WE NEED TO TALK more about race.
I had the honor and the privilege of hosting go-getter Fatima Nash on my podcast/FaceTime Live recently. Fatima is a corporate hot-shot, business-savvy Black Woman, mother of two sons and budding social justice change agent. She will be debuting her own podcast coming up soon called 360 Degree Talk — a place to have frank conversations about race, about differences. She is a motivational speaker in training—she’s getting the word out that a Black woman wants to talk openly about race with white people, and white people DO NOT HAVE TO FEAR. That’s why she came on my show — to answer what may seem to her to be stupid questions from a middle-aged, balding white guy (that’s me!).
We billed it as the Ask a Black Woman Your Questions about Race. Fatima believes, and I agree, that the issues of race and how those issues are disseminated in the media and manifest in our society is The Most Important Topic of our day. These kind of frank discussions are long overdue, and she wants to share her experiences as being a woman of color, a mother of color, a patriotic citizen of color.
2020 was a challenging year, and not because of the pandemic. The murder of George Floyd almost one year ago became a lightning rod around not only how Black men are treated by the police, but about how we as a society of what I believe to be mostly caring and good-hearted individuals have ingested false narratives about race, and repeat those narratives without bothering to reflect the more nuanced, complicated facets.
We often seem content to let the media feed us its version of events without a lot of pushback or critical thinking. Media portrayals of people of color are designed to sell news and information to a mostly white audience. Much of this news traffics in fear, especially the fear of the Other. A news cycle is short and there’s not a lot of time for folks to digest and really think about what they see on websites, social media or TV. It’s time for smart people like Fatima to add their take on what’s going on around us regarding race. So Fatima started having these kind of frank, challenging conversations with people, people who both agree and disagree with her. Fatima knows that she is one Black person with one point of view, but without brave, straight-talking people like her, the conversation goes nowhere. I’m glad she chose me to have one of these conversations with.
I have learned over the past year a lot about race and racism.
I am embarrassed to admit how much I didn’t/don’t know and how naive my views on race often were/are. One thing I did learn was that white folks are not supposed to ask Black folks to teach them about race. EG: Please teach me about racism.
But Fatima believes that in the right context, it is very appropriate for a Black person to impart their knowledge, their truth to a white learner. She wants to keep the conversation going and growing about race, racism and the incredible challenges faced by people of color in our country today. Otherwise she believes we won’t get anywhere on these tough, intractable issues.
I hope you’ll listen to the entirety of my conversation with this budding motivational speaker and podcaster. I couldn’t get everything she said down here—but everything she said is worth listening to.
Fatima’s background—she lives in Chesterfield county in VA, roughly 35 miles southwest of Richmond. She was born in the Bronx, New York, of a single mother; she has never met her bio dad. Her mom met the man Fatima knows as her father a few years later. Then her dad got into the military and the family moved to Alaska which was an extremely challenging move for all of them. Fatima credits moving to Alaska as saving her life. Growing up in the Bronx in the 80s, below the poverty line, as a Black girl would have been very risky and she does not believe she would have made it through.
Alaska was a big cultural change for her. She related a story about her first day of school in Alaska, which I’m willing to bet was not like any white person’s first day of school in that state or anywhere. She was in the 2nd grade. She got her hair plaited the day before by her mother which was very special for her because she got lots of attention from mommy. The next day, her new teacher exclaimed over Fatima’s braids, and proceeded to pull at them and touch her scalp, raking her fingers through her hair, saying how different it was. She asked Fatima how she got her hair to do what it did, and invited other students to touch it as well. Needless to say, Fatima was confused and embarrassed.
Fatima knew something was wrong when she told her parents—they were extremely upset. Her mom was angry with Fatima and asked her what she was thinking allowing her teacher to do that. Fatima said she was only 7 and couldn’t help it. Her mom told her she should own it—as a Black girl or woman you must learn how to defend yourself from unwanted intrusions into to your space. Her father requested a parent-teacher conference and made sure the teacher knew her actions had been inappropriate and should never happen again.
The family was transferred to Newport News, VA which is where Fatima attended HS. Because of the large naval base there, the area was truly a melting pot of people from all over the world. Her skin color was rarely an issue. However, when she went to college and moved to Richmond, that’s when it really hit her that color was a thing. She learned more in depth about the racial history of the South, realized that many native Richmonders are proud that Richmond had been the capital of the confederacy, learned about the Civil War statues, and saw the Confederate flags proudly displayed. This pride in such a negative, horrifying history was hard for her to reconcile. There was a very definite difference as to how Richmonders looked at POC. The statues, the flags were a constant reminder of the history between Black and white people, and if white people tolerated the display of symbols of slavery and white supremacy, they must think that racism is just normal and ok.
I asked Fatima if my education as a white person was different from hers? Yes, she said, because of what her parents taught her about being Black in America. Black parents tell their kids always to remember they are Black. You have to be more polite, more rule-abiding, more non-threatening. They taught her to avoid that Confederate flag, avoid confrontation. This infused a certain knowledge in her that white people were to be feared and had to be placated.
This is challenging for her in raising her own kids. She has to make sure her kids are safe mentally. They have to see their parents as role models for appropriate responses to racism. She doesn’t want to have her sons see her lose her temper over how they have been treated—they need to see her taking action, changing things for the better, teaching offenders the right way to behave. And Fatima has been the target of racism many times, both in casual and more deliberate ways—places where she is not waited on because she is Black, businesses that ignore her and her family because they are Black. It’s hard to ignore these slights when watching white people be served even when they came into the restaurant or business later.
And she sees how Black men are treated as a threat. She witnesses it whenever she is with her husband and even her sons. You get a feeling, a vibe when someone is being racist—they don’t want to wait on you or serve you. Fatima understands the difference between someone who is being an ass because they are ass, and someone who is racist.
Fatima says she is tired of having these race conversations with people who look like her. She believes Black people need to be secure in their Blackness in order to help white people understand. How else can we make a difference if we don’t educate white people. She knows there are plenty of Black people who don’t think this way, and she accepts that there will be debate in the community over this issue. But she is going to do what she thinks is right.
Confederate Statues in Richmond, Virginia
Regarding the toppling of the Confederate statues in Richmond—she understood that some white people would be upset to see these historical monuments removed; her feeling is they should be preserved in an appropriate place as reminders of history. She wants to be able to take her kids to learn about them, not have the boys see them while she’s driving down the street to be reminded that some people don’t want Black people around. She wants her kids to learn about other Black leaders besides just MLK, Jr. or Harriet Tubman. There are so many amazing Black people who have made history. Historical Black figures need to have more balanced representation in education which would benefit all people.
She cannot hold anger about racism all the time. Doing that just plays into stereotypes. She has to overcome the anger, all Black women do. And she doesn’t want white people to always be feeling guilt and shame over history — you did not enslave me, she says. Her message to whites is: Go educate yourself, learn how to be anti-racist, how to help others. Go grab someone who doesn’t have the same opportunities, go help. Use your privilege to support someone who may not have it.
Fatima spoke frankly and vulnerably about how has racism affected her career. She said she’s always second guessing whether she is being denied opportunities others receive due to racism or to something else. This takes up a lot of head space and is stressful. For example, she was passed over for a promotion a few years back, and a younger, less experienced white person got the job. Corporate leadership said the other woman had worked at the company for six months more, which is why she was promoted, even though Fatima had better qualifications. The experience damaged her confidence. It is frustrating to be held in place, where she can’t work harder, think harder, achieve harder to escape, because what is holding her down is the color of her skin. She cannot figure out how to be white, she never will. Unfortunately the world doesn’t see her as a model of corporate America, even though she knows she is.
Regarding her success in business, Fatima’s had to make it all up—she hasn’t had close role models. She is a first generation college student in her family. She has to work twice as hard to get a shot. She’s always going to work harder, give more. That is how she lives her life. Come in early and stay late.
Of course there are some role models from the larger world, like Michelle Obama and Kamala Harris. She is thrilled to be able to look at Kamala and say, hey we look kind of alike. When she was young she wanted to be like Claire Huxtuble of The Cosby Show. And she did have a former professor and advisor who told her that it’s okay to be animated and over 40. Being passionate is who she is, so she’s owning it.
Fatima will be the role model for those who come after her. She’ll do what she needs to do to represent her cohort well. She always seeks out people she can mentor.
I asked Fatima if she could change one thing in America, what would it be? And her answer touched me. She said she would change how Black people look at themselves. She gave the example of the Willie Lynch essays, by a slave-owner who was trying to educate whites in Jamestown on how “best” to keep slaves obedient by breaking their minds and spirits. So, if she could do one thing in the world, it would be take away from Black people the way they have been manipulated and programmed by society into believing they are inferior. Our self-esteem is so damaged, she says. They are taught in every facet of their life that they are second. Small things, like pale band-aid colors or crayons being called “flesh tone.” The way the world taught me to look at myself, I would change that, she says.
What gives you hope, Fatima Nash?
I asked, “What gives you hope?” And she gave me such a compliment, I still am humbled. She said, you, Brad Montgomery, give me hope. You opened your platform and your heart on the most important topic of her life. Gives her hope that others are out there that can do that too.
You give me hope, too, Fatima Nash. Your candor and exceptionalism can only bring this difficult and complicated discussion forward. I am proud to have had you on the show.
We might do this again, because there is always more to say about this topic. Hopefully Fatima will say yes again.