Sunday, September 13, 2015

Transracial: Is There Such a Thing?

People of Different Races

The recent news items on Rachel Dolezal and those on cultural appropriation have sparked many conversations among myself and friends. In those conversations people have asked,"what is the difference between race & ethnicity" and "can people be trans-racial or trans-ethnic?"  My answer is, that while one cannot be trans-racial, one can be trans-ethnic.

Race, is the identification of a group of people based on biological characteristics: physical characteristics that are transmitted from one generation to the next through DNA. One cannot change racial markers as identified by geneticists (DNA indicators).  

Ethnicity, on the other hand, is created by the characteristics taught by a people and transmitted from generation to generation through learning. That would include worldview, language, traditions, dress, music, hairstyles, communication styles, attitudinal systems, etc. Ethnicity can be learned by anyone. In fact EVERY group that immigrated to the US has become "American" by the third generation because they have adopted American English as first language, assimilated in looks, dress, attitudes, and even media use to mainstream Americans. They become American. Immigrants become trans-ethnic or fail to become upwardly mobile. Everyday groups of people adopt new ethnicities. They can change their worldview, change the way they talk, they walk, they think, and even exist.

A friend asked me, "what is wrong with Rachel Dolezal saying she is Black?" Well, there is nothing wrong with saying she identifies with Black people. But, pretending to be Black is like someone pretending to have a Ph.D. when they don't have one. I am offended by that because I worked hard to earn a doctorate and the respect that comes with it. So I am offended when people start calling themselves Dr. when they have not completed a degree program and had a degree conferred upon them by a legitimate institution (one established by the state legislature and validated by the appropriate accreditation bodies). I don't even want to hear them say, "I identify as a Ph.D."

Racial and ethnic identification lend certain credibility to experiences, narratives, behaviors, attitudes, and values.

When I talk about the trepidation of living in an area where the Confederate flag was flown, my narrative will carry more weight than that of a white person who lived under that same flag. When I talk about being followed in a store, my outrage is more understandable than that of a white person being followed for reasons other than his/her race.  When I tell a student of colour that their work is not up to par, they don't wonder if I am saying that because they are not white. I have certain street "creds".

A White person claiming to be Black has the advantage of being able to walk out of the oppression whenever they want to.

I had a friend many years ago who was white and the pastor of a church in a Black denomination. He had been embedded in the Black community for decades and had mixed children. Most people thought he was Black because he looked like many very fair Black people and families from the south.  The thing was that no matter how embedded he was in the community, how active he was for the cause, what his worldview was or any of that, when we walked into a restaurant where they were slow to serve Black people he could just get up and move to a table by himself and be served. He could apply for a job, not list himself as White and never wonder if his race would keep him from getting the job. He had choices that I did not.

Here is a set of twins, two girls born at the same time and of the same parents. One is black and one is white. Despite their shared genes and same parents they will be treated differently.

Twins Maria and Lucy Aylme of the UK

Rachel Dolezal can say that she identifies closely with Black people. That seems to be true. She adopted Black ethnic characteristics. But, she can never be racially Black, no matter who she tells herself and the world that she is.

Rachel Dolezal

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Dr. Marquita Byrd

Rachel Dolezal "I identify as Black", Can She Do That?

Rachel Dolezal has been stripped of her job, community positions,  and credibility because she lied about who she is. She has been passing as Black! When asked if she was Black in a recent interview, she answered "I identify as Black".  Her parents say she is white, but in various times and contexts, she has identified as white, mixed and Black. But, I ain't mad at Rachel because her dilemma has stimulated a great deal of conversation about what race and ethnicity mean in the political, economic and social arenas.

Rachel is right about one thing, racial identity is a complex issue.

Race is a social construct that humans use to talk about variations among human beings based on biological characteristics. Race is something that human beings made up and in reality does not exist. We all have the DNA of one woman, we shall call her Eve. Biogeneticists tell us that she hails from the Sub-Sahara of Africa or Asia and lived about 140 thousand years ago. Every single person on the planet carries her DNA in the mitochondrial part of our cells. So in fact, biologically we are one race, the human one, and we are all siblings.

Can you tell who is who?
Though there are no races of human beings, the concept of race is very powerful. We group people based on what we perceive as significant biological characteristics such as skin colour, hair texture and facial features. It dictates who we think we are, who we love, who we hate, where we live and at one point in the US it even dictated where we could be buried. Race is especially important when it comes to the allocation of resources because we determine who gets what based on it. Because we say that race is based on biologically determined characteristics it cannot be changed.

One of the first characteristics we use to identify people is race, along with gender and age. However, the fact is that visually, racial determination is extremely unreliable. There are people in every race ranging from light to dark complexions, sporting curly to straight hair, with broad to thin features.  That's why Rachel could pass so easily, because there are many African Americans who look just like her in her current presentation.

Unlike race, ethnicity is not bound by biology.

Ethnicity is determined by those characteristics or artifacts that are learned by a group of people and are taught from generation to generation. Language, values, traditions, and worldview are just a few of the things that are included in one's ethnicity. Foods, processes and even ways of thinking are part of one's ethnic group. Because ethnicity is learned, anyone can adopt or identify with another ethnicity. People come here from all over the world and become American, both a nationality AND ethnicity. 

One can change one's ethnicity within a lifetime. Learning to speak the language or dialect, adopting ways of movement and mannerisms, acquiring a different world perspective, making different food choices and even choosing hair styles can be part of choosing a new ethnicity. Therefore, I think that people can be trans-ethnic because they can learn new things.  However, while they can change all the learned things, THEY CANNOT CHANGE THEIR BIOLOGY.

Rachel Dolezal's crime is not that she changed her ethnicity, but that she lied about her race. 

It is the lie that destroyed her credibility. How can we believe anything she says, how can we accurately interpret her behavior if we don't know who she is? If she lied about her race, what other things did she lie about? Her lie even damaged the reputation and credibility of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP. They were fooled, bamboozled and it leads people to question the capabilities of the organization itself. Dolezal could have accomplished the same things she accomplished while passing for Black as her own self. Membership and leadership in the NAACP are not dependent upon race, but upon intent, purpose, capabilities and hard work. Whatever she was trying to do has been undermined or even destroyed. Lies can do that to a life.
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Dr. Marquita Byrd

White Silence is Violence: Why Whites Should Care About Oppression

White Silence

These are excerpts of a post from a news outlet in the East Bay/Oakland, CA area. Posted on June 21, 2015

Come to Lake Merritt this Sunday and join us as we make noise to honor black lives lost to racist violence. Bring an instrument, drum, keys, pots, whatever to break the silence as white and non-black American allies.

Our silence in light of tragedies like Charleston implies we are complicit with this deeply embedded and deadly racism. The time is now to demonstrate that this is not true, you do not need to be black to be outraged at the execution of humans because of the color of their skin.

This event is organized by two lifelong Oakland residents who are white and non-black allies.We believe that white supremacy is a white problem and this is a call for white and non-black allies to think about how to dismantle the system.

                                                              WOW, what a statement!

 I was proud to see such sentiments among whites in such large numbers. The organizers of this demonstration thought maybe 20 people would show up, but they were surprised to see perhaps 100. Many whites are wary of such movements because they think it means "annihilation of the write race". Some assume it means excluding or marginalizing whites. Others suggests that the slogan indicates that "all whites are racists and responsible for the oppression of everyone else." In fact the slogan, "white silence means violence", recognizes the central role that whites play in the race drama of America and that they have a central role to play in the solutions to that deadly drama. It calls them to speak out against the phenomenon of oppression in all its forms, and especially as it is manifested in the actions of racists in all of their configurations. 

People don't make major changes to their world perspectives, policies and actions unless it benefits them somehow. 

The difficulty in getting whites to participate in anti-oppression movements is that most see no benefit to themselves. And That includes ALL of us.  However, when we standby and witness the oppression of "the other" in silence, it can come back to haunt us.

Rev. Martin Niemoller
A famous German activist and Holocaust survivor, Rev. Martin Niemoller initially supported Hitler's suppression of the Communist. However, when Hitler enacted policies which suppressed religion Rev. Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor, was appalled. It was then that he saw the danger of "silence".  For his opposition to the Nazis' state control of the churches, Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945. He narrowly escaped execution and survived imprisonment. After his imprisonment  he spoke the following words in a speech in 1946 (

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me

Later his sentiments were repeated in many variations in speeches, interviews and articles by himself and others. Here is one.

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own…. For if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night." (James Baldwin, 1971, Open Letter to My Sister Angela Davis).

In the spirit of the original composition by Rev. Niemoller I offer this poem.

I was Silent When You Cried
Marquita L. Byrd

Yesterday, women asked for fair pay. I was silent because I had a living wage.
Then an outdoor citizen asked for somewhere to stay. I turned my head, didn't say a word, refused to look into her face. 

Baltimore denounced police brutality. I turned off the TV because the police weren't shooting me.
When Queers at Stonewall were beaten in the streets: I said nothing because "I thought I was free".

Disabled people shouted "this is not fair." I held my tongue because I just knew, I was already there.
Then, a mosque burned down to the ground. I was not Muslim, I didn't care.

I heard the elders had to choose, medicine or food. I was quiet because I just wasn't in the mood.
When "the other" pleaded "somebody help" I stood still, I said nothing, I refused to move.

Now, I live from paycheck to paycheck, homelessness knocking at my door. My gay child bullied at the school door. I can't get into my apartment because I can't walk the stairs, found my parents eating cat food because no food stamps were there. 

Yesterday I thought, "I'll just let everybody be". Today, I am scared because there is no one to speak for me.*

White silence means violence because whites are the largest segment of the population at about 69%. When the majority remains silent in the face of violence they, in fact, give their consent for it to continue. The social ills facing people of colour and other oppressed groups don't stay in those groups or communities. 

  • Now millions of Americans are calling for affordable housing. 
  • About 20 million are fighting hunger and near homelessness while working for minimum wages. 
  • While the government says the unemployment rate is about 5.6% that is not the lived experience of the people: millions have given up looking for work. 
  • Based on statistics from Fatal Encounters at Fast Company, there are about 1,110 police homicides per year. African Americans account for about 3 in 10 and whites account for about 5 in 10. 
  • Drugs were allowed to inundate neighborhoods of colour and now virtually every family has been negatively impacted by drug use. 
These are not "their problems" they are "our problems". 

When Whites remain silent about social ills because they are happening to people of colour, the problems still end up at their doorsteps one way or another. That is why it is important for Whites to participate in movements to fight the "isms": racism, sexism, homonegativity, ageism, religious intolerance, classism and ageism. All of these issues impact Whites more than any other group because numerically and percentage wise they are the majority of Americans. 

Whiles Whites are in the majority in 2015, according to the US Census Bureau, by 2050 they will be in the minority. The racial origins of Americans will be from anywhere other than Europe. So when Whites advocate for the rights of others they advocate for themselves. 

*Feel free to use with proper citation.
Byrd, M. (2015). I was silent when you cried. Culture chat: living in  a multicultural society 

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Marquita Byrd, Ph.D.

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Confederate Flag: Cultural Heritage or Symbol of Oppression

Confederate Flag
I can't believe I lived to see the day that the Confederate flag (CF) is going down in the South. The Confederate states, those who fought for secession (separation) from the U.S. are seriously considering or have decided to fly the Confederate flag no more. Those states include Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Texas, Florida (North of Orlando), and Oklahoma.  
The state of Missouri was a swing state that sent soldiers both to the Union, 110,000 and to the Confederate army, 30,000.  Below St. Louis went with the South, above St.Louis to the North. I grew up in the state of Missouri, the Bootheel, which is bordered by Arkansas, Tennessee and Kentucky. Several Civil war battles were fought in the state, one at Cape Girardeau, where I taught. Needless to say, Confederate flags were flown in Missouri, but not at the State house once the war was over.
Believe it or not, what is truly amazing is that big business has decided to stop selling Confederate flags and merchandise. Where corporate America goes, so goes the country. Walmart, Kmart, ebay, Amazon and Sears will no longer carry Confederate merchandise. Even Alibaba of China, a huge merchandising company, will no longer sell it. America is speaking from its pocketbook, not just mouthing words. Things in America have changed and are continuing to do so. 

Many well meaning Whites defend the Confederate flag, 
saying that it is part of the cultural history of the region 
and does not mean racism.
It is important to remember that any flag is just a symbol and symbols can only be understood through the lens of the beholders. It is necessary to recognize that the stance of the defenders of the CF is valid. To many White southerners, the Confederate flag does not mean racist. It means courage and family and good times. Understanding what it means to them is important. However, to people of colour, especially African Americans, the Confederate flag means danger and oppression.

Legalized Discrimination

Though I never saw the Confederate flag fly in Missouri,  I lived under its shadow.
I grew up during segregation (American apartheid) under Jim Crow laws. When I saw an establishment where the Confederate flag was displayed, that meant Blacks were not welcome. I knew not to go there unless I was having a serious emergency and even then I was very scared. If I saw a truck with the Confederate flag displayed on the back window I knew that meant danger: especially if it was full of white men. I made sure I got away from the truck as soon as possible or turned my eyes away as I walked by. Mind you, I saw these things often. When I see the CF flown or displayed I hear this song, Dixie, a de facto anthem of the Confederacy.
Oh, I wish I was in the land of cotton,
Old times there are not forgotten.
Look away, look away, look away Dixie Land!
Dixie, the land of cotton, where old times are not forgotten
Here's what the "old times" meant for me. I
1. could not eat in a restaurant
2. could not stay in a hotel 
3. had to drink from the colored water fountain and use the colored bathroom
    (if there were none then I had no water and no restroom)
4. paid the same as Whites for a bus ride, then got off and went to sit in the back
5. could buy a soda at the counter in the drug store, but had to go outside to drink it
We look forward to your comments.

Marquita Byrd, Ph.D.

I was Silent When You Cried

Marquita Byrd, Ph.D.

I was Silent When You Cried
Marquita L. Byrd

Yesterday, women asked for fair pay. I was silent because I had a living wage.
Then an outdoor citizen asked for somewhere to stay. I turned my head, didn't say a word, refused to look into her face.

Baltimore denounced police brutality. I turned off the TV because the police weren't shooting me.
When Queers at Stonewall were beaten in the streets: I said nothing because "I thought I was free".

Disabled people shouted "this is not fair." I held my tongue because I just knew I was already there.
Then, a mosque burned down to the ground. I was not Muslim, I didn't care.

I heard the elders had to choose, medicine or food. I was quiet because I just wasn't in the mood.
When "the other"  cried for help I stood still, I said nothing, I refused to move.

Now, I live from paycheck to paycheck, homelessness knocking at the door. My gay child bullied at the school door. I can't get into my apartment because I can't walk the stairs, found my parents eating cat food because no food stamps were there.

Yesterday I thought, "I'll just let everybody be". Today, I am scared because there is no one to speak for me.

*Feel free to use with proper citation.
Byrd, M. (2015). I was silent when you cried. Culture chat: living in  a multicultural society. 

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Thursday, June 25, 2015

Massacre in Charleston: No Words

Charleston Massacre Victims

The massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. happened six days ago, June 17, 2015. 
It has taken six days for me to respond. 

This is unusual. 

I am an African American, a woman and a College Professor. 

I always have something to say. 

But this act, this senseless taking of innocent life, has left me speechless. 

I took a look at my Facebook and thought to myself, 

"Why have I not made any posts--what the heck is going on?" 

And, then to my dismay, I realized that I felt nothing, absolutely nothing about the killing of nine innocent Black people by a white stranger whom they had welcomed into their house of worship. 

I realized that I was numb, numb, you hear me! And you ask, "how can that be?"

Well, this tragedy is just the latest in a long line of incidents involving the loss of Black life at the hands of whites during my life time. I have no outrage because this kind of horror is normal in the US.  It is a constant happening in America. 

Police killings of unarmed black people, both women and men, happen on a regular basis. 

A bomb killed three little black girls in church one Sunday morning just as I and they were stepping out of Sunday school. Blacks are still being hung in the South and harassed on college campuses throughout the nation.  

I'm all cried out, I'm no longer incredulous, no longer shocked. I am numb!

Though it seems like nothing has changed, I would be lying if I said that was true. 

Though I started my education in segregated schools in the 50's, I was in the first integrated class in my hometown in the 60's. My teaching career has been in predominately white schools from the late 70's to the present. The president of the nation is African American, our major institutions are integrated, Millennials of all races work together and socialize freely with each other and people of colour are embedded in all facets of American life.

Yes, things have changed and yet, the malignancy of racism continues to survive. 

Those who were taken by race hatred include...
  • Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd 
  • Susie Jackson
  • Ethel Lee Lance 
  • Depayne Middleton-Doctor 
  • Clementa C. Pinckney
  • Tywanza Sanders 
  • Daniel Simmons 
  • Sharonda Coleman-Singleton 
  • Myra Thompson
The fight against racism is like fighting a hydra. 
We cut off one head and another emerges. 
This time the name of the head is Dylann Roof. 

Somebody, please wake me.

While I sit here are my desk ruminating about the state of America, I can also see the stack of books and papers I need to prepare for my Fall classes. 

In just a couple of months I will step into my classrooms with one-hundred 
new, bright and shiny faces. 

Students who will look to me for instruction and guidance in both academics and life. 
They come with hope, exuberance, and expectations of a bright future. 

They come from all walks of life: all races & ethnicities, genders & orientations, ages & classes, religions & abilities. 

In the face of this teeming life I cannot teach from a state of numbness.  
But, what am I to do with it?

There are many different causes of numbness. Numbness usually arises from a lack of blood supply to an area, nerve compression, or nerve damage. It is an abnormal state and is unhealthy. 

Who do I call on to help me emerge from this numbness? 

To the people of "good conscience" of all races who walked before me on this battle field...where can I go to rest? To my quiet place, where I can take time to reflect on the good? 

How can I restart the blood supply to my spiritual heart?

By removing the blockage of race hatred and race trauma I have suffered. 
What can I do to relieve the compression of my emotions: talk to others of like mind and those who are not?

When will the psychological trauma of the Charleston massacre heal? 
Never, but it will lessen with time and I will use it to motivate me to stay on the battlefield. 

The Healing Begins

My restoration begins as I look forward to and prepare for the new semester. I am already getting excited about the prospect of teaching students, not just about the problems of our society, but about their charge to make it anew, to make it better.  I can't wait to see the sense of empowerment they gain from the acquisition of new ideas and new skills that will enable them to thrive in our multicultural nation. 

I look forward to them acknowledging their differences from and similarities to all of humanity.  And, I hope that they weave a new fabric of American life: a fabric that is resistant to the stain of racism and the destruction of life in its wake. My vision is that each and every one of us will be a strong, healthy thread in the new multi-textured tomorrow. 

Apart, we are mere threads. Together, we can weave wonders.

This is America!

Marquita Byrd, Ph.D. 
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Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Culture Chat : Who are we?

Meet the Authors
Hello Dear Reader! 

We are two College Professors who love talking about Culture. Chatting about Culture. 
There's a lot to be said about it, and since we teach Communication Studies, we thought we'd bring the two together, and stimulate your thinking about Culture in everyday life.

Join us on this journey as we make meaning of the things we share, join our Culture Chat Videos on Youtube, our regular Blog Posts here, and follow us on Twitter @culturechatshow !

Do you remember playing with LEGO blocks as a kid?

So many different shapes, colors and abilities. 

No two perfectly alike it seemed, yet they made a great set. 

And it took all of them to create something amazing. 

Missing a piece? Job is incomplete!

For a long time now, the US has been on the road to realizing it's people. 

Realizing what they are capable of, willing and able to do, and how they express themselves. For that's what people are - uniquely capable, and similar in so many ways, just different in how they express it.

Sometimes, the differences in how we express our uniqueness can rub others the wrong way. And when there are different kinds of people at work, in your neighborhood, at school or even in your family, that can make for quite a lot of friction. 

But it doesn't have to be that way.

It is with this challenge - the challenge of living in a multicultural society - that we are starting Culture Chat, a YouTube and Blog series to identify Communication challenges and solutions around Culture. 

Click on the link below to watch Episode 1!

Watch Episode 1 of 'Culture Chat' - How can we live in a Multicultural Society?

Have you ever wondered what 'Culture' means?

When a group of people share something - beliefs, a sense of right vs. wrong, a set of traditions to pass on, some rules to live by - this becomes a 'thing', a reality, a sort of Communication bubble we live in to get along. A Culture, in other words. 

With the US though, we have two interesting things happening - we have people whose parentage is from over 100 countries around the world -  AND we have individualism - where people wish to express themselves to their fullest potential, in their way

That makes for a lot of dialectic stress - push and pull - of sameness and difference, but in a good way. Our sameness as humans and US Americans binds us together, and our differences as cultural others challenges our thinking and broadens our mind. 

Neither one is successful without the other. 

 Our Goal

"What should I say in this situation?" "Is this an okay word to use?" 
"I saw this on the internet, what does it mean?"

Much of the discomfort around Culture is the doubts and misunderstandings around word usage, appropriate behavior, historical contexts and the like. 

As Professors of Communication and Culture, we hope to rest some of these doubts, create understanding and help contextualize US and World events. 

Don't know the difference between an Archetype or Stereotype? We'll talk about it.
Not sure if Race and Ethnicity are the same thing? Read about it here. 
Unsure how to deal with inappropriate behavior? There may be a solution for that too.

We welcome you on this journey of better understanding the cultural strangers in your life, including the strangers at home.