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Pre-2008 Posts

Racism, Men of Color, Women of Color: Fragments

In another thread, Satsuma commented: 

White people haven’t changed, but white people fear massive public attack if they use the N-Word. Women don’t massively attack men if they use the B-word– kind of a small example here, but one I have noted. It’s ok to attack women openly, unless the intersection of race and gender comes together, which is why Don Imus temporarily got derailed. But then again, so called liberal women appeared on his show, because they wanted to be Washington insiders. A better tactic would have been to make it so hard on men for going on his show, that we showed power in this way.

Again very small tactical examples here.

Kiuku responded:

Mostly it is not fear that stops people from using the “N” word but the recognizing of men that other men are human, where women are not. The “N” word hurts men. It’s acceptable to deride women. You can’t really hurt them. They’re not human.

These are insightful comments about complicated issues I’ve thought about for a long time.

I’ve written before about my biracial daughters’ struggles in the local white high school four of them have attended for varying amounts of time.  When I moved out to the country it was with the idea that my kids would be homeschooled.  But one by one, each of these four daughters told me they wanted to try going to public school, three of them beginning with high school, one beginning in junior high.  The first graduated and received her bachelor’s of science in psychology last June  and is working at Planned Parenthood.  The second and third went on to a program we have here in Washington in which you can get your high school diploma and your first two years of college (free) at the local community college.  One of these daughters has one quarter left of this program and will then go on to Spellman College to get her degree.  The third has a year left in community college.  The fourth is a junior in high school and was inducted into the National Honor Society last Thursday.  I am saying  all of this in order to provide context for what I am going to write about here.

My daughters have consistently, consistently, consistently been called names, the “N” word in particular, in the local high school by white students.  I have pretty much created a path between my house and the school in an attempt to confront this ongoing, outrageous racism.  This is a large public high school with nearly 2,000 students.  Although it serves the rural peninsula where I live, it also serves nearby middle class and affluent suburban areas populated with highly educated white professionals who work in Seattle and Tacoma, major metropolitan areas, in other words.  

Following is a letter I wrote about a year and a half ago to the school:

Dear [Principal, both Vice-Principals, and Counselor]
I write again about the ongoing displays of racism at [local] High School.  Honestly, I am feeling at my wit’s end about this.  Last night I held my daughter, N, a sophomore, for several hours as she poured out her feelings and sadness.  She is an exceedingly conscientious young woman, always has been, grade point average consistently above 3.5 since she enrolled [at the local junior high] as a sixth grader.  She is smart, disciplined, hardworking and kind, and consistently puts forth more effort than anyone ever asks of her. 
As was true of her three older sisters, she, too, is encountering the same relentlessly racist behavior her sisters encountered [at school].  This behavior resulted in [two of my daughters] withdrawing from school.  From their perspective, it was simply that bad and though we tried and did what we could, they had no real hope that anything would ever change.  I had to agree– it really was that bad.  (Both are enrolled in [the local community college]).
N says that a day does not go by that she is not subjected to the word “N*****.”  She calls her fellow students out on this and asks that they not use that word, and she is ignored, laughed at and humiliated or students simply defend the use of the word and similar words.  Yesterday in Ms. ________’s class, she got up to use a pencil sharpener.  When she returned to her seat, H.O., a girl, said, loudly, “Sit down, blackie.”  Students in the class laughed.  Yesterday while N was in her ASL sign language class, someone outside the class yelled at the top of their lungs, “N****!”  And again, students laughed.
My daughter additionally has concerns about Ms. R, her English teacher.  N is a fine English student, always has been, is a great writer, and has always gotten along well with all of her teachers since sixth grade.  She says the atmosphere in Ms. R’s classroom, because of what is allowed, and because of the way Ms. R treats her, is toxic to her.  She says no matter what she contributes to discussion, Ms. R puts her down in ways which are often subtle but which she picks up on and other students do as well.  Her friend, J, also biracial, is having this same experience in Ms. R’s class (not the same actual class; they are not in class together.)  I frankly am tired of going to individual teachers to confront them about this kind of thing and so I am coming straight to you this time.  In all the years my daughters have attended _HS, nothing good has come of my approaching individual teachers about their racism. 
I am asking, you, begging you, honestly, for help with this!  Oh, please!  (And I am not given to emotional outbursts, but after dealing with this for the past eight years, I am so, so tired of it!)   I do not want to see N beaten down emotionally and spiritually and mentally as her sisters were.  Her sisters still struggle emotionally over the treatment they received at the high school.  I think N has every right to as good a school experience as all other students have, particularly in that she is so hardworking and eager to participate.  She is on the newspaper Staff, on the Diversity Committee, plays water polo, and leads in other ways.
Please help me in this.  I am at my wit’s end.  I cannot bear another year of hearing that my daughter must hear racial epithets no person of color should ever have to hear, day in and day out, with other students defending the behavior, and teachers as well at times.  There is a minuscule number of students of color at the school and N is feeling very alone and embattled (although I thank God for her close friendship with J.)
I ask that you please not go to Ms. R with this information yet, as N is afraid that will just make things worse for her.
I work in Seattle Mon-Fri, regular business hours.  Perhaps we could set up some sort of meeting.  You can reach me at _____ or on my cell _______.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart for any help you might be able to provide.
Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
N’s mom

School officials responded quickly, we spoke, met, and ultimately they urged my daughter to file a complaint with the Civil Rights Commission because they, too, feel they need help, including from the federal government, to combat racism at the school.   It is an avalanche.  It is a tidal wave.  School staff is completely outnumbered and overwhelmed.

N did write the complaint and read it aloud to the entire assembled school.  It was so quiet in the auditorium as she read,  you could have heard a pin drop.  It was powerful and empowering to her, and vindicating.   She hasn’t yet filed the complaint; it’s big and scary to her for many reasons.  Maybe I will ask her if she minds if I post it here.

N had an experience later on in the year which was heartbreaking, particularly in light of these many difficulties she’s had with white students.  N’s  good friend since junior high, black, male, together with his friend, a young Latino man, began teasing N, as though they were going to call her the “N” word.  She became angry and threw down.  A crowd of white students gathered.  In the end, both the young black man and the Latino man had cornered my daughter, battering her with the “N****” word, as she cried out, shook with humiliation and rage, and ultimately broke down and cried.   They laughed.

She went to school officials and both of these young men were suspended for three days.  Their parents were aghast and deeply grieved.  We are talking about smart and capable young men here from caring families, young men who had been friends to my daughter.

There is so much to unpack in this particular event, it’s hard to know where to begin.  But these are a few of my thoughts.  I do not mean this as a thorough analysis; these are fragments, things I’ve been thinking about.

  • Although my daughters have been called the “N” word for years by white boys and sometimes girls, on only one other occasion was a student suspended, a white boy, who was suspended for one day.  The most serious consequences for racist behaviors were dealt out by school administrators to young men of color who were friends of my daughter, not to the many white students who have tormented all of my daughters.
  • Then again, the most egregious of the experiences my daughters have had was this one, involving young men of color.
  •  I do not know how often the “N” word has been used against young men of color at the school.  My hunch is that it might have been used often, and that these young men accepted it and used the word themselves (the one young man has defended the use of the word to my daughter; they have argued about it many times) out of survival.  
  • This means that white male students and male students of color united in their  use of racial epithets against my daughter, a young woman of color.
  • A  young black man in an almost-all-white school is going to find it difficult to challenge and defend himself on each occasion the N word is used against him and to physically survive it.  He is also probably going to be subjected to increasing and deepening — and probably more violent — racism if he goes to school officials.
  • These young men felt at liberty to abuse my daughter in a way they would not and could not have abused white female friends (There are no words equivalent to the N-word for a man of color to use against a white woman.) 
  • In an almost-all-white environment, for black or Latino male students to openly use sexist slurs (like the B-word or the H-word) against female students, white or black or of color, would be risky.  There is a good chance of physical attacks by white male students and/or discipline by school staff. 
  • There are no words equivalent to the N-word, and there are no sexist (homophobic) words, which young men of color could safely use as a weapon against young white men in an overwhelmingly white school.  When they are targeted with hate speech, they are left rhetorically, verbally defenseless.
  • In this instance, these young men of color abused the only student they felt they might likely get away with abusing:  a young women of color (who had been their friend). 
  • I suspect that my complaints to school officials were taken more seriously than the complaints of a mother of color might have been.

Thinking about Kiuku’s and Satsuma’s comments, what are we to make of so little attention comparatively paid to the New Jersey 4 — young black women harrassed and attacked by a black man — compared with the Jena 6?  What are we to make of the comparably little attention paid to the brutal gang rape of a Haitian immigrant and her son by young black male teenagers?  Why did Don Imus think  he could get away with publicly battering accomplished young women of color, athletes and scholars?

OJ Simpson got away with murdering Nicole Simpson, but he has suffered some consequences, whereas visible men of color have avoided, almost completely, any consequences at all for having battered and abused women of color in their lives.  (Miles Davis, James Brown, and Louis Armstrong come to mind immediately.)  (Of course, white men continue to batter and murder both white women and women of color and they get away with it.)

These young men of color abused my daughter — their good  friend  (they have, to some degree, reconciled) — in  an outrageous and humiliating incident, believing they could get away with it, but would not (and could not) have abused a young white woman similarly without paying for it far more severely.

I think some white people avoid using the N word out of fear of the consequences of doing so (but use the word freely when they believe they can get away with it.  You should see the comments to this blog that never see the light of day).  I think others, as Kiuku said, avoid using the word because they do view men of color as human in a way they don’t view women of color as human. 

 It is a tragedy of epic proportions when men of color use racist words to batter women of color, and when they do, they vividly illuminate the deep abyss at the intersection of race and sex.

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17 thoughts on “Racism, Men of Color, Women of Color: Fragments

  1. Reading through these comments and the experiences hurt on a deep level. One thing I have noticed is that men are actually deeply hurt by comments about men’s bodies, and it is unwelcome on a basic human level, yet they trivialize commenting or mocking women’s bodies. It appears the same with racism. It seems like there is a privilege ladder, and on that privilege ladder are also varying degrees of human status, where unfortuntely women of color are at the bottom.

    Posted by kiuku | December 8, 2007, 7:47 pm
  2. **“Sit down, blackie.”**

    Shut up, whitey.

    Not that that solves anything, it just came to me as I read the words.

    Posted by Branjor | December 8, 2007, 8:04 pm
  3. I don’t have anything helpful to say, except to send you and N my love. She sounds like such a brave young woman; calling bullies out on their abuse at school is hard enough if you’re of the same colour- it must be incredibly difficult as a woman of color in a largely white school. She sounds amazing xxx

    Oh and I think Kiuku is spot on.

    Posted by Laurelin | December 9, 2007, 12:34 am
  4. Wow, times have changed in high schools. My only experience with high schools is when I attended one in the early to mid 70s. I don’t recall ever hearing anyone say the “N’ word or the “B” word, but I do recall the kind of menacing sexist behavior of boys — particularly football players.

    The sexism was inherent in the school, and the racism “polite” and awful to watch.
    I don’t recall any school officials ever intervening in this silent world of hostility. When I think of those boys today, I still long to kill them!

    You really would need outside authorities to handle the dreadful high schools Heart’s children attended, and massive punishment of the offenders.

    There is a very real pecking order in schools and in society, and people try to get away with as much as they can. I don’t even think girls should have to attend schools with boys period. The boys are immature cretans, and have no place ever interfering with the scholastic development of young girls.

    Clearly, there is no punishment that is quick enough or harsh enough to deal with the boorish children of this high school. Something is wrong from the top down. The parents need to be informed about how rotten their kids really are.

    There is a lot of garbage culture out there — horrifying lyrics to so-called rap “music”, vulgar T.V. shows, and on it goes. We live in a wasteland in terms of mainstream “culture.”

    The significant class differences never get handled in high schools either, and I bet this comes into play.

    As a parent, I think you are doing the best you can Heart, but what might really work would be to catch these kids using these words on cell phones or You Tube and call them out on this to the nation. Contact CNN and send copies of the letters nationwide.

    Nobody I know ever uses the “N” word around me. Not in private when I’m in all white settings, and not in public in the places I frequent. We’re up against massive racist and sexist forces out there, and at a high school level this filters down to the kids as well.

    High school kids overall are not very nice to begin with, regardless of the era we are talking about. I know I hated them then, and it looks like they are even worse now!

    As a white person, I consider it my obligation to challenge the racism I see and feel in all white settings. I hate racism, and I well remember the horror of seeing it when I was a child. I get very angry at other white people for not taking this seriously. Just as I get murderouly angry at men for NEVER doing anything about the sexism among men in all men’s groups. They look sheepish when I ask them if they’ve ever stood up against the sexism of other men, for example.

    Most people are social cowards. They won’t put themselves out to stick up for anyone outside the “in” group. It is a mob mentality.

    So outside intervention is needed, and workshops for the kids so they can learn what this all means. I don’t believe teenagers are ever really taught proper manners or about being allies against racists and sexists.

    I’ve spent a lifetime on these issues. It frustrates me to no end. You’d think that human beings would understand this, but they don’t. So we all have to work hard.

    Maybe high schools need to be picketed, but most important, we do have the technology to document the actions of the abusers. Think cell phones and the guy who was on Seinfeld, for example. His “N’ word tirade was caught on a cell phone and played to national T.V. This guy was caught and tried by public opinion. Years ago, he would have gotten away with his “comedy” club racism.

    I think men use comedy all the time as an excuse to abuse women and minorities. It’s why I never listen to male comics do anything, and I certainly would never watch their stupid T.V. shows either.

    We still have a lot of work to do! We need to be allies to others inside the “behind the scenes” worlds, and still keep speaking up about this.

    So while racism in middle class and upper middle class worlds I travel in may be is more cleverly hidden, sexism still openly flourishes in these worlds. Most of the time, I’m the only woman who calls the men out on this. Straight women often sit in uncomfortable silence. A radical lesbian feminist often makes straight women very socially uncomfortable. I often get frustrated at them for this reason.

    Glad you brought up all of this Heart. The world need to know, and your children deserve better!

    Posted by Satsuma | December 9, 2007, 1:12 am
  5. I was verbally bullied in high school, relentlessly, for years. But reading this makes me realise how much of a shield my white skin provided me with– racism was not a weapon that they could use against me (although of course sexism was). My experiences were painful enough, and powerful enough, that reading about N’s experiences here evoked a strong reaction– and yet, I know that I’d be doing an injustice to N’s strength and experience (not to mention the experiences of your other daughters) if I tried to claim that I understood more than a small part of what it has been like for her.

    N has my deepest respect, and I wish I could give her a hug (give her one for me, will you? :))

    Posted by Beppie | December 9, 2007, 2:28 am
  6. My race and ethnicities tackled an interesting debate the other day about prejudice and whether or not it’s on the decline. Many argued that prejudice has not necessarily declined so much as the discrimination–which is the act, the lived evidence of racism. Prejudice then being the hate. What we are, instead, as one of our books calls it:”timid bigots.”

    I also want to say how frustrating it is to hear, once more, how people don’t get it! “N” is getting her double dose of oppression like so many women of color and it is frightening to think of all the ways people, daily, get messages that perpetuate this level of racism and sexism. To the unknowing they seem so buried.
    That said, I attend University in downtown Atlanta and if I may shine some light Heart: your daughter heading to Spellman should find Atlanta to be much more welcoming. Racists do not make it very far in these parts.

    Posted by pisaquari | December 9, 2007, 6:06 am
  7. Brava to N for going to the school officials and to you for raising a brave daughter. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone about the bullying I received. I’m glad schools are becoming at least a little more responsive.

    Posted by Miranda | December 9, 2007, 12:40 pm
  8. It’s sad to read of the inequities involved in the administration of justice for your daughters. It sounds very familiar.

    In Bangor, Maine, African Americans are too frightened to celebrate Kwanzaa, but as usual, any initial reference to action by the attorney general seems to have gone missing.

    (I can’t Google it up. Anyone know where that “Investigation” actually led?)

    But as far as the “N” word being compared to the “B” word… !

    Good grief. I’m a white female who’s known quite a few flaming bitches in my time (of a few races) But I’ve never known a – well – you know – an “N” word!

    Posted by outsider222 | December 9, 2007, 4:39 pm
  9. My daughters have consistently, consistently, consistently been called names, the “N” word in particular, in the local high school by white students.

    I’m so sorry they had to suffer this sick, sick horror. It shouldn’t surprise me at this point but it actually does. I don’t remember there being any OVERT racism at my high school that I ever witnessed, so I thought times had really changed in many regards. Ah, there’s my white privilege showing again….

    Posted by K.A. | December 9, 2007, 10:01 pm
  10. You have real power if people are afraid to insult your group as a group. No group should have to put up with the collective insults that women have to put up with, and the same goes for African Americans.

    The thing is, who is really being protected. Is an insult against a man the same thing as an insult against a woman?

    Is freedom only about men? Is the freedom of women not the number one thing on the “international agenda”?

    Who is being served by the fight for justice? Who is not?

    Is a liberation movement ever about women? Or is a liberation group just about oppressed men wanting to become top dogs so that they can continue to oppress women?

    Who gets the benefits of liberation? Are people outraged to the point of marching in the streets by the thousands because one woman was raped or even insulted on T.V.?

    Name the time a major presidential candidate got outraged OUTRAGED over some sexist or woman hating incident somewhere in the world — as women, and not as part of some men’s political agenda being “added to” women?

    Does the U.N. condemn Saudi Arabia for violating the human rights of all the women in that country? Did they do it when the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 1996? Do they ever get outraged over the situation of women worldwide?

    Posted by Satsuma | December 10, 2007, 8:55 am
  11. If young people think they are being cool and edgy by using hate language, they are so wrong. It’s tired old crap that was weary and derivative before any of us here were born (even me!). I am so very sorry this happened.

    Posted by Level Best | December 10, 2007, 7:55 pm
  12. I think the missing link is the psychological damage that is done to women of are called niggers. Being called racial slurs causes huge psychological damage because it is a traumatic event in a child’s life and totally inappropriate.

    Posted by April | December 14, 2007, 8:30 am
  13. Satsuma,

    That is the way I look at it, too.


    Posted by Mary Sunshine | December 14, 2007, 3:27 pm
  14. So true, April, dear god. And to hear that word over and over and over again, the damage is immeasurable and so, so wrong.

    Hey, Mary, you back?

    Posted by womensspace | December 14, 2007, 5:00 pm
  15. When I was in 4th grade (1971) and living in Florida my (“white”) mom married a (“black”) man. My younger brother and I (both “white”) were constantly called names, if we weren’t called the n. word we were n. lovers. For a while growing up I really disliked “white” people, which was very confusing as you can imagine.

    As an adult living in a different area, where no one knows my family background, I have encountered racism because people look at me and assume I’m “white”. Besides being called the usual assortment of names, white h., cr. , etc. I’ve had a man on a public bus tell me I couldn’t sit down next to him, because I was “white”. I sat down behind him and proceeded to tell him he knew nothing about me or my family and that, unless he had grown up in the south, I had probably been called a n. more times by “white” people then him. Surprised him so much he offered me an apology. I suppose I should just be thankful I haven’t had to actually get in any physical fights, the way I did when I was a kid.

    As a result of my experiences, on the one hand I take racism extremely seriously, because I have seen first hand how dangerous, hurtful, and insidious it is, so racism in any form, against a person of any race is a terrible thing. On the other hand, it just makes so little sense to me. I mean how can a person be both a “white cr.” and a “n.” at the same time? – yet I’ve been called both.

    I’m so sorry that your daughter had to go through this ordeal. Hopefully she will be able to put the hurt behind her and take something positive from her experience. Sometimes that’s really all we can do when we are faced with something so irrational and so hateful. Not that I’m saying people should not take action or fight back, but you will always lose some battles and that’s when it’s time to look for the positive and move on. The positive lessons you take from lost battles can often enable you to win the next skirmish. Good luck!

    Posted by Cindy | December 14, 2007, 8:25 pm
  16. I found my way to this blog via BB’s blog some time ago. I’ve been around for a bit but haven’t commented until now.

    This post in particular strikes a chord with me. I am a white female and my younger brother is adopted from Seoul, Korea. I can’t say when exactly it dawned on me that my brother was going to have to deal with racism, but I remember being extremely protective of him growing up. I’m now 25 and he is 19 and I still am extremely protective of him. To the point where I will gladly go to jail for my brother for physically making my point to a racist. Right or wrong. (Though I haven’t yet, but would not feel one ounce of guilt.) My father was absent most of our lives and my mother might as well have been, so it was just the two of us for the most part.

    I am actually shaking as I write this. The rage I feel when I hear of a comment being made to him is unreal. Especially when I see the humiliation in his eyes when he tells me about these things. I wish so much to be able to take the pain from him. I think he actually feels ashamed to recount his experiences sometimes. It kills me that he feels he has something to be ashamed of! He didn’t even tell me about the last incident, his girlfriend told me.

    My brother works at an upscale restaurant near where both my brother and I live. He went to introduce himself to a table of women and one of them, looked up at him and remarked “I didn’t know they served Chinese here”. It literally breaks my hear that people can be so ignorant and plain evil.

    One of the hardest things for me is when I realize how racist my mother is becoming as she gets older. Despite her assertions otherwise and having instilled anti-racist values in me very young. I took care of my brother a lot when we were growing up, she was always gone. Now as she gets older it is becoming more and more obvious to me. My brother bought a shot gun awhile ago. My mother happened to have found a picture of him with said shot gun on his girlfriend’s myspace several months after the VA Tech shooting (we live in the DC/Metro region). My mother called me upset, which I understood (she doesn’t like guns). Then my mother started into “After the VA Tech thing what are people going to think? They’re going to think he’s in the Korean mafia or something.” Yadda yadda yadda. I lost it. While she kept vehemently telling me she is “not a racist” I told her how racist and ignorant her comment was and that she BETTER not say anything like that to my brother. She didn’t, but I still lost a lot of respect for her.

    Anyways, I am glad to hear that your daughter is so brave and emotionally intelligent and is facing these issues head on. She sounds like an amazing young woman. You must be very proud. Please tell her my thoughts are with you both as well as you fight for justice in your school system. My brother also experienced racism in school. He was called everything from “Zachy Chan (his name is Zach)” to flat out “Chink”. Even by people he considered friends. I wish I had done more.

    Sorry for rambling but this post really touched me.

    Love and light,

    Posted by Evo | December 14, 2007, 8:38 pm
  17. Aagh, these stories! I try not to sling around charged words too much, but at this point in my life, after all the exposure I know people have had via schools and the media to information about racism and the need to overcome it , I think “ignorance” is the best case scenario when people treat others like this, and “evil” is much closer to the mark. People, we are all the same genetically and our superficial differences from one another are due to changes made to adapt to environments over the course of generations. There is no moral or intellectual superiority assignable to any given group. WE ARE THE SAME.

    Posted by Level Best | December 17, 2007, 4:11 pm

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