Celebrating Black Voices: Ashy is NOT Classy….Have a Seat

Hello All,

I hope you took these first few days to do some introspection on where you find yourself this Black History Month. I hope that when you took time to do that introspection you found you had grown in your understanding on race, equity and diversity.

Now that we got that out the way... this Black History Month I wanted to start off swinging. I want to go deeper into what it means to be Black and to address some issues that I think needs to be aired out as we start having regular conversations about race, diversity, gender, inclusion and intersectionality. Today I want to share with you an element of Black cultural life (The Culture) - the ever dreaded and terror inducing accusation of ashy-ness. This is a topic, like colorism, that I am cautious about writing about as it is an aspect of Black life in which a word holds multiple meanings - one very noticeable and the other slightly more complicated to explain.

Before I dive in I want to share why I have decided to hit this issue. We are only 10 days into Black History Month and I find myself at folks throats this year, in my personal life. While this pandemic has shined a light on many of the issues that communities of color have been shouting out to the world for years, it has also brought out some of the worst in people. I've found that now there are folks who maybe learned a few terms like what CRT or BIPOC stands for, or learned that racism manifests in many different ways or found out the Rosewood and Tulsa Race Massacre are not just Hollywood movie plot devices and sadly think these limited exposures now qualifies them to speak on all elements of race, Black life, Black circumstances and offer opinions on how they would handle situations. While sometimes these responses are well thought out and have come after deep research and reflection, more often than not I have noticed they are still deeply rooted in what they believe is the American truth based on their own personal lives. Black issues and elements of our history effects the lives of Black people today, they are not just scholarship.  We are not living in the post racial society that President Obama's election was supposed to be a sign of. If anything, things got worse when it came to race as American politics swings back and forth often. This truth has been hard for some folks to grasp and I have seen a resurgence of outdated thinking and beliefs remerging. In my personal life that has equated to me "re-educating" people that I encounter on forums on welfare, the prison industrial complex and how race has influenced education and it is exhausting. As I often find myself just throwing facts, links, papers at people and saying just read and be silent.

However the pandemic gave us an opportunity to begin to have conversations about race in ways we haven't done since the 1960s. I see this as a positive in many ways but it also shows how much or how little many of us know. This unfortunately becomes a problem when we have to make decisions and have hard conversations that lead to actions as folks are often reluctant to admit they are wrong or don't know the root causes for things. Yet the more pressing concern is I see folks jumping into conversations that they aren't ready for or should not have a voice in to begin with. Often these conversations I speak of are going on between Black people or a subset, such as Black men. I have been privy to these and found myself policing and silencing voices at times because they take away from the larger discussion that Black people are trying to navigate.

A recent example is a conversation Black men were having on interracial dating. As a Black woman I was interested in seeing the discussion because I am Black and in an interracial marriage myself. However the conversation was often derailed from them being able to express their feelings for individuals who wanted to center themselves by asking questions that could have been answered by a Google search or may have been revealed if they had just taken the lead many Black women watching the conversation were doing which was to say nothing but *following*.

So today I want to converse with you all regarding when NOT to engage.

The Sting of Insult

For Black readers I have probably invoked an immediate response by merely whispering the word...ash. Simultaneously for any Black person who has grown up in America (and in many other areas of the Black diaspora) they probably immediately started looking at their skin in a panic and then began a mental recount of their actions in the last several hours or days. There is nothing more horror-inducing than being accused of being ashy in the Black community.

Ok, so I know for many of you the confusion may have already set in. What is the big deal about needing lotion? Everyone should have a skin care plan that includes dealing with dry skin. Then again perhaps you watched the episode of "Black-ish" which was talking about being ashy and was trying to get a better understanding of what being ashy means. Then again, for those who have been able to observe the word ash being tossed out in a forum, on the street you may have an idea about where this blog is heading but not a clear understanding of all the nuisance.

Before we go any further, if you ever see a group of Black folks in a public or online forum and the word ash has been thrown out and you are not Black, please do not comment on that insult. The conversation has turned from an open conversation to one that is an internal struggle and your contributions may not be appreciated even by the person you are defending. Think of it like how if you have a sibling, part of a larger community you don't always mesh with or a cousin you never really liked and you fight constantly. Then imagine the second someone else jumps, with no context about what the argument is about, and is saying things that may be insulting to that person but also being connected to them is also insulting you. What is the natural response?  You may turn on them, because they are meddling in your business. That is pretty much the same thing. If you see the word "ash" it should be a dog whistle you are watching an active dragging happen. Best advice: slowly back away from the computer or, as I recall hearing in my childhood, sit down and watch "someone is 'gon learn today".  Also, if you see the phrase "I got time"... please note that Black person does NOT have time today and is making a special exception to drag someone to filth. My advice don't let that person be you, be silent, and learn.

The Drag

Perhaps if you follow certain folks on "Black Twitter", which is a loose mini-network of the Black cultural community, you may have seen a drag. Additionally, you can find Black spaces in many other social media platforms especially if you use hashtags and I can say that drags happen on Facebook, Instagram, Kik, Clubhouse and many other platforms.  Often the draw of bearing witness to these communities is an interest in what topics are trending in the Black community for either marketing, political or entertainment reasons.  There have been many hashtags such as #IfTheyGunnedMeDown or #OscarsSoWhite that have garnered action and discussion that has gone beyond its original scope of being "Black conversations".  Social media has allowed many Black folks a way to find like-minded individuals, forge a deeper sense of community especially in areas where there are smaller Black populations and a deeper sense of connectiveness to what it means to be Black and share a common experience such as during the #AskRachel thread that began after the fall out of Rachel Dolezal's exposure that she was "Blackfishing".

The conversations online in the Black community range from light-hearted, to calls for full out cancels. Now let me be clear, cancelling is nothing new in the Black community. I have friends whose parents "cancelled Christmas" back in 1989 (usually for some infraction) and they still aren't getting presents from their parents to this day. To be cancelled is like getting excommunicated from the Black community and once that happens it takes a lot for you to get welcomed back with any level of trust. For some Black celebrities that can be tantamount to dying, especially if there is no reason the Black community can reach for to explain away the person's actions especially if they don't have enough fame to weather it, like Kanye West.

The Active Drag

I know, I know what about the ashy part? I am getting there. I am getting there. I want to be clear that dragging is different than playing the dozens which is a game when insults are intentionally traded with no real hard feelings (ok sometimes folks get their feelings hurt because someone digs in too deeply but usually its understood that the point is to hit hard). Dragging is also not a clapback when you are defending what many would see as a reasonable reaction to some insensitivity. Dragging can result from a clapback especially on a social media platform if many individuals from the Black community are engaged. Though I will say there are some important things to remember:

1. A person can be dragged for something said years or more ago if there is proof.

The best advice I can give a person to avoid having things you said pop-up years later like the ghost of Christmas Past is to let empathy guide your words and actions. Remember many of those people yelling at Ruby Bridges for having the audacity to want a better education are alive and well today; and it's not a good look.  It is very easy to go along with what others are doing but it takes a real upstander to go against the grain when real injustice is happening. While we understand people need space to grow anything that falls outside of some basic tenets of being a decent human being is going to be met with disdain.

2. The person being dragged is defending the position that is seen as unfavorable.

Second tip, if you find yourself a part of an active drag. DO NOT ENGAGE. I repeat DO. NOT. ENGAGE. Nothing will turn a minor dust-up to a full on drag faster than arguing a poorly backed position. I have seen folks get tagged into a thread to assist in the drag. I speak from experience of being tagged to help dog pile before, because during a drag you may notice they usually tag in those who can easily throw up facts. You have a small window to take a verbal clapback as education. Simply put, if a Black person gives you a "re-education" response, say thank you I hadn't thought of that, apologize and avoid the situation altogether.

3. Have your receipts!

The only things that can stop a drag are time passed, deletion of the post which more than likely will result in another post being created by someone else accusing you of a dirty delete which will only make the drag worse as they will tag you back in. I don't recommend dirty deletes, there is a lot of emotional labor, educational knowledge and time some members may have put into responding to the original post and 9 times out of 10 there could be a screenshot already and will get you completely removed from that online community and you will be met with disdain and distrust for days, months, or years to come. The only sure fire way of ending a drag is to turn it by having facts (receipts) to back up your claims. You have to turn the tide but I advise check your sources. Make sure you aren't referencing bias materials as often news is not just facts but skewed left or right.

Ash and Sitting Down

As I am sure you are wondering, what happens when a Black person has a poor position to others in the Black community? That is when they can be accused of being ashy. Being ashy is not about dry skin only (though it can be just literally that), but it speaks to having a lack of self-care, being unkept, and not taking on the values of the community. To be deemed an Ashlord or ashy in a form means you have been identified as someone who doesn't care about the Black community in which one may belong. It is an insult of the highest order. Being seen as ashy either in a physical sense (in which most Black folks are not probably checking their ankles) or holding a position counter the community can result in one finding themselves being called out, ostracized and in some cases your very Blackness being questioned (because Blackness is not just about color but The Culture).

Now sometimes those positions can be seen as reasonable and there can be people who defend that person being dragged. This commonly happens when a post is made about some celebrity failing and then another person agrees with said celebrity that is being actively canceled or they prefer not to cancel someone outright because they are a fan of other things the person has said or done in the past. It can result in an on-going back and forth between warring factions.

At that point it may still be safe to add in a comment on a discussion when you are not a member of the Black community. However the second the word ashy or some derivative come out, the comment portion for non-Black members is over unless you have been already universally accepted as a person who can speak on Black topics by that online community but more often than not even if you have that kind of "pass", you may be told to "have a seat or take several seats".

What I want you to know though is while immediately most want to argue this is actually an opportunity. Being told to "have a seat" means you are no longer invited to take part in the conversation but you are invited to watch and learn. Regardless of how you feel about being told to essentially butt out of a conversation what you should never do is try to explain to a Black person about a Black issue that they are members of and their community have faced or in which they have intimate knowledge. That is when you fall into whitesplaining. Whitesplaining is not only harmful and hurtful but it is rooted in a position of privilege. No Black person needs help defining racism, wants to be told how to feel about racism and more importantly cares about your opinion on how they should view the world in respect to their own racial experience. It doesn't show you are "woke" or an ally, it makes you look cruel, uninformed and self-centered. I am not trying to hurt anyone's feelings when I share that but I want to be clear that healing not only has to happen between the races but also internally in the Black community as many of us have internalized the trauma of racism.

The Homework

I know this was not a fun read and I am sure some of you are wondering so when can I speak? I want you reader to know that you should feel empowered to speak out about racism and on issues of race in your own communities but before you move out to have other racial groups beyond your own do your homework.

1. When you read something about race before you decide to speak on the issue get opinions about the subject from everyday Black people but also keep reading more. It's ok to not know about every aspect of racial history and/or to be unsure about how you feel about things you have read. We are not going to solve racial inequality overnight and our thoughts evolve over time. Take time to gather your thoughts before you speak on a subject as we are all on our own journey.

2. If you made a Black friend, like I challenged you to do last year, get their thoughts, but don't just stop with them. Black people are not monolithic. You ask ten Black people their opinion on the same issue you may get ten different takes on the same issue though they may have the same overall tone, but the devil is in the details. Take the time to seek out other voices on both sides of the topic from members of the Black community this will give you a more well-rounded perspective on the issue.

3. Take time to read and watch forum discussions instead of engaging, especially if you don't have Black friends to talk to. I do not recommend cornering any Black person you know for racial questions, as its asking a lot of emotional labor and they may not feel safe to answer you in any meaningful way. Instead follow an array of Black people on social media as you may get a new insight on an issue before you even talk to a live person and it will also help you formulate deeper questions that show you care about the issue more than you want knowledge spoon-feed to you.

4. Before you speak or respond to something you see or hear.. ask yourself is my comment going to contribute or ask for more emotional labor from the people having the discussion. It is also just ok to say "I'm sorry that happened, what can I do to help?" sometimes that may be met with venom but keep in mind that many times emotions are coming into play for the Black people who are sharing. Try not to be offended if that happens, Black people have bad days too.

5. The most important thing is lead with empathy. Take time to imagine that we are talking about someone you love or yourself before you speak. If you would not want someone to say what you are saying to you or someone you love because it seems callous keep it to yourself. Then take a moment to ask yourself what is motivating you?

Remember ashy is not classy and even if you are not of a darker hue you can still be ashy if you are unwilling to be open to championing racial equality and challenging dated views on topics. As ashy is not just about skin moisture but a state of mind.

To Learn More

Ruby Bridges Goes to School: My True Story, book cover
Unspeakable: the Tulsa Race Massacre, book cover
The Nation Must Awake My Witness to the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, book cover
Stamped (for Kids) Racism, Antiracism, and You, book cover
The History of Racism in America, book cover