What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here. Today’s guest posts is by Micky Jones.
I am in your tribe.
And I am on the outside of your tribalism*.
I am seen.
And I am unseen.
I’ve lived nearly my entire life as the lone black girl amongst my friends. I am the daughter of a woman who has vivid childhood memories of two water fountains at the park. White. Black. I only know that because I asked her. My mom’s not much of a talker, but I’m pretty sure she had but one goal in my upbringing - to give me the most opportunities possible. She raised me to make good grades, speak proper English, go to college and thrive as the daughter of a college administrator. I went to predominantly White schools & churches (outside of Sundays with my mom). I married a White guy. I am most at home in a middle class neighborhood. I am a Black woman who sometimes goes days at a time without interacting with another Black person in real life (not counting social media).
People are constantly assigning me to one tribe or another. That isn’t necessarily negative. We all do it. Human beings classify, sort and group. We do it with things and with people. It’s one of the ways we figure out how to relate to people. When I hear you talk about cloth diapering, I might classify you into my “crunchy moms” tribe and invite you to a La Leche League meeting. You might hear me talk about homeschooling and assign me to your “educationally obsessed friends” tribe. We (all of us) do it with interests, with beliefs and yes, with race.
Well meaning folks have said to me...
You aren’t like other Black people.
You don’t talk like other Black people talk.
My children are completely color blind. They don’t even notice that your skin is brown.
You look like ___________ (I’ve gotten Whoopi Goldberg to Janet Jackson) I don’t look like either one in any possible way.)
What are you mixed with?
Why do Black people _________________?
Sometimes I forget you are Black.
That’s the whitest thing I’ve ever heard or You’re so white....(Black people don’t ____ ).
Is this offensive?
You know I’m not racist but.....
Honestly, most of the time these types of statements and questions just roll off my back. I take a moment to address them gently but truthfully. Or I ask more questions and have a longer conversation. I might laugh them off because explaining things like privilege, systematic racism and the light-dark skin issues among Black people for the 113th time are just not on my list of things I have energy for that day. It’s exhausting, but it’s so common to my existence that I don’t really think about it.
Most of the time. And then, Trayvon Martin.
As a mother, we constantly discern the safety of environments, people, and activities of our children. I think about things I don’t think my friends think I think about. If the guy coming to fix our AC has a rebel flag on his truck, is it “heritage or hate”? And if it’s heritage, what does that mean to him? Will the swim coach have a problem with the Black mom and White dad? Will there be whispers? Will today be the day they are called a slur for the first time? Or be told they can’t have so-and-so for a boyfriend or girlfriend because of skin color? Have I given them the tools they need to navigate successfully as a person of color in a world where that deducts a point or two in many situations? For my bi-racial blonde haired, blue eyed, light-skinned daughter, there remains the constant fear that I will not be recognized as her mother. These are the thoughts that I have as well as all the safety concerns any mother has for her children.
Most of the time these concerns are easily brushed to the side. And then, Trayvon Martin.
Now as I kiss my 10 year old brown boy on the head at night, I wonder when he will be too big, too tall, too scary to walk to the corner gas station without risking the assumption that he doesn’t belong. Will he be labeled a thug if he dresses like Justin Beiber (hat turned around, baggy pants, big shirt)? I’ve been assured by friends that my boys are “good Christian boys” and no one would ever mistake them for thugs. But what if they shoot first and ask who they are second? I always knew I would have to teach them to navigate what to do if pulled over for DWB (driving while Black) but I had not really put a lot of thought into teaching them how to not look suspicious in their own neighborhood.
Which takes me back to our tribes. People make the argument that my children, specifically my boys, will be seen for who they are, that my concern for their safety, my concern that there will come a day when they are seen as thugs makes no sense. In effect they are saying, “These boys are in our tribe. They are like us”. That is part of the power of tribalism. The bias of tribalism includes the belief that people in our tribe are individuals, unique, and can be defined individually. On the other side to that coin, tribalism also lets us think that “they” are all one way. Basically, it’s thinking you know what those people are like without actually knowing them. It’s filling in a lack of actual interaction with fearful fantasies. It is easy to classify me and my children as one kind of Black person (“Cosby Show Black”) and other black people as well, other. The other kind of Black person who causes problems, commits crimes, you know, deserves suspicion - as if people can be grouped into neat, distinct categories who do all good things or all bad things. I’m just as Black as someone who lives in the inner city or is on food stamps. Being Black isn’t a set of behaviors, accents, vocabulary or location. It’s part of the social construct that makes up who I am. It is one piece of my puzzle.
So while I’m in your tribe, at times I’m not. If I say my sons could one day be another Trayvon, I’m dismissed as paranoid. If I speak on privilege or systematic racism, I’m listening to too much Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson (neither of whom I listen to actually). If I express outrage, hurt, mistrust or ask for solidarity, I’m being too emotional or being influenced by liberal media. Because I’m expressing feelings and views that are outside of “our” tribe.
But this is how my tribe of one feels. It is me just as much as the middle class, homeschooling, private schooling, Christian, crunchy mama stuff is me. I’m not talking about race all the sudden because the media is stirring me up. It’s part of a background I always see. Now you know I see it. And it’s uncomfortable.
I am in your tribe.
But I do not fit into the confines of tribalism.
I am seen as part of the group.
But I am not seen as someone who might have different experiences, fears, concerns and challenges.
If race comes up, If I post something on Facebook and a conversation gets started, inevitably I am asked - So what do we do about it? How can we fix it?
I don’t know.
What I do know is I don’t need you to fix me. I don’t need you to tell me I’m a puppet or silly or concerned for no reason. I need you to listen to me and not “yes, but...” me. I need you to hear me talk about the challenges and concerns of being a Black mother in 2013 without offering a defense of why you aren’t racist. I need you to see me, color and all and not be afraid that it presents a barrier too tall for our friendship.
I need you to listen, to hear my story, to care for the welfare of my children just as I do.
I believe we can make progress from there. It just might be the only way we can.
*This working definition of tribalism comes from a recent sermon by Sandra Unger. I’d like to thank her for inspiration and illumination.