Layla-Saad

Stop Silencing Women of Color

Image from Layla Saad’s original FB post

Yesterday morning, I read a Facebook post to Pearl over breakfast.

Layla Saad, a brilliant writer, speaker, mentor, and guide whom I feel lucky to have connected with over the past year through social media, had shared a photo of her eight-year-old daughter’s favorite new doll, a doll that looked like HER, with brown skin and natural hair. Her daughter had excitedly brought her new doll to school to show her best friend, who is white.

Her friend’s response? The doll looked “scary.” Layla’s daughter was crushed.

Layla’s original post began with a plea to white parents, to teach our kids about racism.

Well, the same post of hers was blocked on Instagram. Someone reported her, and Instagram sided with the complaint.

Layla shared a screenshot of that post — the blocked one. That, too, was reported as “inappropriate content” and blocked. She wrote about all of this here on Facebook.

Do you see it coming? She was reported and banned from Facebook for 24 hours.

BLOCKED AND BANNED.

That is what the invisible powers that be will do with women of color who are sharing their everyday, lived experiences of racism. They are not making this shit up, but there are plenty of white people who feel “attacked” by these “offensive” posts.

You know what’s offensive? Denial. Coddling. Defensiveness. And actively silencing those who are sharing their pain and anger and frustration and truth.

This morning, I told Pearl what happened, how Layla had been blocked and then banned. I told him why I was so angry and explained as best I could why “reverse racism” is not a thing. I told him I was going to post something about this today, because to sit by and watch as women of color get silenced — by white women, by women who are more concerned with defending themselves or feeling hurt or misunderstood or with “protecting” their kids than they are willing to acknowledge that racism is real and constant and exhausting and violent in everyday ways — is to be complicit.

Pearl said: What if you get blocked, too? And: So why don’t you stop using Instagram and Facebook?

That’s a risk I am fine taking, I told him, adding that the chances of my getting blocked are exponentially lower — because I am unjustly protected by my whiteness.

Given not currently having another way of connecting with so many people, I will stay here. But I will stay here and use my privilege in this space in every way I can, to speak out against white supremacy and oppression.

It’s insidious. Clearly the powers that be behind the scenes  represent and favor white voices and cater to white fragility. Otherwise, why would they ban people of color for saying THIS IS REAL?

Fellow white parents: It is our responsibility to believe women of color when they tell us something is not right. When they tell us to stop. When they tell us to listen. When they tell us they’re angry. Don’t ask them what we can do. Ask each other.

We need to be making noise about this. It might not make you the most popular parent in the schoolyard, but fuck popularity. Really. If we don’t teach our kids about their privilege, about the harm perpetrated and perpetuated and permitted in the name of whiteness and under cover of whiteness; if we don’t teach them that it is both personal AND systemic; if we don’t teach them to be awake to their responsibility and aware that their friends of color are living a very different experience than theirs, one where having a doll that looks like you is special, one where you have to pay that much more attention to how you talk and what you wear and where you go and who you’re with; if we don’t name these things and teach our kids, we are failing.

I may lose friends as I become more vocal about this, but you can’t unsee it once you see it, and it is everywhere. It’s not enough to love Obama and Oprah and go to the Women’s Marches and say we’re angry or that’s terrible or I’m so sad, not all white people, but I’m not racist, my kid would never do that.

Layla Saad did nothing wrong. NOTHING. And yet she was banned from this space. Silenced.

Where can you speak up? Whether it’s at the kitchen table or at the PTO meeting, on social media or at the bus stop while you’re chatting with other parents. This will not stand and it has to stop.

* * *

Layla Saad’s Original Post

White parents, please teach your kids to not be racist.

My 8 year old daughter took one of her new dolls into school today to show her best friend (who is white). My daughter was really excited about showing this doll to her best friend because 1) the doll’s name is Mia (and my daughter’s name is Maya) and 2) the doll’s hair looks just like my daughter’s when she wears it out. She was excited that I had found a doll that looks like her and thought her best friend would share in her joy.

When I asked her after school if her best friend like the doll, she looked ashamed and said No. I asked why. She said, “She said She looks scary.”

😡😡😡

So help me God, it took everything inside me not to say wtf. I told her:

“That is racist. This doll is beautiful, just like you. And you tell your friend, if she thinks the doll looks scary then that means she thinks you look scary. Tell her what she said was unkind, and if she says it again, she’s going to have to deal with me.”

My daughter is 8 years old and she had her #blackgirlmagic instantly drained out of her by her white friend who thinks natural hair looks scary. If this doll had been white with straight hair, her friend would not have said that. She is conditioned by virtue of her whiteness to view black features as scary. Even though her own best friend is black. Even though they are in a school of mixed expatriate students from all over the world. She still thinks black = scary. Not because she is a bad kid. But because the conditioning of white superiority starts so young.

All the work that I did in building up my daughter’s self-esteem as a beautiful black girl was undone by this one statement: “I don’t like your doll. She looks scary.”

All the work I did in affirming my daughter as a beautiful black girl by getting her this doll is unraveled because of the white gaze.

Whatever excitement my daughter had about getting this doll is now gone. Because of this one statement, my daughter is now looking at this doll (and herself) with shame.

This is what whiteness does. This is why I stay mad.

* * *

Steps You Can Take Right Now

  1. Support Layla Saad as a patron.
  2. Contact Facebook Support.
    Ask them to reinstate Layla’s posts or provide a detailed explanation why not if they won’t.
  3. Share this post or write your own. As Layla wrote today on Instagram: “SHARE what is happening with your communities. Post about it and get the word out. This isn’t just me. This happens to people of colour who speak on social justice issues ALL THE TIME. It needs to stop.”
  4. White parents: TALK TO YOUR KIDS.
  5. Share in the comments other steps you are taking to actively dismantle white supremacy.

* * *

Update: Friday 1/19

Facebook called the removal of Layla Saad’s posts accidental and “a mistake” for which they apologized. As if. Meanwhile, they’re still blocking her Rules of Engagement post, where she outlines very clear guidelines and boundaries, particularly for white people who want to engage with her on social media.

Part of what makes white supremacy so insidious is that we’re all swimming in it, but privilege, by definition, gives me a choice. I can close my eyes. I can choose whether to talk to my kids. Layla’s daughter didn’t have that choice when her friend called her doll scary. When her excitement was deflated in the stroke of a single word.

Being a member of a dominant group isn’t about guilt or shame or tears and outrage — these are expressions of centering and fragility, both words that have become much more prominent on my radar over the course of the last year, with good reason.

Opening your eyes underwater can sting, but it is the only way.

Keep listening hard, looking inward, and speaking outward. Awareness and learning and action aren’t linear; they can and must happen simultaneously.

We have to keep believing women of color when they tell us what’s happening.

Layla-Saad

“The giving season is over”

Flipping around the car radio,
these five words caught my ear.
I’d like to think there was more to it,
we’re not always privy to context.
Benefit of the doubt says
sometimes we’re moving too fast
to hear the rest, missing the crucial
thing that was said just after,
not seeing how it turned out,
that sad phrase, that tense moment,
that terse exchange you glimpsed
in passing.

But benefit of the doubt is tired.
It’s so tired. It’s tired and it’s pissed
that we’re living in a time and place
where context is too smart
for the powers that be, where
to listen deeply is laughable,
something only elitists do,
where our so-called president
calls Haiti and the entire African continent
“shithole countries,” suggesting we open
our doors to more Norwegians instead.
American, Aryan — splitting blonde hairs
of wholesome, pure specimens of superiority.

The giving season is over.
There is only taking now.
Taking land, taking language, taking health
care, taking names, taking neighborhoods,
taking schools, taking deep breaths
to keep ourselves sane while they take
and take take take, taking turns
with shallow apologies, taking families,
taking compassion, taking humanity,
taking intelligence, taking diplomacy,
taking kindness, taking depth, taking
whatever they want, like they always have,
and spitting in the faces
of anyone who doesn’t look like them
or come when they call.

Angry? Yes. I’m angry.
Am I frightened? Beneath everything, yes.
The giving season is over —
I heard it myself today on the radio.
My own dark curls and speckled eyes
don’t fit the profile, though I can hide
behind my rosy cheeks and pale skin.
Mind goes to trains, ships, all the methods
of death transport by the millions.
Bodies that don’t conform, minds that don’t
conform, families that don’t conform,
art that doesn’t conform, leaders
who come in so many forms confronting
daily a thousand small atrocities adding
up to something like genocide,
something like ethnic cleansing,
something like eugenics, something like
the most sinister tactics of decimation
history has seen.

Here we are again, in this place where
the giving season buckles under the weight
of so much taking.
I want to say: Rest, let me carry something
of yours here, let me take your weight
for a moment, don’t let them break you.
Instead, I wonder how long I can hold on
before the ugliness starts to ruin me.
I say I won’t let that happen.
And I wonder if it’s true.

Layla-Saad

On Being a Mensch

Metal Art by Jon Grauman

This morning, I’m thinking about how we are steeped in a culture that worships saviors and skewers villains, that rides into the sunset on a high-horse of good guys and bad guys.

The great American narrative rests on oversimplification, which by definition erases and denies whole swaths of experience and truth.

Celebrity and consumer culture get in bed together to back this up, and they both rely on us thinking we’re not enough and/or our lives are something to improve or escape.

Writing, art, and leadership that ask more of us, that mirror our capacity to grapple with truth and nuance, are more critical and life-giving than ever.

Who or what calls forth and mirrors your multifaceted brilliance, your innate complexity, your ability to think intelligently and act conscientiously?

Who or what banks on your reactivity or self-loathing?

Who or what feeds on your inclination to judge and condemn?

Who or what preys on hero-worship and wins every time you abdicate personal responsibility?

In Yiddish, the word mensch — something we think of as an exceptionally “good” person — simply means “person.” And to truly be a person, a mensch, requires a degree of self-reflection, awareness, integrity, and discernment.

Today I’m going to pay attention to what I’m paying attention to. Where am I choosing — and where am I asleep?

Layla-Saad

Pa’lante

A man is fighting for his freedom, his family.
He sits just there: A red chair, a church basement.

Estas luchando para tu vida, para tu familia — 
the documentary filmmaker asks him to sit up
a little straighter. Look directly into camera.

Con la ayuda de dios, todo se puede…
With God’s help, everything is possible —

Forward is the only direction, there’s no going back.
But this government, this backlash — backwards
is its middle name, its blind bigotry, its rallying cry.

While speaking of the sanctuary community,
he says words like valiente, those fighting

for the paperless. We are not alone in this fight.
Your role — a meal, a ride, cash in an envelope,
lawyer’s fees or a week’s worth of groceries —

these are no smaller than the coffee beans
he picked in Chiapas, the weeds he pulled

from your front lawn. Raise your voice,
raise your right hand, swear on everything
you claim as holy and right and human.

“We are a family of faith, we haven’t hurt anyone –”
my Spanish is still able to grasp these truths,
as is my heart and — I can only hope — my poems.

* * *

Learn more about Lucio Perez.

Layla-Saad

The Poet’s Role in a Crumbling Democracy

Clearly, a little permission is a dangerous thing.
Tess Gallagher

The key was to go through with it, without needing to consider any deeper meaning. To act, trusting that if I wanted to extrapolate later, that option would be available to me. I’m referring here to reading a poem in public, not at an open mic or organized event of some kind, but spontaneously, without an announcement.

“Go through with it” is a phrase I discussed that day in October with Luping, the grad student from China I met one year ago and sit with on a weekly basis for English-language conversation. Over slices of pizza, I told her I was considering reading a poem at a coffeeshop, but that I was nervous and hadn’t decided yet. She egged me on, saying, “It is crazy but will be very interesting!”

When we finished eating, we walked over to Amherst Coffee. Jazz piped in from the speakers and I knew I wouldn’t be able to read loudly enough over the music, so I decided to run my idea by the barista. He promptly said, “There’s no one here with the authority to sign off on that,” and returned to pulling espresso shots.

At this point, we’d bumped into a friend, who happened to be in that month’s Dive Into Poetry group — the nexus of this crazy idea in the first place, as the week’s assignment was to play with “guerrilla poetry,” i.e. spreading poetry in unconventional ways in the public sphere. Lisa was with her son, who happens to speak fluent Chinese; he and Luping struck up some conversation while I looked on agape. I took this as a sign to persevere, and we the four of us decided to give it one more try, this time at Starbucks.

I recognized one of the baristas right away, a young woman with whom I’ve discussed tattoos and have a friendly rapport. “Oh, cool!” was her immediate reaction, and we waited nervously while she went to ask her supervisor. I felt mildly disappointed in myself for asking permission at all, convinced that the great guerrilla poets would do no such thing (not to mention polling Facebook friends about the odds of getting arrested, though admittedly I wanted to make sure I’d be home for dinner). She emerged from the back office with a thumbs up and a big smile: “Green light!”

And so I began, without so much as an “Excuse me, everyone” or “Hi, my name’s Jena…”

No, I just read the first line of the poem, then the next. A hush fell over the space as I kept reading, and I made a point of looking in both directions, noticing how some people were watching, others looking down at their papers or phones, but aware that there was no way not to be sharing this experience.

I wasn’t doing this for 15 minutes of anything, more as a personal challenge to recognize that what we think is scary is often eminently do-able, that we won’t die by pushing ourselves out of comfort and complacency, and yes, perhaps on a broader level to explore questions of safety more broadly, and complicity. What began as something purely creative and fun, a way to shake myself up a bit and perhaps insert some poetry into public spaces, became a window into consciousness on a more urgent level.

To read a poem in a Starbucks in a college town, even a politically leaning one, did not require much consideration. But lines like these, from my poem, All Hands on Deck

we can’t sit down
while the laws are quietly made
and trains roll steadily in

in a different context, could result in arrest and imprisonment.

We could look back 100 years to dissident poets such as Osip Mandelstam in Stalin’s Russia, but sadly, there’s no need to time travel when it comes to poetry being criminalized when it’s perceived as a political threat.

Take Palestinian poet Dareen Tatour, who is currently under house arrest by the Israeli government, accused of inciting violence and “igniting terrorism” after posting her poem “Resist, my people, resist” on YouTube. Or Yemeni journalist Afrah Nasser, who was initially denied a Visa to the U.S. to accept an a Committee to Protect Journalists award.

I’m thinking here of KKK members marching with tiki torches and calls for “blood and soil,” a Nazi slogan. I’m thinking of political protest, performance art, and hate speech.

Who decides what’s what? What is a poet’s role in a crumbling democracy? What does it mean to wake up, to rise up, to shake each other out of stupor, to incite not violence but communication, and to stand up to elected officials who are actively eroding human rights at every turn?

My little experiment yesterday carried little to no risk. In fact, some people even clapped when I finished reading my poem, and one man approached me afterwards to say thank you. “People like you are really making a difference,” he said.

But here’s the thing: If I am to move my writing more into a political sphere — a periphery I’ve circled and danced inside of for as long as I’ve been writing — I have an obligation to do so in a way that calls attention not to myself but to those who really have something at stake.

People like Lucio Perez, a 35-year-old Guatemalan man who has been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years and is facing deportation, while he and his family take sanctuary in a church right here in Amherst, Massachusetts, and DeAndre Harris, who was badly beaten by white supremacists in Charlottesville this past August, and is now facing felony charges of “malicious wounding” of his attackers.

As poets and writers, it’s our responsible to call attention in any way possible to these assaults on human rights.

I do not have the legal knowledge to parse out the complexity of the first amendment, but I do know that those of us with less at risk need to step up and make noise — in whatever platforms are available to us — about the egregious erosion of what we claim to hold as universal rights to personal safety and freedom of expression.