A little ego, a little internet and a season of change

“We all need a break from people who ‘follow’ us online to ensure the appreciation of our full humanity.” - Dr. Crystal Fleming

“It was a metamorphosis. We all change. But we also have some control over the path. We choose our surroundings; we choose where we put our energy.” – Tony Sanchez


There is nothing like a good old-fashioned personal crisis to make one take stock of one’s life and ask, “How the hell did I get here?  Where were my people to tell me I was fucking up? Where were the people who love and care about me to help me navigate this maze of human misery and pain? How come in books and movies, 40-something-year-old women always have a gaggle of close friends who come together to support one another in good and bad times?”

So many questions, so few answers and the ones that did become clear made me ashamed of myself.

I am going through some major life shifts and I have been for quite some time. I have occasionally alluded to such shifts in this space but because this is a public space, it isn’t the place for sharing the details of one’s personal life. Especially after I learned recently that older blog posts have found their way into an upcoming book: New Media in Black Women’s Autobiography: Intrepid Embodiment and Narrative by Tracy Curtis. The older posts that landed in this book are about my family and initially upon discovering that my personal posts served as analysis for another, I admit to feeling a bit pissed off and even violated. Yet the reality of putting oneself out for public consumption is that people will do just that…consume you.

For those who follow me on Twitter, last week I tweeted a bit about what I was facing and while I appreciate all who took the time to reach out to offer support, it was also my “come to Jesus” moment about the state of my life and my people. The sad reality is that increasingly over the years, there are few people in my offline life who are not the result of my online life. Blog readers who I end up meeting with and fellow Twitter users whom I meet. While almost all of these meetings have been fruitful, it rarely allows for an authentic connection. How can we connect authentically when I exist in one dimension for most people? How can we ever become “friends” when it seems that for most I am their go-to person on racism; an expert on otherness? How can I let myself be vulnerable and real when most people whom I meet are eager to show me how un-racist they are?

The reality is that I can’t be real with most people when I have, in essence, become something other than the deeply flawed and raggedy human that I really am. The ego is a strange bedfellow, living inside jockeying for position…and the very nature of today’s world via social media, which increasingly is our world, allows for fertile soil for the ego to play and replicate itself.

After eight years of blogging and years in social media spaces, I have seen far too many people become caricatures of themselves because the need to stay relevant and feed the machine starts to take hold, and I fear that I am on that cusp myself. A place where the near-constant validation of people who really don’t know me allows me to bask in the goodness of a false self. Those are the moments in which you need your people—the people who don’t hesitate to check you with love and gentleness and offer correction and support to keep you from falling into that abyss of the ego machine. People who without hesitation will tell you to mind the gap. I need those people; I need to find them because I don’t want to lose the essence of myself in a quest to become some false version of myself.

To paraphrase Dr. Fleming, better known on Twitter as Alwaystheself, sometimes you really do need a break from the folks who follow you and “like” you to find your humanity alongside the folks who actually know you. We live in strange times, a place where the actions of people we may never break bread with can make us, aid us, break us and even destroy us. Strange times indeed. As for me, I give thanks to my teachers and spiritual guides and the memory of lessons learned that are helping me heal and also allowing me to acknowledge my own limitations. That in this season of my life, it is time to sit in my physical space and lessen my time in digital spaces. My road ahead is rocky as I embark upon a journey with no clear destination and in order to navigate these choppy seas, I need to be fully present in my own life. I have to be intentional about where I put my energy in this season of change.

Venti triple-shot mocha and a side of race talk please…or not

As I sit and reflect on my time at the White Privilege Conference that I recently attended, I am reminded of just how difficult honest discussions about race and racism are in the United States. Even in dedicated spaces with people who are working for racial justice, missteps and microaggressions can and do occur. Which is why when I heard of Starbucks newest social initiative to talk race, I had to laugh and wonder: Why on earth would a coffee chain think that a lighthearted approach toward a serious problem could happen and have a significant impact in a few-minute-or-less encounter?

On the surface, the Starbucks initiative might seem like a start in the right direction of addressing our nation’s race problem, but a serious problem requires a serious response. If one is in need of surgery, they generally want a skilled surgeon and ideally the best one that their money or insurance plan will allow; certainly not any random physician of any given specialty. Yet when it comes to race in America, everyone thinks they have the answer or that anyone who labels themselves an expert on the subject of race and racism is qualified to speak on the matter. This is why there is a certain segment of the population that thinks that Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson speak for Black people when the average Black person will tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.

We cannot address racism by simply focusing on the current events of the day. For those of us whose work and research is race-based, we understand that racism is larger than the stories of racial injustice that come across our paths on an almost daily basis. Racism is about power and privilege; who has the power and privilege and who doesn’t. We also understand that in the United States the very formation of our nation was founded on the backs of disenfranchising certain bodies and creating a class called white that was given access to power and privilege and hundreds of years later we all live with the legacy of race that was created by men long dead.

To be white in our society is to have access; whether or not one actually utilizes that access is a matter of personal situations. Yet while occasionally we hear tales of whites who have been abused and mistreated on the basis of their skin largely it is something that happens to Black and Brown bodies. This is why discrepancies exist in every major system in our society, starting most prominently with our criminal justice system. This week alone a white man who may or may not have had ties to white supremacy groups went on a shooting spree and yet managed to be captured alive (when so many unarmed Blacks have been shot dead by police recently) in the same week when a Black college student at the University of Virginia was beaten bloody by cops on St. Patrick’s Day for engaging in the same type of behavior that is often part of the white college experience (there are conflicting reports of whether or not Martese Johnson was using a fake ID or engaging in public intoxication, neither which are worthy of the bloody beating he sustained at the hands of law enforcement).

These discrepancies exist across the board in every major system and while it is easier to name the intersection of class as the issue, data exists that supports the notion that even college-educated, professional, middle-class Blacks face challenges that their white peers do not. The data that details racial discrepancies is staggering, yet to the average white person and even some people of color, knowledge of this data and the research is missing and a larger analysis of race is absent. Which in order to talk critically and sincerely about race is highly problematic. If you think I am kidding, look in the comment section of any major publication, even highly esteemed ones such as the New York Times.

To solve racism requires more than awareness of the problem. I head up one of the nation’s longest  and continuously operating anti-racism groups; these discussions have been happening for decades. Solving racism is about actively dismantling systems that favor whiteness and at Starbucks, an organization led by a white man, the solution should start at the top, not the bottom. Why is so much of the executive leadership team at Starbucks white while so many of the employees are not? Perhaps that should be addressed first. Are there not any highly qualified non-whites to fill these upper-level roles?

Asking hourly wage front-line workers with little power to broach one of the most pressing issues of our time is the type of tone-deaf change that goes nowhere.These workers have little influence and the bulk of people who go to Starbucks do have some power and privilege. Even using the assertion that with 40% of the staff is non-white, that puts an unfair burden on people of color. In racial justice we subscribe to the notion of “do no harm.” This means that asking people of color to do the heavy lifting is exploitative and nothing more than a gimmick…not the potential for change.

Last night on Twitter, I had an exchange with the Starbucks social media person around working with actual trained folks who work in anti-racism work and I sincerely hope that they reach out if not to my group, then one of the many in the field of anti-racism who could work with them to do a power analysis and move forth from there with a real plan of change. Not a newsworthy gimmick.  So yeah, just give me my decaf, soy,  flat white and skip the race talk for now, I am not interested.

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A blog is a public offering yet as this blog continues to grow and people reach out to ask for assistance, appearances, or as I discovered recently my pieces are used in classes. I am confronted with the reality that writing this blog is far more than slapping up a piece and being done. I have decided moving forth that much like my beloved NPR, that from time to time I will ask readers that if the musings here move them, consider supporting the musings. In our culture, money is the currency we use to show support. If you want more details about how or why you should support this space, read here. 

A glimpse into the silo of whiteness

Despite the fact that I work in the anti-racism field, I actually do little in the way of direct work with individuals or groups outside of the occasional talk and my writing in this space. I am not an anti-racism trainer or a facilitator. I am a non-profit administrator who is passionate and knowledgeable about racism and anti-racism work, and the key to maintaining my own peace of mind is knowing how to stay in my own lane. Which is why this past weekend has turned into a personal clusterfuck of sorts as I unpack my knapsack and I am reminded that as a general rule, we don’t ask victims of crimes to solve their own crime. Yet we are far too comfortable as a society with asking oppressed people to solve injustices that affect them yet they did not create.

This past weekend I participated in two local events, one in Portsmouth, NH, where I had the honor of speaking about my own personal journey as a Black woman in Northern New England. In many ways, it was a full-circle event for me as the Portsmouth Black Heritage Trail was one of the first groups I reached out to when I was researching my move to the area. Learning of their presence gave me hope that I was not walking into a complete racial void. The second event was in my town, an open discussion on race that several of us had been discussing for months in light of Michael Brown’s death and the resulting incidents.

Both events were good; I think those in attendance received food for thought, increased awareness and in some instances a moment of needed connection. But increasingly the more I speak in public, the more that I find myself drained mentally, emotionally and sometimes even physically. The more that my own awareness increases, it becomes even clearer to me that Horace Seldon, the 90+ year old founder of Community Change Inc. was a visionary in 1968 when he started the organization with the goal that white people need to deal with racism and dismantling the systems that they benefit from. Yet despite our work for over 40 years now, too many white people still seem to require the personal flagellation of Black and non-white people in order to grasp the lived impact of racism and in order to “get it.” This is tiring; this is not healthy.

Over the years, I have described my own observations of whiteness—especially in white spaces—as a silo, much to the annoyance of some. Yet a silo is exactly how whiteness as a whole operates. It is is able to self isolate itself from the larger world because it owns and dominates every system that is required to live and yet doesn’t require interacting with others unless it chooses to.

In places like Northern New England, where the physical presence of non-white people is scarce, one can live their entire life never seeing people of color outside of the occasional tourist or what is projected via the media. One never questions why there are no people of color holding positions of power. One can live their entire existence never being concerned with the brutality that is ravaging communities within their own country because those people are “other” and there are no others in their personal world. Personally, as someone who understands the interconnected nature of all living creatures, this isolation perplexes me and scares me. It scares me that people can’t see beyond their own walls to see the shared humanity. It scares me that people have only come to care because they read this space or get to know me as a person—thus, what matters to me then matters to them.

It scares me that wounded people carrying the still-unhealed scars of oppression must give so much of themselves in order to be seen as human. Yet those who bear the rewards of oppression have the freedom of choice—to choose to care or not to care; to choose to go that extra mile while the bloody and wounded never get a choice. In my professional work, we are always intentional about making sure that people of color are never asked to carry the heavy part of the load because we recognize that the scales of justice are far from fair.

Yet outside of intentional anti-racism circles, rarely does this play out and I wish it weren’t like that…this weekend, I glimpsed into that silo of whiteness and man, it was hard. Yet I found myself wishing that I could have those choices. Alas, it is not to be. Until then, I hope these heavy-duty gauze pads keep absorbing so that I can keep carrying on. Hoping that one day perhaps for my great-grand-kiddos, the scales of justice will be balanced and they will not bear these scars from a world they didn’t create and that they will allowed to be whole, free and human. That the silo of whiteness will be no more and that there will be a silo of humanity where all will reside.

I am off to Louisville, KY for the White Privilege Conference and when I return my plate will be full. However feel free to like me on Facebook where I often share timely articles and pieces. 

 

 

My extreme commute or a taste of freedom

Since taking over as Executive Director of Community Change Inc. in January 2014, one of the questions that I am constantly asked is how do I manage living in Maine while heading up at organization based in Boston? Such a commute might seem abnormal to many but based off the number of fellow commuters who ride the Amtrak Downeaster along with me, I am hardly alone.

There is actually a term for us: “extreme commuters”—folks whose daily commute is longer than 90 minutes each day. When the stars align and there are no delays, my commute is about 2 hours and 25 minutes each way. The stars rarely align and, as you can imagine, this winter my commute has been extremely interesting. However, I rarely commute daily at this point; instead, I go down and stay over for two to three nights depending on the week. Seeing as how I head up a small non-profit, my overnight accommodations are hardly plush. I generally alternate between the local youth hostel and an inexpensive “boutique” hotel.

Many may wonder, why ever would one subject themselves to such logistical challenges all for a job? Well, the work that we do at Community Change is not easily replicable—our focus is anti-racism specifically working with white people. The opportunity to head up such an organization in many ways was a dream come true despite the challenges of location. Yet I do work that matters deeply to me and while I most certainly could head up an organization closer to home as I did for many years, it would hardly be the same.

On a personal note though, this job and the extreme commute have been my pathway back to myself. Living and working in Maine had started to take a toll on me and. to be honest, I didn’t realize how much so until I took this job. I hadn’t realized that the cost of being the Black person in almost-always-white spaces had caused me to stuff myself down to the point that my true self was almost unrecognizable. To live in a space where one is always the “other” is hard because rarely can you be comfortable in your own skin. You are always in a flight-or-fight mode once you walk outside your house. Even doing “fun” things have the potential to spiral into something less than fun when you are the other.

Over the past 14 months as I have navigated learning not only my job and organization but the actual city of Boston, I have become very aware of how much lighter my spirit feels when I am out of Maine. Even in a city such as Boston that has its own complicated racial history that is not always favorable, to be able to navigate in spaces where I am not “The Other” is a breath of fresh hair. To go into meetings and see myself mirrored matters; to have other Black and brown-skinned directors to connect with has meant a level of support that I needed but could never obtain in Maine. To walk into my board meetings knowing that I don’t have to measure every word because to make a mistake will be an indictment on all Black bodies and “proof” that I don’t deserve my position is a huge weight off my shoulders. I could go on.

All this of course leads to the next question: Why are you still in Maine? Life is complicated and when you have kids and a house, as much as we might want to just up and leave, it can’t always happen at that time. If I had my way, I would have left Maine 14 months ago, yet at this stage in life, it’s a bad look to jump without planning ahead. So eventually I do hope to leave Maine and after 14 months of shuttling my stuff back and forth, I am taking the baby steps of laying down roots in Boston by looking to rent a room so that I can have a semi-permanent place to lay my head on the days that I am down there. (Hey, Boston folks, if you have a lead on a room on the T line, let me know…I am serious) Ideally, I can make the full leap by fall 2016 but that depends on pesky back-end and boring adult details like money, home repairs, money…you get the point.

So yes, I do have an abnormal commute and sometimes it can be tiring, but living and working in a place that feels like a prison cell is far worse. At least a few days a week, I get to feel fully alive and free before I have to go back to my cell called Maine where I wear my mask and feel my soul slowly oozing out.

 

The lies we live but do all lives really matter? Or no childhood for some…

In a perfect world, the color of someone’s skin wouldn’t matter but we live in an imperfect world where it very much does, despite the number of people who insist that it doesn’t. That stubborn insistence by many that race doesn’t matter is naive at best and dangerous at worst because it keeps us from working to create a system that for once wouldn’t condemn certain bodies from the very moment they arrive earth side.

Last fall, 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down in a public park in Cleveland, Ohio, because a bystander saw what he perceived to be a Black man with a gun and called the police. Despite saying that Rice might have been a juvenile, the dispatcher didn’t quite convey that part of the message to the responding officers and a young child with a toy pellet gun was murdered by the people who are sworn to protect the public.

This weekend a statement was issued by Cleveland officials in response to a wrongful death suit by  Rice’s family that claims that Tamir in essence caused his own death. “were directly and proximately caused by their own acts. . .,” and added that Tamir caused his own death “by the failure. . . to exercise due care to avoid injury.”

It would almost be laughable if there wasn’t a slew of dead Black and Brown bodies in recent years. Too many times the deceased victim is at fault for their own death, no matter what their age or circumstance. However we live in a time where there is a blatant double standard when it comes to race: a young Black child is perceived to be a menacing scary adult. Yet when a white young adult commits a heinous crime, they are painted with the fuzzy brush of humanity that almost excuses their acts of destruction. How else can we explain Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev ending up on the cover of Rolling Stones magazine with an accompanying article that tried it’s best to humanize him? By the same logic didn’t Michael Brown deserve a cover too? After all Brown and Tsarnaev were close in age; actually Brown was younger and he didn’t kill anyone, yet far too many see Brown as a reckless thug who didn’t do what he was told.

Or let us talk about the young white child who on a family vacation in Arizona in the summer of 2014 accidentally shot and killed her shooting instructor with an Uzi. The accident was a tragedy but last time I heard, no charges were filed and the family was allowed to grieve privately. A few voices labeled the family reckless but overall the family which one might say exercised galactically poor judgment in allowing a 9-year-old girl to handle an Uzi was allowed to be imperfect in their humanity…just a mistake.

Having raised one child to adulthood, I am intimately aware of how Black and Brown children are denied their humanity, their innocence and their childhood. Too many of us feign surprise at these simple truths but this is a country that was founded on the stripping of Black and Brown humanity, where Black and Brown children were often separated from their families and made to serve and work. My own father was the child of sharecroppers in rural Arkansas in the 1950s and 1960s and the stories he has shared about the cotton patch and what the landowners expected of families (the whole family) aren’t tales based in the 19th century but recent history that is now lived as nightmares in the psyches of many older Blacks who are still upright.

When will enough be enough? How many tragedies must happen, how many think pieces and blog posts must be written for all lives to matter? Not as an empty slogan or the predictable “Ugh” or “Disgusting” that is the norm in social media spaces when these tragedies come to light but when will you be moved to take action? How will you do it or do you really care? These are the things we must ask ourselves if we believe that childhood and humanity is for more than just white bodies. Anything less is a form of mental masturbation and if that’s all we are going to do, we should just own that too.

The inhumanity train ride or where are the good white people?

For those of us in the northeast corner of the United States, the past month has just been one non-stop snow storm. Poor little Boston, the city I actually work in, looks like the snowpocalypse. The amount of snow in Massachusetts actually makes the snow we have in Maine (the state I legally reside in) look like child’s play and we have a lot of snow.

As one can imagine, the past month has been nothing short of a clusterfuck when it comes to travel and schedules…schedule, what’s that? The snow dates need snow dates at this point. Which is how I found myself on a train back to Maine on a Friday afternoon, the one day that I strive to be home in Maine. Yet when you are behind in work due to snow and the bookkeeper has retired and your 2014 financial records need to be closed out, you work when the snow allows.

The Friday afternoon train back to Maine is one of my least favorite trains of the week, a caustic mix of commuters, vacationers/daytrippers and others with the tension of high expectations in the air. This Friday’s train ride, sadly, did not disappoint. Considering that earlier in the week, I spent three-plus hours on a train that never even managed to get out of the state of Maine due to a broken-down freight train on the tracks (and ultimately ended up backing up all the way to where I live), the ride home was looking pretty uneventful and at only 30 minutes behind; pretty timely, and making me fairly happy…until it was time to exit the train at my stop.

As I am making my way to the door (mind you this is an Amtrak train) with my bags, I end up standing by a family that includes a young boy of 10 or so, a woman who appears to be the grandmother and on the other side of the aisle perhaps the boy’s mom and a sibling. Standing there, I noticed the grandmother and boy looking at me which honestly is nothing new. I am Black in Maine; looky-loos come with the territory. Depending on my mood, I ignore, smile or give the look of disapproval. Last night, my mind was a blank slate as it registered that the boy had just said something about Black people while giving me what we in my house call the look of stank. The grandmother leans over to the boy who then proceeds to say very loudly and clearly “Black people kill White people” his grandmother gave me a sympathetic look, the boy stared at me, behind me white people were queuing up to get off the train, the young white man in front of me looked away and adjusted his ear buds. In that moment, I felt my own humanity disappear. To be Black, to be othered has too often meant a white person, even a child, can snatch your humanity away just because of the color of your skin.

Yet I am a woman on a life journey, a journey to find my voice and demand my place at the table of humanity. So with little hesitation, I found myself leaning over with tears in my eyes, telling that boy that “Bad people kill people. Period.” I also told him that not all white people are good nor are all Black people bad. I asked him where he lived and he told me Winslow, Maine. I told him that the world is larger than Winslow and hopefully he would grow up and see that this world is filled with all kinds of people. The kid stared back at me in shock, the grandmother just looked at me and the man behind me said “Good for you for speaking up.” Excuse me…good for me? This is the world we inhabit now, where action is considered extraordinary because too often we choose no action.  We fear discomfort, we don’t want to lose our place or get messy so instead we bear witness to the dehumanization of others and offer tentative head pats. By the way, the man behind me was another Maine to Boston commuter whom I regularly see on the train.

When the train finally stopped and I got off, it hit me that I was more pissed off about the fact that a gaggle of white people had heard this kid and not one had the courage to speak up. Something that I have seen far too many times in recent years. As for the boy, clearly what he is exposed to in his life is setting him up for hateful and fear-based beliefs.

In the end, we all have choice: how are we living and what actions are we modeling for others in our lives. Words without direct actions have little meaning. We can claim all sorts of things but if our actions don’t support the words, we are lying to ourselves. To live fully and completely means we lean into a life where we don’t run from the messy or uncomfortable; where we put on our muck boots and brace for the mess. We stand in truth for truth and if justice is on our sides, we give no fucks. So I muse aloud, “Where are the good white people?” The ones who are willing to break the barriers of discomfort for truth and justice. I know there are some, but it seems at times that there are so few I can’t help but have moments in which I believe they are about as real as the superheroes in comic books and movies.

Self truth…the journey

We live in a world where advice is like air; it’s everywhere, you can’t avoid it. Careers and fortunes have been made based off advice-givers telling others how to live, yet rarely does anyone ever really talk about the very real costs of creating change and getting the life that you want. Instead, like the average New Year’s resolution, we start off with high hopes and a few weeks or months in when we hit the wall of reality and discomfort starts to rise, we slowly slide back into the pit of just existing. The truth is that when we start to get real about our own self-care (another pithy little saying that is often devoid of the concrete) it leads us down the road to self-truth, and that’s when shit gets real. This is often the point that what we see in the mirror amazes us but it scares us. It scares us so bad that we flee the room, shut the door and run back to that which is familiar. Sometimes our joy can be found in the comfortable and if we can make peace with it, then it’s not a problem.

But sometimes, we can’t make peace with the comfortable or familiar. Sometimes the comfortable is not enough. Sometimes we bear the curse of the restless spirit that can’t stop seeking. And sometimes that seeking into our own truth will exact a toll higher than anything we could ever imagine.

My own journey to self-care and later self-truth started a number of years ago and was precipitated by mother’s untimely and premature death over a decade ago. Losing both my mother and grandmother in a short period of time required that I learn to not only mother myself but to nurture myself as well. In many ways, I have felt like Odysseus in search of Ithaca. The thing about a journey is that you think you know your destination but often you will veer off course and sometimes you don’t ever get back on track.

Self-care is a deceptive concept. We often think that it means taking a few hours for ourselves, a glass of wine, or making time to sleep in but sometimes those aren’t the answers. Sometimes to truly take care of ourselves is to sit in the mirror of life and figure out who we are at this moment, and contemplate the possibility of who we may become. What we see when we look straight into the mirror of our soul and don’t turn away or get scared is something with the potential to quell our restless spirit. But it can also destroy that which we hold dear. In that moment we face our inner Rhett Butler, do we give a damn or not?

In this moment, I ponder my own journey and leave you with a poem by C.P. Cavafy and your own journey.

As you set out for Ithaka
hope your road is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope your road is a long one.
May there be many summer mornings when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you enter harbors you’re seeing for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to learn and go on learning from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you’re old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you’ve gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you wouldn’t have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

On Measles and whiteness or the freedom to choose

When I gave birth to my first child in 1992, I pretty much listened to and followed the advice of elders and healthcare professionals. It didn’t even dawn on me in the first act of my parenting career, that I had a choice when it came to things like getting my kid vaccinated. I had been vaccinated and turned out okay and by golly…my kid was getting his shots too!

Fast forward to the winter of 2004 when I found myself pregnant with the girl child while still grieving the loss of my beloved mother months earlier and craving, no, needing a community to ride with me on my parenting journey. Thanks to the interwebz and a knowledgeable midwife; I found myself diving into the natural parenting community, courtesy of the now defunct publication, Mothering.

So many ideas, so many suggestions when it came to parenting, many that had never crossed my mind in the first act of my parenting career. I was hooked. I wanted an all natural birth, cloth diapers, co-sleeping and yes, no vaccines. There was no way I was going to put those suspect ingredients into my precious new baby…fuck that shit! My bewildered husband chalked up much of my enthusiasm for natural parenting as a mix of pregnancy hormones mixing with my grief emotions.

In the end, I did end up using cloth diapers, I co-slept with my daughter for four years, I nursed for three and a half years and for many years our daughter was not fully vaccinated (we did vaccinate, but on a delayed and staggered basis, in part because of a harmless but significant reaction to one of her earliest shots).

In the early years of her life, not fully vaccinating was a non-issue; after all, she was with us all the time, she was fed the freshest and most organic food our shekels could buy, she was nursed for years…her life was good, so why did we eventually vaccinate her?

For starters, not vaccinating as non-white person is to invite extra scrutiny into your life, especially when homeschooling is not an option. While we were and are fortunate to have a healthcare provider who is well known in Maine for his acceptance of the non-vaccinated, even admitting that his own children are not fully vaccinated, we still needed to interact with a larger world.

Over the years, it became clear to me that my choice to not vaccinate could have reverberations further than our family. See, we don’t live in silos when it comes to public health and that point was illustrated to me when my daughter came down with the flu at the same time my father was knocking on death’s door. I lived in fear that week she was sick that I was going to need to fly back to Chicago and would be denied entry to see my dad in possibly his last moment due to having been exposed to the flu in my house. It was what I would later call a small aha moment…we are all connected.

Yet it was when I started to notice that the movement of choice when it came to parenting decisions could get a Black parent’s child taken away by Child Protective whereas a white parent hardly lived with such fears. Each year when we submitted a personal exemption at my daughter’s school, I tensed knowing that I could expect the call from the nurse. It became too much and over time we decided that she needed to be fully vaccinated even with the seemingly silly varicella vaccine. However, I probably shouldn’t say silly in our case; with a child who has some sensory issues, the idea of chicken pox (which both my son and I had weathered) started to seem like something akin to hell on earth for us potentially.

Perhaps it is because many non-white cultures are far less into the rugged individualism that is almost a defining trait of whiteness in Western white cultures but in my village; we care about all the children, not just the ones who belong to us. Maybe it’s because I know that as a non-white person and specifically a Black woman in America my decisions don’t exist in a vacuum and that I am not nearly as free as my white counterpart. In the end my decision to vaccinate was less about the medical implications and more about the unspoken social implications. All it would take is one “professional” deciding to challenge my uppity, Black ass and it would be on.

I have been sitting and watching the current measles outbreak and noticing that the anti-vax movement has a diversity problem and one that few will ever publicly discuss though I am not the only one to notice it. Too many times we would rather replace class for race but race and class are intertwined and to not acknowledge that painful reality is intellectually lazy at best. The current outbreak is primarily due to the increase in non-vaccinated children from financially comfortable, families who in most cases are white. Can you imagine if a measles outbreak was started in low-income communities of color? First off, the current way that race is lived in America, public health officials would not allow this to happen. The pushback from officials would be swift and people would be turned into examples. Families would be torn apart.

This is a hard post because as someone who didn’t vaccinate my youngest child for many years, I have many connections with people who still don’t vaccinate their kids and who are passionate in their beliefs about the dangers of vaccinations. I respect their right to be passionate but I can’t deny that their whiteness affords them the ability to be passionate about something that in many ways is larger than just their family. Right now the numbers may be small but we are talking about a disease that had been declared eradicated in 2000 that has now made a resurgence and whose implications are huge. In a comfortably middle class family, a child down with the measles might be a pesky inconvenience but to the single parent doing shift work, it is more than an inconvenience, it has the ability to derail that family’s very existence. Let’s not even talk about those with compromised immune systems or the most medically fragile in our midst.

To live in America is to live in a state where things are racialized and compartmentalized based off of who we are. Our freedoms are rarely free and rarely are they available to all. Yet the choices we make with our freedoms have the ability to affect all of us and our passion and inconvenience might be someone else’s crisis and tragedy. When making decisions, we often must decide if the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

Note: At this moment, the matter of vaccinations is highly charged, so keep all comments respectful. 

A glimpse of midlife and setting fire to my life…musings at 42

Even a dedicated racial justice professional needs a break from a steady diet of racial injustice. My recent birthday has provided me with the opportunity to step back and reflect on my life. This post is a result of some of my reflections, so if you prefer the race talks, you may want to skip this post. Sadly, the world remains a cruel and unjust place so almost certainly, I will have something to weigh in on soon.

When you run off at 18 and get married, have your first kid at 19 and are on the road to divorce court before you can legally even buy a cold brew, it’s easy to slip down a rabbit hole where you feel you are always playing catch up in life. It becomes far too easy to lose contact with one’s inner guide and instead plug into the world’s vision of who you should be. Sure, you occasionally visit your real self but for the most part your real self becomes a visitor who drops in for special occasions. Even for those who don’t start the adulthood journey with appendages known as kids and spouses, getting to one’s real self can be difficult. In part, we spend 18 years being fed someone else’s view of the world and those views shape us no matter how much we fight against it and then we spend the next 18 years uncovering what’s real for us.

The only thing is that, for most of us, the first decade or so of our adult lives are spent fitting into society’s pre-designed boxes (college, careers, love, family) so even if we are actively rebelling against what we learned in the first 18 years of life, we are often still part of the system we are struggling with. We literally at times have two halves of our lives but the second half of life doesn’t reveal itself until we have a few decades on this dusty rock. In my case, the late 30s signaled an internal shift but one that didn’t ramp up until the past year, when it started to become clear that change was underfoot.

I have openly joked about the physical shifts…those damn hot flashes are no joke and let’s not even talk about that nasty Flo broad and her changes. If I ever meet Aunt Flo face to face, why I’m gonna….

No, the soul searching, the painful picking up and putting down of what works and what doesn’t work. That’s what I’m talking about right now. Digging around in my psychic closet and exploring myself in my 40s now; asking the questions that in my 20s and even my 30s I could not find the courage to even utter except in the occasional moment of clarity. But that clarity would disappear as suddenly as it appeared. The moments of wondering “Is this it?” Ours is a culture where to admit these moments is looked at as a problem to be solved, but not all “problems” require a medical professional, treatment plan or a drug. Sometimes our problems just require the moment that pushes us to our edge and when we gather the bones, heed the whispering of those who have journeyed before us and run to embrace that all knowing wild being who is healthy, free and unencumbered, we find peace.

Yet the quest to the true self that often starts at midlife is not without risk; in fact, the risks are proportional to the potential of joy and peace that is possible. The larger the piece of the joy, the greater potential that you may just end up blowing up your life, just setting it on fire and saying “Fuck it all!” In many ways, it is fitting that I recently celebrated my 42nd birthday by gathering the materials to make the biggest blaze to blow up all that held me back. I am a creature of habit. I am often methodical and rarely do I make decisions without calculating the odds of success in any venture that I undertake. However, my gift to myself in this new year of life is to truly live joyously and take risks. It’s too soon to say and the odds for failure are high but my joy at the moment cannot be contained. I am not afraid to fail anymore and that alone is a gift; I look forward to the other gifts that this journey will unwrap as I go further along.

So welcome to 42, where the woo got stronger and I remembered to laugh again.

Racialized healthcare or adventures in the emergency room

This month marks 7 years for this little space and its been an evolving process for me both as a writer and as a person. As a result over the years, particularly in recent years I have intentionally become a bit less personal in what I share here. Yet the nature of this type of writing is personal and people often come back because of the feeling of personal connection. Which is why despite my intentionally sharing less of myself, I suspect that more long time readers especially  those who follow me in social media spaces have been astute in noticing that I have grappled with personal issues. The past year has been a year of physical challenges for me, a year where to be honest I have seen far too many damn healthcare providers in a search for answers. A year where I have seen the inside of the ER a few too many times but thankfully I am on the road to answers and feeling quite optimistic that the worst of it may be behind me barring a biopsy and some other treatments.

Pain and discomfort have become regulars in my life, throw in a predisposition towards anxiety and you have the makings for a stew of of physical hell. I have been fortunate that my daily yoga and meditation practice keep me from allowing the discomfort to feel like a nonstop threat to my very being. Yet there are days when the discomfort becomes too much; throw in regular garden-variety anxiety with a dash of perimenopausal heart palpitations and discomfort and it’s the death spiral of Oh, no

Which is why when in the middle of a conference call several days ago in my office—when I felt a thump in my neck, excruciating pain in my upper body and the world started spinning the same time that I felt my body temperature rise—I realized that when one is 105 miles away from home, the ER might sometimes be the best place to go to make sure that all was well.

However. not living in Boston and not having my road dawg—better known as my husband—with me, I got off the conference call as fast as I could and asked the program assistant at my office to help me get to the nearest ER. Little did I know that I was about to embark upon an adventure from hell that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy at one of America’s top-rated medical centers.

My office is located in downtown Boston, right in the Beacon Hill area, and the hospital closest to my office is Tufts Medical Center. Which, while it may be one of the best in the country is…well… lacking greatly in people skills. I have seen friendlier medical personnel at the old Cook County Hospital in Chicago, which is saying a lot since County specialized in trauma and the indigent.

From the moment my assistant and I stepped into the Tufts ER, I started to wonder if  I had made a terrible mistake. When one walks into an emergency room waiting space and is greeted by a woman in a wheelchair puking into her hospital-provided barf bag and wailing loudly that she needs help, you start to wonder.

My initial contact with the check-in staff was interesting as I explained my plight. Look, I understand, it gets busy, you are overwhelmed but a minimum wait of two hours?  Ok, it is what it is. Nevermind that the check-in guy seemed surprised that I had health insurance but after waiting patiently for two hours to be seen and listening to puking lady barf every 7 minutes (I counted) it became clear that most of us in the ER had one similarity: non-white skin…and that all the staff that I encountered had something in common as well: white skin. Most  of what my program assistant and I witnessed during my two-hour wait was downright chilling especially as we witnessed a white social worker speak in a chilling and condescending manner to a young Black man who was clearly in the midst of a mental health crisis. If I hadn’t been in grave discomfort and pain, I would have walked out the door.

The real fun though began when I was finally called and settled into a space—to call it a room would be a bit too much. Nurse number 1…”you look real nice”…um, what the hell does that have to do with why I am here? Enter the PA, a bored, disaffected looking white woman who treated me as if I were a junky looking for a fix. Gulp.

Nope, the real fun began when nurse number two came to give me an EKG, since I had complained of upper-body pain. Never mind that if I had been having a cardiac event that having me sit for two plus hours was probably a bad idea. No, helpful man nurse number two was there to assist and that is when the weirdness became so clear that even Stevie Wonder could have seen it.

So the nurse wheels in the EKG machine and offers to help me take off my boots since I was sitting up as laying down was uncomfortable. Great, thanks dude…Upon helping me take off my boot, he holds up my boots and comments on the brand and states that these are expensive boots, then proceeds to ask my opinion of them.  A bit strange but whatever. However, as he was placing the tape on me and hooking me up to the EKG machine, in a strange attempt at bonding, he leans over me while my body is exposed and proceeds to tell me that I smell good and ask me what am I wearing.

I can’t speak for anyone else but when a man who I don’t know has access to my body when it is most vulnerable, I really am not interested in conversations about my scent of choice or where I shop. As an online nurse friend mentioned, nurses can sometimes be quirky. I get it. Yet when you work at one of America’s top hospitals, I expect a certain level of professionalism. The only person I had contact with wasn’t creepy or completely disaffected was the actual physician, who came in with the “oh” face but softened considerably when I mentioned that I lived in Maine and we started bantering about Maine.

In the end, I was released and while I was “fine” the fact is that racial health disparities are no joke. By and large Black people do not receive the same level of treatment or quality of care when they encounter healthcare providers—the data from many studies supports and acknowledges this. My early academic background is in racial health disparities but it is also personal to me as my beloved mother might have had a chance at life had her doctor actually listened to her. Instead she met an early death.

Living in Maine, I have encountered my share of clueless providers who aren’t knowledgeable about non-white bodies, but rarely have I encountered the lazy disregard for Black bodies that I both witnessed and experienced at Tufts Medical Center. It did not escape my notice that had I been a white woman with the same presentation and symptoms that I would almost certainly would have been treated with a modicum of respect. Though, as a local white pal shared with me, he had his own adventure at Tufts Medical Center ER that left him shook as a reasonably upstanding white man. In any event, implicit bias training and compassion need to be a part of the staff training at Tufts. The vast bulk of people who go to the emergency room don’t want to be there. We would rather be well. We certainly don’t want to leave feeling worse in a whole new way.