By CHLOE DOTSON, BUPD 2012, MURP 2013
When I was a little girl, my father took me to the beach. We sat down in the sand, and I peered out into the ocean. My fathered pointed out into the ocean saying, “Look … look there, you see that ocean? That is where your ancestors came from. We were kidnapped, brought here in bondage on ships, and sold into slavery – we are their descendants. Don’t you ever forget that.”
As a young girl I watched my parents work with extremely poor, distressed, majority black and brown communities that have been negatively impacted by crime, drugs and hopelessness. My parents’ ultimate goal was to provide safe and sanitary housing and venues for economic investment and wealth generation. I remember watching community charrettes as my father and mother bustled around the tables working with and listening to residents to get a sense of community needs, site design, and community amenities.
Going to Ball State University College of Architecture and Planning in 2008 – with a fierce passion — I knew exactly how I wanted to contribute to society. I enrolled in the spring and concentrated my studies in Urban Planning and Development. I knew I had a bright future at Ball State – especially with my father being in the same college of architecture and planning facility as a professor of architecture.
Little did I know – despite the prestige and visibility of my father, my own hard work, dedication, merit and intellect – I encountered the disappointing fact that I was in fact black and treated as such. I received a D- on a major urban planning studio project, one my father and I had already carefully reviewed and discussed together, because the background of the presentation was “black.” I also experienced my arm being physically grabbed by a professor to prevent me from exiting a classroom. Ball State was a prelude to my treatment as a black body in the years to come.
During my adventures at Ball State – I attended the CapAsia program guided by Dr. Nihal Perera – which despite my story in this article – profoundly shaped my life as a woman of color. During the CapAsia program I remember having a conversation with a group of students. Students from India were talking about the caste system and how entrenched it was due to colonialism and economic hierarchies. Two students from Ball State commented that racism did not exist in America any more since the Civil Rights movement (American Exceptionalism meets pure ignorance). The students from India looked at me confused. I responded “Racism does not exist for THEM.”
Upon returning from CapAsia and graduating with a bachelor’s degree then a master’s degree, I moved to Milwaukee, Wisc., as a neighborhood revitalization coordinator working in extremely poor, disenfranchised, majority black and brown urban communities. In a position making roughly 65k, among many other accusations, I was accused of personally cutting and removing green beans from a community garden I had started with local low-income community members. I responded to this accusation by stating green beans do not have to be cut off, they snap off from the plant easily – “hence the name snap peas.” I soon left this position – I was 22 years old.
I then moved to a position on the south side of Milwaukee – after three months of being pursued by the company – to work as a neighborhood planner. Six weeks into the job, the board chair – a mid-aged woman of color — called me into a board room to discuss the presentation I was to make the following week to major funders.
She asked me if I was going to wear my hair “like that,” using her finger to circle my head and hair in the air. I said “yes.” The next day I came to work with the exact same natural hair style, a large curly afro meticulously pulled tightly to the rear of my head – edges and kitchen perfected. The following day, my supervisor called me into the office and said I was being fired immediately for irreconcilable disrespect. I sued and because hair is not directly tied to race (thus discrimination) – I was awarded two weeks’ pay – which covered my legal fees. Out of a job with no notice, I move to Brownsville, Texas.
As the director of economic and industrial development, during my first day on the job, a colleague, when her computer did not function properly, referred to the computer as a “nigga.” Once she said it, she looked at me. I looked at her. She immediately said “oh, everyone says that around here. Even my children say it.” She then began to cry. I sighed, peering over to her door that was decorated with Christmas white doves, a large cross and a depiction of a white Jesus, the “Prince of Peace.” I lasted nine months.
As I continue to geographically, emotionally, and spiritually navigate through this racist and sexist society, I am compelled to rely on the never forsaken inner strength derived from my ancestors, who survived the trip across the ocean, and from their descendants, who I unconditionally vow to protect and serve.
Today at 31 years of age, the words of my father resonate with me more than ever. America is in jeopardy of collapsing under the weight of its own history. From protests over continued legal genocide of black and brown American citizens, to lethal citizen-led counter protests supported by the US military and administration, to mass unemployment and sprawling capitalism without morals, to racially disproportionate mass incarceration, to a broke and organizationally dysfunctional government capable of suspending essential funds for over 30 million unemployed Covid-19 impacted families – TODAY — the collapse under the weight of our history is so clear. As countries with fewer underlying racial, ethnic, and economic disparities control the rise and impact of Covid-19 – the stagnant history of race relations and economic disparities of America are reflected in our inability to unite in an effort to save ourselves.
Chloé Dotson is director of development for the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville in Brownsville, Texas (Rio Grande Valley).