Monday, June 4, 2012

Discussion on race proves we have a long way to go

A funny thing happened on the journey for truth.  I’m not sure how it happened, but it did.  She called it a “perfect storm”.  I’ve never thought of myself as a hurricane. Maybe a thunderstorm, but I’m not one who brings damaging winds.

It began with my answering comments on the INC Listserve. I’m new to the site, so I wasn’t sure about the ground rules.  I was introduced to the site after one of my blogs.  Someone was kind enough to post it on the site.  I decided to marry the site.  Why not?  Folks were talking local politics, and that’s where I lay my hat from time to time.

Then it came.  Before I could blink my eyes and take a few deep breaths, she came after me.  I mean, ole girl came hard.  I felt like her intent was to decapitate me with her words about black people.  It was innocent at first.  I concluded it was a case of simple misunderstanding.  I decided to help her understand more about what it feels like to walk in my skin.  Ole girl wasn’t having it.  It became an attack on me.

“You nailed it, Carl.  You have a social agenda.  It's the elephant on your back that takes over the room when you're applying for the job. (The following is said with love, like a sister hollering at her brother)  You choose to wear your hair in dredlocks, "daring" white folks to accept the way you look,” Christine Chamberlain responded to one of my comments.  “You fly in the face of logic and common sense, and then use the "racism" defense for why you can't get a job.  You're a mess Carl, and I'd like nothing better than to give you a hair cut, a swift kick in the butt, and say "quit whining!"  I've met too many successful black men in my lifetime to buy what you're sellin'. 

No she didn’t.  But first, let me give some context.  It all began with my attempt to expound on the notion of assumptions of privilege.  My hope was to hold a conversation about how race and racism show up in ways that many fail to see.  I used my own grapple with finding work in Durham as an example of how race plays out in social settings. Her retort was to blame me, and all like me, for failing to acquiesce to legitimate white culture.

This is the statement that took her over the edge. "I've tried to share my own struggles with living in Durham.  My point is this folks, if a black man with all I have to bring to the table can't make it in Durham, what does that say about others with less education and experience?  Is my own struggle due to race?  More than likely it's deeper than that, but, nonetheless, I'm part of that community.  What can be said about that?  Nothing other than an educated black man with a social agenda can't make it in Durham."  

Chamberlain took issue when I mentioned the pain related to witnessing white women cross the street when I approach. She asked me how many white people would it take walking across the street with me to undo the two who crossed when they saw me coming.  I told her it would never be enough due to how it keeps happening over and over again.  Of course it was hyperbole.  My hope was to speak in extreme terms to bring emphasis to those emotions.  It didn’t work.

She didn’t like my answer so she asked a few friends to clarify. “All black males (a doctor at Duke, an accountant and an electrical engineer) to give feedback on your emails over the last couple weeks,” she wrote to affirm the credibility of her witnesses. “Each one said, and I'm paraphrasing, "He's spinning his wheels, that's all he'd doing.  He's stuck like a broken record."  The doctor at Duke said it the best when he told me Condaleeza Rice's quote....“If you are taught bitterness and anger, then you will believe you are a victim." ~ Condaleeza Rice.

That’s when I came close to taking her out to the wood shed for an old school but whopping.  The nerve of her, I thought, to imply I’m a victim.  Let me remind you that each comment made was a response to her assertions.  I used it all as a chance to engage in a deeper discussion about race.  I hoped that others would chime in and add greater voice to what was on the table. 

Many people got it.  Joy Mickle-Walker suggested she read “Race Matters” by Cornel West.  I thought it was a great suggestion. Others called for creative strategies to overcome the cycle.  I’m with them on that one.  Will Wilson offered NC Listserve to hold a discussion on race.  Darius Little reminded members of the listserve that there aren’t enough black people to warrant the group taking the lead.  John Martin, president of the InterNeighhood Council of Durham (the body behind the listserve) kindly asked that we fight somewhere else.

I agreed to play nice. Before doing so there was something I had to get off my chest.  Chamberlain told me she wanted to cut my hair and spank me.  I had to respond to that, so here it is for those who missed it on the listserve.  

Your thoughts are welcome.  Something tells me this one isn’t over yet. So, you may want to take a break, grab a drink and take notes.

To all,
Before I respond to Christine let me set the record straight.  I am not an angry black man.  I’m not blaming “the white man” for keeping me down.  My intent is not to fight for the continuation of the type of rhetoric that keeps people fragmented due to some past evil.  I regard myself an advocate for peace and understanding. 

I have used my own grapples as an illustration regarding the ways race and racism pops up in our fine city.  I have offered a perspective.  My hope has been to generate a deeper conversation involving the covert nature of racism.  My point has been simple. If a man like me has a hard time making those ends meets, what about those with less to bring to the table.

These conversations began after a blogpost.  For those who don’t know, I began writing columns for the Herald-Sun in 1997.  Since then I have dedicated my life and work to helping people see beyond their assumptions.  That process has offered me the benefit of opening my own eyes to the malice immersed in my assumptions.  I have grown.  My prayer is that others have down the same.

My journey has been an amazing one.  The man I have become is one that I love more than the one who began writing back in 1997.  I see the world different because I have taken time to listen.  I’m a better Christian now.  I have traveled around the world to discover the rich diversity of faith. I have embraced people who don’t look or think like me, and, as a result, admitted that my world view was too small.  My journey has become a quest for understanding beyond my on enculturation.

I am incredibly comfortable in my skin.  I love it while refusing to worship it.  So, with that being said, let me talk to Christine.


Your argument is an affirmation of my point.  I thank you for that.  What you have failed to consider is how you serve as the embodiment of everything I have attempted to teach.  Yes, I said teach.  Why that word - because each of us has a lesson to be shared.  My hope has been to help you and others understand what it means to be me.  I conceded that my experience, as a black man, is a unique experience.  It would be hyperbole to suggest that every black man has experienced things the way I have.  We are individuals.  Each brings a set of issues that weigh heavy in how the rest comes to bear.

You say I am a mess.  I say you have failed to listen.  Let me begin with my hair.  Your comments are rooted in, once again, an assumption of your own privilege.  You base your claim on a thought regarding legitimate culture.  In your mind my hair is nasty and, as you put it, needs to be cut.  You follow that up with a reminder of what happened to black men who refused to be called “Toby”.  You want to spank me for my rebellion.  Sorry dear, my name Kunte Kente, and I refuse to bow to your conception of how I should look or think.

What you have not considered, due to your lack of understanding, is why I have locked my hair.  We call them locs, not dreadlocks.  Why? Because that label implies something to be dreaded. So, let me give you a history lesson.  Take notes.  You may need them.

The first known example of locs date back to ancient Egypt.  Mummified remains of ancient Egyptians with locs have been recovered from archaeological sites.  Spiritualist of all faiths and backgrounds incorporate them into their paths as a way to symbolize a disregard for physical appearance and vanity.  In the West, the Nazarite is known for locs. In the East, Yogis, Gyanis, and Tapasvis of all sects are famous bearers of locs.
The Ashanti people and other related Akan groups of Ghana reserved locs for their spiritual leaders or okomfo.  The warriors of the Massi nation of Kenya are famous for their long red locs.  In various cultures what are known as Fetish priest, sangomas, or shamans, spiritual men and women often wore locs. In Benin the Yoruba priest of Olokun, the Orisha of the deep ocean wear locs.  The Himba people in the southeast Congo-Kinshasa, the Fang people of Gabon, the Mende of Sierra Leone, and the Turkana people of Kenya all have hair like me.

You also find it among Sadhus and Sadhvis Indian holy men and women.  They consider it a religious practice and an expression of their disregard for profane vanity as well as a symbol of their spiritual understanding that physical appearance is unimportant.  It is found within Tibetan Buddhism, a few Sufi groups such as Qalandari and folks like me.

What you have failed to regard, due to a lack of understanding, is the deep spiritual statement connected to my decision.  Your assertion that I cut them, albeit rooted in a lack of understanding, confirms my contention about positions of privilege.  You, and your black friends, are asserting that black identity and the celebration of that rich heritage must be stripped if one is to make it in this society rooted in white cultural expressions.

What fuels your indifference? Is it the fact that a black man is bold enough to question your authority? Is it the possibility that your privilege stands in the way of others versus your view that they lack more due to something they have failed to do? Why your drive to confirm your contention by using black folks to fight that other black boy? Does their journey negate my own?  Why the need to make me wrong?  It’s a perspective rooted in my own experience, but you are bent on minimizing the implications of those assertions? Why? What drives your need to defeat those claims.

I’m not going to call you a racist.  I don’t know you well enough to do that. And, although you have attacked my character and taken more time than necessary to confirm your contention that I am a “mess”, I refuse to call you a racist.  That’s your own cross to bear.

What I am is a free black man.  Unlike others you may seek out to confirm your thoughts, I’m free to write and think free from the potential consequences that come with freedom.  I pay a price for that, and that was the point I made about being a man with an agenda.  My agenda is to be a prophet who remains free. 
Freedom means standing with the rejected.  I take on the image of those who you claim suffer because of all those stereotypes you spit.   I have chosen to become the rejected for the sake of sharing in their suffering.  I’ve decided to let go of my privilege to confront their rejection.  I need for you to understand this, no one has taken it away, I decided to remove myself from what could be mine to advocate for those who look like me.

That’s what freedom looks like Christine.  Deal with it.  As for those black friends you go to, tell them I’m proud of them for their achievement.  With that being said, I’ll place my own against anyone I meet.  I take no pride in what I have achieved.  I’m willing to sacrifice it all for my brothers and sisters who suffer due to the way they are viewed.  That means anyone poor, unemployed, underemployed and it means my standing for the LGBT community.  I do so because that’s what it means for me to walk by faith.  It means picking up this cross for them.  Even if it means I die.

As for you cutting my hair – read the Bible. That’s what got a dude named Samson in trouble.  This is a spiritual decision.  Deal with it.


  1. This is a very interesting discussion and a very timely post. I am thankful that Christine had the courage to say the things she did, because that opened the door for your lengthy and informative answer. This is the kind of forum and discussion that I seek as a new Durhamite, recently arrived from Harlem where I found that it was a lot easier and more common to have dialogue about race and politics in daily life. The social/racial atmosphere seems a little more charged here, or am I wrong about that? Just my personal observation.

    Looking forward to all the upcoming conversations and to meeting my new Durham neighbors!

  2. Oh, wanted to share this! Wonderful piece on transitioning to natural hair.

  3. The woman has an intellect rivaled only by garden tools, even those of the master gardener, and it's terrifying to think she has ever had her hands on anything to do with the education of children. Sadly, the fact that she is so fiercely myopic when the topic of white privilege is raised does not distinguish her. The Dunning-Kruger effect in action. And to their Condi quote I counter with Audre...

    “I have come to believe over and over again, that what is most important to me must be spoken, made verbal and shared, even at the risk of having it bruised or misunderstood… My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you…and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us. The fact that we are here and that I speak these words is an attempt to break that silence and bridge some of those differences between us, for it is not difference which immobilizes us, but silence. And there are so many silences to be broken.” - Audre Lorde

    Keep on keepin' on, Carl.