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I’ve stopped by an infamous breakfast food chain and ordered a bottomless coffee, and a breakfast combo that comes with two fried eggs, two different rations of fried pork and bottomless pancakes.
Waiting for my order, I notice that not less than four varieties of syrup rest on the table, accompanied by salt, pepper, and a ceramic cup full of packages of sugar and two varieties of artificial sweeteners.
A whole tub of single-serve full fat creamers comes with my bottomless coffee, which I promptly sent back.
The young lady serving is massively obese, as are most of the other people who both serve and patronize this business.
And this is business as usual throughout the south, and now most of America, particularly at these sorts of times, especially in these sorts of businesses.
The joint had only been open since the top of the hour, and so I could overhear the duty manager dealing out the day’s duty rations.
As two of the team followed her around, I heard her explain that she was reserving the spillover seating section for whoever showed up “super-late.”
Knowing management speak, I heard ‘super-late’ as a shaming label used to monitor and control behavior.
I heard her punctuate these instructions by explaining that someone’s shift had started at 5:30 yet they still hadn’t shown up.
“You ok, sweetie,” the young lady breezes over and asks me casually.
“I’m fine,” I quickly replied, adding: “It’s good, too,” as if she or the cook had actually hand-made any of this meal.
They’ve each opened a prescribed set of processed-food packages, followed heavily prescribed recipes, and followed heavily prescribed orders passed down from management.
And yet I do appreciate their labour.
In my capacity, I get to sit and muse about them, while THIS is their career.
Yesterday, while sitting in another infamously southern* roadside-mass-food-chain, my uncle mentioned that he was pleased to see that young people were working at these types of places again.
“Uh huh,” I hummed agreeingly as I panned the restaurant noting the youthfulness of the staff.
Since the 90’s and certainly since the recession, these jobs had become life-long career moves, where previously these were held down by early-career part-timers.
Whether paying their way through school or training, or beefing their resumes for eventual factory employment, these part-timer jobs weren’t suitable for adults as they come with few, if any, benefits…most notably, healthcare.
Back in my bottomless breakfast, my server keeps inquiring if I’m ok as she goes about setting up the condiments and flatware for each table.
I’m the only one here, which I remark upon.
This is the south, so that remark garnered a whole commentary on her part.
She detailed when they opened and closed, and that she’d recently shifted from the nightshift to mornings, as “making $10 here and $10 there don’t cut it.”
She then added that she’d served a party of 15 who’d left her a $40 tip.
She further explained that last year she’d served at a 1-year old’s birthday party, “because they didn’t have no cake.”
By now, I’ve gotten a good look at the server and sense that she’s in her mid-twenties.
As I listen, I, of course, contemplate what sort of tip I should leave: Would it be obscene to leave a $10 tip which I could easily afford. Afterall, I had shown up in what must seem like a large, expensive, exotic European vehicle (how could she know it’s my mom’s not mine; how would she know that I’m just passing through town).
This year, she continued, they had her “second birthday party right back there,” pointing to a far corner.
Remember, all I did to kick off this conversation was remark how quiet it was at this time in the morning.
From then on, the server kept offering me little tidbits of info each time she passed by.
I hadn’t lived in the south for many years, but it was still this sort of human interaction that drummed-up home for me.
“I’m gonna go ahead and do my syrups,” she quipped as she passed each table over lightly with a dry cloth.
Then, after passing to reassure me that my next helping of pancakes was on its way, she explained that the location was under new management.
Pointing to the woman I’d overheard earlier dealing out duties and instructions, the server said, “This one’s only been here since Sunday.”
It’s Tuesday morning.
Now, I notice that the server has leaned against a nearby chair, pausing with her other hand on her hip.
It’s as if settling in to tell me a good story. She is now giving me unsolicited insider information.
I start to realize and remember just how such interactions are so disarming. She had something to say each time she was within earshot, as if mindfully managing our shared personal space.
I smile at this realization, recalling the familiarity with which people speak in Vietnam. The distance of more formal ways of being and communicating seem silly here…and there.
I am simultaneously reminded of life in Mali, where people genuinely do greet anyone nearby, referring to those in their personal space with some term of familial familiarity depending on the relationship and perceived ages like auntie/uncle, or else girl/boy-friend (teri- muso/ce), big/little- sister/brother (koro-/dogo- muso/ce).
It’s as if all of these experiences collide into the present moment, and I experience them all at once, like Dr. Manhattan.
The server then explained in detail how the previous manager had fallen ill and could therefore only show up intermittently.
Apparently, the point of all this was that they were hiring a manager, and sought someone outside the current team, because, as my server said, “We all know one another.”
“Don’t that make sense,” she said raising her brow, nodding grinningly.
“So, if you know anybody with management experience,” she said, then tailored off.
I suddenly wonder what Flannery O’Conner must have witnessed in her life and times in the dirty south.
I was on my way to grab a coffee at THAT internationally known coffee house, but passed this all-day-breakfast joint on the way.
I recalled the bottomless offers here and knew I could get more value here than a $5 Latte. Sure, I’ve got country music in the background, but at least it’s not tuned to conservative propaganda Faux News like in most other public spaces here in Alabama.
Indeed, for just a few dollars more, I’ve got access to bottomless filtered coffee and well more than any human should eat in any one sitting.
Besides, no one is in here posing, and, as I said, I got a side of free companionship.
*Infamously southern food consists of mostly fried foods negotiated in ingredients and meaning along the color line.
A Spoken Word poem for young people everywhere, esp Youth in Asia, who may never know WE LIVED before smartphones…and live to tell about it.
Walk down the street.
Find my way.
Go someplace I had previously been.
Go someplace I had previously not been.
Meet friends at a specific time and place.
Meet new people.
Meet new people without suspicion.
Strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Make myself known to a previously unknown person.
Now, everything and everyone unknown is literally described as ‘weird’.
Eat in a restaurant by myself.
Pay attention to the waiter.
Wait for my order to arrive.
Sit with others.
Listen to the sound of silence.
Listen to music.
Listen to a whole album.
Listen to the cityscape.
Overhear others’ conversations in public.
Watch kids play.
See the same picture in the same spot.
Read a book.
Read a long article.
Read liner notes.
I used to be able to stand at a urinal and focus on what I was doing,
Not feeling bored,
Not feeling the need to respond to anything that urgently.
Nothing could be so urgent that I could not, as the Brits say, ‘take a wee’.
Wait at a traffic light.
Wait for a friend at a pre-determined place and time.
Wait for my turn.
Wait for a meal I ordered to arrive.
Wait in an office for my appointment.
Wait in line.
Wait for anything!
I used to appreciate the downtime of waiting.
Now waiting fuels FOMO.
I used to enjoy people watching…
Now I just watch people on their phones.
It’s genuine anxiety.
Walk from point A to B.
I used to could walk between two known points without having to mark the moment with a post.
Now I can’t walk down the hall,
Or through the house or even to the toilet without checking my phone.
I avoid eye contact with strangers.
Anyone I don’t already know is strange.
I used to could muscle through this awkwardness.
Have a conversation.
A friend and I recently lamented about how you used to could have a conversation and
Even figure out a specific thing that you couldn’t immediately recall…
Just by talking.
I also appreciate the examples we discussed.
Say you wanted to mention a world leader but couldn’t immediately remember their name. What would you do before?
Rattle off the few facts you could recall and in so doing you’d jog your memory.
Who was the 43rd US president?
If you didn’t immediately recall his name,
You might have recalled that the current one is often called “45” since
Many folks avoid calling his name.
You know Obama was before him, therefore he must’ve been number “44.”
You know Obama inherited a crap economy and several unjust wars,
Including the cultural war against Islam. And
That this was even one of the coded racial slurs used against him: “A Muslim.”
Putting these facts together,
You’d quickly arrive at Dubya! And
His whole warmongering cabinet. And
Condi Rice. And
That whole process might have taken a full minute,
But so would pulling up 43’s name on the Google.
This way, however, you haven’t lost the flow of conversation nor the productive energy produced between two people when they talk.
(It’s called ‘limbic resonance’, BTW).
Yeah, I used to be able to recall things…
Many more things about the world without my mobile phone.
Allow my mind to wander.
Entertain myself with my own thoughts.
Think new things.
Think differently just by thinking through a topic.
I used to know things.
Know answers that weren’t presented to me as search results.
I used to trust my own knowledge.
I used to be able to be present, enjoying my own company,
Appreciating the wisdom that comes with the mental downtime.
Never the fear of missing out,
Allowing myself time to reflect.
It is in reflection that wisdom is born.
Now, most of us just spend our time simply doing:
Surfing, scrolling, liking, dissing, posting, sharing and the like.
Even on a wondrous occasion, many of us would rather be on our phones.
Not just sharing the wonderful occasion –
Watching an insanely beautiful landscape through our tiny screens,
Phubbing the people we’re actually with,
Reducing a wondrous experience to a well-crafted selfie –
But just making sure we’re not missing out on something rather mundane happening back home.
I used to could be in the world.
Now, I’m just in cyberspace.
I used to be wiser.
Last night over dinner and drinks, I spoke about race in the classroom with two white, upper-middle-class gay educators. Neither seemed (able) to make any discernable effort to understand any perspective outside their own. I had to do 100% of the emotional labour, and got 0% of the emotional reward. It was very sad how they went on the attack, using both passive and active aggression, yet had the nerve to dismiss my words as ‘victimhood discourse’. This is exactly why folks write books, articles, and blogs like ‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’.
Worse, they both had experienced homophobia in the classroom, at the hands of both students and parents. Nonetheless, they had no ability to contribute to the emotional labour taking place as we spoke about race. Even worse, the one in charge of other educators had only 24 hours earlier performed the classic micro-aggression against me: The brown blur. He walked right past me at our initial meeting as I extended my hand introducing myself while mentioning the mutual friend who’d connected us because, as he said, he was “expecting” to see a white face. He was the one to raise that incident, yet literally threw his hands in the air, nodding his head dismissively as he refused any responsibility for the potential harm caused.
“I’m an adult,” I pled, explaining the difference between me facing those sorts of aggressions, versus the young people we all educate. This all fell on deaf ears. Even worse still, he’d only moments earlier asked me to help him understand why the only Black kid in one of his classes called himself a “real nigger.” Before that, he had asked me to comment on removing the N-word from historical texts used in the classroom, similar to the 2011 debate about erasing the N-word and “injun” from Huckleberry Finn, first published in 1884. According to the Guardian, nigger is “surely the most inflammatory word in the English language,” and “appears 219 times in Twain’s book.”
Again, he rejected my explanations as “victimhood.” He even kept boasting about his own colorblindness – a true red flag! Why ask if you cannot be bothered to listen to the answer, I thought bafflingly? Even worse, rather than simply stay silent – which would have been bad enough – the other educator literally said to him “This is why I don’t get involved in such discussions with him.” They accused me of making race an issue with my students, insisting that their own learning environments were free of racism, sexism and homophobia.
They effectively closed ranks. They asserted the privilege of NOT doing any of the emotional labour of deep listening. Neither seemed capable of demonstrating understanding for the (potential) harm done when they dismiss the experiences of others, particularly given our differing corporealities. I thought of the “Get Out” scene in the eponymously named film.
“Do you have any Black teachers on your staff,” I asked knowing the answer. OK, I might have said that sarcastically. Yet, it was clear that there were no Black adults in his life with whom he could pose such questions; he was essentially calling upon me to answer his litany of ‘race’ questions.
Armed with mindfulness, I was able to get them both to express how their own corporeality impacts their classroom work. For example, one of the educators had come out to his middle-school students when confronted by their snickers when discussing a gay character in a textbook. “You have to come out,” I said, whereas I walk in the classroom Black.” Further still, they both fell silent when I pointed out that unlike either of them, my hips swing like a pendulum when I walk into the classroom. Many LGBTQ+ people are not ‘straight-acting’ i.e. appear heteronormative, as did these two. They lacked self-awareness of their own privilege and didn’t have any tools to comprehend intersectionality; this discussion clearly placed them on the defense.
I say, 100% of the emotional labour and none of the emotional reward, yet this is actually untrue. I bear the fruits of my own mindfulness readings. I see that I suffer less in those instances than previously. I rest in the comfort that though understanding didn’t come in that moment, future dialogue is still possible. As bell hooks says on the first page in the first chapter of her groundbreaking book Killing Rage: Ending Racism: “…the vast majority of black folks who are subjected daily to forms of racial harassment have accepted this as one of the social conditions of our life in white supremacist patriarchy that we cannot change. This acceptance is a form of complicity.” I accept that it was my decision to talk to these white people about race.
I reminded myself that I had foreseen the micro-aggression that he had committed the previous day when we first met. A mutual friend had hooked us up online upon his visit to this city in which we now live. I doubted that she’d mentioned my blackness. Nonetheless, I had taken the chance of being the first to greet our guest, realizing that I am in a much safer space both in terms of my own mindfulness, as well as the privilege I had asserted in coming to live here in Hanoi; I came here precisely because I face such aggression so irregularly in Vietnam that these incidents genuinely stand out.
Eddo-Lodge, R. (2018). Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.
Hanh, T. (2013). The Art of Communicating. New York: HarperOne.
hooks, b. (1995). Killing rage: Ending racism. New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc.
Over the years, in my line of work, there was a conviction, that logic as the prevailing force allows us to see social situations around (im)passionately, impartially and fairly. Principles most important especially for anyone who dwells in social sciences. We were “raised” on the ideologies that promote inclusivity, justice and solidarity. As a kid, I remember when we marched as a family against nuclear proliferation, and later as an adult I marched and protested for civil rights on the basis of sexuality, nationality and class. I took part in anti-war marches and protested and took part in strikes when fees were introduced in higher education.
All of these were based on one very strongly, deeply ingrained, view that whilst the world may be unfair, we can change it, rebel against injustices and make it better. A romantic view/vision of the world that rests on a very basic principle “we are all human” and our humanity is the home of our unity and strength. Take the environment for example, it is becoming obvious to most of us that this is a global issue that requires all of us to get involved. The opt-out option may not be feasible if the environment becomes too hostile and decreases the habitable parts of the planet to an ever-growing population.
As constant learners, according to Solon (Γηράσκω αεί διδασκόμενος) it is important to introspect views such as those presented earlier and consider how successfully they are represented. Recently I was fortunate to meet one of my former students (@wadzanain7) who came to visit and talk about their current job. It is always welcome to see former students coming back, even more so when they come in a reflective mood at the same time as Black history month. Every year, this is becoming a staple in my professional diary, as it is an opportunity to be educated in the history that was not spoken or taught at school.
This year’s discussions and the former student’s reflections made it very clear to me that my idealism, however well intended, is part of an experience that is deeply steeped in white men’s privilege. It made me question what an appropriate response to a continuous injustice is. I was aware of the quote “all that is required for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” growing up, part of my family’s narrative of getting involved in the resistance, but am I true to its spirit? To understand there is a problem but do nothing about it, means that ultimately you become part of the same problem you identify. Perhaps in some regards a considered person is even worse because they see the problem, read the situation and can offer words of solace, but not discernible actions. A light touch liberalism, that is nice and inclusive, but sits quietly observing history written in the way as before, follow the same social discourses, but does nothing to change the problems. Suddenly it became clear how wrong I am. A great need to offer a profound apology for my inaction and implicit collaboration to the harm caused.
I was recently challenged in a discussion about whether people who do not have direct experience are entitled to a view. Do those who experience racism voice it? Of course, the answer is no; we can read it, stand against it, but if we have not experienced it, maybe, just maybe, we need to shut up and let other voices be heard and tell their stories. Black history month is the time to walk a mile in another person’s shoes.
 A very rough translation: I learn, whilst I grow, life-long learning.
If you go to Freshers’, you will probably think this is for White people. But you’ve got to occupy your space. Better get used to occupying your space now because you’ll have to fight wherever you go, university or otherwise. Don’t let that deter you from your goals but more vitally, don’t let anybody make you feel bad about yourself. Don’t be silent in the discussions on slavery or the prison system. Use your voice, a sonicboom in the seminar. Don’t be mute to appease the White fragility of your peers, or even your lecturers and personal academic tutors.
You worked hard to get here, so occupy your space. Fill these spaces with jollof rice and jerk chicken and calypso and steel drums – the guts, determination and sheer willpower your parents and grandparents had when they arrived all those years ago. Don’t ever feel that you have to dilute your opinions for White consumption, or tell bitesize histories for the masses. In that Business class, talk loud about the Cheshire and Lancashire cotton mills written in the blood of African-American slaves.
Students, you might get lecturers that call you angry, who will have a hard time coming to terms with their own prejudice and White privilege. You will see that within a few weeks of studying. But keep your head down and think about graduation. Come and speak to me at the Students’ Union if you have any worries or just want to vent. Sometimes it’s just about finding solace in someone that gets it. Cry into that cheeky Nando’s. Buy that weave. Write a damn good assignment and prove all the naysayers wrong.
You will also find lecturers that are willing to listen to your experiences of racism and prejudice. They will implore you to write a dissertation that’s personal to you. You will find lecturers that give a shit, and will stand by you to the very end – who will say it’s absolutely fine to lace your dissertation with personal history – roots, rocks, and rebellion – academic staff that are activists in their own right (but will never openly admit it!)
Write about the politics of Black hair. Write about the Windrush Scandal or the legacy of colonialism on the Black body, or even Black men and mental health. Write every assignment for your aunties, who live in headwraps, talking in Twi and give you sound advice. Write in ruthless rebellion to the White Eurocentric reading of your degree, break the colour bar in style!
You will likely not relate to your course content. You will find it reflects the experiences of White people. No Afropean stories. No love for Sarah Forbes on History, or the Slave Trade cases of the 1700s on Law – the cases that helped forge the legal profession into what it is today. Or even the racial theories of the 18th and 19th century that we living in the remnants of – not Edward Long’s History of Jamaica nor the Black writers that top bestsellers lists. Write about a decolonised curriculum and inclusive course content.
When your lecturers make no allusion to American Slavery when you study the Industrial Revolution, give them the evilest evils you can muster. And challenge them on it. Leave them shook. Educate your “woke” White friends on why this is important. And when it comes to race, don’t feel you need to talk about race just because you’re the only non-White person in the class.
When you come to university, you will feel the urge to be someone that you are not just to fit in. BE YOU. You will try studenty things. JUST DO YOU. You’ll go out drinking, even if you don’t normally drink. You will join every society at Union Day and your emails will be chocka block. You’ll change your accent and “be friends” with people you dislike to conform to social norms. You will then admit you hate going out out and prefer a good book, or one of my poetry nights or just a chat with good people in your halls.
Tell yourself “Black is beautiful.” You know it, I know it. But there are people out there that’ll try to make you feel bad about your culture, as is life. Come back to campus in January with that Angela Davis afro, or be a dreadlock rastaman. Play cricket, like Jofra Archer or play football like Raheem Sterling. And, your hair is not an exotic specimen to gawked at and touched like a museum exhibit. Remember, say no. No means no. Always.
Black students, walk with pride. YOU DO YOU. Be united. You’ll see quickly that there are forces that are waiting for you to make a mistake. To fail. To point the finger. You’ll see quickly that failure is racialised and that failure in a White person is not as bad. You’ll see that we live in a society that doesn’t include you in its definition of beauty standards. So girls, when someone says “You’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl,” pay them no mind. Find beauty in your melanin. Find your tribe. Sisterhood is paramount.
When someone asks “Where are you from?” – it’s fine to say London or Milton Keynes or any British town or city. You do not need to entertain them when they ask “Where are you really from?” You can be British and African. You can be British and Caribbean. You belong here. You can just be British. And that is also fine. Previously, you’d not have found events that represent Black people or felt inclusive. But my philosophy is “Black History Month is every month, 365 days a year.” October, November forever. See me!
Listen, you might be made to feel conscious of your otherness and not everyone will get your “I Am Proud of My Blackness” mentality. Not everyone will understand the nuanced politics of Blackness at Northampton. That even in inaction, the supposed “woke” White people are still complicit in racism. And remember it isn’t YOUR JOB to explain what is racist and what is not. Do not take on that emotional labour. You are not the mouthpiece for Black people, and you don’t have to be.
You will have days where you will say “I hate this town, I want to go home – there is no culture and nothing to do” but Northampton can work for you. There are other communities of African and Caribbean here where you will be welcomed with rice and stew. You will find family and community.
And you are not alone. There are a lot of us here. Build communities. Join the resident ACS (African-Caribbean Society). Empower yourselves. Come to see me, as your Student Union representative. Look after each other. Be good to yourselves and one another – and above all, enjoy it.
Vice President BME
Northampton Students’ Union