What being let go from my job during Sandra Bland and #SayHerName taught me about diversity and inclusion.

Sandra Bland
Photo of Sandra Bland

Last month, I was suddenly and suspiciously let go from my job at a local media production company in Houston. Prior to being let go, I’d been in New York City for a couple of days hoping to retrieve the last of my things left there over a year ago.

While away, I received very few email correspondences from work, but since I had planned ahead, I assumed the non-communication was because I was out of town. I didn’t sweat it; I was actually eager to return to work. We were up for mid-year reviews and recently, two exciting projects had landed on my plate. I felt as if I could finally stretch my creative legs after six months of settling in. It had not been perfect, but I worked to be a team player and give everything I could.

The day I left New York City, I spoke to a partner to update them on my return to Houston and to find out when to expect my review. I was then emailed by another partner confirming the meeting time of 8:30am. Shortly after I arrived that morning, the partner got right to it and said, “We have to lay you off .“

I felt like someone had just slapped me. A layoff was the last thing I expected, but here they were, insisting that the decision was purely financial and expressing sympathy.

I pushed back with the details of a new hire starting that week and upcoming projects that I had recently pitched and was awarded. I mentioned the conversation about job security we had during my meeting only one week earlier, where I was assured that I was fine and had nothing to worry about.

Suddenly, I was being reminded that my work wasn’t “billable” and that projects were drying up. I remembered being told that summers were usually slow. I was confused. A sudden layoff just didn’t make sense to me. I asked if there was something else going on and got nothing. “It’s financial,” they repeated.

I cried. I shook. I left. “Downsizing” was the subject line of the email I received finalizing my termination.

I was bewildered. What could have transpired in the four days of my being in New York City that would constitute a layoff? How could the company suddenly need to lay me off without my knowing? I did work in the department that handled billing. I had nothing. Eventually, I began to consider the timing of my layoff.

I live and work 45-minutes away from Waller County, the place where Sandra Bland lost her life. I know I easily could have been Sandra Bland. I’ve driven to lots of different places for work in Southern Texas. Some places where my black woman’s body would be unwelcome and potentially destroyed, had I not had whiteness around to “protect” me. I’ve always been acutely aware of this fact, but Sandra Bland’s death made me ache with it.

The day more details about Sandra Bland’s death were revealed, I was leaving for New York City, so I was not in the office. The office where I am the only person of color — ever — to have worked. The office where I had recently experienced casual racist comments from a colleague at a morning meeting. Comments that hit a personal nerve. In an email to everyone in the office, I called out those comments. Sharing how the experience affected me and how I would like to move forward. My email was responded to with non-apologies and excuses. To my knowledge, that colleague experienced no recourse for their statements. I was only assured they “didn’t mean to hurt my feelings” via an email.

Undoubtedly, my pain about Sandra Bland would have been invisible to them had I been in the office so I was grateful to not be. I expressed this amongst a series of tweets about police brutality. Given the culture of that office, I would bet (if I had the funds) they didn’t even know who Sandra Bland was that day. But they didn’t have to know who she was or what happened to her. They don’t have to care about her death. But, it sits in my chest like a bubble and swells every time I see a police car in my rearview mirror because … I could’ve been her. My mother, sisters, cousins, and friends, all could’ve been her.

Janet-Tweet-1Twitter is my preferred social media in times like these. I follow well-informed, brilliant and humorous people from multiple and diverse walks of life. I am able to stay informed, share my thoughts and find connection when I can’t find it anywhere else. I purposely keep my Twitter updates private. I prefer to not have people see everything I’m sharing. Plus, it keeps the trolling to a minimum. It’s also not connected to my employment in a professional manner, so I kept it private for that reason as well.

A tweet about white privilege and being offended by it was retweeted though, removing the usual protection filter. I didn’t care. I was too busy hurting for Sandra Bland, for Kindra Chapman, and their families and for collective blackness to care. I was too busy reeling from another black death. It was happening again: another black person gone from trivial circumstances. This time, a woman, and we know that black women’s death under any circumstances can and has been so easily forgotten. I was committed that day to saying her name: Sandra Bland.

When I began working in Houston, I knew that the experience of racism could and likely would occur on some level. While Houston is hailed for it’s diversity, the majority of the establishment in my experience here is white centered. I understood, as a free black woman, I would have to choose if that racism was “worth” challenging. Then, how would I handle that once it happened. I even stated in the office several times that I did not like casual racism or sexism, but that was when I believed what I had to say mattered at my job. I now know different.

Racial diversity is a tricky thing. If your office is homogeneously white, you have to be intentional about diversity to have it actually be successful. It requires being willing to actually confront the very thing you think diverse hiring is the solution for: privilege. In this case, white privilege. Diversity, or rather Inclusion, requires those who don’t experience race based systemic oppression or marginalization to be challenged in ways that make them uncomfortable resulting in white guilt or “white tears”. Inclusion requires setting the precedence for intolerance to racism. It means that when an employee or colleague makes an out-of-bounds statement, you are willing to correct them, and if it’s in your power, take action to eradicate the behavior immediately.

It means that you are intolerant to any microaggressions and will listen when the person of color in your office speaks up about it. You will create dialogue and action because that is what is required for true inclusion. That didn’t happen in my office on multiple occasions, but I kept working there.

The majority of the time I kept my mouth shut when it came to questionable statements in the office. I did speak up when I was asked about Patricia Arquette’s commentary at the Oscars, which turned into an all day conversation summed up by the phrase “meant well.” I spoke up when a person of color’s name was said to make them incapable of being taken seriously. I specifically addressed this, not because of its personal foul to me but because those kinds of comments have power when voiced by white bodies and implicate flagrant bias.

Maybe I should’ve never said anything. Maybe I should have kept my head low and just kept my job and let the racism go unchecked because hey, I was employed, had bills and “White folks don’t care no way.” That’s the way it is when you are the “only.” That’s the choice or so I’ve been told over and over in the wake of my layoff. It’s the choice most marginalized persons find themselves making. Accepting environments that are dismissive and most often intolerant of their pain due to financial need and/or limited options.

Your economic stability is dependent on how you operate in what could be considered a hostile environment. An environment of constant microaggressions, confusing social interactions and unapologetic cultural insensitivity. Have the nerve to challenge it on any level? You could be fired. Don’t challenge it and still end up fired because of being deemed a threat. I had the audacity to challenge it because I was led to believe this company was open to that. It wasn’t.

I’ve come to the conclusion that people of color deserve to be in a work environment where we don’t have to be silent in the face of social injustice for the comfort of others. We deserve to not live in silence and fear of losing our job if we challenge racism. We deserve culturally inclusive environments free of unchecked and often flagrant racism. We deserve to be heard so that those with privilege can understand that their oblivious indifference and unconscionable dedication to white supremacy is the very same violence that caused Sandra Bland’s death and so many others. The same people who claim to support and exalt diversity, and who claim they “don’t see color” are the same people whose silence hurts even more than my defending my right to be comfortable alone in a culturally white space. Those who insist on my silence as a means of comfort in their existence. Those whose privilege is so intertwined with my oppression, the idea of my pain never even causes a question of consciousness or a hint of human empathy. Those whose racism shows up as complicity, duplicitous and is out of integrity with who they claim to be.

Let me say this. I don’t have any evidence that my job fired me for that tweet. This is just a feeling in my gut. It seems strange to me that they would award me projects one week and then lay me off the next. That they would hire someone a week prior to letting me go. That I wasn’t hired to have billable work in the first place but now, I’m laid off because my work isn’t billable. Without warning. Without initiated compromise.

If I was laid off for those tweets on my private twitter, that would mean that someone searched for something to challenge my role there. Maybe to stop me from working on a prized project or maybe just to put me in my place. In any event, they went out of their way to inflict their privilege on my livelihood because I made them uncomfortable and refused to be silent.

Zora Neale Hurston, one of the inspirations of my free black womanhood, says “If you are silent in your pain, they will kill you and say you enjoyed it.” So I refuse to be silent. I will continue saying the names of those who have experienced physical death at the hands of white supremacy. I will continue lifting up and adding my voice with those pushing back on the very racism that will never be satisfied with our silence anyway.

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetUche Wogwugwu is a media professional and culture curator. Most known as the creator and outspoken co host of HipHopis4Lovers.com (HH4L). A weekly online radio show/podcast exploring the many platitudes of gender, sexuality and intimacy in Hip Hop. HH4L is presently on hiatus until the Fall 2015.

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A Message For Writers: Save Your Energy

Photo on 7-7-14 at 1.35 PM

The internet’s news cycle moves in waves. When news hits, there is often so much to cover over a short period of time, that topics are easily considered old before you even press the publish button. Every few weeks a celebrity dies, a political scandal unfolds, racism rears its ugly head and the world keeps spinning. We’re operating on a 24 hour news cycle. Consequently, our minds don’t have enough time to rest.

Furthermore as writers, there’s an almost never ending pressure to comment on the latest drama. We’ve been trained to be “outraged” about almost everything. There are a million voices all chiming in at once, all clamoring to be heard.  Everyone is pressured to say something or go unnoticed and nobody wants to be unnoticed.

It’s tiring. It’s a creativity drainer. Most of all it’s wasteful. Perhaps time would be better utilized focusing on issues we enjoy writing about the most.

Before your next think piece ask yourself, “Do I really care about this…right now? Do I actually have anything of substance to contribute to this conversation that needs to be said? Has enough time passed to actually have a nuanced discussion about this? Are there other writers already articulating a similar perspective as me, possibly better than I would?”

For me, these questions have resulted in NO to articles about: Tyga, Nicki Minaj vs. Taylor Swift and Black feminists defending her, Rihanna’s so called violence against women music video with Black vs. White feminists (again), anything about Riley Curry (cute but only 3 years old), and finally Bill Cosby (because the internet has this covered in great abundance, from almost every angle). There are many other subjects that I also have on pause.

I’m not saying no to these topics forever, just for right now.

After making it a practice to ask myself this series of questions, I’m glad to report that I’ve been saved from spending a lot of unnecessary time and energy on “hot topics.” Yes, I have opinions on them. However I’ve learned from experience that opinions and or critiques aren’t always worthy of an article.

Plus, I’d rather have more practice with being creative than trendy.

It may work in your favor to resist getting swept up in the fury of the interwebs. Only write about what you’re really passionate about. Your energy is better suited on work that builds towards your future, instead of trying to feed the internet beast. Because as we all know, the internet beast is never satisfied.

Release yourself from the digital hamster wheel.

We write because we believe the human spirit cannot be tamed and should not be trained.” – Nikki Giovanni

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell Aiwuyor is a writer, social justice advocate and the founder of Our Legaci. Learn more about her work at JessicaAnnMitchell.com.

To reach JAM, email OurLegaci@gmail.com.
Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

Disappearing Words: Writing In The Digital Space

 

Zora Reading
Zora Neale Hurston reading

There’s something magical about writing and sharing the inner workings of your mind instantly. That’s how it works in the digital space. We’re constantly sharing, breathing new life into old words. Yet, at the same time there’s a fleeting feeling.

Another case of police brutality…write a think piece.

Another person says something racist…write a think piece.

Another person does something sexist…write a think piece.

I’ve actually come to hate think pieces. I can’t help but feel like a rat on a wheel. There’s this constant spinning motion pushing you to stay writing, stay hitting that publish button in hopes of likes or some monetary gain. I’ve heard it referred to as “feeding the beast.” The internet is never satisfied. What’s popular today is gone tomorrow, almost as if it never existed. Old suddenly takes on new meaning. Content often focuses on who can break it faster and hinders most real possibilities of in-depth analysis or nuanced discussions.

Everyone must ride the wave. Or be deemed nonexistent.

I’ve often wondered how potent their words would have been if Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston spent hours on Facebook and Twitter instead of penning poems and writing books. Perhaps they would have gained a “following.”

Yet, would we value their work the same? Would their words have been added to the endless stream of brilliant yet easily discardable “latest posts?” Would we still value their time?

The problem with digital writing is there is nothing to hold on to. It’s not the same feeling as having a physical book or magazine. It’s digital, cloud based, and light like air. Thereby making digital writing feel temporary, like a fleeting gust of wind.

Though nothing ever really disappears on the internet, the quick natured environment of digital communication makes important dialogue get quickly discarded in exchange for the latest controversy.

Everyone feasts upon it, dining on every piece, tearing apart every strip. Then, on to the next one. Lack of substance becomes reality. Quick witted pseudo scholars, psychologists and self help gurus dominate droves of gullible minds simply because they’ve found the key to social media. They’ve learned to ride, even manipulate the waves.

Even with well meaning publications, writing becomes another day, another click bait. Always striving to be ahead of the page view curve makes substance secondary. Everyone is striving to be memorable without memory.

Where do we go from here?

How do we deal with the issue of disappearing words? (The fleeting times, the missed moments, the badly deconstructed ideas, and the incessant desire to be noticed.)

There are no real answers to this question. Perhaps our only choice is to be inventive: push the limits, dig, write, erase, write again, breakdown, and build up in ways that haven’t been done before. Maybe then, our words will serve more as a reference point than some random page, that once was skimmed and forgotten.

Nevertheless, we will do what writers do. We’ll keep writing, hoping the digital swindlers leave enough room for us to make an impact before our words disappear.

JamAllen2-nb-smallJessica Ann Mitchell is the founder of OurLegaci.com & BlackBloggersConnect.com.
To reach JAM, email her at OurLegaci@gmail.com.

Follow Jessica @TweetingJAM.
Follow OurLegaci at Facebook.com/OurLegaci.

How Politics, Racism and Facebook Ended My 16-Year Friendship

facebook-racism

This Christmas I will not be speaking to my friend of 16 years.  Why???  Well after years of reading his Facebook posts I slowly and painfully discovered that my white friend was a racist. Initially I tried to ignore it but as an African American man I could no longer stomach his increasingly toxic, race fueled comments that were initially veiled as just boisterous, conservative rhetoric. After debating him online for years over politics, race and social topics I finally had an epiphany. I could no longer excuse “Adam” by brushing him off as being a hyper-conservative republican. His truth was undeniable. However, I chose not to confront Adam about it, instead I quietly un-friended him on Facebook. Weeks later he confronted me and unloaded a barrage of online insults accusing me of being the actual racist and a “radical” for calling out discrimination, something I’ve aggressively done for years on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and on my personal blog/website.

Initially I blamed Facebook and the bold frontier of social media, a place where like-minded individuals are able to find strength in numbers in pack like mentality as the source of Adam’s racism.  But after deeper reflection I believe it is the rising public influence of social media combined with an unconscious internal racial/class angst within Adam and many other white Americans that has now spewed to the surface with the election and re-election of the nation’s first Black President, Barack Obama.

Our Friendship
handshake

Adam and I are about two years or so apart in age, both from the state of Alabama, both attended The University of Alabama although we didn’t know each other in college.  Four years later we bumped into each other in Atlanta where we both worked for the same company.  We vaguely recognized each other, discovered our mutual roots, college friends and quickly bonded as friends ourselves.  Oddly, our racial differences didn’t seem to matter especially since we both hailed from a state richly steeped in a tradition of hatred, slavery, Jim Crow segregation and racial discrimination.

Our twenties quickly turned into our thirties as we both chased our careers crisscrossing the nation with eight moves and five cities between us but we always stayed in touch. I remember once when I was going through financial challenges in Los Angeles, Adam gave me a financial gift to keep me going.  So we weren’t just causal buddies, we were genuine friends.

The Change Began in 2008

2009 Armed Forces Inaugural Committee

It was the election of America’s first Black President that was the initial trigger.  Adam’s criticism of the President, the economy and its sluggish growth, high unemployment along with his 2012 staunch support of Mitt Romney for president and his criticism of Obamacare is what blew open the divide between us.   Although these online conflicts are common between social media users and their “friends,” our conflict was much different and far deeper.

We weren’t just men hiding behind computer screens and mouse pads.  We were real life friends who shared secrets, hosted each other in our homes, supported, advised and even prayed for one another.  Now we were at odds with each other via social media and it was about to get much worse. As the great recession lingered, Adam became unemployed for a long time and felt significant angst about his place in the world and ability to sustain himself. He increasingly blamed Pres. Obama for not fixing the economy fast enough.  Meanwhile I was forced to completely abandon my media consulting small business in order to run back to a corporate 9-5 job when my client base dried up.  But instead of blaming Pres. Obama I blamed his predecessor Pres. George W. Bush along with the Republican led filibustering within the US Senate which blocked crucial jobs bills which would have grown the economy faster.  So our initial online clashes were over who really was to blame for our forced and dramatic career changes and life shifting situations.

By 2012 Adam was unabashedly lifting talking points from far right leaning FOX News network and spewing them across his Facebook feed without an ounce of criticism towards his own Republican party for its constant obstructionism, filibustering of key legislation and judicial nominations along with its gerrymandering of voting districts to seize control of the House of Representatives. He never addressed the conservative led 36 state Voter-ID “suppression” efforts which sought to reduce early voting, the number of hours to vote, plus stopped voter registration drives and blocked students at private historically black colleges and other universities from voting in the states where they attended school.

We soon became caricatures or perhaps archetypes of Facebook.  He was now a reliably grouchy Republican poster child stating how he wanted his country as he posted a picture of how red America’s voting districts really were but how we have a Democratic President and controlled Senate.  And I would fly in on his Facebook posts like a true blue Liberal Superman countering that much of the red on his voting map represented land based districts and NOT people filled districts not to mention the epic 2010 republican gerrymandered districts on federal and state levels. He soon started to attack immigrants and specifically Latinos when he posted how it felt being a white minority living in certain parts of Los Angeles and seeking out other white people.

But then it really got ugly!! In another post he tried to bash current day immigrants stating how his family migrated to America several generations ago and became productive citizens and that he demanded better from others in “my” country today. I angrily countered that my family had been in this country far longer than his since my descendants came on the slave ship Clotilde which docked in Mobile, AL in 1859. I informed him that Blacks have been in America since the 1600s in Jamestown, VA as slaves and that America really wasn’t “his” country but that he and his family were the true immigrants in America.In another Facebook rant Adam went after the poor chastising them for having too many children and for being on welfare, forgetting that he too was unemployed for a very long time and needed assistance. He also went after a women’s right-to-choose and gays with same-sex marriage stating there were far more important issues to tackle.True to red-state formation, Adam embraced only fiscal issues, rejected social justice topics and the hyphenation of America and instead longed for an era in which white straight men ruled America; an era which Adam never lived however generations later he unknowingly reaped the benefits of it through his white privilege.

Similarly I never lived in an era where blacks were captive to slavery and segregationist Jim Crow laws but I still felt the disadvantages and hurdles growing up and becoming an African American man trying to understand why it seemed so much harder for me to succeed even though I tried, worked and networked three times harder as my white counterparts both in business and within the workplace.Adam and I both felt internal angst about America and achieving the American dream but in two very different directions.  While Adam’s angst and path is often sympathized, even lauded at times, my angst and path is often discounted, demonized and scoffed as being simply excuses.

Were we really ever friends???

Adam and I represent a microcosm of American society and its growing chasm and obsession with race and class.  It’s a battle between a dying demographic (white conservatives) versus a young, growing, dynamic, multi-ethnic, multi-racial demographic which when combined with women, gays, elderly and the poor are finally having their issues and voices heard and addressed.

There’s a belief by the former group that somehow they are losing something when other groups gain their rights or have their grievances addressed.  They fear they might be retaliated against once all avenues of politics, business and social dealings are no longer brokered by themselves.  It is a fear I believe is striking at the center of Adam’s heart.

Today neither one of us is swayed by the other’s arguments and we exist as polar opposites in the world. So is our 16 year friendship worth saving? The answer for me  this Christmas is I’m not so sure.

HerndonDavisHerndon L. Davis is a former media activist turned corporate schmuck .  He can be reached at herndondavis@aol.com and at www.youtube.com/HLDATL.

Article originally posted on: http://herndondavis.blogspot.com