Hope

Hope  /hōp/  word. – 1. want something to happen or be the case 2. a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen See Also. Barack Obama “Hope” poster, a 2008 image designed by Shepard Fairey

Interview with Ashley

Tell me about yourself. What’s your background?

So, my name is Ashley. I was born and raised in Kentucky and that’s where my family still is, currently, even though I’ve journeyed elsewhere, the majority of my family is still there. And so I was born in the late eighties…grew up during the 90s and 2000s…went to a school — elementary school, middle school and high school — the same place where my mom went. So it’s a really, small, tight knit community there. And it was kind of in the middle of nowhere in Kentucky. Hodgenville is where I grew up. And it’s about 3000 people, I think. So relatively small, not too much going on, everything closed early. The Black people that were there were my cousins and my aunts and my uncles and it was a pretty small, close community built off the family.

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So, I graduated from high school and I went to college in Kentucky as well. I went to Western Kentucky University to study broadcasting because I was convinced that I was going to be the next Oprah. That is what I wanted to do until I went to college and found out that I wasn’t quite interested in the reporter lifestyle. So I graduated…I got my degree…I was working two or three jobs, still in the same town where I went to college… and I got an opportunity presented to me to move to Wisconsin and work for a healthcare software company. That was in 2010. I packed up my apartment, I drove up to Madison, didn’t know anybody and I’ve been here for the past nine years. So, small town girl, now in the big city… I guess if you could call Madison that.

How would you define beauty?

True beauty is something soft and warm. I don’t know, I always get, like, sensory words whenever I think of it….But I can tell you that for a long time I have not considered myself beautiful, especially growing up in the place where I grew up. You know, if you didn’t have your hair relaxed and you weren’t wearing what all the white girls wore and then you just weren’t considered attractive.

But now I generally think of beauty as something that is inviting and it’s kind. I picture like big poofy hair and I don’t know, just a smile. It’s kinda hard for me to describe that. It’s kind of something with when you see it then you know, at least from my perspective.

“But now I generally think of beauty as something that is inviting and it’s kind. I picture like big poofy hair and I don’t know, just a smile.”

How would you define Black beauty?

Black beauty and style is effortless, honestly. I feel like we are the types of people who can put on anything, like whether it costs, you know, $10,000 or $10 and just make it look good. And people always want that. They want the style that we have and the confidence that we have and the creativity that we have. Even when they try to package it up and water it down, they know that there’s just something about us that is just… it’s smooth. You can try to imitate it, but you can’t. And attention to detail, I noticed a lot with Black style. Like the color combinations will pop together…or the shoe laces will match…and things that people wouldn’t necessarily think of would be packaged together to take something that looks good and make it look amazing.

What words come to mind when you think about Black culture?

I think bold a lot. We take risks that other people wouldn’t necessarily take. You know, whenever something’s considered classically stylish, it’s usually kind of plain and structured or whatever. But I think whenever we take something, we try to jazz it up. Like colors or prints or accessories — like the hair picks that you were talking about. Just, it’s not afraid. Very, very ambitious and bold.

“I was kinda caught in the middle where, of course, I wasn’t white enough for the white kids… but I wasn’t Black enough for the Black kids either. And so I just kinda relied on being smart as being the thing that kept me in everybody’s good graces.”

What societal pressures do you feel because of your race?

Oh, I was one of those who felt like I had to be the perfect Negro. Like, if I could just convince these people that I was one of the “good ones”, then they would like me and they would accept me. So from a very young age I was very, very concerned with grades and academics. I was like, I gotta show these people that I’m smart because I know they’re gonna think that I’m not, they’re going to discount me. And so from elementary school until college, I was always a straight-A student and working and trying to bring home the best grades that I could. And I worked a lot on just, you know, not being too loud. I guess I would have to say I felt pressure to just kind of step back. I don’t know if it was me stepping back or people kind of pushing me off to the side, but I didn’t want to take up space because usually if I was noticed and it would be a negative way. Like, Oh she’s being loud or she has an attitude or something like that, when that isn’t necessarily the case.

And I also saw a lot of pressure from the Black side too. Like I was kinda caught in the middle where, of course, I wasn’t white enough for the white kids… but I wasn’t Black enough for the Black kids either. And so I just kinda relied on being smart as being the thing that kept me in everybody’s good graces.

So a lot of pressure on the academic side and also just generally like societaly not going out doing too much. And a lot of the white kids were partying or drinking by the Lake or whatever and I didn’t want to be caught up in any of that.

And so it was tough, especially in being in a small town where everybody knows everybody’s business, there was a lot of pressure to just represent my family well cause we were a pretty big family in the town. And also to represent Black people well. Like, I felt like everything I did, people were looking at me and judging me as the standard for all of the Black people in America. And so that was a lot of pressure too.

You mentioned being caught between two worlds: Black and White. How do think you got caught between these “worlds”?

Well, I just kinda felt displaced. Like there were pockets where I felt safe on occasion but then something would happen and I’d quickly realize like, Oh, this wasn’t a place where I could be myself. This was just a place where they were allowing me to be for this moment because most of the time they needed something. You know, people would always be really, really nice and friendly about the time that group projects were starting up because if I was in their group then I would just do all the work and they wouldn’t have to worry about doing anything… Or let me invite Ashley to the party because I know her mom always buys really good gifts for people… and so I Felt like, on occasion, that I was making strides and like I was doing good and I was finding a place, but then I would just be disappointed.

There was a lot of disappointment in that and a lot of isolation. And thankfully I did have one friend that I met in fourth grade and we’re still best friends to this day. Another Black girl, she moved down from another city because her mom got remarried to someone in town and we’ve been best friends ever since because she recognized that too. Like, she was one of those people who kind of didn’t fit in with the white kids or the Black kids and so we fit in together and made our own little circle. So out of all the disappointment I also have to say that I felt a lot of happiness and just fun because I had her there too. So that was kind of nice.

Have you ever experienced of racism or discrimination? If so, any stories you would be willing to share?

Oh yeah. The first time that I experienced blatant racism, I was probably like six. There was this boy on the bus, I used to have to ride the school bus every day, and he would call me racial slurs every single day. And the bus driver did nothing. I’ll never forget his name was Mark and he had like the nastiest rotted out teeth. You could imagine if you just think of a stereotypical bully in a movie or something where they’re just kind of dirty and scowling — he really did look like that. And so he would call me words that I knew and words that I didn’t. Uh, I did not know what a jigaboo was until Mark called me that on the bus and I had to go home and ask my mom what that meant. And so I was thrilled the day that he finally got his driver’s license, so that way he didn’t have to ride the bus anymore and I could be free from that one area of racism in my life.

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But also just like, you know, when in school you get the, Oh you’re so pretty for a Black girl, type thing. Or, I remember, they did lice checks (cause you do that in elementary schools and stuff) And the school nurse didn’t even bother to look at my head. And I was like, Why aren’t you gonna check me for lice? And she’s like, Oh you people don’t get lice, your hair is too dirty. Stuff like that. And I was like, Okay, that’s good I guess that I don’t get lice….and bad that you just assumed that I was dirty and that I don’t wash my hair, which is not true.

So, stuff like that happened all the way up through middle school. And you know, boys would tell me, If you weren’t Black, then I would go out with you, and all these other sorts of things. Like you know, typical Southern, they tried to be nice but they were racist at the same time.

And a lot of that stuff too, as an adult I’m going back and thinking like, Oh my gosh, that was some racist stuff that they said to me. But in the moment I couldn’t really tell until I was able to step away and look at the bigger picture and have some context associated with it.

“And a lot of that stuff too, as an adult I’m going back and thinking like, Oh my gosh, that was some racist stuff that they said to me. But in the moment I couldn’t really tell until I was able to step away and look at the bigger picture and have some context associated with it.”

What are your thoughts on that dichotomy between ignorance and racism?

Well, I think, ignorance and racism kind of go hand in hand, to me, because you can’t be racist without a certain amount of ignorance. Whether it’s willful ignorance or not. Like you can’t hold these racial stereotypes in your head unless you either have never met a Black person before, which some people have not because they’re very isolated and they stick around the same circles… or you have met them and you still want to force whatever you think your beliefs are onto those people even though they don’t necessarily fit into it.

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And sometimes it’s also willful ignorance where people collect the examples that support their narrative. Like, Oh, look at that person. You know, she’s in Walmart and she’s got her pajama pants on and a bonnet look at how ghetto she is, blah, blah, blah. When there are a whole bunch of other people in the same place that don’t look anything like that. And who cares? Like who cares what somebody else wears whenever they leave their house, as long as they’re clothed, it shouldn’t matter to you. So there has to be a little bit of ignorance whenever it comes to racism. Sometimes the ignorance is ones that people just cloak themselves in because they don’t want to accept the fact that what they believe is wrong. But many times — I feel like growing up in Hodgenville — it was that people just didn’t know because I might’ve been the only Black person that they’ve ever interacted with before.

You mentioned the idea of feeling like you’re carrying the weight of a culture on your back, and not only just the weight of the culture of a race, but the weight of a Black woman specifically. What did that feel like?

Yeah. So as a Black woman, it’s like, it’s twice as much, you know. Like you get the whole racism thing and you get the misogyny thing all combined together into one. And so I felt like sometimes the standards that I was held to were higher because I was a girl, not necessarily because I was Black. Like, Oh, I expect that Ashley is going to do well on this test because most of the time girls study more, and they would be willing to push aside the Black part of it for a certain part of my existence, but usually they were all melded up together. And that was the hard thing too. Like, I felt like I couldn’t go and do some of the things that the other girls were doing. I remember my mom got real mad one time because I kissed my boyfriend in the high school parking lot and my aunt saw me and she just ripped into me. She’s like, I’m not going to have you out there conducting yourself in such a manner and blah, blah, blah. But my cousin, who was just as Black as me, was kissing girls all the time and he didn’t necessarily hear anything like that.

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So it’s just an awkward, uncomfortable combination of pressure and just trying to be the perfect Black person and the perfect woman. And sometimes those things don’t go together because people expect you to behave a certain way as a woman and that may not necessarily jive up with society’s expectations for Black people. And so I felt like if I can just do the best that I can, hopefully I’ll be good enough for somebody. Hopefully this will play into my favor at some point and people will actually say, You know what? She’s all right. And I was trying. Like, it felt like I was on one of those hamster wheels just running and running and running and not going anywhere, but just trying to keep up the momentum and not crash.

“It’s just an awkward, uncomfortable combination of pressure and just trying to be the perfect Black person and the perfect woman. And sometimes those things don’t go together because people expect you to behave a certain way as a woman and that may not necessarily jive up with society’s expectations for Black people.”

One of the things that society has failed to do is recognizing Black women in mainstream culture. Why do you think that is? And how would you describe or define Black women in society?

Black women…the word that immediately comes to mind is resilience. And that’s in a good way and in a bad way. Because we have not been allowed to be soft and, you know, taken care of, and thought of as gentle. And people think that we can handle everything. And we often do, but it’s because we have to. If I didn’t have to deal with a few of these things and a lot of the other Black women I know didn’t have to deal with this stuff, then they probably wouldn’t want to, they wouldn’t choose it. But the lives that we lead make us stronger. And I’m fully convinced — and I’ll say this out loud — I think that God is a Black woman. That’s how I see God in my head because I feel like we know lots, we do lots, we’re nurturing, we’re comforting, We’re always there putting people before ourselves all the time. And that sounds very heavenly to me. Whenever I think about it and I pray, the woman that I prayed to always looks like my mom.

“I’m fully convinced — and I’ll say this out loud — I think that God is a Black woman. That’s how I see God in my head because I feel like we know lots, we do lots, we’re nurturing, we’re comforting, We’re always there putting people before ourselves all the time. And that sounds very heavenly to me. “

What do you feel you have accomplished if your life? What are you proud of?

Oh, well I’m just proud every single day to get up and go out here and try to prove people wrong. Like going back to the whole stereotype — people see you and they think a certain thing and then they hear you speak for the first time and they think something different. And I just want to show people that I am not whatever person they try to paint me as, or I don’t fit into whatever box that they try to put me in. And it’s just, I want to do good things. I want to leave a strong legacy for my family.

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And I just want to get to a place where we don’t have to have conversations like this. I would love to live in a world where everybody was kind and helpful and supportive. And so that’s what I want to do. Even if it’s just in a small way, or changing somebody’s perspective on a very, very minor thing, that would be the ultimate goal that I have for myself. It’s just to try to do the best I can to make the world a better place.

What was your mom to you in the sense of your upbringing? What did she instill in you as a child?

Oh, well it was just, it was me and my mom for most of my life. So, my parents got divorced when I was nine because my dad was a pretty bad alcoholic. And so that’s where the resilience came from. She gave him a choice. She said you can go to AA or you can leave. And he chose to leave and that was his decision. So they dissolved their marriage shortly thereafter. I saw him on weekends, every other weekend, stuff like that. But then he passed away when I was 13 from complications related to his alcoholism, and so it was just me and her. Llike she was the one who was always there. I think of her as my best friend that I never want to disappoint. There are some things that I should probably talk to my mom about, but I don’t because I never want to let her down. Like her disappointment in me is the worst punishment that I can ever imagine in life. And I tell people all the time, she’s a Saint. Like, the only thing that’s wrong with her is the college basketball team that she likes, as far as I’m concerned. That is the only problem, the only flaw that that woman has. She is perfection, at least from my point of view.

What are your personal dreams?

Honestly, I just like to sit. I like to just sit and do crossword puzzles and play games. I like quiet. I don’t think kids are in my future, like I don’t feel like I want to be someone’s mom, but I would like to influence young people in some way. Like, one of the dreams that I have is to hopefully take some of the lessons that I’ve learned and the struggles that I’ve had and make it so that other people don’t have to have that. And…I would like to move back somewhere warm. That is one of the dreams that I have for myself too, at least in the short term.

But I just try to do everything that I can to make sure that this world is a better place than it was when I showed up, whenever I leave it. That’s the big dream that I have for myself.

What is one major problem minorities face that you would like to bring awareness to?

I would probably say health inequities would be a really big thing that I wish people would know more about. Because you are treated differently whenever you seek out healthcare in the United States as a person of color, especially a Black person. There is no reason why I should be four times more likely to die in childbirth just because I’m a Black woman. First of all, dying in childbirth shouldn’t be a thing, I’d think that we’d moved past that by now… But technically it is more dangerous for me to create a child and bring it into this world then a white woman who has the same education, the same background, the same general health, the same everything else. And that was one thing that I feel like people really need to start paying attention to because that is literally life or death, sometimes.

People don’t take you seriously. They think you’re a drug seeker, they’re confident that it doesn’t hurt quite as bad as you say that it does…they always say that we can tolerate pain more… and then people are sick or injured or dead as a result. And so that is, that’s a big personal thing for me, especially working in healthcare.

What are you dreams for society?

…I’m not sure if you’ve ever read the book The Giver — we read that in like seventh or eighth grade and it’s always resonated with me because they talked about how sameness was bad. Like everybody being the same was something that might not necessarily be desirable…but I don’t want everybody to be the same, I want everybody to be treated the same. That’s the important thing. It doesn’t matter if you were born rich or poor or able or disabled or not — I want everybody to have the same opportunities in life. That’s what I really want.

Do you have any specific example of things we should be taking care of?

Well, the biggest thing that comes to mind is the issue with the water in Flint, Michigan. If that was a bunch of white kids, it would’ve been solved by now. That is a very glaring thing, a real public thing that lots of people should know about and be concerned about. And yet, still, the water coming out of their pipes is brown. That’s unacceptable. So that was a big thing, at least like generally that a lot of people wouldn’t probably recognize. But I work for a healthcare software company and this is something that I see all the time in the data. We’re a very data driven company and they pull out those statistics and it shows things like that. But the whole Flint water crisis thing is just like…it just…it upsets me…, because it’s bad and it shouldn’t happen. But it upsets me even more because I’m confident that if this happened in Connecticut or somewhere, people would have gotten in formation and taken care of it immediately.

How do we make progress on your dreams for society?

That’s hard because…I’m imagining it’s pretty hard to get the billionaires to give up their money now that they’ve got it. If it was me, honestly, I might have a different perspective on it… but I don’t….And I’m not trying to discredit anybody’s hard work. Like, I’m not saying you didn’t work hard for what you have and you don’t work hard for what you have. But I’m saying, do you deserve to have a hundred, a thousand, a million times more than one other person just because of the luck of the draw? Like I’d encourage people to take a look at it from the opposite perspective. What if you weren’t born as someone who had a whole bunch of money? What if you weren’t born able bodied and you had some sort of issues that made you a little bit less mobile than other people? Do you think that you still would have gotten to the same place that you are today?

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And people usually get very uncomfortable whenever they have to think about things like that. Like, maybe it was just dumb luck that I ended up in the position that I’m in. People don’t like that. They like to think that they’re in control of their destiny and so that I would encourage people to just take a long, hard look at, Do you really think that because of who you are as a person, just you, do you deserve so much more than somebody else? Cause I don’t think that I would think I’m better than anybody. And I am willing to give it up. Like, if we have to have higher taxes so that way people don’t die and people can eat and people don’t have to sleep on the streets…I don’t care to do that because I can feel it. I’m an empath, I can feel what it would be like to be in that position and I wouldn’t want that for myself, so I wouldn’t want that for anybody else. And I think that people have to consider that as well. But you like the good things and you like having all of those. But what if it was on the other foot and it was the bad stuff that you had plenty of? Would you be so apt to say the billionaires to keep their money then? Probably not.

So… I think we just need to keep doing things like this — having conversations and being honest with people. And folks need to be willing to take their blinders off and listen. And for the white people, I know you didn’t own slaves, but you reap the benefits of slavery and I need you to stand in that and own it and acknowledge it and do what you can to tear down the infrastructure that is based in that. So…I don’t know how feasible that is, and I don’t have a 10 point plan or anything for how to get it done, but I think people really need to start listening and taking ownership for themselves and for what they put out into the world…and then we might get a little bit closer to everybody being treated the exact same way.

What advice would you give to other black people?

To stay strong. That’s really it. Cause…it gets so hard, so tiring. Like, I go to work every day…and I smile in front of these people…and, you know, sometimes they make these comments…and like, I just don’t have it in me to fight you right now in the parking lot…I’m trying to keep my job…So, you just have to stay strong and know that we can handle anything that comes our way. We wouldn’t have made it this far if we didn’t. So that would be my advice for sure — just to stay strong, be yourself and who you are and be unapologetically you and don’t change for anybody else.

But at the same time I’ve encouraged Black people to open up their minds a little bit to some of the thoughts and sentiments, especially for my family back home and stuff, related to the LGBTQ community and things like that. That’s unacceptable. We have no reason to discriminate against anybody when we felt all of this discrimination since we got here. So I think we need to do better with that. And recognizing that Black people are different. Like, we’re not the same either. We can’t let white people put us in a box and we shouldn’t put ourselves in a box either.

What advice would you give to non-Black individuals to help them understand the Black experience?

Listen, just listen. Listen to what we’re saying. There’s no way that all of us can tell the exact same story and it not have some sort of semblance of truth in it. Like, just pay attention. Don’t think it’s a one time thing. Don’t think, Oh, well this person was probably just…Just listen to what we say. We know what we’ve experienced. Pay attention to that. I would also encourage them to do the work. If you recognize that this country was built so that you had favor over other people, you need to do your part to try to tear that down. And I don’t know what that looks like for you. I don’t know if that’s…volunteering with at-risk youth. I don’t know if that’s…donating more to Black organizations and charities. I don’t know what that is. You need to do something about it, because Black people did not make this mess. This is not our mess to clean up.

And so they need to start putting in some effort because they’ve reaped the benefits for all this time. And so they need to do something about making sure that the mess that was created for their favor gets rectified. And I just want them to recognize that….Like, I’m not blaming you…you know you weren’t there. And I recognize that like none of us were around during slavery or whatever…. So, don’t take it personally. It’s not you specifically. It’s white people in general and unfortunately you are a part of that population. I’ve had to deal with some pretty shitty stuff because I’m a Black woman. And so they have to feel the discomfort that they have to feel because of everything that started from 1776 until today. So…they need to just stay strong — like I would tell the Black people…be strong in this and be resilient. They need to stay strong and be resilient too, but I think they need to do it on our behalf. Society isn’t set up to pay attention to me or listen to me or take my concerns, you know, and value those. But it is for them and so they need to leverage that and use it to fight for the people.

Additional Information

Interview Date: November 21, 2020

Story posted on June 19, 2020

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