Why Stereotypes, In Moderation, May Be Good

I take the boys with me to go vote at Chavis Community Center, in the heart of Southeast Raleigh. We get to the volunteer and she asks for my name ‘Shannon P Bennett’ i say. ‘What’s the middle name dear?’ she asks. I state it. My 5 year-old who thinks he is Bernie Mac reincarnated says ‘P as in Palin’ loud enough for everyone to hear. I begin to turn red. ‘No it’s not, it’s Palmer’ I say pushing him behind me; but the little critter scoots around and gets right in the lady’s face ‘It’s Palin and she’s from Alaska!’ I thump him in the head and by now EVERYONE is staring at me. I get the paper, sign my name and try to rush off when this little booger shouts out, fist raised and in the air ‘Go McCain’! If you could have seen the faces of the voters….OMG….if looks could kill! How do you explain to a room full of people who have just left the Obama rally that not only are you an Obama supporter but that your beautiful baby boy is a comedian?!

I posted the above story as a note on my Facebook page on October 30, 2008. It is a true account of my voting experience and as real a depiction of my son’s comedic abilities as one could make. In telling the story, I made an assumption on that day that my biological family in Wasilla, Alaska were all Palin supporters based on my stereotypes of them (my bios, the Palins and Wasilla); a stereotype my bio-mom was happy to dispel.

Why would you think that! I’m for Obama! There aren’t many of us up here but I’m definitely one of them!

Since that conversation and in getting to know my Alaska relatives, I’ve been very conscious of my assumptions. I try to be very open-minded and look at the world through a wide lens as opposed to a narrow one, after all, my entire life is one big stereotype. Of course experiences birth preconceptions that are often impenetrable, add to that the horror stories of others, insatiable media coverage and an overactive imagination and well…

I rarely leave my home after dark but when your son has a fever and you’re out of the ibuprofen-acetaminophen rotating cocktails-duty calls.Leaving in the middle of an episode of Dateline where a home invasion threatened the lives of a mother and her two sons didn’t exactly aid my fears; and if that weren’t enough, I had just read an article about a student at Morgan State University who dined on the internal organs of the roommate he murdered. Needless to say, I was on edge.

As I was pulling into the Wal-Mart shopping center, a woman carrying several bags slipped and introduced her rear end to the pavement in a slow motion crash. It was nothing to laugh at as she staggered to a stand and then fell again. Finally she steadied herself and attempted to shake off the mud and humiliation of her fall(s). She succeeded at neither. I pulled over and helped her pick up the scattered groceries and noticing the blood soaking through the knees of her pants, I offered her a ride home.

As she buckled her seat belt the severity of my sincerity overshadowed my genuine concern as I visualized her grabbing the razors from her bag and slicing me to pieces. My mind began to race and my face flushed crimson. When she leaned over on the arm rest I froze as I imagined her stripping me of my clothing and gnawing at my flesh. I didn’t hear a word she said over the sound of my beating heart and heavy breathing. I feared this woman who walked to Wal-Mart at night in the rain for razors and cheese spread with the thick stench of cigarettes in her hair and coffee on her breath. Infinite scenes from movies about hitchhikers and images from news reports filled clouded my thoughts as I whispered a prayer and reprimanded myself in the same sentence.

When we arrived at her home nearly ninety seconds later, she thanked me three times before hopping out of my vehicle and freeing me from fears grip.

I still cannot believe this happened. I’m just so embarrassed and I wasn’t even drunk!

Well, when you tell this story maybe you should say you were.

Oh no! I can’t do that, I just got out of prison and this is a halfway house.

And with that she slammed the door and limped off.

Stereotypes, in moderation, aren’t always a bad thing…

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Spare the Rod…At Least In Public?

I can recall several times when seemingly poor parenting skills caused an irate mother to openly and loudly scold her child in a public place. There was the blonde, middle-aged woman in Wal-Mart in Texas who was accosted by store security after her episode. Then there was the young, African-American mother in Maryland in the shoe store whose language made me, a grown woman, blush. Oh and I dare not forget the mother of three little girls who caused a riot in my favorite North Carolina Target store when an onlooker reprimanded her for her exaggerated instruction.

Seemingly poor parenting.

I cannot recall ever having such episodes. I remember chastising my God-son for stealing a band-aid around age four or for speaking disrespectfully to me around age six but even that was discreet and contained. I cannot recall a time when I jumped outside of my introverted self to discipline my sons in an extroverted manner and chance public scrutiny.

That is until yesterday when I became a victim of seemingly poor parenting.

My sons and I, along with my mother, were enjoying one of our favorite pastimes and strolling through the flea market aisles. I was gawking over Nehi peach sodas (which are not on my current diet but reminded me of my childhood days in Tuskegee, Alabama) as my mother reminisced over the “penny candy” section (which coincidentally no longer cost a penny). My sons were joking and laughing as tweens do when I noticed the younger holding what appeared to be a bag of candy under his shirt.

In a speed that would shame light, my arm reached across the row of peanut butter bars and chick o sticks and pulled him into me by the collar of his shirt as he held up his hands in defense and to show me that no crime had been committed. Fear held my voice hostage as I thought of young black boys shot and killed out of mere suspicion. Fear paralyzed my legs as I remembered young black boys murdered for walking down streets and whistling…or not. Fear held my hands hostage as I remembered young black boys whose hands were bound by silver bracelets and whose minds remain in iron shackles.

I choked the life out of his threads as my voice escaped and fear unleashed itself.

I became a seemingly poor parent, yelling at my child in front of strangers. Strangers who would have thought I was a poor parent if I had yelled or if he had stolen. Strangers who would have whispered about my lack of ability to control my children or control myself. Either way, I am a seemingly poor parent. Stares scorched my back as my mother and first-born stood by watching and fearing; my mother for my truth, my son for his brother.

When my voice escaped, unrecognizable and shaking, I reminded my son about Trayvon Martin, Emmit Till and Brian Banks and how close he is to becoming a statistic, a case, a victim, a point of reference every time he seemingly does something wrong.

Seemingly poor parenting became a fight for survival and I care not what anyone else thought in that moment, only that my son understood the severity of his actions and the sincerity in mine.

Tonight I’ll pray an extra long prayer for the mothers and fathers fighting to save their sons even through seemingly poor parenting and I’ll reward myself with a few extra mary janes because I refuse to let myself or my sons become a statistic, a case, a victim or a point of reference no matter how hard I have to fight or how crazy I appear to be. I am not a seemingly good mother…

I am.

 

 

 

The Absence of Diversity at Historically Black Colleges

“Do you think you could work with…White people?”

I halt in complete shock. I am stunned by the words that fall off her lips as her hands sway in gesture over the excitement of the phone interview she has just concluded. I assume my look reveals my disgust as she quickly clarifies the statement…er…question.

“That’s not exactly what she said, I’m paraphrasing.”

I understand what the interviewer is asking my friend. She is concerned whether or not this young Black female, graduate of a Historically Black University and employee of a Historically Black College can handle the other side…because of course there are only two sides to the color coin. I digress. Her inquest is not completely far-fetched. Many assume that diversity is an obscure concept among institutions such as the ones listed on my friend’s curriculum vitae.

Diversity: difference, variety, unlikeness, diverse, multiformity, not identical, variance, distinction, heterogeneity, assortment.

You know what’s missing in the thesaurus entry?

Color.

Shockingly, most people consider diversity to be an assortment of color and even more commonly, the duality of two. Even more shocking is the revelation that diversity is not simply a Black and White person sitting side by side in a classroom; maybe on its most elementary level that definition reigns true. Yet we evolve, or at least so I thought.

I’m appalled that my friend was asked if she could work with White people. I imagine her walking around on her first day at this PWI (predominately white institution) whispering “I see White people” in her Haley Joel Osment voice.

Diversity is as prevalent among HBCU’s as it is PWI’s. As prevalent but not as palpable. I’m sure this is of moot point to my well-educated subscribers but for my amusement I’ll continue…the difference in diversity among the two institutions is that you can visibly see it on the campus of PWI’s because we innately define diversity as color.

However, diversity is much more evolved on a typical college campus. There is an assortment of socioeconomic classes; at any given moment I may have a homeless student sitting in my office next to a student whose parents have seven degrees between them. There is a variance in demographic location; if you think there isn’t much diversity among a student from Washington, D.C. and one from Washington, N.C. I urge you to spend an afternoon with me. There is heterogeneity in sexuality; diversity is strategically planning where to place on campus residents who are transgender. There is generational variety; Saturday I witnessed a mother and daughter celebrating their receipt of identical Bachelor’s degrees.

Of course all of these scenarios challenge the realm of diversity at any university; however, the difficulty at the historically black university is that few people admit that diversity exists, not even those employed by the institutions themselves. Diversity is this abstract concept that only plagues institutions of majority enrollment and therefore students at historically black colleges are placed in a box of identical chocolates (no pun intended).

Sigh.

Tell her you have had the ultimate training in diversity as you have labored in a vineyard where all of the skin of the fruit looks the same on the outside but the inner flesh is varies in taste and texture. Tell her that while your experiences may seem one-sided, they are filled with successful student development, leadership and advisement which are characteristics that bear no color.

During my evening walk, I simmered on the conversation between the applicant and the manager and I wondered if the roles were reversed would my friend have asked the same question. I wondered what my response would have been and although sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, a smile forms at my response…

“Oh my goodness, you have White people?!”

There never were in the world two opinions alike, no more than two hairs or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity. -Michel de Montaigne

Introduction to Moist Halfrican (Comma Intended)

I don’t really care if I misspell a word in my tweet. Actually, I do. But I don’t need you to point it out with a link to purchase your book on vocabulary rules.

@ker_pow Nope. Just want it to accomodate 60 somethings in taste and class.

@palmerbennett “aCCoMModate” with 2C and 2M (link to book WAS here) ~@MomyWatch

@MomyWatch Thanks for the FREE correction! ~@palmerbennett

I can think of two friends who are loving the idea that I was corrected on my vocabulary knowledge. I am usually the corrector. My feelings were hurt. Correction my ego was.

I’ve had a logos laden week. Ellen Seidman wrote a passionate piece on removing the word ‘retard’ from your personal language on her blog LoveThatMax. My youngest child, in a class discussion on tolerance, was informed that this word is not politically correct. He is public enemy number one against it and ‘midget’ (which was excluded years ago when Little People was a big reality TV hit). Retard(ed) is one of those socially derogatory words that has become socially acceptable to use.

Ironically, almost immediately after reading Ellen’s post, I heard Tia Mowry’s character on The Game say “social retard” and the logophile in me cringed. I love words. I do not love words that ignite inferiority.

Another word that breeds discrimination is “illegal”. ColorLines’ new campaign to Drop The I-Word is attempting to erase it’s negative context from everyday language. When I was 8, an older kid at school told me I was an illegal alien because I was born in Alaska. I believed her. I hated being an illegal. At some point I came to an understanding that I was not (the alien part is still up for debate). I have used the word many times and I have to admit that hearing it immediately places images of Mexicans crossing the border into my mind.

I signed the pledge to remove illegal from my vocabulary. I’m signing a personal pledge to remove my connotation. I’ve been working a lot on embracing diversity and battling embedded stereotypes that evoke hate. It is a conscious and deliberate effort that takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. My new image of illegal is of criminal behavior or a forged document-charge it to the recent conversation with a homeowner facing an unlawful foreclosure.

Don’t fret. My lexicon is still balanced as I have added two words to my vocabulary.

Halfrican, while not Webster-worthy, is a new way to define someone who is half black and half white. For example: “I am Halfrican American.” I was introduced to this concept by an article on Robert King and his one man show, for which I desperately want to see (shameless plug). It’s doubtful that the 2020 census will have a racial description for my new word but I like it none the less and if Beyonce’ can get bootylicious in the dictionary, anything is possible.

Then there is moist. Of course moist was already part of my jargon so this is technically a resurrection. Moist is the prodigal son I sent away many years ago, now it has returned. I’m not alone in my past despise of the word, 4,739 people like the page I Hate the Word Moist and they don’t even have a picture! I am reclaiming the word because there is no other way to describe Auntie’s red velvet cake or Patsy’s bread and I’m tired of looking for one.

 So my vocabulary is balanced, all is well in my logos and FYI @momywatch-moMMy is spelled with two M’s.

Don’t Forget to Wear Your Green

So I’m sitting in my favorite Sunday afternoon position (and no, it’s not on my left side atop two pillows, wrapped in my favorite fleece blankie in my bed-that’s my second favorite). I’m in the pedicure chair with my feet soaking in some crystallized mint-infused, bubbling, hot concoction as the motor of the vibrating chair rattles my entire upper body, just missing my neck. My eyes are sealed as I attempt to tune out the sights and sounds around me. The merlot chairs and saffron bowls make a delicious contrast but not next to the celadon walls.

Thirty seconds into the soak and I realize I have found myself the cream in a cookie. The wife, to my right is chatting up the husband, to my left about what color they should paint their toes. Yes, they.

We did blue last time, remember, it matched the color of that shirt you had on. The one with the hole in it.

The collection of dead skin on the cheese grater was evident of the wife’s disdain for shoes. The heavily worn Crocs beside her chair supported my assumption. Her thick southern accent and overalls suggested they lived in a rather rural part of North Carolina, along with her exasperation over forgetting to do something with the horses before heading into town.

I thought we did red. Didn’t I wake up in the middle of the night, yelling ‘cause my feet were bleeding?

Eyes wide open. I have heard this story before. My step-birth-father had a similar situation, before switching to black polish-and no, he doesn’t wake up thinking his feet are rotting. For the first time, I looked over at the husband and realized he very much favored my relative.

To call Adam, peculiar would be justifiable in many worlds, especially the ‘hoods I’ve lived in. He wears a half bald, half shag hair-do and a braided beard. He has ear piercings you can literally see through and others that some have only seen on episodes of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. But image aside, he is probably one of the warmest and caring men I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. His type of concern and compassion for others cannot be fabricated.

Oh yes, that’s right! You ‘bout near gave Tinkerbell a heart attack. She ain’t slept with us since!*

For the first time I look at husband, their similar hairstyles (both head and face) are the only commonalities I see between him and my step-birth-father. Husband also has piercings, about five in the lobe alternating between pink ice and peridot and two gold hoops in the scapha. He has a choo-choo train tattoo wrapping around his leg with teddy bears, presents and toys in the cargo wagons.

We really should do green in honor of the Irish and all. Thataway, I won’t get pinched this year.

When husband stands, he looks to be about 6’9” and nearly 350 pounds. He walks through the salon void of shoes and sits at the nail station for part two of his spa day. All the other women are bewildered by the contradiction in his persona and how he is spending his Saturday afternoon. I am not, I have Adam. I am a bit of a paradox myself.

On my way out, I turn to the husband and say “Don’t wake up in the middle of the night thinking you’ve got gangrene.” He laughs a big, ole’, teddy bear laugh and his wife sighs, “I better put away the Samurai swords again.”

*I hope Tinkerbell is a cat or dog, I fear she could be a second wife.

“Check All That Apply”

The question and answer below are between Heidi Durrow, author of The Girl Who Fell From The Sky and NPR Interviewer, Michelle Norris for All Things Considered on March 2, 2010.

Norris: One last quick question for you. Are you okay with the term biracial, or is there something else that you would like to hear as a label or a description applied to you?

Durrow: I like biracial. I say I’m mixed. I say I’m half African American and half Danish. If I have to say that I’m just black or I’m just white, then I’m not telling the whole story of myself or my experience, and I’d really like to be whole in my conversations with others. The thing I like to say these days is, I’m a story. I think that would be the very best label of all, definitely.

Ever since setting a Google alert for ‘biracial’, I have read more than enough articles from people admonishing people of mixed race to claim one race to identify with. I have lost sleep over these articles in the last few weeks. I yell at the ignorance of the authors and question their ability to make claims for a group to which they do not belong. I can no more claim one heritage over the other than I can one son over his brother. I have started four or five posts debating the issue and arguing for my right to be both black and white. Today I realized, I do not have to fight for this right, it is already mine.

Some say that claiming both is a form of self hatred for one half, typically the black half. To this I say, self hatred is in claiming one color characteristic and denying the other. I spent many years as an ardent self-hater. Because I was not reared by my white mother or with any considerable representation of her race, I learned to despise it. We tend to despise what we fear, fear what we do not understand and misunderstand what we do not know. I did not understand what it meant to be white any more than I did what it meant to not be adopted. I feared being the enemy. I feared that one day everyone in my black world would hate me as much as they did my white ancestry.

I should probably use present tense in the previous sentence.

At an early age, I learned to dismiss with a wave or a shrug whenever a black person in my presence made a derogatory comment against a white person. And it was okay because I didn’t consider myself white, just light, as I was often reminded. For many years I claimed one or another Spanish-speaking lineage based on resemblance not existence. Today I cringe at the sound of someone black disrespecting my white self with an assumption of oppression like “you know they won’t give a black man that job” or “they only treated her like that cause she’s black”. However, I do not dismiss their experience based beliefs.

I can’t recall being in the presence of a white person and hearing such a statement reversed but then again, that could be because they identify me as black too. Oh and the worse is when someone of either race says someone is acting a certain color! Now I’m all about embracing some stereotypes because it’s so much easier than becoming enraged over them and many of them are rooted in a tad bit of truth. Black people love fried chicken, as evident by the Popeyes, Bojangles, KFC, and Church’s all on New Bern Avenue in Southeast Raleigh. White guys love the uniform (= khaki pants + blue oxford shirt and on occasion a navy blue blazer). On one day during my hour lunch, while sitting outside the Wake County courthouse, I counted seventeen uniforms!

Not a day goes by without the proverbial “What you mixed with?” A few days ago a student asked if I was a mulatto. A few weeks ago, I overheard two students heatedly arguing my Latina heritage. I recall being labeled Portugese, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Italian, Native American, Mediterranean and even Turkish. I have been described as light-skinned(ed), red-bone(d), high yellow, light bright, lite-brite-damn-near-white, oreo, zebra cake, white chocolate, mocha latte, and my personal favorite-crigga.

 I have been defined as black and labeled as white but I am neither and yet I am both.

I am biracial.

From Sag to Swag

This post is in response to the N&O article “Shaw students mentor middle schoolers in dress, manners” published on February 10th and is dedicated to the current and future alumni of the first Southern HBCU.

Jayden looked at the News and Observer article naming the young men on the photo. With each introduction, his smile widened with seeing his friends on the cover of the newspaper. He is not a member of Gentlemen of Excellence but as the grandson to a staff member, he receives an education in the importance of college every day. Jayden fully understands the necessity of hard work, good grades and excellent behavior as a map to higher education.

Just prior to Jayden’s arrival, Christopher Chunn, a Resident Advisor in Fleming Kee Residence Hall stopped by to tell me all about the GOE and the evening’s ceremonial festivities. He radiated as he explained how the young men in the program had made a difference in his life as much as he in theirs. As he speaks, I think about the mentors in my own son’s lives and I wonder if any are as authentically concerned with their success as Christopher is with his mentees.

With so much negative publicity surrounding African American males, it is refreshing to read a story of inspiration and dedication. It is especially so, when the editorial graces the front page of a publication. Gentlemen of Distinction (GOD) affords young men from underprivileged families and communities the opportunity to participate in a rite of passage program that instructs on everything from chivalry to filling out an application. Rooted in the spiritual development of themselves and the young men they influence, the approximately thirty members of GOD encourage each other weekly and maintain a strong sense of camaraderie. Everton Harris, President of GOD, says that putting Brother before each members name shows a sense of respect and creates unity within the group. 

Programs such as these are not unknown to Shaw University. Building African American Males (BAAM), under the leadership of Carlton Goode, former Shaw University Student Activities Director provides monthly instruction and advising from Shaw University alumni in various disciplines of life. From etiquette skills to post-graduate options, the men in BAAM use their experiences as Shaw students and professionals to give back to their alma mater. Christopher Young, local lawyer and 1999 graduate is excited about returning to his higher educational roots to encourage students to take pride in themselves and full advantage of every opportunity afforded them.

The Shaw Communiversity applauds these men, students of the present and past with a standing ovation.

Now the challenge is on…where my girls at?