My Perspective: The Danger of Painting People with a Broad Brush

Trying times

The week of July 4th was difficult. For me. For my family. For the people of this country.

I was about to board a plane in Dallas when my husband texted about the targeted killing of police officers overnight. In the days before, two separate videos that dominated national headlines showed black men shot and killed. Regardless of what transpired, they were clearly victims of excessive force by law enforcement.

My plane was headed to Charleston, South Carolina.

Just over a year ago, the city was the site of a horrific mass murder: the lives of nine black churchgoers lost to the white man they prayed with seconds earlier.

Stepping up

Hairston Family Picnic
From my Dad’s photo collection. My great-grandmother is on the front row, to the far left. She and my great-granddaddy had a very large family: eleven children in all!

The reason for my trip that weekend? My family reunion. The Hairston Family Reunion, of which my dad was an avid member of the planning committee. Before he passed away, he sent me an email about his role:


“I’m going to need you to step up for me on this…”


Taking my dad’s place on the committee was a bit intimidating. I couldn’t completely fill the void he left.

I gave some input about the schedule and food, even designing the t-shirts. Our family reunion was something Dad looked forward to every couple of years. He was so proud of his family and heritage. He loved being with his “people.”

I’ve hesitated to talk about the events of that week. There are ample comments, links, and videos on Facebook already; so, I didn’t really think I had anything to add to the conversation. Honestly, what I have to say may not be profound or enlightening to everyone. I do think, however, it is important for many voices to be heard—my own and those of others.

Black-on-Black Hatred

Pillow Projects
These two pillows were the first iteration of what would become my graduate thesis project. The text on the pillows are actual quotes that were said to me in public when I was living in Chicago.

Most of the overt hatred I have encountered has been from other black Americans. I have been called a “sellout bitch” and told to “rot in hell” by full-grown adults.

Little girls told me I say my own name “like a white girl.” I’ve been labeled a disgrace for dating white men.

My first boyfriend even made fun of how few “black films” I had seen. Sorry, I haven’t seen Friday fifteen times (more like three, tops).

Now, I’m not even mad about any of this. In fact, I’m elated because it gives me so much great content for my personal artwork (find out more about my work in this recent interview).

Race ≠ Culture

What irks and disappoints me is the assumption that all black people are a certain way. “Race” is not the same as “culture.”

This experience is not unique to African Americans. Stereotypes of many Americans—Jewish, Irish, Italian, Muslim, just to name a few—have been used to classify complex groups of individuals into standardized bundles. We get painted with a particular color or style to make us easier to identify.

Native Americans, in particular, experience some of the worst aspects of this practice. Each of the 566+ sovereign tribal nations has its own languages and dialects, beliefs, food, clothing, social structures, and governance. In other words, they each have their own culture—not one collective Native American culture based on skin color or physical features.

Likewise, there is a general belief that a single “black culture” exists. If you are black, you are automatically categorized as part of that culture, whether you like it or not. Non-black people do it to blacks all the time as a means of categorization. Blacks do it to one another to point out who “doesn’t belong.” You’re either just plain “black,” or you aren’t “black enough”.

THE COLLECTIVE EXPERIENCE

People Hairston Family Reunion
Our family reunion was in Charleston, South Carolina, this year. We lost several members since our last reunion, but we still take joy in being together (kinda like that Stevie Wonder song).

My parents instilled in me an unspoken camaraderie with other African Americans.

Anytime you pass another black person, you make eye contact, nod, and say “Hello.” It is an acknowledgment of the “collective experience” as black Americans. It stems from our history in this country, going back almost 400 years. Each of us is unique, through genetics, environments, and experiences. Yet, we recognize that—outside ourselves, our homes, and are communities—we are all “black washed”. Stigmatized. Ostracized. Targeted.

Over the years, I have come to expect strangers to say something shitty to me. About my clothes, my speech, my marriage. So when I discovered that our family reunion in South Carolina was one of five black reunions taking place at the hotel that weekend, I braced for the worst. Instead, I got so many nods and “hellos” that I was caught off guard. We were all there for the same reason: to honor our linages and celebrate life. There was no gauge of blackness. We were all just… People.

The Post-Racial Myth

In my opinion, recent generations are not talking enough about race. Some institutions have even decided to gloss over entire centuries of black history as “No Big Deal.”

This suppression of “talking about race” creates huge problems. These are issues so large that it seems we are moving backwards rather than progressing.

A black president in the Oval Office has not changed perceptions. We aren’t living in a “post-racial America.” Racism still flows strong. Our lack of discussion has created an entire generation of Americans who do not understand how to deal with people that are different or have varying viewpoints. And it has made older generations apathetic to racial and socio-economic disparities that supposedly no longer exist.

Movement Towards Progress

People Hairston Family Shirts
For this year’s reunion, I designed the t-shirts with a version of the Hairston Family crest. The theme of the reunion was ”No More Than Ever”—very appropriate considering the recent events and losses.

This is where contemporary social movements come into play. In essence, these are attempts to take the collective experience that black Americans have known for centuries and put it in the public’s face. Such movements allow not only blacks, but supporters and allies of all races and creeds, to talk about race through a united front. It is nodding, saying “I feel you,” and locking arms with one another in the name of progress.

No social movement is perfect. Individuals can and will take aspects of a movement and construe them to fit their own motives. Groups will clash over what the movement really represents.

Regardless, these movements acknowledge the disparities that are still prevalent in our society. It is up to all of us to fill these widening gaps.

Let People be People

Life is scary nowadays. I worry about my brother stopping to get groceries after work. I think about my nephew driving home from school.

I dread the news of another young person of color dying because she was stopped by the wrong individual at the wrong place and the wrong time.

No one should have to fear living their life. Yet, it is the daily reality of the black American. We are tired of being black washed.

We’ve been tired for a long-ass time.

Let us move forward and just be “people.”

 

2 comments

  1. Mary Jane Mitchell says:

    Very glad to read this, Ashley. I have thought of you in connection with the recent events and wondered what you thought, but was too shy to reach out and ask. This is just wonderful. I know your father would be proud.

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