Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Rhetoric That Fuels Profiling

Racial Profiling by Jordan Isip http://jordinisip.com/

"What practical alternative to profiling would you suggest?" 

is the question that caused an uproar in the Chicago theatre community last week. The uproar was in regards to Hedy Weiss' Chicago Sun-Times reviewof Silk Road Rising's production of Invasion by Jonas Hassen Khemiri. In reviewing the play, Weiss acknowledged that the play "is a cry against Muslim profiling," but went on to outrage readers by essentially asking, in the face of State Department-issued worldwide terror threat alerts and Boston Marathon bombings, what other choice do we have but to profile Muslims?

      I had to read that part of the review several times before I really grasped what she was suggesting. After I recovered from the initial shock, I then wondered how the review even made it past her editor's desk. Was it editorial negligence? Did her editor agree? Was it a misguided stunt to get more traffic to the website and increase ad revenue?

      So there was that. Okay. A week prior, CNN's No Talking Points host Don Lemon concluded his show by backing Bill O'Reilly's post-Zimmerman trial critique of black people (not all black people, just the scary and/or dangerous ones), and proceeded to "just be honest, here" and tell black people what black people need to do to solve their black people problems. His suggestions included pulling up our pants (never mind how many white guys sag their pants too), finishing school, and stop having all those babies out of wedlock. He also suggested that we stop littering in our communities and told us that he'd lived in several predominantly white neighborhoods and that there was hardly ever any litter there. 

      Well. Both Uncle Ruckus' Don Lemon's lecture and Hedy Weiss' question come not a month after a not-guilty verdict was handed down for George Zimmerman who shot and killed an armed black teenager in his own neighborhood because - and let's be real here - he profiled him. Racially. He racially profiled him. Weiss' remarks were ignorant and careless; Lemon's were condescending and dismissive of larger, systemic problems. But the most upsetting thing about both pieces rhetoric is that they reinforce a way of thinking about and talking about historically marginalized and maligned groups - Muslims and blacks in this case - that is reductive and vilifying, and gives credence to the kind of profiling that got Trayvon Martin killed, and which Weiss so cavalierly supports in her controversial review. When the media consistently ascribes heightened levels of danger to observant Muslims or black men who sag their pants, the public literally cannot help but form connections between "Muslims" and terror/attack/bomb, and "black" and aggressive/dangerous/violent, and then apply these connections - which translate into prejudice - to the entirety of those populations...or at least the ones that "fit the description." That connection happens on a neurological level and helps proliferate racial profiling and injustice on both small scales (Stop-and-Frisk, anyone?) and large scales (Amadou Diallo, anyone?).

      Imagine if, after the Oklahoma City bombing, or the Unabomber, or the movie theater shooting in Aurora, or the Sikh temple shooting, or the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook - imagine if, after these events, we as a society began to feel nervous around and suspicious of young white men. Why not? The perpetrators of all of these horrific acts of terrorism have all been white men. So why not profile white men? Right, that's probably not going to become a thing in my lifetime (at least not on the scale that it happens to people of color), but it should seem just as ridiculous to profile Muslims as a matter of course or every black man in a hoodie walking down the street at night. But, as we all know, it happens every day. And the ramifications are immense.

      Imagine if, in the face of white-collar crime and Steubenville rape cases, major media outlets began suggesting that "The White Community" needs to clean up its act, stop cheating people out of their hard-earned money, and trading on privilege and entitlement to do whatever they want even if it's wrong/illegal. This was spoofed here to great effect by MSNBC's Chris Hayes, and in listening to it, it sounds just...wrong. You and I know that most white people in America probably aren't doing heinous things on, like, an everyday basis, so why is it okay to speak in a way that suggests most black people probably are? And why is it okay to subject the general population of Muslims to suspicion of acts of terrorism that most people in general, Muslims aside, would never dream of committing?

      It's time to change how we talk about people. And notice that I didn't say "people of color" or "minorities" or "other racial groups" or any of that. Because even though racial, ethnic, and religious groups may be linked by certain commonalities and experiences, all of these "groups" are made up of individuals who are as unique and diverse as we already understand groups of white people to be. And we need to start letting our rhetoric - and our thoughts - reflect that truth. 

*Following the vocal outrage over Weiss' Sun-Times article, the review was edited to omit the most egregious parts. But! You can find those parts right here. This link also includes a post-outcry response from Weiss in which she asserts that "like it or not, we are ALL being profiled every time we enter an airport, highrise or crowd of any kind these days..." So. Right. There's that. ((Bangs head on wall)).

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

It's Not "Just Hair" and Here's Why

Image source: www.naturalhairmag.com
I took the long way home. 
I'm about four months in on natural hair. Before this spring, I wore it straight, and even when I decided that I was ready, I took two years to transition from chemically straightened (or "relaxed") hair to natural, curly hair because I was afraid that I wouldn't like it. I was afraid I wouldn't feel pretty, or that it would be too difficult to manage, or that, as an actor, I wouldn't be cast in things in which I might have been cast with straight hair. I thought that if I took my time, I could always turn back. 
On one hand, life's too short to not have the hair you want, and if you don't have it, go out and get it. Now, I've never relished time spent at the salon; I had always felt it was more of a chore than anything else. 
And as I got older, it became important to me to understand why I preferred one kind of hair over another, why I was willing to sacrifice so much time and money at the salon when I'd rather be somewhere else. Over time, I realized that the only thing keeping my hair straight was fear. 
Then, as I transitioned, something happened. As I let my unprocessed hair emerge from beneath 20 years of relaxers, as I began to see all of these fantastic little patterns, curls and coils establish themselves and move outward and upward, I began to realize that, for me, fighting my hair was like fighting myself - that beating back my curls was like beating back my own truth, my own wise genetic code and the millennia of ancestry that it manifests. 
After that, I wasn't afraid anymore. And even though I'd structured my transition so I could turn back at any time, now I didn't really want to.
Here is a list of reasons for changing my hair that bolstered me during my transition - a growing list of revelations that emerged in conjunction with the rich forest of curls and kinks that now crown my head. The list is personal and, despite the societal pressure I imagine many black women feel to conform to one standard or another, took shape in its own patient, and revelatory time. 

1. Because my hair had been relaxed since I was a very little girl. I had no memory of what my hair was like before it was chemically straightened, and I wanted to know what it was like by itself.
2. Because I wanted to go swimming, or stand out in the rain, or sweat my butt off in yoga class without worrying so much about my hair.
3. Because, if I ever have a daughter, I want her to know from my example that she is glorious just the way she is - hair, hips, and lips included.
4. Because having a 'fro is way hip, didn't you know? (I've been blown away by how overwhelmingly positive the responses from both friends and strangers have been).
5. Because I want to dismantle the internalized but prevalent notion that Eurocentric beauty is the only kind of beauty.
6. Because black is beautiful. 
7. Because taking care of my hair in its natural state is not necessarily harder than doing so when it was straightened. The time I now spend detangling, I once spent blowdrying and flat-ironing - an even trade in regards to time and effort.
8. Because I felt like it 
9. Because I was ready.
10. Because my hair is healthier and stronger this way. 
11. Because it's so much less expensive this way. 
12. Because what's the deal with the term "relaxed" anyway? My hair doesn't need to relax. It wasn't aggressive or stressed out in the first place.  
13. Because I wanted to meet myself where I stood and embrace whatever that self had to offer. 
14. Because wearing my hair this way often inspires instant comradery among other women - often complete strangers - who wear or want to wear their hair natural, especially women who have transitioned from straightened to natural hair.  
15. Because I love the way it feels. 
16. Because it was my choice and not anybody else's.  

      That's 16 reasons so far, but every day I feel more and more affirmed in my choice. Absolutely, there are days when I feel frustrated, overwhelmed, or bored with my still-new natural coiffure, but doesn't everyone with hair at all have those days? Even so, it's hard to describe the peace and freedom I feel wearing my hair like this each day - and not just peace with my hair, peace with myself.