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Malcolm & Black Women

Episode Summary

“The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.”

In this episode, Jasmine Holmes joins the podcast to help Phillip and Taelor discuss Malcolm X and Black women in America. Jasmine starts out discussing the history behind the devaluing of Black women in American history, going back to when America made the change from British Common Law to a new American Common Law in regards to children. 

In British Common Law, children born to slaves inherited their father’s status in society. This meant that children born to free white men from slave women were free. But this also meant that the responsibility to care for the children rested on men. When the new American Common Law was established, children born to slave women inherited the mother’s status. It no longer mattered if a child’s father was free, if a child was born to a slave woman that child was a slave. This also meant that the men who fathered these children bore no legal responsibility for them.

Jasmine points out that this change in the law was meant to devalue Black women. This law change shows that it was socially acceptable for white men to rape or have sex with Black women, so long as these men did not give any value to Black women. This devaluing of Black women, Jasmine points out, is also seen in the laws that stated that Black slaveholders could not own a white slave. Black slaveholders could own other Black people, they could own Indigenous people, but they could not own white people. 

Jasmine says that this makes sense because white men would want to do anything they could to protect white women, but they did not see Black women as being equally worthy of that same kind of protection. So while what Malcolm X has said about Black women may be harsh, it is not untrue. It is a piercing truth, speaking plainly about how Black women have been treated in America throughout history.

Taelor, Phillip, and Jasmine move to talk about the Black women in Malcolm X’s own life, starting with his wife, Betty Shabazz. Jasmine notes that even though Malcolm understood how low Black women are in American society, there are still times in his autobiography where Malcolm discusses Black women in ways that make her cringe. 

Jasmine also points out that one of the ways it is hard to be a Black woman in America is by being married to a Black man. This is because Black men’s lives are filled with trauma that Black women would otherwise not have to handle. The same is true for Black men married to Black women. “So much of our relationships in the Black community are hampered and fettered with the trauma of growing up in a country that perceives us a certain way.” In particular, for Malcolm, this trauma involved going to prison at a young age and leaving Betty to raise his children, as well as Betty raising their children alone after  Malcolm X died. 

Discussing the place Black women are in now in America, Jasmine looks to the history of the Civil Rights movement. Jasmine says that while Malcolm X was writing these words, Black women were being raped and feared for their lives. This was one of the catalysts for the Civil Rights movement, even though the Civil Rights movement was not all perfect. Jasmine tells the story of Claudette Colvin, who was the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on a bus. Because she was a teenage, unwed mother the movement pushed her out in favor of Rosa Parks who was deemed to be more respectable. 

Jasmine says even though the present-day physical reality is different, Black women still haven’t arrived because they are being silenced or used as props for movements. To illustrate this point, Phillip talks about the recent scandal with Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor at ESPN. Both women are reporters at ESPN and Nichols, a white woman, was recently caught talking about Maria Taylor, a Black woman, to an ESPN producer. 

Nichols said that, “I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world. She covers football, she covers basketball. If you need to give her more things to do because you’re feeling pressure about your long-term record on diversity, which I know personally from the female side of it, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me or taking my thing away.” Phillip then points out that what is needed for Black women, and any oppressed group, is for those with power and privilege to give it up so that those without can have an opportunity.

Discussion Questions

  1. In what ways are Black women still the most disrespected people in American society?
  2. How does power affect Black women?
  3. Are the devaluing effects of the switch from British Common Law to American Common Law still being felt by Black men and women in America today?
  4. How is Phillip’s point about giving up power for the sake of others similar to the Christ Hymn in Philippians 2:5-11?

Transcript

Phillip Holmes: Welcome to Make it Plain, where we offer Christian reflections on the words and life of Malcolm X. I’m Phillip Holmes.

Taelor Gray: And I’m Taelor Gray. We are your hosts. So, Phil, this week we’re going to discuss Malcolm X and his relationship to black women. And I thought we could use the quote which has been widely circulated. But we have a guest today. I’d like for you to introduce our guest. 

Phillip Holmes: We have a special guest today. The lovely, the beautiful Jasmine Holmes. Jasmine.

Jasmine Holmes: Hey guys.

Gray: What’s up? I saw a dope painting or artistic rendering of Malcolm X, which I’m sure we’ll get into later, that apparently belonged to you. So, happy to have you on.

Jasmine Holmes: Yeah. I’m really excited. He’s been a favorite for a long time.

Gray: Let me get us started with a quote from Malcolm. He says this: 

“The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” 

Way to kick us off there, Malcolm, as you usually do. Jasmine, Phil and I would like to first ask you to give us some of your thoughts in relation to this quote. What kinds of things do you think of, or what comes to mind when you hear him say this?

Jasmine Holmes: Yeah. I actually…so I just turned in a manuscript for a book that I’m writing about black women in Christian history. And I used Malcolm’s quote in the introduction. And I used it and juxtaposed it with Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” where she pretty much makes the same argument a hundred years before and says people say that women are supposed to be treated so well, that they’re supposed to be—for instance—helped into carriages. That they’re supposed to faint. That they’re supposed to be gentle. They’re supposed to be docile. They’re supposed to be tender. But throughout my life, I’ve been treated like a workhorse because I was enslaved. Ain’t I a woman? And the two quotes work together beautifully to show that so often ideals about womanhood and the protection of the feminine have not historically been extended to black women. 

Gray: I’d love to hear much more about—especially Sojourner. I didn’t know that those two worked so well together, especially as it relates to this topic. Phil, did you have any thoughts?

Phillip Holmes: As Jasmine knows, I’ve been kind of obsessed with the idea of power over the last six to nine months, and the role that power plays in society, as well as in something as intimate as our homes. In the words of Isabel Wilkerson—I’m now reading through Caste, so people will probably hear me talking a lot about that book. Jasmine read it six months ago as I was beginning to think through power and all of this. And she talks about how the caste system works in America. And it’s clear to me that—and this is why when you hear Malcolm talk, he’s always talking about the white man. Because the white man, in Malcolm’s view, is at the top of the caste system in society. And then you have white women. And then you have black men. And at the bottom of that—and I’m just talking about these two different ethnicities—at the bottom of that naturally is going to be black women. But oftentimes, that’s overlooked. 

And there’s a lot of things that I’ve been noticing, even in evangelicalism. How black women are starting to get a lot of opportunities; a lot of attention, that they’re definitely worthy of. But at the same time, unfortunately, as the same thing that happened with black men, I fear that there might be some missteps and some tokenism that’s involved there. And offering and encouraging and pushing people to take things that they don’t necessarily desire to do, or are qualified for, just so that they can have a black woman. So it’s kind of—black women are being used in some ways, I think, the same way that black men were used in the mid-to-late 2000s. Or 2000s and 2010s. Yeah, so a lot of thoughts in there. 

Jasmine, I want to hear you—because, again, you’ve already finished the book. But there were some particular things yesterday when we were listening to the book. And we were like man, we gotta talk about this in the podcast. Because she talks about the way that black women were treated. Would you talk a little bit about some of that as well?

Jasmine Holmes: Yeah. One of the most striking things in Caste—and the first time I think I heard it was in The Problem of Slavery in Christian America—was the change from British law to—British common law—to American law in the inherited status of children. So if, in England, a man had a child with an enslaved woman, he was responsible for the child, and the child inherited his status as a free person. That’s how it had always been. That was the expectation. 

But then, in America, as ideas about black humanity began to shift, we kind of went from imitating common law and trying to stop white men from sleeping with their enslaved women to saying okay, you know what? It’s inevitable. It’s happening all the time, so we’re changing the law, and the children inherit the status of the mother. So that when a white master rapes his black, enslaved woman, the child that is produced from that relationship is also enslaved. And in this way, it takes responsibility from the man to have to take care of his offspring, and to provide for his offspring and to look out for the interest of his offspring in the same way that he would if he had offspring with a white woman. It’s fascinating, because, like I said, it wasn’t always like that. 

And Wilkerson talks about a story really early in the colonies, where a white man was publicly scorned and punished because he had sex with—I don’t know if she was enslaved—but with an African woman. And the wording of the time was that he had defiled himself. That he had lowered himself. That he had sullied himself. And so, it went from yeah guys, we really just shouldn’t do this. It’s gross. To okay, it’s going to happen. So we need to change the law to reflect the fact that even if we are having sex with black women, we’re still showing that they don’t have the same value as their white counterparts, because we don’t owe them anything.

Phillip Holmes: Yeah. There’s these two things that are happening when it comes to the status that the child is going to receive, that allow white men to essentially sleep with black women without any consequence. So they could impregnate a black woman and essentially they were creating labor—slaves for themselves. And then on the other end, one of the things that stood out as well was that it wasn’t that they were sleeping with black women—that wasn’t his crime. When you get down to the root of it, his crime was that he was sleeping with a black woman and treating her with dignity and respect. So, men were allowed to rape black women, and have sex with them as long as they didn’t, as Jasmine mentioned, show them any type of value. 

Gray: I just gotta pause and acknowledge how horrific that is. How horrific of a life experience that is, for generations and generations of people—women—women in particular. Because obviously, they’re managing all these ways of being treated. Despicable ways of being treated. And yet it affects the entire family. It affects children. It affects husbands. There are some societal effects in terms of what perception tells you, and ultimately what the power structure is designed to do. And so, that’s really hard to hear and absorb.

Jasmine Holmes:  Yeah, I think when I first read about it in The Problem of Slavery in Christian America—there are so many things that we take for granted about our history that we don’t stop to really think about and let sink in. And realizing the depth of disdain with which black female bodies had been treated throughout the history of this country is something that has come to me in waves and phases. Particularly when I juxtapose it with the way that white women in this country have been treated. 

I was talking to Phillip about it the other day, and thinking, like, there were laws that said that of course, a black slaveholder could not ever own a white person. Black slaveholders could own other black people. They might have even been able to own Native American people or Indigenous people, but they could not own white people. And the more that I thought about it—the more I was like, well of course they couldn’t. 

Because no white man in the 1800s is going to put a white woman or a white young girl in the vulnerable position of being completely owned by someone else, and that person having complete access to their body, and that person having complete access to their time, and that person having unfettered access to them. Especially not if that person is a black person. It seemed so obvious to me when I thought of course they want to protect their daughters and their sisters and their wives. But also, of course, they wouldn’t see black women as being equally worthy of protection. 

Gray: It gives us a real sense, I think, in terms of what Malcolm is saying here is not hyperbolic language. It’s not him being extreme, or whatever people may want to perceive out of the directness, and maybe even offensive nature of what Malcolm says. It’s a piercing truth. It’s kind of something that penetrates our conscience in a particular way. Because, like you said, Jasmine, we’re not often thinking about it while it’s happening around us. 

So for Malcolm to make this kind of statement and be this definitive, I could see us all being socialized into this idea that that’s an overcorrection, or he’s being extreme or taking it too far. But to really, soberly consider how history really played out in the lives of actual people—it’s dead on. 

Here’s something that I hope we can take from this starting point, is Malcolm obviously had examples of black women in his life that he drew from. If you read the autobiography of Malcolm X, there’s no shortage of his commentary about his own mother, and around his family—his sisters; his aunts. There were a lot of influences in his life that shaped who he was. And yet, there is this figure that I think stands above all the rest. And it’s so interesting because she’s so understated in some ways. Betty Shabazz. Betty Shabazz is a heroic woman who doesn’t often get a lot of attention and time, because I think in some ways, she has presented herself in an understated way. And in other ways, she’s the picture of strength and dignity that we need to draw more from. 

So I guess, in staying there, in looking at her and trying to highlight her to a certain degree, Jasmine, I’d love to hear from you, if you’ve had time to reflect on who she is, and think more about her presence in Malcolm’s life.

Jasmine Holmes: Yeah. Whenever we—because we’ve listened to the autobiography of Malcolm X more than once—and whenever we listen to it, I am always struck by—Malcolm was brilliant, but he could not have been an easy person to be married to. His mind was always working, he always said what he thought, and even though he has this quote about black women being disrespected that we so appreciate and we so love, there are times when Malcolm is talking about Malcolm in his book that I as a woman am cringing at. Like, oh. Oh no, Malcolm. No, no, no. You can’t talk about women like that. It’s 2021. 

But, thinking about the strength of his wife to be a steady, and a constant in his life. It is difficult to be married to a black man in America by sheer nature of the fact that his life is decked with trauma that we would not otherwise have to interact with. And I think the same goes the other way. So much of our relationships in the black community are hampered and fettered with the trauma of growing up in a country that perceives us a certain way, and also in Malcolm’s case, growing up with a really turbulent, difficult childhood. Going to prison for all those years; coming out. When I think about everything that he brought to the table in their marriage, and I think about how she stood by him and raised his children, and sat at home while he put his life on the line, and then had to raise his children after he died, there is a strength there that is kind of easy to get overshadowed when you think about all that Malcolm is. 

Gray:  I like how you threw such….you know, see, I’m an artist, Jasmine, so I can hear metaphor deeper than just something being said, and I liked that subtle jab that you threw Phil’s way. You know, like—

(Jasmine laughs)

Gray: How hard it is to be married to 

Phillip Holmes: Okay. Wow.

Gray: So hard (laughs). 

Phillip Holmes: Wow. 

Jasmine Holmes: I said it goes both ways (laughs).

Phillip Holmes: I mean (laughs).

Jasmine Holmes: But, Phil. Honestly, Phil, though, I think it might be good to talk about how we grew in this area. Because I remember when we first got married, I would talk about the unique experiences of black women, and you would be like, okay, I guess. Maybe. And now you are the hugest advocate—like total 180. What helped you understand the plight of black women in America better?

Phillip Holmes: There’s a lot of—I feel like I’m constantly going through transformation with how I see and understand the world. I saw so much firsthand that I couldn’t ignore; that I could sympathize with because I had experienced it but in a completely different way. I think also, learning to trust my wife’s word and my wife’s perspective on things as well was huge. So I think it was more so…not just me seeing it, but also me really getting to know you. Because there were a lot—you know, without going into a whole lot of detail—there were a lot of even perceptions—misperceptions—that I had about you, that over time, our marriage showed me—our relationship showed me—that was completely wrong. 

It really takes listening to a person; doing life with a person, and it really takes actually trying to observe their interactions with the world and your interactions with the world, in order to understand what’s really going on. 

Now the thing is, I grew up around…I was mostly raised by women. So I’m still even reflecting on why didn’t that make me more sensitive to these things early on? What was it that did not allow me to see and be aware of these things? Because, again, the women that shaped me and raised me were my mom, my aunts, and my grandmother. And I think even, it was in my marriage where I began to have a greater appreciation and love and respect for them. And Jasmine can tell you right now that that was already high, but it grew even deeper as Jasmine and I’s marriage grew and matured, and we grew closer to each other. That it actually made me understand, and sympathize, and have more compassion for my mom, my aunts, and my grandmother.

So I’m still kind of reflecting on what was going on there. I did think that once again, I became more power-aware if you will. That’s when I was able to connect the dots with what was essentially happening, and began to get to the root of what was going on, rather than saying, well, you know, this is sexism, and this is racism, and kind of compartmentalizing all of these things. And in my mind, now, they’re all connected. So while power gets to the root of these things, you still have to talk about the structures that have been created in order to sustain this. And even if the structures aren’t there by law, a lot of the structures are still there culturally. Because, again, not only are we taught what to think, we’re taught how to think. And that keeps us from getting past this is what you said versus this is what I see, if that makes any sense. 

Gray: This resonates to hear you guys both talk about this. And I’ll also ask this question because this is also an internal discussion with me and my wife. And—what’s up—shoutout to Liz. How you doing? I know it’s hard being married to me, Baby, and I know—we’re just going to keep pushing.

(Phil laughs)

Gray: But…

Phillip Holmes: I was thinking, when we started the conversation, why didn’t we have Jasmine and Liz on? 

Gray: Because we ain’t got time. You know? We might as well just get off the mic. 

(Phil laughs)

Gray: Listen, I wanted to be specific and ask, as it relates to Betty Shabazz—I wanted to ask Jasmine because Liz and I have had this conversation about…maybe the sense of danger that you feel in being married to a person who is visible—a black man who is visible and vocal. Whatever sense that you have—and I was actually surprised to hear Liz say that she is afraid, or she carries kind of like a concern—a regular concern—all the time. And I wanted to know if that was something you have felt, just being married to Phil, and knowing what it means to build a life together. Kind of just your relation to maybe what Betty Shabazz might have been feeling.

Jasmine Holmes:  I think about that pretty often. Not so much from a stance of physical safety, but from a stance of emotional safety, from a stance of: I know my husband, and I know what it costs him to walk through the world every day as a power-aware black man. I know what it costs him to operate in evangelical circles as a power-aware black man. I know what it costs him to be in some meetings, some conversations, and things that people have said, or misunderstood, about him. And then, knowing my husband as a person. Knowing how hard it is for him to be misunderstood. And how everything is kind of stacked against him, to have to deal with being misunderstood 24/7. 

It’s hard on my heart because there’s only so much I can do as his wife to alleviate that burden. So, I can’t imagine from Betty’s perspective, having the added fear of violence, and having the added fear of losing him. I think about Medgar Evers’ wife. Fact that she lost her strong, vocal, visible husband. Of course, Coretta Scott King lost her strong, vocal, visible husband. And eventually, Betty did as well, and I think about that cost, but also all the emotional cost that led up to that—of him coming home and needing a safe place, and her navigating what it means to be a safe place to a misunderstood black man.

Gray: I felt—that’s so good. I like the language “power-aware” black man in evangelical spaces. Because that’s a game-changer right there. And as you probably know, that involves a lot of conversation, open-processing. You know how that feels; what that looks like. 

And even looking at a person like Betty. When Malcolm was killed, very shortly afterwards they interviewed her, and she had this quiet strength about her. I don’t know how she kept the composure that she kept. To talk with clarity, and be decisive about ways she wanted to answer the questions that they were asking her, some of which I felt were a little insensitive. But she still displayed this constant grace and strength in responding to a traumatic tragedy. And I think about her children, who looked at her as an example through this trauma. And the others that you mentioned, whether it’s Medgar Evers or Dr. King. They all had situations where families—where very young children were there and had to process this as well. 

So, when I look at Betty, I now have her daughters—her and Malcolm’s daughters—to give us an example of that continued grace and strength. Not sure how much you guys have interacted with her daughters, and what they have said, and the kind of work that they’ve been a part of. Talk a little bit about your view of what they may have had to endure, and what you perceive in terms of them continuing Malcolm’s legacy.

Jasmine Holmes: That feels like something that I also have experience with, just because I have a larger-than-life—in some circles—father. So I’m very sensitive to the fact that our perception of Malcolm, our perception of Martin, our perception of Medgar as incisive political figures doesn’t say anything about who they might have been at home as fathers. And I do think that oftentimes, particularly daughters, get overshadowed when they want to process what it is to be the daughter. The real-life, flesh-and-blood, living-with-them-every-day daughter of this person who, at the end of the day, is more human than he’ll ever be. And so, that offers in even more complexity, from my perspective. As a fellow daughter of someone who has a lot to say, I’m even more protective of their perceptions of their father; their experiences of their father, and the navigation that it takes to speak publicly and be publicly, and exist publicly under a shadow that is never going to move.

Phillip Holmes: Individuals will feel more of an ownership of a particular figure—and I’m talking about the general public when I say individuals—to the extent where they have the audacity to talk to a child of this particular figure as if they know the figure better than the child does. They also tend to impose unrealistic expectations upon the children, as if the child is supposed to adopt one hundred percent everything that the public figure—that the father—adopts. And so, it takes away a certain level of autonomy and independence. 

 

Taelor, you and I…I mean, I probably experience this less than either of you. Because Taelor, you’re a PK as well. But nobody within reason adopts one hundred percent everything that their parents believe. That’s very, very rare if it happens at all. It’s always fascinating when these people online—and I’m sure Malcolm’s children have experienced this—will essentially assume that they’re supposed to think like he did. Follow in his footsteps. Do what…and if they have anything that differs from his beliefs, then all of the sudden they’re a complete disappointment. 

But is that the relationship that you have with your parents? And the answer most of the time is absolutely not. Because it’s not a healthy relationship—it’s not even a reasonable expectation we have on the general public. We only place this type of expectation on the children of public figures. And we do a great disservice to those children when that happens. 

Gray: I remember listening to one of Malcolm’s daughters. Her name is Ilyasah Shabazz—I hope I’m pronouncing her name correctly. She talked a lot about how her mother helped preserve the memory of her father. So her mother was very much invested in making sure that what his daughters thought of him—what Malcolm’s daughters thought of him—stayed within the realm of who he was at home. How he loved them, and how he could experience joy.

Phillip Holmes: That’s good.

Gray: To the point that Jasmine was making—whatever perception people have publicly of your father figure—they don’t own your father. And that becomes a really tricky balance when you’re a public figure—how so many different people would make demands on you. And essentially they feel like they can claim a part of you. But I thought it was really interesting to hear Ilyasah articulate that Betty Shabazz worked hard to make sure that her father belonged to them. And—

Phillip Holmes: That’s good.

Gray: —that his love for them was never to be questioned. That he—even though he lost his life early, it was in no way any kind—there was no bearing on how much he cared about them. How much he wanted to be there for them. For her to be able to have that, to me communicates something profound about Betty Shabazz, is that she would work to instill that in them. And Ilyasah is now carrying on a lot of her father’s work, even though that wasn’t required, like you said, Phil. But it’s from that foundation of knowing that her father loved her. I think that’s a beautiful place to start. 

So, I have a general question—because getting back to this quote from Malcolm—we’re in an interesting time in our society where black women, in particular, are very vocal and unapologetic in the expression and presentation of what it means to be a black woman, and what it means to have a voice, and what it means to have influence in society. And there appears to be a mixed reaction to that if I can be diplomatic myself. 

But, I would be interested to hear from you, Jasmine—is to say—what Malcolm is saying here is a sentiment that could carry over into a lot of the commentary that we’re navigating in society today. What are some of your reflections on how people would take this sentiment and use it well, or perhaps use it in unhealthy ways? Because listen, Phil and I are two guys. We’re two men. We’re black men. And no matter how carefully we try to talk about this, we’re going to step on something that is a mine. And it—we shouldn’t say something that we should say—or that we did say. And we’re not able to ultimately speak from personal experience. But as a black woman, hearing Malcolm say that black women are the most mistreated, neglected…and seeing what’s going on in our social moment right now, where black voices—black women voices—are becoming more pronounced, do you feel like we’re in a healthy place? Or we’re getting to a healthier place in hearing from black women?

Jasmine Holmes: I feel like we’re in a different place than we were. If you want to know more about black women, and what was going on in the civil rights movement, with black womanhood, and particularly their rape by white men, At the Dark End of the Street is fantastic. It’s by Danielle Colvin [SIC], and it talks about how the rape of black women played a huge part in the resistance that snowballed into the civil rights movement. And so, as Malcolm X is saying these words, we have black women across the south who are living in fear. 

And then we have Claudette Colvin being the first woman to refuse to give up her seat on the bus, but being ostracized from the movement because of the fact that she was a teenager who was pregnant out of wedlock. So instead of letting Colvin speak for herself and speak for the movement, they ended up choosing Rosa Parks, because she was older, and also her skin was lighter, and she was more respectable. And so, Rosa Parks became the picture of the woman who doesn’t give up her seat on the bus, because she was a respectable black woman when compared to the younger Colvin. 

Anyway, the book is fascinating, and it gave me more insight into this. Because as Malcolm is talking, black womanhood is literally, physically under attack in America. And so, his words were so poignant and salient then, in a very real, visceral, and physical way. Nowadays, I think the physical reality is a little bit different. Well, a lot a bit different, obviously. We can prosecute a lot more easily now, and there are a lot of things that have changed. But I don’t know that I would say that…We definitely haven’t arrived, because I still see so many black women being silenced by tropes, and by stereotypes, and by kind of this tug of war between am I just a brain, or am I just a body? Am I allowed to be soft and quote-unquote “feminine,” or do I always have to be strong? Does having an advanced degree, and being able to speak for myself—is that an asset when it comes to trying to find a husband, or is that a liability? Are black women really at the front of these movements, or are they being pushed to the front of these movements for pictures and photo ops? Or are black women at the front of these movements, but then other people are getting pushed to the front of these movements for the same reason? There’s so much …so much that goes on, and goes into what it means to be a vocal black woman in 2021. That is different from what it was in Malcolm’s day, and yet still, his words are salient for us today. 

Phillip Holmes: Yeah, I couldn’t help but…there’s a lot that you said there that’s going to be perfect for what I want to transition, but the complexities of the things that you guys have to think through. Why am I here? What’s the purpose? Am I really an influencer, or am I just being used? And a conversation that I could not—or topic that’s happening right now in the broader culture—that I couldn’t help but think about was Rachel Nichols and Maria Taylor. And essentially these are two reporters for ESPN. One is a white woman. The other is a black woman. Maria Taylor is a black woman. Rachel Nichols is a white woman. And a conversation was caught on tape somehow by…I guess Rachel Nichols left her recorder on. And while she was having a private conversation with, I guess, this PR guy—I’m not quite—I’m not as familiar with him. I am familiar with Rachel. 

And this is what she said. Because I think these dynamics exist everywhere: 

“‘I wish Maria Taylor all the success in the world. She covers football. She covers basketball,’ Nichols said in July 2020. ‘If you need to give her more things to do because you’re feeling pressure about your crappy longtime record on diversity—which by the way, I know personally from the female side of it—like, go for it. Just find it somewhere else. You are not going to find it from me, or taking my thing away.'” 

Now, a few dynamics there. This sort of limited pot, right, that oftentimes any level of minority is placed into. So I’ve got a limited pot of my minority seats, and I’m going to take from this minority in order to give to this minority. I see it happen all the time. 

But also, Rachel’s response is always interesting, because she’s saying this is my thing. You’re not gonna take my thing and give it to someone else. Now if you’re going to have a conversation about power, and you’re trying to address disparities and all these things in society, first of all, institutions have to not do what they’re doing. Second, though, I could see this completely happening with the same type of bitterness or frustration or annoyance that Rachel is feeling is the same thing that happens to white men who come from households that are lower class. And if you are a white person coming from a lower-class background, and you are the individual who kind of is the first college graduate in your family, and you are working hard and you’re doing your thing, and then all of a sudden something is taken away from to give to a black man or a black woman, or a white woman, this is that backlash that is felt, right? When you don’t understand power structures, and when you don’t understand….because you look at it as mine. Listen, I work hard to be here just like everybody else. You’re not going to…it’s cool that you want to give it to this other person, but don’t take it from me. Find it somewhere else. What are y’all thoughts on all the different dynamics that tend to happen? And I’m gonna circle back to this Maria Taylor and Rachel Nichols story. What are yall’s initial reactions when you hear that?

Gray: Well, I’ll say something first real quick. The question that comes into mind is about competency. Because what Rachel did, either knowingly or unknowingly, was question Maria Taylor’s competency. Essentially that ESPN was not going to give Maria Taylor the job because she was competent, or either as good as or better than Rachel, but because she was black.

Phillip Holmes:  Right. Yep.

Gray: Basically saying that ESPN was trying to fix their diversity reputation, versus actually taking a hard look at Maria Taylor and saying, how talented is she? Is this something that she has worked for? What is her range? What is her expertise? And all that different stuff. But this is a corporate America scenario where someone—or two people are in position to gain a promotion or an opportunity, and factors like race come up because this is a black woman. And at the end of the day the Affirmative Action trigger is ready. Or at least, it seems like it’s always ready from a white person’s perspective, instead of truly considering merit.

Phillip Holmes:  Yes. Yep. That’s a good way to put it. 

Gray: It’s so interesting to me because at the end of the day, Rachel Nichols—she’s in a position of privilege just because of her family. She’s married to a director, and her mother-in-law is Diane Sawyer. So it’s like, all right, you’re going to get an opportunity somewhere. Let’s be real. That’s going to afford you conversations and networking opportunities that would not afford most people. Maria Taylor, on the other hand, is genuinely talented. If you guys are not familiar with her work, she’s great on TV.

Phillip Holmes: Yep.

Gray: Instant glow. Instant standout.

Phillip Holmes: She’s co-hosted…what is it? First Take with Stephen A. Smith a few times, right?

Gray: Yes. She’s great.

Phillip Holmes: I always enjoy when she’s moderating the conversation. She’s really good.

Gray: She’s great. So, end of the day, I think what continues to be a struggle for black people in this situation—for black women—is whether or not we are able to be viewed on our merits, and seen in equal light with our white counterparts as to what we deserve. 

Phillip Holmes: Yeah.

Gray: What we have worked for. And I think, in this scenario—I may say unintentionally, I don’t know—but Rachel Nichols would have positioned herself as a white ally for black people—for black advancement. But here it is. We always get to this point where it’s going to cost white folks something.

Phillip Holmes: Exactly. There you go.

Gray: It’s going to cost you something. You can’t just give it to me and then have your cake, too. You’re going to actually have to sacrifice. And it’s not even a sacrifice that’s based on some unfair ethnic advantage. It’s based on merit. How do you gauge talent? How do you gauge expertise? How do you gauge chemistry and say, all right, we’re gonna make a decision based on these factors. Not just based on your race. 

Phillip Holmes: Man, there’s so much you said there that is important. I’ll clarify a few things. When it comes to the contract, this isn’t anything that ESPN could make her do, because it was in her contract. ESPN was essentially asking her, hey, why don’t you do the sideline report and let Maria do this? Or, I don’t even know if they mentioned Maria as potentially her replacement. 

But what you said was right. I’m okay with Maria taking this job as long as it’s not taking anything from me. And this is when it comes to giving up power, and how important that part is in this conversation. Giving up—another word you might use is privilege—so that others can have opportunity. And again, I think there are a lot of people that are wrong in this particular conversation. There’s ESPN for pitting the two against each other. There’s Rachel for not recognizing that this is her opportunity to see that even though they are pitting us against each other, I’m not going to even bring race as a factor in this scenario because I don’t want to—even privately—because I don’t want to disparage the fact that she is very much qualified. She would do a great job. Right? And that wasn’t what she said. Even if she had been like, Maria would kill it. But I’m struggling with the idea of ESPN trying to pit us against each other. The dynamics of the conversation was they need to fix their crappy diversity record, so they want to give Maria this opportunity. And so you’re doing—and I think to some extent, Rachel could be right. 

But by being right and saying that’s what they were attempting to do, she also becomes a participant and part of the problem. Because institutions will give a talented and qualified black person an opportunity or a position, and they are more excited about that person being a particular minority than they are about the talent and the asset that that person is to the organization or the institution. So it’s really weird to watch it work. Because you can have somebody who’s super qualified; who’s killing it. They’d have a hard time finding somebody to replace that person, but when you ask them what they’re more excited about—or if you could get them to admit what they’re most excited about—it would be the fact that that person is a minority.

Gray: Listen, you know we’ve all experienced this, so…. (Laughs).

Phillip Holmes: Jasmine, what—go ahead, Taelor. My bad. 

Gray: No—Jasmine, I’m sure you can speak to it from your personal—and really what we’re getting into is what is the difference between competency and some sort of greater diversity agenda? I’m not sure if there’s a personal story or an experience you would like to share about how that played out for you, and where you saw real inequality in terms of treatment—or if you want to go as far as to say flat out racism—you know, just because you are a black woman.

Jasmine Holmes: Yeah. I want to be careful, but I have definitely experienced…I was a teacher for nine years and all nine years, all of the staff that I worked with was predominantly white. Only one of my nine years of teaching did I teach with another black teacher. And so, me being in the room sometimes was treated as an asset in the extreme. Like, Jasmine, we want to know about cultural competency. Tell us everything about being a black woman and how it intersects so that we can learn everything from you, and you can tell us all the right answers. That was a lot of pressure. To the other side, where it was like, hey, we like the idea of having a black woman in this position, but if you could just not bring anything to the table that actually has to do with the fact that you’re a black woman, that would be great. 

Those are two extremes that I have dealt with. Because you want to—in schools especially—especially when you’re in a school that’s predominantly white as a black woman, as a black teacher—I feel. These kids will maybe never have another opportunity to have black teacher again. Especially here in Mississippi, where the main colleges here don’t have a great track record at hiring and keeping black faculty. So there’s that tug of I want to be here. I want to be available. I want to help. I want to impact. I want to change. But it’s also a uniquely lonely and difficult circumstance to be in when you’re not sure if people are putting up with you, or if they actually want you there, or if they are threatened by you, or if they…it’s this constant mind game and question that I found myself asking every year that I taught.

Gray: Jasmine, thank you so much for sharing that. I’m sure you gave a voice to so many who are currently navigating that. And hopefully, to those who may be considering hiring a black woman, or integrating a black woman into their corporate structure, or their work environment. Hopefully, they can understand some of the difficulty and complexity of what it means to enter into that space. So, thank you for sharing that. I was just going to say: shout-out to (laughs) the Holmes kids.

Phillip Holmes: They did all right.

Gray: Yeah, they did all right. They did all right. We gotta get them on again one day. 

Jasmine Holmes: Oh, don’t even know what’s been going on behind this muted mic. You don’t even know.

(Laughter)

Phillip Holmes: Yeah, I’m about to come in there…

Gray: I can imagine.

(Jasmine laughs)

Gray: Yeah. I’m about to take mine swimming, so I’ll just say this: Jasmine, we thank you so much for being a guest for us. And, Phil, thank you for lending us some time with your wife. This is coming from a Malcolm X quote like we typically do, and it brings us to so much good conversation, so I appreciate that.

Phillip Holmes: Yeah, this was a super helpful conversation. I think we gotta have guests on more often. I enjoyed having a third party. Jasmine, if you want to be a recurring guest, you are more than welcome to keep coming back. But we gotta get some other people on as well. It was nice to have a third voice on the mic today. 

Jasmine Holmes: Thank y’all for having me. 

Gray: All right, to our listeners: thank you guys for joining us. I would suggest reading more about Betty Shabazz and Ilyasah Shabazz and the work she’s doing.

Phillip Holmes

Phillip Holmes is a marketing executive and owner of Highest Good Media. He and his family are members of Redeemer Church.

Taelor Gray

Taelor Gray currently serves as pastor at Linden Fellowship while doubling as a hip-hop artist. He and his wife have two children.