how to rent a negro?

I Can Fix It is a ten step guide to recognize and fight against racism. Its creator damali ayo has generously accepted to be the first person interviewed by Chai Kadai. Yay! 

damali ayo (da) is an author, speaker, artist, performer, and a person who believes in change. She says: “I have seen that change starts with people, relationships and courage. This fuels my passion for connecting people with resources and information to help them be all they can be.” (Quoted from her website)

Damali Ayo. Photograph by Basil Childers

sam: One person can change this world in whatever aspect or range? How did this journey begin?

da: Honestly, I don’t think this journey was one I chose consciously. I was born into it. I came into this world on savior’s day, the child of two very smart activist souls who named me “beautiful vision of joy.” what other choice did i have but to start changing the world from day one.? There are things about my personality that just led me on that path without much of a choice- whether it is the fact that i was very smart as a child which caused my mom to place me in a private (and therefore mostly white) school, or the fact that the main adjective used to describe me as a child was “curious” or that i naturally push people toward personal growth- it all just combines to create this life of mine.

sam: Division is an intrinsic part of today’s definition of a society! Do you think societies can survive with no kind of “stratification”?

da: It is? I don’t know. I struggle with the concept of “human nature.” I don’t know really, if by nature we are a peace loving species with the potential to treat each other with honor and respect, or if by nature we are a war-mongering species that compulsively oppresses our peers in order to raise our own existence. I guess i toggle between believing both of those things which is what fuels me to do the kind of work i do. I’m still waiting for humans to really show me what they are all about.

sam: Who or what are your inspirations?

da: My fans are my greatest source of support. I have a few wonderful friends who remind me (when times are tough) that the world is more interesting with me in it, doing what i do, and encourage me to not give up. But for the most part i’m on my own. My family has been a life-long challenge, and I still remain partner-less, so i often have to dig deep to find my own inspiration day after day. This is where my constantly curious mind comes in handy.

sam: How did ‘how to rent a negro’ happen?

da: was the web site that preceded the book How to Rent a Negro. It  birthed out of me quickly over the course of only ten days. I had done some art shows before that, but that was the piece that really opened my work to the world. I created it because I was so burnt-out on white people poking and prodding me about every aspect of my racial experience but yet giving me nothing in return for all the patience and education i gave them. I decided to help them see how much work they were asking me to do by putting a price tag on all the things they had asked of me.

The book, How to Rent a Negro, emerged because so many people wrote me with the desire to work for the service. I was in no position to make it a live business, so I created this handbook for people to DIY. Of course, the real beauty of the book is showing white people how they *already* are renters.

Quoted from her blog, on Race: Caucasian is not a synonym for white.I am always amazed at the euphemisms that people use for white, as if it is a dirty word. It’s not. At my lectures I often ask people to think of things that are white that are harmless, fun, gentle, and pretty- just to remember that being white is not a bad or wrong thing. Being white is just being white. It just is. Not good or bad, just is. Sure Hitler, Jeffrey Dahmer, The Unabomber, Dick Cheney and Jim Jones are all white but hey, we all have skeletons in our racial closet. Just remember that snowmen, vanilla ice cream, clouds, marshmallows and gardenias are also white too.

sam: What are the connections between caste, class and gender issues?

da: I studied race, class, gender, and sexual orientation, and some class studies in college. One of my two majors was American Civilization with a specialty in those fields. They are all interconnected- yet we continue to work on the issues separately. Really, we use all of our differing demographics (race, gender, sexual orientation, skin color, etc) to create multiple, layered cast systems and these systems, meant to elevate some, really do the rest of us in. I mean so few people end up on the upper end of all of these systems when they are overlapped- that’s why there is so much complaining about “white straight men” they are the only ones who, when all the systems are applied, end up at the top- and therefore in power. Then the rest of us idiotically set to fighting each other and ourselves to be the top of the bottom. I did an essay about this for NPR.
Quoted from the NPR Article: My belief in recycling isn’t trivial or novelty to me. The trash we make is often dumped in places populated by the people of color. Every piece of trash I throw away, I can feel being thrown in the backyards of the people I care most about in this world.
sam: Can you expand a bit on environmental racism?
da: I don’t work on environmental racism per se. Much like my work in racism, my passion in environmental issues in in helping people make adjustments in their behavior and thinking that revolutionizes the way they live. For me one of the largest things that people can understand about the world on any issue level, is that we are all connected- how you treat others is how you treat yourself, if you throw things away as garbage you are garbage yourself. We have to live in a world where we do “take things personally” instead of just divorcing ourselves from how we are in the world. Otherwise we all are just living in bubbles where no one else really matters.
sam:  Your work with Yoga and Reiki?
da: I first became interested in yoga when i was in high school. My family was very stressful and I found this book in our bookshelves that taught you how to twist your body into fun positions and how to breathe. It just made sense to me. I would use yogic breathing when I got stressed out. I’ve always been spiritual and so things like yoga, reiki, psychic work, tarot have always been a normal and natural part of my life. I’ve been a reiki master since 1999. Being a healer, or a therapist/counselor has always been a part of my role in the world and is clearly a part of the work I do, no matter what field. It just is part of my make up. I love studying history and tradition as well, and I have a strong sense of the power of energy, so Reiki and Yoga fit perfectly into that.

On a deeper level, yoga has always been what I turn to to set my mind right when I get off track. It’s always been there for me. Always. I just became a yoga teacher after staying away from yoga classes for several years. I grew very distrusting of that environment after i was sexually assaulted by a man who was a yoga instructor. I never went to classes because i was afraid that he would be there. Then one day I just signed up for teacher training. It’s been an incredible experience to have the yoga environment back in my life again.

sam: I am not going to ask you much about Obama. I just read a couple of your blog posts on that, but this Post-Race America: Racism in the Age of Obama speech, can you please tell me what this is about? “Post” is such a loaded concept and “Post-Race” is interesting!!!

da: Yeah. I just changed that title to “Post-Race America?” the question mark is key. Since the election, even before, people started talking like electing a black president would make racism go away. This is absurd. One of the things that people say that i find absolutely laughable is “now little black kids every where know that it IS possible that they can be president!” my response is: “not if they are poor, have failing schools, get gentrified out of their neighborhood, and come up against hiring discrimination.” I mean come on, none of this stuff evaporated on November 5th. People need to get real. So my talk is about examining why we are so desperate to put racism behind us and what it *really* means for us to do that. We have work to do- and I believe that it can be achieved, but only through concrete and very personal behavioral changes. Electing a black president was a great step, but by no means the panacea to our racial problems.
sam: Who is your audience?
da: Actually, many many age groups respond to my work. The young folks like it because they like radical thinkers who dare to say what they think. Then they try to out-do  me, which is a wonderful part of artistic tradition. The older folks love that a younger voice has come up to carry on the work that they’ve been doing, and that tends to make them laugh. That is an honor for me- to give an opportunity of laughter to those who have worked so hard before me. The people my age- well, we’re all too busy working on our own stuff to keep up with what the rest of us are doing. I’d love to have more of a network and connection with those of us doing this work now. I think that is really needed.
sam: Are those who look for change, ‘idealists’?
da: That could be the case. I’m not an idealist at all, but…inside of me there is an idealist living. She is naive and curious and she tries things because maybe…just maybe, this time it’ll work. Thank god for her, you know? If i didn’t have that part of me, i’d be dead. I think this is true for each and every human- if we don’t maintain some connection to our inner idealist, what would be the point of doing life? of having relationships? of looking for love? of making food that is beautiful and tastes good? we are always striving for an ideal experience. Those of us working toward change are just different in the way that we want to share our idealistic vision with those around us. We want that vision to be something that many people can experience, live and enjoy.

sam: And a holistic life is…..?

da: This is a big struggle for me right now. Holistic to me means a space where all things are in balance. But balance has never been my strong point. I find myself toggling between seeing life for the total BS illusion it is, and then trying to hold on to some positive reason for engaging it. The only thing i can really grab onto to make sense of it is to live a yogic life in each moment. To find, as Iyengar says, “relaxation in every pose.” In yoga, no pose is forever, and you may come back to it again and again- each time, if we practice with intent and focus, the pose becomes different- and we get something out of it, even if at first it was uncomfortable and frustrating. But that takes time and persistence and dedication. Some days, i want to just say “f-this!” but then i remember to breathe and work the asana anyway. I guess that’s what life is like.

Quoted from her blog post, You and MeSo, when I start my talks with asking white people to “admit it” that they are white, or to stop using Caucasian as a euphemism for white, it is not for laughs, to attack, or by way of embarrassing them. When I tell people of color to overcome our cultural addiction to stereotypes by neither playing into them nor trying to defy them and just be ourselves it is not to accuse us of wrong behavior. It is because I know that standing up and saying “I AM” is the first step in any road toward healing. It is the beginning of an incredible journey, that I truly believe that we can take individually and ultimately… together.

– interview by Samyuktha PC

One thought on “how to rent a negro?

  1. Great interview , love how she has such a balanced view of things and doesn’t gloss things over. We may not suffer from text book racism here in India but I think we go through a different version of it.

    This interview also made me want to brush up on my tarot again!

    Thanks for this!

What are you thinking about?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s