How are you showing up for Black women in Maine and beyond?

“De ni**er woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”– Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston published these words in 1937 and yet in 2018 those words still ring true for far too many Black women. Black women were the backbone of the Civil Rights movement and yet how many Black  women from that era aside from Rosa Parks can anyone name? Black women have been at the forefront of the current movement for Black Lives and yet too often we see men being lifted up for their work. The critical behind-the-scenes labor that Black women provide is often dismissed or taken for granted.

Last year, in Alabama, Black women came through and were instrumental in the election of Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate, thus kicking off the rallying cry of Black women as being our collective saviors in  Trump’s America. And this year, with the midterms elections looming large, Black women are playing a prominent role especially with Stacey Abrams winning the Georgia Democratic Primary for Governor. A historic win.

Suddenly, Black women seem to almost be in vogue. But, while that sounds good, how many Black women are truly getting the support and nurturing that they need? How many of us instead are fighting twice as hard or more as our white peers to be agents of change and getting far less of the credit? How many of us are getting no credit at all? How many of us are encouraged to change the world while getting precious little assistance and backup from anyone but other Black women? While it is popular to say that people are supporting Black women, the truth is too often we are still seen as the mules and whatever support we receive is marginal at best.

Here in Maine, we have a Black woman running for re-election for the Maine House of Representatives. I should mention now that Rachel Talbot Ross, the woman in question, is a personal friend. But my words have nothing to do with our friendship; rather, they are the observation and reality of what it means to be a Black woman who is working for change.

Rachel, in her two years in the state legislature, has sponsored bills related to housing security, mental health training for corrections personnel and tax incentives for businesses that hire people from traditionally marginalized communities. Four of the bills she sponsored passed and are waiting for funding from the legislature. One of her priorities was to involve people who are typically underrepresented directly in her work.  

As a Black woman in a very white state, Rachel knows that representation matters and as a ninth-generation Mainer she is only one of two Black people in the state legislature. Which is why it is all the more surprising that as an incumbent this year, she is being challenged for her seat by a member of her own party: Herb Adams, Adams held the seat from 2004-2010 until term limits forced him out. He’s had two other unsuccessful runs. Given that there are no Republican challengers, it is almost a sure thing that whoever wins the primary will secure the seat.

Look, it’s a free country and he is free to do whatever the hell he wants but it is this type of behavior that frankly makes me side-eye so-called progressives.

You have a Black woman who is busting her ass in this very white state to create representation and a truly inclusive space and after just two years in office a white man feels entitled to challenge her just because he can? Was there no one in the state to tell this guy to sit down? I am pretty certain that if Herb and I sat down, he would say it’s just politics, as would many other nice white people. But the fact is, as a white guy he sits at the top of the hierarchy and his decision means that Rachel must yet again work harder just trying to keep her seat, and be distracted from the work she’s trying to do legislatively. The white man’s ambition becomes more important than allowing the Black woman’s momentum to continue and her star to shine. And those kinds of challenges to hard work (and success) is the way of things often for Black women, especially in predominantly white spaces.

In this moment, many white people are waking up to the reality that racism never went anywhere and that it’s insidious and deeply entrenched into all of our systems. People feel bad and want to do something and yet the work that can truly move the needle seems to elude them. Understand this: Nothing will change until white people realize that the only way we solve our racism problem starts with them asking themselves “What am I  willing to give up?” You cannot right the scales of injustice without taking something from one side and moving it to the other in order to get the scales to balance out. You simply cannot. And while it’s bad enough when no white people are willing to step aside for Black people, it is especially galling when they actively try to displace them or diminish them when there is no need to do so.

Change will also require more people of color in the rooms where decisions are made. That means both seats at the tables as well as ownership of some of those tables. Racism is about power and privilege and despite the surface shifts since the 1960s, the levers of power across the board are still operated primarily by white men. We need Black and brown people to operate far more of those levers than is the case right now if change is going to happen. We need white people to recognize that fact and to step back and step down more often to make that happen. It also means calling out other well-meaning (or not so well-meaning, too) white people when they make missteps that are harmful to Black folks and other people of color.

Until a critical mass of white people move beyond awareness of racism to concrete action that requires some actual sacrifice on their part, not much changes. Until then Black women, who live at the intersection of both gender and racial discrimination, will have to work far more hard than will most white men to obtain, no matter if the Black woman is more qualified or deserving. Even the exceptional Black woman struggles to get what comes easily to the most average of white men. Despite being known for our strength, this type of struggle takes its toll on us; it’s what you don’t see when we are laid out in bed, unable to get up and filled with panic and dread but because you only see our strong faces and never see our human faces. Instead, you take our strength for granted and become dependent on us to go the extra mile and make things right.

No, that’s not  good enough and if you fancy yourself a white, progressive, liberal who isn’t racist, it’s time for you to get your hands dirty and share the burdens.

As for Rachel, if you live in Portland’s House District 40, I encourage you to vote on June 12 and let her return to the legislature to continue what she’s started.


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Booking Shay/BGIM for speaking engagements: 2018-2019

I’m taking a quick break from the usual postings to give you some information. I am currently booking fall 2018 through spring 2019 speaking engagements. For fall 2018, I have about six more dates that I can put on the calendar, and I would love to speak to your group or organization.

My signature solo presentation is Authentic Dialogues: Talking about Racism and How to Take a Stand Against Hate.

This interactive session is designed to look critically at racism in our communities and our nation by examining the roots of white supremacy and how the past impacts our present. A key goal will be teaching, sharing, and learning practical tools for working in our own communities to combat racism and to start conversations on addressing racism and difference in predominantly white spaces. This session is a mixture of lecture and small-group work, which will allow participants to deepen their knowledge of racism in the current landscape of America, examine their own biases, and learn techniques for starting conversations on racism and how to be an effective ally.

I also can create keynotes/talks that are crafted for your own special event or the needs of your organization/community’s membership or population.

So what’s the bottom-line deal? Obviously, there is a cost for this work but to make it accessible, I have created a sliding scale that is based on organizational budget.

Fee Schedule 2018

Signature Presentations

  • “Authentic Dialogues” – 90 minutes: $1,250 to $1,500
  • Cross-Racial Conversations” sessions (conducted with Debby Irving): Varies

Keynotes, Speeches, Etc.

  • Organizational budget under $250,000: $1,500
  • Org budget $250K to $500K: $2,000
  • Org budget $500K to $1 million: $2,500
  • Org budget over $1 million: $3,000 to $5,000
  • Community groups that are not officially organized: Case-by-case basis; typically ranges between $500 to $800 plus travel costs.

Workshops

  • Varies widely depending on scope and audience

Here is a partial list of venues at which I have spoken in the past few years:

TEDx Dirigo
Beacon Hill Meeting House – Boston, Mass.
Marblehead Racial Justice Team – Marblehead, Mass.
UU Urban Ministry – Roxbury, Mass.
Central Square Theater – Cambridge, Mass.
Nevins Memorial Library – Methuen, Mass.
Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault
Maine Women’s Fund – Portland, Maine
Knack Factory/ACLU – Portland, Maine
Waking Windows – Portland, Maine
University of Maine – Augusta
University of Maine – Orono
University of Maine – Bangor
University of Southern Maine – Portland
SURJ Southern Maine/Seacoast – Kittery, Maine
York Diversity Forum – York, Maine
First Parish UU Church – Kennebunk, Maine
Deering High School – Portand, Maine
Lincoln Middle School – Portland, Maine

To book or for additional information: Email me directly at blackgirlinmaine@gmail.com

Note: I do work outside of New England but the cost may differ significantly for anything outside the region. The rates noted above are specifically for Northern New England.

 

Learning white tears early

I have been writing in this space since 2008 and over the years I have built up a solid following. As such, I have never been a household name, but my words travel far beyond Maine. And while I have had a few pieces go viral before, nothing could have prepared me for the response to a piece I wrote last month called “Weapon of lass destruction: The tears of a white woman.” The piece was born out of a series of tweets and when my sista in words, Luvvie, mentioned my post in a piece of her own on the subject of white women’s tears, it blew up.

We are living in really weird fucking time when it comes to race. For a brief moment in time, it seemed that we might be making progress on the racial front but it was an illusion at best. In Trump’s America, we are forced to confront the reality that we are a racist nation with a white nationalist at the helm. As I have said repeatedly before, we are a nation built on stolen land with the bodies of stolen people providing the free labor to create it. That is our legacy and until we confront that head-on and acknowledge how racism was part of the fundamental design of America, nothing will really change.

As I wrote in “Weapon of Lass Destruction,” white woman are uniquely positioned in this society—they are both one of the oppressed and also one of the oppressors, and that duality has long served to keep white women and women of color at odds. White women carry a lifetime “get out of jail free card” and moving toward any legitimate racial reconciliation requires examining this phenomenon.

While many Black and brown women have experienced mistreatment at the hands of white women, and many white women are starting to realize that not all tears matter, there is a hard truth that I need to discuss publicly: The roots of white tears. After all, truly solving problems requires looking at the root causes of them.

In the average Black American home, conversations on race start early and are had often. To not have these discussions with your children is to fail at parenting because youth is no excuse. America kills Black children and youth, and has often done so based on the words and tears of white women, going all the way back Emmett Till (and before him, of course, but it’s one of the more famous—and infamous—cases)

However, the behavior that leads to white tears harming Black people (and sometimes killing them) is learned and it’s learned early in life. In my previous piece I wrote about a high school friend, but as I watch my middle schooler navigate growing up in a predominantly white space, I see the roots of white tears and fragility being molded early in life. And being used against her already.

I am breaking my usual policy of not talking about my daughter in this space because while the story is about her and another child, there is a larger story at play—one that is about how white fragility is fostered in young white girls.

A classmate early on in middle school befriended my daughter and a mutual third friend; for the sake of the story, we will call the classmate “Jane.” My daughter early on realized that she didn’t quite feel comfortable around Jane because of a lack of respect for personal space and other issues, but because she thought that the mutual friend was cool with Jane, she said nothing. Increasingly, she would try to avoid interacting with Jane but things came to a head this current  school year when the mutual friend and my daughter realized that the other shared the same uncomfortable feelings. Both of them had only endured the girl’s behaviors because each thought the other was really tight with Jane.

Long story short, my daughter and her friend decided to end the connection to Jane. These are both thoughtful girls—my daughter in particular is deeply empathetic and never wants to hurt anyone’s feelings. But she was tired of Jane never giving her space and really felt they had nothing in common to begin with. The girls suggested that Jane extend her social pool and tried other subtle ways to reduce exposure with her and to try to express their discomfort. The subtle approach didn’t work, and eventually my daughter’s friend told Jane what was bothering them—she was polite but direct.

The words were not well received. Jane cried. More than that, she cried to teachers to help prevent her rejection. In the end, the guidance counselor was brought in because Jane was so distraught about my daughter and her friend expressing discomfort at her behaviors. The guidance counselor called me and I expressed very clearly that I encourage my kid to speak up. No one likes to lose a friend but tolerating someone for fear of hurting their feelings is never the answer. I believe in fostering a healthy trust for instincts. If Jane didn’t sit right with them, it should have been OK for them to back away from that relationship. The guidance counselor and I didn’t see eye-to-eye, but it seemed to blow over until a few weeks ago when my daughter and Jane ended up being put together on a group project.

One of my daughter’s teachers, knowing how she felt about Jane and being well aware of the earlier emotions surrounding the breaking of the one-sided friendship, encouraged her to reach back out to Jane. So my daughter did and Jane—who apparently by this time had also burned through a couple other groups of girls with her behavior—immediately started getting very excited about a second chance at friendship. The sudden escalation was startling to my daughter, who merely wanted to get back on friendly “good acquaintance” terms. Oh, and my daughter did gently remind Jane of the previous problems—Jane said that she would try to not go overboard but that “that’s just the way I am.” So, my daughter came home feeling anxious that this girl was going to repeat all the problems from before and was going to be forced back into her life by teachers, one of whom told my daughter “You may not have meant to hurt her feelings before, but you really hurt them badly.”

Hold up! This kid that it took my daughter months to shake is entering back into her life and it’s being encouraged—and my daughter is being gently chastised for hurting her feelings without her own hurt being acknowledged? Never mind that my kid wanted nothing to do with Jane beyond being able to work with her without fuss and say hi in the hallways. Furthermore, Jane is already saying flat out that she might not respect my daughter’s boundaries and somehow this is acceptable? This is the same child who had to leave school early because after months of not getting the gentle hints, my girl finally gathered the courage to speak up and yet my daughter had to sit with the guidance counselor because she committed the crime of upsetting Jane? What about the months that Jane spent making my daughter feel uncomfortable and she sat with it?

My daughter had tears, too, especially when teachers and counselors were pointing out to her how sad Jane had been. But my daughter’s tears didn’t matter.

No one likes to hear that feelings are not reciprocated, but it happens. That’s life. And given that these kids are in 7th grade, they aren’t too young to learn this lesson. Yet no one in positions of power at this school seem to grasp that Jane can’t have it her way all the time and instead my kid is being asked to go the extra mile because of Jane’s unwillingness to respect boundaries and to scale back her behaviors a bit? My child has to capitulate but Jane doesn’t have to compromise?

As the co-parent and I strategized on how best to help our girl in this situation, that was my own light-bulb moment. Girls are taught early that their tears have power. And white girls learn early, too, that they have special power over people of color in a world dominated by white people. Also, combined this with the fact that white fragility starts early in life because, well—how often do white parents struggle with discussing race? A lot. To the extent that most white parents try to sidestep the topic whenever possible and many avoid it altogether.

Especially in middle class and upper middle class white families, staying “nice” and not stirring the pot and not talking about “uncomfortable” things is a cultural marker. People of color have to have these uncomfortable talks all the time with their kids for those kids’ psychological and literal survival. This is something I often discuss when I work with groups. How to unlearn niceness. Being a nice white woman in a very bad way is a real thing. White anti-racist writers and activists have touched upon this as well. “Nice” white nice ladies get people killed at worst and emotionally harmed at best. The past few weeks have already seen the news of various white women calling the police on Black people for doing very normal things—like leaving an Airbnb location, taking a nap on campus, barbecuing in a park and asking for a corporate phone number to lodge a complaint (granted, that last one has some conflicting stories but calling the police was still questionable and led to the Black woman being brutalized).

However, before one becomes a nice white woman who uses emotions and tears to deflect (and perhaps escalates to one who calls police to enforce her personal view of social order), one is a nice white girl who picks up the social cues which reward certain behavior. Instead of giving a Jane a few minutes to clear her head and think about how her own actions might have led to her situation, she was rewarded with an early release thanks to tears. When it was too much to handle on her own, the adults were at the ready to assist her. Instead of acknowledging the courage it took my daughter to stand up and speak her truth, she was made to feel like a villain. Instead of keeping the girls separated, they were paired up with the mandate to get along, with the onus placed on my daughter.

How often are Black women forced to swallow their feelings in the workplace and white women are allowed to essentially have their way? Far too often.

While white women absolutely must develop racial literacy and move beyond white fragility, they also need to examine the unspoken values that are transmitted in their families. Are you unintentionally creating a value system that rewards white fragility at the expense of non-white people? Are your schools and community institutions rewarding white fragility? The suspension rates in this country when it comes to Black girls is frightening. We live in a country that punishes Black girls and women when they speak truth to power—or punishes them more harshly than white girls and women for the same offenses when actual wrongs are committed—but we tell white women who do the same thing that they are brave or that they deserve a second chance. This discrepancy doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the change starts with us—and how we teach, encourage and interact with those closest to us.


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.

Image from Pixabay