Good Girl, Up Speak and Thinking In

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I have a confession.

It is a secret I have held for more than 10 years and it is a lesson I have learned from other women.

As society continues to debate the terms and conditions required for women to be leaders, what is often missing is the lens of the woman of color. It is time to talk about the socialization of girls, and brown girls in particular, and the guise we are raising women to wear to navigate the complexities of race, gender, and politics in the classroom and the workplace.

So here goes…

I change my voice to make other people comfortable.

In general, I have a high-pitched voice. It’s genetic. My grandmother spoke in a higher register and I guess I’m following in her shrill footsteps. But my grandmother had style and when she squealed in laughter or sang the soprano out of a church hymn, it sounded like wind chimes in a summer breeze. Her piercing tone commanded authority and carried assurance. She was authentic and her voice was the instrument that ushered her power.

My voice may be naturally high, but when I’m the only African-American or woman at the table, or when I hold a particularly contentious opinion, I go EVEN higher. Instead of wielding the power of my pitch, I ritually sacrifice my self-expression somewhere in the back of my throat and barter my pride for the perceived benefits of social normalcy. I phonetically transform what I physically cannot change, I am an educated black woman with an opinion.

My sister calls this guise “good girl, up speak.” It is the rising tone of voice I enter to placate others. I summon the “good girl” voice as a part of a physical transformation I have grown accustomed to, first in the classroom and now in the workplace. At some point, I have, consciously or unconsciously, accepted the misogynist edict that women, and women of color in particular, are to be seen and not heard. And I have learned that edict from other women.

Careful experience has taught me that speaking assertively may make males, and white males in particular, uncomfortable. Why else would intelligent women, in the media, in my classroom, and in my profession, soften their voice almost to the pleasant vacancy of a child, to communicate their thoughts? We’ve all seen it. So rather than fully challenge my male colleagues to engage in the mental and social exercise of trying to understand what my black, female body is communicating, I too make my words, however cutting, fall softly on their ears, lest they be offended by both my point of view and my tone of voice.

It is not so much playing dumb as it is playing docile. But what’s the difference when you are trying to be heard? In Harvard Business Review, Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguistic researcher, wrote a piece called The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why. In it she says, “Language is a learned social behavior.” As such, it is infused with the power dynamics that are socialized into each of us as children; dynamics that communicate competence and confidence, and dynamics that can translate into stereotyped gender roles. According to her, “Language negotiates relationships” and the way you address people and how you are addressed, reveals an unspoken social order that defines how we understand each other and how we value each other.

Lately, much has been made of the sociopolitical posturing (“leaning in,” if you will) women must undertake to exercise their power and influence. Yet our greatest instrument of power is our authentic voice. Any time we silence that voice, we miss the opportunity to value other women. For example, by assuming “good girl, up speak,” I validate the antiquated social order that decrees women, and women of color in particular, must infantilize their voice to be heard. Each time I do this, I implicitly encourage women around me to adopt similar positions of subordination to express their feelings. In so doing, I am complicit in the creation and maintenance of the very systems that oppress women in leadership and suppress female thought.

So instead of “leaning in,” the real exercise women may need is “thinking in” or creating a space to re-evaluate how our patterns of behavior undermine our authentic voice and contribute to our disenfranchisement as a group. One of those patterns of behavior is how we speak, another is how we conceptualize our role as leaders. If we continue to define ourselves between a 2-dimensional chasm of “should” and “should not” quandaries that pit domestic aspirations against professional salience, women will always lose. This rigid dichotomy ignores the important and dynamic roles women can fulfill over their lifetime and the opportunity we carry, either in our wombs or our briefcases (or backpacks, as the case may be), to shape the world in which we live with our authentic presence and voice.

When we, as women, strip away the guise, we can be more “I am woman. Hear me roar.” and less “I am woman. Don’t call me bossy.” Instead of being afraid of words, let’s own them. Let’s speak with the authority that our education, experience, and the roles we fulfill, provide us, be that sister, mother, student, physician, or CEO.

New feminism is about women, work, and the will to be authentic. And future generations will rely on us to use the tools at our disposal – the vote, free speech, globalization, and growing numbers of college graduates – to dismantle the structures that demand we conform to misogynist inventions of who we are. For modern American women, we don’t have to be the “good girl” to be the boss. As Deborah Tannen says, “The way we speak is who we are and who we want to be.” Our influence spans the home, office, clinic, and classroom, and who we can be and what we can be is defined by how we use our voice to empower other each other. At its best then, feminism is a collective notion that lifts each of us, despite our color or creed, to live authentically.

Update: This post is also being featured on Kevin.MD. Click here to check it out!

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The Final Word on Black History Month: My Manifesto

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Every February, some of you invariably ask, why do we have Black History Month? Predictably, some of you will pose this question to the black people you know. As a black person, I offer you my final word on the subject, my manifesto, if you will.

Why Black History Month? Consider these reasons.

#1. You don’t know black history and if you are an American, that means you don’t know part of your own story.

The struggle to teach African-American history in our children’s classrooms continues. Take Chicago Public Schools, for example. They represent the 3rd largest school district in the country and despite having a mandate to teach African-American history for more than 2 decades, it was not until December of 2013 that they officially announced plans to implement a formal, yearlong, integrated African-American Studies curriculum into their public schools.

Without normalizing and institutionalizing African-American history into our collective forums for public discourse, we segregate ourselves from the breadth of the American experience. In so doing, we fail to capture an essential truth about America, that we are a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic population that has benefited from the contributions of people of color from our founding.* Every time we resist that central truth, we deny the very thing that makes us American, our shared history.

#2. You need to say thank you.

As does everyone who has benefited from the contributions of African-Americans to American life. Whether it be for the traffic light that safely regulated your morning commute (thank you Garrett A Morgan!) or the blood transfusion that saved your loved one’s life (thank you Charles Richard Drew!) or the vaccine that prevented your child from dying from a preventable illness (thank you Henrietta Lacks!), we must acknowledge the ways in which our lives are enriched because black people consistently made, and continue to make, defining contributions to our society.

And here I’ve only listed a few examples of notable inventions.

What of the impact of African-Americans on the evolution of music in this country? It is almost unquantifiable. From the folk music, bluegrass, and jazz that drew from the tonality of negro spirituals to the rhythmic beats of rock-n-roll, doo wop, disco, funk, soul, rap, and hip hop that emanate from urban America, African-American culture has created or influenced virtually every aspect of American pop culture through music, including the trending fashion, dance, and American vernacular that grew out of these popular genres. Just ask Elvis Presley’s modern-day protegĂ© Miley Cyrus. Twerkin’ ain’t easy and that charismatic rump-shakin’ didn’t start at the VMAs.

Generations of Americans are being raised in a culture that has deep and expansive roots in the African-American experience, but one that is equally devoid of public and enduring recognition of the contributions of African-Americans. Assuming the cultural expression of a group of people, without acknowledging said group, undermines their importance and in some ways, denies their humanity as it assumes they do not have the right to own their own expression. This is called misappropriation and it is the result of an amnestic historical memory, that is so short, it fails to encompass the areas in which our stories are linked and our lives find common ground. But fear not, the cure for misappropriation is simply a proper thank you.

And what of the countless unknown African-Americans who have given of their lives to protect the honor and safety of our country? Next month, President Obama will celebrate some of those men for their distinguished military service and award them the nation’s highest commendation given for combat valor, the Medal of Honor.** If the President’s actions here may serve as an example, when people give of their time, service, and sometimes their lives, for the betterment of our free republic, we must, even if belatedly so, say thank you.

Finally, I think it generally true, that when you honestly appreciate another person’s culture and life and consider their past and their future indelibly connected to your own, you are less likely to instantly think them a criminal, and “stand your ground.” Perhaps what we should “stand our ground” for is the recognition of the humanity in each other. Because when you appreciate people, you don’t shoot them and if Black History Month offers nothing else, perhaps it can serve as a moment for you to embrace African-Americans and in so doing, help bring our sons home safely at night.

#3. You don’t know black people.

If you keep a running tally of how many black people you know or feverishly defend the fact that you “have black friends,” you may not have had the intimate interactions that allow you to disconnect individuals from the stereotyped characteristics you associate with their race. In other words, if Joe is your “black friend,” he’s not really your friend and you don’t really know Joe.

But that’s okay. Perhaps you live in one of the few ethnically monolithic enclaves in our country, or somehow your only exposure to black people has been through The Cosby Show, or The Chappelle Show, or when Kanye upstaged Taylor. If this sounds like you, maybe it is time to branch out, meet new people, new BLACK people, and see what all the hype is about. The African-American experience is as varied as it is rich and our limited representation in the media doesn’t nearly approximate what it might be like to actually know us, dine with us, laugh with us, grow with us.

On a deeper level, if, as a society, we continue to live segregated lives in which we form ethically homogenous social circles, we will never have a basis from which to collectively digest, interpret, and process the complicated transactions that take place between the disparate cultures represented in our communities. Furthermore, challenges that require understanding another culture’s experience and the historical impacts of institutionalized discrimination, like for example, health disparities, or the educational achievement gap, or the disproportionately low rates of African-American women in the health professions, or the disproportionately high incarceration rates of African-American males, will remain insurmountable.

#4. You don’t like black people.

And frankly, black people may not like you either. And yet here we are, continuing to co-exist. So what should we do about it?

Get over it!

There is a reconciliation that needs to occur around issues of race in America and I’m not talking about tolerance. Tolerance is complacency in the face of continued unrest. It is offering separate but equal, instead of demanding that equal be the standard for equal. To heal the massive division in this country around racial injustice, we have to actively confront our bias to move on, even when that bias is unconsciously harbored.*** Black History Month offers us the first step to do this. As the great American poet, Maya Angelou said, “History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.”

Today, we face continued affronts to equality in this country as some Americans seek to marginalize groups they just don’t like. Look what is happening in North Carolina and Ohio to undermine voter’s rights, or in Arizona, where a bill to refuse service to gay Americans made it all the way to the Governor’s desk before being vetoed! Here, our broken history repeats itself and if we aren’t careful, we may all eventually find ourselves less free to pursue liberty and happiness. As Dr. King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and we must take a lesson from black history to see the trend repeating itself and threatening all of our freedoms. The solution is to challenge prejudice at every point it rears its ugly head, starting with ourselves.

#5. You are black and yet you feel disconnected from the African-American experience and the Africana Diaspora.

When historian Carter G. Woodson started Negro History Week in 1926, it was a part of a larger effort to cultivate ethnic pride. As the trans-Atlantic slave trade scattered Africans across the western continents, it violently divorced black people from the rich ancestry that informed who they were. The absence of that foundation created a dangerous space for black people to be defined outside themselves, by their new roles and their new lives.

One dynamic of racism that is as inconspicuous as it is pernicious, is the effect of internalized racism on the African-American psyche. It is the wilted acquiescence to the accusers taunts, that you are as they say you are, be that ignorant, useless, dirty, ghetto, lascivious, pugnacious, unworthy, or unlovable. Internalized racism breeds a self-hatred that dissolves the bonds between people who share the detested characteristic.

In short, racism shames blackness.

And internalized racism is the insidious acceptance of inferiority. It acts to separates people from their value and their ethnic community.

For these people, for us, Black History Month is a moment to affirm and accept our value; to remember who we are and where we come from. Despite the positions of poverty and war in which many of our peers struggle today, both here in urban America and abroad in Latin America, Haiti, and Africa, we are not how and where we live. Our worth is not defined by our struggle but rather by the fervor with which we reclaim what has always been our gift, our blackness.

Now, I am not as presumptuous as to conclude that a month is sufficient time to heal a pain that stretches centuries into our past and finds new meaning in the systematic marginalization of black people across the globe. But I will say this, we have to start somewhere and we need to start together. Perhaps, at its very best, this month can cultivate the ethnic pride needed to combat racism, whensoever, and howsoever, we may face it. Because when you don’t feel worthy, you don’t act worthy and racism has become a self-fulfilling, self-injurious prophecy in the African-American community, and I would argue across the African diaspora. It is time to mend the broken fences in our community, to let people in and heal together. Let this be our chance.

Here’s my final word.

As the thread of African-American culture weaves throughout the American experience, it informs who we are as a nation. While a month is hardly sufficient time to truly appreciate the weight of the African American influence on American culture, perhaps it can serve as both a reminder and an invitation:

A reminder to engage in the self-exploration required to overcome the distraction of modern racial discourse that dichotomizes and compartmentalizes our history in a way that disconnects the culture we consume from the historical process by which it was created;

And an invitation to collectively share in the creative brilliance, ingenuity, and public service that defines the contributions of Black artists, musicians, writers, activists, playwrights, poets, scientists, philosophers, physicians, engineers, civil servants, lawyers, filmmakers, educators, servicemen and women, entrepreneurs, athletes, and entertainers.

These contributions enrich our experience as Americans. So on this, the last day of Black History Month 2014, let this be the start of celebrating our shared America history. Because, we, too, sing America.

* Although I must clarify here, that sovereign nations existed on this soil prior to the arrival of Europeans or Africans and the true founding of this land must always be credited to the Native, indigenous people of this continent.

** This award was also given to Jewish and Hispanic soldiers who were previously overlooked for recognition because of discrimination.

*** If you are ready to confront your unconscious bias, take the Harvard Implicit Association Test here!

Black Art

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Warning: This is not your typical physician blogger post. But, as you’ve hopefully figured out by now, I’m not your typical physician blogger.

There have been but few times in my life when the power of the written word has changed me.

When words, so delicately crafted, approximate both the splendor and the obscenity of human experience, and the light can overcome the shadows. When I was liberated because they spoke it so.

Those are sacred moments between me and Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, and Amiri Baraka.

When I read Amiri Baraka’s Black Art I was a sophomore in college and about 19 years old. I was living in a world dominated by the images, opinions, and interests of white people and trying to figure out what it meant to be a brown girl like me. He said:

Poems are bullshit unless they are teeth…

We want “poems that kill.” Assassin poems,

Poems that shoot guns…

Clean out the world for virtue and love,

Let there be no love poems written

until love can exist freely and

cleanly. Let Black People understand

that they are the lovers and the sons

of lovers and warriors and sons

of warriors Are poems & poets &

all the loveliness here in the world.

We want a black poem. And a

Black World.

Let the world be a Black Poem

And Let All Black People Speak This Poem

Silently

or LOUD

What a thought.

What if blackness was the perspective from which all other experiences are compared?

What does it mean to conceptualize blackness beyond a race card or a problem or a conversation about affirmative action, inner city violence, or health disparities?

Is it possible that black people could be “all the loveliness here in the world?”

If it is possible, then how can I embody that pride effortlessly or “say it loud?” Both, of course, being equally acceptable.

Historically, this poem framed a time of anger and unrest at the centuries of injustice suffered by black people in America. It was the 60s. It was the beginning of the movement for civil rights. It was the birth of the Black Arts Movement, the contribution of black artists, writers, philosophers, and activists to not only chronicle the emotion and the intentionality of the movement, but take the greatest weapon at their disposal – the written word – and BE the movement.

Amiri Baraka was the movement. He was bold. He was fiery. He was unabashedly committed to re-claiming blackness and the beauty it embodies. As a young black woman who found my passion for social justice in medicine through the ethnic pride I discovered in college, I can only hope my writing will do justice to the beauty of the people I seek to serve. For the overlooked, vulnerable, and marginalized among us, thank you Amiri Baraka for fiercely embracing our power and showing us how to live in the beauty in us all.

RIP.

New Tomorrows

Every day carries the promise of tomorrow. But the start of a new year stands out as a collective moment to prepare for “the future,” the new tomorrow.

What does that even mean?

We never really live in the future. Each moment offers us now. Having recently completed 23 long years of higher education, I have no idea what it means to live in the now. I have spent my entire career thus far, planning (and applying) for what is ahead. At the end of that established path is now. And the greatest lesson I learned in 2013 was to feel, experience, enjoy, mourn, grow, learn, play, think, question, now.

The truth is, my life is not on a 10 year plan. I’m going moment to moment, shift to shift, idea to idea, opportunity to opportunity, each now touching the next now until it comes into being. Any other way of living simply makes me feel overwhelmed and inadequate and doesn’t honor the power I hold in the moment, to make choices, rightly or wrongly, learn, grow, feel, and take that step to the next now.

What are you doing with your right now? (besides reading this post, thank you!)

Are you at peace or do you feel stressed? What are the choices that you control to create the life you dream of? If tomorrow was new and you could be whoever you want to be, what would you do, who would you be?

What if, instead of wishing onto the days, weeks, and months of the unforeseen, we felt, experienced, enjoyed, considered, the new year as a new moment, a new day, a new promise that we may have tomorrow. At the end of every day, be it good or bad, we can lie down and if we are so lucky, get up again. Isn’t that what tomorrow is all about? Getting up, in the moment, and choosing to live in the joy, mystery, and wonder of it all.

Hello, 2014 you stranger, you.

I accept that I have no idea what this year has to bring.

I am excited about new opportunities to share love, life, and creation and thankful to be a part of it all.

I hope each of you will continue to join me on the journey.

To new tomorrows!