Author: Cleo Lebron

I knew what it meant to love Harlem in the early 2000s–to be present and desiring to change nothing about how the city might rub up against your senses. I knew what it meant to walk Frederick Douglass Blvd to “two fifth” (or 125th street as someone studying a subway map might say), to watch the African women in shop windows work a head 3 at a time into braids that might as well have been crafted by machinery, to spend too much for a movie ticket at Magic Johnson theatre but make up the loss with McDonald’s and nickel candies in my bag. I remember long strolls home from school up on Amsterdam, Krispy Kremes air conditioning on hot days at the bus stop, 5 floor walk ups to visit Sofia. I remember the stink of the subway, street lights shining on the court, the air smelling like Shea butter and car exhaust and sweat and JFK french fries. Bachata and “quarter waters” at the corner store. Chinese slippers and leather blinged name belts and velour suits. Telephone chords and double dutch and the Skate Key. Adam Clayton Powell Blvd, Malcolm X Blvd, Dr. MLK Jr. Blvd, P.S. 92 Mary McCloud Bethune, P.S. 149 Sojourner Truth.

I remember the Blackness.

It’s remarkable how good and different and strangely easy it feels to be surrounded by Black people. Harlem these days hasn’t shed all remnants of who it once was but even at a quick glance you can’t avoid noticing the whiteness stretching its grasp up from where Frederick Douglass Blvd is instead known as Central Park West.  My time as an adolescent in Harlem was the only stretch of my life where I lived almost strictly among black people. Besides my time as an adult in Puerto Rico and a few years as a teen in Wilkes-Barre, PA (which was at least very noticeably generous in black population compared to every other neighborhood I ever detachedly called home) I have lived a life overrun by white people. I consider this fact somewhat of a calamity but since that cannot be undone (only considered in future decisions about where we might choose to settle) I at least can use the tools that I’ve had no choice but to develop, forged from situations that are fashioned to destroy or reform us.


Meager Portions: Making ‘diversity’ intentions impactful in the Workplace

Black peoples’ blackness is overwhelmingly confined to pockets that have been carved out by us for us. In these black spaces, both virtual and literal, black culture is created and endlessly reinvented; in these spaces every permutation of blackness takes breath. Yet there is a stark contrast between the authenticity of unadulterated black culture and the pillaged product of our dissection and consumption that we see in mixed social interactions, the workplace, and media campaigns. What is often referred to as ‘diversity’ ends up being little more than poorly executed attempts at being relatable to people who have no vested interest in relating to us. There is no care for the integrity of our representation; our demands to be seen at met with foreignly contrived renditions and mutations of what we know ourselves to be.  

Understanding how tangible or strongly implied punishments constrain the minds, souls, and hearts of black people from existing authentically without restriction , I am invested in abundant expression and representation of ourselves. Some people might call this “diversity” but I have some qualms about that; bearing witness to diversification efforts illuminates a vital need to reevaluate how meaningful and genuine representation is accomplished.

If you, reader, have spent any time in any setting that might clumsily and reactively encourage some version of portrayal of “diversity,” this is important, so pay attention.

We can’t talk about diversity in such a way that implies that a variety of tokens is enough. We have to demand engagement, we have to demand thoroughness, we have to demand a shift in the power paradigms. And what’s more, we have to demand undiluted truthfulness.

In public campaigns there is a level of awareness of target groups and reach that drives organizers to consider who might best appeal to its audiences. Too often, we see one or some black faces and accept that that is all we are going to get and it is enough.

It isn’t until we see productions entirely comprised of black people, and a variation of such, that we can even begin to feel like we might be satisfied. And while Black audiences celebrate such a representation of self, despite how flawed it may be, non black audiences either struggle to find where they fit within the enjoyment of such creations–often spilling themselves into territories of entitlement and unwelcome consumption that is the signature of whiteness– or  fail to notice them at all. This brings about an interesting consideration about what it means to be accomplish visibility without being coopted. It isn’t enough to be visible within the current power structures, we have to have the freedom to create productions that are true reflections and expressions of ourselves while also being able to assert that our authenticity itself validates and edifies it, not how well they are accepted. The goal of diversity can not be mass appeal, it has to be freedom to exist bountifully and without apologies for resisting and rejecting whiteness/maleness.

With regularity, white dominated organizations and spaces endeavor to practice “diversity and inclusion,” which is often met with eyerolls despite the desire to see such a task frankly accomplished. Generally, such efforts are characterized by familiar exercises and attempts:

A. diversity ‘training

B. diversity committee formation

C. diversifying staff

The problem with these resolutions is that they are too often marked with the same [tired] deficiencies:

A. one time or limited engagement ‘training’ (facilitated by white people, of course)

B. committee formation (without an true means of arming such a committee with real power to enact change)

C. diversifying staff (within existing power dynamics without disruption)

Regularly, these exertions are nothing more than a productions of Ally Theatre and do nothing more than put on a good show and check off laundry lists. The question then remains: what can white organizations and spaces actually do to hold themselves accountable and act on the charges they are guilty of?

A. engage in ongoing cultural competency training by people of color.*  A lifetime has been spent learning these behaviors and mentalities, and it will be a lifetime of unlearning if there is any hope of reversing it.

B. make space for the creation of spaces and platforms for PoC to express and exist authentically within current structures and separately from them. To be forced to operate under white gaze without relief (even when the gaze is supposedly non judgmental or attempting to resist functioning in entitlement) is emotional and mental violence.

C. abdicate power to people of color.* This puts appropriate people in positions to be able to create and operate with authenticity and without the need for upper [white] management approval.

But most aren’t quite willing to do that.

 

*who are invested in pro blackness/indigeneity and anti-patriarchy.

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