines nor how it had already been proven that vaccines do in fact cause autism in black boys.  And I thought to myself: Aren’t those feminist issues?  And I thought to myself (countless times) Ain’t my pussy pink? Sigh.

She nearly ran me and my son off the road one Sunday during the Summer.  We were on our way to the swimming pool. I was doing 35 in a 35 one laner.  She zoomed passed me and beeped her horn loud and obnoxiously.  I shook my head and stuck to 35.  Further down the way, the 1 lane turned into 2 and we ended up at the light together. I was surprised to see her roll her window down.  She yelled out at me “Look at you, you’re so stupid! Who drives like that.”  I couldn’t help myself, I rolled the window down and said “You’re a loser, you ended up at the same light!”  She chuckled, much in the same way the woman yesterday did, and much in the same way my “you shouldn’t date white men” friend did, and much in the same way the “who does she think she is and how did she get this job” employee did, and then she let it out: “YOU BLACK BITCH.”  I couldn’t help it.  I wanted to “go high.” But sometimes “going high” is overrated. I quickly retorted: “ YOU UGLY CUNT!”  When my son asked me later that day “mom, what’s a cunt?” I felt 2 things: 1. I felt embarrassed.  I had never even used that word before, ever.  I have however heard white women use that word quite indiscriminately so I chose that word on purpose, And now I would have to explain to him that it was a terrible word to use.  2.  I felt confused and saddened that he didn’t ask me what a “black bitch” was or if he had some sense of what the word bitch meant, why she’d married it to the word black.

Over the past eight months or so, there has been an increase of stories about white women ushering along and fanning the flames of racism in America. I’m sure you’ve seen the stories circulating.  Just this past week, there was the principal in NY who won’t allow a black female teacher to teach the Harlem Renaissance in their school.  Weeks ago, there was the teacher who told her black male student that she would get a mob to lynch him because he wasn’t paying attention.  There’s the young college student who was essentially poisoning her roommate whom she referred to as a “Black Barbie.”  She was actually putting used tampons in her food!  There’s the woman who threw acid on her face and said that a black woman attacked her. SHE THREW ACID ON HER FACE!  Talk about committed to the cause.  There’s the teacher in Maryland who took pictures of her Black and Hispanic students and made degrading memes out of them, then posted them on social media. Then there’s the teacher in Ohio who reenacted slavery in class by having the black kids dress up as slaves.  There are countless stories like these with white women at the center of them.

Now, this is the part where I state: it’s not all white women. Of course it’s not! Quite frankly that goes without saying. But I feel I have to say that to validate and perhaps not discourage the white women that I know personally who wouldn’t necessarily be at the center of these stories. But I also feel that the white women who I do know personally, with whom I have genuine friendships; who I laugh with; and have lunch with; and on occasion drink wine with;….and with whom I sit in circles, be it mom circles, friends at lunchprofessional circles, activist circles etc.  You are the ones not at the center of these stories per se but you are the sisters, friends, daughters, nieces, aunts, neighbors, wives, sorors, coaches, choir directors, bible study partners, yoga buddies, and moms whose silence serves as consent to these matters.  You are the ones who when you leave conversations about race and racism up to someone else; when you don’t call it out from the inside of the circles in which you sit; the ones in which that I don’t sit side by side with you; when you herald feminism, but it doesn’t include recognition of intersectionality; when you don’t talk to your children about racism, and stereotypes, and white privilege; and the toxic myth of white supremacy; when you recognize micro-aggressions, macro-aggressions, and Eurocentric curriculum in our kids’ schools but you aren’t moved to speak on it or write a letter; when you make excuses for racism and racist ideology; when you slip quietly back into your Pre-Trump privilege, what you are essentially doing, is allowing racism and white privilege to work on your behalf. I have been having to ask myself these very difficult questions.  And I wonder if we might all ask ourselves these same questions in an attempt to do some of the work that’s needed to move us forward.  Are white women mostly okay with white privilege and racism?  Does it function in their favor and on their behalf?  Can white women be one of the most powerful forces in stomping out racism in America?  If you are a white woman and you’ve answered yes to any of these.  Then you’ve got work to do. And I think now more than ever before, now is the time to get to it!

 

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*her – the use of the pronoun “her” in this article is referring to a woman who fits the description of the “type” of white woman who is described using the pejorative American slang termBecky or Karen ; a white woman who wields her privilege and weaponizes white fragility for personal gain or sometimes just because she can.
This article was first published two years on theexhaustedmom.com which is now TheWorldAroundUs.com.  Stacey Joseph has since left her 23 year job as a leader at a well known Fortune 500 Company.  She is the Founder of ImpactEDI™  – a social benefit organization that works in partnership with individuals, associations, boards, schools, and organizations who are committed to advancing equity through diversity, inclusion, and creating safe spaces of belonging.  She is also a regular contributor to the company’s blog where she writes extensively about how organizations can attain equity for all persons.
Photo Credit – Shutterstock
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