Navigating racism, or Hate exists everywhere whether you admit it or not

Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s in Chicago, there were neighborhoods and nearby suburbs that I knew, as a Black person, we were never to enter. Bridgeport, Marquette Park, Mount Greenwood and Cicero for starters. These were areas where being caught in them as a Black person could mean your life. In 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. said the following about Marquette Park: “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen–even in Mississippi and Alabama–mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

As a teen in the late 1980s, I found myself in Marquette Park and Mount Greenwood, and I ended up being called a nigger and considered myself lucky that I fled relatively unscathed.   Even by the mid- to late-1990s, race relations still had not improved, as every Black person in Chicago who read or watched the news at that time was aware of the 1997 case of Lenard Clark, a 13-year-old Black boy who rode his bike into Bridgeport and ending being savagely beaten by two white men. The attack left Clark brain damaged.

As awful as this all sounds, it meant that when navigating Chicago as a Black person, you had a general idea of where things could go terribly wrong and you tried your best to avoid those areas.

Having spent the first 30 years of my life in Chicago, it was jarring to move to Northern New England learn that there were no known geographic boundaries where the most rabid racists kept themselves tucked away. Instead, any place is fair game for racists in New England and thus the potential both for outright danger and also for “death by a thousand cut” situations like microaggressions is amplified. White New Englanders like to think that racism isn’t a big deal here (either because of the relative lack of people of color or because they associate racism with the South and places with a more recent history of slavery) but I can say that no matter how much white people in New England may deny or grapple with accepting the truth, this is not a particularly welcoming space for people of color (POC).

Which brings me to the story of an 8-year-old biracial boy from Claremont, New Hampshire, who was hung by his neck from a tree by a group of white teenagers. He didn’t die, but he was literally lynched, and has the scarred neck (and psyche, no doubt) to show for it.

As this story makes the news rounds, many are expressing shock: How could this happen in 2017? Specifically how could this happen in an idyllic New England locale? After all, New Hampshire isn’t Gardendale, Alabama or someplace even worse!

While New England doesn’t have the same known hostile relationship to race and racism that permeates the Southern United States, let’s be frank: Racism in New England and particularly Northern New England exists strongly, even if it is a sort of quaint and polite affair at times. The Puritan ethos still runs strong  in these parts, along with a stiff upper lip, so for many there is an avoidance of talking about race. Or a stubborn insistence that race doesn’t matter. But that lack of conversation or desire to “not see color” (as if that’s possible) should never be mistaken for acceptance of POC, especially Black people.

Several of our contributors here on the blog were born and raised in Maine and all of them have recounted tales of being singled out early in life for being either Black or biracial. Even my own son, who spent a good chunk of his childhood in Northern New England, has his own stories of being called a nigger or variations of it, all designed to let him know that he was considered inferior.

For Black and biracial people in this region of the country, there is little surprise about this horrific story coming out of New Hampshire and while it’s easy to lay blame on the current climate of white supremacy in the era of Trump, this really cannot be fully laid on Trump and his white supremacist rhetoric.

White supremacy is the foundation on which our country was built and white people are steeped in white supremacy unless they intentionally work to do better and to dismantle the idea (and practice) of treating whiteness and white traditions as the best and as the norm, as well as to stop giving white people almost all of the benefit of the doubt and almost all of the opportunities. White people need both to actively change within themselves and to change the environment around them.

That means that the same behavior that has made harassing Black people a thing in the South is just as likely to happen up here except that in many locales, there are few if any Black people to harass. If you think I am kidding, have you ever noticed the proliferation of Confederate flags in places like Maine? Random pickup trucks flying that flag are a real thing here and have been. The only difference is that now we are seeing more of them. I am sorry, but in this region of the country, choosing to rep that flag is not just about capturing the rebel spirit; it is also a not-so-quiet declaration of your belief system which says: “I don’t like nonwhite people.” If you choose to believe that, that’s your screwed-up choice but to nonwhite people and specifically Black people, when you rock overt symbols of oppression like that flag, we see it as your open declaration of hate. Especially because there are so few POC in a place like Maine. Why get so angry over such a small population of people to begin with? A group of people many New Englanders can go days, weeks, months, years or even lifetimes avoiding ever seeing in person. That’s how deeply racism runs; there is a undeniable urge to let the hatred, fear or distrust show, whether in big ways or small ones.

A few days ago, I found myself engaged in the type of social gathering small-talk that puts me on edge. Inevitably, I am in a predominantly white space and a well-meaning white person (or one who presumes they are meaning well) wants to learn more about my work and, within five minutes, I am desperately wanting the conversation to end as I vacillate between: Can I enjoy this tasty beverage in peace vs. it’s time to teach. And, in this case, the person’s curiosity about my work baffled me, given that they seemed to have no interest in grasping or learning the issues (Really, when I say racism permeates all of the systems in society and you can only ask, “What do you mean by systems?” that doesn’t bode well). By the time the conversation was over, I was reminded of how many well-intentioned white people who think themselves beyond race harbor racial views that are strongly negative and/or packed with presumption and judgment, even if they aren’t in the same category as people like Richard Spencer and his merry band of hatemongers (the same person who cornered me in that painful conversation I just mentioned, for example, asked very perplexedly how I could have possibly met and married a white man with New England roots, as if there is no conceivable way in modern times for a guy whose family is directly connected to some of the oldest and most notable families in Maine and Massachusetts could come in contact with a Black woman in the Midwest). Many white people are only about three degrees of separation from the Richard Spencer/Steve Bannon type of racial belief system by virtue of choosing to live in the silo of whiteness that keeps white people from growing beyond their personal world.

They say they don’t see color, but it’s obvious they do; they say they don’t hold racist views, and then spout them all the same.

Most of New England is filled with these sorts of people. People who can recognize the evil of what happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, recently and what happened to the young boy in New Hampshire but who don’t see how their own racial ignorance is part of the larger system of white supremacy that allows the racist machinery of society to not only survive but also thrive. It’s why during the 2016 campaign season, despite engaging in a particularly virulent strain of dog-whistle politics, most liberal and progressive white folks laughed at the idea that Donald Trump could possibly win the presidency. But most POC knew the odds were pretty damned good, and we were right. Good intentions combined with a lifetime spent in the silo of whiteness, when mixed with a side of progressive politics, has rendered many well-meaning white people unable to read the racist road map ahead of them.

As such, it’s so easy for them to get lost, and we POC are left stranded by the sides of roads where we are anything but safe.
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Your new Black friend explains racism

Today’s post comes by way of Samuel James, one of our newest contributors (though not new to writing for publication). He is, however, better known to most people as a roots musician. He wields a voice of grit and gravel and is a modern guitar master; his songwriting has been compared to Leonard Cohen’s and his guitar virtuosity to that of Jimi Hendrix. In addition to bringing his music to the stage, he is a Moth-featured storyteller.
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As a white person discussing race, sometimes you are confronted with a Black person who does not want to explain to you why something is racist. The reason you need this explanation is because you probably don’t have any Black friends. Not definitely, but probably. It’s just how numbers work. It’s also how segregation works, but sometimes it’s also because of you. You may have said something stupid and didn’t know any better because you don’t have any Black friends…

It’s a vicious circle and, really, you need a Black friend. So just for this blog post, even though we’ve never met, I am going to be your Black friend.

There.

We’re friends.

Now that we’re friends, I think it’s time for some tough love.

A lot of times it just isn’t worth trying to explain racism to you. For me, there are three reasons.

1: You don’t trust us with our own experiences. Every person of color I have ever met has at least 574 bazillion stories that are all the same: We tell a white person about a racist experience only to have that white person respond with something like, “Are you sure it happened like that?” as though we are incapable of understanding our own experiences.

Remember that time your friend/parent/significant other/coworker/complete stranger was mad at you and no one else could tell? Of course you do. You know that experience very well, but when it comes to race, you’re not willing to allow another person that knowledge of experience. I think it’s important to ask yourself why that is. If your answer is #notallwhitepeople then this list probably isn’t long enough for you.

Oftentimes, if we get to the point where you acknowledge our experiences, the very next thing you say is, “I’m sure they didn’t mean it like that.” Not only is this still saying we don’t understand our experiences, it also means…

2: You think intent is more important than it is. Look, intent is useful in that it’s a predictor of future behavior, but it’s not a particularly good one. A much better predictor of future behavior is past behavior.

There are some dudes in the KKK who don’t hate Black people. Really. It’s just that they live in a rural place with nothing much to do and their cousin is a member and setting things on fire is fun. Their intent may be nothing more than to hang out with the boys on the weekend, but I’ll tell you what. If those boys show up at 3 a.m. burning a cross on my lawn, and you think it’s a good idea to investigate their individual intents, well, again, you’re going to need a longer list than this one.

I told you this was going to be tough love.

That makes this whole thing so difficult because…

3: So much is about your feelings! Just this week I watched two white guys talk about how much it sucks to be assumed a villain just because you’re a white guy. Yes. That actually happened. Right in front of me.

Look, having your feelings hurt does suck, no matter who you are. I’m not going to deny that, but as a Black person, I wish we could get to a place where anything was about my feelings. That would be incredible. I would genuinely love that. Unfortunately, while hurt feelings may be the result of being stereotyped as a white man, as a Black man, being stereotyped, all too often, means I die.

A white guy in a suit is a business man. A Black guy in a suit is a gangster. A white guy with a gun is a patriot. A Black guy with a gun is a gangster. A white guy who loves marijuana is a stoner. A Black guy who loves marijuana… you get the idea.

The point is it’s difficult for me to hear your complaints from inside this coffin.

Still friends?

Good.

Then I’ll tell you the secret to holding onto this friendship as well as forging others:

If your friends say they’re suffering, trust them and ask what you can do to help.

Just like you would with any friend.
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Calling all white people, part 20: Appropriation is NOT appreciation

Calling All White People, Part 20

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Cultural appropriation isn’t some “little” issue and it’s not respectful  

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

A lot of us white people have a problem with cultural appropriation.

Unfortunately, that problem is not that most of us are particularly bothered by doing it.

The problem is that we do it so seamlessly and casually and without regret or, for that matter, even forethought.

So, in other words, it’s a lot like the other racist and racially insensitive things we have, overall as white people, done for centuries. It’s as easy as breathing and we notice ourselves doing it about as often. Well, that’s not fair, actually. We pay attention to our breathing and concern ourselves with respiration way more often.

One can actually appreciate other cultures and engage in things related to said cultures without being guilty of appropriation. If an Indian family opens a restaurant, chances are they want more than just fellow Indian people to come in and eat there. A museum of African-American history is not generally going to be established with the sole purpose of serving Black visitors. And so on.

But then there is something like buti yoga which, to me, is the current poster child of the worst excesses of cultural appropriation.

First, if you are unfamiliar with buti yoga, what is it? Well, ostensibly it’s a combination of yoga and aerobics. Which is already weird, since yoga is about mindfulness, meditation, controlled breathing, poses and slow movements. In other words, almost entirely the opposite of aerobics. In practice, though, from almost every video I’ve ever seen of it, buti yoga is a combination of twerking and yoga. And shaking and jiggling one’s butt cheeks and thighs is definitely not in synch with yoga.

It’s already bad enough when white people latch on to yoga and then completely separate it from its spiritual components to make it just another hip form of fitness. Perhaps that could be forgiven because there is a bodily fitness component to yoga that is pretty important. But now buti yoga. And beer yoga. And yoga with goats (or cats). All things pretty much driven by white people who have decided yoga is all theirs.

But if you’re going to change it that much from what it was, why add “yoga” to the name at all? And therein lies the problem. That’s the appropriation. You are not even close to appreciating that piece of non-white culture. You’re not even participating in it on a meaningful level. You’ve taken it, claimed it, twisted it and perverted it.

And another reason buti yoga is such a glaring and disrespectful example of appropriation? The name. Buti is pronounced “booty” and that’s what it’s about…shaking the booty while nominally doing poses that are yoga-like. White people not only combined twerking and yoga but made up a word to make it “look” like some legitimate Hindi word and thus perhaps convince people buti yoga has some kind of traditional grounding, while at the same time making an obvious *wink wink* “See what we DID there? You know what we’re REALLY referring to.” That’s tacky and dismissive of a mental/spiritual/physical discipline with entirely non-white roots.

Now, I get that the line between cultural appreciation/engagement and cultural appropriation is sometimes a fine and blurry one. There’s never going to be an easy answer to apply to all situations. If you buy a poncho in a Mexican marketplace, does that mean you can never wear it? If you really love dancing and are drawn to belly dancing, is it wrong to take lessons or dance in shows? There are legitimate times the answers aren’t clear.

But what I want to see is more white people stopping to think about why they are engaging in other cultures’ practices and how they are interacting with them. To maybe at least do some research into something before just saying, “Oh, that’s cool; let me latch onto that.”

And even beyond that, to stop getting so sensitive and snippy when someone suggests that you might be engaging in cultural appropriation or calls you out on an obvious case of it. And, like with the mythical “reverse racism,” to stop accusing non-white people of having appropriated Western culture because, for example, they wear a suit to work.

Seriously, I saw a white guy argue this point online very recently. He was going on (of course) about how oversensitive non-white people are being when they talk about cultural appropriation. How whiny they are and how they need to shut up or, if they’re going to complain, they need to stop wearing suits and ties and such.

And here we have a prime example of white hubris.

Let’s take that suit and tie, example, shall we?

Who was it that basically decided that the suit and tie was standard male business attire? White people.

Who decided that they would refuse to take seriously just about anyone in a business setting who didn’t wear a suit and tie (with one of the few exceptions historically being Arab men from oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia who held for a time pretty much all the petroleum cards)? Yep, white dudes again.

So, we white folks made Western attire the acceptable and “normal” way of doing things, and we have typically looked down upon (or gawked at or ridiculed) people who, in America, have chosen to routinely wear attire from their own cultural background. “Assimilate!” we white people cry. Fit in!

And yet, we don’t have any problem taking other people’s cultural accessories, attire, etc. for our own. To play with like toys.

So, white women start wearing their hair in cornrows or other styles typically associated with Black women, and suddenly it’s a daring and sexy style. But when Black women wear their hair in afros or locs or braid it up…all of which are styles that lend themselves naturally to Black-textured hair…they are unprofessional or “ghetto.” No, Black women are often only considered appropriately coiffed when they subject their hair and scalp to harsh chemicals to straighten their hair and make it more Eurocentric.

That is what is so screwed up about white people and the way they tap into non-white cultures and traditions. When the people from whom those traditions, styles and the like originate do those things or wear those things, they are refusing to fit in. But when white people do it, they are “appreciating” the culture.

That is how white people approach the world far too often. We see it and we want it, and then we take it even when it isn’t sensitive, fair or even makes sense. We get to own and use what we want and change it however we want, and then dictate to others whether they can use their own stuff and how.

That’s not appreciation. It’s theft and abuse.
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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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

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