The path to unity requires honesty, or Beyond the march

As the date drew closer for the Women’s March on January 21, I found myself having a mini existential crisis: To attend or not? Given the intersection of activism with my job as executive director of Community Change Inc., along with my writing and speaking on race and oppression, I am sure many would assume that I would be in attendance. If not at the Washington, D.C., march, then surely at one of the sister marches. But the truth is the decision to attend or not attend was far more complex. In the end, an upper respiratory infection showed up Saturday morning and pretty much took the choice out of my hands.

So I spent most of Saturday laying in bed and watching my social media feeds and all the wonderful pictures being shared by friends and colleagues both locally and nationally. By all accounts, it was an amazing day as turnout exceeded organizers’ expectations to the point of altering actual march plans and routes.

I also noticed on my feeds many women of color who also sat out the march or attended with reservations and realized that there was a very common theme. For many women of color, especially Black women, marching is not new. (This is not to say that other women have not been politically involved or to take away from their work.) Yet for my fellow women of color there was a shared sense of weariness. In the past several years, we have been on the streets, we have been at the rallies when yet another Black or Brown person has had their life cut short at the hands of law enforcement. Such as…

  • Michael Brown
  • Sandra Bland
  • Tamir Rice
  • Trayvon Martin
  • Miriam Carey
  • John Crawford
  • Freddie Gray
  • Eric Garner

These are just a few of the names that I have cried over, wrote about and marched for in the past several years. It takes a toll on you. It also makes you look critically at who shows up and who doesn’t show up. What many women of color noticed was that while Saturday’s Women’s March was a multicultural affair, it was heavy on white women. White women who are rarely seen at protests when the issues involve people of color. Many of whom also chafe when women of color bring up issues of feminism and women’s rights that are specific to non-white women.

Naturally, many people have noted this and in the past few days there have been some solid pieces written and expressed via pictures about who showed up on Saturday. Given that I have had nothing but time to sit on social media seeing as I continue to battle the ick, I have also noticed a bit of the pushback too.

Specifically on the BGIM Facebook page, I received several comments after sharing pieces that referenced the racial divide asking that I focus on unity and not divisiveness. Yet if we are truly to work for a unified goal, we need to make sure that we have a shared vision and goal and that starts with understanding the role of intersectionality and how it plays out in our respective lives. We may all be women but our overlapping identities impact the way we experience oppression and discrimination.

A middle-class white woman may experience discrimination based on her gender but has white skin privilege; as a Black woman with working-class roots, I face discrimination based on not only on my gender but my race and my class. The intersections grow as the identities do. Yet when we are asked to come together as women, too often the framing of that experience does not allow for multiple identities. In fact, a frequent problem in feminist circles has been a tendency to center the issues, voices and agendas on white women and their priorities (and also to marginalize and revile people like sex workers). The problem is that when we don’t acknowledge the various intersections that exists and when we don’t create space to honor various identities within the context of being women, we aren’t working towards a shared goal of women’s rights and equality. Truthfully, we thwart our own efforts. Instead, we are forced into a framework that only serves one type of woman, typically a middle-class white woman.

Saturday’s march was hailed as a success on multiple levels, including the peaceful nature and lack of arrests and violence. Given that women, specifically Black and Brown women, have been the drivers behind the Black Lives Matter movement and many of the local marches and protests in recent years as well as Native American efforts in North Dakota at the North Dakota Pipeline, it’s hard not to notice that with a majority of white women involved in the Women’s March, law enforcement in the various locales had a vastly different approach to the marchers. Instead of the heavy-handed approach and militarized weaponry that shows up too often when the protesters are of a darker hue, none of that was present. And considering the Women’s March efforts were bigger than BLM efforts and pipeline protests and there was neither police aggressiveness nor arrests to speak of (in D.C. or any of the sister marches in other cities), one has to look to what made it different. And the one key difference was the overwhelmingly heavy presence of white skin among the protesters/marchers.

None of us knows for sure what we are facing with a Trump administration, but it’s abundantly clear that it will not be business as usual and as hard as it will be, it is also a time for us to come together. But that requires trust, and trust isn’t going to happen until we can break down the barriers that have prevented white people (progressive white women among them) from truly hearing us. We can’t fight for the right to make choices for own bodies without being honest about the racial health disparities that have existed even before the Trump administration, for example. Much of what we are fighting to save has not been equally accessible to all women.

Criticism is part of growth, not a slap in the face, and for far too long the divisions that have existed between white women and women of color is the inability for some white women to hear the reality of women of color. Now more than ever, it is time for our white sisters to hear us and not stifle us. Instead of asking us to not be divisive by pointing out differences in treatment and access to rights, recognize that when you ask a woman of color to be quiet and go with the majority flow, you are saying that our needs don’t matter. We live vastly different lives and if we are to work together, we need our white sisters to recognize that and honor it.

Historically, women of color have been asked to stifle ourselves and maintain the status quo. But in this moment, if we are serious about change, we need to resist the urge to do that and instead listen to all women and all our truths so that we can work together. The road is long and the work will be hard but it is not impossible. As painful as this moment is, it is also an opportunity. But will we have the courage to sit with the uncomfortable topics and uncomfortable moments and use it as a catalyst for real growth and change?
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Calling all white people, part 6: Credit where it’s due, please

Calling All White People, Part 6

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

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Why Not Listen to the Black People Instead? (a.k.a. White People Need Fewer Ally Cookies)

Y’know, like most people, I love to be shared and retweeted on Facebook and Twitter. And when I’m posting stuff on anti-Black racism and racial justice/equity issues, it warms my heart when it’s not just my fellow whitefolk doing so but significant numbers of Black people as well.

And that’s because I get to have some confidence that what I’m saying is of value to the overall issue of educating about and fighting racism, and resonates with the people it most effects, and that it’s not complete navel-gazing. But, at the same time, it really, really, REALLY makes me uncomfortable when anyone gives me outright praise for such social media posts. Especially non-white people. Because, let’s face it, posting such stuff, whether to educate my fellow white people or to bring awareness generally is the absolute least I can do. Fortunately, I do actually do some other things, but the fact is I should and likely could do a lot more than I should all the same.

So, when “ally cookies” are being passed out, I prefer to politely decline them.

Also, when it comes time to share other people’s posts on these same anti-Black racism issues and such, I am careful to make sure I’m signal-boosting actual Black people at least as much (and ideally more so) than white people.

Why? Because, well, they’re the ones with the most personal and practical knowledge of that issue. It affects them most of all. They’ve been trying to tell America (especially white people) for decades about this stuff (usually with minimal success at getting through). Also, they are often the people who said it all first to begin with.

Although a lot of Black people won’t say so openly online (though some do), it’s a bit rankling to a whole lot of them to see white people shared and retweeted and praised for saying the things Black people are already saying and getting more credit for it than those Black people do. It’s even more upsetting when things that Black academics/experts have said is repeated by white non-academics/pundits and then the latter get all the credit and attention…and probably book deals.

As white people trying to (at least I hope you are) advance anti-racism, I would hope you don’t go for the attention when you talk about these issues. I would also hope that when you get praise, you give credit where it is due and not to yourself just because it helps you move forward. You aren’t much of an ally or accomplice if you climb up the backs of people of color to profit or improve your reputation.

And, when you look for guidance and education and direction in anti-racism work, it behooves you to listen to and read the words of the Black people and other people of color actually dealing with racism. Don’t just focus on what white people say; that keeps you in a racial silo instead of broadening your racial circles and awareness. That’s not a good look.

Sure, there is a place for white people in anti-racism. A big one, particularly since they have so many other white people to educate and mobilize to do the work of fundamentally changing society. Just as there are places for men in feminism and Christians/Jews in fighting Islamophobia and straight people in fighting homophobia and more.

But when the people who are enduring the oppression, abuse and/or discrimination are pushed to the shadows in the back in favor of people who look like (or live lives like) the ones doing the abuse, we who think ourselves allies are doing something wrong. Very wrong.

So don’t.
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Governor LePage and White Reality

It’s been almost five months since I last wrote about Maine’s bombastic governor, Paul LePage, who suffers from several chronic health conditions, ignorance and verbal diarrhea being chief among them. Just when I had started to forget that he was our dishonorable governor, he opened his pie hole and boy, was it a doozy!

To recap, in the event that you have been unplugged or hiding under a rock, civil rights legend and congressman John Lewis recently made a statement that he had no intention of attending the upcoming inauguration of Donald Trump because he didn’t see Trump as a legitimate president. It’s safe to say that Lewis is not alone in his thoughts. Since at this point, we may never know which end is up as far as how Trump won.

The  president-elect does not appear to be a man with a great deal of impulse control and rather than taking option A, which would be to say nothing or option B, which is to agree to disagree and let the matter die…well, he didn’t do either. Trump decided to go for option C, which is get on Twitter and assassinate Lewis’s character and say that Lewis represents a broken-down district and that he was all talk.

I don’t know, but given that Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders who actually worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and had his head bashed in for racial justice as well as being arrested numerous times during the Civil Rights Movement, I’d say that the last words that one could use for Lewis are that he is all talk. Lewis has literally put his ass on the line.

So while the rest of the country was paying homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this past weekend for the MLK holiday, the president-elect  was showing the world why his nickname is Cheeto Jesus and reminding us that he is a petty little man.

Anyway, the situation ramped up when one of Maine’s U.S. representatives, Chellie Pingree, said that she too was taking a pass on attending the inauguration and, well, that’s when Maine’s chief buffoon, the dishonorable Paul LePage, had to throw in his two cents.

On a local Maine radio show LePage said the following: “John Lewis ought to look at history.” LePage told WVOM, a Maine radio station. “It was Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant that fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.”

Then if that wasn’t bad enough, a few hours later, LePage speaking to a reporter with the Portland Press Herald said that Black people and the NAACP should apologize to white folks. To be exact, here is what LePage said, “The blacks, the NAACP (paint) all white people with one brush,” LePage said. “To say that every white American is a racist is an insult. The NAACP should apologize to the white people, to the people from the North for fighting their battle.”

Mind you, LePage is the governor who said that President Obama could kiss his ass, and he had long refused any meaningful connection with the local NAACP. He is the same man who said that Black men are coming to Maine to sell drugs and impregnate its white women. He is also the guy with the “binder of drug dealers” that supposedly showed how most people involved in drug trafficking in Maine were non-white (something that was clearly disproved with actual crime statistics).

Now, it’s easy to chalk it up to LePage being racially ignorant and shake our heads, but frankly in the era of Trump, taking that tack is no longer acceptable. In fact, it is dangerous. The sad reality is that far too many white people are racially ignorant, meaning they have no idea Black American history is a part of American history and that it is far more complex than slavery, freed slaves and the Civil Rights Era. Most have no clue that the American government was complicit in creating the White American middle class while making sure than Black folks would always be relegated to a de-facto second class.  That when we talk about the plight of Black folks in places like Chicago, we have to look at how the system created the conditions and that no amount of hard work and boot straps is gonna work, especially when the system has been rigged except for a few tokens that white people love to show off. Ben Carson, anyone? (Or any number of others who are the very rare exceptions to the rule, from notable generals to musical artists to actors to beloved athletes)

LePage’s words express a common misunderstanding of history. Lincoln didn’t exactly free the slaves because he was a wonderful man (in fact, he considered a plan to send them all back to Africa, even though the ones actually from Africa at that point were probably a very small percentage of the whole). And given that Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 and that Jim Crow was alive and well into the 1960s, it’s safe to say that Grant was not leading the charge to end Jim Crow.

To LePage’s other point, I think that LePage said something that is unspoken but often thought in many white spaces. Look at the comment section of any race-based article and you will see white people telling Black people that we can go back to Africa if we don’t like it. Given that my ancestors were forcibly brought here and made to build this country, why exactly would I be going anywhere? Or if I am leaving, it seems that white people should leave too; after all, this country really belonged to Native Americans. But I digress.

There is an air of superiority that exists in many white spaces and frankly, despite the number of white people who are striving to break free from toxic whiteness, far too many are happy in their racial silos where whiteness is exalted and learning about other people rarely happens as anything other than a footnote.

If nothing else has come out of the 2016 elections, it’s that America is not nearly evolved as many thought when it comes to matters of race, gender and other difference from the cisgender straight white male “norm.” Given the gravity of what we are facing as a nation, we can no longer afford to look the other way or remain suspended in progressive disbelief when the LePage’s of the world speak. Men like Trump and LePage are not the outliers that many believe them to be; instead, they are the men in power who can make millions of people’s lives miserable. And the first part of resisting is to look honestly at what we are facing.

In looking at our shared reality, looking at white reality is an important first step and that requires acknowledging that millions of white people do not see non-white people as equal to them or perhaps even equal to the pets in their homes. And the next step? Being prepared to take an actual stand against everyone who feels that way, from strangers to your closest relatives, and to change that reality to something much more just and equitable.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.


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