My Life

The first time, I was young.

I don’t remember my exact age, but I was a kid–probably around 5 or 6. I was at a friend’s house, playing with girl about the same age as me. We were acting out our favorite TV show, Saved by the Bell.

She was having a hard time choosing who to be: Kelly Kapowski (the beautiful cheerleader) or Jessie Spano (the super smart class president).

My choice was already made for me. I’d be Lisa Turtle, the rich fashionista.

Not because I was rich. Not because I enjoyed fashion.

I would be Lisa because I was Black, and Lisa was Black. Plain and simple.

Honestly, I identified more with Jessie–I loved to learn and I admired her passion for issues like saving the environment. I liked how she always said what she thought and worked hard to be the best. But I couldn’t be Jessie because we weren’t the same color.

I didn’t really think of it as racism at the time because, as a said before, I was a kid. But looking back I see how I was put in a box because of my skin color.

The second time hit a little harder.

Once again, I don’t remember my exact age. But I was still a kid. I was riding the bus to school, and an older boy kept trying to get my attention. He kept calling me a racial slur (one that I will not type here).

Yes, I told the bus driver. No, she didn’t do anything.

I got called this slur EVERY DAY until the boy got his driver’s license and stopped taking the bus.

The first day I got on the bus and he wasn’t there, I felt a trickle of relief. By the end of the week, I realized he wasn’t coming back. The trickle turned to a flood. Finally, I could ride the bus in peace and quiet.

What’s that saying? “Third time’s a charm…”

This one I remember in great detail. I was in sixth grade, in Ms. White’s classroom. It was almost time for school to be dismissed, and we had to be sitting at our desks when the bell rang before Ms. White would let us leave her classroom.

I was kneeling on the floor beside my desk, picking up all my papers and books. I wasn’t dawdling–I was putting stuff in my bag as fast as I could. But there was so much stuff.

The bell rang and I wasn’t in my seat. No one could leave until I sat down. I stood, then moved to sit down at my desk. That was when I heard it.

“Hurry up, BLACKIE!”

It came from a white boy I only knew in passing–his name was Jesse. I don’t remember ever speaking to this boy–before or after this incident–but I can see his face in my mind’s eye as clear as day.

I froze where I stood. All hopes of sitting down were gone–I couldn’t move. I just stared at him.

Ms. White made Jesse apologize to me–a quick “sorry” that was clearly more about getting to the bus line than giving an authentic apology. Ms. White released the class, and I shot out of that classroom with tears running down my face.

I was practically running to get to the bus, crying. Someone–I can’t remember who–asked what was wrong as I flew past.

“Nothing.”

I can’t even remember if I told my mom what happened.

It happened over and over again, and got more humiliating each time.

In high school, it poured rain on the day of a band competition. I was in the colorguard, wearing a hairstyle that required a lot of hold. Pump It Up spritz was the go-to product to keep my hair in place. (If you’re a Black woman reading this, you’re probably nodding in agreement right now. Pump It Up is an old school Black hair staple, right there next to Luster’s Pink Oil Lotion and my aunt’s favorite, Blue Magic scalp conditioner.)

“Ewwwwwww, what is that smell?!?

Apparently, Pump It Up + rain water = a slightly unpleasant aroma. And another guard member was LOUDLY letting everyone know about it. I just tried to stay as far away from everyone as I could. Not only was the hairstyle that took an ENTIRE DAY ruined, my day was too. I felt like such a freak, even though the white girls back then would use so much gel and hairspray they reeked of aerosol.

It presented itself so often, in so many different ways.

My worst experience with racism to date didn’t even happen in America. That’s why it’s the worst time–I didn’t see it coming.

I was in Denmark for a work trip, staying for two weeks. It was January, so the days were short and dark and cold there, but I was so excited. I’d never been to Europe before, and here I was–traveling abroad for business! I felt so fancy.

The first week passed without incident. There were a few snags with my work project, but I powered through them. Then the weekend came and everything changed.

I went out to dinner with a co-worker. We went to a fancy place and ate a meal with, like, seven different courses. We talked and laughed and enjoyed the delicious food and generally had a fantastic time. We took a car back to our hotel, and I headed to my room after a quick goodbye near the hotel lobby. Shortly after I got back to my room, I got a text from my co-worker. The man working the front desk said I couldn’t stay at the hotel.

He thought I was a prostitute.

I went back to that front desk, room key in hand. I explained that I’d been in the hotel for an entire week and hadn’t had any problems until today. I asked that man if he would have made the same assumption if I was a white lady.

He said NO. Had I been a different color, he wouldn’t have given me a second thought.

It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.

I wish I could say those were the only times.

But there are so many moments I’ve left out.

The “You’re so pretty for a Black girl,” moments.

The time a classmate said it wasn’t fair I got a full scholarship to college because I was Black (even thought I was in honors classes and my grades were higher than hers).

The “You’re not like other those Black people–you’re one of the good ones,” moments.

The time a former coworker “complimented” me by putting both of her hands wrist deep in my fresh kinky twists–without my permission, of course.

The “I’m sorry, we don’t have makeup in your shade,” moments.

The time a boy I had a crush on in high school told me he couldn’t be racist because he’d kissed me once. (This was years after the kiss, on a Facebook post about police brutality.)

The “You’re so articulate,” moments.

The time a judge at a speech tournament wrote me a ballot explaining that I shouldn’t just do pieces on Blackness–that I was “better than that.”

The “I don’t even think of you as Black,” moments.

The time I competed in a local beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality, but I wasn’t included in the photograph that ran in the paper.

The time I drove past the fairgrounds in my hometown and saw signs stating “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and learned just whose lives clearly didn’t matter.

The time I had dinner at my high school boyfriend’s house and his father refused to speak to me. Seriously–the man didn’t say a single word to me the entire time I was there. He spoke to everyone else, but not to me.

The time I got pulled over late at night in my new car. Terror isn’t the word–it was worse than that. Thank God I hadn’t been drinking, had all of my paperwork, and had the wherewithal to put on my most “articulate” voice for the officer.

Every single time I change my hair and people at work say they can’t recognize me–even if it’s just a switch from curly to straight. (And it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME.)

It’s exhausting. It’s infuriating. And, unfortunately, it’s a regular part of my life.

If you read this and realized that someone you know has said or done something like this in the past, I hope you’re horrified. If you read this and realized YOU’VE said or done something similar in the past, I hope you are filled with shame. I hope you look back over your life and recognize every single racist thing you’ve been part of. I hope you cry.

And after all that, I hope you make a promise to do better.

I hope you realize you aren’t a bad person, but that you have some learning (and maybe more importantly, un-learning) to do. I hope you read up on how America has disenfranchised Black people since we were stolen and brought here. I hope you advocate for Black people with your time, energy, money, resources, and especially YOUR VOTES.

I hope you check your racist family members and friends–don’t let those jokes or comments slide. I hope you support reparations for descendants of slavery. I hope you protest for us and with us. I hope you stop saying you’re “colorblind” and start saying “I see your color, but I don’t devalue you because of it.”

I hope you take a look at your life, now that you’ve seen some of the uglier parts of mine.

Heat

Think about all the things going on in your life: work, school, family, friends, all that. Think about how much you time and energy you pour into those things. Now ask yourself this question:

What am I getting back?

If you are providing support, you deserve support. If you are giving respect, you deserve respect. If you are listening and striving for understanding, you absolutely deserve to be listened to and understood.

This applies at home, at work, and anywhere else. You should get back what you put in.

But–and it’s a BIG but–you also have to communicate your feelings.

Have you told the person (or people) that you’ve been supporting/respecting/listening to that you aren’t getting the same in return?

Sharing your perspective is the most important part of all this, and yet it’s the part that often gets skipped. How do I know this? Because I’m the one who hates confrontation. I will avoid it at all cost.

Communication does not have to equal confrontation.

If these people truly love you, care about you, and value you, they’ll hear you out. They’ll try to meet you halfway.

And if they don’t, just remember this:

I put my work in–day in, day out!

Baby I deserve it–don’t let me down.

You used to make me feel like a diamond.

Now it don’t even seem like you’re tryin’…

So give me one good reason I should need you?

Kelly Clarkson, ‘Heat’

Fighter

How long do you argue with someone?

You’re right. They’re wrong. Classic scenario, right? How much time do you spend fussing with this person to prove the obvious–you’re right, and they’re wrong?

Had you asked me this question a few years ago, I would have looked you in the face and honestly replied, “As long as it takes!”

Awwwww, Baby Ashley was so…earnest.

Nowadays, I just don’t have the energy. And, to be frank, it’s just not worth my time.

2020 has shown me that life is too short to waste on things that just don’t matter. And unless you’re one of the cov-idiots who thinks this pandemic is fake, you probably realized that WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THE BULLSHIT.

Seriously. If it isn’t something that impacts my health, my family, my community, or my coins, I’ve decided I’m not fighting with you about it.

This is proving easier said than done.

Last week, a man went awf in my inbox. Just going on and on about why he he shouldn’t have to…he doesn’t have time…why is he required to…and so on. And I had a #ThrowbackMoment. Baby Ashley read that email and started putting together a three point presentation on why she was right and he was wrong.

But guess what Grown-Up Ashley did, y’all?!?

She sent a reply that was merely TWO SENTENCES. Those two sentences said everything that needed to be said. So I said my piece, and I went on about my day.

Say your piece, then move on. Don’t let anyone waste your time, your breath, or your life!

Try a Little…

Tenderness. Ah, Otis Redding. Still not sure exactly what a “shaggy dress” is, but the song is awesome regardless.

We could all stand to treat each other a bit more tenderly these days.

Now, more than ever, am I realizing that people are just that–people. Each person is facing their own internal battle, and plenty of us have external battles to fight too. (Hellooooo Miss Rona.)

“It’s a cruel world.” We’ve all heard that before. But does it have to be?

Not at all.

Could we all take the time to really listen to each other, be honest, and make a valiant attempt to see the world from someone else’s point of view? Could we not just talk, but actually communicate? Absolutely.

Will we do this? Fuck no.

Why? Because we don’t want to make the effort. Or, to use a phrase I’ve heard more often than I’ve ever wanted to, “That sounds like a lot of work.”

Who cares if it’s a lot of work if it’s the right thing to do?

Every damn day I bust my ass to try to do the right thing. My mother raised me to think of others, be compassionate, and do what I know is right even if the world says it’s wrong. These were lessons I learned very early in life.

Apparently not everyone got the same lesson.

But what can I do other than lead by example? I’ll try my best to be kind, and supportive, and to treat people the way I’d like to be treated.

I’ll try a little tenderness.

Will you?

Vulnerability

The world is not a safe place for vulnerable Black girls.

A few weeks ago, my therapist told me that vulnerability is something we should work on. She said I don’t trust people.

Well, duh. I know firsthand that the world is not a safe place for vulnerable Black girls.

After our session, I tried to think of when I first learned that lesson.

Was it sixth grade, when I wrote a note to my secret crush (a white boy) and he laughed while reading it aloud to the entire class?

Was it my 13th birthday, when I planned a big party, invited everyone I knew from school, and only two people showed up?   

Was it the summer after my sophomore year in college, when the man I loved dumped me but still strung me along so he could have someone to clean his apartment and cook for him?

Was it when I was publicly shamed by a dentist for crying out in pain during a root canal?

Was it the multiple instances of racism, sexism, or the brutal combination of both known as misogynoir that I’ve experienced in my life?

Most likely.

I truly wish that I could open up and be myself with everyone. But lessons learned the hard way are ones not quickly forgotten.

This world is not a safe place for vulnerable Black girls.

Flat

Shortening days.

Chilling wind.

The sky gray, flat.

As am I. Gray. Flat.

Missing Soleil–bright, warm, light. Each year I beg her to stay.

She says she’ll come visit sometimes, floats away on a gust of wind.

She doesn’t lie. She makes an occasional appearance, but always brings Monsieur Le Froid. He stays even after Soleil departs again.

Winter arrives.

Energy departs.

Gray.

Flat.

Move

Today, a pretty big change is happening in my life.

My boyfriend and I are combining households–today’s the day of the move!

I must admit, I’ve been looking forward to this day for quite some time. We’ve lived apart for the entirety of our three year relationship, and I’m so excited that we’re taking this step together to really become a team…a family.

However, this move hasn’t been without it’s share of challenges. I’ve had to purge a significant amount of, well, crap. It’s amazing how much stuff a person can collect! When I went back home to Kentucky this summer to visit my family, my mom sent me back with a lot of my stuff from my childhood: pictures, knickknacks, school yearbooks–even my American Girl doll, Addy. Add that to the house full of stuff I’ve collected since I’ve lived in Wisconsin and you end up with a ton of things you have to decide to keep or throw out.

I’m not the best at letting things go. Channeling my inner Marie Kondo was a struggle for me. How do I know if this thing “brings me joy”? Isn’t it wasteful to just throw this in the trash? If I don’t have this ticket stub/t-shirt/photograph, how will I know that I saw that movie/went to that concert/knew those people?

This process has helped me understand one thing: Those tokens aren’t the important thing. The memories of those experiences are what matter.