Feelings as self care in a hectic world, a peek into my life

I have a confession to make. The month of November kicked my ass. It twisted me in knots and took me to highest points of joy and it also laid me low and, while I was in the street trying to crawl away, the city bus came and rolled over me and then backed up over my broken body. Then like a phoenix, I rose again from the ashes (I sure am mixing metaphors today, right?) and now, like an imperfect human, I am crashing and counting days.

My public and professional personae have been immersed in trying to make sense of the world in the wake of Trump’s win, the rise of the white nationalist movement and the surge in harassment nationwide, which has resulted in an increased amount of work as head of an anti-racism organization. Meanwhile, my private self has grappled with riding a wave of joy that has softened me. To be frank, it has tenderized me. But extreme emotions competing for validation in one body that gets little downtime are hard to reconcile over time.

Which is why today’s post is a bit of a detour from what has become standard in this space. I need to reclaim my own humanity as a woman and not as an anti-racism educator, activist, or nonprofit manager but as a mother, a sibling, a daughter, friend, lover and my newest role, grandmother.

While the world has been spinning off its axis, my son and his wife welcomed their first child into the world, a beautiful baby boy.  My workload has prevented me from flying out to see my first grandchild; however, that problem will be resolved shortly. But already I am smitten. I can stare at pictures of my grandson for hours on end and I am sitting on my hands to prevent myself from becoming the pesky mother-in-law who dispenses advice or suggestions.  My grandson’s arrival has reminded me just how open the heart is to love and how love manifests in many different forms. I haven’t even held my namesake in my arms yet, but I know that I love him as completely as I love his father, his aunt (my  tween) and his mother. They are all three my babies. Even if two of them are adults.

The month of November has also brought a deepening of feelings for a non-related grown-up. A man. A man who has made me realize that vulnerability can be sexy and that I am far more open to new possibilities than I realized.

A lot of importance is put on the role of self-care in our lives, especially in activist spaces, so much so that at times it frankly sounds trite. In the ideal world, when life is stressing us out, we would have the resources and time to take care of ourselves and maybe even unplug from the world. But we don’t live in an ideal world, and sometimes you have to do the job because there is no one else to do the work. You have to show up because if you don’t, no one else will and that small problem really becomes a larger one. Sometimes you can’t have the vacation or the trip to the day spa because doing so will leave you and your kids in the dark with a lonely pot of unseasoned beans to eat all week.

Sometimes self-care is just knowing that you are doing the best that you can while praying/hoping for the strength to keep on keepin’ on, which has been my life for far longer than I like to admit. In those moments, I am learning that the greatest self-care is to immerse myself in the people whom I care deeply about. It is to allow for the transmission of human emotions that strengthen me and somehow give me the strength to keep going one more day.

The next several years are going to be a test for many of us who are based in the United States. Now more than ever, we need all hands on deck as we fight against policies that almost certainly will make life harder for our most vulnerable and marginalized communities. We all have a role to play whether we are longtime activists or new to organizing and educating. Trump may not have a mandate, but for half of the country, we do have a mandate and that is to activate now.

None of us knows what lies ahead as we shift to a Trump presidency but given the president-elect’s hijinks already, it is safe to say there will be no shortage of emotions and outrage and our best defense aside from direct action will be to protect our own emotional, physical and mental well-being. As for me, I am counting down the days until the adult man in my life returns home as well as the days until I fly out to see that newly arrived little guy. I am taking joy in sharing laughs with my daughter and conversation and drinks with friends. On days like this, I take joy in just writing these words and remembering that I wear many hats and while some create headaches, some create joy.
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Enemies in the same uniform

Today’s post comes from my co-parent, Jeff Bouley (also known as Deacon Blue online) who has gone through a couple decades of racial education (via dating and marriage and child-rearing with me) and continues the journey not just alone but still by my side a lot of days even though we aren’t a couple anymore. I asked him to share some personal thoughts (revealed in late-night drinking/yapping sessions with me in recent weeks) about how his perspective on people has changed since the election.
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The night of the 2016 presidential election was bad as I watched a rich, pampered, ego-driven, shallow, nonsense-talking reality show personality and real estate mogul gain impressive numbers of votes and wins even in states that should have known better.

The wee hours of the “morning after” as late vote counts came in and Hillary Clinton conceded the election were worse, knowing that some half of American voters had chosen a blustering, shamelessly lying, bullying, ill-informed, ignorant, thin-skinned, uncouth, bigoted, racist, misogynist, Islamophobic, etc. etc. man to be president of the United States over a woman who, whatever her flaws, was a proven and competent public servant clearly more qualified to lead a nation.

The actual “day after” when the sun was officially up and I awoke after a few hours of sleep and realized Donald Trump’s victory wasn’t a nightmare was utterly devastating.

I had never felt so hollowed out, feeling betrayed by so many of my fellow citizens who decided “real change” or “fixing the system” required throwing away our national reputation and turning back the clock on social justice gains for marginalized groups to give power to an obvious con-man.

And there was something simmering inside me—a burning aggressive energy throughout my whole body that had me on edge and prepared to literally fight.

I thought it was anger at first, but in fact I quickly realized it was something perhaps worse—because it was something that could not be as easily vented as anger. It was a grim determination and wary, anxious readiness that I can only assume is a “second cousin” to what is felt by people in the midst of major armed conflict. People who are on the battlefield; citizens trapped in cities and villages that are ravaged by civil war.

It was the activation of the “fight or flight” parts of my brain, with the full and immediate realization that there was nowhere to run—flight wasn’t an option and that meant I had to be ready to fight at any moment.

I awoke to a world in which I was surrounded by more enemies than I realized had been around me all along. Except now they were energized. They felt validated. They were empowered by the fact that their poster boy had become president-elect.

But even though I knew they were all around me in numbers so much more than I had ever imagined before, I couldn’t identify them, because they all wore the same uniform that I do.

Whiteness.

I don’t hate my whiteness. I am not wracked by so-called white guilt. However, as a person who is white I am well aware of the privilege I have from my skin color, not to mention the social advantages that come with being male, hetero and cisgendered. I am aware of the armor I wear (so light and ever-present and almost magically effective that I don’t even notice it or have to think about donning it) that almost invariably protects me from kinds of harm and mistreatment that are almost only meted to marginalized racial, ethnic, religious and sexual identity groups—and also to white women to a significant though lesser degree (though women—white or otherwise—face a greater and unique threat from rape culture and domestic abuse in this country, but I digress).

Point is, I am Caucasian and I spent more than 20 years of my life with a Black woman; we’re separated now, but Shay is still my best friend and co-parent. I have two Black children, one a grown man and the other a tween girl. I have Black in-laws. My direct and indirect involvement with Shay’s social justice and anti-racism work has added all kinds of non-white people (and non-straight and non-Christian as well) to my online circles and offline interactions. I have personally gotten to see—over and over again—how differently I can be treated by police, restaurant servers, passers-by, etc. when I am alone compared to when I am in the presence of a Black person in my family.

And now, after the election, I woke to a world full of people who clearly don’t care about Black people—whom I do care about—and these enemies to what I hold dear are all around me. It’s not like I haven’t been aware for years upon years about systemic racism, institutional racial bias and even personal racism still being nurtured in white hearts. But I hadn’t realize just how much racist animosity and bigotry was still simmering in white minds and hearts and souls just waiting to explode outward and be expressed once a man was elected president who used racially charged jargon and fanned the fires of racism to stir up support and did little if anything to speak out against white nationalists and racist hate groups who were openly supporting and endorsing him.

Trump has picked for key posts like chief strategist and attorney general men who have clearly racist histories or white nationalist/white supremacy ties that show they will not be amenable to racial equity or enforcing/advancing civil rights. Racially and religiously oriented hate crimes went up markedly right after the election, many of them committed in Trump’s name specifically. Shay herself experienced a disturbingly aggressive racially bigoted exchange just a few days after the election in the most liberal city in our all-too-white state of Maine—my beloved ex-wife in the crosshairs. Many in her professional and social circles of people of color have talked about similar experiences they have gone through or that have affected their friends or relatives.

And so I am in a kind of war zone. Overnight, a civil war was silently and implicitly declared in which a huge portion of America—specifically, white people, who turned out in a majority for Trump across all gender, age, income and educational demographics—decided they “want their country back.” Who want people who aren’t white and/or Christian “back in their place.” Who are proud, whether they know it or admit it, that they are part of a group of people that conquer and oppress and push down people who aren’t white to keep a stranglehold on power, money and opportunities. Who see nothing wrong with the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Black people because that’s in the past (ignoring the fact both still have substantial effects in the modern day) and because white people won “fair and square.”

Somehow, bringing our society closer to equality (though we’re still far from that goal) made them feel they were “losing” and that being more fair to other groups was giving those people “special rights.”

And they reacted by naming a man to be president who has made it clear he sees Black people, Latinx people and Muslim people in particular as damaged, dangerous, problematic and lesser. They have reacted with either indifference to increased violence and risks faced by marginalized groups of people or have reacted with verbal and/or physical violence toward them.

I am surrounded by enemies who want to hurt or disenfranchise (or both) people I care about and people whom the people I love care about, too. And I cannot identify most of them because their uniform is the same as mine and many of the people like-minded to me. White.

I go out of the house now with the clear knowledge that easily a quarter of the people around me (maybe even half or more sometimes) are enemies to me and to the people I love. Knowing that while I may be protected by my own whiteness that my Black loved ones are not. That people in my circles of friends, associates and acquaintances who are Black (or Latinx, or LGBTQ, or Muslim) are at higher risk.

That, in fact, I myself am at increased risk in a sense because I may have to physically protect those people from harm by people who wear my same uniform—that white skin.

I won’t know the enemies until they reveal themselves. Perhaps by telling a racist joke to me that only a few weeks or months ago people would have been ashamed or afraid to tell to a stranger. Perhaps by expressing to me how much better America will be under Trump. Perhaps by actually threatening or attacking my ex-wife or one of my children.

To some degree, I suppose I’m getting a small and slightly analogous taste of what Black people go through every day: Walking out the door and never knowing how many racialized things they will endure. Will it “just” be the microaggressions or will it be something more overt and perhaps dangerous? Knowing that they cannot shed the very brown skin that marks them as racial targets every moment of every day.

In that respect, though, I’m still protected. I may go out hyper-aware that my fellow whitefolk may do bigoted things in my presence and I may have to react to that, but the people who hail a new American social order under Trump and hope for gains in white supremacy look at me and probably mostly see a potential ally. I wear the same white-skinned uniform as them and they likely assume that I am an ally until proved otherwise.

But I cannot afford to see the people around me who share my uniform of whiteness as allies. For the sake and the safety of those I love, I now have to view every white person at every moment as a potential enemy, particularly when my Black loved ones are with me.

And thus a part of myself is murdered. One of the first acts of violence in the wake of the Trump victory was to kill most of the hope I had that America was progressing—far too little over the decades and far too slowly, but still moving forward. No more do I have that feeling. I can only see risks and dangers for my family from potentially half the people around us, and wonder when the forward progress will begin again.

And how many decades it will take us to get back to a place where I feel I can let down my guard and not be looking for the next enemy at all times.
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Ruminations on this race stuff, or A little bit of this and that

Several days ago, I had what is best described as a racialized encounter with a white woman who, perhaps feeling emboldened by the ascension of President-elect Trump, thought that walking up to a random Black woman on the street and saying questionable things was a good idea. Later that day, I went home and wrote a post on Facebook about the encounter as a way to blow off steam and let go of my own tension over the exchange. Within hours the post was re-shared enough that at last count there were hundreds of replies; most were kind, but some were not. After sitting in my own feelings, I realized that it is time to write a post about what is and is not racism and why white people benefit from white privilege even if they only have seventy-two cents in the bank.

We as a collective have been talking about racism for some time in this country and, frankly, we should all be tired of talking and ready to move to the action phase. Yet we can’t move anywhere if we have no shared understanding of racism and its impact.

Far too many white people in America lack even a rudimentary understanding of racism and too often create false equivalencies when it comes to race. Often using  a tit-for-tat mentality without understanding that America’s foundation was built on divisions that are still playing out in 2016. Racism is a deadly cancer yet unlike breast cancer, we aren’t putting in the work or resources to find the cure. We would rather take two Advil and ignore the festering, pus filled tumor that has eaten through our skin and pray that things will get better.

Racism comes down to two things: power and privilege. Period. In America, power and privilege sit with white people and that was intentional. Honestly, it’s damn near global. Sure, there are Black people and other people of color who hold power and privilege but we don’t have the critical mass or historical legacy and access to power and privilege that white people do. So that means that people of color with a little power and privilege are nothing more than the tokens we hold up to distract ourselves from the larger picture. See Barack Obama, Oprah and the other 52 people of color that come to mind as the examples that are used to prove that no one is being oppressed rather than remember the words of former Attorney General Eric Holder, our first Black U.S. attorney general, who talked at length about his own experiences with racism. Experiences which continued to occur to him even as a high placed public official.

Racism isn’t the mean Black guy or the mean person of color who called you a cracker. It’s rude, sure. It may even hurt your feelings, but that is is not racism. Racism is not on both or all sides. No, racism starts with white people and truth be told, if we want to find the cure, the cure ultimately will lie with white people. Even someone like me, whose life work is dismantling racism, can’t fix this mess. I am the scientist whose own body is riddled with cancer, feverishly working in the lab to find the cure to save my own body before the cancer or in this case racism kills me. This work is to save me and mine and if it helps white folks out, I am glad but I do this work to break the shackles and weights of racism and oppression that threaten my soul.

In some circles of the well-meaning but clueless, conversations about racism and difference are seen as a form of racism, which is really just a tool to deflect and avoid the uncomfortable moments. Look, people of color live in bodies that are often targeted for no other reason than the color of their skin. The data now supports (and has for a long time now) what many people of color have long known instinctively, which is that racialized identity starts early for children of color. We now know that as early as preschool, Black children are treated differently than their white peers, and not in a good way. Speaking to the Black experience specifically, we learn pretty early on that white people are put on elevated steps that our Black bodies are rarely allowed access to.

Talking about racism won’t make you a racist; however, not talking about it can keep you deep in the silo of ignorance and keep you trapped in racist ways of being without you ever even having to use a racial slur.  Naming race and difference can go a long way rather than ignoring that we are all bound to a foundation that set us up for abuse and marginalization of people of color.

Over the years, I have opened up more about my own experiences with racism, in part because once I was freed from having to play the good Black woman to stay employed by the good white people (which, let’s be honest, meant placating white folks and not making them feel bad), it allowed me the freedom to be real and raw. Truthfully, many people of color don’t have that freedom since the economic reality is that most of us are employed by white folks who don’t want to hear that shit. So we wear our masks, play our roles and stuff down the indignities that nip at our souls. Yet in our homes and safe spaces that is where we can safely lay down our burdens, whether it is the client who just touched and felt up your hair without consent, the guy in the truck with the confederate flag who called you a nigger, or the flight attendant who didn’t believe you really belonged in first class.

Which brings to me to the reason that this post took form. In recent years as this blog has become more well-read, a common criticism leveled at me is that I am a liar and that I am an attention-seeking wanna-be Al Sharpton and that no one could possibly have several racist encounters in a year. Well, to be honest, racism impacts my life on an almost daily basis and for the sake of my own stability, I pick and choose what to share publicly. Some days, I even pick and choose what to acknowledge to even myself because the full weight of just how deeply embedded racism and white supremacy is in most white people will just destroy me.  I informally asked friends of color their experiences with racism and the vast majority shared that they too encounter racism on a regular basis.

Sometimes at the hands of family and loved ones; sometimes strangers or colleagues. But our one commonality is that walking this dusty rock in bodies that are not white makes us vulnerable to attacks that range from microaggressions to covert discrimination to the nasty, virulent racism that makes you fear for your life. If you are reading this with your mouth ajar, I would ask you to look at the people in your life and consider how many deep relationships you have with non-white people. Not your occasional Black drinking buddy or the nice lady in your yoga class. I am talking friendship where you can both sit in the comfortable and uncomfortable equally and still talk the next day. The majority of white Americans don’t have these types of connections with non-white people, which explains why so many cannot grasp racial reality and why even more missed Trump’s dog-whistle comments about the natures and conditions of various non-white people that almost every person of color knew was racially coded language. Trump was never just a carnival barker with bad hair to us. We understood his intentions and his threat to us (and even to white people) and, sadly, now so do many previously “good white folks” with no bad intentions who helped him gain power because they didn’t take him seriously enough from the start, gave him media attention without holding him to the same high standards of other candidates, etc. Kinda funny, by really not funny, how so many people of color sounded the alarm, including yours truly, and very few people listened.

Lastly, I want to share a story. It’s a true story involving my former life partner and current co-parent who is a middle-aged white man. A few weeks ago, he was out running errands with our daughter and it was a rainy day. As he was driving and approaching an intersection, the light turned yellow, rather than braking fast, he stepped on it and just as he went through the intersection, the light turned red. A few seconds later, he saw the lights of a police car behind him and the squawk of the siren, and he knew he was being pulled over. He pulled over and the officer approached the driver’s side window. The officer asked him why he went through the red and asked for the usual license and registration. The officer’s initial attitude was neither friendly nor unfriendly; he was just doing his job. After a few minutes later, the officer returns in a decidedly more upbeat mood and tells him that since he has a perfect driving record, there is no reason to mess it up now, they make small talk and the co-parent drives on understanding in that moment, his maleness and his whiteness has just given him a ticket to ride…literally…without a moving violation. As he mentioned to me in telling this story, he had serious doubts that, had he been a Black man (or had I been in the car with him), that the situation would have played out like that. The officer might very well have still been professional and polite, but would have been more likely to say, “I understand why you did it, but I still have to give you a ticket.” And *poof* goes the perfect driving record. Meaning a history is created. But my co-parent’s whiteness allows the traffic violation to disappear and thus, the next time he gets pulled over, he still has that “perfect record” on paper and no baggage to steer a police officer to more punitive behavior.

White privilege is many things but it, quite simply, often just being given the benefit of the doubt (by police, potential employers, landlords, etc.) when many times little or none should be given.
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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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