On being the Black friend

Today’s post is written by special contributor “Aya,” a Black Millennial making her way in Maine’s most populous city. 

Even before moving to Maine, I’ve spent most of my life in primarily white spaces. I’ve learned to accept that if I want to be surrounded by people who look like me, I have to deliberately seek those spaces out. I’ve come to live with the constant underlying discomfort of knowing that everyone is aware that I don’t quite fit in. It’s become my norm, to the point where I hardly recognize it anymore. And I’m used to people being “polite” enough to pretend they don’t notice it either. Which is why I was taken aback when a colleague interrupted a spiritual breakfast sandwich experience to proudly share a story where she used my existence as a Black person in the periphery of her life to one-up a friend in a game of Who Is More Open-Minded.

She’d gone with her friend to see “Get Out,” a movie I’d deliberately avoided discussing with non-POC, and one they only considered worth seeing when it was being shown for free at a rooftop bar. Over post-movie beers, the friend conceded that she kind of gets it; there are places where she feels uncomfortable too. To which my colleague apparently angrily replied “No you do not! I have a coworker who comes to work every day knowing she’ll be the only Black person in every room!” After telling me this story, my colleague looked at me, seemingly with the expectation that I will commend her for so bravely standing up for Black people everywhere. Instead I took another bite of my breakfast sandwich (seriously, don’t interrupt my meals, particularly pre-coffee, especially with nonsense) and told her I had a lot of work to get to.

First of all, we already know how rude it is to expect Black people to be happy to drop whatever they’re doing and take up the emotional burden of discussing race with you. Second, you don’t get any cookies for not being racist. It’s the correct way to be. If that is the sole purpose of you engaging in a conversation with me, don’t bother; you won’t get what you’re looking for. Now third, let’s talk about tokenism.

It’s bad enough when people assume all Black people share one collective brain. Whenever I’m asked to be the voice of all melanated people, I’m quick to reply with a “I have no way of knowing what any other individual thinks, but here’s what I think and why.” Normally people get it, and reply with an embarrassed “Oh, I mean you keep up to date with facebook/blogs/think pieces so you know what people are saying out there; I didn’t mean that.” And we generally leave it, both knowing they meant exactly that. I won’t even get into how I respond to people who claim colorblindness. But what I find especially frustrating lately is the people who use me, without my permission and often even without my knowledge, to make a point about themselves.

Here’s the thing: there’s a difference between the friend who happens to be Black and The Black Friend. Usually, I have an idea of which I am to someone. A friend who happens to be Black is someone you regularly interact with in a way that that does not center around their blackness AND has nothing to do with commitment to work/church/family/etc. You know what is going on in their life and they know what’s in yours. Maybe they’ve presented themselves as a resource for you to educate yourself, but even then, you’re respectful of the emotional labor they’re investing in you. The Black Friend is the person you apologize to for other people’s racism; the one to whom you make a point to prove how “woke” you are. They are the person you think of when the news is full of reports of another person unjustly victimized, and desperate to separate yourself from “those people, you send them a meaningless text that you’ve got their back, before you change the channel to GoT and move on with your life. The Black Friend is not really a friend at all, or maybe more accurately, you’re not really a friend to them.

In that moment at work, as my breakfast sandwich grew colder with every wasted moment, my colleague made it clear: To her, I am someone who exists solely as a symbol of how not-racist she is.

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The N-word

Today’s post is written by regular BGIM contributor Teddy Burrage, a Portland, Maine, native and local activist and organizer. When he’s not writing or working, you can usually find him exploring Maine’s vast interior and coastline.
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The word “nigger” is as American as apple pie and its original purpose was simple: to define an under-caste of sub-humans who were deemed inferior to whites. But over the years, it has morphed to take on different meanings and uses. Many argue that it is a word that can be reclaimed by the people it was meant to hurt but many others say it should be cast out of our vocabulary like the demon they see it to be.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, social and economic order in United States was dependent on a strict racial hierarchy. Black slaves and their free labor laid the bedrock for the country’s economy. This meant slaves had to be kept in their place to maintain profits. Beatings, whippings, shackles, and even murder were among go-to methods. But for casual everyday use, the sharp sting of the word “nigger” ensured Black slaves knew exactly where their place was in the racial hierarchy. For white people, the N-word had no other purpose than to degrade and humiliate Black folks to assert their economic and social dominance.

Today, the ancestors of those white people still use the word as a weapon of hate and a way to express self-appointed superiority. It has also evolved to be used in everyday conversation to indicate something is undesirable or inadequate. Phrases like nigger-lover, nigger-lipped, and nigger-rigged are said with a certain air about them that suggests a deep cultural antipathy towards Black people.

For many people, the N-word rightly elicits sharp pangs behind each of its syllables and harkens back to a dreadful history. But for a lot of Black folks, a simple softening of the “-er” at the end turns the word into an expression of camaraderie and a badge of struggle.

The lightening of the word entered popular culture primarily through public figures like Richard Pryor. It peppered his routines, oftentimes used every few seconds. And Pryor used it with intent much like many white people did (and continue to do). But his calculation was different. He wanted to de-weaponize the word and snatch the whip from the slave master’s hand.

“Nigger. And so this one night I decided to make it my own. Nigger. I decided to take the sting out of it. Nigger. As if saying it over and over again would numb me and everybody else to its wretchedness. Nigger. Said it over and over like a preacher singing hallelujah.” -Richard Pryor, Pryor Convictions: and Other Life Sentences, 1997

Pryor is credited for coining phrases like “nigga, please” which is readily used among Black people today. Other Black comedians carried on his tradition like Eddie Murphy who had jokes with names such as “Niggaz of the ‘70s”. On the HBO hit television series Def Comedy Jam, “nigga” was used like a punctuation mark. In the late ‘90s Russell Simmons said, “Twenty years ago, ‘nigger’ was self-defeating. When we say ‘nigger’ now it’s very positive.” This effort to take back of the word has permeated all facets of African-American culture.

Today, hip-hop and rap music are by far the most influential forces when it comes to the integration of “nigga” into the lexicon of Black Americans. It has laced tracks in both genres for much of the last 30 years. Any rap or hip-hip giant that you can think of has had the phrase in any number of their songs and song titles including pieces from Grandmaster Flash, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, Busta Rhymes, 50 Cent, and a Tribe Called Quest.

The introduction of this renewed way to speak the N-word has gradually given the word an increased casualness over the years and for many, it’s no different than calling someone “bruh” or “dude.” But does this new benign usage represent reclamation?

Many people would say yes. Take for instance Nia Ashari Harris, a Black NYU student and writer for Affinity. In an article entitled “How Black People Are Reclaiming The N-Word and Embracing Their Heritage,” she argued that being able to use the N-word is like belonging to an exclusive club, asserting that you’re only granted access to the word if you are Black. She talked about how our Black ancestors were revered as kings and queens and that reclaiming the word felt like an assertion of her greatness a Black woman. She said that the redefinition of “nigga” has allowed people to define their Blackness in broader terms.

“Through the word ‘nigga’ and redefining it for ourselves, I feel like we have been able to redefine what it means to be black. Expanding the scope of blackness is everything to me, as it denounces the idea that there is “one type” of ‘nigga’. Blackness is Barack Obama, but blackness is also the Migos. Blackness is whatever a n*gga wants it to be, and that’s lit.” Nia Ashari Harris, How Black People Are Reclaiming The N-Word and Embracing Their Heritage, 2017

But even the man credited with starting this movement to reclaim the word had a change of heart.

After taking a trip to Kenya, Richard Pryor had a poignant realization. His trip was spent in an environment where everyone was Black: in advertisements, in government, on TV, on the street, etc. And he asked himself as he looked out of his hotel window, “Do you see any niggas?” and he responded to himself by saying, “No, and you know why? Because there aren’t any.” Since that point, Pryor rarely uttered the word and didn’t like when other Black people said it to him. He said it was a word that described “our [Black people’s] own wretchedness.” And just like Nia Ashari Harris, he went on to talk about how he came from kings and queens and how that was part of his decision to abandon the word.

Another perspective that both Pryor and Harris shared is the idea that Black people can choose for themselves how they want to use the word, an idea that says there is no one shoe fits all an, in many ways, that is a very humanizing realization. With such a long history, with so many definitions, it’s hard to harness this word without fairly detailed context. If there is anything absolutely certain about the N-word, it’s that white people cannot use it under any circumstance.
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The soul of the nation

Today’s post is written by regular BGIM contributor Teddy Burrage, a Portland, Maine, native and local activist and organizer. When he’s not writing or working, you can usually find him exploring Maine’s vast interior and coastline.
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The events that took place in Charlottesville and the days after laid bare the soul of the United States. No matter how hard this nation tries, we cannot rid ourselves of the seemingly everlasting scourge of white supremacy. Early movements for civil rights sought to change our institutions in favor of more equitable policies and that tradition continues today through the efforts of those who advocate for criminal justice reform, for example. But even though it’s been proven possible to effect change in institutions, the notion of white supremacy persists in the attitudes of many white people—whether they are stanch white nationalists or oblivious liberals.

Recently, the president of the United States compared the two sides who clashed at the Charlottesville rally, making a moral equivalence between white supremacists and anti-racists. And even though his assessment rightly offended many people, in some ways it is representative of national tradition. Our country has a rich history of contemplating the humanity of Black people as matter of acceptable public discourse.

In 1787 after a contentious debate, it was decided that that Black slaves were three-fifths a person. Seventy-four years later, the nation entered civil war over the humanity of slaves. The following decades were defined by battles against the KKK, a fight for voting rights, and tensions associated with a segregated South. Today, the nation grapples with the morality of mass incarceration and the extrajudicial killings of Black people. The worthiness of Black lives has always been up for debate in the United States. What is unique about the modern era is the ever-present idea that we are a post-racial society.

There is a perception that George Wallace was the last segregationist to exist, that Martin Luther King Jr. healed all the nation’s racist attitudes, and that Lyndon Johnson rid our institutions of racism and discrimination. Many believe that these acts of social sorcery ushered in an era in which our racist past was no longer relevant.

A brief exercise in critical thought exposes how absurd these assumptions are. But nevertheless, such perceptions serve as a point of departure for many debates surrounding race in America today.

Most Americans are familiar with the images of the Birmingham Campaign in 1963 when non-violent Black protesters were blasted with fire hoses and attacked by German shepherds. Similarly, images of the sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter continue to be emblematic of the Civil Rights Movement. But somehow, despite these historic scenes, people believe that they were just an isolated moments in time.

But where are those people now who dowsed Anne Moody in condiments at the lunch counter or the cops who released attack dogs on Black men, women, and children? Were those people, and their community of like minds, suddenly washed over with feelings of compassion and equality with a swipe Lyndon Johnson pen? The events that took place in Charlottesville prove that is unlikely.

It cannot be underestimated the amount of people who carry the torch of hate and bigotry into the 21st century. Many people look at Donald Trump and say that he is the creator of these attitudes. But that is an error in thinking. Donald Trump is just a purveyor of hate looking to capitalize on an already abundant resource. He now serves as an umbrella under which cowards can hide from the rains of reality.

Even though these white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and white supremacists tend to align with the political right, white liberals and moderates, too, have some ownership to take when it comes to dismantling racist notions in their own backyards. Simply announcing one’s allegiance to a certain political affiliation or ideology doesn’t automatically make them immune to being part of the problem. Of course liberals do not thrust their hands out into a Nazi salute; oftentimes, though, they meet communities of color with only lip service, apathy, and silence. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham Jail:

“First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action;” who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.”

Just as feelings of hate and ignorance have been inherited by people on the right, apathetic and blasé attitudes have been handed-down to the white liberals and moderates who stand to the left of them. Colorblind-ism is likely the most pervasive viewpoint that liberals hold which serves to invalidate and undermine Black folks and their experiences. (For more information on the problem with saying you don’t see race, see here.)

Racism is a system and depends on many different moving parts. Right wing extremism may represent the pistons that drive the engine, but ineffectual and shallow support from liberals serves as lubrication. It all works together.

Even though we have a long history of deliberating whether Black people are deserving of respect and humanity, it does not mean that we need to further that tradition. Though our nation has gone through even harsher social and political unrest, the level of regression we are facing now is unparalleled. Emboldened white supremacists who now feel safe to slither out of the shadows have been legitimized by the so-called Leader of the Free World.

In these uncertain times, it is important for people who are committed to justice to review what Karl Popper called the Paradox of Tolerance. The philosopher theorized in 1945 that societies could be tolerant to a fault. Liberalism says that tolerance is an unbreakable virtue but Popper said this was a misstep in thinking. He said that there is one thing that we should not be tolerant of and that is intolerance itself.

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.   In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force; for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument; they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

Even though the theory is an exercise in reading comprehension, the concept is quite simple: be tolerant to all people but reject those who hold intolerant ideologies such as white supremacy.

So many people talk about what they would have done if they were there during the Civil Rights Movement. Well, that opportunity has presented itself again and this era will be defined by who stands up for justice and humanity.
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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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