Seeking black identity in a white world through rap

By Sophie Whisnant

(Photos courtesy of Alice Hudson)

Rapper and NC State student Phillip Green.

Philip Green leans back on a dirty old pull-out couch in his friend Cole Brown’s college apartment. His head bops along to the “Black Panther” soundtrack, but he’s exasperated and dehydrated after ranting about his descent from an almost mythical and deeply spiritual black Egyptian heritage.

“I’m that black dude that likes to talk about Egypt,” Green says once he catches his breath.

“Yeah but can you rap about it?” asks Brown, his words bouncing off the miscellaneous bongs and smoking vessels scattered around his apartment.

Green just laughs, sinking deeper into the couch. This is a question he’s been asked before.

Growing up in a white world

Since he was old enough to go to school in his hometown of Wilmington, N.C., Green has been one of, if not the only, black people in his class. He’s channeled the teasing and loneliness he’s felt through his original rap music and has a budding career as a successful rapper in the Raleigh area.

Although he raps about racism, Green’s world is surprisingly whitewashed. His music might tell the story of someone fed up with racism and society, but to the outside world, Green seems comfortable living a white life.

Green’s rapping career is now almost 8 years old. He started off posting songs on SoundCloud that he made in his makeshift home studio under the moniker “PG-13.” A junior communications major at N.C. State University, Green performs with the popular Triangle rap group “They Came from Lemuria” in Raleigh bars once a month.

Rap was therapeutic for Green as a middle schooler at a small Quaker school in Wilmington, where no one looked like him. His skin color felt the most confining when learning about history and the accomplishments of the Europeans.

“The books we read didn’t have people that look like (me),” Green said.

It didn’t change much once he got to high school. As part of a smaller accelerated college program within a public school, Green was one of five students in New Hanover High School’s Lyceum program. The signature dreadlocks that he started growing when he was 9 made him stand out even more.

In high school, Green experienced racism in subtle and overt ways. He still remembers feeling angry and embarrassed when the topic of flying monkeys came up in class. His peers compared him to the monkeys, laughing about their similarities.

“I’m the butt of the joke,” Green said. “If there’s five people making a black joke, and you’re the only black person, I gotta laugh about it too.”

One of Green’s oldest friends and classmates, Gavin Campbell, who is white, was in the room when the monkey joke took off.

“I have heard years of people calling him an ‘Oreo,’” Campbell said, “asking why he ‘acts white.’”

What bothers Campbell the most is when others seem surprised that Green can be a well-spoken and polite black man. Throughout their friendship, Campbell said he’s noticed how, in stores, white people keep an eye on Green.

Green has felt those extra eyes on him. He has always been conscious of his skin color and what he looked like sitting across from his classmates. It didn’t get easier when he started college.

Higher education, same problems

As a freshman Green almost reflexively joined a white fraternity, but later became inactive when he found it too similar to high school. He was tired of being the only black man in the room.

Despite this, two years later, Green still lives in an almost exclusively white world. He spends Thursday nights with his girlfriend, Hannah Neely, who is white. They lovingly pass a bong back and forth while cuddling on the couch and making plans to visit their other friends, who are also all white, later that night.

Green’s closest friends are all white. After years of being the lone black person in class, he now describes white people as his “comfort zone.” Despite the hurtful joking, he said, his friends are generally well-meaning and have given him a different way to look at the world.

“Being seen by the majority of your white peers as the ‘token’ friend is an inevitability,” Campbell said. “Philip has retained his identity as a black man through his music, friendships with people from various walks of life, and through general pride in his identity which I’m extremely proud of him for maintaining.”

Even though he has friendships with people like Campbell that he values, Green still enjoys, and relies on, being able to play what he and his girlfriend call the “race card.”

“You pull it in social settings where you’re high or uncomfortable,” Neely said to Green about the card.

Green said that he’ll respond to his white friends with the phrase “Oh, it’s because I’m black?” to raise awareness about what is offensive, or to just make his friends uncomfortable and defensive for his own entertainment. It’s funny to him, his little way of getting back at his friends for the jokes they’ve made about him over the years.

But even though he talks about race with his friends, he doesn’t feel like people take his blackness seriously.

Green’s parents own an environmental restoration service. He’s always been comfortable financially and didn’t feel like he fit in with a lot of the other black kids in his high school.

“I have felt pretty lonely,” Green said, “just because, like, I’ve created this niche for myself where it’s like I’m the suburban black kid.”

Because of his socioeconomic status, he’s found it difficult to defend his race with white people.

“People don’t take my advocacy as seriously,” he said. “They don’t think my voice is as valid.”

Rapping: thinking out loud

They may not listen, but speaking up has always been important to Green. He’s passionate about his political views, like his belief that incarceration is modern-day slavery. He will discuss how the TV show “Cops” is lynching, and vent about how black men only witness the American dream through programs with white actors like “Friends.”

When Green speaks about these issues, he starts to use the rap voice he’s been honing since he was 13. He speaks deeply with a natural flow, accenting certain words and syllables to emphasize what’s important. Rap is his preferred method of communication.

Green’s rhymes have reflected his anxieties of being the only black face in a white world. On the 15-minute track “Griselda Negro,” Green raps, “‘Bro, today it ain’t about race’/ Yes it is, the wealth gap it’s a massive issue doe, yes, I notice dis,” and, “They sayin’ I’m free/ Only on the day I escape from my b-o-d-y.” These lyrics might contradict the white life Green has carved out for himself, but they voice the black side of him that he keeps hidden within his social circle. When he “spits” certain lines, he’s sharing his passion. His songs are his diary and provide an outlet that lets him live the blackness that’s missing in his daily life.

Whether rap is a coping mechanism or not, it brings Green happiness unlike anything else. If he isn’t working on a song, he’s listening to rap, either on his own or with his group of friends sharing a joint. Rap isn’t just an escape, it’s his lifestyle.

“This is what I feel the best doing,” he said.

Edited by David Fee


Changing sisterhood: sorority allows bids to transgender women


By Sophie Whisnant

The carpet leading into the Gaylord Texan Resort in the Dallas suburb of Grapevine was obnoxiously, unapologetically Texas; woven into the fabric was a pattern of cowboy boots, horseshoes and Texas flags.

Three young women from UNC-Chapel Hill followed the custom carpet runner to a conference room for the final dinner of the three-day national meeting of Tri Delta leadership. They expected yet another three-course meal shared with hundreds of their sorority sisters from across the United States and Canada.

Exhausted from a full day of meetings and leadership training workshops, they instinctively headed for a table in the back, content to finally be alone with a delicious raspberry cheesecake. The plan? Eat the Gaylord’s cheesecake, zone out during the dinner speech, and check their Snapchats instead.

But when National Tri Delta President Kimberlee Sullivan started talking, the UNC-CH delegation — and everyone else — forgot all about cheesecake and Snapchat.

Starting immediately, Tri Delta was officially changing its policy to allow chapters to grant bids to potential new members who identify as female, not just those who were assigned female at birth.

Cheesecake hung on forks suspended in the air.

It was about time, said Amy Queen, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of chapter development.

“The room just kind of burst into claps,” Queen said. “Everybody seemed really excited that an organization founded so long ago could keep up with current changes in our society.”

Making changes to tradition.

Mirroring change isn’t something always associated with sorority life, particularly in the South. Tri Delta was founded in 1888 at Boston University, but its headquarters have always been located in Texas. It was the first sorority to create a non-discrimination policy, which has protected people of any race, sexual orientation, religion or ability. But an update of this magnitude, coming from the Bible Belt, signifies a greater step toward inclusivity for Tri Delta chapters across the country.

“It made me happier to be a member,” said Abby Mueller, UNC-CH Tri Delta vice president of finance.

Returning to their rooms in the sprawling Gaylord Texan resort, which, oddly had a jungle theme, the Tri Delta reps were energized.

“Everybody was pretty proud of an organization that could take change like that,” said Queen. “I think it was progressive that Tri Delt [is doing this before] some other sororities.”

Mueller said she expects the change to sit well with her sorority sisters at UNC-CH.

“Our chapter is more open and diverse, a lot more so than other chapters,” she said.

But UNC-CH business and political science major Meredith Freeland wouldn’t say the sorority is diverse. Freeland, who dropped out of Tri Delta at UNC-CH last year after three and a half years, doesn’t see the change having any impact on the way Greek life operates on campus.

“I don’t think it means much at all,” she said. “A policy can say anything without doing much. It’s like with racial diversity. Obviously Tri Delta’s policies allow for members of all colors but the reason we don’t see much diversity in many chapters is because allowing for diversity is different from encouraging it.”

Freeland said sororities are still viewed as places of homogeneity—“people who look, feel and think differently are made uncomfortable.”

“This is exactly what drew me to Tri Delta in my recruitment: I was told ‘all the girls here are so different and unique, nothing is the same about everyone. Some sororities have a stereotype but I can’t think of ours. Well, maybe we all own a pair of Converses.’ That really spoke to me,” Freeland said. “Disrupting the pattern is hard. Who wants to be the gender non-conforming person to join a sorority grounded in historic womanhood?”

Bringing the changes home.

As they returned to campus, Queen and Mueller discussed how the change was great, but might not be relevant to the Chapel Hill recruitment process.

UNC-CH photojournalism major Alice Hudson considered rushing as a freshman but wasn’t impressed by the diversity of sorority membership.

“A lot of top tier sororities don’t have a lot of racial inclusivity,” she said. “A trans person might get a bid but I’d be surprised if they went through with it.”

“I just think it would be really hard for them to be among the only trans people within a cisgender group that has such a deep rooted history and traditional set of values,” Hudson said.

But Freeland is somewhat hopeful.

“I think this is really a good step…language is powerful,” she said. “The way we talk about things matters.”

From talking comes policy change, she said, “it opens the door for the conversation and forbids outright discrimination.”

Although she dropped out of Tri Delta in her senior year, Freeland said the experience was beneficial.

“I got a lot out of my time in a sorority but …my world became so small, so white, so wealthy,” she said. “All of my friends looked like me.”

The Greek culture hasn’t been historically receptive to the LGBT community. Freeland remembers a male friend who was gay but adamant that anyone who knew about his sexuality keep it a secret because he was afraid he wouldn’t get any bids.

“This is obviously troubling for a million reasons,” she said.

Resistance to change.

Back in Grapevine the morning after the news, chapter presidents met to start their final training session. The leader of the sessions had been calm and serene, until this morning when her complexion was flushed and there was panic in her voice.

After the bomb had dropped the night before, her inbox was flooded with emails from Tri Delta adult volunteers, outraged at the updated policy. She asked the group to talk amongst themselves so she could get some work done.

The presidents weren’t nearly as frazzled as their adult leader. Some discussed their indifference with the change. But most expressed their excitement for it, saying they couldn’t wait to go home and tell their chapters.

As Queen packed up and headed home to Chapel Hill she thought about what the new policy would mean for her chapter.

“I feel like people in our sorority would say they are in full support of this change,” she said. “But if we ever had a trans person rush, they would 10/10 drop them.”


Edited by David Fee

Horizons program changes the narrative of opioid addiction for mothers

By Danielle Chemtob

Drug paraphernalia and bleach stains surrounded Rachel Lankford as she sat in the bathroom of her ex-boyfriend’s single-wide trailer. He hovered over her as she took her ninth pregnancy test in three days.

It was the last stick in the three-pack she had picked up from a dollar store — she’d already taken two in front of him, one result was unclear and one positive. He still didn’t believe her, despite the previous six tests and a visit to Planned Parenthood.

It was positive. Again.

Immediately, she walked through the graffiti-laden hallway and showed the plus symbol to his mother. Both of them encouraged Lankford, then 20, to get an abortion.

But she knew that was not an option. She had already been to the Planned Parenthood in Chapel Hill earlier that day, her paperwork signed and everything in place to get an abortion. Lankford had already had two abortions, one at 13 and one at 19. When she made her appointment, she figured this time around would be no different.

High on prescription painkillers, she walked into the clinic with her mother. She stepped into the doctor’s office and undressed from the waist down for the ultrasound. The technician turned to her.

“You’re 21 weeks and five days pregnant,” she said. “You’re not having an abortion.”

In the corner, her mother sobbed. Lankford was five months pregnant and weighed just 84 pounds. Her words racing — an effect of the opioids — she pleaded with the technician, told her she was a drug addict, that she couldn’t have a child. But nothing could be done.

She knew in that moment that her ex-boyfriend would never be there for her, or her daughter. Still, she held onto a sliver of hope, and drove to his house after her appointment where she took the pregnancy tests with him.

But when she told him that she’d already tried to have an abortion, he attempted to convince her the baby wasn’t his.

She felt heartbroken and desolate. She was too afraid to tell her father, and her mother still lived in Virginia at the time. Without anyone to help her, she lived in her car for a few weeks.


Four years later, Lankford, now 24, loves Marleigh, the healthy, energetic child she so desperately didn’t want that day.

“She’s my whole wide world,” Lankford said, “but she wasn’t at first.”

Woman and the crisis

As the opioid crisis devastates American communities, women are among the most vulnerable. Between 1999 and 2015, the rate of deaths from prescription opioids increased by 471 percent among women, compared to 218 percent among men, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While research is still emerging on gender disparities in opioid addiction, studies have shown that women are more likely to be prescribed prescription pain relievers and become addicted more quickly.

Pregnant women are particularly at risk, as the substance abuse can harm both the mother and her child. Between 2007 and 2012, an annual average of 21,000 pregnant women aged 15 to 44 across the United States had misused opioids in the past month, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Yet as overall opioid use rates surpass capacity rates for treatment centers in most states, options are particularly limited for pregnant women, who often travel far and face waiting lists to access programs like UNC’s Horizons, a drug treatment program for pregnant and parenting women and their children.

“I think there’s still this underlying belief that pregnant women should be able to just walk away from substances fairly easily,” said Elisabeth Johnson, director of health services at Horizons.

A coping mechanism

The trauma from Lankford’s parents’ bitter divorce, especially after her father remarried, drove her to substance use at just 13. She first tried Vicodin after her wisdom teeth surgery at 16, and her addiction to prescription painkillers didn’t take long to develop.

During and after Lankford’s substance use, she wound up in several abusive relationships. While she was pregnant with Marleigh, but before she was aware of it, she fought with her ex-boyfriend constantly. But because he was her supplier, she was stuck.

When the two would use opiates together, it often exacerbated the physical abuse. She’s recovered from her addiction, but her abuse still haunts her.

“I guess I feel like that’s what I deserve because of what I went through in my past, and I’m damaged goods, and no decent person would ever love me,” she said. “And then I challenge myself with that all the time.”

Johnson said around 80 percent of the women who enter Horizons report having experienced trauma at some point. A 1996 study found that women who are victims of violence are much more likely to use substances in general and during pregnancy.

“Women often end up using drugs because they’ve got no other coping mechanism,” said Hendree Jones, executive director of Horizons. “They’ve grown up being told that they’re nothing more than dirt.”

Access to care

After 120 days sober in a treatment program — when Marleigh was around 6 months old— Lankford returned home, determined to turn her life around. She enrolled in college and got a job.

But it wasn’t easy to stay sober in a college filled with childhood friends she used to get high with. In a span of two weeks, she relapsed and picked up two felonies for stealing her mother’s credit card and money from her job at Goodwill. She lost her job, dropped out of school and lost custody of Marleigh.

She was devastated. For two months she slept in her Honda and on people’s couches. She got high.

“I didn’t know how to live,” she said. “My whole world from when she was born was to take care of her, and then when she was gone, what do you do?”

She had weekly meetings with her social worker and Marleigh, but the one hour wasn’t enough.

“I wouldn’t use before I would see her, and I’d walk out that door and go get high,” she said. “Because leaving her was just… It was awful.”

During a 30-day period in jail, Lankford assessed her options for treatment. She wanted to participate in Horizons so she could stay with Marleigh, but the program was full.

Just 20 percent of treatment services offer programs for pregnant or postpartum women, according to a survey of providers from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“We have women who drive an hour and a half to two hours to come to their prenatal visit from other parts of the state just because they cannot find in their area a provider who has experience dealing with women who are pregnant,” said Kim Andringa, director of research and evaluation at Horizons.

Among programs that do serve pregnant women, many don’t allow children to live with their mothers. Horizons allows children up to 12.

“You may have a mom who comes into treatment who has to choose of her three or four kids who she’s bringing with her and who she’s going to leave with someone at home,” Johnson said.

Facing a four-month wait for Horizons, Lankford’s only option to get out of jail was a facility in Asheville, but she couldn’t bring Marleigh.

When she returned, Marleigh had been in foster care for six months. She finally regained custody of her daughter, and the two started the Horizons program together.

She hasn’t let her go since.

In July, she’ll be three years sober. Last year, 266 women received treatment at Horizons, where Lankford now works.

“I might not have stopped right away and I might have screwed up a lot in her first year and a half of her life, but I feel like I’m here now and I feel like I’m a good mom,” she said.

Edited by David Fee