Searching for the truth might be uncomfortable, but we need to start looking.
ON THE NIGHT of President Barack Obama’s election victory in November 2008, my dad called me from my home state of Kentucky to express a mix of disbelief and relief over an outcome that he, an African American from the South who had attended segregated schools as a kid, thought he’d never live to see.
A black man would be the next president of the United States and occupy a White House that, as first lady Michelle Obama would famously note eight years later, was built by African slaves.
Though I’d grown up and worked in an integrated world, I had doubts, too.
Here we were, father and son, linked by fiber-optic cables and the arc of American history, marveling at the triumph of the impossible.
When my dad and I spoke by phone to discuss the election of President Donald Trump last November, by contrast, the spirit of the conversation was less “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and more “Strange Fruit.”
Trump’s victory, after all, had come on the heels of an endorsement by the official newsletter of the country’s most infamous hate group, the Ku Klux Klan, and other white nationalists who felt emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric and rise.
Without prompting, my dad recalled the days of Jim Crow segregation, a time when to be black in the South, or any other region of the country, meant living with the fear of repercussion simply for not knowing your place around white people.
It seemed we had overcome only to roll ourselves back.
But life experience and vantage point are everything. I had to accept that the toxic racial and ethnic overtones of the New York billionaire’s campaign that seemed so disqualifying to me didn’t register as deal-breakers for everybody, including tens of millions of white voters and even some people of color.
WHO ARE WE, and what are we really made of?
How can there not be an ongoing national conversation on race when it so obviously factored into the presidential campaign and the way people voted when they closed the curtains of their voting booths?
What are we not saying to each other?
These questions dogged me on Nov. 10, as I watched the amazing spectacle of then-President-elect Trump — who made his name in politics by doubting the first black president’s citizenship status — awkwardly meeting Obama for the first time at the White House. In footage of the meeting, a bust of Martin Luther King Jr., the other most iconic black man in our history, gazes over Trump’s shoulder like a silent witness.
The sense that Trump and Obama were inches from each other yet living in unbridgeable racial realities made me think of the 1961 book “Black Like Me,” by journalist John Howard Griffin.
“Dear White People”
The next performances of “Dear White People” will be Feb. 24-25 at Theatre Off Jackson, 409 Seventh Ave. S., Seattle. For more information, call 206-340-1049 or go to theatreoffjackson.org.
In the book, Griffin recounts a dramatic social experiment in which he artificially darkened his skin to pass as a black man, so he could experience racism and white supremacy in the South quite literally from the point of view of the African Americans subjected to those twin evils every day. It is an astonishing example of walking in another person’s shoes, another race’s world.
Griffin dons the mask of blackness, but he ends up showing us that his own whiteness is a kind of guise, a racial signifier that grants him rights and privileges, and a level of peace of mind that blacks and other brown-skinned people in this country could only dream about.
The past is always present, and Griffin’s experiment likely would reveal painful truths today about how we live, talk about race in private and treat each other in public.
But we need not travel far, or go to the extremes that Griffin did, to make our own journey of racial discovery.
SEATTLE IS CELEBRATED for its open embrace of all types of people. It’s not uncommon to see a “Black Lives Matter” march with mostly white demonstrators.
But when they happen, conversations about race — across racial lines — can be disappointingly stilted and unproductive. And it is often people of color who wind up dominating those conversations while whites hang back.
Seattle-based scholar and consultant Robin DiAngelo, who has a doctorate in multicultural education and specializes in whiteness studies, often gives lectures on “white fragility,” the reluctance of many whites to engage in discussions about race for fear of getting scuffed up emotionally in the process or, worse yet, accused of being a racist.
“The word ‘racist’ is like the N-word for white people,” says DiAngelo, a white 60-year-old who grew up in a low-income household in San Jose, Calif.
“White people are very wily when it comes to race,” she says. “We will do everything that we can to get out from under the idea of race.”
At the same time, she says, “White consciousness is deeply anti-black, and that’s for progressives and conservatives.”
In her own work, DiAngelo tends to focus on racial bigotry among white progressives, whom she calls her most difficult audience “because of the degree to which we think we’re good to go.”
“Even if you marched in the ’60s, you are not certified racism-free for the rest of your life,” she says.
For many whites, DiAngelo says, “Being a good moral person and being complicit with racism are mutually exclusive.”
DiAngelo considers white fragility a form of bullying that effectively shuts down conversations about race and racism before the first layers of opinion and prejudice have been peeled back.
“It’s an everyday form of white racial control — acting as if you cannot tolerate any association with racism,” DiAngelo says.
Younger whites, contrary to conventional wisdom, are no more willing to dive into the topic from their own perspective than their parents or grandparents, DiAngelo says. That’s because the vast majority of whites still grow up in exclusively white settings with mainly white friends and associates throughout life and therefore never have to think about what their skin tone projects to others — or what people of color have to endure because of their skin color.
“It’s a refusal to know,” she says. “We don’t want to see.”
IN THE WORLD of burlesque, the performer sheds layers piece by tantalizing piece, stringing the viewer along with a slow-burn seductiveness.
It is the art of uncovering.
Most Read Stories
- Two WA cities among ‘most popular’ U.S. housing markets, Zillow report says
- Another, faster-spreading omicron subvariant dominates new COVID cases in U.S.
- Seattle residents painted their own crosswalk. It didn't go over well
- Amazon shareholders approve $212M payout to CEO Jassy, reject worker safety, climate initiatives
- Onlookers urged police to charge into Texas school
In the end, the viewer’s fantasies and desires are laid as bare as the performer’s body, and the honesty of that connection can be as empowering as it is entertaining.
Burlesque might seem like an unlikely medium through which to explore the heady topic of race, but well-known Seattle performer Jessica Rosa, who goes by the stage name Boom Boom L’Roux, is doing just that with her occasional burlesque and variety show “Dear White People.”
Over two hours, fellow burlesque artists, dancers, singers, poets and other stage acts tackle race, culture, gender, body image and sexuality in an intensely personal, sometimes-funny, often-confessional series of short performances.
The show is a fever dream of identity art, the sort of Off, Off, Off Broadway production that could happen only in an iconoclastic arts community like Seattle’s.
Unlike most shows featuring burlesque in Seattle, “Dear White People” is a showcase for performers of color of all shapes, sizes and gender identities.
Rosa, the show’s producer, wanted to create a space for black and brown burlesque artists in particular to share of themselves in a way that’s often not possible, or even desired, in more mainstream venues.
When she first staged the event in early 2016, all the performers she recruited called her crying at some point, worried that the material they were considering would go too far.
They weren’t just going to display their bodies and voices. Their life stories, insecurities, anxieties and frustrations would be brought on stage, too.
“This is the stuff you’re hiding from when you’re creating other acts — I didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the emotional work involved,” says Rosa, who has Puerto Rican heritage and recently challenged herself by performing for the first time with her hair naturally thick, rather than straightened.
At the show I attended in November at Theatre Off Jackson, which also hosts the monthly, all-people-of-color burlesque show “The Sunday Night Shuga Shaq,” performers worked hard both to entertain and to shake up the racially mixed audience. Sometimes artists would linger in a nearly naked pose, and you had no choice but to just take it in, not look away.
The Lady B, “Seattle’s premiere transfabulous femtastic draglesquing sass-mouthing Negro,” comes out dressed in the hues of a Reese’s Cup package, but quickly disrobes and goes for the jugular, pulling two white men from the audience, placing watermelon halves in their hands, then scooping out handfuls of the juicy flesh to eat like a fiend as the audience roars with cathartic laughter and cheers. Just like that, an African American literally and figuratively devours the age-old stereotype of blacks craving watermelon.
The singer Caela Bailey, who’s white, tells the audience that as a little girl, her identification with black culture came naturally because she had lots of African-American friends whose families welcomed her into their lives. But when she was 11 or 12, an African-American elder who was like a grandmother to her issued a loving but stern warning: You may feel black on the outside, but as a white person, you can’t fully understand what it’s like to live in a black person’s skin.
The burlesque artist Ms. Briq House caps a sexy and moving performance with a shout-out to African Americans who have been killed by police, while holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign above her bare body. The piece ends as a solemn vigil.
“Making people look at you — to be unapologetic, like, ‘No; we are having this moment’ — that is so brave,” Rosa says.
In typical burlesque, there’s a lot of makeup, coifed hair and glamorous costumes to be removed over time.
“Dear White People” has its glamour but is stripped down in another sense. There’s nothing hidden beneath the surface.
THE REGION’S HIGHEST-PROFILE black men also spend much of their time in a guise — in this case, football helmets and numbered jerseys. But it is also true that the majority-black Seahawks are one of the NFL’s most outspoken teams on issues such as police violence involving African Americans.
The black athlete as activist has become a major cultural phenomenon for the first time since the 1960s, when Muhammad Ali refused to fight in Vietnam, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised leather-gloved, black-power salutes in 1968 during a medal ceremony at the Mexico City Olympics.
The past is on defensive end Cliff Avril’s mind when I sit down with him at the Seahawks’ practice facility in Renton. He wants African Americans like himself to know more of it and draw inspiration from it to make change from within the black community.
“That’s the problem with us black folks,” he says. “We don’t know our history.”
Avril has been researching his own Haitian heritage.
He says he doesn’t get wrapped up in the hype of being a highly paid, Super Bowl-winning player, and he doesn’t let the adoration of Seahawks fans go to his head.
“People love me because I’m (No.) 56, and I get after quarterbacks,” Avril says. “When I leave here, I see the difference … I’m just another guy, a big black man.”
When Avril thinks about all the innocent African-American motorists who’ve been shot by police in recent years, it sobers him.
“I could easily be one of those guys,” he says.
Avril says he’s plotted exactly what to do if he gets pulled over: get his ID ready and visible, roll down the window and place his hands on the steering wheel so the officer can see them.
Avril says he recently went to a mall jewelry store to shop for a watch for his mom and asked to see a watch in a display counter by the shop’s entrance. The clerk, however, kept urging him to come to the back of the store to see the watch. Avril felt he was being profiled because he’s black, and he complained. This wasn’t the most earth-shattering offense for him, but it serves as a cautionary tale for anyone who thinks they’re beyond race in a society that has never dealt with the subject in a comprehensive way, and where trust across racial lines can be elusive.
Avril’s good friend, defensive end Michael Bennett, says black athletes are starting to come into their own, with more of them expressing who they are and how they feel behind the jerseys and away from the roaring crowds.
“I’m always going to be a black man, and that’s something people need to understand,” Bennett tells me.
“As much as people want to say race isn’t a thing, it’s a thing,” he adds.
Known as a free spirit, Bennett realizes African-American athletes can’t be obsessed with their mainstream marketability if they’re going to act or speak out in a bold way, such as when Bennett dons the “Black Lives Matter” slogan on a piece of clothing.
He says athletes cannot stand on the sidelines and do nothing in the current social and political climate.
“We have so much power” to raise awareness, he says.
Receiver Doug Baldwin is sanguine about his dual role as beloved Seahawk and vocal African American. As a young man, he straddled the black world that raised him in Gulf Breeze, Fla., and the mostly white community that surrounded him where he ran track and played football, in nearby Pensacola.
He didn’t feel as if he fit into either world. In Pensacola, he stuck out for being black (he’s also one-quarter Filipino). In Gulf Breeze, he was teased for attending a white high school.
“It gave me a perspective that I don’t think a lot of people have,” Baldwin tells me. “I had to commune with both worlds.
“When I looked at myself in the mirror, I saw a human being,” he says.
Even for the most confident and self-possessed African American, though, the issue is how other people see you.
Baldwin has taken his fair share of off-base remarks about his intelligence by people who assume jocks aren’t smart, even though the Stanford graduate happens to be both introspective and a thoughtful writer on the subjects of racial injustice and economic inequality.
And, like Avril, there’s the problem of when he takes off the helmet and No. 89 jersey and leaves the sheltered, close-knit world of pro-sports stars.
Baldwin recounts an incident before training camp in 2011, when he first arrived in Seattle. He and cornerback Richard Sherman, also black and a newly arrived Seahawk, were staying at a hotel in Bellevue when they decided to get something to eat. They set off on foot. A woman walking down the street near them started to act suspicious, clutching her purse.
As black men, both had experienced encounters like this in other parts of the country. But in the liberal Seattle area?
Still, Baldwin says, he has a unique opportunity to build bridges as a black activist-athlete. Among other things, he’s spoken out about improving relations between police and the black community.
“It’s important to do it in a tactful way; you can very easily lose your audience,” says Baldwin, the son of a police officer. Baldwin also helped organize a show of unity for the cause of “social justice, love & peace for all,” in which players locked arms during the home opener against Miami at CenturyLink Field on Sept. 11. “I want people to listen.”
Ten days prior, Seahawks cornerback Jeremy Lane took a different approach by following 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s example and sitting during the anthem at an exhibition game at Oakland.
BALDWIN SAYS LATELY he has been working to understand why so many voters chose Trump.
“It’s easy for me to have my opinion,” he says. But, “I’ve had to be a little more empathetic. It’s forced me to listen more.”
A practicing Christian, Baldwin shares with me a line from scripture that seems like good advice for the rest of us, too: “Lean not on your own understanding.”
As we shift into the Trump era, the question is: Will we all heed this lesson and start to share and listen and brave the discomfort of other people’s truths?
Or will the more reticent among us continue to hide behind the curtains?
Editor’s note: The commenting window for this article has closed. Join us at noon Tuesday, Jan. 31, for a Facebook Live chat with the story’s writer, Tyrone Beason, and photographer, Johnny Andrews, as they discuss their roles both as journalists and as citizens in capturing this story.