Young People and Racial Justice…we must do better

Twenty five years ago, I was a high school sophomore in honors classes at a predominantly white school in one of Chicago’s tonier neighborhoods. Even at that young age, I knew that my life was nothing like my peers and figured that college and a career were most likely not going to be mine despite being in the same classes as the white children of the upper middle class. I was Black and I hailed from the working class and other than my parents supportive words, no one encouraged me to excel. I decided to create a self fulfilling prophecy by dabbling in drugs and alcohol and aligning myself with the “stoners” who would cut school most of the day and get high. By the time senior year rolled around, I had failed physical education one too many times along with chemistry and my only chance to graduate on time was to go to night school. My family didn’t have have the cash to send me to night school and I didn’t want to graduate late so a few days after turning 18, I dropped out of high school. Three months after dropping out of high school, I was married and two months after getting married, I was pregnant. My life should have been over, I should have become another statistic…a poor Black teenage mom. Yet the universe had other plans for me.

I haven’t looked back on my teen years in a long time. My teen years and large chunks of my childhood were painful and frankly race figured prominently in that pain. Too many years spent being the only Black kid or one of the only Black kids in a class. Never quite knowing my place in the world and aside from my family, never seeing reflections that looked like me. Even now, I can count the number of non white teachers I’ve had on one hand.

Last night I found myself on a panel with several young people from Boston Mobilization discussing young people and racial justice. The discussion triggered some deeply packed away memories. A reminder to me of just how critical racial justice is and how critical is that we start discussions of race early in life.

One of the panelists, a 17 year old Latina woman, described going through school being deemed “smart” yet receiving the message that she was not entitled to be “smart” despite ending up in one of the country’s premier high schools. At times she faced accusations that she couldn’t possibly have done her work; after all, she is a Latina.  She spoke of how from age 11-12 being aware that she was seen as a stereotype at times and not an actual person. Another panelist, a 21 year old Southeast Asian man spoke of how growing up in the shadow of 9/11 he and the men in his family had been racialized. How as a Sikh, he was viewed as suspect. He spoke about the duality of being viewed as both a suspect in certain settings and a math/computer whiz in academic settings. Neither of which described who he really was. His quiet demeanor revealing at least to me the pain that is always present when we are deemed nothing more than a “type” based off our skin color.

As painful as it was for me to hear the words these young people shared, unlike 25 years ago, we have created spaces (in some places) for young people to give voice to these feelings. We have created spaces that empower young people to name the “isms” that 25 years ago, I couldn’t even admit to myself. But young people of color should not have to face their youth grappling with a racialized existence; yet they do, and will continue to do so, because far too many white people don’t get matters of race and shy away from such topics. Even whites who consider themselves allies often falter when it comes to talking race with their own kids. Yet these kids will go to school and interact with kids of color and bring their own racialized view of what people of color are with them. It’s a self perpetuating system that keeps us apart. However as I heard a young white woman on the panel speak of her own identity as a white woman and her racial justice work, it left me hopeful that perhaps our future of change lies with young people. Perhaps it’s the role of the older heads such as mine to support this work because, to quote one panelist, younger minds are more open and more malleable and not weighted down by personal baggage and anecdotal stories and narratives that get in the way of us actually hearing one another. In large urban spaces, programs such as Boston Mobilization and by extension even mine have the capacity to exist. Yet in rural states such as Maine, we have to be more intentional in opening the dialogue on racial differences and creating safe spaces and that work starts in our own families.

PS: I just wanted to say thank you to all who reached out after my last post. That was a hard one to write because it required a level of vulnerability that even a touchy feely type like myself prefers to avoid. I know the post didn’t go over well with everyone but thanks to those who understood the spirit in which I wrote it and thank you for your support of this space. 

 

I’m so gauche or the high cost of consumption

Deep breath here. This is a post that has been simmering for months yet every time I try to get the words out, my inner good girl would chide me and say don’t do it… Yet after a really strange series of happenings, it’s time. I may lose a few readers and that is okay but sometimes truth needs to be spoken even if it’s uncomfortable.

Back in 2007 I was licking my psychic wounds after having been laid off from my teaching gig at a for-profit college. I was at a crossroads with a fairly new Master’s degree, a toddler, a boatload of debt and no idea what my next steps should be professionally. So I scraped together my pennies and worked with a life coach who helped me gained some clarity around my professional goals. Like many, I was caught between the practical and the creative and in the end it was clear that going back to non-profit management made the most sense practically speaking and that I should look for outlets to feed my creative self. As well as a way to create an additional income stream. That passion and plan along with a desire to connect with other people of color led to the creation of this blog in 2008.

In the early days of this blog, which I truly believe were the heyday of the blogging world, it seemed like every other week there was a blogger quitting their day job to earn a living from their blog. Like many I had my dreams and hopes of striking it big with this blog, getting that book deal, getting the attention, etc. It was also clear early on though, that despite becoming classified as a “mom” blogger that I was not going to become the next Pioneer Woman or Dooce. Despite my attempts at monetizing this blog, I knew the chances of earning more than occasional coffee money wasn’t going to happen and I made my peace with that.

A funny thing happened though. After accepting that I was not going to strike it rich with this blog, my writing became more focused as I started to write from my heart and not a script for blog success.  I started to write about the things that interested me and the things that I was knowledgeable about, which meant taking my lived experience and academic background and writing about matters of race and occasionally musing about growing older. That decision changed my life in many ways starting with an appearance on the Melissa Harris Perry show in November 2012 after the Maine GOP made a gaffe of ginormous proportions. My readership increased and suddenly this blog was receiving attention. Initially it was wonderful to receive attention; writers write because we have something to say that we need to get out, but we love it when our words are read.

However, the past two years have been tiring for me. With the increased exposure it has meant dealing with trolls, nasty attacks and requests. A non-stop stream of requests. Speaking of which, when I announced my decision to accept my current position as the executive director of Community Change Inc., one of the longest, continuously running anti-racism organizations in the US, it meant an increase in exposure as I was no longer seen as just some yahoo online spouting off but an actual  professional with the backing of a long-established organization. I had anticipated an increase in exposure and actually had factored it into my strategy to increase CCI’s exposure.

What I didn’t expect though was an inbox full of individuals and organizations requesting free services. People who are interested in anti-racism training and information but who have no interest or means to pay for said services. As a blogger this was one thing but as the head of an organization with a staff that requires payment and an office that isn’t free, freebies aren’t possible.

Recently a series of requests for unpaid services as well as a few extraordinary requests for my own time (again, uncompensated) led me to sitting down and tallying up just what this blog is costing me. For almost 7 years, I have spent $19.98 a month for this blog (in the day and age of intellectual property, slapping a site up on a free space is a very bad idea) I have laid out almost $1,678 to run this space, which says nothing for the countless number of hours I have spent writing posts, interacting with readers, and managing social media for this space…that’s just the cash that I have spent out of my pocket so that this space exists. It’s not a lot of money but I can honestly say that in all my years of blogging this site has not ever financially paid for itself much less generated any profit.

I have spent the last 17 years of my life more or less in the non-profit sector minus the year I spent teaching. I typically have worked at small organizations with budgets of $500,000 or less, the types of organizations that do critically needed work but lack financial resources. Places where you earn a salary and you get a generous supply of paid time off since you often don’t have any other benefits. My last position in Maine didn’t even offer health insurance; the organization couldn’t afford it.

As I find myself creeping closer to 42, I am starting to think about my future in the next 20-30 years and the truth is that unless I make some course corrections now, my golden years aren’t going to be  golden.  I will be the senior citizen who I have served meals to at the low-income senior housing complex. I will be the elderly woman who cuts her pills in half or eats one less meal because I can’t afford my medicine and food. I don’t want to be that woman when I am elderly.

Yet for those of us who dabble in the creative,a bleak future awaits us all if we are fortunate enough to grow old. (Lack of consistent health insurance and access to affordable health care might ensure an early death) No longer do people pay for creativity, thanks to the internet. We consume it with no financial investment on our parts. Back in the ole days, I remember when listening to music outside of the radio required someone paying for the music. Back in the old days, books, movies and magazines were paid for if we wished to consume them. (even at the library, the materials are often paid for). But now? We can read a smorgasbord of material from the comfort of our homes and never pay a penny for any of it and we have more or less come to expect this steady stream of material with no thoughts about the creators of this material. I am a writer with writer friends and I know more than a few writers on the brink of financial insolvency because publications that do pay writers, often pay pennies for articles ($50 for 1,200 words but millions of pageviews) or pay nothing at all. For bloggers, unless you have a popular and marketable niche the odds of earning actual money for your writing is harder than ever.

Back in the old days of blogging, a blogger might throw a tip jar up on the blog but as the digital landscape has changed, the tip jar in most cases is seen as tacky and as I have learned over the years the tip jar often stays empty. It’s been enough to make me think that it’s time to close my digital door and pick up a weekend job at Wal-Mart where at least I would earn a few dollars to stash away in the retirement fund. But the truth is, I really don’t want to do that and I am hoping that maybe a few of you wouldn’t want that either.

So I am putting on my tacky and gauche hat and asking regular readers to support this space. I am willing to continue giving my time to write pieces that I hope resonate with you but I am asking for your help to make this a donor supported space in an era where it’s increasingly harder for writers to receive more than pageviews. I love pageviews but here in Maine, the Central Maine Power company won’t accept pageviews for payment. I have met many wonderful people as a result of this space and I most certainly don’t wish to alienate any of you but I also know that long term I can’t sustain this space without financial support. I do have a modest goal, I would like to raise the $1,678 that I have invested in this space to date. Practically speaking, your support would allow me to pay up next year’s blog costs in advance and take care of a few minor things that I have been putting off as I pay down debt and save for my eventual relocation to Boston. So if you have the means, please consider a small donation and if you don’t send well wishes and keep reading!




Black life in Maine and what racism in Maine looks like…a student’s story

When I moved to Maine in 2002, I did not set out to become one of Maine’s best known Black residents. I was simply a mother who didn’t want her child to be caught up in a protracted custody battle. Yet when I arrived here in the spring of 2002 from Chicago, the casual racism that I dealt with on an almost daily basis threatened my very being. Knowing that I was committed to being in Maine, I decided to do something about it, thus launching my writing career for publications such the Portland Press Herald, Journal Tribune and eventually the Portland Phoenix where I have written on race and diversity for over a decade now. This blog came along 6 years ago and while the initial intent behind the blog was not to write solely about race with a name like Black Girl in Maine, it’s hard to avoid matters of race. 

Over the years, people have reached out to me seeking support, advice and occasionally a signal boost on matters of importance when it comes to race in Maine. Today I am sharing a letter from a University of Southern Maine student who reached out to me this weekend after experiencing a rather jarring experience at the school’s campus. I have never been a student, faculty member or employee of the university but I have known more than a few people of color who have mentioned questionable treatment on the school’s campus. Which is why I am sharing this letter in its entirety at the request of the letter writer. Many in Portland, ME feel that Portland is the progressive hub of the state yet for those of us without white skin privilege we don’t share that view. If we are going to create real change, it’s time to shine some light on the experiences of all Mainers. 

My name is Idman Abdul and I am a Canadian International-Student here at University of Southern Maine (USM). I am also a member of the Multi-Cultural Students Association, and a new student senator here as well. As much as I am proud of these positions, it doesn’t really mean much if my institution does nothing to aid its students in ensuring a more progressive and inclusive environment.
 
Over the past two years at USM, it has become evident that my institution has failed to foster an environment where students of color have felt comfortable, safe and engaged. For example, many students of have attempted to run for student government seats and as a result, they were confronted with racism and xenophobia. USM has failed to address these concerns in the past and continue to do so now.
 
Yesterday evening, two students decided to wear “Ebola Nurse” costumes to campus. These two students were approached by USM’s Multi-Cultural Student Association members (myself included) and were told, kindly and calmly I may add, that their costumes were insensitive and hurtful. They were told that this didn’t mean they were bad people and that we were coming from a place of love and understanding. 30 minutes after walking away we were approached by the POLICE. The students had told the police that we seemed dangerous and that they felt threatened. The fact that students like these walk around campus triggering students with their hurtful behavior and then can go ahead and call authorities on those they have offended is beyond me. I find myself obligated to shine light on this issue (them calling Police on us, 6 women of color) and all of its ethical, moral and racial implications. As black Muslim students, I find no other reason for them to have believed we meant them any harm other than our obvious physical appearances. We have since provided the authorities with our statements. With the history of occurrences at this school, I know as much as we approach administration for a change, that this will only get swept under the rug or they’ll offer up one of their “trainings” that never seem to do the job. That is why we are trying to get the word out there and show people what is really happening to students of color here. 
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These two students put on costumes that had the potential to cause widespread hysteria across the campus and then proceeded to not only defame us by making a false call to the police but also used State Funds to coddle their own egos. These women are nurses! Anyone in their field particularly, should know better! How desensitized have we become as people that an epidemic killing thousands, could honestly be referred to as a joke? Those people, I’m afraid, are too blinded by their own ignorance to see that they have actually affected us deeply. I will never forget locking eyes with another female in the room, the moment we saw them in their costumes. I will never forget the hundred horrible thoughts that crossed my mind the second I assumed they were CDC officials. And lastly, I will never forget the offense and shame I felt after being approached by an officer who believed me to be anything other than a regular student. A threat is what I, along with 5 others, were called ‘A threat’. After being terrified beyond belief all for the benefit of someone carrying out their own sick, tasteless joke (if we can even call it that).  
 
I have attached a two photos of the women in the “Ebola Nurse” costumes. And here is a link to a post made on tumblr by another student who was there. She included the times and you can talk to her too if you like! 
Thank You,
Idman Abdul
Note: I am keeping comments open because I believe dialogue is important but I will not tolerate slurs, insults or attacks. 

The unruly privilege of whiteness or Pumpkinfest gone wrong

Over the years the feedback from readers whenever I write about matters of race has ranged from appreciative to downright hostile. There is a certain segment of people both in my readership and in the general public who believe that racism will die if we simply stop talking about race and instead see each other as members of the human race. This is naive at best and downright deadly at worst.  Ignoring problems or situations no matter how uncomfortable they are never leads to the situations or problems solving themselves. Trust me, I’ve tried it and not addressing my health or my finances led to disaster and I suspect that I am not the only one. Ignorance isn’t bliss, no matter how good it feels to stay in the dark.

2014 is turning out to be the year where Americans, specifically white Americans, are being pushed to the brink when it comes to racial matters. It is no longer enough to not be personally racist, to raise your kids to be color blind, and to not use the n-word. It isn’t enough to avoid certain conversations because they aren’t comfortable and they feel awkward. We are officially living in a two tiered system of existence where there is the white world and then there is the space where people of color, particularly Blacks, live and these worlds are not equal.

To see just how unequal these two worlds are, one need not look any further than this past weekend’s Pumpkinfest in Keene, NH. Just the word Pumpkinfest evokes images of a crisp fall day with warm, fuzzy sweaters, warm cider, pumpkins and family time. Keene, NH is the quintessential New England town and I should know because I went to graduate school in Keene. Keene is a  gorgeous wisp of a city near the Vermont border that is overwhelmingly white, laid back and rather liberal.

Apparently the annual Pumpkinfest held by the city is the premier event for students from Keene State College as well as visitors from near and far to come and have some fun. I dig it, everyone likes to have a good time and when you live in Northern New England you want to load up on fun before Ole Man Winter bursts on the scene. Once winter arrives in my corner of the world, you can kiss fun goodbye unless you are one of those hardy souls who likes to play in the snow.

However this year’s Pumpkinfest took a detour and participants around the city decided that throwing bottles, setting property on fire and basically becoming as destructive as they could be would take the festival to the next level. It seems that some had billed this year’s Pumpkinfest as a destination for destructive and raucous behavior.  In other words, in this predominantly white community, the predominantly white attendees decided that having a riot under the guise of a party sounded like fun.

View image on Twitter

As Steven French, told the Keene Sentinel that he traveled from Haverhill, Massachusetts to attend the festival because he knew it would be “f*cking wicked.”

“It’s just like a rush. You’re revolting from the cops,” he continued. “It’s a blast to do things that you’re not supposed to do.”

In some ways it’s not surprising to see someone share such views, have you ever seen the aftermath of a hockey game when folks are riled up? When white folks let loose, rarely are their actions seen as an indictment on the white race and often their actions are described with words such as “unruly behavior” and “melee” both words used in the media coverage of Saturday night’s ill fated festival.

By comparison, one doesn’t have to look far to see how the lens is shifted when the people engaging in what might be considered “unruly” behavior are not melanin challenged. Just google Ferguson, MO or Michael Brown. Ferguson, MO is a city that has been on edge since a Black teenager was shot and killed by a police officer in August and his body left on the street for four hours as his blood pooled in the street. In a city that is majority Black yet controlled by whites, Michael Brown’s death was the tipping point and acts of civil disobedience have been the norm since Brown’s death. Yet most of the media coverage presents an image of Ferguson residents and protesters that leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many, particularly white Americans and really it is not surprising at all.

Power in America is held by Whites and as such, Whites frame the narratives that affect us all even when we aren’t aware of those narratives because white ways and white thoughts are seen as the norm. For most we don’t even question that assumption. White people see these “truths” as natural and People of Color spend our lives striving to be acceptable as set by the norms of white ways.  Unruly young white adults who are actually engaging in threatening behavior are perceived as “kids” blowing off steam whereas an actual Black juvenile is perceived as a menacing threat who even when found to be unarmed “deserved” their death. This is the world we live in and despite the hand wringing that has abounded in recent years and months when racialized incidents happen most of us are too wedded to the system that privileges us to do anything more than kick up a little dust online and stay safe in the cocoon of whiteness that privileges.

But ignorance is not bliss as I said earlier and by “staying woke” as the youngsters say we have an opportunity now before this system of inequity reaches the boiling point and endangers us all. However letting the scales fall off our eyes no matter how uncomfortable is the first step to creating systemic change.

 

 

I am a raggedy and broken person in a raggedy and broken world

I have spent the last 18 years of my life working for social change, from community organizing and working with the homeless in Chicago to eventually heading organizations in Maine and now Boston. The work isn’t glamorous, the pay is a joke but knowing that I was doing something to help make this broken world a slightly better place has always driven me. Yet this week, I felt the depth of my own brokenness as a mouse in my wall brought me to my knees.

When you live in a 130 year old Victorian style house money pit surrounded by trees with a barn attached to the main house, you learn that autumn means the return of the critters. When the temperature drops, critters, in this case field mice, look for a warm cozy place to snuggle. I know this and generally I plan in advance by making sure the pest control guy comes out and preemptively handles the situation. But with life throwing me curveballs and a hellacious commute, pest control wasn’t on my to do list. Instead strange sounds in the ceiling above my head and the wall behind my bed alerted me to the fact that the house maintenance ball had been dropped. Of course these uncomfortable sounds struck over the long Columbus Day weekend when getting a pest control guy out on short notice without paying a premium wasn’t happening. 4 days is a very long time to be home when you aren’t sleeping because the soft sounds of home invaders lurking behind your walls have your imagination at work. Did I tell you that I hate critters? Hell, I am not even terribly fond of household pets.

It was during the great mouse adventure of 2014, when up late at night, I found myself sucked into Facebook and realizing that for the first time ever, social media was actually making me feel worse about my life. I have read about this phenomena but until the last few days, I had never experienced it. That feeling of inadequacy and of not measuring up as I studied the happy and smiling photos of “friends” while reading about their adventures and travels that sounded far more exciting than my battle of the invaders.

The green eyed monster of envy snuck into my heart as I found myself coveting a lifestyle where life is enjoyed and lived without thoughts of cost. A life where it doesn’t feel like survival is a struggle and nothing comes easy. Like many people online, I strive to be mindful of what I present but there comes a time when I can’t live with dishonesty within myself. The job that in January looked like a new chapter in my life has tested me and my board far more than any of us anticipated and not even a year into the position, I am engulfed in fiscal concerns which as the big Kahuna means many sleepless nights. Of course, my personal fate in the short run is tied to the fate of the organization and after becoming so outspoken about racism, even if I decided to cut my losses and bail and come back to work in Maine, that most likely won’t happen. I didn’t burn any bridges but no one wants the outspoken Black woman at their organization. So I plod away trying to keep all the balls in the air and not let a 46 year old organization die on my watch. It’s a lonely place.

I spend a lot of time alone and at times , I feel the loneliness gnawing away at my very being. Today I was talking with another Black woman here in Maine and she spoke of the loneliness and how it was eating her up…sista, I am with you! I am lonely, trapped in a state I fear that I won’t ever get to leave because moving takes cash that I don’t know if I will ever have because it seems like no sooner than I get my financial house in order with a plan, life happens. I have a partnership that is complex and complicated with us clinging to each other in ways that aren’t healthy at times because neither one of us has a support system outside of each other and sometimes you truly can be too close for comfort. I have work that is meaningful and creates change but the older I get, I realize that I am no longer sure that I want to be that aging, greying social justice warrior who lives with fiscal scarcity for the cause. I also spend a lot of time putting on a happy face and maintaining a stiff upper lip and I just can’t do it anymore. I am tired, I am broken and I am raggedy. I suspect that I am not the only one but in a world where likes are garnered based off how unreal we keep it, showing our brokenness feels risky. Just typing this and knowing that I may post this feels risky since there are people from both my personal and professional lives who occasionally drop into this space.

One of my favorite books in the bible, is the book of Ecclesiastes 3, I am reminded that there is a season for everything under the sun. In striving to live authentically and with intention, I surrender myself to the knowledge that this season is a rough one and it’s rocky but I stay grounded in faith that the tide will shift…now let that shift come soon because being broken hurts like hell!!

 

 

The cosmic shifts of the 40’s or the ballad of middle age

These are strange times that we are living in; if one were to follow the narratives carried out in popular media it would be easy to assume that by the time one reaches their 40’s they have figured out the meaning of life and they are flying high and filled with confidence. Rarely do I see in depth narratives about the very real angst that some of us face in our 40’s and for the longest time, I wondered perhaps I was all alone in the jungle of my head wondering who the hell am I?

Recently I have found myself having conversations with other forty something year olds and realized that many of us are grappling with the same issues.  To follow passion and bliss, to stick with what is safe and soul draining, to shed our coats that no longer fit comfortably or to suck it all up.

In today’s world the “midlife” crisis is mainly a relic of times long past since for many, the 40’s are no longer seen as “middle aged” but yet an extension of our 30’s. While we may be able to change the definitions and today’s forty something year old most certainly looks better than the forty something year old of long ago, it doesn’t change the reality that in our 40’s, life does start to shift and when it does, damn it…it can spin out of control like a loop to loop sky-ride shaking and rattling our very beings.

For starters, once you hit your 40’s, the reality of our time on this dusty rock being finite starts to become real. It seems to be the age when people start checking out and no matter how much we hate it, death becomes real. It’s also the age when you start noticing in the obituaries that there are other people in their 40’s…except they are no more, they are dead and when you read the obituary of someone who is a peer, it strikes a tiny note of fear in your heart. It’s also the place in life where we often start to see changes in our own parental units if they are still alive and we become aware of their mortality which makes us aware of our own mortality. I come from a family of high achievers in this regard since my mother punched out in her 50’s when I barely into my 30’s thus leaving me with only one parental unit. You best believe, I keep tabs on my Pops, if a day goes by and he hasn’t sent me his daily text, I am calling him. I am not ready to be parent-less yet despite the fact that I am a grown up with a grown up kid. As a fifty something year old friend told me when my mom passed away, when your parents die, it’s a game changer. That’s real.

A forty something year old body still looks good and functions well, don’t put us out to pasture just yet but damn it, my body now requires intentional care and TLC. I am almost at the point of giving up my beloved wine because wine just doesn’t love me like it once did. I asked a few pals about this and they all told me “welcome to the club”…I don’t like this club. Stay up late, drink too much wine and feel like shit. Speaking of feeling like shit, how come the very foods that you once could shovel down, no longer feel as good. Too much grease, meat, sugar and carbs now make me feel like a human blob. Eating healthy in your 40’s seems to be less about notions of maintaining a certain body image and more about avoiding discomfort and heartburn. How come no one told me about this?

Never mind the other bodily changes that start happening, ladies of a certain age you know what I am talking about. I am sorry but Flo’s punctuality at this stage in life is not welcomed. In fact Flo, you really are a pain in the ass at this stage of life and you know why. But I have it on authority from friends in their 50’s and 60’s that I shouldn’t wish you completely gone just yet…not sure why. You are an annoyance!

There are the other shifts that start to take place, the ones that leave us wondering are we happy? By our 40’s, many of us have been in our careers for a number of years, careers we most likely prepped for in our 20’s. Careers that sometimes are no longer the joy that we once envisioned them to be, maybe we have reached the apex of our professional lives which doesn’t sound bad until you realize that change in your 40’s isn’t quite what it was in your 20’s. You have the house, the kids, the partner, the student loan debt, an assortment of other responsibilities and to be frank, none of those things will sit patiently while you figure out which parachute will work best.

This of course leads me to our personal relationships, there is a reason your pals start splitting up in their 40’s and it’s not nearly as tragic as society would have us to believe. Our 40’s seem to be the place where we start assessing and reassessing our lives and sometimes we have to face the fact that the partners and people we have allowed in our lives no longer fit us. The thing about the 40’s that I am learning as I wing my way through this is that for the first time in my life I am starting to feel unencumbered to make decisions about my life that are not influenced by anyone else, decisions born out of a few decades of being an adult and living with the highs and lows of adulthood.

I am starting to think the 40’s are the place where we shed our skin and start to claim the life that we want and that the real crisis comes from the fact that we have to balance our wants, needs and desires with the slew of responsibilities and people we have accumulated in the previous decades. It’s the place where we look mortality in the eye and realize that our time is finite and that now is good time to start seeking what we need and that is what creates the conflict. Because as much as we want what we want, we can’t always make that happen or we can’t do so without going nuclear in our lives. Some of us do hit the nuclear option like Sandra Tsinh Loh in ‘The Madwoman in the Volvo’ where she shares her very real midlife crisis which involved an affair that led to the demise of her stable and good marriage of almost two decades. The affair partner turned out to be the partner she truly needed yet to get to that place it involved a lot of ugliness. I suspect most of us aren’t quite ready to go that route yet sometimes our insistence in wearing a coat that no longer fits comfortably is problematic.

The stakes feel higher at this stage of life which I suspect is part of the crisis, we may not be old but we are also not young. Unsure about this, go spend some time hanging out with a few folks in their early 20’s…having a kid who is 22 reminds me regularly that while I may look youthful. I am not young.

I am at the beginning of this ride and while I suspect I will emerge as a better and stronger person, I know the ride will be rocky. I also suspect that having a few good souls in my life who I can talk openly with about this stuff also makes a difference. So if you are in your 40’s and feeling some cosmic shifts, it’s not you, it’s life and ultimately we will arrive at the next act in our lives wiser and brighter but not without a few battle scars.

Life on the intersection of class and the shame

In a nation with growing income inequality, we rarely seem to talk about what that means on a personal and lived level. Instead we all call ourselves middle class never commenting on the fact that today’s middle class includes people in well heeled communities earning more than $150,000 a year as well as families scraping to get by and playing financial three card monte who bristle at the idea of not being middle class. No one wants to be poor and really no one wants to be rich, but the reality is some of us are closer to the ends than we are to the middle.

I live on the intersection, I am a Black woman, technically I am middle class according to the numbers reported annually on my 1040 but I prefer to consider myself working class. I am a class straddler, I am aware that my place in the middle class is tenuous at best and dependent on my ability to work and earn a certain amount of money. For those unfamiliar with the term class straddler, we are the people who were born working class or poor but who over our lifetimes have moved up the class ladder. America has always had its share of class straddlers, as a nation of upward aspirations, it’s hard to not know someone who is a class straddler. Some of us blend in well and some of us struggle with our place further up the class ladder; I would be the latter.

Like race, talking about class or even money is uncomfortable for many, so we coast along on our assumptions, never realizing that just like the assumptions made about race and racial matters, assumptions about class also hurt.

Growing up, my parents were working class when times were good and when times were bad, I knew the miracles of government cheese and butter. Like many from similar backgrounds, who live life as a class straddler, I have often at times tried to distance myself from my childhood because of the shame. Yet shame is a powerful and destructive force because it keeps us locked in a dance of inauthenticity where we fear being ourselves, we fear sharing our truth and that fear is a destructive force.

In the past year, while I have talked more openly and honestly about race in this space than ever before, I have sidestepped the class issue entirely due to a misguided sense that with my change in professional positions, it would be harmful to share. Yet it’s tiring to pretend and as I get older, I just don’t do artifice well. In fact it’s antithetical to the life I am striving to lead and the person I want to be.

A series of recent conversations sent me in a spiral and I realized that my downward spiral was a result of personal shame…shame because I have never traveled abroad. A well meaning person suggested that I should travel abroad to gain a better perspective on anti-black bias and racism. I would love to travel abroad but I cannot afford to do so at this stage in my life. Hell, I couldn’t even afford to visit my dad this summer which was very shameful…but I digress. For many first generation removed from broke folks like myself, we often carry a heavy financial burden, often comprised of family members in need of help and other obligations that our peers who were born higher up the class ladder may never face. In my case, parents who never had more than two nickels to rub together as well as early parenthood have meant that my ascent up the class ladder has come with baggage, baggage that weighs me down at times.

My story though is not unique, I know far too many other straddlers in the same place, juggling the professional face of success and the financial rewards that are reaped yet at the same time helping out family members, paying off astronomical student loans often the same loans that allowed us to gain access to the world that changed our class status. It’s a lonely place at times because never are you fully comfortable in your new world or your old world. Friends and loved ones in your old world make assumptions and often assume your life to be what it isn’t….if I had a dollar for every distant family member who assumes I am rich. Chuckle. Or for new friends who I must hide my life from. I am tired of it all. Tired of wearing a mask that isn’t real, we cannot help the circumstances to which we are born, we can only do better if the opportunities and resources present themselves to us.

There is no shame in being who we are and as I journey in this middle stage of my life, I finally see that the cost to pretend or not be fully authentic is more than I wish to pay. So, yes, traveling to see the world is a great idea yet in a country where only 2 out of 5 Americans regularly fly, I am hardly alone in staying close to home. That said, if you want to pack me in your bag, the next time you are off to see the world just let me know. Until then, I am joyful for what I have and always mindful that in a world where many struggle to make ends meet and toil at jobs where human respect and dignity is lacking that I have a chance to make a difference in this everchanging upside down world and that my kids have never known the miracles of government cheese and butter or the horrors of spoiled food from the food pantry.

Loving across racial lines…what isn’t spoken

This fall will mark 20 years that I have been partnered with my husband, we’ve been together 20 years and married for 17 of those years. We met in our 20’s, when we were young and idealistic and even though my previous partner had been white, I had no idea that race on the cusp of the 21st century would still be an issue. I assumed that love was all that we would need but the truth is that for people who love across the color line in America, you need more than love. You need courage, strength and resiliency to deal with a world that is often hostile to those whose love crosses color lines.

We started to grasp the enormity of what our life together would entail early in our marriage, when a simple traffic stop in Chicago became a moment of horror and shame that we would rarely speak of because the ugliness was too much to bear. Yet in light of a story that broke this weekend, it seems fitting to share my own moment of shame; perhaps if more of us share these uncomfortable moments, people will truly start to grasp how little has truly changed when it comes to race in America.

Several months into our marriage, we attended the wedding of a mutual friend in the suburbs of Chicago. The type of event that many couples do, nothing out of the ordinary yet for me, that night would forever live in a place within me to serve as a reminder that my humanity could be taken from me at any moment, not because of my actions but because of the color of my skin.

Traveling back home from a northwestern suburb of Chicago, we came across a DUI check, the type of checks that happen in countless cities across America. A check you have no reason to fear if you haven’t been imbibing. My husband being the designated driver had abstained from drinking at the reception, so when the cops signaled to us to pull over, we had no reason to fear or so we thought.

The officer walked up to the window and it became immediately clear to us though we were in shock that we had been pulled over because my husband was a white man and I was a Black woman. The officer instead of asking had my husband been drinking, asked him about me…who was I? My husband said that I was his wife, the officer looked incredulous and without getting into the nasty details pretty much stated he didn’t believe him and that he thought that I was a prostitute. We ended up being briefly detained while the officers debated whether or not to believe our story, never at any time was my husband given a breathalyzer or any other type of test. After running our plates, they apparently decided we really were a married couple or else the most skilled set of liars who happened to have the same last name and a set of wedding bands.

We drove home silent and in tears as the horror and enormity of what happened weighed on us. Chicago being a big city, I later realized that without a badge number at that time, filing a complaint was futile. We weren’t harmed physically but psychically that encounter laid the foundation for the rest of our lives. Traffic stops over the years have become moments of fear for us and while other cops in other cities have also asked our relationship to one another, none have been as open in their assumptions that I must be a prostitute and my husband a “john”.

I wish I could say encounters with police officers are the only places where loving across racial lines has been troubling. There are few areas of our outside lives where we are not reminded that we are different, even in medical emergency situations when I have had to explain to harried medical personnel that yes, he is my husband. Yes, the worried white man is not my caseworker, a good samaritan or my neighbor, he is my partner and my legal spouse.

As my husband has learned in recent years, even simple encounters with other parents on the playground can become awkward moments. Several years ago, another parent made a casual reference to “niggers” and my husband had to quietly explain that his wife (me) is Black to which the other parent said he wasn’t referring to Blacks like me. As my husband has learned when he is not physically with me, many whites particularly white men will thinking nothing of saying careless and questionable things. Of course, in his quest to speak up, he has pretty much ensured that he will have few friends. The price he pays for daring to love outside of his race. Recently we hit a rough patch and bandied around the big D word for a while, it was interesting to learn how quickly whiteness took over for the few people he shared our situation with, then again I wasn’t surprised because I had already lived through him losing most of his friends when we got together almost two decades ago.

There are some interracial couples who are spared these indignities but more often than not, couples reach a place where the wear and tear of love with the added battles of dealing with race become too much to handle. As we approach 20 years in the battlefield of love, I look around and realize other interracial couples we have known have lost the battle. Marriage is hard work, no matter who you are but living in a world where the legitimacy of your union is constantly questioned and the partner of color is often dehumanized starts to wear on the soul. Nevermind the intricacies of dealing with family and inlaws across racial lines and when you add kids into the mix, the complications grow.

While the story of African-American actress Daniele Watts being detained after the cops assumed her to be a prostitute and her white husband to be her “john” has sparked outrage and shock across the internet, for me it’s a feeling of how much longer must we endure this shit? I am not shocked, I am sad, sad that yet another couple has to live this life and this shame for daring to love. I am sad that we keep repeating the lie that race relationships have improved based off a few victories in the racial arena when really very little has changed. We are still sitting on the same raggedy couch which simply has been draped with a new cover and rather than facing reality, we shift our position, looking for the comfortable spot instead of working towards a brand new couch.

Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations or a Black lady and a White lady talk race

I write a great deal about race in this space, in part because examining racial inequity is part of what I do as Executive Director of Community Change Inc (CCI),one of the longest, continually running anti-racism organizations in the United States. Our mission is to promote racial justice and equity by challenging systemic racism and acting as a catalyst for anti-racist learning and action. CCI makes visible and challenges the historical and ongoing role racism plays in the institutions that shape all of our lives. We focus particularly on involving white people in understanding and confronting systemic racism and white privilege.We understand racism as a system that impacts every area of life in the United States from education to law, from housing to transportation, from employment to media, from religion to artistic expression. It is a system that privileges white people and oppresses people of color.

This fall as part of our expanded programming at Community Change, we are looking to engage in authentic dialogues about race throughout New England. We are kicking off with a discussion this Tuesday, September 9th with a public conversation between white author and anti-racism Debby Irving and myself at the Portland Public Library in Portland, Maine.

Tell me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross Racial Conversations, is an open, honest and perhaps even painful at times discussion where Debby and I will talk about the impact of racism in our own lives as well examining the barriers that prevent authentic dialogue across racial lines in America.

Details on Tuesday’s event can be found here and if you aren’t able to make it, have no fear! Debby and I will be back at the library on Wednesday, September 10th at noon time discussing her book “Waking Up White” as part of the library’s Brown Bag series. So two days of racial justice and open discussion.


You can also check out a clip we did for a local show recently. Hope you join us and if you do, please say hi!

Dissent, haters and angry white people

How many times are you gonna use “silo of privilege?” It’s about as worn out, as your using the color of your skin as an excuse for all the world’s wrongs. Maybe it’s just that you’re arrogant, and that’s why whites don’t care for you. And if you hate Maine so much, just leave and move to” black is beautiful” Boston. (BTW: If you dislike Caucasians so much, then why did you marry one? It’s hugely hypocritical.)-Jamie a blog commenter

“What about us white men who were harassed by cops or treated unfairly by cops when we were younger, do we go around saying it was because of this or it was because of that? No, income class has more bearing on how a person is treated in our country than race. I’m sick of all these people saying that I must’ve had it easy because I’m white. I’m sure Will Smith’s kids are going to have a easier life than I did, confrontations with cops included. Stop the BS”- Kevin a poster on the BGIM Facebook page

“Shay never responds to questions, or even thanks people for commenting. I guess that it’s beneath her. She can complain all she wants, but at the end of the day it’s all about “race card.”- Chris a blog commenter

“U sound like a racist…your peeps! Come on black girl dont be such a fool. But i guess its a good thing u have come here to work and not sell drugs like 80% of black folk that come here.’- Shawna a blog commenter

I am not a writer by trade, I am a non profit administrator, researcher, and consultant with a background in both non-profit management and African-American studies who spent a number of years in the trenches of social services.  One could say that my background is rather eclectic. Writing was a long lost childhood dream that I reconnected with back in 2002 when I convinced a local newspaper to let me write a column. On the strength of my early pieces for the Portland Press Herald, I convinced a local indie paper to give me a column focusing on diversity. My Diverse City column with the Portland Phoenix celebrated 10 years last year. It was a little over six years ago when I decided to throw my hat into the blog arena.

One thing I learned early on when I started writing for an audience larger than myself is that people aren’t always going to agree with you. There will be readers who really think that your ideas, your writing and you suck. The first few times you receive less than stellar feedback, it hurts like hell but you learn to brush it off. Yet there are times when it is hard to brush off criticism and times when maybe you shouldn’t brush it off and this is one of those times.

Over the years, I have had my share of haters and dissent. Civil dissent I can respect, I have no illusions that my words will resonate with all. That would be absurd, this is not circle time in kindergarten where we must all get along. I can even say that at times, I have honesty dropped the ball in this space. One of my biggest challenges with this space is that as someone who has simultaneously ran organizations as my day work that require me to go above and beyond lest my staff nor I will be compensated, while juggling my family and household I am not always great at replying to commenters. I admit that and if ever someone was offended I do offer apologies.  Though as many readers have learned direct email is often the best way to get a timely response from me.  I am a flawed human being as we all are, and I try the best that I can. If that offends, I am sorry.

However in recent weeks and months, the level of virulent emails and comments (that I often don’t approve) that I have received has reached a level that frankly scares me. I shared a few of the tame ones at the beginning of this post because I am tired. My day job is heading up an organization that organizes for racial equity, I am well aware that racism exists but to have so many actively telling me that I am wrong or attempting to silence me is also wrong.

To put ones words and thoughts out for public consumption is to invite dissent or “trolls” but personal attacks or a general lack of civility is one thing I can’t tolerate. I write about race and it is not just my personal views, the research supports my words. As a researcher I know that my opinion needs to be backed up and I can do that. To answer my critics I don’t hate white people, my life partner of almost 20 years is white but I refuse to stuff myself down to appease anyone who is uncomfortable with reality as it is.

Today I came very close to shutting this blog down and committing digital suicide because in a moment of humanity, it hurt like hell to know that as someone committed to equity and justice, this space is a source of pain for me and my family. Yet to do that is to allow ignorance to win and well…my plucky side just can’t do that.

We don’t have to agree but if you are troubled by the words that I share here, I would ask why? Why is it uncomfortable to hear a Black person saying that we are not post racial and that racism is real? Why must be my words be met with statements that I should leave the state of Maine or to cut the BS? Why am I not entitled to stand in my truth as much as you stand in your truth (at least when it is truth; some of you make assumptions about reality that aren’t backed up by facts/research)? Why do you think you have the right to silence me?

If we cannot even agree to disagree in a respectful manner, maybe we should ask ourselves why? Acknowledging reality is not painful but avoiding it sure as hell is and in the end we all lose and we truly won’t ever move ahead.

Effective immediately comments are no longer allowed on posts older than 7 days. Also, be aware that if you cannot conduct civil discussions with other commenters or myself on this blog, you will likely be barred from commenting.

 

PS: There is no race card, I tried to get this mythical card but like the Amex Black card, no one knows anyone who has this card. In reality the term race card is how we stifle uncomfortable discussions about race.