Collective humanity or collective fear?

Racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, downward class mobility and wage stagnation. The global community is in a state of crisis as we all find ourselves operating in an ever changing world where too many of us fear that we are losing our grasp on our carefully constructed reality.

Last week’s stunning vote in the United Kingdom has shaken many of us to the core and, for those of us in the United States, the rise of Trump at times feels like a collective nightmare that we just can’t wake up from. Though for others, it feels like an opportunity to stick it the system that fucked them out of the American dream and instead left them with the American shreds.

The world has never been soft; it has never been fair. Those of us with non-white skin learn that lesson early on in life. But the game has changed and now everyone but the richest of rich understand that the game we are playing called life is rigged and it’s often not in our favor. Turns out that working hard doesn’t necessarily get you far anymore. Though for some of us it never did.  As a writer whose name escapes me at the moment once said, even whiteness isn’t paying out the dividends that it once did.

People are frustrated and fed up and frankly I am right there with them. I grew up working class in a good year and poor in a bad year…so poor some of those years that far too many of my childhood memories revolve around lack and scarcity. I remember dreaming about growing up and doing better. Having now arrived at the magical stop of “better,” it seems that doing better is awfully damned subjective. Better than what? The better that I have created relies on what increasingly requires nonstop work. In order to make ends meet and deal with the neverending responsibilities of adulthood, it means a day job and side jobs. I currently don’t know the world (and haven’t for more than two decades now) of scraping pennies to put food on the table or a visit to the food bank, which were part of my childhood, but I also know that at any moment if the side projects dry up or the day job fails, I will be back in the world that I grew up in. That reality keeps me awake at night.

While my current reality isn’t what I want nor what I envisioned, I also know that it can be worse and that for far too many other people, it is worse. People working physical jobs while enduring physical pain because the copays are too damn high and they can’t get the time off anyway without affecting their weekly pay. Families that have to piecemeal childcare together just to get to work.

We are living in a time, though, where for too many of us our private struggles are just that. Private. After all, no one wants to share the hard moments in a Facebook and Instagram world. Too often we assume that we are alone in our struggles until we see someone give voice to our private frustrations and fears. Donald Trump is many things, many which are questionable, but the one thing that he has tapped into is the collective rage of an underclass that has felt ignored. However, he has also opened up a box of ugly that most likely won’t be repacked and put back on a shelf anytime soon. While it is easy for many to dismiss Trump, as we are seeing in the UK, once someone opens up the box of frustration and mixes it with hate, what we are all faced with is something that threatens us all.

Despite the ugliness that is brewing across the world, there is a common thread linking it all together and that is fear. Fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of loss. And on top of those fears, the loss of what we believe to be true as we move toward the unknown…and, by the way, as our perceptions of reality crumble, whether they were even close to actual reality or not, that fuels those fears I mentioned earlier and creates new ones. Fear drives us in many ways. For me, fear drives me to push myself beyond what is healthy at times. For others, fear drives them to hate what they don’t know and what they don’t understand.

Fear can also be a catalyst for collective good, though, if we can surrender our own feelings long enough to see that beneath the surface the vast majority of us seek the same thing. To be whole and secure in our personhood. To have food, shelter, healthy bodies and humans who care about us. To know that we matter and that these lives we lead have meaning. These basic needs cross all lines whether we are Black, White, Latinix, whether we live in the States, the UK or Indonesia.

Will we find our collective humanity or will we collectively destroy each other and this world?
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Racial empathy…we need it!!

Since the mainstream media picked up the coverage of Trayvon Martin’s murder in 2012, we have seen stories involving race move from the margins to the mainstream. Words such as “white privilege” that were once uttered only in academic and racial justice spaces have become normalized. It is no longer uncommon for white people to recognize that they exist in a bubble with privileges bestowed upon them simply because their skin is white.

When I first started writing about race in Maine back in 2003, hardly anyone wanted to touch the topic; now the level of people reaching out and thanking me for my words has started to outweigh the number of people telling me to go back to where I came from.  Trust me, after years of death threats and hate mail, I welcome the shift but it is only the beginning.

We are starting to reach a tipping point when it comes to understanding racism in America, but before we put on our party hats and break out the bubbly, we need to stop and reflect. Because while we most certainly have seen a racial shift, that knowledge alone isn’t going to turn the tide and create an accepting and welcoming society that supports all regardless of race. No, we are only at the beginning of the journey.

What is missing far too often is racial empathy. Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Racial empathy requires more than understanding the mechanics of racism, especially because too often a basic understanding of racism and the mechanism of white privilege is used to still excuse often atrocious behavior in an era where far too many of us are living in racialized silos.

Even with the explicit understanding of racism becoming normalized, we still must unearth the implicit biases that we hold that are often key to keeping us in racialized silos. When you unearth the implicit, you realize that the choices you make have a far greater meaning than you once understood them to be. You understand that when you seek the “good schools” and the “good neighborhoods,” often that “good” that you seek is a deep-seated way of avoiding the uncomfortable. And that discomfort often arises from too many people with tan or brown skin tones.

When you have racial empathy, words such as but rarely come up in the context of discussing race, and you start to connect the dots and strive for change that affects all. Racial empathy gives us the courage to speak up and speak out because, when we have empathy and not merely sympathy, we don’t see ourselves as wholly separate from those whom we stand in solidarity with. We aren’t merely being better or good people when our racial praxis comes from a place of empathy.

In the past several weeks, two almost freak occurrences in the media (in terms not only of the circumstances but how closely both occurred to each other chronologically) have brought home to me how important racial empathy is and how lacking it still is. One family is at a zoo enjoying the day when a scamp of a toddler suddenly finds himself in the gorilla encasement…in order to ensure the safety of the child, the gorilla is put down. Media frenzy ensues with the child’s mother being publicly dragged and investigated for possibly being negligent. The authorities ultimately decided that there was no wrongdoing but not before using racially coded language to describe the mother.

Another family is enjoying a vacation at Disney World when a child is snatched up by an alligator in a wading lagoon; unfortunately in this case the child doesn’t survive, in what has to be every parent’s nightmare. Disney is seen as a magical and safe place; no one goes to Disney expecting the unthinkable. And while a handful of vocal miscreants have blamed the parents, for the most part the general public mourns with this second family and their privacy is respected.

In both instances, the families were going about their lives doing what families do. Yet the overall public response to each incident reveals a lot about who we see and empathize with without question. The zoo family was Black and the Disney family was white, and for those saying that race is irrelevant, I would say to look larger. The media framing of a story itself is very often an example of how racial empathy matters. The fact that when tragedy or misfortune strikes a Black family, they are subject to intense scrutiny and there is so often almost a need to prove themselves worthy of empathy and human kindness…and that  speaks volumes. Typically racial empathy is only extended to non-white people who closely mirror white norms. Rarely is white misfortune pathologized and scrutinized and deemed unworthy of humanity and empathy, except in the most extreme and heinous of situations. And even in heinous situations sometimes; we’ve seen white mass killers and other equally atrocious wrongdoers get media examinations exploring their victimization or marginalization to evoke some level of empathy for them.

While one could say that I am getting into the weeds, I believe these differences matter because they hold the key to how we are going to navigate from the head space of grasping racism to the heart space of actively dismantling racism and being agents of change within our own sphere.
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Break the glass in Maine…A Black woman in our legislature?

Living in Maine as a Black woman is an adventure; at the very least, I get my fair share of ribbing. After all, are there even Black people in Maine? All jokes aside, there are more than a few Black folks in Maine and one in particular who is trying to shatter a glass ceiling here in our fair state.

The Talbot name is well known throughout the state of Maine. The Talbots are a rare Black family in Maine whose roots go back many generations. Gerald Talbot made history in 1972 when he became the first Black member of the Maine House of Representatives and today his daughter, Rachel Talbot Ross, is running for a seat in the Maine House to represent part of our most populous and diverse city, Portland.

Rachel Talbot RossRachel comes from a long line of hardworking, working-class Mainers who happen to be Black and who have dedicated their lives to making this state just a little better. As someone from away, when I first settled into Maine years ago, Rachel’s name was one that constantly came up. Rachel served as Portland’s Director of Equal Opportunity and Multicultural Affairs for many years and currently serves as the chapter president for the Portland Chapter of the NAACP as well as the lead director for the King Fellows, a group of youth working to advance racial equity.

After years of crossing paths with Rachel but never really taking the chance to talk to her, in the past year I have gotten to know Rachel better and her intersectional approach to change is one that I personally believe in. Rachel understands that when we look at inequity we must look at underlying systemic reasons for inequality and that our approach to change requires wholesale buy-in—not lip service, which too often is the norm even in our liberal and progressive spaces.

Yet the challenges that Rachel faces are real. There are few people who are without an opinion on the Talbot family, specifically Rachel, and as I know all too well as a Black woman that intensity and passion for change expressed by a Black woman is far too often read as anger. Rachel will be the first to admit that she has made missteps, yet she brings a desire for change to the race as well as decades of lived experiences. Her past success in her advocacy work include pushing for the legislature to ban racial profiling,  which led to the implementation of new training and policies in Maine’s law enforcement agencies. She has also worked against abuse of solitary confinement and restraints in jails and to protect the voting rights of incarcerated Mainers. You can read more about her platform here.

What I do want to talk about though is the uphill battle Rachel faces in a state that has little in the way of diverse representation. The state of Maine has had several Black men in the legislature, and we currently have Craig Hickman, who is a Harvard graduate turned farmer/small businessman serving in the state legislature. Yet we have never seen a Black woman serve in the state legislature…one might say it’s almost the last frontier in a year where we have seen Hillary Clinton bust through the last big barrier for women. But as we all know (or at least should, because actually, many people refuse to acknowledge it), not all women are created equal. For Black women, we wear the double crowns of our Blackness and our womanhood, a lens of duality. Given that Rachel is up against a young, progressive white woman and a former state representative, the challenge is real. Throw in the fact that Maine lacks the type of Black leadership and organizing that exists in spaces with larger Black communities and it’s one of the reasons that I am penning this post. Because while I am pro-equality, I am also a believer in supporting my own, especially when they traditionally have been kept out of the system or pushed to the side within it. People who are daring to make change against the odds and willing to stand in the fire knowing that it will hurt but who trust that we can make a difference.  

If we want to truly create change, we need to “dare greatly,” and I believe that voting for Rachel is that chance to dare greatly with a woman who lives on the crossroads and who walks the talk. Sadly, I am not in Rachel’s district so I can’t vote for her, but I would encourage all who can to vote for Rachel to look at her record and platform as well as her passion and dedication. In a year that many are with her, let’s be with the “her” in our own back yard. Let me make it clear: I am not saying to vote for my friend and colleague because she is a Black woman, I am saying vote for a woman who is tried and tested, who happens to be Black, knowing that in doing so, we our creating a new trajectory in our state.
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