The Internet and its Racism Problem

The first step in solving a problem is acknowledging that the problem exists. The internet has a racism problem; a very large racism problem. The internet has made being a racist easier than ever. From the comfort of your home, you can spew all manner of hate and if you choose, no one near you in online life will know just how hateful you are.

This week, the internet’s dirty little racism problem went viral after it was revealed that Ghostbusters star and comedian Leslie Jones was leaving Twitter after dealing with a continuous flow of online hatred. Sadly, Leslie’s plight is not unfamiliar to any person of color who chooses to participate in online squares such as Twitter or Facebook. Twitter made the unprecedented decision to ban Milo Yiannopoulos, a technology editor at the conservative news site Breitbart News. Yiannaopoulus was apparently the ringmaster in sending internet trolls to Jones’ digital door.  This decision shows that after years of user complaints that Twitter may be getting serious about trolls who use their site.

I must confess, though, that the changes can’t come soon enough for me. I am no stranger to being on the receiving end of internet hate but this week pushed me to my personal breaking point.

Apparently a former local Conservative radio host has been paying attention to me since last year when my family’s horrible moment with racism went viral. This fellow, whom I am not going to name other than to say that in over a decade he had made a name for himself on local Maine radio for being a Conservative, reached out to me last year asking to do an interview with me and I declined. In my world, that should have been the end of the connection but apparently the now-former radio host took to following me across all my social media channels waiting for a chance to cause harm or, as he has expressed, show the world what a fraud I am.

Well this week, this man finally got the chance to stick it to me good. In the wake of last week’s Black Lives Matters protest in Portland, the local CBS/Fox affiliate decided to host a live town hall discussion on racism. Participants included Portland’s mayor, police chief, and other community folks including yours truly. I shared the news on my social media channels in advance of the event, as I often do when I have public speaking appearances and that’s when things went downhill.

Within minutes of tweeting about the upcoming show, he retweeted me with the hashtag #Mustseehatetv and from that moment on, I have been inundated with hateful people showing up in my digital spaces. I tried to reach out to this man (even with an offer to speak in person with him) as did my estranged husband (to tell him to leave me alone and stop hate-following both us, since he never responded to my offer and was clearly not interested in discussion) and our attempts at civility fell on deaf ears. My son, who has a verified Twitter account, in a fit of rage even tweeted this man.  I found myself on a treasure trail of hate where I discovered a group of people in Maine who are beyond vile who seem to delight in cutting people down and engaging in behavior that borders on stalking, given that these people seem to know and recall an awful lot of details about my life. I would be lying if I said some of these things that I read didn’t piss me off or, to be blunt, make me cry. Actually I cried in my wine and smoked cigarettes and just wondered: Who are these people? Who are these miserable sons of bitches who would seek to deny others their humanity? Who would label a round table discussion about race that included the city’s mayor and police chief as something that would be hateful?

I am not everyone’s cup of tea, I will always admit that. Yet I have for over 20 years after my faith walk dedicated my life to making this world just a little better. I have worked with people of all walks in several states. Homeless people of all races. At-risk children (mostly white) from low-income families. I am not a perfect soul, far from it, but I try to live with honesty and integrity and to bring my best self to anything that I do. To see people delighting in causing harm? Even for this hardened seen-it-all Chicago gal, it shook me. It shook me so much that when the evening came for this town hall, I went in subdued and scared.

The conversation was as fruitful as such a conversation can be given the nature of television (only an hour and six people at the round-table plus two news hosts) and hey, I got free water and a nice new round of internet abuse.  You can check the video out here if talks of race in Maine are of interest.

I find myself longing for the good ole days when a racist had to have the guts to call you a nigger to your face. No, the internet emboldens people to act in a way that we think twice about in person, in part because the internet is slow to punish for abusive behavior and too often those engaging in abusive behavior refuse to even grasp that their behavior is harmful. As someone who writes for the general public, my skin is hardly thin yet in the era of Trump, we are seeing an increase in blatantly racist behavior.

One of the many changes that I am making in my digital spaces is closing comments on the blog, at least for now. However, I am always accessible by email. Thank you for sharing this space with me.
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Black lives in Maine and beyond

To be Black is to be of the African diaspora yet it is so much more. To be Black in America is to share some universal truths, especially if one is African American or a descendant of enslaved Africans—but even that does not result in a shared reality for all. As a Black woman raised in the Midwest but currently living in the Northeast, I know that the Northeastern Black experience is not entirely that of the Midwestern Black experience.

To be Black in America yet to not be a descendant of enslaved Africans—that is, to be an immigrant or the child of immigrants (or even a descendant multiple generations on)—results in another experience and other challenges. However, because of the universality of Blackness in the public perception (whether because people’s personal assumptions/inherited biases or media representations), our experiences all meld together, which often does a great disservice to all. But still, even though that melding of our experiences and conflation of our experiences may often be inaccurate, we do often carry some commonalities and similarities in how we experience America, how we move through it and how we are treated…a few “universal truths,” if you will. Truths about we must all be aware of our safety in ways that our white peers will never know. To understand the need for special talks and healing that only exist in all-Black spaces.

In the aftermath of a recent Black Lives Matter protest here in Maine several nights ago and the public backlash facing the organizers and participants, I find myself thinking about what the weight of Blackness and how it impacts us regardless of locations, thus creating a universal reality of Blackness even though Black people are not a monolith of one set of beliefs and goals.

Right now, the collective Black America is hurting; our wounds have never been given the attention that they rightly deserve. There is a real generational pain that is passed down within Black America. I have witnessed it firsthand in my own family as I have watched family members born and raised under Jim Crow struggle for life and breath. I see that pain manifest in my own family of creation and in myself. I take that pain with me wherever I go. And, like someone living with physical chronic pain, the pain that is inherent in the Black experience is never far from the surface and it never really goes away.

Maine is a state with a relatively small Black population. The majority of Black-identified people live in Portland. While we have had few cases of overt police brutality in Maine, it is a mistake to assume that being Black in Maine divorces us from the larger Black experience, including the Black Lives Matter movement. To be Black in Maine is to live with a never-ending stream of microaggressions. Microaggressions on the surface may seem small, but a steady stream of microaggressions is death by a thousand small cuts. Things like culturally incompetent teachers in elementary school, well-meaning but culturally ignorant neighbors and friends, and the unnecessary traffic stops or sidewalk interrogations by police that never happen to your white friends. To always inhabit a space where you give up a piece of your soul to get along. To have a governor who uses language that essentially paints the majority of Black people in our state as thugs, dealers, and welfare mooches.

Blackness in Maine is an especially challenging journey as Maine has Black Mainers whose families have never been elsewhere, it has the transplants like myself, and it has Black immigrants who embody the American immigrant experience but who must always deal with a double identity and the burden that comes from being “other” because they are Black (and, for many, even more an “other” if they are Muslim).

The recent protest in Maine is the natural consequence of a voiceless group: Black youth and young adults needing to assert their own humanity and declare that they too matter.  Just like Black Lives Matter as a national movement, the need to be acknowledged and affirmed exists even in Maine.  Sadly, in the public backlash, this is being erased from the larger narrative which has distilled the recent protest down to violence (of which there was little) and the arrests of the Black organizers and white allies. Yes, the group shut down one of the busiest streets during the busy season but the fight for justice is never convenient and despite what many think, the civil rights icons of the 1960s that so many people now revere and quote did indeed disrupt the flow of things in the same kind of way Black Lives Matters and other protest movements do today.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that a riot is the language of the unheard. We as a state and nation would be wise to set aside our individual grievances and annoyances and start listening to these voices both in Maine and across the nation who are clearly speaking to us. As I write this piece today, the news reports that there has been more loss of life in our nation: Three police officers were shot and killed in Baton Rouge. In this moment,  we are experiencing something that is eerily reminiscent of the summer of 1967 when racial tensions ran rampant. History is repeating itself because in many ways, our collective memory is short and our hearts are short on the courage needed to do the hard work that is needed so that we can all be free and human. Because America didn’t do the work it needed to do in the past, the unrest that came before is bound to come again. The only way to stop it is to finally knuckle down and change the way we deal with race and the way we center whiteness as the “norm.”

Due to an increase in vitriolic comments, I have temporarily disabled commenting.
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This weight, this pain…a vent of sorts

When your day job is running the longest continuously running anti-racism organization in the country (we are a scrappy ‘lil org that gets by on passion and sweat) and you just so happen to inhabit a Black body while living in a very white state while the country is imploding racially…matters of race are never far from your mind.

The truth is, I am tired. The weight of the past week combined with the weight of the past several years hit me full force on Sunday night. Tears and rage, deep sorrow and fear…fear for my own safety, fear for my son and his wife, fear for my daughter, fear for other loved ones. Fear that we may have reached the point of no return on matters of race. Fear that we may destroy ourselves.

In the past several days, many in my sphere have reached out to remind me to take care of myself, to unplug, to be gentle with myself. I have been mulling over what it means to unplug from the chaos while living as a Black woman in these racially charged times. A dear friend and colleague who is white regularly takes time to unplug and recharge. I envy her not because I can’t take a few days off but because when I think back, there are very few times when matters of race don’t come up, thus interfering in the ability to just check out when the pressures get too great.

I was thinking back to last year, when my family’s day was deeply disturbed by a random carload of white boys calling us niggers as we walked to get gelato. On a day that was about family and telling the kids that our marriage was ending, race popped up. That is the cruelty of how lopsided life is racially in this country. At any moment, your serenity can be destroyed by those who will never forget that you wear the skin of the “other” and that in their small minds, you will always be different and (as far as they’re concerned) lesser, damaged and/or savage. If you are lucky, your serenity is just disturbed; if you are unlucky, you end up dead. Or your child, partner or loved one ends up dead. That thought is never far from you no matter how much you try not to think about it when you see the lights in the rear-view mirror.

I know that I am not alone in my thoughts but, like many, we try not hold these thoughts high in our minds. Yet, after a week like last week it becomes harder to do. To be honest, it’s damn hard. In these moments, the very act of leaving the house feels like going to war, especially after the events in Dallas. Will I encounter friendly faces or hostile faces? Will someone see my Black Lives Matter pin and decide to say something inflammatory? I never know.

What I do know though is that in these moments, there are many with opinions about what Black people should do. One being former New York mayor, Rudy Guliani, who on “Face the Nation” issued his thoughts on what Black people should do. Apparently we should teach our children to respect the police. These words were bold and laughable given that there are very few Black people who at some point don’t have “the talk” with their kids about how to stay safe around cops and, the last time I checked, being pleasant and deferential to the cops is pretty much the standard theme of the talk or rules of survival when living while Black.  Last night a reader left a comment and, well, it put the onus on Black people to do an awful lot of the work. (And let’s not forget that plenty of Black people have been killed by police while either complying with them or innocently going about their day and getting ambushed)

Look, we don’t ask crime victims to solve their own cases. Yet we ask people of color to help “solve” racism and frankly, it’s not fair nor just. We all inherited a world with racial disparities and no matter how we feel, it’s a group effort to move ahead and create a racially just and equitable world. Given that they created, benefit from and largely control the unjust systems, white people have to bear the brunt of the burden of fixing this mess.  A hard and uncomfortable truth, but one that is real.

Despite the “data” that conflates and often puts Black people in a less-than-favorable light, the reality is that just like in any other community, there are people who will run amok. Yet unlike in other communities, Black people bear the burden of 400 years systematic oppression and dehumanization that we must contend with while attempting to live in the world today. We live, work and love and attempt to find joy while being saddled with this weight that we did not ask for and we must bear. At a certain point, to have our concerns belittled and dismissed by people who willingly choose to ignore what does not impact them tears at our souls and sometimes the soft spots become hard and calloused. Somehow, though, most of us find the strength to get up and try it all again because the shared human experience keeps us all going even when we just don’t feel like it (but we shouldn’t have to go through all of that and we shouldn’t be expected to keep doing it).

In the past decade-plus, I have written endlessly about race and racism. I have given talks, facilitated discussions, and tried to move the needle on race in my sphere to the best of my ability. Often as a labor of love because I want change. This week, though, I am tired. So very tired. This week, I just want to be a woman who lives without a constant weight tied around my soul and my being.
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