We exists as women who are Black who are feminists, each stranded for the moment, working independently because there is not yet an environment in this society remotely congenial to our struggle—because, being on the bottom, we would have to do what no one else has done: we would have to fight the world.
Michele Wallace - Black Feminist’s Search for Sisterhood (via jasmineburnett)
In an article posted by the NYTimes yesterday, it was reported that “[m]ore than half of all of African-Americans and other non-Hispanic blacks in the [New York] city who were old enough to work had no job at all this year…” And, if that isn’t enough of a staggering number, black New Yorkers who lose there jobs spend an average of one year trying to find a new one.
The article claims one reason for this is that blacks have been largely employed in government agencies, construction and manufacturing - all fields that have suffered the most in the economic depression. Moreover, blacks tend to occupy what Dr. Frank Braconi, chief economist for the city comptroller’s office, calls the middle market in the labor force in terms of wages and education. And it is this middle market that has been the most affected by the recession.
Blacks are now required to hold a Bachelors or Masters degree to compete in the market they once occupied in order to obtain economic stability. But as most people of color know, a long list of academic accomplishments doesn’t and has never necessarily lead to the equivalent salary and benefits as our non-black counterparts.
Though I have no doubt that this study is spot-on, the reality is that people of color across time have always faced either the lowest employment rates and/or the lowest salaries/benefits.
Historically the unemployment rate for African Americans age 16 years and over has been higher than that of the total labor force:
And though the number of African Americans in the labor force that have graduated from college increased from 16 percent in 1992 to 24 percent in 2009:
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2010, that unemployment rates actually fall as educational attainment increases. “In 2009, the unemployment rate for African Americans 25 years and over without a high school diploma was over 21 percent, while the jobless rates for high school graduates and those graduating with a bachelor’s degree and higher were 14.0 and 7.3, respectively.”
There is no doubt in my mind that we continue to live in a society that conveniently places people of color in service industries where increased education and skills training make it more difficult for us to reach the top. Perhaps we need to stop putting all of our attention in looking at the economy and begin looking at the social dynamics that have placed “minority” groups in positions of lesser economic prosperity.
Cait Oppermann and Yael Malka* are recent graduates of Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. They received their BFAs in Photography and are now preparing for a two-month long trip across Europe (as well as Turkey and hopefully Morocco) starting in July. What they really want to do is make a book of the photographs and text they collect on their trip.
Because their work is so deeply rooted in American culture, they’re both excited and curious about taking on a completely different set of cultures and visual language.
To learn more about the project, check out their Kickstarter page!
*Yael Malka also happens to be the sister of one of my oldest and kindest friends from High School, The Beacon School.
In previous posts (first here, then here), I spoke about the eurocentric symbolism of the graduation cap and the difficulties it has given to natural haired people of color who are embarking on the glorious journey of graduating from their academic institutions.
I made a strong personal stance and stated that I would choose to break the tradition of the academic regalia by not wearing the cap at my graduation. With this, I asked that all of you do the same in honor of your self, your accomplishment, heritages, decisions to go natural and/or in support of your natural haired colleagues.
The response that I received was outstanding - Young women with natural hair, whom I have never had the pleasure of meeting, wrote to me to say that they were struggling with their graduation cap and were grateful that I had given them a space to honor who they were. Friends of friends from Europe wrote that they had experienced the same issues as graduating students, and members of my own graduating class at the United Nations University For Peace came out in numbers to show their support by removing the cap.
I was further surprised by the reaction of my universities Vice Rector and Rector, who made positive references to my decision to remove the cap, and told our class that we were “mature” in the ways that we challenged the institution, and “the cap was a symbol of that.”
The reactions of my local and global community stand as an example of the power of standing up for what you believe in. You never know how your community or institution will react unless you take action.
With that, I am sharing with you an image from my cap-less graduation. I hope that you will share yours with me as well and continue to encourage graduating students to remove the cap in the years to come.
In a previous post, I discussed the need for a “paradigm shift” surrounding the old standards of power and prestige that come from the graduation regalia. I was surprised by the number of responses that I received from natural haired women of color from around the world exclaiming how they, too, were disappointed by the expectation to wear a graduation cap which a. they couldn’t get to fit on their head b. didn’t necessarily believe in. Friends who had never questioned the graduation regalia even vowed to pledged their support by not wearing the cap on graduation day.
I was looking forward to this moment of change… until I received an email from my universities graduation coordinators exclaiming all students were expected to wear the full graduation regalia if they wanted their names to be called at the podium (underlined and in bold, mind you).
For a brief moment, I felt that this was a personal attack on the the political and highly personal statement that I was about to make (I now doubt this is true). Rather than waiting around and even risking not being called on graduation day, I decided to write a kind email to the coordinators explaining to them all the reasons why I wouldn’t be wearing a cap on graduation - I wanted to be honest and sincere about my intentions.
To my surprise, the graduation coordinators agreed to let me go sans-cap and encouraged me to share the message with anyone else who felt that the cap would restrict their cultural, political, social beliefs.
So here it is: I encourage all those in a similar position of not being able to or wanting to wear the graduation regalia, to reach out to their institutions and let them know why. Every student deserves to walk across the stage in a way that honors who they are and celebrates the growing diversity of academia.
Just in case you are having trouble with that email to your graduation coordinators, here is a sample below. Feel free to use it and spread it around!
I hope that you are doing well. Thank you so much for all of the work that you have and continue to put into the graduation planning. I am writing this letter as I wanted to discuss the graduation regalia. I understand that it is a requirement of the school to wear the full regalia, however, as an African American woman with natural hair, it will be a challenge for me to wear the cap. I know this is something that few people think about, and I have debated whether or not to mention it myself. However, after speaking with members of my community, I realized that this was not just an individual desire, but a cultural and personal issue that affects many people. For me, my hair is such a huge part of my identity, not for the physical, but for what it stands for - for the decision to be able to honor myself and what I was given without fitting into a mold. And while the obvious suggestion would be to ask me to straighten my hair just for the moment, it would mean that I would not be walking across the stage honoring who I am and the promises that I have made to myself and to my community. I respect that other people want to hold onto this tradition of the cap and gown however I believe that I, as well as others, also reserve the space to honor our cultural and individual traditions and norms on this momentous day. I believe that this is the basis of UNIVERSITY NAME HERE- an appreciation and understanding of our different backgrounds, beliefs, bodies, etc. For this reason, I ask that the cap (AND GOWN IF YOU CHOOSE) be made optional for students. I sincerely appreciate your understanding, and hope that we can all work together to make this possible.
In exactly three weeks, students from the UN University For Peace will be walking across the stage to accept our M.A. Diplomas. We will all wear our universities signature white-and-blue caps and gowns as a symbol of our achievements. This will be a moment of sheer excitement for our successes and the future that we have worked hard to create for ourselves.
I have taken part in this tradition since the age of homemade-caps in Kindergarden. And each year, I have asked myself, “What am I going to do with my hair?” In Kindergarden, I walked across the stage with a mishap bees nest on my head (one of many attempts in my childhood made by my biracial mother to style my natural hair). In Middle School and High School, I found the solution of braids - although I admit it was a tight squeeze into those small caps. And then in College, I walked across the stage with permed hair pulled back into a simple bun.
This year is a bit different as I have moved away from chemical straightening and synthetic extensions, and have learned to adore the beauty of my natural afro. And so, as I looked over the graduation attire requirements given to us this week, I paused at the word: CAP. The dreaded thought came back, “How am I going to wear this cap now??”
For many people, this may seem absolutely ridiculous - I should just be grateful that I am graduating. I admit, I was thinking the same thing as I started coming up with alternatives to my natural hair for the big day - not taking my cap off until I go home so no one has to see my flattened hair, and even blowing out my hair to fit the tradition. Searching for ideas, I spent a few hours away from work Googling, “Caps with Afro Style,” “Afro Hair Cap and Gowns” and “Caps Natural Hair” so many times to find ideas and yet it seemed that virtually no had ever posted about it, at least online.
Though I was frustrated, it wasn’t until my (white) partner said that this tradition was “unfair to people of color with natural hair” that I really begin to think about it. Where does this tradition come from? Why would an institution with a multitude of races and ethnicities ask people to wear this? And why didn’t anyone at these academic institutions ever think about how it would affect us?
A little research revealed that the Cap and Gown or ‘Academic Dress’ originated from the early 19th Century Europe. As the tradition moved into the United States, committees were organized to develop the standard of academic dress. It goes without saying that people of color were neither included in this conversation, nor were they (heavily) represented within academia at the time. Essentially, the construction of the cap and gown (including shape, height and structure) never included the bodies of people like me.
But how is it that we have never considered changing this system of celebration to suit people from all over the world? How can an academic institution that encourages diversity within their system, not understand just how stressful a moment of celebration can become for us? Even in an international institution, it appears as though no one’s paradigms (or realities) have allowed them to see this issue for those of us who have learned to appreciate our natural hair and bodies.
I may end up walking down the aisle feeling completely out of place, but I will certainly not revert to an old standard of beauty and tradition that doesn’t include my physical, but also very political, identity as an African American woman. We simply cannot accept an age-old tradition that does not include all members of its communities. I hope that other natural-haired women and men (and our supporters) graduating this year will join me in shifting the paradigms by rejecting a tradition that never included us by rocking our natural hair sans cap.
Patriarchy is not men. Patriarchy is a system in which both women and men participate. It privileges, inter alia, the interests of boys and men over the bodily integrity, autonomy, and dignity of girls and women. It is subtle, insidious, and never more dangerous than when women passionately deny that they themselves are engaging in it. This abnormal obsession with women’s faces and bodies has become so normal that we (I include myself at times—I absolutely fall for it still) have internalized patriarchy almost seamlessly. We are unable at times to identify ourselves as our own denigrating abusers, or as abusing other girls and women.
"You can’t build peace by leaving half the people out." Resolution 1325. Source: http://www.upliftmagazine.com
Fighting for justice can be a lonely experience.
I have found myself to be very much conflicted by my decision to attend a peace university. When I applied to this institution, I was naive and believed that everyone would believe in the same peace that I fought for - the only peace that I thought existed - equality and justice. What I have learned is that the notion of peace is different for everyone, and it does not always mean peace for the entire world or fighting for what you fully believe is right.
Students at peace institutions around the world at taught that peace means compromise. While this is certainly an important lesson to learn for daily situations, compromise isn’t enough when there are power imbalances… and we live in a society that is full of that.
Here, I find myself walking the halls, smiling gently at people studying peace who do not believe that I can be a lesbian, let alone create a family with someone of the same sex. I sit next to students who have harassed my friends and colleagues and I go into meeting with counselors who believe that being a gender major means being a “man hater” and activists who seek justice are “troublemakers.”
Perhaps the most difficult reality to swallow are the women and men who know that things must change, but who sit quietly because they don’t have the time, or the desire or the knowledge of how to create change.
I admit that I am incredibly selfish; Speaking out and shaking things up for the sake of equality is a life that I chose and not everyone has to or will be on board. It is a lonely experience, and I know that it will certainly not make you a lot of friends (I imagine it is a lot easier to say nothing… and sometimes I wish I didn’t see inequalities). And yet, despite this knowledge - or perhaps with it - I feel an overwhelming amount of despair.
I am used to being classified into a box with the titles of manhater, sinful, radical, hippy and the like slapped onto my forehead, but when I applied to this institution, I honestly thought that I would be bored. I thought that everyone would agree with everyone and that my thoughts would not be nearly as radical as everyone else’s.
I was wrong. Even at peace institutions there exists sexism, homophobia, violence, harassment, and racism. Apparently, our job as activists and feminists is not even close to being done yet.
On the positive side, there are many other activists out there who are supporting you even when you can’t see it. Check out this post: On the lonely job of progressive activism. http://bit.ly/xbV1Va