I am not your Sisyphus

Today’s post is written by Samara Doyon. Samara has been a Black girl living in Maine for the past 30+ years (read: her entire life). She is a writer, educator, wife, and mother. Despite the roots of her family tree, half of which reach generations deep inside the cool soil of the Pine Tree State, she recognizes that she will most likely remain an outsider for life, as the definition of “Mainer” upheld by the governor and half the state does not include people who look like her.

One of my greatest personal frustrations is the expectation placed on people of color and other marginalized groups to engage in relationship-based social justice work (i.e., having personal, face-to-face conversations with people we know about white supremacy, bigotry, and various forms of oppression) whenever and wherever ignorance or privilege presents itself. I often hear white people say, “I really just want to be told when I’m saying something offensive so that I can know and not make those mistakes anymore,” and this sounds like a reasonable request. But I know from experience that telling someone they have said something hurtful, triggering, or racist is nine times out of 10 more trauma than it’s worth.

The very same people who say, “I just want to know,” are likely to call us hateful and racist when we point out something problematic with their language. Confronting a co-worker, relative, or friend of a friend when we are too overwhelmed with shame and anger to hold our silence any longer, finding ourselves shaking and numb from adrenaline, fists clenched to quell our fight or flight instinct, breathing through the impulse to scream at the top of our lungs, straining to somehow string together a coherent and non-threatening explanation of why we’re upset that they just called BLM protestors “thugs” and said we should be shot, (a statement which should be excruciatingly obvious in its derogatory nature in the first place) only to be cut off with a response like, “Oh, you’re calling me racist, now?! You’re just ignorant and full of hate! You’re the problem!” Or even, “That wasn’t racist! I don’t think you understand what racism is,” which is an experience maddeningly absurd enough to make anyone want to punch the wall.

But to appreciate the full impact of these exchanges, it is crucial to first understand that disclosing the pain being inflicted on you, personally, and giving voice to that anguish is an act of radical vulnerability. It requires presenting your softest spot to the person who is already cutting it wide open, giving them the power to inflict more damage at will. A marginalized person only needs to live through this unbearable masochism a handful of times to realize the price we pay for speaking up–the pain of being emotionally violated in our weakest places by those too caught up in their own self-righteousness to notice or care about how deeply they are devastating us, the isolation/alienation from coworkers or fellow church members who feel more threatened by our pain than concerned for it, being held in distrust by those with social power who are often willing to tolerate bigotry and ignorance but not the acknowledgement of it, a general reputation for being an angry black woman or being just plain crazy–is just too high.

The expectation that we must try so desperately hard, over and over again, carefully, cautiously, patiently, bending over backwards in order to make the privileged understand how their lack of concern for those who don’t share their privilege is hurting us, only to be punished for our effort, has left me feeling damned in the fashion of Sisyphus, a character from Greek mythology who was doomed to repeatedly strain with every fiber against a massive boulder, inching it slowly to the crest of a steep hill, where it would always turn, falling all the to the bottom, steamrolling over every ounce of pain and struggle, so that Sisyphus must start from the beginning on his insanely demanding and irrelevant task.

And I am not here for that. I have said it before: A few trips up that hill of torture is enough. In recent years, I have become less careful, less patient, less concerned with my approach. I don’t try so hard to quell the fight or flight instinct. I don’t always take deep breaths to try to keep my voice even. I don’t worry so much about my approach remaining unthreatening. Sometimes I let all the fight out, leaving people wide-eyed and confused. Sometimes I chose flight, and put as much space (physically and figuratively) between myself and the injuring party as possible. I cut people off. I cut people out. I move on.

Others don’t always understand or support these decisions, but they haven’t understood when I tried so kindly and patiently to be vulnerable with them either, and if the end result is the same, why strain so hard on that boulder? Why strain at all? If an ally or acquaintance wants to create and maintain a meaningful connection, if they mean it when they say, “Just tell me,” it will show. They will make mistakes, we will mutually struggle through misunderstandings, hurt feelings, learning, and growth, but they won’t condemn me for my honesty when I say, “You’re hurting me,” and they won’t try to blame me for the pain. If they don’t mean it, that will show, too. And that’s where I bounce. That’s where I let them know, “I am not your Sisyphus.”
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My Black life matters, or Ramblings of middle age

The past several months have left me feeling sluggish and out of sorts. It’s been a period of rapid change professionally and personally, and to say that I wasn’t ready would be an understatement. It’s also been a time when being middle-aged has become quite real to me. Bodily changes are coming at me fast and furious…and why am I always hot? Seriously, I am always hot or at least that’s what it feels like. I swear, I am running 20 degrees warmer than most people these days as evidenced by the fact that when other people are wearing sleeves and coats, I am quite content sans to bare my arms and shoulders. Frankly, I find myself wondering: Must I wear clothes at all?

So, I am on fire all the time just when my body has also decided that sleep is optional and that my memory is something it doesn’t need to spend much time maintaining anymore. Nothing brings this perimenopause thing home like being in a meeting and forgetting your words in mid-speech. All you can do is laugh at yourself…wait? What is that word again?  Then, to add insult to injury, caffeine no longer loves me. Last year when my healthcare provider told me that some of the bodily shifts could be mitigated by giving up caffeine, I balked and agreed to lessen my consumption. Apparently that wasn’t enough, my body is flat out rejecting caffeine and when I do have a day where I don my inner toddler and declare that “I am the boss of me!” My body pretty much lets me know that caffeine is not my friend. Sob.

No matter what this “40 is the new 27” world tries to sell me and my peers, my body is saying “Not so fast” and I suspect a lot of my “I’m still young” fellow middle-agers are getting the same or at least similar bodily reminders. Aging is real and there is a physical and mental component and, despite my best attempts at ignoring it all, the CHANGE is here and is demanding my full attention.

Growing older in a Black female body is a special trip, though, especially because the majority of the health indicators aren’t exactly in our favor. Did you know that heart disease is the number-one cause of death for men and women in the U.S. but, moreover, Black women have heart disease rates twice that of white women. I have an aunt who isn’t even 60 and she’s been living with congestive heart failure for years now. We have higher rates of diabetes, and diabetes is prevalent in certain segments of the Black community. Oh yeah, there is also breast cancer, which is the most common form of cancer that affects Black women. The life expectancy gap is closing along racial lines but that is namely due to the plight of white folks dying earlier than they once did…probably from the stress of realizing life isn’t going so much their way as it used to and that only the really well off have futures with any comfort (welcome to some semblance of the world we Black people have lived in for decade upon decade upon decade).

If that wasn’t enough, there is also the cumulative effects of racism and patriarchy and the sense of being expected to always carry the loads. And yet rarely is there reciprocity. As Zora Neale Hurston wrote so many years ago “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”  That pretty much sums things up. We are often the first to show up, the first to do and yet almost always the last to be acknowledged or cared for. For all the work we do, it most certainly isn’t reflected in our economic status.  A study several years ago found that, on average, Black women have a net worth of $5. Then again, we do live in a world where the racialized wage gap leaves Black women earning sixty three cents to the white man’s dollar. It’s worse for our other sisters of color.

So you get to middle age as a Black woman and realize that all your hard work probably won’t prevent you from a retirement spent with the occasional kitty chow for dinner inside either your kid’s house, the subsidized apartment that may not exist by the time you actually get to retirement age or a snazzy cardboard box under the bridge. This while you are juggling whatever ailment that you are statistically doomed to suffer.

You can either get pissed off as hell, roll over and wait for the end or you can grab some joy where you can. I recently opted for “grab some joy” and did something that I have never done before. I went on a mini-vacation for two days and…damn it!…I feel refreshed. A few months ago, it hit me that I have never been on an actual vacation. All my travel has been either family or work-related. Never have I treated myself to unscheduled time alone. It’s almost embarrassing to admit that, since my Facebook feed tells me that most of the people I know are always traveling. However, I decided on early marriage and motherhood and spent my late 20s and 30s putting myself through college, graduate school and starting a career. They say shit happens but in my life shit happens often enough that the idea of vacations never materialized.

I am returning today from two nights away that fed my soul. I didn’t go far from home but I went just far enough that I was in an area  of Maine that is not part of my daily rounds.  I threw caution to the wind and it felt good and while racial bias is never far from the life of a Black person (a racially prompted traffic stop on my way to my getaway, plus being mistaken for the local help and not a lady of leisure by a waitress), it was just delightful overall.

My two nights away made me reflect on the importance of time away and how it is good for everyone. But for Black women and femmes, it is even more critical. Our bodies exist in a society where psychic and emotional abuse and misuse are the norms; we often internalize it, and it is hurts us. Too many of us are juggling too many balls often without a real support system. Too often our support system is simply another form of stress.  

How often do we look at the Black women and femmes in our lives and marvel at their strength without asking what that outward strength is actually costing them? How often do we profit from that strength without questioning it? How often do we truly give back to the Black women and femmes who bring beauty, knowledge and so much more into our lives? Do we ever see them as people who need a hand or a hug? Or do we sit so comfortably within the box of white supremacy that we take them for granted because deep down, we think they are indeed the mules of the world?

In a world where we must vocally declare that Black Lives Matter, I am declaring that my middle-aged Black self does indeed matter and that I will honor this vessel that I reside in, treating it as well as I can given my realities. If we say  that Black Lives Matter than we need to make sure that we are honoring those closest to us.
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Calling all white people, part 17: POC are not sex objects

Calling All White People, Part 17

(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: Do not treat POC like sexual paraphernalia  

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

Good God, y’all, BGIM had some things to say (and said them well) in her recent post “Black pu**y, or Sexual racism…What we don’t talk about” and whether this is laziness or moral support, I’m going to jump right off from that post with my own post here. Consider it part two, I guess (and damn, I hope the people who inspired that post read it, see themselves in it, and do some heavy thinking about their approach to people of color).

Now, while I hope the people noted in BGIM’s post read it and learn, I hope some of you in our white-skinned circles did as well. Because chances are that many of you (no matter how much you yearn for racial justice) have been, still are, or will be guilty of fetishizing people of color or treating them as a casual sex object in a way you wouldn’t with a white man or woman.

Note I said “you” and not “us.” This is intentional. I have biases, I have racist stereotype  leftovers in my head, I make racial/ethnic/cultural missteps. But for those of you guilty of seeing exotic hunks of passionate hot chocolate when you should see a thinking, feeling human being worthy of respect, I ain’t one of you. Never have been. And not gonna start any time in the future.

I wish I could say this is just some huge moral quality of mine, but I doubt it. Dumb luck, really. It’s one of the few areas I didn’t have to learn racial sensitivity and respect about. My parents didn’t go for racist tropes hardly at all (though they held a few less than stellar stereotypes and biases toward Asian immigrants which I am sad to say I held myself for a number of years) so that probably helped. Hell, even my white-privilege-cushioned, racially uneducated 10- or 11-year-old self knew there was something very tremendously awfully wrong with my favorite uncle calling Arab people “sand n*****s.” I’m well into middle age now and that memory is still burned deep and uncomfortably into my psyche.

Anyway, I’m getting off track. Point is, at least where romance and sex are concerned, I don’t have a racist bone in my body. Maybe one or two sexist bones at times, but never racist. To me, a woman is a woman (and if I were ever to have a less-than-straight urge, a man is a man). There are cultural differences, religious differences, political differences and personal differences aplenty (and they need to be recognized and respected), but in the end, it comes down to one thing with dating and sex: Do I like this woman intellectually and am I attracted to her? I have a slight preference for brunettes, sure. Gigantic chests aren’t really my thing. But other than that, I don’t categorize women and even those two previously mentioned items aren’t absolutes.

That’s a whole lot of rambling. But I just want to ask of any of you, my fellow white people: Why on earth would you objectify a man or woman based on race? Especially if you read this blog and often nod your head to any of the thoughts shared in it. It’s actually pretty heinous. I mean, it’s not *the* most heinous racist thing you can do, but it’s pretty damn bad. Much the same way the N-word is used to try to slice away a Black person’s dignity and personhood, so too does the sexual objectification of people of color dehumanize them.

Yes, it dehumanizes them.

You make them into nothing more than a fantasy. Nothing more than an object. Nothing more than a goal to attain or a bucket-list item to cross off. You make them a fetish.

I have nothing against fetishes. Kink can be fun. But as something for people to do, not something to make people into. To make a person or a group of people into a fetish is to not see them as actual people. And how can you respect someone you don’t see as human?

And even if you don’t see people of color or some specific segment of them (like Black people) as being exotic fetish objects, you also shouldn’t approach relationships or sex with them casually. I mean, not with especially high levels of casualness. Some of y’all are into casual sex all the time or some of the time and God knows the popularity of Tinder is proof enough we’ve decided that pick-up bars weren’t casual *enough* for our modern society. But the point is that too many white people want to “try out” a Black person or some other non-white person. Maybe it’s because they think they’ll be more sexually wild (or more passive) or for whatever reason. Maybe it’s because they want to feel more enlightened and open-minded or think it will help purge them of racism or teach them something about race.

But regardless, it’s wrong.

Again, people are not objects. They are not tools. They are not toys. They are people. No matter what their race or ethnicity.

Don’t treat them as a means to your end.
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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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