On words and silence in a racialized world

Several years ago when my adult son was still a college student, one night as we were catching up during one of his visits back home, he shared with me that when he had been living in Northern Maine with his father during the late elementary school years, he had routinely been subjected to racist language directed at him. Ranging from being called “Rory Raccoon…coon; Get it?” and other taunts, these words were a part of his every day experience. It was why, when he landed on the campus of a predominantly white college in Northern Wisconsin (and when confronted with classmates who would use racialized language and taunts to remind him that he was other), he had no patience with them.

I asked him why he didn’t tell his father and I when he was in elementary and middle school and he never quite gave me an answer. But as an adult, he is fiercely protective of his sister, who is now in middle school. His watchful eye over his sister is no doubt born out of his own experiences as a child and teenager in Northern New England.

As his mother, I knew about the blatant racialized events that were regular enough occurrences during his high school and college years, ranging from being brought home in the back of the police cruiser because he “fit the description” (he didn’t, by the way…the suspect was white) to being pelted in the ribs with a full unopened soda can from a moving car while being called a nigger. It was those incidents that were the impetus for much of my writing and later my decision to head up an anti-racism organization. However,  as a mother, it hurt on a molecular level that his very existence made him the subject of ridicule.

In recent years as my work has expanded beyond writing but to speaking with groups on the issue of race, I am struck by how often I will hear that an area doesn’t have a racial problem. At least until the question-and-answer section happens. This year alone, I have heard a Black teenager in a tony town in Massachusetts share that she is singled out for her hair and that her “friends” have used the N-word with her even despite her requests to stop.

Just a few days ago, I gave a talk in Kittery, Maine, where several teens in attendance spoke about how prevalent it was for their white peers to use the N-word at school. Despite parents talking to school officials, there was a belief that the school and by extension the town has no issues with race. The next days, the students who attended my talk went to the school officials who once again intimated that white kids using the N-word is a non-issue. The students staged a walkout, and several of their peers and even some teachers were hateful in their responses to this courageous group of young people.

Words matter and too often we brush words to the side if we cannot grasp the magnitude of them. Despite our attempts to tamp down bullying within our schools and society, when it when it comes to racialized language and acts that are othering and dehumanizing people, we are missing the mark. And it has real consequences far beyond simple hurt feelings. 

Too often we are looking for the truly egregious acts like lynchings and police brutality when in reality, it is the “small stuff” that often we are complicit in agreeing with by our silence. More importantly, the failure of those in charge (which too often are white people) to grasp the nuances of racism and how racism works and impacts not just people of color but white people and creates an environment that allows racism and other forms of hate and bias to thrive unchecked.  

I am often approached by white people who in recent years have started to wake up to their whiteness and who are starting to form their own analyses around the toxicity of whiteness; however, living in predominantly white spaces, they don’t quite know how to proceed. The act of dismantling toxic whiteness does not require that a non-white person be present, though. It starts with the recognition that whiteness is the ultimate shell game upon which we have built whole societies and yet nothing good can come out of something that required the dehumanization and subjugation of Black and Brown people in order to live. It continues to thrive because we have a world that is firmly rooted on the foundation of anti-Blackness.

Whether you choose words or you choose silence, understand that your action or even inaction has consequences.
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Calling all white people, part 14: Spaces of their own for POC

Calling All White People, Part 14

(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: No, special spaces and programs for people of color aren’t reverse racism

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

There’s a thing that willfully ignorant white people and openly racist ones love to do (and also that white people who don’t understand racism often reflexively do even if they don’t actually love it), and that is to ask, “Well, why do Black people [or insert any other marginalized group] get special months or scholarships or spaces to gather? Why, that’s reverse racism!”

Leaving aside that reverse racism isn’t a thing…I mean, it literally doesn’t exist, and probably I’ll get into that within the next few installments of this column…there are actually very good and logical and sensible reasons why people of color (POC) and other marginalized groups like lesbian/gay/trans/queer people can and should have their own stuff and why it just isn’t the same as a bunch of white guys having a huge gathering with torches and shouting white power chants. Why it’s not even close.

Let’s look, for example, at the notions of gatherings or clubs focused on POC where white people are denied (or at the least strongly discouraged) entry. Sure, it sounds good on the surface (especially if you don’t believe in terms like white privilege and white supremacy or if you’re one of those chronic devil’s advocate types) to say, “Well, white people would get dragged through the mud for that.”

First off, there are plenty of institutions in America, whether social clubs or political bodies or corporate suites or neighborhoods where people of color are purposefully left out, or so sharply limited and constrained that their inclusion is mere tokenism. White people, especially white men, do not lack for spaces, places, organizations, programs and occupations where they can largely avoid people of color and, often, white women as well.

But more fundamentally, any group that is marginalized wants to have places where gathering is possible in a way that allows for open communication about the issues of marginalization they deal with and that allows them not to have around them people who represent the source of their oppression.

If we take this away from a racial tack and make it a women’s rape survival group, maybe it will make more sense to you. Does it seem logical that a group of women trying to deal with and discuss issues of sexual assault really are going to feel comfortable or safe with a bunch of men around? And why do men need to be there? To challenge them and say “Not all men” and make their stress worse? To prove they’re “good guys?” No, the dudes should stay at home and show they are stand-up humans in daily life.

Same thing with scholarships and the like. White people get the lion’s share of scholarship money. Why must they begrudge programs that help make sure scholarship money gets to marginalized or minority people so that they are at least a little less likely to be left out? And don’t get me started on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). So many white people love to say, “We can’t have all-white colleges” and the fact is that not only do HBCUs accept white (and other non-Black) students, some of them have majority white student bodies now. And why were HBCUs formed to begin with? Because existing colleges wouldn’t accept Black students.

There is something atrociously presumptuous about being able to go through the vast majority of the United States as a white person without ever having to think about your race; without ever being judged by police or passers-by as threatening because of your skin color; to have access to more opportunity, money, influence and power than anyone else and then to get mad because there are a handful of gatherings, organizations or places you aren’t welcome…and that you probably don’t really want to be part of anyway.

Sort of like not being allowed to use the N-word. Boo-hoo. Get over it (especially since the current fad is to use “thug” and everybody knows that’s just code for the N-word)

Plenty of other groups get denied all kinds of benefit of the doubt, networking, money and even dignity because they aren’t white, straight, Christian and/or male. As white people, we need to get over being denied a very small handful of things to which we feel entitled only because, to be honest, we are white.
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Collect your people, get out of the racial education zone and ACTIVATE

We are living in rather interesting times. More white people than ever are willing to acknowledge that white supremacy is a very real concept. Our nation (and, frankly, Western civilization) was built on a foundation of white supremacy. Yet as we are all discussing and in some cases awakening to the toxicity of white supremacy, white nationalism is on the rise and it seems that no one is sure of how to proceed.

Lately over on the Black Girl in Maine Facebook page, I have started asking readers questions in hopes of moving people from learning and processing to taking tangible actions in the fight for racial justice. Specifically I asked “What if anything are you willing to give up to achieve racial equity” along with “When was the last time you discussed systemic racism with a fellow white person in person, not online?” I received a wide array of answers but one thing that has become clear is that reading and talking about racism while absolutely critical also requires moving white people into action.

This past weekend, Richard Spencer, the supposed darling of the alt-right (the friendly, newfangled name for white supremacists) who by the way was born in Boston, lead a large protest over the weekend in Charlottesville to protest plans for the removal of a Confederate monument.

Let me be clear though: This was no ordinary protest. This was a group of white people carrying torches (albeit tiki torches, guess they couldn’t get back in the way-way machine and get the 1960s-hate-style torches, so they had to settle on semi-kitschy substitutes) and chanting “You will not replace us” after Spencer kicked off the hatefest with a few words earlier in the day that included saying “What brings us together is that we are white, we are a people, we will not be replaced.”

A group of white people in 2017 dressed in non-threatening khakis and polos and Spencer in a rumpled and way-too-tight blazer (looking a bit like he’s been shopping AND partying with Steven Bannon) are running around carrying torches and demanding that they not be replaced? Make no mistake, this is not the noise of a few  misplaced souls, this is what the klan looks like in 2017. Gone are the days of hiding under crisp white sheets. Nope, these miserable cretins are proud to let the world know exactly who they are and as we are learning in the aftermath of the elections, these folks are not alone. I repeat, these folks are not alone. The odds are extremely high that if you are a white person reading this, you know at least one person who holds similar views.

This means that now is the time to take action. Now is the time to move out of passivity and sharing memes and ask yourself, “What am I willing to do or even sacrifice to stop this tide of hate?”

I could recap but frankly there is no need for it. A quick Google search will tell you that since November 2016, hate crimes have increased all over the United States. And yet we feign ignorance when we hear about an event. The time for dismay is over, the time for hand-wringing and well-wishings is done. Especially with Trump in office. The hateful folks have no problem speaking up and being quite visible for what they believe in. But too often those who say they care about racial justice are immobilized by not wanting to get things wrong. OK. Sometimes, you will get it wrong. Chances are you will piss someone off very possibly even a person of color who doesn’t like your approach, since we ourselves are not a monolithic group. But fear of getting it wrong is not enough to merit being timid and sitting comfortably in the education zone. Because lack of action and failure to stand up to hate only allows the hateful to grow stronger, more determined, more bold and more numerous.

The education zone is a deceptively comfortable space that allows you to feel like you are making change. And yes, you are changing your worldview and that is important. But if you are a real ally, I need to see some of that change put into action, not just filling your head and elevating your thoughts and outlooks.  To be honest, dismantling white supremacy requires real work with real steps. Real sacrifices, too.

Who do you employ? Where are you living? How are you supporting the work of people of color? Hell, are you just consuming the work of POC and not paying it forward even though you are aware of the very real economic barriers and gulfs that exist racially? These are just some of the questions that you have to start with and then once you answer them, make a plan for change.

Let me put this in perspective, if a nobody like Richard Spencer can feeling comfortable spewing his hateful views and suddenly command mainstream media attention for being such a wretched being, why can’t you stand up for what is right, put yourself on the line and do the same thing for racial justice?

Look, now is the time for white people who know how harmful white supremacy is (to all of us, not just people of color) to collect their fellow white people who are bent on destruction. To stand up and activate for the greater good of all.
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If you enjoyed 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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