A BlogHer Experience of a Different Color
I usually try to keep things light in my blogging. Hilarious farming misadventures, terriers, and, of course, loads of coyote poo. I purposely try to restrain myself from getting too political. Because those who know me know that you can get me on political subjects and sometimes it's questionable if you can get me off them. I toyed with the idea of segregating those rants and posts to a separate blog. But I think the point where you get a third blog is when you stop living and are only blogging. So indulge me this once while I tackle the serious side of my BlogHer experience. I think I inadvertently stumbled over a big sea change coming. Or maybe I'm the last person in America to sense it and you can tell me I'm hopelessly behind the curve. It's okay. I've been told that before.
Through accidental circumstances, I thought I was going to a blogging conference oriented toward women and I ended up doing a high dive into the deep end of the racial relations pool. It was an eye-opening, forehead slapping, heart-breaking, but ultimately uplifting experience.
The first big jolt was the Professor Gates arrest and controversy. That struck a big chord with me, not initially because of any racial aspect, but because I have a history of challenging the police in exactly the way Professor Gates did. A long time ago in a career path far away, I was a TV anchor woman. Routinely after the late night newscast, I would be stopped by the police or state troopers. I was well aware that the police needed "probable cause" to stop me from my right to travel freely. Although justifying probable cause is pretty easy and is completely stacked in the police officer's favor. But that thin little tissue of protection demands that they not stop me unless:
*I or my car matched the description of a known criminal they were pursuing.
*I had a vehicular violation -- even something as minor as a broken tail light.
*I was breaking traffic laws -- even something as nebulous as "driving erratically" which is a broad catchall and completely up to the say-so of the officer.
*They had established a roadblock or checkpoint and were stopping all cars or every third car or some such convention that made sure one group, person, ethnicity etc. wasn't unduly targeted.
Not that I want to hinder the police from doing their jobs. But I do think this small, small requirement is the difference between a police force that serves and protects and a police state where the police do what they bloody well please and the populace is at their mercy.
But the answer to my question, "Officer, may I ask why you are stopping me?" was almost always a variation on: "Well, I wondered what you were doing out so late on the road."This would propel me into my "With all due respect Officer, if I don't insist on this protection, it all just starts to erode away" speech. Mostly I was polite, but more than once, when I felt I was being dismissed, I did ask for the officer's name and badge number. But usually, it didn't get to that point, as the trooper saw a small blonde woman or recognized me, waved and let me go. At no time did I even entertain the possibility that my little "My American Rights" act would get me cuffed, arrested, dragged to the police station, and jailed. Talking to African American bloggers about this, I found that scary possibility was always foremost in their minds when an officer stops them -- especially if they are in the car with a Black man.
And speaking of African American bloggers, why did there suddenly seem to be so many of them at BlogHer? Was this just the year African Americans decided to start blogging? Or had I just been oblivious to the diversity in past years and the Gates issue had made me more aware? You never learn things unless you ask questions, even the stupid ones. So when I found myself at a large table of African American women, I did. At least the group I was with surprised me with the length of time they'd been blogging, their passion for it and their knowledge of New Media (all far beyond mine). Yet I hadn't been hearing voices like this during the whole Gates debate."If you've been out there all this time, " I asked, "Why haven't I seen you at BlogHer? And why haven't I heard your voices?"
"Honey", one gal answered, "Just because you haven't heard us, doesn't mean we haven't been talking.
"Turns out many of those voices have been turned inward to their own communities. Now, partly as a result of Obama's election, but maybe more as the result of many factors, this was the year this group of bloggers decided to turn those voices outward.That effort is going to get a big boost if BlogHer presenter Kathie Orenstein has anything to say about it. She moderated one of the first sessions called "Owning Your Expertise", but her agenda was right up front. And it wasn't necessarily to help you blog better. As the founder of The Op-Ed Project, she's on a mission to widen the public debate. Starting from the shocking fact that nearly 85% of the voices in the op-ed pages of mainstream papers are those of East Coast college educated White Males, she's trying to get more women and more diversity in front of editors. The biggest hurdle is that these groups don't speak up thinking they don't have enough credentials and letters behind their names to justify it. But she led us through exercises to encourage us to look at experiences we have and expertise we've gained to give us the courage to put our ideas forward. And she told us that the push has to come from us. Not sitting back and waiting for an editor to call, but submitting, submitting, submitting until someone publishes. It was electrifying. Luckily many of those African American women I spoke to were at the session and they're ready to be heard.
The next night I had dinner with an African American fellow Mount Holyoke alumna. She also is working with The Op-Ed Project and was a former editor at the Chicago Tribune. The evening brought even more insight on different sides of many issues. But also to the fact that when we start to engage, we're going to make mistakes and rub each other wrong sometimes. If we can keep our humor and just talk about it, we'll get through it. Case in point, throughout our conversation, I was using the term Black. I find African American a mouthful and I once heard Whoopi Goldberg say she doesn't mind being called Black. Whoopi adds that she didn't even mind when she was a Negro as long as respect was in the mix. But at one point Cassandra quietly said, "Well, actually I think of myself as Brown." So, here I'm not meaning to be offensive, but a term that is innocuous to me may have been irritating to her. What word did that Cambridge cop use that was meaningless to him, but highly offensive to Gates? What word or tone did Gates use that meant one thing to him but perhaps inflamed town-gown divides in the eyes of the cops? And what would have happened if Gates or the cop had been able to correct each other as politely as Cassandra did me? In our interaction, I think it ended with "no harm, no foul". But then again, we were talking and listening, not posturing.
My final AHA! Moment came on the plane ride back. I sat beside a fascinating, articulate and very accomplished African American woman who is an executive at one of the world's largest and most diversified companies. They're into everything from robotics to media. This is a woman who's not only reached the top of the corporate food chain, but does things like flying planes for recreation. Yet despite her demeanor and her accomplishments, she told some hair-raising tales about business meetings overseas where she was called "Foxy Brown" and subjected to similar disrespect.
And as I did with Cassandra, I put my foot in it with her. Although, the result wasn't an arrest but another gentle correction.I'd just caught about 15 minutes of CNN's Black in America series back at the hotel, a segment that focused on an innovative locally organized program that took kids from the projects who were being failed by the educational system and brought them into a summer of community work in Africa. I thought it was inspirational because an African American educator had conceived it and was spearheading it and it seemed like it was a "think outside the box" approach. The executive visibly recoiled when I mentioned it. She said she and her friends were appalled by the TV special to the point of elevated blood pressure.
"All African Americans are NOT living in the projects. We're everywhere and at every level. We're doctors, lawyers, business people. Yet the series only focused on African Americans at the bottom." Whoa. Head turning moment for me. Suddenly I saw it from her perspective. A series called Black in America, one would infer, is going to cover the totality of the African American experience today. Yet, still the same old stories and focus.
I'm not sure if I have an answer to all of this except engage and listen. The comedian Patton Oswalt tells a story about how he became increasingly concerned that his son not have the kind of isolated suburban childhood he had, but be exposed to different people and perspectives. He thought it would be important for his son to have Black friends or acquaintances, but found, to his dismay, that it just isn't easy to accomplish. Even when we are in similar social strata, we seem not to mix very freely. He said he finally was reduced to walking up to African American families on the playground and saying, "I really want my son and myself to have African American acquaintances. Can we come over and play with you?"
Goofy yes, and maybe it raised some eyebrows and even some hackles. But it's some kind of start.Now seems so much the time to reach across that divide and start talking. At the very least, I think we can seek out (and demand from the media) voices we don't always hear. They are all around us.
As my African American BlogHer acquaintance says:
"Just because you haven't heard us, doesn't mean we haven't been talking."