Brown White Black: Stories of an American family.

“We check all the boxes,” said author Nishta J. Mehra (far left, with Shiv and Jill).

“We check all the boxes,” said author Nishta J. Mehra (far left, with Shiv and Jill).

I have just finished reading Nishta J. Mehra’s new memoir Brown White Black: An American Family at the Intersection of Race, Gender, Sexuality, and Religion, and the word I can’t get out of my head is BRAVE.

 This collection of essays, both deeply personal and solidly researched, takes the reader through Mehra’s own journey toward clarity about her identity, biases, desires and choices. While it’s possible some readers might wonder what they have in common with a first-generation, queer, brown teacher and writer who grew up in the South, this book is also a field guide to building authentic family relationships during a time when just not talking about differences can be the easiest way to get through the day.

Mehra grew up in the racially polarized city of Memphis, where “just not talking about it” is a way of life. As the beloved only daughter of two Indian immigrants, she was well on her way to fulfilling their every dream for her … until she wasn’t.

To her great credit, she listened to her heart when she fell deeply in love with her religion professor in college; that professor is now her wife. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t comfortable. But, as Mehra writes pointedly, in one of my favorite lines in the book: “So much is riding on our ability as a society to give up the notion that we are entitled to be comfortable all of the time.”

For someone who is not part of the dominant culture, of course, comfort is not an option, and, in each of these essays, Mehra provides a window into living that life that’s as wide-open and honest as you’ll find.

She tells, painfully, of the rude and questioning glances she and her wife get when they are out with Shiv, their now 6-year-old. (They are Brown White Black, or, as Mehra calls them, a tri-color family.) When Shiv was 3, Mehra had to figure out how to respond when an older white boy on a playground said, “Black boys can’t play here.” Even ordering a coffee at Starbucks sets up a cross-cultural experience; apparently no barista anywhere spells NISHTA correctly without help and (sometimes) an explanation.

Still, you get the feeling that all of this hard work is, for Mehra, also where she finds the good stuff. The most authentic connections. The strength to keep moving forward. I hope so. Parts of this book are so searingly honest that they make me a little afraid for her. Her writing, though, is confident and intimate. She is clearly not afraid. Which is what makes this book so compelling.

Like the English teacher she is, Mehra is careful about language, both in this book and in her life. Shiv, her adopted child, was “placed with us” by his birth mother, rather than “given up.”

She and her wife Jill are resolutely truthful, especially when it comes to really difficult truths. After Shiv questions why there are child-sized shackles during a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Mehra writes: “In our family we believe evil is not inherent but chosen or taught. … There is danger, I feel, in fooling ourselves into thinking that all of the people who perpetuated a slaveholding state were somehow evil, different from us, separate, removed. A comforting thought. One I have learned to refuse.”

Mehra moves her stories along quickly, and doesn’t spend a lot of time explaining ideas she thinks a reader should know about. If you don’t already know what a bindi is and its significance, look it up. If coming out hasn’t been a part or your life or the life or anyone you know, you won’t find any hand-wringing about it here.

Yet Mehra’s point of view is clear and authentic without being defensive or harsh. It’s first-gen kid training in action, in the best way. If you’ve ever stumbled over pronouns for a colleague or friend, asked to be reminded what cisgender means or found yourself wondering how to think about a child experimenting with gender identity, you’ll find help here.

Mostly, though, you’ll find stories of a warm, loving family, told in Mehra’s signature, heart-tugging style, with a focus on what it takes to raise a healthy, whole child.

Shiv, who loves to dance, wore a tutu to see his first performance of The Nutcracker, and insisted on the same sparkly costumes and elaborate makeup as the girls in his dance class when it was time for their first recital.

Mehra continues: “The morning before (the recital’s dress rehearsal), he and I set off on an adventure with the dog, tromping around the backyard lake in the mud and muck … carrying sticks, both of us pretending to be superheroes with magic powers. And then the same boy, with the same level of excitement, took a shower, got dressed up in his leggings and ballet shoes, sat perfectly still while I put makeup on him for the first time, smoothing on his foundation and lining his eyes with my black pencil. … He took one look in the mirror and told me, ‘I’m pretty, mama!’

“You are, my boy. You are.”

 

Defending my health care, AGAIN.

img_pp_crop.jpg

Dear Senator Alexander:

I’m working in a great little café in Nashville today (above), not far from your Tennessee office on Capitol Hill. As you surely know, yesterday hundreds of people gathered there protest the Senate’s latest proposal to trash the Affordable Care Act, known as the Graham/Cassidy bill, and urge you and Senator Corker to vote against it.

The reason I am in town is because my little consulting business, now almost two years old, is going pretty well! I think there are ways for me to collaborate with some of the folks I know here to build my business. It’s been a very productive couple of days.

But I can’t stop thinking – worrying – about how I’ll buy insurance for my family once the insurance I have now runs out in December.

Frankly, it’s exhausting. And infuriating.

I believed you when you said you wanted to find a bipartisan solution to the problems with the Affordable Care Act, and cheered when you sat down with Patty Murray for hearings. What happened? Why won’t you continue to work together to fix what doesn’t work about Obamacare? Why would you consider voting for Graham/Cassidy so quickly when you won’t even know (from the Congressional Budget Office evaluation) what it will cost?

I believed you and other Republicans when you said you wanted to create jobs and support entrepreneurs and innovation. Starting my own communications consulting business has been some of the most gratifying and exhilarating work I’ve ever done. But I may not be able to continue to do this work unless I can find an affordable insurance solution for my family.

It’s hard not to feel betrayed by the craven politics that are being played with our health care options. And I’m well aware that I am one of the lucky ones: We might choose to pay the exorbitant premiums that an individual plan on the exchange demand. Many of my fellow Memphians simply don’t have that choice.

I have written about my anger and frustration about health care before – when I found out how much the rates for a Cigna plan (now the only option available in Shelby County) would go up, I was sitting in my husband’s hospital room.

Please step up, vote NO on Graham/Cassidy, and commit to doing the hard, bipartisan work of fixing our health care system so it is fair to ALL Americans, not just those who have dependable work and enough money not to care.

Why?

Because I believed you.

 

"Do better."

Photo: High Ground News

Photo: High Ground News

I hadn’t thought about him in years, the most awful boss I ever had. He was a condescending and ill-informed bully, hiding behind a shiny educational pedigree in a city – Memphis – where he clearly did not want to be. It was a scary time in journalism, and for a while, his ideas were the answer to every question about how to “save” the newspaper.

I know now that he was also a racist, thanks to a heartbreaking recent Facebook post by a former colleague.  I’m only sorry – and embarrassed – that I didn’t know it then.

As I continue to process the terrorism in Charlottesville and think about my response to the hateful Confederate statues in Memphis, I see and hear often from my African-American activist friends about how I can help, and what they need to keep going.

One thing they DON’T need is to have to keep explaining what white people can do about racism. That’s up to me.

It seems to me that the first thing I can do is own it. My privilege makes it easier for me to step away from the pain and aggression and exclusion and go back to my comfortable life any time I want. (Not necessarily easy, but easier.) But the racism and hatred that fueled the violence in Charlottesville is only a new point on a very long continuum for my black friends. This IS America. I know that now.

The next thing I can do is try to see the world around me in a new way, as it really is. Where is the exclusion? What systems don’t work for everyone? Who is being marginalized and excluded, especially at work?

The Facebook post that has haunted me tells of meeting after meeting where my friend’s ideas and input were ignored, until she was finally physically excluded in a meeting room full of people. I wasn’t in these meetings, but I could have been much more aware of the power dynamics of race that were working so painfully against her. 

Finally, I can take action, especially as a business owner. What messages do I send by where I sit and whom I speak to at meetings and social events? How do I broaden my pool of potential clients and contractors to include ALL kinds of people? If I am helping make a hire, are there African-Americans in every pool of finalists?

I also find power in the prosaic: Where do I choose to eat ... do I seek out black-owned restaurants to try? What neighborhood might I explore on my way to an appointment to get a new look at my city? Whom should I call for coffee to find out how she’s feeling about things?

To admit privilege and complicity in racist systems and seek understanding and growth is difficult and uncomfortable. But the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King is fast approaching, and here I am in Memphis. 

I have a lot of work to do.

Fundraising is yucky.

Editorial22.jpg

It was nearly the end of the fiscal year at the nonprofit where I worked – like, the day before the final day of the final quarter. We still hadn’t received one big gift, though the donor had long ago promised he’d come through. As I looked at our spreadsheets that summer morning, I realized that gift was the difference between making our (publicized everywhere) fundraising goal and missing it.

I’d called the donor several times already, and though he was unfailingly polite, I knew I was getting to be a pest.

I could send another email, which I knew he wouldn’t read. He wasn’t an email kind of guy, and of course he didn’t text. At least with me.

Sometimes he just got busy and forgot to send us the check. It had happened before.

I could feel a knot forming in my stomach. What to do?

I’m remembering this story – and feeling slightly nauseous as I think of it – because I’ve been thinking a lot recently of how sometimes fundraising is yucky.

You have to risk hearing the word NO, or, perhaps worse, you have to risk being seen as an annoying pest. It’s hard not to overthink a request for a gift, especially a big one. It can all seem so personal – what if the donor doesn’t really care as much about my work as I thought? What if I’m asking too much? What if … what if … what if?

That’s why I was comforted, as I often am, by what I read this morning from Joan Garry, a national nonprofit guru who has forgotten more than I'll ever know about fundraising. (Want to learn more of what Joan knows? She has a great new book out -- I'm underlining on every page.)

I was looking for tips about how to help a reluctant fundraiser get more comfortable with asking for big gifts. She's already a great storyteller for her organization, and she's getting more help with research. Setting goals and figuring out how to carve out time is coming along, too. It's a great, young organization doing important work. The future is bright.

The truth of the matter is, though, sometimes you just have to do what you have to do: You have to ask. Clearly, politely, thankfully. Sometimes repeatedly. 

Which is what I finally decided to do with my big donor. I called him that day -- twice, I think -- and finally got him on the phone. He told me he was happy to write the check, but he'd put it in the mail.

"No need," I said, and jumped in my car to drive over and pick it up. 

Goal achieved. Lesson learned.

 

Wish I'd thought of that, 1

Sometimes I come across an idea that leaps out at me and makes me jealous that I didn't have it first. This is the first one I'm sharing here, though I'm always looking for more.

Memphis chocolatier and entrepreneur Phillip Ashley Rix has been doing a great Facebook campaign this summer, #dailychocolate. Each day, he posts a man's name and a woman's name, and if you see yours you can head to his Cooper-Young store for a free sample. (I like it so much I'm not even hurt that my name will never show up.) Of course, you tag your Facebook friends so they can get a freebie, too, connecting all sorts of new potential customers to Rix's account. Genius!

Rix is not just a savvy marketer (his first big splash was doing the chocolates for Grammy swag bags a couple of years ago), he's also building a profile as a dessert master chef -- at the end of the week he'll be cooking at the James Beard House in NYC.

My current Phillip Ashley favorite: Fig ginger. Though the mirror-finished chocolate ganache cakes he posted on this week look amazing, too.

 

A place to dream.

I got a look inside the Crews Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Memphis yesterday, and it is COOL. Inspirational sayings on the wall. A co-work space for students and faculty. Colored Post-its, open meeting rooms, easy parking. 

Which got me thinking: How does the space you work in influence the work you do? And what is it about Post-its that make entrepreneurs so happy?

As someone who has been adamant about not working at home since I launched my business, I know that having an office, as well as being able to be creative there, is critical. But I've also discovered that what I really need is space to think -- someplace quiet, inspirational, affordable, and mine. I sometimes long for those days in The CA newsroom, when there was always someone interesting to talk to and something going on, but I think those days are over for me.

For now, I am happy with my own office space -- in the co-work space at Emerge Memphis, you should check it out -- and my own little stack of Post-it notes. Yep, they make me pretty happy.