Lonely moments…musings from my own silo

In a time when it seems every day brings yet another story of just how how much work we still need to do on race relations, even I have a moment when I just need to step back. While this space has become primarily focused on race, there are times when I need to go back to my writing roots and muse on life. Today would be that day for me.

A few weeks ago, I read this piece about the blogger known to the world as Dooce and it really resonated with me. Obviously, my trajectory in the world of blogging hasn’t been anywhere near Dooce’s; after all, I’m still working at my day job and asking readers to consider supporting this space. Yet as this blog’s profile has risen in recent years, I am far less inclined to talk about my life, especially as I have realized in recent months that there are a few readers of this space who feel the need to keep tabs on my life while looking for the “gotcha” moment. Among my favorites have been “Jessie,” who insists that I am living the life of Riley in my palatial Victorian-style house (big, yes, but hardly mansion-level swank and in serious need of plenty of work) or the local chap who insists that my son was/is heavily involved in Maine’s rap scene therefore I must be withholding knowledge about a local murder in a Portland recording studio. Never mind that my son didn’t start his career in earnest until he went away to college in the Midwest and hasn’t lived in Maine for a number of years…

Increasingly, technology is starting to feel like a double-edged sword to me. On the one hand, it has allowed me to create a voice for myself and my work but increasingly it is coming at the expense of my own humanity. I feel less and less like a person, and to quote another Black writer who I know online, I have become “a fact portal” for far too many. People know me in bits and pieces but few know me as a whole human. Even within existing relationships the frenetic pace of life makes connecting in real time damn near impossible and too many of those connections feel hollow to me.

As I grapple with some major life transitions, I am confronting the limits of the connections that I have made in recent years and, to be honest, it saddens me. A few days ago, I was in a deep funk—the kind of funk that I know is part of this transition. To dismantle a life and start over at midlife is not an easy task, and no one goes through the process without funky moments. Yet what scared me was realizing that in that moment that I needed support what I honestly needed was a friend. And in that moment, I realized that on a gorgeous Friday, there was no one who I have met in my 13 years in Maine who I am close enough to that they would willing inconvenience themselves to be there for me.

The funky mood passed but the reality that I am utterly alone is a hard pill to swallow. I know many people but it’s the type of knowing that is part of this brave new world we all live in. We “see” each other on Facebook, we read our updates, we “like” the same things but rarely do we really know each other. On the other hand, I still have the same childhood best friends; however, we are thousands of miles away thus making those connections tenuous at best.

When my mother was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of July 2003 and until her death in March of 2004, my mother was never alone. Her friends organized their lives to make sure they could support my mother and father during her illness. That meant rides, friends going with her to chemotherapy, etc. In the days immediately after her death, so many friends reached out to support our family that one day my father was so overwhelmed that he unplugged the phone. As I have faced my own health struggles in recent months, I find myself aware that my own journey has been vastly different, and while I have taken to joking that I am simply an unlikable person, the reality is for younger generations including my own, it feels like we have moved away from those deeper levels of connection.

There are most certainly places where community rallies behind people but ours is increasingly a world where far too many of us are alone. The fact that at 2 am, so many of us are up and posting on Facebook or tweeting on Twitter is about more than group insomnia. However no one really wants to cop to feeling lonely. It’s a vulnerable feeling and vulnerability is  scary.  Hell, just about writing about this has my gut churning.

The older I get though, I am aware that I no longer want to exist in my own silo of “aloneness.” I want community; I want camaraderie. As wonderful as social media is, increasingly I find myself wanting to unplug from it and plug into others in real time over tea, a walk or even a good fruity drink. In the early days of social media, real connections were formed but as social media becomes a tool, and we the product, those connections are harder to find especially when a mistaken word can result in a digital posse coming for your ass. Or heaven forbid, a big slip-up might even be the end of your job. I can’t speak for anyone else but it’s hard for me to make real connections when I am hoping I don’t make a mistake in a world that is changing so fast that at the tender age of 42, I struggle to stay up on the correct words to use because I don’t want to offend anyone.

Days like today, I wish making friends was as easy as it was back in grammar school, when you could slip someone a note: Do you like me? Will you be my friend? However those days are gone but as I start over and rebuild my life which include a move soon (have no fear, I will still be a Black Girl in Maine, just one in our state’s largest city), I do think that forming and strengthening connections is definitely a priority for me.  Like many women over the years, I put my energy and attention into my family and while that was the right decision at that time, I also know now that a support system that is not family-based is also important.
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Feeling the economic legacy of racism or what we don’t talk about in polite company

Despite the fact that I am Black, I was born Black and I probably will be Black until the day that I die (can I do the Rachel Dolezal and identify as someone else?) and while I  understood since childhood that there were people who didn’t like Black people, it took a lot of years of being earthside to understand that racism is a system; an institution. To quote Charles Blow, who quoted the Aspen Institute “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”

A recent conversation with my first husband reminded me of the first time that I truly recall glimpsing into the face of systemic racism, yet at the time I didn’t know that what I perceived as personal racism was indeed part of the larger system of racism that impacts Black lives regularly. We were a young, dumb and in-love couple who had married early, like straight-out-of-high-school type early.

As newlyweds, we needed to secure a permanent place to live and this was before the Internet and Craigslist, so we went through the classified ads placing calls as we used to do back in the old days. I called about an apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview area. I remember clear as day, all these years later (24 to be exact) speaking with what appeared to be an older white woman on the phone. I explained that we were young newlyweds, looking for a place, she seemed excited to meet us and told us we could come view the apartment right away.

Less than an hour later we arrive, ring the buzzer, get buzzed in, my then husband, a white man walked ahead of me going up the stairs. He warmly greeted the woman, she responded with warmth. I was a bit laggy as I was with child and it was several flights up. A minute or two later I arrive, and her warm smile vanished at the sight of my then very slight, brown body. She looks at me and says coldly “The apartment is no longer available.” Obviously we go back and forth but it is clear that she has no intention of renting to us, a mixed-race couple. Hell, she didn’t even want to show us the place! (And I got to experience the same apartment-rental treatment, sans pregnancy, after I had hubby number two, except that time the landlord-not-to-be was a middle-aged white man.)

At the time, I had no idea that what felt like personal shame was part of business as usual in how Blacks and other non-whites have been kept out of good neighborhoods. That what felt so personal and ugly was just part of the system, the institution.

It would take a few decades for me to start seeing racism as a system whose impact still resonates with Black people today yet is often invisible to many white folks thus creating what I call the silo of whiteness.

I have shared before that my father was born and raised under Jim Crow in Arkansas. He spent most of my early years avoiding talking about his childhood other than how he had to pick cotton as a kid and how he was 11 years old before he lived in a place with indoor plumbing. Growing up, I knew that I had uncles who hated white people and for many years it didn’t make sense to me.

However, it started to make sense several years ago, when my father, in recognizing his own mortality after my mom’s death, made a series of tapes for our family. In these tapes, my father spoke more in depth about his life in Arkansas. How his childhood dream of being a scientist was shot down when midway through high school, a white teacher told him that was being a scientist was not something for colored boys but that he could be a good janitor. He spoke about the man who allowed his family to sharecrop on the land that my grandparents stayed on; he also shared how they left that land and ended up in the first public housing project built in his town, in large part because my grandparents wouldn’t give over one of their daughters to that landowner. Much of what my father shared made me proud of the resilience of my family but it also made me mad at what was denied. It made me mad at how much of this recent history is brushed aside by white folks who seem to think that slavery ended in the 1800’s and all became well for Black folks.

Recently I have started thinking of the economic impact of slavery, Jim Crow and racism of the past on today’s Black folks as I grapple with the reality that my father (who is now retirement age) has no retirement other than Social Security. That whatever he had, he and my mother put into my brother and I. That as the eldest kid in a family with only two kids, I find myself wondering how can I secure my own old age, finish raising my daughter and ensure that my father who already lives hand-to-mouth doesn’t end up in a cardboard box with a can of Alpo.

A few years ago, a white friend asked me why I helped my dad out and why hadn’t he planned better? It was the type of question that knocked me over at the time. I was still steeped in the shame and personal responsibility game and asking myself the same questions.  Yet now I can answer that question and answer it without shame: In a country that systematically denied access to opportunities for its darker inhabitants, my father like many found himself unable to plan for any future, much less save for it. He gave all he could to ensure that my brother and I might just do a little better than he did and I stand on his shoulders and in recognizing that honor, I give back because it is the right thing to do. I know that for every Neil degrasse Tyson (and who are we kidding, the sciences are not exactly overrun with Black folks), there were many who simply could not break those barriers and that doesn’t make them any less human, just that their excellence exists in other ways.

If it happened now, I would ask that friend: Did you ever question why your parents were able to help you? Have you ever thought about how wealth is created in the United States? Have you ever thought about the wealth gap and why it exists? Generational wealth is harder to obtain when you enter the race dead last and have to support parents and grandparents who were systematically denied any chance to build even a modest amount of family wealth.

In light of the Charleston tragedy, it seems we are attempting to talk about race as a nation, yet I would caution that no discussion about race is complete unless we delve into not only the institution of racism (and how it continues to be maintained) but also the real legacy of racism on Black people and how its effects can still be felt today despite this notion that all is fair and equal. Any less of a discussion and we are fooling ourselves about creating racial equity.
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The aftermath…are we ready to get real or will the circle jerk continue?

This might be one of the hardest pieces I have ever written. In this moment, words feel empty and meaningless as we grapple with nine beautiful souls losing their lives in sacred space. Words feel meaningless because we have been here before and most likely we will be here again. The older I grow, the more I recognize my past mistakes and with age, I attempt to avoid making the same mistakes continuously. Yet when it comes to race in America, we have spent hundreds of years making the same mistakes and in the larger picture, we have done too little to correct the wrongs of the past. Instead, we cling to fixed beliefs and empty words while lying to ourselves that change has come.

In the aftermath of this heinous act, so many words are being bandied around as we struggle to make sense of what we call the unbelievable. Yet it isn’t unbelievable at all. We are a country whose prosperity grew due to the forced eviction of Brown people and the forced labor of stolen Black bodies. Violence against Black people has been an unbroken and recurring theme here. Yet we continue to engage in the same type of intellectual dishonesty that has been the norm in this land when it comes to matters of race and act like this isn’t business as usual.

A young white man walks into a historic Black church and after holding sacred space with these special souls, he announces his intention and in a cold blooded fashion, he embarks upon his mission of hate. And yet we are surprised? We as a collective have done nothing to eradicate the disease of white supremacy. It is the foundation of this country. And for white supremacy to thrive, it has to have it’s boogeyman…the boogeyman of white supremacy is Black people. Anti-Black bias is the thread that holds white supremacy together and yet we don’t even have the heart to own that. Instead we code our words and we say untruths when in fact the the majority of white people in America are not all that far removed from Dylann Roof deep in their hearts.

We live in our “good” spaces, with “good” being the codeword created in our society to speak to a way of life sans those people we deem “other.” In this case, those others are often Black people.  We talk class instead of race because it won’t indict us and it’s less scary than any chatter about race.

People often ask me what they can do to help create a racially equitable world and sure, I give my usual suggestions which often include reading books written by white colleagues, etc. But honestly, there are times I want to ask: Why are you asking me what you should do? There are times when I want to deviate from my stock answers and tell people that they need to lean into their discomfort, that they will need to examine everything they ever learned or knew about race and most likely discard it. I want to ask people if they are willing to give up their privilege and power and lessen themselves to create equity? I want to ask them if they will have the heart to speak up, speak out and even lose friends and loved ones over racial matters? The vast majority of white people won’t do this and the sooner people admit this, the better off we just might be. Because maybe then we will just move into the harm reduction phase of racism instead of this fantasy of eradicating racism.

Deep breath here. I spend my professional life in spaces with white people who understand racism and white supremacy on an intellectual level but I fear that even among white people who are doing the work, too many have fallen into the head space and not the heart space. In these cases, they create the performance of change with little to actually show for it. Too many times in white anti-racist spaces there is almost an invisible competition to be better than those other white people. To perform as an anti-racist, to use the jargon, to do the work. And, with communities of color asking white people to work in their own communities, that invisible competition grows, rendering most anti-racist activity null and void.

Compounding matters is the reality that white supremacy doesn’t just infect white people; it infects all people. It creates people of color who worship at the altar of whiteness and will do anything to achieve status in the eyes of white people but that is a post for another day and a workshop that needs to be created.

I don’t expect much to change racially anytime soon. Sure, we might get another Black president one day, a few select Black folks will be allowed to ascend to positions of prominence, and so on…but the real change of breaking down the current systems and overthrowing them? Very unlikely unless we actually get serious about acknowledging that we have a problem. That means being honest, that means being intentional even in our casual conversations, that means having the courage to acknowledge that racist behavior is not unthinkable. It’s not only thinkable but it happens everywhere and any time and it happens with alarming regularity. It means giving up the circle jerks even when we grasp the scope of racism and not falling victim to “performance change.” It means actually leaning into our discomfort and doing change. It means not derailing and pretending that gun control could have prevented the shootings in a country with a history of attacking the Black church. In 1963, four little Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama, lost their lives in a church bombing. The means for carrying out the killings have changed but the reasons behind the killings have not changed.

This is one of those times where I wish I could offer up hope but as the attacks on Black personhood grow bolder and closer together. To quote comedian Jon Stewart from a few days ago…I got nothing for you. Instead, I grab my loved ones close and pray for the strength to navigate in hostile space without losing the little bit of love for humanity that keeps me going through the day.

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Black womanhood under attack…a wild week

“As Black people, if there is one thing we can learn from the 60s, it is how infinitely complex any move for liberation must be. For we must move against not only those forces which dehumanize us from the outside, but also against those oppressive values which we have been forced to take into ourselves. Through examining the combination of our triumphs and errors, we can examine the dangers of an incomplete vision. Not to condemn that vision but to alter it, construct templates for possible futures, and focus our rage for change upon our enemies rather than upon each other.” – Audre Lorde

The past week has been a very wild ride for Black women in America as we watched a strange confluence of events involving Black womanhood and how our bodies are viewed in this culture. The week started off with the now viral story of the McKinney, Texas pool party where Dajerria Becton, a 14-year-old Black teenager, ended up being manhandled and assaulted by police officer Eric Casebolt. To recap, a party was being hosted by a young Black woman in a predominantly white subdivision, apparently too many non-white bodies showed up, local white residents verbally accosted some of the guests and eventually called in law enforcement as they were convinced that the Black bodies on the premises were holding space illegally.

What followed was a clusterfuck of events that included a cop doing a barrel roll through a very “dangerous” group of young Black teens armed with bathing suits. Apparently the teens unsure of what crimes they had committed, spoke up or…depending on who tells the story…”mouthed off” to the cops, clearly not knowing that daring to speak up or speak out to law enforcement is a criminal violation of our great police state.

However, in a video that has been seen by many, we see a very young teenage girl in fear of a police officer who in the heat of the moment disregarded the fact that he was dealing with a child. Instead of letting her words, annoying or not, roll off him, he ends up whipping her around by her hair, eventually slams her to the ground where she ends up face down on the pavement with his full weight on her back, knee planted on her spine for several minutes.

This story probably would not have made it to the national conscience had it not been for the fast thinking of a young white teenager who upon noticing that all his Black and Brown peers were being rounded up and shackled…oops handcuffed…decided to film the happenings with his phone.

The disgraced officer has resigned, and for many that is enough since we now know that the officer had been “having a bad day.” A day so bad that apparently a young teenager not obeying him was all it took for him to lose his shit. I guess we should be glad he didn’t let out any rounds especially since at one point, the officer is shown running around with his gun in his hand and drawing it on a pair of unarmed teens at one point. One can never be too cautious when dealing with bathing-suit-clad teenagers who happen to be Black. They might pull out guns from thin air.

Of course, in many pieces written about this horrific event, while the focus has been on the police officer, few have considered the implications of his actions on Dajerria Becton. To be treated in such a way, to have her name, her story and her body spread across the media landscape. In a piece that came across my desk, Becton’s attorney reports that the girl is struggling with eating and sleeping in the aftermath of this event. Um…yeah, she was brutalized and her humanity denied in a public venue. I think such events might start to affect one’s eating and sleeping; however, we live in a world where Black girls and women are rarely seen as humans worthy of feelings, so there are many voices ridiculing her claims while defending the psychological distress claim by the officer, who wasn’t brutalized or put in danger at all.

In pondering the aftermath of this story and reading some of the pieces written about it along with the comments (never read the comments. Never) I was transported back to my own youth. The feelings of being utterly invisible outside of my family, the subtle and not-so-subtle signals that society sends that to be Black and female is to be a lot less of a real person than other people. To be admired for our “strength” but to rarely ever be acknowledged as a human with feelings even in spaces with other girls and women. To be asked to always stuff ourselves down to our own eventual detriment and almost certain early demise as our bodies eventually break down under the weight of these stressors and a clear lack of support.

Just as I was pondering this week’s piece for this space, the Rachel Dolezal story broke. On the surface, it’s a silly little tale but in reality it is anything but silly. Rachel is a white woman who has turned herself into a biracial Black woman and created a career as a civil rights leader, instructor of Black studies and artist. Turns out Dolezal attended a historically Black college, married a Black man and frankly was living the middle class Black dream in the Pacific Northwest. However, her parents…her very white biological parents…decided enough was enough and went public about Rachel’s deception. At this point the story is still unfolding so who knows what’s next but what I do know is in reading up on Dolezal, her deception is anything but a laugh to me. This is a woman who taught classes in all aspects of Africana history including the struggles of Black women.

To study the struggles of Black women on any level is to understand the role colorism plays in Black life. Thanks to the racialized history of this country, dark-skinned Black women have occupied the lowest rungs in our society, yet to be a light-skinned, nearly (or completely) white-appearing Black woman is to occupy the perceived sweet spot in Black life and to the larger world. For a woman who spent time at a historically Black college and would later go on to teach the struggles of Black women, there is no way that Dolezal could not know what she was doing. As a quote on author and scholar bell hooks Facebook fan page said: “Why waste time being at the bottom of a lengthy hierarchy of white women, when you can be fast tracked to the top of the hierarchy of Black women?”

Dolezal’s actions aren’t simply internet fodder for a good laugh but rather another in a long line of attacks and slights that are leveled against Black women and girls. She skimmed the cream of Black womanhood to advance her own personal agenda and in a day and age when Black women and girls are disproportionately affected by violence, poverty and  other unpleasantries. Many are speculating that Dolezal might suffer from mental illness, that this still does not absolve her from the impact of her very calculated actions which have included making numerous reports of being the victim of hate crimes due to her “blackness.” As someone who has received death threats as a result of my work, I know all too well how hard it is to be taken seriously by law enforcement when these threats occur. If her claims are false, as many have asserted (and which seems pretty likely), that makes it harder for those of us with legitimate claims.

It seems that while Black Lives Matter has become a call to action, we need to inject that Black Women and Girls Lives Matter too. For if they start to matter to more people than just other Black women and girls, perhaps the larger culture will realize that we are more than strength, we are complex humans capable of the full range of the human experience. Perhaps then attacks on us whether at the hands of the police or white women who leverage their white privilege to ascend to the top of Black womanhood will start to outrage everyone.

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The American Dream died…they forgot to send the memo

Coming from humble working class roots, it was instilled in me that my ticket to the good life was to be found in attending college and getting a good job. The kind of job that paid at least $50,000 a year and had good benefits.  I suspect many of us heard some version of this when we were growing up, especially those of us who came from economically fragile families where a college education was sold as the miracle cure for all that ails.

I don’t fault my folks, from where they sat, a college degree did appear to hold the key to ensuring that my brother and I didn’t find ourselves falling down the path that my parents did, which at times included food insecurity and a brief stint of homelessness when I was 10.

However the world has changed; the dreams that America sold to her people have become nightmares that don’t end when we wake up. College may be the ticket to a bright future but increasingly it has become a noose around the necks of millions as the rising cost of college means millions must take out loans to afford the costs of attending. Yet when one graduates, the good jobs with the good benefits are increasingly hard to find. We Uber and Airbnb to make our ends meet, we cover up our financial insecurity with those magical little plastic cards that are yet another form of bondage but in the short run, we cannot avoid the painfully honest reality that the America our parents and grandparents lived in is not the one that most of us are living in now.

A few days ago, Paul Krugman wrote this piece on The Insecure American, where he wrote he was startled to learn that 47% of Americans don’t have the financial resources to meet an unexpected expense of $400. Frankly I am impressed that it is only 47% of us who can’t meet an emergency expense of $400, especially in a world where regular raises are no longer the norm. Where your employer may give you a one time bonus or a perk rather than a reasonable raise.

For all the talk that people “waste” money on frivolous treats such as the daily latte or i-gadgets, I find myself noticing more that the cost of living has gone up and the wages stopped keeping up a long, long time ago. Wage inequality is real. Hell, the dialogue has gone mainstream. Yet even when we have that discussion we still tip-toe around the reality that wage inequality is not just limited to those at the bottom rung of the economic ladder; in fact, it affects almost everyone but the wealthy. Lately, I fight myself grumbling more and more about the cost of healthcare as I face the reality that having good insurance no longer means what it did 20 plus years ago when I had good insurance. Today’s good insurance means being nickled and dimed to death by a fractured healthcare system. Earlier this year, I wrote about my unexpected visit to the Tufts Medical Center Emergency room, a visit of such epic proportions it deserved a blog post. Well thanks to the way the visit was billed, my good insurance paid very little, leaving me with a bill for a cool $962. Throw in two months of twice-weekly specialist visits that had a nifty little co-pay of $75 a pop, suddenly healthcare costs are a very real thing. Never mind that in August, I will be going under the knife…who knows how much of that will be covered by my good insurance. Yet, I am one of the lucky ones, I have insurance. I lived without insurance for a number of years (employer didn’t offer it) and I know that struggle all too well.

While I have not known homelessness or food insecurity as an adult, I also haven’t known that good life that I was raised to believe in. I know now that home ownership can be a killer of dreams and relationships, I know that graduating from college after being a high school dropout was a high point in my life but as I journey through middle age, the reality that the loans for that education will be with me well into my retirement years in an uncomfortable truth. I know that when I talk honestly with my inner circle, almost all of us are struggling financially despite our good jobs. I know that there is shame around it and rarely will we admit to it openly.

Paul Krugman refers to us as insecure Americans. Yes, we are, but we are also survivors of a dream gone wrong. The American Dream in 2015 is largely inaccessible for most of us but to admit that sounds so wrong, so hard and so utterly un-American. So let us anesthetize ourselves with a triple Venti raspberry mocha and plug into our i-gadget, at least we can get a little relief from this nightmare since $5 mochas in a country where basic living is out of reach for millions makes us feel as if maybe things aren’t so bad.
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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.

“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

“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

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.