Voices from People of color in Maine or thriving against the odds

One of the challenges of being a non-white person living in an overwhelmingly white state is that when matters of race relations come up, it creates awkward moments. It’s hard to share your lived experiences with others when they think that you are “stirring” the pot or making mountains out of molehills. In a nation that overall lacks the racial literacy skills to talk honestly about the impact of our racial past, it means that to venture into racial talk is to make oneself vulnerable and vulnerability, no matter who we are, is rarely welcome or comfortable. So the result is that for far too many people of color, we choose not to talk about the daily experiences that affect us while living in overwhelmingly homogeneous spaces like Maine.

When I started writing about race in 2003, I had no idea how “radical” that act was. For me, as someone from away, I was simply giving voice to my experiences as a newcomer to Maine. It was my way of dealing with the culture shock of being in Maine. However, the longer I am here, it is clear to me that silence around race and the racial slights and slurs that are commonly experienced by people of color must be shared. Silence will never create safety nor create change. When my family’s story of being called the n-word in downtown Portland on a busy Friday afternoon went viral, I heard from many who couldn’t believe this was happening in our largest and most liberal city. Yet I heard from far too many people of color who all had their own stories to share of being accosted with nasty words on streets and in stores. I reached out to a few people and asked if I could share their stories in this space because the longer I write in this space, it is no longer about  just this Black Girl in Maine. Instead, it’s about all of us who struggle to make a home in an amazing state that has exquisite beauty and solid bones yet find ourselves being viewed with suspicion and carrying that burden of stuffing it down in our souls.

“I was on my way to work when I stopped at the Cumberland farms in Portland to get gas.I was minding my own business when I heard someone shouting louder than the music on my headphones. I looked up and saw a white man and he was apparently shouting at me. I pulled out my head phones and looked around until he said “yeah you!” I asked him if I was in the way and he said “where are you from?” I was really confused at this point so I simply replied by saying “um portland?” He laughed and said “no you’re not” and I said “yeah- I was born here” he then proceeded to tell me to “go back to my country” calling me specific explosives that I didn’t care for.

The name calling isn’t what bothered me. I was scared- I’m afraid of strangers speaking to me in general- especially white men. I was so visibly disgusted and uncomfortable but no one said anything- everyone kept their heads down and seemed to feel as uncomfortable as me. I said repeatedly “you’re scaring me- please stop” as he continued to yell at me while I paid for my gas. No one said a word- no one stuck up for me. I was honestly afraid he’d follow me.  This is normal to me- it’s the fear of being attacked and the fact that I knew no one would have done anything that was scary. This is a common if not regular occurrence for me, the fear of being hurt or killed is and may always be very real for me.”– A millennial woman of color in Portland, ME.
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“Last year I was attacked physically by a women in Walgreen’s, she spit in my face, She spit in my face because us niggers think Mike Brown was innocent and we’re all animals and should be shot down like dogs. All while I was just trying to grab a half gallon of milk.”- A millennial of color in Maine
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“I teach alternative students. One of my students is a Black kid; they call him “Black sheep.” When I first heard that, I asked why. They said it was because he’s Black and his hair is like a sheep.” – A Black baby boomer

These are just a few of the stories that come across my desk on a regular basis, for most people who deal with this, they don’t want to stir the pot, they just want to go through their daily lives without dealing with the ignorance of others. People often ask me: Why don’t I just move? Well, why should I move? Don’t I have a right as an American to live in peace and safety anywhere in my own nation? In a country that is becoming more racially diverse, we need to move beyond a place of mere tolerance to a place of true acceptance that is based off of creating a racially just and equitable state. Last month, after several racial incidents, including the one that affected my family, Portland, Maine’s city officials came together to denounce racism and bigotry in the city. While a public proclamation against racism is a good first step, ending racism requires intentional actions that go beyond camera-ready moments. It requires some pain, some sweat and some tears to dismantle the systems of oppression that have created the mindset in some that sees  non white bodies as inferior. I can only hope that we will have the courage to start this journey for the sake of us all.

Since 2008, I have been writing in this space, for the most part it has always been a commercial-free zone with the occasional request that readers consider supporting it.  Each time I have put forth a specific request, readers have answered the call and for that I am grateful.  As I move through some major life transitions that require me to think honestly about pesky things like money since I do like inside shelter and plumbing, I would ask regular readers to check out my Patreon page or consider a regular “tip” in the Paypal jar. However no matter what, it is an honor to have you here! 

The humanity of whiteness or those deficient Black folks!

One of the criticisms that is often leveled at me is that I talk about race too often. I suppose that could possibly be true but as I grow older, I wonder how can we not talk about race? To live in the United States is to live in a racialized world where the color of your skin often determines the quality of your life…with white skin coming in at the top of the privilege ladder.

To be White in America is to have the freedom to ignore race. As author, anti-racist activist and my professional colleague Debby Irving wrote in her book “Waking Up White”, it was when she went to graduate school in her late-40s and was asked to consider her own racial identity that it even dawned on her that she had a racial identity. While that was almost certainly a painful realization and admission, the truth is that for far too many White folks, rarely does one have to think about what it means to be White. Instead whiteness allows one to be a human first and foremost with white skin being almost meaningless at least on the surface.

Yet in the hierarchy of race, whiteness matters; it matters because despite the average White person’s inability to grasp the rights and privileges bestowed upon those who have white skin, whiteness frames the world. It controls the narratives that we all live by in this society with anything other than whiteness and white ways of being seen as suspect, deviant or lacking. If you think I am kidding, look at the old study that was done years ago on names. Several candidates with similar credentials submit resumes for jobs, resumes with white sounding names received more callbacks than candidates with Black sounding names. We know now that white felons with only a high school diploma fare better in the job world than Black folks with no criminal records and 4-year college degrees.

The humanity of whiteness was on full display for all of us after last weekend’s “biker brawl” in Waco, Texas. The Banditos and Cossacks had a little gathering  at a place called Twin Peaks and, well, things got a little ugly. So ugly that 9 folks ended up dead and quite a few folks were injured. The bikers even fired on law enforcement and 170 folks ended up being arrested, yet the mainstream media issued a narrative that stopped short at referring to these bikers as thugs, despite the fact that these biker gangs apparently control the bulk of the drug trade in rural and suburban Texas. In fact, in the media photos that were widely distributed as the scene was unfolding, we saw bikers who were being detained sitting on curbs or milling about sans handcuffs with cells phones in hands and some casually smoking cigarettes. We have a group of dangerous men who apparently had been armed to the teeth with handguns, knives and chains who just finished re-enacting the Wild Wild West with dead comrades on the ground yet these dangerous men still managed to be arrested without any spines getting severed or any of the jarring scenes we have seen played out in the past 18 months when large groups of Black folks are involved or, for that matter, sometimes lone unarmed Black people posing little or no threat.

To add insult to injury, after seeing the mugshots a few days later of all the bikers who had been arrested, the only one biker who we know much about is the lone Black biker who apparently is a retired vice cop who is running around with a jacked-up beard. How come of the 170 men arrested, the only one we know by name is the Black guy? Sure, he is a retired vice cop gone rogue but didn’t anyone in the media think about how this would play out? Nope, whiteness bestows a certain level of humanity even when you are a bad guy. It’s why James Eagan Holmes, the lone gunmen in the horrific 2012 Aurora, Coloradp, shooting was described as being a brilliant student in several pieces written about him. Sorry, you walk into a public space and shoot up the joint, do we really need to know how “smart” you were? Nope.

At the same time that we allow bad White folks to be humanized, there is almost a pathological need in media narratives to dehumanize Black victims. If I had no knowledge of how race plays out in America, I would assume that the vast majority of Black folks are morally lacking and deficient beyond repair. Sadly, that is what far too many white folks do think, citing intellectually dishonest data that refers to “Black on Black” crime yet denying the fact that “White on White” crime is also a major thing. Most of us live in racialized silos, which means that when crime goes down, it’s probably going to happen between people of the same racial makeup.

When Black kids are killed by unstable police officers, we feel the need to dissect the kid’s family and find fault with his parents for some perceived shortcoming. When Black kids engage in age-appropriate behavior like being surly and defiant with authority, too many whites think that is justification for shooting the kid dead. I went to predominantly white schools growing up in Chicago and as a teenager I knew more than a few White kids who did dumb shit and for whom doing dumb shit is a right of passage yet all my White peers grew up and we are now middle-aged adults, the majority of whom are productive members of society.

As I write this today, it seems another White cop, in another city who took the lives of a couple of unarmed Black folks by shooting 49 bullets into a car was cleared of all wrong doing. Officer Michael Brelo climbed on the hood of a car and fired into the car. It seems the judge just wasn’t sure that Brelo’s shots killed the couple and since he couldn’t be sure, he had to acquit. I imagine the naysayers will say that if the couple hadn’t be doing XYZ, they would still be alive. If only that was a universal truth,  the trail of dead Black and Brown bodies grows and too often those bodies were guilty of nothing more than not being white. Until we can accept the uncomfortable truth that racial bias frames our society and often casts non-white bodies in an unfavorable light while at the same time bestowing favor upon white bodies, nothing will change.

Since 2008, I have been writing in this space, for the most part it has always been a commercial-free zone with the occasional request that readers consider supporting it.  Each time I have put forth a specific request, readers have answered the call and for that I am grateful.  As I move through some major life transitions that require me to think honestly about pesky things like money since I do like inside shelter and plumbing, I would ask regular readers to check out my Patreon page or consider a regular “tip” in the Paypal jar. However no matter what, it is an honor to have you here! 

The truth is uncomfortable…personal journeys and racial tensions

“When grounded in truthfulness, action and its fruition depend on him.”Yoga Sutra 2:36
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The truth. It sounds so simple. Yet to be truthful with ourselves and the world around us requires a level of intestinal fortitude that, frankly, most of us (including yours truly) struggle with. After all, the truth can be uncomfortable and even scary at times.

As I grapple with an ever-changing personal life mired in the midst of early mid-life changes, I find at times (with increasingly frequency) that certain truths have become more fluid for me. It is often easier to play moral gymnastics than to sit in a stew of discomfort. Yet our culture as a whole struggles with truth, even when those truths are loudly proclaimed and factually accurate.

One of the reasons that racial tensions remain problematic in the United States is because far too many White Americans are averse to hearing people of color, especially Black Americans, talk about the realities of race as it is lived for non-white people. Dr. Robin Di Angelo, who is an associate professor of multicultural and social justice education, refers to this phenomenon as “white fragility.” That is most certainly one way to refer to it.  Yet on a deeper level, we all have a level of fragility that keeps the truth from seeping in because to allow certain truths to penetrate our being means that we must face life as it is and not as we wish it to be. Our culture thrives on the “how it should be” and not the “how it really is.”

Yet depending on the nature of the truth that we are hiding from, the cost of our denial can be harmful. Personal and private denial of truth may only harm us, whereas mass denial of truth can rip at the very fabric of a society. This past weekend, Michelle Obama, the first lady of the United States, gave a commencement speech at Tuskegee University where she spoke honestly about her struggles as a Black woman and as the First Black Lady in the country.  Of course, a certain segment of the population found fault with her words, but for the majority of Black women in the country, she spoke the truths that we live with daily. However, most of us don’t have a platform to share the realities we face and even when we do…well, our reality is often questioned or denied.

The collective truth for the majority of Black Americans is that America is not the bright and shining place that it is for our White counterparts. Yet that harsh truth is simply indigestible to many. No matter how many think pieces are written, studies are conducted and personal stories are shared, White America struggles with truth and would rather attack the messenger as in the case of incoming Boston University professor Saida Grundy who is under fire for a series of tweets on white supremacy and structural inequity.

However to live without truth, whether it is the acceptance of larger truths or our own personal truth, is a denial of humanity. When we deny the humanity of ourselves or others, we cause harm. At some point, we have to decide: Do we want to cause harm?  Once we know that we are causing harm, we are faced with choices that only we can make. As for me, the truth is not fun, yet it is necessary to my own personal growth. I suspect in the larger sphere, the sooner the truth is accepted, we will move toward collective growth and maturity as a nation. Until then, we live a half-life where some beings are valued over beings and others will continue to struggle for inclusion at the table of humanity.

The dance of Black motherhood or the journey to humanity

To choose to bring a child into the world is not for the faint of heart; to make the decision to raise a child is to experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows and, in essence, to gamble with your heart and soul. That child you nurture and raise can grow up to be the next CEO, ax murderer or decide that your parenting choices were so horrendous that they turn their back on you when they come of age. To parent or, specifically, mother while Black is to take all the pressure that mothers everywhere face and to have them amplified and projected for all to see and to be judged in a way that other mothers can only imagine.

This past week, Toya Graham, a Baltimore mother, saw her acts of parenting go viral in a moment that has been dissected and judged by many including yours truly. To recap, Toya’s 16-year-old son was attempting to join the protesters in Baltimore when his mother caught sight of him and physically hauled his ass off but not before laying hands on him which, in 2015, meant the moment was recorded and sent off into the world for all to see. The family is currently having their “15 minutes of fame” and hopefully something positive will come of their viral moment.

Personally, I am not a fan of laying hands on kids. The last time that I laid hands on one of my children was when my now 23-year-old son was 4 and I was a frustrated and young divorcee. I have apologized many times over for that moment, it wasn’t my finest and I swore to never repeat it again. Now with two kids and 23 years of parenting experience, I have kept that promise. However, I have learned in all my years of parenting that to raise Black kids is to exist in that same state of duality that scholar W.E.B. DuBois wrote of on the Black experience in the early 1900s.

I love, nurture and care for my babies but at the same time, they must understand that the weight of their skin color carries an extra burden. It is viewed differently than their white peers. That meant for my son unlearning any notion that the police were his friends. He learned that lesson at 16 when he was accused of looking like a suspect who turned out to be a short white man but not before he was brought home in the back of the squad car for the infraction of buying a sandwich at a local snack shop and walking home to eat it. It’s the lesson he now understands everytime he is stopped for the simple act of driving while Black and has his car illegally searched. It’s why he is stopped more often than any of his white peers when he hasn’t even violated any traffic laws. It is the price of Blackness, and as a parent it has meant instilling in him the tips for how to survive in this world that is unforgiving for Black skin especially Black, male skin.

The Baltimore mom said her actions were the actions of a mom just wanting to keep her son safe and I believe it. When my son at 16 first encountered the unjust realities of this world, I too got scared but I made different choices. I now fight the system that created this unjust burden that weighs heavily on Black and Brown skin and criminalizes our young. We all do the best that we can with the tools that we have at hand.

As Black mothers, we carry an unfair burden that our white counterparts rarely face. We are asked to carry the weight of the Black community on our backs. Part of why Toya Graham’s story has gone viral is the misplaced notion that all that ails the Black community is a simple need for more Black parents better parent their children. As a Black woman and mother that offends me because the majority of Black parents I know and have met along my life journey are parenting their kids. They are parenting often against the odds in a world hostile to our existence and the existence of our kids. They are often parenting in conditions that are unknown to far too many white people. It is the unfortunate side effect of the racial silos that exist in this country that so many people assume that all things are equal based off our their own often limited views.

This morning I came across this piece in today’s New York Times written by a fellow Black mom and frankly it annoyed me even more than the think pieces that have been written about Toya Graham. In part because, in an attempt to talk about the state of Black motherhood in the United States, it dehumanizes all Black mothers by stripping away the individuality of Black mothers. Yes, we face challenges that our white peers may not face but that doesn’t mean that as women and mothers, we don’t have our own tender and even confused moments as mothers. To be a Black woman does not mean we possess some supernatural abilities that are only given to Black women. While we often are not as active in the current day game of mommy wars, I have shared many spaces with Black women as we grapple with the same pieces of humanity that are white counterparts do. It’s just that rarely are our tender and vulnerable moments aired and celebrated as our white counterparts are.

The dance of Black motherhood is a delicate dance that does exact a toll but at the same time we are all humans journeying on a path doing the best that we can, some of us with heavier loads but in the end all deserve to have their humanity recognized and acknowledged in this world.

Why do Black people riot or the release of Black pain

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”– James Baldwin

Last week I sat on a panel as part of the YWCA’s national Stand Against Racism event and the question was posed by our moderator, “Why do Black people riot?”

It was an interesting question, as several of us pondered whether a riot is a riot or if it is an uprising. Personally, I see riots/uprisings as the result of too many years of ill treatment and too much stuffing ourselves down to survive in a society that views us through suspicious eyes. I don’t know much about public rioting but I do know about coming home after a long day where the weight of my Blackness and thus “otherness” threatened to overtake me and my rage reached that critical peak where the toxicity needed to come out and I picked up a dining room chair and started beating it across the floor and wall in an attempt to let that toxic stew out before it stole my soul.

Considering that I am a middle-aged Black woman now living a middle-class existence and thus “respectable” in the eyes of many whites, it may seem as surprise to some that I have those moments when the rage comes bubbling out and spilling over. However, James Baldwin’s words above remain true, even in 2015. Which is why I am not surprised that as I write this, yet another American city is dealing with the aftermath of unchecked systemic racism and white privilege.

Another young Black man has lost his life at the hands of law enforcement. Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Baltimore resident who was arrested after running and in possession of a switchblade. Now, while people will argue you shouldn’t run from the police, a lot of us Black people are afraid of the police these days considering what they seem to think they have a right to do to us once we’re in their clutches, and it isn’t at all evident that Gray was doing anything that deserved being eyed by the police to begin with (which might very well have added to his fear). As for the switchblade, it wasn’t like the police had X-ray vision, so let’s not be calling that probable cause, nor have I heard anything about him trying to use it on anyone. Somehow, this apprehension that never needed to be ended up with him being beaten and then cuffed (but not seatbelted, despite the rules that require it) in a police van, so that he could be tossed all over by the vehicle’s starting, stopping and turning, these combined abuses leaving him with a severed spine and crushed voicebox when he arrived at the police station. He died several days later and now Baltimore is in a state of emergency after several days of demonstrations which did include some incidents of violence.

Of course, the usual narrative as created by the mainstream media in these situations chooses to focus on the pockets of violence rather than on the circumstances that push people to this point. America suffers from an especially dangerous form of amnesia when it comes to racial matters. The average White American believes that Martin Luther King Jr. only dreamed of a world where kids of all colors played together, instead of knowing that he also uttered these words as well:

“It is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard.”

America’s racial amnesia has reached the critical point of no return where the stark inequalities in our so-called post-racial era are shredding the very threads of this nation; racial inequities intersect with economic inequities, creating a toxicity for far too many Black people. Today’s younger generation of Black folks are tired of being tired and seeing a system that is rarely fair and just when you wear Black skin. This year alone, 104 Black people have lost their lives at the hands of law enforcement. Last year 26% of people killed by the police were Black in a nation where Black people are roughly 13% of the population and 40% of those Black people killed by the police were unarmed. The criminal justice system (like many institutions and systems in America) is stacked against Black people, and I’ve only been talking right here about those who end up dead. Those already grim numbers say nothing about the incessant stops while driving or walking (a few weeks ago, an older Black woman who lives in a wealthy community in Massachusetts spoke to me about how when she is pulled over while driving, the police approach her with hands on their guns…stories such as this are a norm, regardless of one’s social class as long as one is Black).

Yet every time another Black life is lost or another demonstration is broadcast,  Black pain is put on display to be consumed, dissected, judged and commented on by people who rarely have interest in creating the systemic, long-term change that is needed to right the scales of justice in this country. Nor do many of those gazing upon Black pain and anguish understand the divisions that sustain a separate and largely unequal America that exists along racial lines: That what white America takes for granted often is not the same experience for Black Americans and consists of things largely denied us. As long as Black pain is permissible and Black bodies are not seen as fully human and deserving of the full humanity that white Americans take for granted, I suspect that this cycle will continue to play itself out. The collective pain of Black bodies is simply too much to stuff down anymore and when that breaking point is reached it must come out by any means necessary. Whether the breaking of chairs or unrest in the streets, it must come out.

When pride gets in the way and strength crumbles

“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong, and repairs the evil. The only crime is pride.” – Antigone

We admire strength and we romanticize strength in all its many forms, but rarely do we consider the plight of the strong. That beneath the surface of those strong beings we admire (whether deeply or superficially) is often someone who feels at odds with the persona they project whether intentionally or unintentionally.

The problem with strength is that it doesn’t allow for a gracious fall; it doesn’t allow the bearer to open up or to admit their weaknesses or missteps. So, you carry on until the weight of that strength threatens your very foundation and the pain in your soul lives in your body and you can sit back and watch it taking over your life. Sometimes solace can be found in the bottom of the bottle but even that is fleeting and the headache the next day is simply not worth the brief respite.

This is a personal post; the kind that I used to do more often before matters of race and larger world issues started to dominate my world. However, I am a writer and I write and when a writer is grappling with missteps and pain, sometimes the only true relief comes from watching the words tumble out and onto the paper or the screen. While this is a personal post written for myself perhaps the larger struggle of strength and the pitfalls of pain may resonate with some of you.

Strong Black woman. A misnomer if ever there were one. My strength and, I suspect, the strength of most “strong Black women”  is born out of a lack of options and places to lay these burdens down. Instead, the show called life must go on, yet sometimes the strong hit the wall. They get to that place where the hiding places that have borne their secrets and pain are simply too full to allow anything else to be stuffed in them. We keep stuffing but this time…nothing is going down. Instead we come face to face with our own fragility in a world that rarely allows for weakness.

I have spent the last month wearing my mask of strength, but the price of that strength is now more than I can afford. Authenticity, which I strive for and often fall short of, is about admitting that sometimes we make mistakes and sometimes the quest to be “right” and take the moral high ground isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Truthfully, there is very little in this journey we call life that is simply black or white. Life is often lived in the gray and even within the gray zone of life there are many shades. Yet that silly thing called pride which lives too prominently within the strong often creates an artificial barrier to admitting such things.

However, I am no longer interested in just being strong. While pride has sometimes served me well, at this juncture it isn’t working, so I lay myself bare and admit to feeling a little like one of many on the island of misfit toys.

Musings on power, privilege and last thoughts on the n-word ordeal

It’s been 10 days since that most unfortunate incident and while I am moving beyond my rage and even my shame and getting ready to rejoin the land of the living, it seems appropriate to share a few closing thoughts that I have on why a “mixed-race” family being called niggers in Maine’s most populous city was so shocking that it was worthy of being news outside of the state. After all, there are very few Black people alive who will escape this life without having that ugly word hurled at them as a weapon used to dehumanize them. It is a sad fact of what it means to be Black in America in 2015.

We aren’t post-racial and we never have been, despite what the media and pundits tried to tell us. A strange confluence of events created an environment that allowed Barack Obama to become president in 2008. It wasn’t about an America that was beyond a man’s skin color; more that he really was the best choice in both 2008 and 2012. Nothing more. The number of hate groups has increased since 2008, the rhetoric from the right over the years has been nothing but dog-whistle politics (which is racially coded language designed to appeal to whites without being overtly racist) and the state of life in America for Black folks continue to be rather depressing as a whole. On average, the net worth of whites is twenty times that of Blacks and eighteen times that of Hispanics. Conflicting studies show that for Black women on average, their net worth is somewhere between $5 and $300. Obviously, I am speaking in broad strokes but my point being, this idea of a level playing field sans racism is a creation of the white mind and not based in any type of reality.

Part of the reason that whites aren’t aware of what life is like for Black folks or other people of color is that far too many white people live, work and love in spaces that are all white. Too many white people don’t have real connections to Black folks or other non-white people and in a state like Maine, it is fairly easy to live your entire life never interacting with or knowing a non-white person. This creates a perfect setting for assuming that there is no racism. In the absence of real knowledge, it is easy to make assumptions. We all do it and it’s not specific to race.

For people of color in Maine or any white-dominated space, talking about our racialized experiences is a risk and one that many literally can’t afford to take. Because, truth be told, when non-white people speak openly about race, it makes white people terribly uncomfortable. And in this country, most non-white people are working for white people, renting from white people, doing business with white people. So, making them uncomfortable is often a bad idea. This is what is meant when racism is described as “power plus privilege.” Non-white people rarely hold the type of power and privilege over whites that whites hold over us. It is an uncomfortable reality that we prefer to put our heads in the sand about.

Yet if you look at my blog prior to the latter part of 2013 (which is when I accepted my position at Community Change Inc.), I wrote about race but not with the level of openness that I now do. Why? I no longer have to worry about offending an all-white board of directors or white foundations as a Black woman living in a predominantly white state. In the past 10 days, I have heard from so many people in Maine as well as people outside of Maine. Many people of color who have suffered indignities greater than mine yet they rarely mention these indignities because they can’t afford to ruffle feathers, so they stuff it down. Even when you do bring it up, you are often told that racism doesn’t happen here, you must be mistaken, etc. In other words, what you lived isn’t seen as valid. Which frankly is a mental and emotional assault.

Many white people have written me asking what can they do, well as I always tell people, read Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White if you haven’t already, but also look in your communities. Are you talking about race? When Black people are killed every 28 hours in this country by law enforcement officers, does that register on your radar or do you assume that the dead Black person clearly should have done XYZ? Do you need to see grainy cell phone videos of Black children being killed by cops to think that maybe there is a problem? Do the words “Black Lives Matter” make you automatically squirm and rephrase it as “All Lives Matter?” Do my words make you uncomfortable? These questions are the first steps in tearing down the silos of whiteness that thrive at the expense of Black humanity. To move to that place where all lives really do matter requires being uncomfortable and messy in a world where waiting in the grocery store line is so uncomfortable that we’d rather check our Facebook feed rather stand in space with others. We are all the recipients of a world 400 years ago that denied Black humanity yet we do have a choice now.

What choices will you make?

My raw humanity as you wish or the aftermath of going viral

0408151359~2“Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.”- John Lennon

Last Friday, I woke up with one goal: To have the best day possible, because by the end of the day, our lives would be forever changed. There would be no going back to the people we once were. But before we reached that unfortunate crossroads, we would have one last perfect moment.

If only…

That last perfect moment was shattered by the ugliness of an unknown young white man, who in choosing to call my family niggers not only stole the last shreds of joy that my family desperately needed but over the course of a few short days would turn my family into a viral story being shared and dissected across the world.

We’ve all read about people becoming a viral story but nothing can prepare you to wake up and see details and photos about your life and your family being laid bare for all to see. To see bits and pieces of your words cobbled together without your permission and curated into a “story” without anyone speaking to you for an interview. To see judgement rendered on your reactions in a highly tenderized moment laid bare for others to judge. To see your discomfort judged as a hoax based off your occupation. To be told that you are not entitled to your feelings or even your words.

Nothing can prepare you for just how raw and vulnerable this will make you feel. That for every kind message, it’s the ones that threaten you and dehumanize you and your children that will linger in your mind and make you pour that third glass of wine and ultimately keep you from sleeping. That even for a well-seasoned veteran of ugly, the sheer scope of this ugly would make you finally grasp how easy it is in a moment of desperation to simply give up.

To say that the last few days have been a clusterfuck would be an understatement. I had no idea that in choosing to speak up which, as a typical hard headed person who sometimes struggles with shutting up…that this time, I may have been better served by not writing that last blog post, by not popping off on Twitter and blowing steam. I had no idea that in choosing to write my blog post in response to Jackie Ward’s well-intended post on her Facebook page that I was essentially unleashing a world of hurt upon myself and my family at a time when to be frank, my personal reserves are lacking.

Despite my day job, it was not my intention to spark a discussion on race when I wrote that post. It was the frustration of a middle-aged woman who can no longer stuff herself down, who is fueled by the hormones of that uncomfortable journey we call middle age or perimenopause.  Yet this is one time where I am kicking myself for my decision to speak up. I do hope that a larger conversation on race happens especially as we grieve the loss of yet another dead Black man at hands of law enforcement. We need deeper conversations on race, because even without my professional background, it is clear that far too many Whites don’t see the world through the lens of many non whites. That as much as we may want race to not matter, it does matter, that we are simply not at the place where we can divorce ourselves from the color of our skin. We do need those hard and uncomfortable conversations. However, having it come on the back of my personal pain is a hard pill to swallow.

In the past few days, I have never felt so utterly alone in my life, so utterly scared after receiving messages from someone signing off as Concerned Citizens of Maine, so utterly fucking dejected at this mess in the middle of an even larger mess in my life.  I am also struck that during this time words like self-care and support, while often thrown around when in crisis, truly have little meaning. Yesterday, a friend called me to ask me how I was holding up and after I hung up, I broke down crying with the sad realization that in the midst of this unholy mess, he had been the only person to call me up. (Note: I have received countless texts and messages which I am extremely grateful for, so thank you)

As I sit and reflect on clearing up the rubble from my life and attempting to build a new foundation, I am struck by the words that were used to refer to me in the immediate aftermath after that ugly word was said to us: “calm and stern.” I wear that mask well and perhaps I wear it so well that it is easy to not see that it is not real at all. That in the days since that fateful and Crash-like moment, I have been anything but calm, that when the person who knows me best at this time in my life told me to be strong, it felt like the ultimate slap in the face. That sometimes I don’t want to be strong; sometimes I can’t be strong. Sometimes, I need help with my burdens…and this would be one of those times. Yet in a 24/7 hour world that never sleeps and takes a series of unfortunate events and spins them out of control, maybe we all need to step back and hold fast to our collective humanity.

Note: In the past several days, it seems I have picked up a few new readers. While I do write on race often, I also write on the struggles of growing older and raising kids as well as occasional musings on our culture at large. I hope you stick around. Blessings. 

 

When gelato gets racial or a little girl hears the N-word for the first time

As the wheels continue to fly off my personal life, moments of simple joy and normalcy are increasingly hard to come by. My son’s unexpected visit home this week promised to be an opportunity to simply be present with family and savor the simple joys of togetherness. To share in the love that makes us a family, without the heady labels that often weigh us down.

Yet, as a mixed-raced family in a white space, the reality is that anytime we leave our house as a family, we risk incurring the wrath of the ignorant and hateful. To partake in the joys of the first treats of spring can turn ugly without notice and, sadly, a visit to Maine’s most populous city yesterday was the day when the ugly became personal and my nine-year-old daughter learned that there are people who will never know her essence but instead will reduce her to nothing more than a nigger.

I had no intentions of blogging about what happened to my family yesterday in Portland, though in a fit of anger, I did tweet about it in vague terms. However our degradation was witnessed by many, including a local news anchor who shared what she witnessed on her Facebook page and when a news anchor shares such a tale in a state the size of Maine…well, it seems I should just write about it myself.

My husband, son, daughter and I were walking in downtown Portland in an area known as the Old Port. The Old Port is a cute little area with cobblestone streets and an assortment of boutiques and eateries that draw crowds. We had already shopped at several local shops and were off to grab gelato before heading back to our little hamlet when suddenly and without warning as we were waiting to cross the street, a carload of young white men approached and without warning, the young man in the passenger seat yelled out very clearly and very loudly “Hey, niggers!” In that moment, I was frozen, I was scared…I was hurt. Yet before I had time to process what I was feeling, my son dropped the bags he had been carrying and ran off after the car.  As I snapped to and realized that my son might be doing something foolish, the sounds of my daughter wailing for her brother to not run pierced my soul. I called out to him, too, in the hopes he would stop but he said he had to run and never paused for a second.

We stood there unsure what to do next, a sense of shame seeping into our souls. To be othered so publicly in such a vile manner is not a comfortable feeling. In that moment, the three of us stood, not sure if we should run after my son. My husband walked across the street to see if he could see our boy, he couldn’t. My husband asked if I felt he should go after him, I said no. We needed to be here when he returned. In those excruciating moments, nothing was said to us, though what seemed like minutes later, a white man crossed the street and asked if we were okay. I explained what happened and he asked if I could recall what the car looked like and that he would go look for my son once his own ride arrived to pick him up.

Eventually, the standing became too much and the weight of worry caused me to start walking and look for my son, while I had my husband and daughter stay put. I walked a few blocks down the street and came upon my son who was walking back our way. He wasn’t harmed but his anger was apparent. As we walked, I held his arm just as I had done when he was a small boy which, considering he is now a full head-plus taller than me, is laughable. I asked him why he ran, he told me he ran for every time growing up in Maine that a grown man had called him a nigger and he was too little to do anything but hang his head. He ran because he is tired of hanging his head and feeling nothing but shame. He ran because having his baby sister hear those vile words was simply not acceptable to him. He ran because a pack of white men calling his mama a nigger was not okay. He knew the risk inherent in running but he also knew that at 23, he is tired of stuffing down the weight of racism and being asked to be the “better person” by silently taking the abuse and waiting for society to change when it clearly has little impetus to do so. He realized that sometimes, a man has to be willing to risk everything, including an ass kicking or a jail cell, to right some of the wrongs in this world. It may seem…or maybe even be…foolish, but there comes a time when one is simply tired of dealing with injustice.

I have spent the last 11 years writing about race and racism. I head one of the few organizations in the United States dedicated to anti-racism work. While I can go into an academic head space about racism, the fact is it is very different when it is your family and your children living with the reality and weight of being different and being seen as less than fully human. It hurts and if you think about it too much, it will crush your spirit. Yesterday’s events were a psychic gut punch in a week that had already doled out a more than a few psychic kicks.

When I tweeted about the exchange, I was literally blowing off steam on the ride back home and had no intention to really talk about it again. But waking up to numerous messages and to see my painful exchange shared publicly and in detail, well…I am grateful for the anchor’s observations but I am also saddened. Saddened that she was not comfortable enough after seeing the entire exchange to come over and ask “Are you okay?” In my professional work, I work with white people on race and the white American culture is a, all-too-polite space where too many times white people don’t speak up and unfortunately silence can be harmful. Racism is a system, and that silence upholds that system even when we don’t believe we are actively creating harm.

In having the story go public, it created many questions and one being: What happened afterwards? Well we had a sober ride home, the mood of the day being utterly destroyed on a day that we honestly needed to be good. We needed a perfect spring day to savor as we grapple with the uncertainty and fragility of life. Instead, we were reminded that the world can be an utterly ugly place, my daughter asking on the way home if we could move away from this place. I reminded her that ugly can live anywhere. If I felt there was a place that was safe and where we could be assured that we would never hear that word again, I would move heaven and earth to get us there. However, there is no such space in a world that is not comfortable with Black and Brown bodies, instead all I can do is prepare her for what she faces and pray that her gentle soul is not destroyed in the process. Prepare her to wear the mask and stuff down her self just enough to stay strong but not too much otherwise the weight of the mask that Black and Brown people wear in spaces becomes too much and will eat you alive.

So, that’s what happens when you go out on a gorgeous spring day and you’re Black. Your humanity, security and even dignity can get snatched away in a second. You feel the pain, you try not to let it utterly consume you, and then you take it and stick in the jar and keep it moving.

I will keep moving. As will my family. Sometimes, if you try to tear us down, we will run. Not away from you but after you, and you will see us in your rearview mirror or over your shoulder. Even if you outpace us, we will ensure you do not forget us or take us lightly ever again.

Killing a child’s spirit or growing up Black in Maine

Living in Maine as a non-white person has at times meant swallowing bits and pieces of my own humanity in order to survive and keep the peace with the inhabitants of this place. In the real world, there is no transporter or magical pot of money to whisk me away from this place that often feels like a jail cell and a life sentence. Yet one day, I will leave this place and as hard as my experiences have been here, I moved here as a fully grown person whose existence was not shaped by growing up in a space where I was always “other.” Instead, I came here as a fully formed person and eventually I will leave here as a fully formed person who has learned a great deal and discovered a level of resilience I would have never imagined.

However, for children of color being raised in places like Maine, to find oneself in a place where you are labeled early on as “other” can make that journey to self and adulthood difficult. Especially  when you rarely see yourself mirrored in others, particularly the adults near you.

My adult son, who spent a large portion of his time in Maine as a child, is home visiting and resting with us. There is a 13-year age difference between my two kids but despite the age gap, my two kids love each other and my daughter looks up to her big brother. Which is why a few days ago, my son decided to go pick my daughter up from school. But an interaction that he witnessed is a reminder of how easy it is to destroy the self worth of a child with careless words. Even more so when a white adult decides to put a label on a child of color.

As my daughter was saying good-bye after school to some friends, my son observed a young boy of color who was somewhere between 3rd and 5th grade (the only grades at my daughter’s school) walking with two “friends” who happened to be white. The white boys were walking towards a man who was standing near to my son, when my son overheard the man say “What are you? A rapper or a gangbanger?” My son, whose back was to the kids, initially assumed the man was speaking to him; after all my son at 6’4 and brown-skinned might have fit whatever perceptions the man may have held about both rappers and gangbangers. As my son turned to respond to the man, he realized that the man was not speaking to him but to the Black child walking with the two white boys. My son looked on in horror as the child stumbled to find the words to reply but instead hung his head down. What can a child say in that moment? My son, aware of his own presence as a Black man, wanted to speak up on behalf of the child and ask the man what had possessed him to say such a thing to a child. Yet aware that as the lone Black adult on school property, his words of concern could be seen as threatening in a white space, he said nothing but stared the man directly in his eyes until the man became visibly uncomfortable and hurried away to his car.

However, the damage was done, as my son saw the young boy continue slumping where only minutes earlier he had simply been a child walking with friends getting ready to meet the father of his friends. In that moment, his two friends started to ask about his dreadlocked hair, specifically asking the young Black boy how he washed his hair with that stuff on? Sigh…

My son eventually walked away and gathered up his sister but not before noticing the young boy visibly fidgeting with his hair. As my son recounted the story to me, he said that he was reminded of his own childhood in Maine where careless comments on Blackness were a near-daily occurrence, often equating his Blackness with animals.  For many years he questioned his own self-worth and value, and it took leaving Maine halfway through high school and landing in place where he was no longer an “other” but simply a person before he could see the worth and value that I, along with my family, had worked so hard to instill in him.

I worry about my daughter and what scars this state will leave on her soul, but in truth I worry about all non-white youth being raised in this place, especially when they have no parents of color in a place where there are few (if any, depending on where you live) teachers of color, doctors of color or pretty much anyone of color some days. I am reminded of an old friend of mine who raised her two Black sons in Maine. Both left the state for college. While one son did eventually come back to the general area after college, he settled down in the slightly more diverse state of New Hampshire. The other son left and refuses to ever come back to the state. As he told his mother, he loves her, he doesn’t fault her or his father for choosing to raise them in Maine, but all the so-called “goodness” of Maine that people often tout when talking about why they choose to raise kids here meant giving up his very self worth as a human being. Much like my son, it was only when my friend’s son left the area did he find his own humanity as a person and not an “other.”

Maine is a beautiful place with a host of wonderful attributes but for children of color, the good is often an illusion masking a place that is only good for those who can blend in and not stand out.