Black in Amsterdam: Should She Return to the US to Expose Her Son to ‘the Struggle,’ or Nah?

Marly Pierre-Louis, her husband and son ,

Marly Pierre-Louis, her husband and son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

Marly Pierre-Louis, an African-American expatriate living in Amsterdam, looks at the #BlackLivesMatter movement under way in the U.S. and wants her young son to identify with that cultural pride. But at what price?

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This article was published at The Root on February 6, 2015.

Marly Pierre-Louis spotted them out of the corner of her eye. She was sitting on the train in Amsterdam one winter day and did an about-face the second she stepped on the platform so that she wouldn’t have to get a full view of the ridiculousness.

“White Dutch people in blackface, curly hair and red lipstick,” Pierre-Louis, a 31-year-old black American living in Amsterdam, sneered. “It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.”

She’s talking about Zwarte Piet. It’s the Netherlands’ version of one of Santa’s elves, except the Zwarte Piet costume requires that white people wear blackface, a short Afro wig and then, to add insult to injury, fire-engine-red lipstick. It’s as if the Dutch literally snatched a page right out of the minstrel-show playbook.

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Jan Arkesteijn/Wikimedia Commons)  COMMONS

Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (Jan Arkesteijn/Wikimedia Commons) COMMONS

When Pierre-Louis asked her Dutch friends what was the deal with the Mantan-looking characters parading around Amsterdam during Christmastime, they reassured her that the Zwarte Piet costume meant no harm and carried with it no racial connotation. As the story goes, Zwarte Piets have their faces blackened because of the soot inside people’s chimneys. Lest we forget, Pierre-Louis was told, they’re tasked with making their way up and down chimneys, and in and out of fireplaces, delivering toys to well-behaved Dutch kids during the holidays.

It’s a pretty convincing explanation that Pierre-Louis told The Root she has a hard time believing. When asked if she was perhaps looking at an innocuous Dutch tradition through an American lens—as ethnocentric Americans tend to do—Pierre-Louis insisted that her black Dutch friends reassured her that her racism meter wasn’t completely off.

“When you talk to black Dutch people and hear their stories about being teased as kids, and called Zwarte Piet, no one can tell me that it’s not related to race,” Pierre-Louis argued.

It’s that kind of consciousness—one of “Am I being objective here, or looking at this through America’s racial lens?”with which Pierre-Louis sometimes wrestles. But not often, because she says she’s never really had a pronounced experience with race in the nearly two years she’s been living in Amsterdam. Originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., she, her husband and son, now 3, moved to the Netherlands in 2013 when her husband landed a great coding gig in its capital city, Amsterdam. The Dutch pride themselves on “not seeing race” and being “tolerant” (as if ignoring race eliminates racism, Pierre-Louis noted), but other than that, race isn’t really a biggie in her new life.  

She does foresee it becoming an issue when she thinks about where she and her husband intend to raise their son. A large part of that discussion hinges on what kind of racial identity, or lack thereof, she wants her son to have.

Marly Pierre-Louis’ 3-year-old son. (SOILIVEINAMSTERDAMNOW.TUMBLR.COM)

Marly Pierre-Louis’ 3-year-old son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

The Dutch don’t have a gun culture, Pierre-Louis explains, so one’s black kid is less likely to get shot in the street because someone finds him “suspicious,” she said, referencing Trayvon Martin. She cringes at how “structural racism” in the U.S. is so real, and so blatant, that sometimes it carries with it life-or-death consequences.

“‘So my son can just be walking on the street and somebody kills him?’” Pierre-Louis recalls asking herself. “‘Oh no, I’m not going back to the States,’” she vowed at one point. 

But then she took a gander at the racial culture in Amsterdam.

The Dutch pride themselves on being far too advanced to drive themselves into a frenzy over a social construct called race, which, on one hand, is a good thing, since again, no one is getting shot or being funneled through an inferior public school system or getting substandard health care. (Pierre-Louis marvels at how even the low-end in Amsterdam is pretty high. The Netherlands’ safety net is on fleek.)

Marly Pierre Louis’ husband and son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

Marly Pierre Louis’ husband and son. (Soiliveinamsterdamnow.tumblr.com)

But on the other hand, Pierre-Louis says, the Dutch don’t see her, they just admire black American culture. On one hand, she realizes that everything black Americans have gone through—from chattel slavery to Jim Crow, to being disenfranchised and then fighting for those rights during the civil rights movement and beyond—has led to a demonstrative and rich style in the way in which we express ourselves, our music and fashion that Europeans want to emulate.

“I think our history enabled us to be these really powerful creators of culture,” Pierre-Louis described. “It was a beautiful struggle” that created “amazing dynamic people,” she said. Europeans borrow the fashion and use remnants of black culture to make things cool. 

But Pierre-Louis describes how that coolness rarely translates into anything substantive for black Europeans. She and a friend went to see an opera recently that had a picture of a black king on its marketing poster. But when the curtains closed at the end of the production, Pierre-Louis realized that nary a black character appeared in the opera. It was an example, she said, of how blackness is “provocative and exoticized” and used as a cool factor to lure Dutch people in, but then that’s where it ends. “Having black people in the show is not something they were interested in.” 

Pierre-Louis wants her son to identify as a black American and to revel in black cultural pride in a real and genuine way. But she is concerned that gaining admission to that club involves moving back to the U.S. and having him go through “the struggle.”  

“He needs the black [American] experience … I need him to struggle,” she said.

But, as if the gravity of the word “struggle” had sunk in, Pierre-Louis censored herself: “Maybe it doesn’t have to be about the struggle. I don’t think he only needs to be subjected to the struggle of blackness. “I just want him to learn to find power and strength in the madness.”

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Black Cubans: Restoring U.S. Ties is Cool, But America, Keep Your Hang-ups About Race at Bay

An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba. All Rights Reserved.

An Afro-Cuban sugarcane cutter in Pinar del Río, Cuba. All Rights Reserved.

Will the current racial tension in America seep into Cuba and awaken a sleeping giant? Black Cubans say probably not.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

An abridged version of this article was published at The Root on January 21, 2015.

It doesn’t matter how much Cuba’s culture changes now that the U.S. has restored diplomatic relations, if you’re waiting for black Cubans to set off some sort of racial revolution, don’t hold your breath.

That’s according to a handful of black Cubans who shared their thoughts and experiences with The Root in the edited Q&A below about how the restoration of ties between the U.S. and Cuba might impact black Cubans. They also spoke candidly on how their experiences with “race” compares to the African-American experience—especially in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Four black Cubans and one mulatto shared their perspectives: Omar Diaz, a 28-year-old black Cuban actor living in Miami, immigrated to the U.S. when he was four years old. He said that while he’s rooting for a democratic Cuba, he hopes that black Cubans will continue to benefit from socialism’s decree that Cubans prioritize nationalism over race.

Ruben*—a 52-year-old black photographer and book publisher. He is the only interviewee that is still living in Cuba and did not emigrate, save for a few business trips to Europe every now and then. Even though he spoke passionately about the race inequality in Cuba, he explained why he and most black Cubans don’t quite see themselves as Afro-Cuban or black Cuban—just Cuban.

afro cuban boys

Afro-Cuban boys playing in Trinidad, Cuba. JPLAVOIE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

First-cousins Elia E. Espuet and Sira Perez, on the hand, both strongly identify as Afro-Cubans. Both women, ages 63 and 62, immigrated to the U.S. when they were teenagers in the late 1960s, Fidel Castro having assumed power in 1959. They could easily pass as African Americans, though they vividly remember how they were advised not to, in order to escape the brutality facing black Americans fighting for civil rights. That distinction—Cuba’s kind of racism versus America’s kind racism—stuck with them. They maintain that black Cubans have it better in some ways on that front.  

Georgina Rodriguez, 53,—their mulatto, as she described herself, cousin (who was categorized as “white” in Cuba when she was born)—doesn’t want Americans spewing their “racial framework” and “neo-conservatism” all over Cuba. She argues the former doesn’t account for all of Cuba’s ethnicities and the latter will only widen the inequality gap.

The Root: What do you think about how the U.S. and Cuba are restoring diplomatic relations?

Diaz: It’s about time. President Obama was correct when he sat down, analyzed the situation and found that it hadn’t worked for over 50 years. And even though the U.S. didn’t get everything it should have gotten, in terms of the democratic rights that should be granted to Cubans, I think this is the first step that needed to be taken towards the overall goal of bringing democracy to Cuba. This idea that ‘If we kept the relationship the same, things are going to change,’ obviously wasn’t working.

Espuet: I’m also delighted. Cuba’s economic situation will improve as the tourism and business sectors flourish. But, I do fear that as travel to Cuba expands, so will racism. 

The Root: I’ve heard that concern. The idea that while Fidel Castro’s socialism didn’t bode well for Cuba’s economy—largely due to the downfall of its benefactor, the Soviet Union—it did break some ground with regard to making race less of a thing.

Diaz: Yeah—I spoke to my grandmother about what it was like being a black Cuban during Castro’s socialist regime and she told me that for the first time, she was able to elevate herself and become a school principal—a position that was not previously attainable for a black woman. She and my mother said that when Castro took over, Cubans were conditioned to emphasis nationalism over race.

I’m not saying racism in Cuba is completely gone—because I don’t think you can ever get rid of racism—but the mentality that socialism brought to Cuba is that there isn’t a black Cuba or a white Cuba; we’re all the same. Communism led to that. Under the U.S. embargo, my black grandmother and black mother say their experience with racism was very little—if any at all.

Ruben: It was one of Fidel’s goals, but it was never quite realized because   there were too many people that benefited from having blacks relegated to second class.

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An interracial couple in Havana City with pictures of Ché Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the wall and a bust of Cuban national hero José Marti on the shelf. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Root: With all that being said, do you all think of yourself as a black Cuban or just Cuban?

Ruben: I don’t feel Afro-Cuban—my cultural link to Africa has been minimal to none. In Cuba, the reference to African culture is not as conscious as it is in the U.S. where blacks refer to themselves as African Americans.

Espuet: I absolutely identify as an Afro-Cuban. I am proud of my African heritage. It is an invisible badge of honor that I proudly wield.

But, I must say that when I first left Cuba at age 14, I self-identified as Cuban—not really black. It took years of learning, exploring, understanding and finally accepting what I truly am: a proud black Cuban woman.

Perez: I’m also very proud to identify as black or Afro-Cuban.

A Cuban takes a break near his statue of Saint Lazarus near the Rincon Church in Havana in 2009. Adalberto Roque/Getty Images

A Cuban takes a break near his statue of Saint Lazarus near the Rincon Church in Havana in 2009. Adalberto Roque/Getty Images

The Root: Espuet, you began to touch on this: As American influences trickle into Cuba in the years to come, is there a concern that the racial progress that Castro’s socialism ushered in will become undone?

Espuet: Yes—I’m inclined to believe that as relations with Cuba and the United States go forward, the rich white Cubans will marginalize the black Cubans on the island. Unfortunately, I don’t see things becoming better for black Cubans.

Rodriguez: Agreed. I mean everyone in Cuba—black, white and mulatto—will benefit from better infrastructure and greater access to goods, food and medicine. The Castro regime will no longer have an excuse for its totalitarian control over people’s thoughts or actions and the Cuban people will finally be thrust into the modern world with Internet and everything. But, there is a degree of wariness with regards to the potential socioeconomic inequalities that America’s kind of neo-conservative capitalism brings with it.

The Root: But doesn’t socioeconomic inequality already exist in Cuba? White Cubans are disproportionately represented in politics; they have the best-paying jobs—they live in the best neighborhoods. Socialism certainly didn’t cause that inequality, but it doesn’t exactly allow for social and civic expressions like homosexuality or freedom of speech either.

Rodriguez: African Americans have more equal rights “on paper” than Afro-Cubans, but that hasn’t eradicated racism in American society or its institutions like the police. Look at Ferguson and Trayvon Martin for instance.

In Cuba, the races live side by side much more than they do in the U.S. There is far less de facto segregation in Cuba. Families are so much more mixed and so racial hatred in Cuba doesn’t run as deep as in America, because everyone has a black grandma cooking in the kitchen unseen. So I would definitely say that there is more racial equality in Cuba than in the USA in many ways.

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Afro-Cuban musicians entertain tourists on the streets of Havana. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

The Root: There’s poverty in Cuba. Black Cubans—who were always marginalized—have felt that Will their financial wellbeing improve if the embargo is lifted and American dollars start to trickle into Cuba with more ease and less restrictions? 

Diaz: Definitely—I’m looking forward to the economic benefits. Most black Cubans aren’t receiving financial help from relatives abroad—like white Cubans do—because remember blacks didn’t leave Cuba at the time of the Revolution. Castro’s policies appealed mostly to the poor, so they stayed. Now that the channels are opening up, someone like me, a black Cuban, can go back to my island, open up a business there, or open up a business here in the U.S. and help my black Cuban relatives.

Rodriguez: Affirmative-action policies will certainly benefit black Cubans.

The Root: What do Cuba and the U.S. have in common when it comes to race relations? What are some of the differences?  

Rodriguez: In terms of similarities, a white or light-skinned Cuban would definitely prefer their children not to marry a “negro” because there is the idea that their descendants are going to take a step back socially—atrasarse.

The Root: I suspect that’s how colorism works here in the U.S.

Rodriguez: But people are very understanding of attraction, lust and love. So interracial couples happen a lot in Cuba and it’s definitely not a taboo; people don’t stare at you and your kids don’t get stigmatized.

The differences: The day-to-day experience of the average black person in Cuba is far less scary than in America. Black lives are not endangered in Cuba simply because there is far less crime and guns are illegal. 

Perez: Yeah, I don’t recall being threatened in Cuba, nothing like the racism here in the U.S. Now racism does exist in Cuba, but again, it’s just different. For instance, when I was a child, I wanted to take ballet lessons at a school in Havana but I knew that was a dream that would never come true because of the color of my skin and not having the right connections.

I also remember looking through the holes of the gate to this exclusive tennis club and dreaming of one day to be able to participate. That was also an impossible dream at the time, but I guess that as a black Cuban, I conformed and accepted our place in society.

A Cuban prepares popcorn for Saint Lazar

A Cuban prepares popcorn for Saint Lazarus pilgrims in Havana, Dec. 2009. Thousands of believers gather annually to fulfill vows made to Saint Lazarus (also referred to as Babalu Aye) for the worshippers of the Afro-Cuban religion. ADALBERTO ROQUE/GETTY IMAGES

The Root: What has it been like being black in Cuba, versus being black in the U.S.?

Espuet: When I first came to the U.S. from Cuba at age 14, race and ethnicity were not questions I thought about at all, but I definitely faced them in the U.S. It was confusing because friends of the family would tell us that being a black Cuban in the U.S. was tantamount to being white. We had a “pass.”

If there were any racial incidents, just let them know you are Cuban and you’ll be O.K.’ they would tell us. What?! This was completely new to me.

Perez: I pushed back against that when the U.S. census tried to identify me as Hispanic only. I made the correction and added “black.” My identity as a black Cuban became even more prominent when my kids—who were growing up in the U.S.—identified themselves as Afro-Americans.

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Sira Perez at age 17 in Kingston, Jamaica, 1970. She had just gotten off the boat from Cuba and was en route to the U.S. COURTESY OF SIRA PEREZ

The Root: What is Cuba’s perception of America’s race relations, especially in light of the #BlackLivesMatter movement?

Espuet:  Back then, I remember being glad that because of my nationality, no one would come after me with dogs and water hoses—a fear I had before leaving Cuba. In the 1960s, there was widespread propaganda in Cuba about how African Americans were being treated in America. I remember telling my mother that I was afraid to go live in the U.S. She had to assure me that we were going to New York, and things like that didn’t happen there. But, racism here in the U.S. is alive and well and rampant. It saddens me to think that in this day and age, it is still a dominating issue among Americans.

An Afro-Cuban dancer perfoms, on May 27,

n Afro-Cuban dancer perfoms, on May 27, 2009, in Havana during the Wemilere festival, the most traditional event aimed at keeping the African roots. STR/GETTY IMAGES

The Root: Do you think black Cubans will become more racially conscious and want to exalt their blackness—for lack of a better term? Bring more awareness to their African ancestry?

Ruben: I don’t think America’s social influence will affect black Cubans. Cuba has been exposed to tourism and has had contact with the developed world for 20 years; that exposure hasn’t triggered a renewed awareness of ethnic identity. Nor has racism has become stronger or weaker, in my opinion.

Diaz: I do think there would be a rise in black culture, but there wouldn’t be a movement to create a Black History Month in Cuba, per se, because again Cubans were conditioned to put nationalism before race. Black Cubans wouldn’t do anything to separate themselves, but more so, to bring more awareness to black culture and to celebrate it.

Black Cuban public figures, like Celia Cruz for example, will be celebrated. If a democracy is put in place and restrictions against certain kinds of activism are lifted, people that need to be celebrated in Cuba are going to be celebrated. And a lot of those people are going to be black Cubans for sure. African culture is in the food and it’s in the music—and those are the two most important things in Cuba. {Laughter}.

The Root: Is that level of racial consciousness a good thing or a bad thing?

Rodriguez: I prefer the racial framework in Cuba and other Latin American countries because there are more options than black or white—an attitude that I think the USA needs to adopt now that there are so many bi- and multiracial people. Notice how Ruben in Cuba rejects the term Afro-Cuban, while Elia and Sira in the U.S. accept it? In my opinion, that’s the U.S. racial framework that Elia and Sire have learned to apply.

*Ruben is a pseudonym. He lives in Cuba and would only speak to The Root on condition of anonymity.

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WATCH: Diana Discusses Raven-Symoné’s Contradictory Comments On ‘What Is American’

Raven spoke as if all Americans are mixed-race or perhaps not clear about their ancestry.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This segment was published at The Root TV on Oct. 7, 2014.

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The Root TV: Whose Race Legacy Will Reign Supreme: Obama’s or Holder’s?

One guy seems to be playing chess, the other checkers, and The Root staff is torn over whose strategy will fare better in the long run.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

This video and an abridged version of this article was published at The Root on September 7, 2014.

I often wonder if President Barack Obama ought to take a page out of Attorney General Eric Holder’s book when it comes to being mindful about his legacy as the first African-American president, in the same manner that Holder seems to be astutely mindful (and adept at crafting) his own legacy as the country’s first African-American attorney general.

It seems as if one guy is playing chess (Obama) and the other checkers (Holder), and to be honest, I’m not sure which of the two is the wiser. After watching these two from a distance for the past six years, I still don’t know who I would put my money on in a poker game.

Although, I have to say that I am leaning toward Holder’s strategy—for lack of a better word.

Ever since he assumed his post as the nation’s top law enforcer six years ago, Holder has been extremely candid: here’s a list of all the times Holder demonstrated that he’s never one to mince words, particularly when it comes to the issue of race.

Then there’s Obama, the one with the “measured” approach. It seems his modus operandi has always been the long game. When people were up in arms about how Obama should have been more stern and upset when expressing anger about the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., The Root’s associate editor, David Swerdlick, reminded folks of the hierarchy that people seem to overlook: Holder gets his marching orders from Obama.

And while that pecking order is correct, I’m still concerned that Obama seems to be resting his laurels—and his legacy—on the idea that most Americans will readily get that. Or that down the road, Americans will remember. Essentially, I’m concerned that Obama is overestimating the memory of the American people by the way in which he chooses to convey his passion about issues of racial justice.

In today’s world, we ingest sound bites, memes, 15-second Vine videos and sensational photos that circulate on Twitter and Facebook. And so I suspect that in this final stretch of Obama’s administration, as people begin to form opinions about Obama’s race legacy—that is, what he’s done for black people—they’ll reminisce back to just a couple of moments: his race speech during his 2008 presidential campaign, his “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” comment and, perhaps (but not likely) the My Brother’s Keeper initiative that he’s been touting of late. Yes, Obama has done a lot for black Americans (being the first black president is a major accomplishment in and of itself), but I suspect that a lot of the wonky policy stuff like Obamacare and increasing grants for students headed to college might not be on the tip of people’s tongues when they’re sitting around the kitchen table or at the barbershop waxing about “The Obama Years.”

Holder’s race catalog is, again, far more demonstrative. His we’re “a nation of cowards” speech (that reportedly caught the White House completely off guard) is pretty representative of how he has never hesitated to wag his index finger furiously at America for the way in which it has tried to sweep racism, and its symptoms, under the carpet. And then, more recently, there are those heartwarming photos of Holder doling out handshakes and hugs in Ferguson. These are the moments that will leave an indelible mark on the national conversation about race.

Holder’s got his eyes on the prize, and Obama seems to be resting assured that people will eventually recognize his influence and appreciate his approach. But knowing a thing or two about the way the collective American memory works, I’m not convinced that’ll be the case.

In The Root TV video above, I fret about Obama’s race legacy and The Root’s associate editor David Swerdlick tries to reel me back in.

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How ‘A Time to Kill’ Could Have Helped Zimmerman Prosecutors

Trial prosecutors insisting the case wasn’t about race possibly cost them a ‘guilty’ verdict.

Screenshot from A Time to Kill (R); Tracy Martin and Lead Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda (L)

Screenshot from A Time to Kill (L); Tracy Martin and Lead Prosecutor Bernie de la Rionda (R)

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

During the post-verdict press conference, Bernie de la Rionda, the lead prosecutor in the George Zimmerman second-degree murder trial, describes how the prosecution hinged their case on the following question: Who was following who?

It seems de la Rionda hoped the all-female jury would hone in on that point as they deliberated the fate of Zimmerman. The strategy apparently did not work given the ‘not guilty’ verdict. Fielding questions in a room full of reporters, de la Rionda—trying to wrap his head around his team’s shoulda-coulda-woulda’s—maintained that this very detail—of whether Trayvon Martin was being pursued—is what “the case boils down to.” Florida State Attorney Angela Corey (and special prosecutor to the case) maintained time and time again during the post-verdict press conference that “this case is not about race.” That sentiment was soon echoed, almost verbatim, by one of the trial’s assistant prosecutors, John Guy.

Legal experts and lay trial-watchers expressed concern about the way the state tried the case, yet this revelation—that the trial’s three prosecutors, all of whom are white men, centered their case on trying to paint Zimmerman as a predator—is arguably the a ha moment for understanding why the prosecution lost.

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The Flip-Flop Strategy Used to Discredit Rachel Jeantel

Rachel Jeantel and Defense Attorney Don West.

Rachel Jeantel and Defense Attorney Don West.

By Diana Ozemebhoya Eromosele

On Thursday, Rachel Jeantel told George Zimmerman’s defense attorney Don West that she has “a low voice.” She also has a lisp and a unique dialect. Social media commentary about Jeantel’s two-day testimony range from sentiments that she is inarticulate, to those who push back against that assessment and use constructs like race, economic status and gender to explain the vitriol directed at the 19-year-old high-school senior.

But no one is poking holes or parsing the defense’s strategy to discredit Rachel Jeantel from a legal basis – which is paramount in determining whether or not the jury will believe the argument Don West was making about Trayvon Martin’s motives while he was speaking on the phone with Rachel.

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Quick Write in “Borderstan”

bstan 2

Theater J asked me to write a blog about my reaction to their production of David Mamet’s “Race” play. I disagreed with a line in the script. It was the premise from which a large portion of the story was based. Borderstan — a popular neighborhood blog in Washington — published my piece. Check it out: http://bit.ly/YZEDup

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“Race and the Law in an Age of Scandal”

Diana in TheaterJ program


I had a great time speaking on a panel titled “Race and the Law in An Age of Scandal” this past weekend. Washington DC’s Jewish Community Center put together a series of events focused on race, as a way to draw attention to their production of David Mamet’s play, aptly titled “Race“. The play was thought-provoking. Go see it. It runs through March 17. Here’s more information: http://bit.ly/NoL5fW


Check out the program to the left – I’m third from the top!

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