Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago, there were neighborhoods and nearby suburbs that I knew, as a Black person, we were never to enter. Bridgeport, Marquette Park, Mount Greenwood and Cicero for starters. These were areas where being caught in them as a Black person could mean your life. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said the following about Marquette Park: “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen–even in Mississippi and Alabama–mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”
As a teen in the late 1980s, I found myself in Marquette Park and Mount Greenwood, and I ended up being called a nigger and considered myself lucky that I fled relatively unscathed. Even by the mid- to late-1990s, race relations still had not improved, as every Black person in Chicago who read or watched the news at that time was aware of the 1997 case of Lenard Clark, a 13-year-old Black boy who rode his bike into Bridgeport and ending being savagely beaten by two white men. The attack left Clark brain damaged.
As awful as this all sounds, it meant that when navigating Chicago as a Black person, you had a general idea of where things could go terribly wrong and you tried your best to avoid those areas.
Having spent the first 30 years of my life in Chicago, it was jarring to move to Northern New England learn that there were no known geographic boundaries where the most rabid racists kept themselves tucked away. Instead, any place is fair game for racists in New England and thus the potential both for outright danger and also for “death by a thousand cut” situations like microaggressions is amplified. White New Englanders like to think that racism isn’t a big deal here (either because of the relative lack of people of color or because they associate racism with the South and places with a more recent history of slavery) but I can say that no matter how much white people in New England may deny or grapple with accepting the truth, this is not a particularly welcoming space for people of color (POC).
Which brings me to the story of an 8-year-old biracial boy from Claremont, New Hampshire, who was hung by his neck from a tree by a group of white teenagers. He didn’t die, but he was literally lynched, and has the scarred neck (and psyche, no doubt) to show for it.
As this story makes the news rounds, many are expressing shock: How could this happen in 2017? Specifically how could this happen in an idyllic New England locale? After all, New Hampshire isn’t Gardendale, Alabama or someplace even worse!
While New England doesn’t have the same known hostile relationship to race and racism that permeates the Southern United States, let’s be frank: Racism in New England and particularly Northern New England exists strongly, even if it is a sort of quaint and polite affair at times. The Puritan ethos still runs strong in these parts, along with a stiff upper lip, so for many there is an avoidance of talking about race. Or a stubborn insistence that race doesn’t matter. But that lack of conversation or desire to “not see color” (as if that’s possible) should never be mistaken for acceptance of POC, especially Black people.
Several of our contributors here on the blog were born and raised in Maine and all of them have recounted tales of being singled out early in life for being either Black or biracial. Even my own son, who spent a good chunk of his childhood in Northern New England, has his own stories of being called a nigger or variations of it, all designed to let him know that he was considered inferior.
For Black and biracial people in this region of the country, there is little surprise about this horrific story coming out of New Hampshire and while it’s easy to lay blame on the current climate of white supremacy in the era of Trump, this really cannot be fully laid on Trump and his white supremacist rhetoric.
White supremacy is the foundation on which our country was built and white people are steeped in white supremacy unless they intentionally work to do better and to dismantle the idea (and practice) of treating whiteness and white traditions as the best and as the norm, as well as to stop giving white people almost all of the benefit of the doubt and almost all of the opportunities. White people need both to actively change within themselves and to change the environment around them.
That means that the same behavior that has made harassing Black people a thing in the South is just as likely to happen up here except that in many locales, there are few if any Black people to harass. If you think I am kidding, have you ever noticed the proliferation of Confederate flags in places like Maine? Random pickup trucks flying that flag are a real thing here and have been. The only difference is that now we are seeing more of them. I am sorry, but in this region of the country, choosing to rep that flag is not just about capturing the rebel spirit; it is also a not-so-quiet declaration of your belief system which says: “I don’t like nonwhite people.” If you choose to believe that, that’s your screwed-up choice but to nonwhite people and specifically Black people, when you rock overt symbols of oppression like that flag, we see it as your open declaration of hate. Especially because there are so few POC in a place like Maine. Why get so angry over such a small population of people to begin with? A group of people many New Englanders can go days, weeks, months, years or even lifetimes avoiding ever seeing in person. That’s how deeply racism runs; there is a undeniable urge to let the hatred, fear or distrust show, whether in big ways or small ones.
A few days ago, I found myself engaged in the type of social gathering small-talk that puts me on edge. Inevitably, I am in a predominantly white space and a well-meaning white person (or one who presumes they are meaning well) wants to learn more about my work and, within five minutes, I am desperately wanting the conversation to end as I vacillate between: Can I enjoy this tasty beverage in peace vs. it’s time to teach. And, in this case, the person’s curiosity about my work baffled me, given that they seemed to have no interest in grasping or learning the issues (Really, when I say racism permeates all of the systems in society and you can only ask, “What do you mean by systems?” that doesn’t bode well). By the time the conversation was over, I was reminded of how many well-intentioned white people who think themselves beyond race harbor racial views that are strongly negative and/or packed with presumption and judgment, even if they aren’t in the same category as people like Richard Spencer and his merry band of hatemongers (the same person who cornered me in that painful conversation I just mentioned, for example, asked very perplexedly how I could have possibly met and married a white man with New England roots, as if there is no conceivable way in modern times for a guy whose family is directly connected to some of the oldest and most notable families in Maine and Massachusetts could come in contact with a Black woman in the Midwest). Many white people are only about three degrees of separation from the Richard Spencer/Steve Bannon type of racial belief system by virtue of choosing to live in the silo of whiteness that keeps white people from growing beyond their personal world.
They say they don’t see color, but it’s obvious they do; they say they don’t hold racist views, and then spout them all the same.
Most of New England is filled with these sorts of people. People who can recognize the evil of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently and what happened to the young boy in New Hampshire but who don’t see how their own racial ignorance is part of the larger system of white supremacy that allows the racist machinery of society to not only survive but also thrive. It’s why during the 2016 campaign season, despite engaging in a particularly virulent strain of dog-whistle politics, most liberal and progressive white folks laughed at the idea that Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. But most POC knew the odds were pretty damned good, and we were right. Good intentions combined with a lifetime spent in the silo of whiteness, when mixed with a side of progressive politics, has rendered many well-meaning white people unable to read the racist road map ahead of them.
As such, it’s so easy for them to get lost, and we POC are left stranded by the sides of roads where we are anything but safe.
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