Trump effect becomes deadlier, or Will Portland killings open more eyes?

There is a thing called the “bystander effect.” You’ve probably heard of it. The term goes back at least a couple decades; I seem to first remember it applied to a situation when a woman was knifed in broad daylight on a busy New York City sidewalk and no one came to her aid.

Officially, the term refers to a social psychological phenomenon wherein individual people are less likely to assist or defend a victim if other people are present. Presumably because everyone thinks (or prays) someone else will step in so they don’t have to.

We saw something different on Friday, May 26; something both incredibly uplifting but also, to an ever greater level, heartbreaking and worrying for its larger implications.

On that day in Portland, Oregon, two men (Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and  Ricky John Best) were stabbed and killed when a man (Jeremy Joseph Christian, currently in custody for that attack) shouted racial slurs at two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, and they tried to intervene to defend and protect those women. A third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, was also stabbed in the attack though the most recent word on him is that his injuries are serious but not life-threatening.

It is comforting to see strangers move in to protect two people who are being targeted…as seems in this case to be a case of racism/Islamophobia against the women. It gives me hope that we aren’t lost and unable to care or to risk ourselves to protect others, especially when they are people on the margins. My heart goes out to their family and friends with sympathy but also gratitude for the selfless actions of those men and how they were raised.

But it is incredibly sad, too, and perhaps a bit demoralizing as well to see yet again a racist emboldened in the age of Trump. Feeling empowered to threaten, terrorize and strike out at people who pose no threat, simply because they aren’t “real Americans” in the eyes of these hateful people.

Hate crimes have been on the rise since Donald Trump became president. To act like there is no connection between the two things is ridiculous when Trump campaigned on a platform of blaming undocumented immigrants of being dangerous criminals, demonizing refugees as being potential terrorists while ignoring that most terrorism in this country is committed by white conservatives, and demeaning Black people and other marginalized groups. When white people at his rallies would assault and threaten non-white people over and over. When people commit hate crimes now and admit they were inspired by Trump’s victory and what he stands for.

Trump has made it clear that making America great again, in his eyes, means making it whiter and/or taking safety, dignity and power away from people who aren’t white as much (and as fast) as possible.

To be fair, the racist (and misogynist and religious and sexual) hatred in the hearts of these people was always there. Racism and the other nasty ‘isms didn’t remotely go away in any of the years since the Civil Rights Movement. But Trump, along with others before him like Fox News and all sorts of conservative pundits who helped lay the foundation (but make no mistake, Trump was the one who essentially announced it was OK to hate and he would support and defend hate, as long as it’s from white people against those “other” people)…well, he and they made it honorable somehow. Made it socially acceptable again to openly despise POC, LBGTQ people, women, Muslims and more. Trump leads the way in telling hateful people that there is dignity in their hate and goodness in white supremacy, male supremacy, Christian supremacy and more. That holding other people down and denigrating them is just being “enthusiastic.”

It’s not enthusiastic. It’s just hateful. And undignified. And pretty much counter to most of the religious and ethical philosophies of this planet.

The Trump effect remains fully in force, and it is only going to grow the longer Trump remains in power and fans the flames. Frankly, even when he leaves office, whether willingly or not, the effect will linger. A fire has been stoked for hate, and it won’t burn to ashes anytime soon. And if you know anything about forest fires, even hot ashes can start a conflagration after the open flames are gone.

In this period of renewed hate and increased support for that hate from on high and in many forms of media, I can only hope there are more people like Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and  Ricky John Best to protect the innocent and sometimes helpless.

And I hope fewer of them have to die in the attempt.
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On words and silence in a racialized world

Several years ago when my adult son was still a college student, one night as we were catching up during one of his visits back home, he shared with me that when he had been living in Northern Maine with his father during the late elementary school years, he had routinely been subjected to racist language directed at him. Ranging from being called “Rory Raccoon…coon; Get it?” and other taunts, these words were a part of his every day experience. It was why, when he landed on the campus of a predominantly white college in Northern Wisconsin (and when confronted with classmates who would use racialized language and taunts to remind him that he was other), he had no patience with them.

I asked him why he didn’t tell his father and I when he was in elementary and middle school and he never quite gave me an answer. But as an adult, he is fiercely protective of his sister, who is now in middle school. His watchful eye over his sister is no doubt born out of his own experiences as a child and teenager in Northern New England.

As his mother, I knew about the blatant racialized events that were regular enough occurrences during his high school and college years, ranging from being brought home in the back of the police cruiser because he “fit the description” (he didn’t, by the way…the suspect was white) to being pelted in the ribs with a full unopened soda can from a moving car while being called a nigger. It was those incidents that were the impetus for much of my writing and later my decision to head up an anti-racism organization. However,  as a mother, it hurt on a molecular level that his very existence made him the subject of ridicule.

In recent years as my work has expanded beyond writing but to speaking with groups on the issue of race, I am struck by how often I will hear that an area doesn’t have a racial problem. At least until the question-and-answer section happens. This year alone, I have heard a Black teenager in a tony town in Massachusetts share that she is singled out for her hair and that her “friends” have used the N-word with her even despite her requests to stop.

Just a few days ago, I gave a talk in Kittery, Maine, where several teens in attendance spoke about how prevalent it was for their white peers to use the N-word at school. Despite parents talking to school officials, there was a belief that the school and by extension the town has no issues with race. The next days, the students who attended my talk went to the school officials who once again intimated that white kids using the N-word is a non-issue. The students staged a walkout, and several of their peers and even some teachers were hateful in their responses to this courageous group of young people.

Words matter and too often we brush words to the side if we cannot grasp the magnitude of them. Despite our attempts to tamp down bullying within our schools and society, when it when it comes to racialized language and acts that are othering and dehumanizing people, we are missing the mark. And it has real consequences far beyond simple hurt feelings. 

Too often we are looking for the truly egregious acts like lynchings and police brutality when in reality, it is the “small stuff” that often we are complicit in agreeing with by our silence. More importantly, the failure of those in charge (which too often are white people) to grasp the nuances of racism and how racism works and impacts not just people of color but white people and creates an environment that allows racism and other forms of hate and bias to thrive unchecked.  

I am often approached by white people who in recent years have started to wake up to their whiteness and who are starting to form their own analyses around the toxicity of whiteness; however, living in predominantly white spaces, they don’t quite know how to proceed. The act of dismantling toxic whiteness does not require that a non-white person be present, though. It starts with the recognition that whiteness is the ultimate shell game upon which we have built whole societies and yet nothing good can come out of something that required the dehumanization and subjugation of Black and Brown people in order to live. It continues to thrive because we have a world that is firmly rooted on the foundation of anti-Blackness.

Whether you choose words or you choose silence, understand that your action or even inaction has consequences.
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Calling all white people, part 14: Spaces of their own for POC

Calling All White People, Part 14

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: No, special spaces and programs for people of color aren’t reverse racism

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

There’s a thing that willfully ignorant white people and openly racist ones love to do (and also that white people who don’t understand racism often reflexively do even if they don’t actually love it), and that is to ask, “Well, why do Black people [or insert any other marginalized group] get special months or scholarships or spaces to gather? Why, that’s reverse racism!”

Leaving aside that reverse racism isn’t a thing…I mean, it literally doesn’t exist, and probably I’ll get into that within the next few installments of this column…there are actually very good and logical and sensible reasons why people of color (POC) and other marginalized groups like lesbian/gay/trans/queer people can and should have their own stuff and why it just isn’t the same as a bunch of white guys having a huge gathering with torches and shouting white power chants. Why it’s not even close.

Let’s look, for example, at the notions of gatherings or clubs focused on POC where white people are denied (or at the least strongly discouraged) entry. Sure, it sounds good on the surface (especially if you don’t believe in terms like white privilege and white supremacy or if you’re one of those chronic devil’s advocate types) to say, “Well, white people would get dragged through the mud for that.”

First off, there are plenty of institutions in America, whether social clubs or political bodies or corporate suites or neighborhoods where people of color are purposefully left out, or so sharply limited and constrained that their inclusion is mere tokenism. White people, especially white men, do not lack for spaces, places, organizations, programs and occupations where they can largely avoid people of color and, often, white women as well.

But more fundamentally, any group that is marginalized wants to have places where gathering is possible in a way that allows for open communication about the issues of marginalization they deal with and that allows them not to have around them people who represent the source of their oppression.

If we take this away from a racial tack and make it a women’s rape survival group, maybe it will make more sense to you. Does it seem logical that a group of women trying to deal with and discuss issues of sexual assault really are going to feel comfortable or safe with a bunch of men around? And why do men need to be there? To challenge them and say “Not all men” and make their stress worse? To prove they’re “good guys?” No, the dudes should stay at home and show they are stand-up humans in daily life.

Same thing with scholarships and the like. White people get the lion’s share of scholarship money. Why must they begrudge programs that help make sure scholarship money gets to marginalized or minority people so that they are at least a little less likely to be left out? And don’t get me started on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). So many white people love to say, “We can’t have all-white colleges” and the fact is that not only do HBCUs accept white (and other non-Black) students, some of them have majority white student bodies now. And why were HBCUs formed to begin with? Because existing colleges wouldn’t accept Black students.

There is something atrociously presumptuous about being able to go through the vast majority of the United States as a white person without ever having to think about your race; without ever being judged by police or passers-by as threatening because of your skin color; to have access to more opportunity, money, influence and power than anyone else and then to get mad because there are a handful of gatherings, organizations or places you aren’t welcome…and that you probably don’t really want to be part of anyway.

Sort of like not being allowed to use the N-word. Boo-hoo. Get over it (especially since the current fad is to use “thug” and everybody knows that’s just code for the N-word)

Plenty of other groups get denied all kinds of benefit of the doubt, networking, money and even dignity because they aren’t white, straight, Christian and/or male. As white people, we need to get over being denied a very small handful of things to which we feel entitled only because, to be honest, we are white.
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