Saturday, March 5, 2016

That Awkward Moment When You Realize Pole Dancing Is Not for You

About five years ago, I was in the best physical condition I had ever been in my life. I was very confident about myself and I was becoming a bored fitness buff who needed to shake up my fitness routine. I stayed abreast of all the fitness crazes, classes and new workout routines, and I started to take a keen interest in the art of pole dancing. I never told anyone how badly I desired to try it and become good at it. It was my little secret that I kept to myself. For a year, I watched videos on YouTube endlessly. I knew the names of some of the top pole dancers in the world. They were amazing and I admired their athleticism, endurance, bravery and technique. I read every article on all the benefits of pole dancing: increased confidence, a full-body workout, weight loss, expressing yourself artistically, etc. No need to convince me. I was already sold. I had taken dance for years and although I'm not the best dancer, I surely am not the worst. I got this.
My mind became consumed with thoughts of all the cool routines I could do, what songs I would use, and amazing costumes I could create for shows in the future. I would have free flowing confidence and sexiness. I didn't tell anyone about my aspirations, but I knew in my heart that this would become the fitness routine shake up that I desperately needed. I finally decided to try it out. I searched online for the studio that I felt was right for me. I paid for a four class package that included some killer pole dancing stilettos. Look at how committed I was! I made sure my bag was packed with everything the website stated you would need. I arrived to the class 15 minutes early. I had never been more ready for anything in my life.
The instructor came in, gave an introduction and turned on the music. In my mind I screamed, "Oh yeah, babbbby! That's my jam!" and next thing you know I was on the floor with five other women. Then I experienced that very awkward moment when I realized that I was very, very, very shy about isolating my butt cheeks in public. Who knew one could be shy about such things? Who knew I was even shy! Whenever you take a class, there are always three groups of people: 1) The ones that get it right away, 2) the ones that don't get it right away, but aren't making complete fools of themselves, and then 3) the person who just doesn't get it, looks ridiculous, makes the instructor work for their money and leaves you wondering why they ever signed up in the first place. I belonged to category three.
I was trying so hard to hold back the laughter inside of me when I looked at the faces of the instructor and my classmates as they watched me be as graceful as a grizzly bear on roller skates. My instructor was kind, to say the least. She had to explain things to me multiple times. If only I could pole dance in real life as well as I did in my fantasies. I spent most of the time laughing and barely saving myself from busting my ass. The other girls watched the moves given by the instructor and a few of them did it effortlessly. They swirled around the pole and had confident smiles that they had mastered the basic moves. But not me. Oh no. My mind was telling my body what to do, but my all my body heard was, "gyrate awkwardly." I sucked at this and there was no saving face. It's like when you were in grade school, there was always one kid you picked last to be your kickball team if you were captain. What I'm telling you is that if you had a pole dancing team, you should pick me absolutely last.
It got to the point where the instructor was basically praising me for not falling. I know those classmates felt bad for me, but I found this experiencing to be truly hilariously liberating. There are three words that could describe my short experience as a pole dancer: a hot mess. I left the studio quickly and I just laughed and laughed. I never went back to the studio for the three classes I paid for. I considered it a donation for all the good work they do in the community for people that don't look crazy doing it.
I realized that you're not going to be good at everything and that's okay. At least I can say I tried it and it wasn't for me. I will always enjoy watching people pole dance and I still do on occasion. You could come with all the zeal and zest in the world into something and realize that you're one of those people who'd be better off sitting in the audience, cheering on people who are actually good at these things. I'll leave all future pole dancing to the professionals and those who have at least a little coordination. My husband and I just laughed until we cried as I recalled this experience. In reality, when it comes to pole dancing I need to have several seats. But I know in my mind, I can always be the most bad assed pole dancer to ever live.

Online Activists Question Facebook's Anti-Racism Stance After One Woman's Terrifying Death Threat Goes Viral

TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains graphic language about violence, rape, assault and abuse.
One year ago, I received my first online death threat. I was told by an internet user that I should be raped by a pack of white men and burned alive. This individual also hoped that my husband pulls out the "lynch rope soon, when he gets bored" of me. This was backed up by another individual repeatedly saying, "I will rape you." This scenario was horrible, but all too common for female writers, activists and gamers online, where anonymity breeds the lowest level of disgusting human behavior laced with unwarranted vitriol.
Being an activist, writer, and performer who has been in the public eye for nearly 20 years, I have taken my fair share of (unwarranted and sometimes warranted) criticism and attacks. I can laugh at a spirited back and forth with a troll and love impassioned debates with people who think differently than I do. I have never taken what people I don't know have to say online about me very seriously, until my life was threatened in disturbing and sick detail. There was something about that moment, reading how someone felt that I should be sexually assaulted, burned alive or lynched by my own husband, that was surreal and awful. I found the individual's IP address and I called the Los Angeles and Houston Police Departments. Unfortunately, I was told by both agencies that there was nothing I could do to pursue action against someone who said I should be raped and burned alive. The person who threatened me was 19 years old. After getting no help from the Los Angeles or Houston Police Departments, I ended up consulting with a private investigator to locate the individual, but because the threats stopped, I felt no need to persue any further action (even though that has been a huge regret for me). I said nothing about it. I "let it go."
A year later, I sat in horror, shaking, as I read one of the most heinous and detailed racially-motivated death threats I have ever read online -- only this time it wasn't against me, but a New Jersey woman named Heather Smith. Smith allegedly received unsolicited contact from a 24-year-old man, Matt Walters, who is a Cypress, TX resident. He attacked her for her support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. The content of this message was far more than someone expressing dissent or feverishly debating conflicts in ideology; it came from a far more sinister place deeply rooted in ignorance, violence, misogyny and racism. He goes into a very methodical and grotesque rant about the exact ways he would kidnap, torture, and kill Smith.
Here are the threats that were directed at Miss Smith by Walters. Please be aware that this is extremely graphic in nature.
When asked about her reaction to reading these threats, Smith had this to say:
Reading the messages was surreal. I've gotten hateful messages before but as I read his incredibly detailed and vivid description of how he wanted to harm me, my heart sank. I haven't had that sort of thing happen to me ever in life. I was astounded and terrified. Just my words made this person want to end my existence in the most horrible way possible.
Smith immediately took action and contacted both Harris County and the Houston Police department in Texas, as well as filed a police report in East Orange, New Jersey. She had this to say about her experience dealing with the police to have this matter investigated:
The police seemed very annoyed. They didn't take it seriously. Houston PD wouldn't even listen to me. I tried to read the message to them and they said, 'No. That is OK.' I informed them that the Harris County PIO (Public Information Officer) urged me to call, but they said no. That person gave me the wrong information [and said] they can't help me because I don't live in Houston. The police here in East Orange, New Jersey did take my report but only after I insisted that this be taken seriously. Several times in the station I had to ask officers not to laugh this off. They were literally half chuckling and saying , 'Oh he's probably just some jerk'. Some jerk that left a detailed description of the vile things he wants to do to me.
The news of the alarming threat against Smith's life spread after her post was shared on a popular Facebook page called "The Love Life of an Asian Guy" (LLAG), which has a very strong following with over 71k supporters. LLAG was created by writer and activist Ranier Maningding. His page focuses on issues pertinent to people of color which includes institutional racism, sexism, politics and pop culture. I asked Maningding why he chose to share this story in an attempt to expose Walters and he said:
I shared this post as a way to supplement Facebook's historic inability to address racism and anti-Black harassment. More than anyone else, Black women are at the receiving end of death threats on Facebook -- through private messages and public comments. Despite the number of Black women who have received death threats on Facebook, they have also received zero support from Facebook's reporting system which is supposed to stop this type of harassment. And sometimes Facebook does step in and bans the harasser -- but only if the victim is white (from what I've seen.) So, if Facebook won't take action to protect people off color, the community needs to step in.
To add insult to injury, Facebook's response to Smith posting her death threat on her own page was to allegedly ban her for seven days due to "Violations of Community Standards". This type of response to someone who has received a very serious death threat conflicts with the media hype that Mark Zuckerberg caused by announcing his commitment to diversity by publicly affirming that his employees were not allowed to cross out "Black Lives Matter" and replace that saying with "All Lives Matter" on their signature wall in the main Facebook office.
Zuckerberg made a public statement on the matter:
I was already very disappointed by this disrespectful behavior before, but after my communication, I now consider this malicious as well. 'Black lives matter' doesn't mean other lives don't. It's simply asking that the black community also achieves the justice they deserve. We've never had rules around what people can write on our walls -- we expect everybody to treat each other with respect. Regardless of the content or location, crossing out something means silencing speech, or that one person's speech is more important than another's.
Ranier Maningding is skeptical of Facebook's current stance on racism, due to their inconsistent monitoring and reporting of online harassment against people of color. He stated:
As for Facebook, they need a serious reevaluation of their reporting policy and their community standards. It's ironic that Mark Zuckerberg came out in support of Black Lives Matter during the incident at the Menlo Park office, yet the actual website of Facebook is littered with racism ten times as bad. The Facebook team responsible for reporting, processing account suspensions and determining what posts are deemed racist or not needs to be removed and replaced. They are failing at their job and they are failing the users of Facebook. Since none of us know who is on that team, the responsibility falls back on Mark.
I contacted both Matt Walters and the Houston Police Department and neither parties were available for comment; however, several online conversations with both Matt Walters and his brother were screen shot dismissing his terrible threats as "just a joke", even though he has Facebook posts like this...
Facebook users were also able to contact Matt Walters via text message and he admitted that these attacks were based upon her support of #BlackLivesMatter. He stated that he made these threats against Smith to show his "disgust" for the movement. Walters's terrible lack of foresight in making these types of threats on an account that is linked to his real name, family members, and professional affiliations may now cost him his job, reputation, and possibly some jail time.
Trolling, debating and even fighting occurs online every single day. We have come to expect human beings to have some uneasy discourse when communicating about ideas. I thoroughly support free speech, which includes unpopular speech. But the question I ponder is, when does free speech end and a crime begin? Legally speaking, it can be very unclear. Each state has different laws and penalties regarding cyber-bullying, terroistic threats, harassment, and rape threats online. Texas State Penal Code 22.02 considers placing any person in fear of imminent serious bodily injury a type of terroristic threat, so many online activists and Facebook users are calling for the Houston PD to treat this case as such.
Ranier Maningding and his followers have been very clear on their demands. He stated:
We would like the Houston PD to take full action and address Matt Walters's death threats with the full weight of the law. This isn't a simple 'I hope you die' comment said by a fifteen-year-old boy on XBOX Live. This private message was gruesome, detailed and thought-out by an adult male. The descriptions of prolonged torture and kidnapping cannot be taken lightly and I'm genuinely afraid of the well-being of Black women in the Houston area. We recently reported a man in Seattle for making similar threats and he was arrested the next day with his bail set at $60,000. Houston PD can and should do the same.
Miss Smith has no intentions of letting this issue go and demands that Walters be charged to the fullest extent of the law:
I want Matt arrested and charged for this terroristic threat. This is not OK to do to people. To have people fear for their lives all because they speak out against racism or have a different opinion than you. This sort of intolerance and terrorism should be taken very seriously.
Threats like these are common placed and anti-racism activists are often targeted. I spoke to a well-known West Coast anti-racism activist (who chose to remain anonymous due to the death and rape threats she receives on a regular basis), and she had this to say about why she feels the internet masks hidden racism that individuals don't feel comfortable expressing in their day-to-day lives:
Anonymity is powerful and racists are notorious cowards. The Internet is the hood The KKK hides under. There is also a large population of people (most of them young) who don't necessarily live the hate they share online. They say what they do because, for one brief moment, it makes them feel powerful. I guarantee that the majority of their moms, wives, and girlfriends would be shocked and horrified if they knew. Of course that's not an excuse.
This horrifying story does have a silver lining. Because Smith's account was banned, her original posts were taken offline. Due to hundreds of people capturing screen shots and thousands of supporters recirculating them online, Smith's story did not fall by the wayside. With deep gratitude, she remarked:
The public's reaction has been amazing. I'm floored at the level of support I'm receiving. The positive vibes and messages are so appreciated as well as all the shares, posts, tweets and blogs.
Ranier Maningding spoke with great pride about the online community of activists that have worked to bring attention to this matter:
I'm very proud of the community for rising to the occasion because they have always taken action, every time I send out a warning signal similar to this. It's not just my page that has amplified this story, over 2,000 pages and people have shared this. And we share it because we all get it. As people of color, we understand that Facebook and the justice system don't care about us, so we're taking measures into our own hands. Critical to our ability to spread the word is through screen shots which allow us to get everyone up to speed on what's going on. The proof is in the screen shots.
A year after receiving my very first death threat, I felt extremely guilty for never speaking out publicly. I was afraid of the repercussions of coming forward. Today, I finally can admit: Yes, someone threatened me with rape and that I should be burned alive. Heather Smith did something that I couldn't do until reading her story, which is come forward and speak out against online death and rape threats and talk about how receiving them impacts our life experiences.
Thank you for your bravery, Heather.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

You Can Be My Sister Without The Mask

Dear Ms. Dolezal,
I want to start out this letter by saying, if I were to meet you in the street, I would call you my sister and give you a hug. Not because I pity you, but because you are a human being with feelings, emotions, successes and failures who is in pain. Like me, you have a laundry list of confusing feelings and struggles that pool into abysmal collections in the corners of your spirit, which drip down your face at night and become the secrets that your pillow keeps for you. If that pillow were not there, you and I, sister, might drown in that confusion until our breath is stolen by the ocean. I would call you my sister, not because you identify as black or white, but because you are my sister in humanity. I forgive you for having trouble finding your place in this world and feeling that you have to be something you are not in order to fit in and find community. I have found myself in that place before too. I forgive you because I believe that you never intended to hurt anyone. You just lived a lie that got out of control. The lesson in all of this is that any seed that is planted in soil that is full of lies will bear rancid fruit.
I would extend a hand of forgiveness to you for stealing my childhood and calling it your own. You anointed your head with the pain of my tender-headedness after hours of hair-braiding that I spent wedged between my mother's knees. Those torture sessions would end with my braids being decorated with plastic beads at the end, sealed with foil to preserve my ends. You took the click-clack of those beads hitting against one another as I ran, skipped and played and made it the soundtrack of your upbringing. I forgive you for ripping the taste of Callaloo, Titty Bread and Cod Fish with Fungi from my mouth and putting it into yours while plagiarizing the recipes of my grandmother's soul food across the chapters of your life story. I forgive you for taking the blood of my ancestors and applying it as warpaint across your face and chest in order to fight a battle within yourself. You stole the gift of my melanin, without any of the true burdens of the connotations associated with it, and used it as the blackface for your minstrel show. This, by far, is the most perplexing and epic blackface performance that I have ever seen. It will end with no standing ovation.
Rachel, you and I are alike in a lot of ways because we are both humans with frailties and complexities that we might never understand. What makes us different is that I do not have the privilege of removing the blackness from my face or my heart for the purposes of selective identity, which is something your whitness affords you. You are afforded the privilege of picking your struggle through a faux identity. I am not. I would not rebuke my blackness even if I was given the chance. That would mean leaving my ancestors to drown, as they cast themselves off of slave ships with hands bound, in vain. Although you have been engulfed in black culture for a decade or two, you cannot appropriate my identity. I am Black Culture. People say that imitation is the highest form of flattery... until they are a victim of identity theft.
Burdens in the City by Me, 2005
A few days after your story broke, I found myself on a Facebook thread where a white woman began mocking your hair, saying that you looked like you stuck your finger in an electrical socket and that you looked like Side Show Bob. I defended your beautiful hair. These same things have been said to me to make me feel inferior. I found myself defending your hair and reminding this woman that she was mocking a person who has hair that looks exactly like most of the black women I know. I defended your hair because in actuality, it was just like mine. This woman dismissed my assertions that she was not mocking your hairstyle, but a skillfully executed appropriation of ours. She will never understand how it feels to become a petting zoo for curious folks with wily hands that make you do Matrix moves in order to keep them out of your afro. She will never understand the hours spent to tame, and oftentimes alter, the beautiful wildness of our hair in order to not be mocked or told that somehow, our hair intrinsically looks like a cartoon character, or someone who has been electrocuted.
By carrying on this charade, you have discredited the integrity of the NAACP and have marred the legacy of the good work that you have done in the name of bettering humanity. No matter what your history or biology was, I would have stood by you, hand in hand, as we marched together against systematic injustice as allies. Everything you did as a black woman, you could have done as a white woman. You must never underestimate our need for white allies who are passionate about dismantling the meat grinder of white supremacy. We need you to be you and not someone who parrots our stories while gift-wrapping them in deception. Part of being black is knowing that it is not the color of our skin or the nappiness of our hair that defines us, even though it greatly impacts how we navigate through this world. Our blackness is defined by our collective history and experience, which for us is inescapable. My blackness cannot be found in the Craigslist "free" section. My blackness was given to me through the great black dynasties that gave the world the gift of civilization and through the theft of my ancestors. My way was paved through their shackling, enslavement and dehumanization. It was paid for through the castration of my forefathers and the rape of my foremothers. It was paid in full on auction blocks and with hands, blistering and foul from picking cotton and tilling the soil. My soul food is the leftover slop that was thrown from the rubbish pails of our oppressors. My blackness has been given as a precious gift that symbolizes my people's victories and defeats, and it is not for sale. My struggles are not to be exploited by people to script their personal minstrel shows.
I'm not mad at you for being confused. I'm an individual that believes that everyone has the right to live as the most authentic version of whomever they are, however, authenticity and deception cannot reside in the same space. I stopped relaxing my hair in 1998 as a way of emancipating myself and my unruly edges from a culture that says I need to chemically alter, perm, straighten, mute and erase my blackness away to be accepted. I was told by a co-worker last year that I don't "act like a black person." My follow-up question to that was: What defines my blackness? Should I come into work equipped with a blunt, a 40 ounce, speaking Ebonics, with a dozen welfare babies swinging from my teats, wondering who their daddies are, and a big, over-sexualized ass to be twerked and shaken for your entertainment in order for you to recognize my blackness? Being black is not synonymous with ignorance and classlessness, just as the black experience cannot be replicated by imitating hairstyles and weaving webs of lies and tomfoolery.
I love you as my sister in humanity, Rachel. I love you as a beautiful white woman who has been an active participant in our culture, and has fought tirelessly for our people -- for all people. I love you as an ally. And I forgive you for the frailties of your humanity, in which I can see my own reflection. But in order for us to walk forward as sisters in justice and the truth, I will need you to remove your blackface -- and let the sun hit your face for the first time in years. I will need you to throw away your tap shoes and stop the masquerade so that you can walk with me, as sisters, in the light of the truth.
You can be my sister without the the mask. You may share in my culture, but you cannot take my identity. That is my birthright paid for by the blood of those who have come before me.