The Night Patti Labelle Changed My Life

Watching the #PattiVsGladys #Verzuz brought back the night I saw Patti Labelle in concert in Raleigh in 2004. It was a pivotal period in my life. I had decided to leave my tenure-track position in psychology to enroll in seminary, despite doing very well in that career. The decision had resulted in a painful backlash from my department that had far-reaching consequences. In the midst of that, I saw Patti in concert. It was a night that changed my life. Afterward I wrote this piece. I submitted it to one or two publications, but it was rejected. I tucked the article away, but not the memory. The Verzuz event made me dig it out.

Gladys Knight and Patti Labelle performing on stage.

The Night Patti Labelle Changed My Life

Sometimes the Divine Spirit speaks to us in the most unexpected places. And not just a little whisper but a decibel-shattering, life-changing shout. If we open our hearts and minds to the possibility, important life lessons can be learned from unlikely sources. Three of my most valuable lessons came during a Patti Labelle concert.

Lesson #1: Be authentically and unapologetically you.

Patti kept the audience waiting for over an hour. A few people left but we stayed glued to our seats. With fifth row seats, there was no way that we were going anywhere, even if we had to wait three hours to hear one song. After all, this was Patti Labelle and if we were lucky, we just might catch a shoe.

            When she finally emerged, she was undeniably and unapologetically angry.  She announced to the audience that she had been in the building for hours waiting for payment from the promoters.  In case you have never seen Patti live, let me tell you that she does not come lightly.  She travels with her management team and a full band composed of incredibly talented musicians and background singers.  And those were just the people onstage.  It was clearly an expensive production.

Throughout the concert, Patti ranted and raved, cursed at the promoters, and even threatened to slap them if they approached her the wrong way.  But her anger was not motivated simply by her financial loss.  She saw the promoters’ actions as another example of an industry that disrespects women and devalues the talent, however legendary, of anyone over the age of thirty.  She was tired of being told that she had nothing to offer and that fans no longer appreciated her.  She knew her talent and she refused to be taken advantage of.

Lesson #2:  Spend your life doing something you love.

As Patti recounted her problems with the promoters, I could hear whispers in the audience echoing the fear that existed in my mind – “She’s not going to sing.”  But she did.  Even despite the fact that the sound in the building was horrible and she could not hear herself or the music, she sang her heart out.

Midway through her performance, it became obvious that she was suffering from a migraine.  One of her assistants rushed out on stage with some pills and a glass of water.  Several times her managers gestured that it was time to leave.  And still she sang.

As expected, her voice was amazing.  But even more amazing was that she sang at all.  Despite bad sound, no money, and a migraine, she sang.  And it was no half-hearted attempt, either.  It was “I’m giving you everything I’ve got because there’s nothing more that I’d rather be doing right now than singing for you.”  It was thrilling to watch someone with that much passion for their work.

Lesson #3:  If you are open, the universe will provide what you need when you need it.

The timing of that concert was nothing short of divine.  At the time, I was going through a major transitional period.  My life had arrived at a fork in the road where I had to decide between two options – continuing my fast track career as an academic researcher or relinquishing my hard-gotten position to pursue a call to ministry.  After much struggle, I decided to follow my heart and choose a life of ministry.  But my decision, while bringing relief in some ways, also caused turmoil as several of my colleagues began to respond with hostility and resentment.  With over six months before my resignation took effect, every day became a chore.  My rights were being trampled on and I was expected to lie quietly and take it.  Although in recovery, I was still a chronic people-pleaser and had difficulty standing up for myself.  So Patti’s honesty was refreshing and inspiring.  I left that concert with much more than I had expected to receive – joy that I had chosen a path of passion and a renewed commitment to speaking my truth no matter what the consequences.

Be open to the lessons that the universe has for you and the teachers who bring them. You never know who might change your life.


That night inspired me to keep moving forward with my transition. After I graduated from seminary, I returned to a faculty position, this time in a seminary. But I was not certain that I would remain in the academy. My prior experience had ripped my confidence away, and I did not think I belonged there. I took that job thinking it would be a stop-gap until God revealed my true life’s purpose.

I kept thinking back to that concert and how Patti’s love for singing was so strong that neither her pain nor the pay issues could stop her from doing it. I wanted that.

And then one day, I realized that I had it. I had not been feeling well in the hours before class and was not sure how I would make it through. But once I began teaching, the pain and fatigue disappeared. I didn’t feel it again until I had finished class and returned to my office. As I marveled that I had been able to make it through the class, I realized it wasn’t the first time that had happened. I realized in the teaching moment, all other worries and concerns left. It was my sweet spot, the thing I loved to do best.

Thank you Ms. Patti.

Making Space

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My new mantra is “Make space for myself.” It has been nearly 18 years since I intentionally embarked upon this self-care journey and I still have difficulty putting my health and well-being ahead of the needs and desires of others. I often overfill my schedule and to-do list with meetings, projects, and activities that are largely for the benefit of other people. I say yes to things when I should say no, because I don’t want to disappoint. And I feel guilty about taking up space and time that I think should go to others.

I even feel guilty about how I utilize space in my own home. Last year, my mom moved out of our house, which left us with another (we already had one) spare bedroom. In a classic case of what my therapist calls “shoulding on myself” (say it out loud really fast), I decided that we should only have a house with a spare room if we used it to provide hospitality to other people. So I began making plans to refurbish it into a guest room. Mind you, we rarely have overnight guests and we already had a room that served as a guestroom/crafting space/gaming area/husband’s closet. But a “proper” guest room would let us offer better space for longer periods of time. After all, you never know when a friend or family member might need a place to stay for a while. And considering that we were so privileged to live in a house with more bedrooms than people, I figured it was the right thing to do.

Then came COVID-19. It quickly became clear that we would not be having guests anytime soon. And now that it was the only safe space for us to be, the guilt over being in a too-big house turned into relief that our family of introverts would be able to spread out enough to maintain our sanity while being stuck in the same place WITH PEOPLE every hour of every day.

When quarantine went into effect, I was preparing for a writing retreat at the Collegeville Institute (I name-dropped that for a reason so look them up!). I was planning to spend 25 days in an apartment by myself, with no duties other than writing and recovering from the cancer treatment journey of the past two years. I had anticipated being able to practice meditation and yoga on a more regular basis in a place where space and time were my own.

Ironically, I had originally been scheduled for this retreat in October 2018, but received news of my second breast cancer diagnosis less than two weeks before I was to leave. So it is an understatement to say that I was bummed when quarantine forced cancelling the rescheduled retreat. Given the careful planning that had been done to allow  a retreat in the middle of a semester, I asked myself whether it would be possible to “retreat at home” and what I would need for that to happen.

I decided that I would need a space that felt like a getaway, a place where I could meditate and do yoga and spend hours reading and writing. So I created one. I moved my meditation altar, cushions, salt lamp, and yoga mat out of the corner in the master bedroom, and made them the focal point of this new space. I put up the relax/renew/refresh sign that I had made months earlier but never hung. I made new wall art and grabbed the Ma’at poster that had not found a place since we left Durham nine years ago. Instead of outfitting the room with a bed that would rarely be used, I added a papasan chair and ottoman. But the créme de la créme was the wall hanging.

Having an inviting space for meditation and yoga has turned out to be invaluable in maintaining a consistent practice. But it turned out to be only one of the many ways that I have been learning to make space for myself over the past few months. I have made literal space in a room in my home, yes, but I am also learning to make space in my schedule, to prioritize health practices in my daily routine, to protect time and energy for gardening and canning and cooking healthy meals. And I am learning to feel less guilty about using my privilege to make space for my health. Because health and well-being are human rights. They are my right and my responsibility and ultimately no one will make space for them on my behalf except me.

How might you make space for yourself in your life? Where do you need to show up better for yourself? What resources might you already have at your disposal? What permissions do you need to give yourself to use them?

 

My Favorite Self-Care Thing: Planner Edition

I really like planners. I would like to say that it is entirely because it is how I manage a busy life. That is true, but it is also true that my fascination with organization and planning goes way back before I became so busy. I think I was in middle school when I found a workbook about time management and note taking. I completed the entire workbook on my own, with no prompting from anyone.

By the time I was in college, I made a point to buy a planner every year and to actually use it. By the time I was in graduate school for clinical psychology, my planning needs had evolved beyond paper planners. Between classes, research duties, my clinical training, and my part-time job, I had a lot of recurring meetings each week that I did not want to painstakingly enter into a planner for a semester at a time. I needed to go electronic.

In the mid-1990s, I became an early adopter of PDAs, plunking down $400 to buy a Sharp SE-500, one of the first devices with internet connectivity. It had a little modem – a literal telephone jack – to which you could connect a phone line and dial up your internet provider. Imagine: I could check my email no matter where I was, as long as I had planned ahead and gotten the local phone number for Netscape or AOL.

SharpSE500

That modem was all the rage.

For the next 20 years, I was dependent upon my planner, shifting to PalmPilots (oh how I loved my Tungsten C with its wifi capability) and eventually to smartphones. Every appointment, every to-do, every contact…I keep track of them all with my organizer. I am one of those people who is not content with the built-in email and calendar apps. I have to try out third-party apps like Spark, Trello, and Cloze.

Some time ago, I began to need a different type of planner. I needed something that did more than help me to remember what I needed to do and where I needed to be. I needed a planner that helped me to stay focused on my values. How did I want to live? Who do I want to be? How was I doing with my Rule of Life? An electronic system was no longer enough; I needed to go back to paper planner.

Since then, I have experimented with multiple planners: the Passion Planner, the Best Self Journal, and Sacred Ordinary Days. Each of them had aspects that I loved, but was also missing something that I needed. What I really wanted, I decided, was to be able to build a planner that was specific to my needs. It turned out that there was a company that let me do just that: Agendio.

Spiral bound notebook with cover featuring abstract brushstrokes in various vibrant colors. Blue sidebar reads I just received my fourth Agendio planner. It is customized to include my important dates, space for my Rule of Life, project and social media planners, LOTS of note pages, as well as monthly and weekly schedule templates that are organized the way that I think about my time and energy. I usually start my planner in August, the beginning of the academic year. Normally, I am so excited by the time that it comes that I start filling it out immediately and forget to share it. But this year, just as I grabbed my pens (multicolored, of course), I remembered my intention to write a post recommending it. So instead, I grabbed my phone and created a short video to show you how I have set it up. If you want to learn more, use this link and it will show you the specific models that I have used to create each of my planners (if you order, I get a $10 credit toward my next purchase).

Managing Anxiety & Sleeplessness during a Pandemic

Photo of African American woman dressed in gray tank and tan pants, seated on a kingsized white bed with a dark brown wall-mounted wooden headboard.

Image courtesy of CreateHerStock. Copyright 2019 Neosha Gardner

I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious, not in the classic sense. But I have a pretty strong pretty disposition to anxiety. We could argue about whether it’s biological or a result of conditioning, but it’s definitely a pattern in my family.

Even as a clinical psychologist, it took me a long time to identify my anxiety for what it was. Because I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious. I don’t have the telltale symptoms of uncontrollable worry, nervousness, difficulty concentrating, persistent feelings of fear or dread. Those are the classic cognitive and emotional symptoms of anxiety. I rarely, if ever, have those.

It’s part of the legacy of being a StrongBlackWoman, that cultural myth that so many Black women – in the Americas, in Europe, in Africa, and in the Caribbean – strive to live up to. In Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength, I describe the StrongBlackWoman as a “scripted role into which Black women are socialized, usually beginning in childhood. Rather than being a genuine expression of personality, it is a mask that stifles authenticity.” The StrongBlackWoman takes who we really are and hides it behind a mask of emotional stoicism, self-sacrificial caregiving, and extreme independence. In other words, the StrongBlackWoman is the woman who constantly extends herself on behalf of others, always striving to identify and take care of the needs of her family, her friends, her church, and her workplace. It is not that she doesn’t feel the burden of constant multitasking and overcommitment. It’s that she has learned to repress it, to not feel it. She has learned to push through, to keep going.

I have learned to repress it, to not feel it, to push through, to keep going. Like my mother and my grandmothers and all the women before me, I have learned to use strength as a mask that covers anxious thoughts and feelings. Being two generations removed from sharecropping and just a few more from slavery in the deep South makes it even easier for me to ignore, deny, and repress feelings of worry and fear. “I’m not afraid. I’m a StrongBlackWoman! I come from strong stock and I can handle anything.” Anything but fear it seems.

I have been StrongBlackWoman-in-recovery for over 15 years. In that time, I have actively worked toward releasing the myth’s hold on me, learning to be more open, more vulnerable, more…human. And still, I don’t feel anxious when I’m anxious, at least not mentally. But my body, it tells a different story. That story often comes in the form of insomnia, difficulty falling or staying asleep.

I have struggled with insomnia since childhood. Back then, going to sleep wasn’t the problem; it was staying asleep. I often woke up with nightmares, running into my mother’s room and begging to sleep with her. When I was six years old, my mother said to me, “You can’t sleep with me every night.” From that point on, I pointedly decided to only go into her room every other night. On alternate nights, I stayed in my room, staring into the darkness, often in terror. My mind played horrible tricks on me in the night, turning innocuous household objects into demons and witches who would be ready to pounce the moment that I closed my eyes.

Over the years, my battle with sleeplessness waxed and waned depending upon the stresses in my life. When it became clear that my lack of restful sleep and my chronic pain issues were feeding each other, my rheumatologist prescribed a low-dose sleep aid. Finally, after four decades, I was sleeping well on a regular basis. Eventually – and with the help of lots of complementary therapies, the care of good naturopaths and psychotherapists, and several years of strengthening healthy nutrition, exercise, meditation, and work patterns – I was able to ween off the medication. My anxiety was under control and so was my sleep.

And then came #TheRona.

Anxiety is a highly triggering emotion. Anxiety about one particular issue easily triggers any other latent anxieties, gathering small concerns into a giant rolling ball that rapidly overtakes us. In early March, as COVID-19 became the focus of nearly every conversation, every newscast, and every social media post, the sense of anxiety was palpable. I felt it then. There was no repressing the sense of disruption, the obsessive amounts of time reading news articles, watching television, and checking email to figure out what was known, what was happening, how my institution was responding, and how we needed to adapt. Still, though, I thought I was turning off those worries at night. My body told a different story.

A few nights into the shelter-in-place order, I had multiple nights of restlessness. I tossed and turned, trying to find a better sleeping position. I tried some sleeping meditations, only to find myself wide awake the moment that they ended. I tried reading until I got tired, but felt alert the minute that I put the book down and closed my eyes. My chronic pain and GI issues flared up, too.

With the help of my naturopath and psychotherapist, I realized that the anxious little girl inside me had awoken, and I needed to take care of her. That meant that I needed to structure my pandemic life in ways that would keep my stress response system under control, instead of allowing it to run rampant under the threat of constant change.

The biggest change has been the way that I spend my evenings. Since our biological stress response is designed to keep us awake and alert, I have to minimize activities that will trigger it in the hours before sleep. That means no news and very little social media after dinnertime. In fact, lately when I receive invitations for podcast interviews and webinars, I ask that they be scheduled by 4pm to ensure some distance between talking about heavy topics and going to sleep. I limit my evening entertainment to reading fiction, doing puzzles, crafting, or watching lighthearted tv shows or movies. And while quarantine offers the opportunity to stay up late at night and sleep in each morning, I’ve tried to maintain a regular sleep-wake schedule. I know firsthand the struggle of having an irregular circadian rhythm and I don’t plan on going back there.

Sleep is also impacted by overall health. It’s hard to sleep when you’re in pain or having stomach pain or an allergy flare-up. Good rest is part of an overall approach to wellness that includes eating right for my body, staying active, stretching and doing yoga, meditating, staying hydrated, taking all my medications and supplements, and following up with healthcare – all of which contribute to a healthy immune system.

Feeling anxious is an inevitable – and appropriate – part of a global health crisis. The key to managing it is not to repress it, but to take care of it.

Eating Well During Quarantine

I’m going to do something that I’ve never (at least not to my memory) done in my blogging life: recommend a product. About a month ago, I finally caved in and subscribed to a meal service. I’ll tell you a little about my process in selecting one and how it’s helped us to eat well during quarantine.

I’ve looked at multiple meal services over the past few years. Some have been appealing but I didn’t think they could accommodate my food restrictions (I’m gluten-sensitive and have lots of other foods that I can tolerate only in moderation) as well as the fact that I live with a picky middle schooler and a partner who will try almost anything but really likes meat. And all the plans seemed too expensive to order for just one person. So I always gave up on them.

I reconsidered this year because I was scheduled to go on a writing retreat. I’d be spending four weeks in an apartment on a college campus in a small town with no transportation. I needed to eat healthy but also minimize my time cooking (because the whole point of a writing retreat is to get away from normal distractions and responsibilities so that you can just write). So I decided to use the four weeks to experiment with a meal service. I looked at several. There are so many more options now for those of us on gluten-free diets. Some of the meals looked positively luxurious.

But I wanted simple. I wanted meals that I could cook – not microwave – with very little effort. And I wanted to be able to mix and match ingredients if I wanted, rather than feeling like I had to use something for a specific recipe.

I decided that HungryRoot was the best plan for me. HungryRoot operates a little more like a grocery service than a meal preparation service. When you sign up, you’re asked about your dietary preferences. Do you have any food allergies or restrictions? How many people are you feeding with each meal? Are you aiming for weight loss? How long do you want to spend cooking? How many breakfasts, lunches, dinners, and snacks do you want the service to provide each week? (Their website is kind of crap in terms of showing people what options are available before you join. I had to do some digging and ultimately decide to sign up for an account before I really figured it out).

After you do that, HungryRoot configures your first week of groceries. With HungryRoot, you don’t get meal kits. You get groceries: a bag of shaved Brussels sprouts, some precut veggies for stir-fries or salads, preseasoned and cooked tofu, boxes of pasta, and so on. You can prepare them the way that they want or you can mix them up. You can even integrate them into food you already have at home. I opted for 10 meals per week initially (4 lunches and 6 dinners) because I was going to be in the middle of nowhere and wasn’t sure what I’d be able to access other than the campus cafeteria and maybe pizza delivery. Each meal has 2 servings, so HungryRoot gave me 5 suggestions. Their meals mainly fall into these categories: pasta (yes,plenty of gluten-free options!), bowls, stir-fries, salads, and flatbreads. Each recipe generally has a base (veggies or gluten-free grains for me), protein (my choices lean toward tofu, beans, Beyond Burgers, chicken breasts, and chicken sausage), and a sauce. They provide suggestions on additions (pantry items like Parmesan cheese, dried cranberries, etc.).

Photo of brown wooden table covered with food items, including tomato sauce, cauliflower linguine, stir-fry veggies, salad mixes, packaged tofu nuggets, chicken sausage, grilled chicken breast, Thai peanut sauce, and sesame ginger dressing.
This week’s HungryRoot order includes ingredients for two stir-fries, a pasta dish, and salad.

About a week before I – and my first HungryRoot order – were supposed to arrive at the writing center, universities started closing and it was clear that I wouldn’t be going. Since I’d already paid for the first order, I decided to have it delivered to my home and that I’d use it to try to eat healthy during quarantine. I switched up some of the recipes so that they’d be more appealing to my family. I swapped out some of the tofu for extra chicken breast or chicken sausage so that my middle schooler would eat them. I figured we would try the first week and if it didn’t work, I’d cancel the service. But it did work, pretty well in fact. We can easily cook healthy meals in about 10-20 minutes. The portions serve 2 people well, but it turned out that they could easily be stretched to serve 2 adults and a tweenager who hates veggies.If we were doing a veggie stir-fry with quinoa, we’d just add in some chicken breast and cook some rice for the kiddo.

After the first week, we downgraded our service to 3 meals per week, which prices at $69. HungryRoot works on a points-system. After the service configures our meals based on our dietary preferences and our ratings of the meals we’ve tried, I make changes. Sometimes I have points left over, which is cool because you can buy individual items, like a pack of broccolini or an extra serving of grilled chicken breast. Those items help us to stretch the meals to feed three people. Or sometimes they end up helping us make quick and healthy lunches. So generally, we end up with 3-4 meals worth of food for 3 people. We just got our fifth order. On the menu this week: pasta with chicken sausage and tomato sauce; a peanut chicken & vegetable stir-fry; a sesame ginger stir-fry with tofu; and a salad with tofu bites. That leaves us a few days each week to cook other easy meals, with items we can get from our grocery pickup and delivery services. Fajita bowls, tacos, burgers, and homemade pizza are on the regular rotation now. About once a week, we throw something on the grill.

A lot of people on social media are talking about all the junk food that they’re eating at home. But because of my health issues, I can’t afford that. Food is medicine for me.

Only recently have I gotten my GI issues under control and deviating too much will result in a flare up that could further compromise my already immunocompromised body. As a breast cancer survivor, I’m already working with fewer lymph nodes than the average body. So I’ve had to practice pretty strict social distancing: remaining home except for medical appointments and wearing a mask even when I go for a walk in my neighborhood. Quarantine means that I can’t make my weekly visits to the Dekalb Farmers Market to stock up on organic produce and meat. My body needs more nutrition than frozen and processed food can give it, but I can’t always rely on local grocery delivery (or even pickup) to have what I need in stock. I never would have guessed that the meal service that I’d planned to use for a 4-week writing retreat would be such a big help to my family as we try to manage this period of isolation, but it is.

If you’re interested in trying HungryRoot, you can use this link for $15 off your first order, which will give me an extra $15 too! My kid will be so happy about all that extra tofu!

White Men Explain Things to Me

I stared at the screen, trying to figure out how to frame my response. I had already deleted a few replies, concerned that they might seem too caustic. It was New Year’s Eve, after all, and I did not want to end the year on a cynical tone, especially in what I had hoped would be a humorous thread. After an exchange with my 11-year-old, I’d posted on Facebook: “At what age do children stop gaslighting their parents? This didn’t get covered in my psychology training. Piaget must not have actually interacted with any children outside the lab.” My tongue-in-cheek jab at Jean Piaget – the Swiss psychologist whom Wikipedia rightly describes as “the most influential developmental psychologist to date – was part of my ongoing social media commentary about how having a doctorate in clinical child psychology did not help with basic parenting issues.

Almost immediately, a response from my former colleague – a white male professor with whom I had once shared an office – popped up. Missing the humor – and quite frankly the entire point – he explained that Piaget’s theory was, in fact, based upon observations of his own three children in twentieth century France. Well, thanks, Captain Obvious, I thought. After all, wasn’t it self-evident that anyone who used Piaget to joke about parenting would know something of his background and methodology, especially if that person had a doctorate in clinical child psychology?

It was peak whitemansplaining. I knew, or at least I hoped, that my colleague had meant no harm. He thought he was being helpful. Unfortunately, he was being helpful in that condescending way that men often are to women by taking it upon themselves to explain things that they assume women don’t understand. It’s what is commonly known as “mansplaining,” a term inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s viral article, “Men Explain Things to Me,” which became the titular chapter in her 2014 book.

Solnit begins the article with an anecdote in which, after learning that she had just published a book about Eadweard Muybridge, the male host of a party she was attending insisted on telling her about “the very important Muybridge book” that had been released earlier that year. After listening for a while, Solnit realized, first, that he was telling her about her own book, and second, that he had not actually read her book but had only read about it in the New York Times Book Review. Let that sink in. Upon hearing that a woman had authored a book on a topic, a man decided that he needed to educate her about a book that he had not read. And that book turned out to be one that she had written.

Now in the academic world, if a person writes a book on a topic, they have probably read much of the previous literature on that topic. Moreover, because academics tend to present their ideas at conferences before they publish them, they are usually aware of other forthcoming books on the topic. Nevertheless, Solnit’s interlocutor assumed that her expertise was insufficient and that she would benefit from his explanation. Men do that a lot to women.

Mansplaining is not usually intentional or even conscious. It is a symptom of living in a patriarchal society, which socializes men to believe that they know more than women and that it is their duty to share what they know with us. That socialization begins early in life. For example, it happens in schools when boys are rewarded for speaking without raising their hands, but girls are penalized for doing the same, or when girls get labeled as “bossy” for the same assertiveness that earns boys the label of “leader.” Boys and men learn early that their words matter more than those of girls and women. They begin to think that their opinions matter more and that they are more informed, even on topics that they know nothing about! Of course, women can do that too, and men can mansplain even to other men. But there are far more instances of men mansplaining to women. It’s why most women immediately recognize what is meant by mansplaining the first time that they hear the term. As Solnit’s book states, men love to explain things to us.

As with all things patriarchal, mansplaining is heightened when sexism intersects with other forms of oppression, such as racism. So when a White man with a PhD decides that he must educate a Black woman with a PhD about a progenitor in her own field, he is not just mansplaining; he is whitemansplaining. That is, he is falling into the trap of overestimating his own knowledge and underestimating that of a Black woman.

Black women and other women of color who are professors encounter this a lot, not only from our White male colleagues but also from students. In my nearly 20 years teaching in higher education, it has been rare that women students (of any race) have assumed that they know more about the topic that I am teaching than they do, even in cases where they have actually taught on the college level in similar fields!

On more than one occasion, though, I have had to call out male students of varying races when they attempted to ignore my knowledge and credentials. Since their behavior is not usually intentional, it is often enough for me to point it out and to ask them whether they behave similarly with their male and White female professors. Often, they sheepishly admit that they do not. Over the years, I have had several transformative classroom moments resulting from such an intervention.

It was the possibility of such transformation that made me decide to call out the whitemansplaining in my colleague’s response to my Facebook post. It was much harder to convey a tone of respectful conversation online than in the classroom and I struggled with how to frame it. But there really was no easy way to confront it. Finally, I simply typed, “There’s no gentle way for me to point out how much whitemansplaining you’ve just done.” I hit send.

The reaction was not what I hoped for. My colleague went from whitemansplaining to White fragility in an instant, reiterating his point about Piaget and then reminding me of his PhD in educational psychology. Then, after another Black female scholar pointed out that he had doubled down on his whitemansplaining, he “ghosted,” deleting the post and possibly also his Facebook profile (or at least blocking me).

Perhaps my original question should have been, “At what age do men stop gaslighting women?” Apparently, he hasn’t reached it yet.

Why White People Think We All Look Alike

“Hey Tracey,” the dean said. I stared at him blankly for a few seconds before saying, “I’m not Tracey.” He was embarrassed. “Oh, right! I know that. I’m sorry Chanequa.”
We were only a few weeks into my first year at the school. I had been surprised that the dean of student life had made an attempt to learn the names of the 180 new students. He had gotten my name right before, so I didn’t hold it against him that he had mistaken me for my new friend Tracey, who was also new to the school. I probably would not have remembered the incident at all. But it turned out that it was not the last time that a White faculty, staff member, or classmate confused the two of us for each other.

It became annoying. “Do people keep calling you by my name?” we asked each other. We couldn’t figure out what that was about. Tracey was noticeably taller with low-cropped curly hair; my locks hung well past my shoulders at the time. Perhaps we had the same face shape, but her face lacked any of the moles that dotted mine. We were close in complexion, but not close enough that we would wear the same Fenty shade. We did not look alike. We did not even look like each other’s people – our biological relatives. And both of us look very much like our people. Tracey happens to have a cousin who could pass as her twin, as do I.

For Black people and other people of color, being mistaken by White people for another one of our racial kinfolk is a common occurrence. Remember the interviewer who confused Samuel Jackson for Lawrence Fishburne?

“White people think we all look like,” is a common refrain among African Americans and Asian Americans especially. We are not making that up. Until they learned that it was politically incorrect to say it aloud, White people used to actually say, “You all look like.” It is such a common racial trope that people of color often bristle the moment that someone outside our race tells us that we look like someone whom we obviously do not resemble.

People of color often bristle the moment that someone outside our race tells us that we look like someone whom we obviously do not resemble.

As with many forms of racism, confusing two people of color for one another is usually done without malice. My hypothesis is that it happens when people lack enough exposure to a particular racial/ethnic group to develop the ability to delineate between our features. In a White supremacist world in which one’s race determines one’s freedoms and rights, we are all socialized to see each other first in terms of race. For centuries, White people have been socialized not to look much further than that if a person is another race. Black people are especially accustomed to being unseen by White people, including those whom we know.

It is one of the hardest things about being in predominantly White spaces for people of color – being rendered invisible. In seminary, I became accustomed to being unseen by White classmates in the hallways. We could sit in classes together for an entire semester, but they would routinely pass me in the hallways without making eye contact. If they happened to look at me or even if I said hi, their eyes glazed over me without any real sign of recognition. It is the dominant experience that I have at the annual meeting of my academic guild each year. As I walk through the hallways, panning the crowd for signs of familiar faces and scanning the name badges for signs of connection, White colleagues glance at me without seeing me. It happened just a few days ago at the farmer’s market, when a former White student looked briefly at me and then turned away before I could say hello.

White people are socialized not to look at us. So it is no wonder that they are more likely to confuse us with other people of color whom we do not resemble. Lord forbid that there be an actual resemblance, as in the case of the two U.S. congressmen John Lewis and the late Elijah Cummings. In October 2019, Cummings passed suddenly at the age of 68; two months later, Lewis announced that he had been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. In covering both events, major news outlets confused the two men for one another. So many people confused the two men when Cummings died that Lewis’s name became the top Twitter trend for the day. Fox News posted a photo of Lewis when Cummings died. Two months later, CBS used a photo of the then-deceased Cumming when news of Lewis’ diagnosis was announced.

Photo of congressional representatives Elijah Cummings and John Lewis seated beside each other.

Granted, the two men looked remarkably alike, so much so that they reportedly joked about it. And it turns out members of Congress get confused with one another a lot. Everyone makes mistakes, and not every mistake is racist. Even Black people made the mistake of confusing Lewis and Cummings. Likewise, over time, Tracey and I noticed that it was not just White people who confused us with one another. Several of our Black classmates did it too, including those with whom we were good friends. Apparently, though we did not look alike, there was something about us that evoked a similar response from other people, just as there was something that drew us together as friends from the opening moments of orientation.

Sometimes racism involves situations that occur uniquely to Black people (or other people of color) and solely because of their race. But sometimes, racism involves situations that happen more frequently to Black people because of our race, especially when White people are also involved. It turned out that White classmates and professors confused me and Tracey for each other far more frequently than did Black people. And there was something qualitatively different about it when it happened. Our Black peers caught themselves making the mistake as soon as they did it. “Did I just call you Tracey? I don’t know why I did that.” And having made the mistake once, they never did it again. In contrast, we usually had to point out to White classmates and professors when they had called us by the wrong name. After we did, they would often stare blankly for a few seconds before they realized their error, almost as if they were searching their mental rolodexes to determine which of their two Black friends we were. I could always see the moment of recognition when it dawned. But why did it take so long for their brains to register our actual faces and names? Why did it take so long for them to see us? Perhaps, like the media professionals who repeatedly confuse Cummings and Lewis, their eyes and memories had not been racially trained enough for them to see the differences between two Black people.

Their eyes and memories had not been racially trained enough for them to see the differences between two Black people

Neither Elijah Cummings or John Lewis are obscure congressmen. Given the political and historical importance of both men, every reputable news outlet should know who they are, that they look alike, and that special care needs to be taken to identify them correctly. News correspondents who cover Capitol Hill should be taught to discriminate between them, in the same way that they have learned to discriminate between the various Bushes and Kennedy’s who have held political office. Plus, neither incident involved a brief or chance encounter. They involved photos, documents that are protected by copyright law and that must be properly credited to their photographers. Moreover, they involved situations where media professionals – sometimes even multiple media professionals – had to glance at a photo and story before it made its way on the air. Or more specifically, they involved situations where White media professionals had to glance at a photo of a famous Black person before it went on the air.

Photo clip from film, "Pulp Fiction,' showing Samuel L. Jackson as his character, Jules Winnfield, pointing a gun. Text overlay reads: "Say 'All black people look like' one more time. I dare you."Tracey died the year after we graduated from seminary. I still see glimpses of her sometimes in strangers. In some ways, I would love to be somewhere and have someone yell “Tracey!” at me, because it would mean that I am in the presence of someone who knew both of us and who knew that there was something about each of us that reminded people of the other. I would probably laugh it off, but then I would tell them, “You know me and Tracey don’t look alike.”

My Book Is Coming!

When there are long periods of inactivity on my blog, it’s usually because I’m working on a book project. Over the past two years, I’ve been grinding away at a book on racial reconciliation, I Bring the Voices of My People: A Womanist Vision of Racial Reconciliation. It will be out this fall and is available for pre-order now.

People often ask me how long it takes me to write a book. That’s a hard question to answer. With both of my books now, I spend years living the book before I sit down to write the book. I spent 10 years immersed in the Christian racial reconciliation movement, from 2006-2016. From the beginning, I was plagued by “Yes, but” moments, but that didn’t stop me from being all in. I loved being in spaces where diverse Christians had honest convo about race and racism. I had only experienced that previously in Black church spaces.

Even though it always felt something was missing, my view of the movement was rose-colored for a long time, probably because I was surrounded by its best: folks like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgove, Dominique Gilliard, Zakiya Jackson, Jonathan Brooks, Soong-Chan Rah, Vince Bantu, and the late Richard Twiss. I thought they represented the norm (spoiler: they don’t).

It honestly took me a while to recognize the movement was almost wholly evangelical. It was an “oh shit” moment but I stayed. Since childhood, I’ve always had an “outsider within” status  that helps me bridge diverse groups. If we share common cause, I can be down with you and we can work through our differences. I’ve always been the person whose friendship group included the most popular kids and the social outcasts. And I could usually get them to the same table sometimes.

So there I was: a radical womanist theologian in an evangelical world, bringing my full hermeneutic of suspicion amongst folks with inerrant and infallible views of scripture. Talk about the lion lying down with the lamb! (Wait, am I the lion or the lamb?). It was bonkers. But again, I was surrounded by a “guilded ghetto” of radical evangelicals so I thought there was greater possibility than there actually was. It didn’t take long for me to realize the movement has a very shallow theology of reconciliation. Ok, it has NO theology of reconciliation. It’s more like a vague biblical inspiration lived out through a weak relational praxis. (That kind of describes most of White US Christianity, doesn’t it?)

There are some great scholars who’ve examined the idea of reconciliation. James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts wrote books debating the idea with each other decades ago. The movement NEVER pays attention to them. Allan Boesak and Curtiss DeYoung have also produced rigorous thinking in this area. But the movement prefers literature about friendships among Black and White men. The dominant evangelical paradigm of reconciliation is so weak that it disintegrates whenever issues of intersectionality arise. That’s why womanists generally don’t even fuck with the concept. We know evangelicals ain’t about that life.

It’s a mistake, though, to assume that Black women and other women of color don’t write and teach about reconciliation. We do it all the time, but we don’t use the word “reconciliation.” We don’t even use language that most evangelicals would recognize as being about reconciliation. There is a whole canon of Black women’s literature envisioning what healing and justice look like in a world fractured by racism, patriarchy, and classism. Not to mention all the kitchen table wisdom handed on from Black mothers, grandmothers, and aunties, who know “relationship” is not the answer to racism. Because we have ALWAYS been in relationship with white women, men, and children in our forced roles as domestics. And that doesn’t protect us.

So that’s what I attempt to do in I Bring the Voices of My People. I try to bring all that wisdom to describe how race and racism work, what reconciliation really looks like, and how faith can help us to work toward it. There are no “Can’t we all just get along?” stories here. Honestly, I want to blow up the whole racial reconciliation movement, turn it upside down, inside out, eviscerate it, and then say, “Start all over.” But because I’m pastoral caregiver, I won’t tear down without at least attempting to build up. So I’mma give y’all some tools. I pray that they’re meaningful.

I Quitchu: A Lenten Journey

I’m giving up church for Lent. To be truthful, beyond the worship services that I’ve attended at my campus and at this year’s Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, I gave up church two months ago. It was at the beginning of January that I notified my pastor that I would be resigning my leadership position and eventually leaving the church. What I’m giving up for Lent is the guilt that I inevitably feel on Sunday mornings when I stay home working in the garden or go hiking with my family.
I’ve been a member of the United Methodist Church for 10 years now, but in my heart I’m still a good Baptist (which is maybe why I keep teaching at Baptist seminaries!). I still remember my baptismal vows at the historically Black Baptist church of my youth. In them, I promised that if I were to leave that church, I would find another as soon as possible. Since then, I have always tried to keep that promise. And my family has held me accountable to it. When I moved to Miami at the age of 21 to attend graduate school, every phone call to my maternal grandmother would include her asking, “Did you join a church yet?”
The thing is, it is hard to be an African American woman with progressive theological, political, and social commitments and find a church. It is not just that there are elements of the worship experience that make me feel uncomfortable. I can deal with discomfort. In fact, I think that if worship doesn’t regularly stretch us beyond our comfort zone and force us to encounter God through the eyes of others, it’s not worship at all.
I’ve always been willing to make compromises. I can give up my preferences for music or preaching in a certain style if the teaching is theologically sound. I can deal with being one of few people of color in a congregation if the voices of women, young people, and LGBTQ persons are respected and empowered. I can tolerate a certain level of dysfunction in the leadership and organization if the commitment to intersectional justice is strong enough. And I can put up with a combination of those factors if my kid will have the chance to participate in a strong children’s ministry that is discipling him well.
My issue is that of being in churches that – whether in their music, prayer, teachings, polity, or practice – routinely make claims about God that I believe to be contrary to who God is and who God calls us to be. I am opposed to being in church that deny the imago Dei (image of God) within myself and others by forcing us to conform to their image of who we should be. And that has been the experience in almost every congregation that I’ve attended. Ultimately, the pressure to conform reveals itself in one way or another.
When I joined the leadership of this new church plant 18 months ago, I took it as a chance help build a new type of community from the ground up, a place where we would make a radical commitment to becoming beloved community, where people of diverse backgrounds would find themselves welcomed and empowered in the fullness of who they were. What I absolutely did not want was to create another “Benetton” type of multicultural congregation, one where the church was filled with people of different races/ethnicities but who were all culturally white. But eventually, it felt like that was precisely what we’d become.My repeated efforts to redirect us were not successful. It began to feel like I was Sisyphus, doomed to eternally push a boulder uphill by myself.
My freedom came one Friday afternoon when I began reflecting about my perpetual struggle of being a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. “What am I losing of myself each time that I shave off bits of myself to fit? And what if I simply stopped trying to fit into these spaces?” Even the thought of the second question was terrifying. It meant that I would have to let go of a lot, including this new church family that I had grown to love. Over the next two days, after continuous prayer and dialogue with my partner, I decided to take the leap.
So, church, I quitchu. I quitchu with no plan to return to you as you currently exist, because you are abusive. I quitchu along with my many Jesus-loving friends who have quitchu, along with those who are considering it. I quitchu because you are incapable of loving me in all my complexity, because you are incapable of loving those whom God loves. I quitchu because you are more concerned with preserving your own existence than being beloved community. I quitchu because you quit me a long time ago. I quitchu because I need to heal from the pain and damage that you have caused me, and I cannot heal while being in relationship with my abuser. I quitchu because I realize that I can love Jesus better and more freely beyond the confines of your concrete walls and your restrictive theology. I quitchu, the institutional church, to join the church in the wild, the church in the catacombs.
Amen and Ashé.

What You Don’t Know About the Cosby Allegations

Many people think the allegations about Bill Cosby are part of some plot to destroy the legacy of powerful Black men. Some of you have been people whom I respect. I’ve been trying to figure out how you think so many women could be lying (some probably are, but not all). I’m trying to figure out how you think that one woman should have had the courage to come forward 30 years ago when no one believes 50 now. But then I realize you don’t know the stories.

You don’t know how many other stories are out there, some carried til the grave, some whispered from mother to daughter, some told only in the company of women who are willing to hear.

You don’t know that 4 out of every 10 Black women you know carry these stories. You don’t know just how many of us have been raped. You don’t know just how many of your family members, your leaders, your superstars, your heroes have been raping us.

You don’t know how many legacies Black women have protected and continue to protect. You don’t know how many of your heroes’ images we could take a hammer to, if we were simply to tell the truth about them.

You don’t know because you don’t want to know. You don’t ask us to share our stories. You don’t read, watch, or listen to our stories. You don’t attend the conferences, seminars, or courses about “women’s issues.” In your “race-first” mentality, you put our “issues” on the backburner in the name of racial solidarity. Meanwhile, you parade our rapists in your pulpits, lamenting their legacies while we’re trying to hold together the pieces of our shattered selves.

You do it over and over again, unless the accused is a white man, in which case you line up in front of the cameras and demand justice.

You create an environment in which it is impossible to tell. And when we finally tell, when we finally get up the courage, you say, “You must be lying because it wouldn’t have taken you so long.”

You don’t know. But you could know if you simply tried. The question is whether you want to.

If you’re ready to listen, to learn, to know, educate yourself. Below are a few resources to help you get started.

Watch this clip from Aishah Shahidah Simmons’ NO! The Rape Documentary. Then watch the full video. You can order it here. You can also check your local public and university libraries. Many of them will have it or order it upon your request.

rose-longing-to-tellRead an excerpt from Tricia Rose’s Longing to Tell: Black Women Talk about Sexuality and Intimacy. The firsthand narratives will help you to understand just how many Black women’s experiences of sexuality involve rape, incest, and other forms of abuse. The amazing thing is that Dr. Rose did not necessarily set out to study sexual assault. It’s just that common.

surviving-the-silence.jpgRead an excerpt from Charlotte Pierce-Baker’s Surviving the Silence: Black Women’s Stories of Rape. Dr. Pierce-Baker, herself a survivor, explores the silence surrounding sexual assault within African American families and communities.

Check out the website for Men Stopping Violence, an organization that mobilizes men to prevent violence against women and girls. If you’re a father, make sure you check out their Because We Have Daughters initiative, which gives fathers the knowledge and skills to empower their daughters and reduce their risk of victimization.

And guess what? After you do all this, you can still think that Bill Cosby may be innocent. But perhaps you will know how to talk about the allegations against him in a way that doesn’t contribute to rape culture.