Woman. Black. Fit. Angry. (In)visible. All of the above.

Two essays this week caught me unawares and have left me restless in their wake. The first is “Yes, I Am An Angry Black Woman” by Stacey Patton, published in DAME magazine and the second is “Fitted” by Moira Weigel in The New Inquiry. While it is easier to guess the thrust of the first essay based on the title, the second is less overt.  Weigel talks about the rise of FitBit and other activity trackers and their association with a whole new brand of female productivity. Both of these essays spoke to me in significant ways. And their separateness from each other presents me with an internal dilemma I hope to solve by writing about it now.

First of all, I encourage you to read Stacey Patton’s stirring call to attention, whoever you are. With her words, she invites the reader to inhabit her simmering state of mind in all its complexity, fervor and power. On the day after the Charleston Massacre she describes her ride on an East Coast train:

…The news of Charleston was difficult to process, even more so while riding a D.C.-bound train packed with White people, most of them dressed in business attire, who seemed oblivious to the tragedy. It took everything I had in me to keep from erupting with rage in that Amtrak car.

I thought about racial terrorism and its larger history while a nearby White woman worked on a New York Times crossword puzzle, and sipped her Starbucks coffee. I raged thinking how not even churches are safe from the pathologies of White supremacy. Others talked on their cell phones about trivial shit or tapped on their laptop keyboards and tablets.

It was clear I was not among friends or a community that shared my sadness, anger, or angst about what it means to be Black in America in the 21st century. A pair of women sitting behind me chatted and laughed loudly. They were free of worry, they were fearless and enjoying their privilege to live, to exist apart from the horrors of racial violence. Their joy made me resentful. Fighting waves of grief and tears of sorrow, I got up to change seats to get away from the noise of White privilege. – See more at: http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/08/03/yes-im-angry-black-woman#sthash.jbKFgqre.dpuf
“The noise of white privilege.” yeah, that landed.
Patton goes on to describe the historical roots of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. And this stereotype, while familiar to me, is the very one I have sought so carefully to avoid. Although I  have a temper and can get loud, this tends to happen within the safe confines of my own four walls among family, where I’m allowed to be just angry me – minus the socio-political layering. In my professional life and among friends, few would readily identify me as ‘that angry Black woman.’  And yet I know and feel the anger about which Stacey Patton speaks.
Far too long, we have been fighting to dispel the Angry Black woman stereotype. But that’s not the solution because the truth is, we are angry. Our rage is righteous. Our ire is understandable. Yet our anger is misunderstood.
And she makes the brave suggestion that we learn to see our rage as a creative power for change:
Let’s stop viewing our anger as a negative and appreciate it as a gift. Neuroscientists’ research reveals that anger is a powerful means of social communication, and a natural part of any person’s emotional resources. Anger helps us reach our goals, allowing us to be more optimistic, creative, and to solve problems. Anger is a source of fuel for motivating us to meet life’s challenges and persuade others to do the right thing.
It’s at this point in the essay where I get on my feet and start to wave my hands: “Yaaaasss!”
 She closes with this:
To feel our anger at injustice is to be wholly alive. Our ability and willingness to express that anger, is to be committed to progress. To wield our anger strategically is the key to the justice and freedom. And to fully embrace our anger is the most healthy, sane, self-loving, nurturing thing that we can possibly do – See more at: http://www.damemagazine.com/2015/08/03/yes-im-angry-black-woman#sthash.jbKFgqre.dpuf (Do read the whole essay. You will thank me.)
“To feel our anger at injustice is to be wholly alive”  provides a frame for why I engage here at all. It’s not always because I am angry, but often enough  I am astonished, flabbergasted or amazed at the injustices we tolerate and let pass without addressing the root causes. There is plenty to be up in arms about – channeling that energy to agitate and push for change is what movements are made of.   Stacey Patton’s statements remind me that I may have to let go of the need to put on my happy face when I decide to engage for change outside of my precious four walls.
And then there’s this second essay, “Fitted” which after “Yes, I Am An Angry Black Woman” reads a bit like “the noise of White privilege.”  Moira Weigel, however,  expertly describes both the allure and burden of embedding 24/7 activity tracking in her own and other women’s daily lives.  She talks about the act of tracking emerging like a new, fully personalized religion. The sharing of one’s most intimate data regarding movement, food intake, sleep and even sex in pursuit of constant improvement becomes the new vehicle towards salvation. The desire to not just be better but to also show off your new “better” is fueled  by competing and commiserating with fellow activity trackers.  While I consider myself a modest fitness enthusiast, this more recent trend of constant self-monitoring remains foreign to me even if I can understand the various motivations behind it.  All of these elements tied up with our  cultural notions of what fit femininity looks like and how it is assessed in the current media climate made the essay a deeply compelling read for me. And as I read and re-read the essay (which is a repeated pleasure) I was struck by  how very White it all feels. Even if  I know that FitBit users come in all colors, shapes and sizes, the folks who best conform to Weigel’s  distinctive portrayal strike me as most likely to be White, straight, upper middle-class  women.  After describing the new beauty/fitness ideal of our times as exorexic, she clues us in as to how this  movement trend is likely to play out in practical and ideological terms:

Today, the ideal woman is exorexic.

In Ancient Greek, orexis means “desire” or “appetite.” The prefix an means “not.” A true anorexic wants nothing. Ex is Latin, for “out of”; arcere means “restrain.” “Exercise” meant to break out of what is holding you, and to push the limit.  The exorexic craves a challenge. Specifically, she aims to work her way out of desiring itself. …

Today, the exorexic eroticizes work itself. The army of women in Lululemons and Nike Frees who bound purposefully along the sidewalks of more and more American cities proclaim no specific taste, but rather an insatiable appetite for effort. They wear the uniform of an upper middle class for whom the difference between leisure and work is supposed to have disappeared.

Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life. When the guidance counselors say this, they suggest that if you work, you will be loved—or at least deserve love. Make yourself lovable first, they say, and sure as day you can trade that strange coin, ability, in for happiness later. They do not tell you the principle that follows. Love work above all and you will never rest.

Granted, I am enamored of this particular passage.  Weigel’s subjects present themselves vividly in my imagination: they are ambitious, well-educated, weight conscious and (to my mind)  oh so very White. These are some of  those same women who go on to become helicopter perfectionist parents, I suppose. (Cliché  I realize, but irresistibly so.)  I, too, am ambitious, well-educated and weight conscious. I enjoy feeling productive and disciplined and operate much better in the world when those two characteristics are visible. The plot thickens, however, when I consider that my White sisters’ ambition and effort will be judged and assessed quite differently from mine based primarily on  well-worn yet  invisible unconscious bias.

As a black woman, my work is consistently cut out for me.   The way the world tends to view my effort and the body I produce with that same effort is likely to be  perceived differently than those of Weigel’s “army of women”.  My muscles have often been interpreted as defying femininity. I get to be “strong” but not “pretty”.

That moment when you realize you're not invisible. (1997)

That moment when you realize you’re not invisible. (1997 Frauenlauf Wien)

I am good at my job; yet to advance beyond my current status can seem more like a mountain to climb rather than the logical next step it might be for an equally educated and experienced candidate from the dominant group. This realization has been decades in the making:  It’s not just me and my personal inadequacies, there are systemic factors at play. Being female and Black pose barriers that I previously did not wish to acknowledge. And my identification with and understanding of the dominant group’s ways of being and functioning help and hinder me in unique ways.

Weigel sums up the significance of  the FitBit mania for her particular demographic in the following way:

FitBit users remain, above all, productive, in our data and our visibility. We do not succumb to that wan, sick decadence, the aggressively infertile unproductivity of the true anorexic. This is female labor becoming frictionless. The point of the game is to just not disappear.

That’s it! That’s the critical difference I have struggled to name. For Weigel’s exorexic women “the point of the game is to just not disappear.”  Of course!  Weigel’s “army of women” is highly visible. They are prominent, ubiquitous – seen everywhere you look from screens to billboards, to print media; in the majority of our retail spaces.  For me in my Black female physicality and intellect, the point is to appear, to become visible, to cease being invisible.  Aye, there’s the rub! To be a black woman in majority white spaces so easily becomes a form of invisibility: either in the way that we bend over backwards to assimilate into the dominant culture and its going narratives, or we stand out through our behavior or appearance which become the excuse for Whites to look the other way and ignore our very presence. This feels like a revelation. This is where my path diverges from Weigel’s  hyper-productive women  and draws me into Patton’s harbor of validation and understanding.

In my struggle to be seen for all that I am, for all that I offer – I face barriers that are not of my own creation. The work-arounds, passwords and gatekeeper relations I develop are original and unique to me. Both Weigel and Patton offer me insights to both the world that I inhabit and the world that I am. Both authors open my eyes to fresh perspectives and for that I feel deeply grateful.

So for the record: I am Black. I am a woman. Sometimes I am angry. I am fit. I am an educator. I am a coach. I am a runner. I am a parent. I am a reader, writer, thinker, listener, observer. And more. Always more.

Am I a #PhysEd Teacher?

That’s an identity question. And it would appear to be easily answerable.
Am I or am I not a #PhysEd teacher?
Not surprisingly, my response is a “Yes, and…”
Because if you examine my social media profiles, you might have to dig a little deeper to locate that particular identifier. On LInkedIn you get: Professional Leadership Coach. On Twitter you’ll find:

Leadership Coach, Educator, Workshop designer and facilitator, avid reader & writer @ home on the edge of the alps. #100Connections

Facebook: Don’t even bother.
So, clearly I’m not advertising my #PhysEd badge. Hmmm…
Rather, I choose to identify as an educator. That’s broad, comprehensive and some might say, vague, too. I’ll agree to all of those.

Yet what brought me to social media were broader interests than what goes on in PE. I came to find insights on education as an industry, as a public and private good, as a right, as a privilege, as a vehicle, as a cash cow, as a straw man, as a hostage, as a force. I wanted to think more deeply about learning as a habit, as an opportunity, as a chore, as a moving target, as an invisible victim. I was looking to challenge my understanding of teaching as a practice, a career, a stepping stone, as a source of authority, as an absolute.

And yes, I am a #physEd teacher.

When I am in the gym with students, I am at home. I have music playing, I am moving around correcting body positions (“side to target”) or issuing reminders (“what does that mean: ‘to your partner’?”. The day is flush with groups coming and going, with grade level transitions to make your head spin (i.e., from 5th to KG) and I love all that. I’ve been at it for almost 20 years and have been blessed to work with an incredible bunch of colleagues who not only know their stuff but keep adding to and improving their “stuff.”

The advantages to being a physical educator are many beyond the surface ones that everyone likes to put out there: comfortable clothing (all day, every day) and no papers to grade. What I love and what keeps me coming back are the special relationships I can develop with students. Because we’re working with the body which is a very concrete and immediate experience, I encounter each child’s vulnerability and unique strengths in very different ways than a classroom teacher might. In the course of a school year, I see every child struggle with something. Every one of them has something, some barrier they need to overcome. For some it may be social – finding and working with partners. For others, there may a particular area of movement that proves challenging or even frightening. My job is to facilitate each child’s struggles towards a positive end for that individual within our class group framework. The gym provides the most fertile soil for cultivating a growth mindset in every child and in this teacher.

Yes, I am a #physicaleducator who believes that all educators need to be ready to learn from their students, their colleagues, parents, and countless other educators who are eager to share and dialogue. I am out to learn for more my than myself and to do that effectively, I cannot and will not simply “stay in my lane.” On the contrary, I travel off-road cross country and consider myself an all-terrain learner. And in the process, I am making tracks, leaving impressions, having an impact.

Yes, I am a #physical educator and all of my work is about moving: moving minds, moving hearts, moving bodies.

IMG_0388.JPG

Finally Looking Under the Hood

Oh boy.
Stephanie Rivera tweeted some thoughts the other day which caught my attention via @theJLV because THEY WERE ALL IN CAPS. In my understanding, all caps in electronic communication is the equivalent of shouting. What was she shouting about?

Then she went on to write this powerful post: Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness.. (Please read her blog post FIRST before reading on.) While I have certainly read my fair share on race in American society, and more specifically in education, this post and the comments it provoked landed like few others. Altogether they hit me at my core, pitched me into my past and lifted up the blinds on my present. Just like that – the exposure of widely held thinking among some white educators, the struggle to maintain decorum in the face of an emotionally charged set of triggers, and certainly the dedication to student voice throughout – Stephanie Rivera touched a piece of my own vulnerability in matters of race, identity, culture and education.
In the comment section Adam Beckham points out from his vantage point as a white male:

I can have an innovative curriculum and be tech-forward and all the good stuff we’re demanding from teachers, but I’m not going to get into their hearts like a black teacher can. They know I don’t go home to their neighborhood. We can both listen to some Houston rap and talk about it, but they know we are from different worlds and share different destinies. And they can know that while they know I love them and work for them every single day.

I can sit with them and read “Space Traders” by Derrick Bell all day long, but at the end of the day I’m still a white male. That’s not a bad thing, *there’s nothing wrong with being a white person or a male person*, it’s just not the whole meal they need to eat. It’s good to have some of me in the mix, but I can’t be all the options on the menu.

A kid shouldn’t have to go all day without seeing multiple, successful people reflecting their lives and cultures. That’s injustice. We would never accept that for our kids as white people. It’s unimaginable.

That final sentence is what brings the whole topic home to roost for me: Recognizing what would be unimaginable for my white colleagues and friends as an absolute given through most of my education and career.  Also Mia adds nuance to the dialogue by describing her desire as an Asian-American to have had Asian role models during her school experience.  She writes:

I identify as Asian and I would’ve really appreciated an Asian teacher to be a role model of an Asian American to me. Most of my childhood I learned how to be “white” American and to reject my culture not simply because of my white peers but because of the adults in my life that didn’t understand my culture.

These comments drive home the point that this conversation is not only about skin color – it’s about culture and identity which have many facets – although skin color is the most prominent identifier of minority groups.

For that New Orleans student who was brave enough to assert his own view of what might do him and his fellow students more good in school, I hope he continues to voice his opinions whether or not the adults in his environment are able to hear his message or not. While I was in high school, I doubt that I could have acknowledged or articulated what was missing in my education. I just took what was there for granted. In my case, what was there: predominately white private schools with no teachers of color. I just did my part to make sure I fit in.

And fit in I did. So seamlessly did I fit in that I also began to buy into the notion that race and color were not really so important. My academic, social and professional success were testaments to that, right? When I moved to Europe and created my life here, being African-American and a native English speaker seemed to open more doors than close them.

Well here I am, nearly 50, looking back at almost a quarter century involved in education and what have I learned? The divides are multiple and deepening and the inclination to look away, reshuffle our vocabulary and assert “mission accomplished” appears to be growing. I notice this now looking back, for instance, on my professional career and considering the tremendous lack of visible role models and mentors of color. When I was ready to consider pursuing formal roles of leadership, where were my colleagues of color, especially in independent education, who could share their experience and advice? When I attended conferences, when would I encounter a facilitator or keynote speaker of color doing the type of work I aspired to do? Almost never, unless I was attending the NAIS People of Color Conference where that was precisely the point of the exercise.

I may not live in the US anymore, yet it is my home culture. And being black in America has different nuances and implications than in any other culture in the world. I still live in the shadows of my particular racial narrative. And I sure do recognize the struggles of my colleagues, my family, friends and others to overcome these divides (of color, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation) with understanding and through dialogue. For this reason, I felt a special appreciation for Stephanie Rivera’s thoughtful analysis of the dynamics taking place on the BAT facebook page. When we take the time to actually look under the hood, we may find that even if we’re not sure exactly what it is we are seeing and hearing, we can still recognize when something is not right. And get help to discover what really is the matter.

The Gift of Sheila Bridges

I just finished reading Sheila Bridges’ memior, The Bald Mermaid (Pointed Leaf Press 2013) and I am compelled to share.

From the website

It was an unusual read for me as it was a personal memoir and I tend to shy away from individuals’ life stories because I feel like a voyeur rather than a welcomed listener.  Sheila’s book (see, I’m already using her first name), however, touched me in ways I never expected.  Sheila is a wildly successful interior decorator and designer in NYC with clients all over the world.  She had a TV show, her work has been featured in all those glossy design magazines I never look at, she’s African-American and she is bald.  The book itself, its colorful pages, it’s hardback heft, the wonderful collection of personal and professional illustrations, underscore the author’s eye for and careful attention to the aesthetic.  Sheila’s memoir proved to be a remarkable page-turner which laid bare so many throughts and sentiments I have experienced over the years on the topics of being female, black, independent, articulate, a family member, a professional and just being me.

Have I not mentioned being African-American in this forum yet?  No?  Isn’t that funny?  While racing through Sheila’s very witty and thoughtful prose, I felt so understood! The struggles of not fitting into so many neatly patterned roles and expectations from childhood to the present rang so true for me, I could hardly put the book down.   Although coming to terms with the consequences of her hair loss to Alopecia areata proved central to the overall narrative, the truths of her storytelling went much deeper than that specific episode.  How much does our professional and personal success have to do with our appearance?  When it comes to others and their perceptions of us, how much control do we actually have?  When we venture to take risks by living our own truths, what resources do we need to have and develop in order to make it a viable proposition for the long haul?  What does it mean to be a success? And be black? And female? and Independent? All of those at the same time?  What does our hair (especially, but not exclusively for black women) have to do with all this?  Does it mean learning how to swim without getting your hair wet? (See the chapter on “Weave Etiquette”)

These are the questions Sheila explores, wrestles and dances with throughout.  And I finished the book this morning feeling like she had truly done so much “heavy lifting” on my behalf.  She writes, “That one life-altering event forced me to dig deep – to find out what I was really made of.  In the process, I let go of everyone else’s expectations of who I should be or how I should live my life, which included how I ought to look.” (p.333)  I can’t say that I am that far in my own development but I certainly aspire to such a level of self-understanding.  And I am reminded of something my mother said often in response to the countless times she was asked to justify wearing her hair short : “I have been asked for many things in my life; hair was not one of them.”  Thank you, Sheila and thank you, Mom!

Me and my mom and our hair, 1983

Me and my mom and our hair, 1983