Recently I’ve been taking time to reflect, deep dive within, listen, and deconstruct truths I previously took to be self evident. While the uncertainty of being asked to return to my job from furlough or starting anew elsewhere in this economy is daunting, I have a precious gift that I will not squander – time.
These past months Sheltering in Place has been critical in our home because my wife Megan is immune-suppressed. If I bring home the virus her immune system would have a harder time fighting it and it would also risk her ability to receive the life saving treatments she needs every 6-weeks. I stay home for her.
As a visual activist, how do I get my message out there without a live audience? Being seen, heard, valued, believed has never been more important. Demonstrating humanity in the face of inhumanity is an act of defiance that must be both seen and heard. While I cannot speak of ‘the Black experience’ (as if there were only one), the power in sharing our own stories offers a bridge on which our allies can stand, honor, and value. Here are parts of my story.
My mom and dad each grew up in a family of 4 in one bedroom apartments in Brooklyn. They never considered themselves poor. Mom and dad both went to Brooklyn College. She left after her first year, prioritizing raising my oldest brother and growing our family. Dad graduated and got a job teaching at East Islip High School on Long Island. They bought a home on the promise of a salary of $10,800/year for a job he had not yet started — a 4-bedroom home with 1.5 bathrooms in Holbrook. I am filled with so much pride in who they are and all they sacrificed for the family — even if they would say that they never sacrificed a thing.
Growing up in a Jewish home I learned about the enslavement, executions, oppression, and persecution of my people before I stepped foot into a school. As I learned about slavery, executions, oppression, and persecution of Black people in my single digit years I understood a kinship amongst the disenfranchised. My earliest identification as an ally was a Black one. I was inadvertently learning the importance of intersectionality — a theoretical framework for understanding how aspects of a person’s social and political identities (such as race, class, gender identity, sexual orientation etc) might combine to create unique modes of discrimination and privilege.
In fourth grade during art class I first experienced overt antisemitism. There were 2 boys in the class who threw pennies at me and the one other Jewish kid in the class. I told my teacher and he shrugged off my complaint. Later in the semester, those same 2 boys crafted a Nazi flag with a swastika on it and paraded it over to me and Kraig. Again I turned to the teacher who not only did nothing — but gave me the only ‘C’ I ever received in my academic life despite the quality of my work. (I do mean to imply that my teacher was antisemitic, though I will never know what was in his heart.) My parents by my side, we visited the Principal’s office. I am privileged to have parents who believe me and fight beside me. The teacher received a letter in his file and I settled for a ‘B’ in art class. Though it wasn’t a sweeping victory, the activist in me was born.
My sixth grade teacher strongly influenced who I am today. Not only did he teach the class about discrimination using profound experiential lessons — Mr. LaGrega is the reason I know how to tie a four-in-hand tie (though I wish he taught us the art of the bow tie in retrospect). He invited the entire class, boys and girls alike, to learn the craft. To drive home the learning he challenged us to a competition for the best four-in-hand tie — determined by quality of knot and the back portion of the tie meeting the front in length. I won the contest and took home the coveted prize of Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust’ vinyl record. Little did he know the seeds he planted. And little did I know that he was my first gay role model.
Fast forward to my mid-twenties. I moved to San Francisco from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I may not have realized it at the time but I needed to absolutely lose myself to find me. The big gay pilgrimage lasted over 4 years.
Living in a gay mecca allowed me to discover myself in the freedom of options. “Are you butch or femme?” Somewhere in between. “Are you a top or a bottom?” I’m more of a middle. I dated a very femme woman who took me for a butch. When I showed up on a date in a dress she couldn’t make eye contact with me. She decided who she wanted me to be before even I knew. To this day I think I looked pretty in that dress — but one shouldn’t do everything one can. While I felt most me in a masculine of center style, I didn’t want to be judged by others outside of the LGBTQ community. So I dressed in GAP chic unisex attire to ‘blend in’, I thought.
Those who I feared would judge me still gave me the side-eye stare. Too gay. Too dykey. Too masculine. There was one poignant moment at a bar in the Marina district. Dressed in my GAP best I scurried to the women’s restroom. As I was exiting a straight cis woman looked me in the eye, checked the symbol on the bathroom door, looked at me again and said aloud, “Just checking.” Just checking? It made me want to reach my hands out and grab her breasts and respond, “Just checking.” I didn’t do or say that because that wouldn’t be consensual — or kind. But she did and it was unkind.
Why is it that when someone knows that they are wrong — and she clearly knew she was — they still feel like it is ok to declare what they are thinking? They must not realize the privilege they have nor how microaggression can destroy what should be held precious — our differences.
In realizing that my closets did not protect me from judgment I decided to own my story. ‘If you are going to give me the side stare anyway,’ I thought, ‘I might as well be my authentic self and be the star of the Mindy Show.’ Anyone can choose to be ordinary. I choose extraordinary. Everyone should.
Fashion is rooted in history and evolution. Visual activism is rooted in our personal stories and revolution. I used to fancy my visual activism a tool for LGBTQ community visibility — something more affirming than a secret nod and smile. What surprised me is the intersectionalism of my message — encouraging friends to become allies, strangers to smile and open their hearts (or at least their eyes), and fabulous humans to realize their spark deserves to shine brightly and not be dimmed by a world of sameness.
A few years back at work a colleague and friend of mine Jeanelle and I participated in a workshop discussion at the conclusion of that year’s Lean In mentoring program. I can’t recall the impetus for what came next but I remember the story she shared. She told the group that at previous jobs part of the dress code included how she could wear her hair. As a smart, directed, ambitious, and talented Black woman she was restricted from wearing her hair natural. Natural beauty should never be kept under wraps. She was expected to be an ordinary part of the tapestry of sameness. Jeanelle was never meant to be ordinary.
Suddenly she thanked me. “Your authenticity resonates in everything you do. You seem fearless in how you approach the world. It is because I have seen how you living your truths so boldly — and that you are celebrated for it — that I finally felt comfortable to wear my hair natural at work.” I nearly cried. This was way back when hugs were still a thing and we embraced. You never know who is watching and what they are deriving.
The other day I decided to reach out to Jeanelle and check in. I told her I see in her someone who always feel she needs to show herself as better to prove she deserves to be there. Then I just listened.
I am hopeful that we as a country can finally live up to the ideals we portray of ourselves to the rest of the world. I have spent the majority of my life being either the only or the first.
Because of that I never could afford not to be the best because I not only was representing myself but every Black person to come after me.
When I make a mistake or statement many times it wasn’t viewed as ‘this is Jeanelle screwing up.’ By others it was a reflection on all Black people.
I am hopeful that even though my children are effected by systemic racism — that my grandchildren won’t be.
However, I think when we all stand together united by our differences we take one step closer to the humanity we desire to be.
Thanks for being a great friend and for always taking time to truly dig deep and listen to understand others.
Share your story. Listen to other people’s stories and learn from those who seem different from you. You will discover so much that you share and celebrate the ways in which you are different. Be your extraordinary and authentic self. You were never meant to be ordinary.