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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Pickaninny…”Souvenir of the South”

When asked about the little black girl carrying the rag doll, I always refer to her as a mammy doll. I smile at her as she shows rows of bright white teeth and boasts bright red bows at the end of several wiry plats. I smile at my possession of her, but her possession is nothing to smile about and then again it is.

She is not a mammy and I know why I call her so. It is easier to call her that than to refer to her as she really is. It is easier to ignore the reality. Similarly to how for many years, I ignored the reality of my ancestry. Easy. It’s easier to say “I’m Black.” It’s easier to “check one”. Mammy sounds like mommy and mommy is easy.

She is a pickaninny.

The word itself makes a tad bit of vomit emerge at the back of my throat (what my children refer to as baby barf). Pickaninny. Little nigger. It reminds me of “picnic”, a word that is rumored to originate from slave lynchings when Whites would “pick a nigger” and hang him or her during community gatherings. By the way, snopes.com and urbanlegends.com both deny any truth in the derogatory root of the word.

In truth, I despise the description of Rosie because I have used the word before. I was about eight when after five or six elementary taunts of “white girl” I shouted back at my tormentor. “PICKANINNY!”

Swings stopped swinging. Hula-hoops stopped spinning. Jump ropes stopped turning. Balls stopped bouncing. Time stood still on the playground of Lewis Adams Elementary School in Tuskegee, Alabama. Then with eyes as big as Rosie’s, she whispered with a broken voice louder than I had shouted, “You’re a racist.”

I don’t remember when I first saw Rosie among the tributes to our nation’s racial history and confederate divide. She was fed by cookies from the bellies of mammy dolls and comforted with watermelon slices from her brothers. She lived in the big house on the plantation. She was happy. She was smiling. I was furious.

I understood what she was and what she meant at eight and eight years later. I had felt the pain of calling her name and being called her name. I had felt the confusion in her truth and in that of my own.

Today, she sits on my bookshelf as a testament to evolution. The owners who once found pride in displaying her have evolved in their recognition of her representation as much as the young girl who found shame in her display has evolved in her comprehension of her significance.

We evolve.

Last week, while sifting through flea market wagons full of hidden treasures and obvious trash, I found the sign.

COLORED WAITING ROOM

Above the sign I found the pickaninny eating a slice of watermelon.

SOUVENIR OF THE SOUTH

We evolve.

I thought taking a picture of the artifacts was enough but for six days, the images haunted me. Rosie called out to me to remember her brother. She is lonely in 2012 and longs for her past. She misses mammy.

One night I dreamt that I was at the doctor’s office waiting to be called back and after an hour I asked the receptionist had I been forgotten. She scowled “We called you three times. We thought you were in the White waiting room. We didn’t know you were Colored.”

Today, I returned to the flea market where I found the pieces of history and without hesitation paid the $20 the vendor asked. Rosie seems to smile a bit brighter among them and I think I do too.

Plum Crazy at Plum Crazy

I have a very dear friend who turned 50 this week. I will pause for the round of applause you are sure to give; or the sigh, depending on your own chronological status. On my way to his “Big Fat Greek 5oth Birthday Party” I decided to stop for a card. But not just any card, a man of such culture, such flavor, such colorful character needed a card from the African-American collection.

I went to Walmart in the heart of Southeast Raleigh. I often refer to this particular Wally World as Plum Crazy in homage to the deceased club because on any given visit you may see two to three patrons of the former establishment (only now they appear to be responsible adults with kids in tow, sober and well robed-present company included). This specific location sits on New Bern Avenue, which I’ve previously noted for having four fried chicken joints and runs parallel to Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard. Surely I can get my brother from another mother a card from the Black experience here!

Words cannot even express my disappointment with what I found. Actually, words probably can, but I’m not privy to what that word is right now.

18. Eighteen. Diez y ocho. Do you understand me? There were 18 cards in the ‘Ebony’ section. 18. And four had no mention of being ebony, no picture of an ebony man or woman, no African insignia, no nothing! And yeah….I meant that damn double negative. EIGHTEEN!

I was stunned, mesmerized,  as I began counting the other, mainstream cards in the Walmart that sits on New Bern Avenue, parallel to MLK Jr. Blvd.,  in Southeast Raleigh. I stopped at seventy-nine. I watched sister after sister pick up a card for her husband or father in honor of Father’s Day, jaw dropped.

Furthermore, there was no availability for the Spanish-speaking community who also populate this community. Where are their cards? Can they get a card that doesn’t have a white man on the front? Can their little girls give their daddies a card where the model looks like him?

I searched for the manager, knowing I was already late for Ken’s birthday party but too militant to let this moment pass and after minutes of no luck I decided to mention my frustration to the sales girl at the check out.

“Really, you should tell somebody.”

“I’m telling you.”

“I ain’t nobody. You should call Walmart.”

“We’re in Walmart.”

“Naw, like the real Walmart.”

“Where exactly is the real Walmart?”

I went on with her for a few minutes, half amused, half ashamed, completely annoyed but our banter calmed my demeanor and allowed me to move on. I took my card, which ended up reading like we were lovers more than friends and my duct tape, because every man over 50 needs duct tape in excess and made my way to the comfort of friends who feel like family and understand the need of African-American cards in the Walmart on New Bern Avenue in 27610, even if they may never need to buy one.

And when I’m done writing this post…I’m gonna write the real Walmart a letter about the fake one!

A Warrior Of Black and White

Black and white. Adopted. Food enthusiast. Could Po and I have more in common? Oh yeah-martial arts! It was recently brought to my attention that I have failed to mention that I am a first degree black belt in Kuk Sool Won, a Korean martial art that intertwines physical techniques with mental and spiritual development. I have been out of practice for some years, but don’t get it twisted-I still got it! 

He is the panda reflection of myself, a warrior of black and white.

One element of the first movie was how there was no mention of how a panda came to be the son of a swan goose. I appreciated the mystery that surrounded that story and the inevitable truth behind it. I recall infinite moments under the questioning glare of one who has just come to the realization that those really are my parents, both of them. “Did one of your parents remarry?” To which I would answer in the negative, undoubtedly leaving the investigator questioning my mother’s fidelity.

In Kung Fu Panda 2, the mystery is solved when Po and Mr. Ping have a conversation 30 years in the making and it is revealed that Po is adopted. Gasp! I remember having this conversation with my own parents. “Mommy, was I adopted?” To which she responded, “Go ask your daddy.” I was about a tenth of Po’s age and I had just watched a Lifetime movie about adoption. I would encourage every parent looking to have “the talk” with their child to watch this film with them. Sometimes, a movie or a book can explain ideas in a way that our poor, uncreative and emotionally clouded minds cannot. My father (and mother) did have that initially uncomfortable conversation with me and I am appreciative of their honesty. I cannot imagine having found out as an adult that such an important piece of my history was neglected. It’s tantamount to lectures on cotton picking negating slavery, or textbooks dismissing the Native American experience in US history courses.

SN: Isn’t it interesting how the talk can vary from family to family. To most that refers to the birds and the bees, to some a conversation about some hereditary disease, and yet to others a deep, dark family secret about how your great-great-great grandfather was Jack the Ripper!

Armed with this new information, Po sets out to find from where he came. It is as important for people to know from where they came as it is to know where they are and where they are headed; however, how your life begins does not dictate your present nor your future (as frequently told in the animated feature). When I set sail, via the internet not the sea, to unearth my parentage I just needed information. Being adopted is like having a puzzle completed and missing one little piece that you can’t find anywhere; you search under the bed, between the sofa cushions, you even try ordering it online but it cannot be found. You can go on living a successful and happy life without the completed picture, but it’s freaking annoying! I was extremely blessed in my search, unlike our Dragon Warrior. I connected with my biological mother and father, a step-mother, a step-father, two grandmothers, a grandfather, four sisters, four brothers, four nieces, three nephews, two brothers-in-law and one neph-dog (these in addition to the three brothers, three nieces, four nephews and one sister-in-law I already owned).

I won’t spoil anymore of the film for those who may be intrigued by the story line and I encourage everyone, adopted or not, to go. There are concepts of identity, acceptance and loyalty that supersede animation and 3D glasses and convey as plain ol’ truth. I’d love to hear your thoughts. In the meantime, I’m dusting off the old nunchucks…”Kiyahhhhh!”

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.