I've never met Regina McRae. We've spoken on the phone, exchanged emails, connected on social media, but we've never actually met... which means we have a typical friendship in this 2.0 world! We originally crossed paths when she came upon a piece of mine, No, White People Will Never Understand the Black Experience, which led to our connecting on Facebook, and, from there, regular interaction on various topics posted.
Given her background as a black woman from Brooklyn who built her own bakery, Grandma's Secrets (notable for being New York's only dessert delivery company), as well as authored the book, Taking The Cake, The Ultimate Cake Guide, her posts were a feisty mix of culinary insight, humorous cultural commentary, and some very unbuffered perspective on issues of race. I liked what she brought to the conversation, and was paying attention when one post in particular grabbed me.
Since last year's infamous debacle in Ferguson, MO, the specific issue of #BlackLivesMatter has been a conflicted one for many... including me. Despite being an open-minded, politically progressive person fortunate to have been raised on the principle that "all people are created equal," I found myself thrown when the hashtag made its cultural entrance. My initial response was a familiar one: "Of course, black lives matter; all lives matter." I wasn't clear why we were being asked to differentiate, to specify, as if other categories of lives didn't warrant the same emphasis. I didn't object to the hashtag, but I didn't know how to rationalize the selectiveness.
Then Regina posted something on Facebook, a response directed at someone who was obviously having a similar struggle, and, included in a longer message, was this line:
"We know all lives matter, but our country obviously doesn't! The fact that we have to put up such an obvious sign and hashtag, there's the problem right there."
Simple, direct, but right to the irony of the issue, underscoring the "ideal vs. fact" element of the debate. It struck a chord. It also triggered some thoughts on a parallel that resonated with me:
If I, as a woman fighting for women's causes, were to say to someone, "Women's lives matter" and their response was, "Yeah, sure, but all lives matter," I would immediately feel dismissed and diminished, as if my cause, my fight as a marginalized group, was being minimized. For whatever reason, that helped me understand why embracing the #BLM hashtag mattered. I had to get in touch with Regina.
I told her I wanted to have a candid conversation with her about race. I wanted to ask pertinent questions, no holds barred, and get her very specific, unvarnished perspective as a black woman living life in this United States of America. I wanted to get beyond political correctness, carefulness, or the fear of offending. I wanted the two of us to take it on.
Somehow, and despite our distance and disparate backgrounds, we quickly ascertained a kindred spirit, a mutual respect, and she was enthusiastically on board. We spent some time fine-tuning the most salient, urgent points to discuss, and what follows is Part 1 of our conversation. I'm going to share it in three parts, because we covered too much to squeeze into one post, and I didn't want to truncate any of what she had to say. I think this is an important enough conversation to lay it out in its entirety:
LDW: Regina, I'm grateful you were up for jumping into this with me.
RM: I am thrilled to be a part of it. I hope it helps. A conversation is sorely needed in this nation. Hopefully this discussion opens up new doors for more growth.
LDW: That's certainly the goal. So, let's start with your bakery, Grandma's Secrets. As a black female entrepreneur who's built a successful business in the very competitive market of New York City, you have a unique perspective from which to view issues of race. Tell me a bit about your bakery, about the racial make-up of your clientele, and what your experiences have been in building the business.
RM: My customers are diverse, and range from neighbors right here in New York, to people from all over the world who book with me to have a cake delivered to their hotel room when they come to the city on vacation. So my clients are every race, culture, and nationality, and I've taught baking classes to students from Egypt, Japan, Ireland, and Texas! In terms of building the actual business, I had no 401K to raid, no access to capital, loans, or investments from family, friends, or banks. When those of other cultures start businesses, they often have resources I didn't have; I started with $10 and nine pies, and scratched and clawed my way up. Yet, the funny thing is, I am, in some ways, a victim of reverse discrimination: when certain customers call, they want to make sure it is an African American-owned business. Apparently they don't want a peach cobbler or sweet potato pie made by someone of any other culture!
LDW: Well, I don't know if that's as much "reverse discrimination" as just good culinary sense! ☺
Given your unique position as a business owner working with a racially diverse customer base, your interactions likely cover the gamut, which, I'd guess, is helpful in gaining a wider cultural perspective. Unfortunately, many whites throughout the country don't live with such racial diversity; they don't have those day-to-day interactions. Nor do they systemically experience profiling, bigotry, and racially-motivated violence, a disparity I addressed in No, White People Will Never Understand the Black Experience. And while the media is rife with sensationalized examples of these problems, we don't hear as much about how profiling and systemic bigotry impact the lives of average, hard-working, law-abiding black citizens.
What is the singlemost essential thing you would like whites to know and understand about your particular experience, and that of others within your circle, regarding those issues?
RM: White people are normally very uncomfortable when the subject of race comes up. They are quick to point out that they have black friends, that they have never done anything overtly racist, and that may be true. But you are all recipients of privilege, whether or not you asked for it. Recognize that every day you live in a bubble of protection, the world's biggest, deepest, most secret old boys' club. You do not face discrimination in housing and employment; there are no health disparities when seeking medical attention. You are not followed in stores, nor is it assumed you can't afford to shop. You are not profiled and marginalized by law enforcement, and you are much more likely to survive a confrontation with police with not just your dignity intact, but your very life. #CrimingWhileWhite is a very real hashtag, and exposes the instances in which people of other cultures were given the benefit of the doubt we typically are not.
When you accept these benefits, and don't speak up and speak out; when you quietly accept this privilege, when it doesn't make you uncomfortable to know an entire segment of the American population is being oppressed, losing not just opportunities but, at times, their very lives, then you are complicit in racism.
LDW: But even if one is uncomfortable and does want to speak out, it's not always clear what, exactly, is needed or wanted; what is most effective, what has the potential to create real change, or is more than "do-gooding" with no real impact. And, frankly, it sometimes seems that what is done is not always welcomed. For example, an article came out after the Michael Brown incident of last year titled, I Don't Know What to Do With Good White People, in which the black female writer disparaged whites who'd expressed "empathy and outrage" by framing them as "good white people" intent on drawing attention to themselves:
"Look at me...I know that I am privileged. I am a good white person. Join me and remind others that you are a good white person too."
Commenters then chimed in about how "good white people want a cookie" or a pat on the back for anything they said or did in support of racial causes; accused them of "making it about them." Even with my aforementioned Huff Post piece, when I suggested we not judge each other for how we go about trying to bridge the racial gap, a black commenter opined:
"Black people are tired, we do not have the emotional bandwidth to worry about saying/doing the right thing because you've decided to be an 'open-minded white person.'"
Again, I can grasp the struggle as best I can, but I gotta say, I felt put off by that. It left me wondering: how are whites supposed to speak out then? What are they supposed to do with their authentic discomfort with racial injustice? What, specifically, does the black community need/want most from "open-minded whites" who are looking to participate in improving the racial climate in this country without any expectation of cookies or pats on the back?
RM: I continually borrow this quote "When those unaffected become as outraged as those affected, things will change." We need a rainbow coalition: LGBTQ, Native Americans, Latinos, the privileged and underprivileged; the Occupy Movement. We can't do it alone. We cannot make as large an impact alone as we can under an umbrella. When fighting a war, you need the rear guard, the infantry, air and sea support; troops on the ground. Remember that Schwerner and Goodman were buried with Chaney. A dead black boy did not push the Civil Rights movement to the next level; it was the deaths of the two Jewish kids that made America sit up and take notice.
I understand how tired some of our foot soldiers are, their distrust of anyone outside their immediate battleground. So if you are entering this war of ours, I suggest you develop a very thick skin. If your feelings get hurt by something said by someone in the movement, how will you handle being fired from your job for being a sympathizer? Or rejected by your family for pointing out their racism? Or evicted from your home for having community meetings and planning sessions with #BlackLivesMatter members?
This is a war we are fighting, where our very lives are at stake. If you are in, you have to be truly committed, all the way in. Not just writing an article or two, or sharing info on social media. Are you ready to get pepper sprayed at a demonstration? Or arrested as a journalist or peace observer?
Realize, our feelings are hurt on a continual basis. With every DA or grand jury failing to indict, we are reminded that we are not valued in this country we built. Yet beyond the atrocity and holocaust that was slavery, we are responsible for a majority of inventions that moved this country forward. We built the economy of this country. Slaves built Washington, D.C. and the White House. We invented the original cotton gin, which led to increased sales; invented gas masks and traffic signals; automatic elevator doors. Thomas Jennings was the first black man to receive a patent for the scouring method that became known as dry cleaning. Dr. Charles Drew, a physician, researcher and surgeon, revolutionized the understanding of blood plasma, leading to the invention of blood banks. Lewis Latimer invented filament casings for electric bulbs; Shirley Ann Jackson, the first black woman to hold a Ph.D from MIT, was a breakthrough researcher who helped develop the solar cell, touch tone phones, and caller ID. Henry Sampson is credited with inventing the cell phone. Dr. James E. West invented the microphone. The list goes on.
We contributed to this country in innumerable ways, yet our value is always undermined. We are seen as thugs: lazy and criminal-minded. So we have no energy left, as that commenter said, to tiptoe, to walk on eggshells, so that even well-meaning allies are not offended. We are shell-shocked, suffering postpartum depression from the nation we suffered labor pains for and gave birth to; post-traumatic stress from sustained combat against an insidious enemy.
What you can do is help change local laws, help push laws through congress and state houses; help do away with the grand jury system; help more blacks get elected as DAs. You can get actively involved in making public schools better so they can offer the level of education every kid deserves. You can organize and participate in community town halls so you're made aware of what blacks in your communities are experiencing. You can step outside your world to get an honest picture of the world we live in every day. You have privilege and power; use it. Then we'll have reason to believe you are our allies... without that, it's just talk and good intentions.
LDW: That seems a profound and thought-provoking place to conclude this segment. Thank you, Regina. We'll continue next week...
Photos by permission of Regina McRae.