Touching my hair and stealing my humanity, or How white supremacy robs us all

Given the current state of race relations, the story that I am about to tell is seemingly small. After all, America is currently being governed by an openly white supremacist madman who lacks compassion and empathy for anyone who falls outside of his base. We are in the midst of a dumpster fire called America and the truth is, we may all burn to death if things don’t change. Hyperbole? Less so than we really want to admit.

However, the truth is that the same thing that is driving our president to destroy our country is the same thing that drives the vast majority of white Americans to fall short when it comes to race relations. The inbred desire to only see whiteness as the one, true way to live life. Anything that falls outside of whiteness and its world is treated as an anomaly, a freak occurrence or a curiosity piece. Rarely are ways of being that fall outside of the white paradigm given the same level of respect and courtesy that whiteness is given and sadly this extends to actual people.

This morning, I went out to breakfast with my co-parent. We are still friends and we take our family and shared financial expenses as seriously as we did when we were a romantic unit. In short, our getting together to break bread and talk is not an unusual experience.

As we were wrapping up breakfast, an older white woman stopped in front our booth and interrupted our conversation to tell me that she loved my hair. I politely said thank you and continued speaking with my co-parent. The woman turned to walk away and as she walked away, I suddenly felt my head being patted while simultaneously watching a look of horror wash across my co-parent’s face. As I felt her hand patting my head, it hit me…this woman who I didn’t know from anyone had just taken it upon herself to touch my hair.

It’s not the first time that a white person has taken liberties with my body (or specifically my hair) and I am pretty certain that it won’t be the last. At least once a year, I encounter a white person who thinks nothing of reaching over to touch my hair, never asking if it would be okay; just assuming that it is perfectly acceptable to touch the head of a perfect stranger. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but in what world is it acceptable to invade the personal space of a perfect stranger? I have never in my life reached out and touched anyone’s head who was not a family member, friend or lover.

Yet ask any Black woman or non-white person and many of us have stories of having our space and persons invaded by white strangers who feel they have the right to touch us. We are touched in the same fashion that one reaches down to pat a dog, cat or other cuddly creature.

I can only conclude given my understanding of how white supremacy operates that this lack of understanding of how to interact with strangers who are Black (or other POCs) is born from the same driver that puts whiteness on a pedestal. It’s the inability to see non-white bodies as equal to their white bodies; the inability to see the humanity of others and to meet people as equal members of the human family.

Yes, I know that white women whose features fall out of white physical norms are also subjected to these invasions of bodily autonomy but it simply does not exist on the same scale that it happens to Black bodies. Whether it is touching our hair, our skin or commenting on our appearance and its “difference.”

While my hair being touched by a stranger is seemingly small, let’s look at the larger picture and see a president who openly attacks women of color via his daily Twitter rants, who openly threatens to pull the much-needed relief aid from Americans of color who are recovering from a hurricane of epic proportions while chiding them for a “lack of responsibility” and who makes time to denigrate Americans of color for exercising their constitutionally protected right to protest, we can see how the dots connect. Especially at a time when white nationalist activity is growing in this country.

The greatest threat to America is not an outside threat; it is the festering sore of white supremacy that is ravaging our national body. All white people are infected by white supremacy. While that may be a hard pill to swallow, especially if you are reading this piece, it doesn’t make it any less true. I work with white people who are committed to dismantling white supremacy and yet too many times, even in doing the work, I have seen people whom I personally like continue to perpetuate the same destructive behavior that they are fighting against. I am sure that the woman I encountered today didn’t see herself as engaging in harmful behavior; after all, she gave me a compliment. But intentions usually mean nothing when compared to the negative impact of those intentions (e.g., if I intended to drive safely and harm no one, but my attention drifted or I disobeyed a driving rule and now you are lying broken and twisted under my vehicle, how much would my intentions matter to you?).

At the end of her encounter with me, that woman at breakfast had dehumanized me. She treated me not like she would an unknown white woman but instead like she would treat a pet or a doll. She reduced me to an object to satisfy her need in that moment. It wasn’t enough to compliment my hair and move on; she needed to touch it without permission, thus taking what might have been a random and possibly warm moment and turning it into a moment of making me feel invaded and demeaned. This is what white supremacy does: It strips the humanity of people. But make no mistake: It’s not just Black and other POC whose humanity it steals, because it makes monsters (large or small) of the white people who invoke that white supremacy.


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The same key to solve mass violence and systemic racism

In these moments, words are meaningless. Here we stand at the moral crossroad as a nation, deeply fractured and in tatters. We are a nation under siege but the enemy is not from outside; it is the enemy within. This enemy has always been with us but until this moment, the vast majority of Americans have been woefully ignorant of its existence and nature. Now, however, this foe’s presence has become so obvious and is so glaringly in our faces that we can no longer ignore it without simply being willfully and deliberately ignorant. I fear, though, that it might be too late for us as a people and as a nation.

As I write this, we are standing in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting. A 64-year-old white man, Stephen Paddock, from his 32nd-floor hotel room in Las Vegas, took the lives of 50-plus people and wounded around 500 others. Authorities are flummoxed, as nothing in Paddock’s background can explain his actions. No mental illness, no radical background. By all accounts he lived a charmed life.

Given the arsenal of weapons that Paddock had in his possession, we could lay the blame at the feet of the gun lobby and our country’s incessant need to cling to the Second Amendment in a way that any thinking person would say the framers of the Constitution did not intend. No private citizen needs access to the type of guns that Paddock had in his possession.

Mass shootings have become as American as apple pie and baseball. However, the unspoken truth is that we are a violent nation and we have always been a violent nation. This country was birthed and raised and nurtured in violence. It’s just that the violence only affected a certain segment of our populace. Now the violence is all around us, from small town America to the glitzy strip of Las Vegas and everywhere in between. No one is immune from this very American affliction. In the five years since an armed man shot up a classroom filled with children, nothing has changed. The shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 was our moral test and we failed miserably.

Most of us are asking for common-sense gun laws and while we definitely need to get our lawmakers off the gun lobby’s payroll and out of the NRA’s pocket, I am sorry to say that focusing solely on the gun lobby and gun legislation is not the cure all to our issues. It will be a significant bandage, however, on a gaping wound; it might buy us some time.

No, we need to go deeper. We need to address the culture of toxic white masculinity that is also very much a part of the fabric of this nation. See, one only has to look at how we deal with mass shootings and really any aberrations that don’t fit our comfortable narrative to see certain patterns. If a Black or brown person commits a heinous crime, it is an indictment on an entire community. If you think I am kidding go ask a Muslim friend or Black friend. Yet the rugged individuality of the white male American experience does not allow for pathologizing an entire group of people if that group consists solely or predominantly of white people. To quote Chauncey Devega: There will be no ‘national conversation’ about the connection between toxic (white) masculinity and American gun culture. In the mainstream news media and broader public discourse there certainly will be no discussion of the fact that white men are 31 percent of the population but commit 63 percent of mass shootings. Such a fact is forbidden or explosive, because it connects race, gender, guns and death.”

If similar stats around guns applied to any non-white group, we would be enacting bans (like Trump keeps trying with Muslims) on those groups and would have all manner of task forces at the ready to investigate them. Instead, due to our racial ignorance and the normalization of whiteness, we ignore the elephant in the room.

Yet we are a nation now governed by the poster boy for toxic white masculinity. As anyone who chooses to pay attention can tell you, it’s hard to ignore that our commander and chief has a problem with anyone unless they are white, preferably male and definitely cisgendered and heterosexual. Trump’s response to the crisis in Puerto Rico has even those with only a basic understanding of dog-whistle politics shaking their heads at his blatant racism.

We are in a state of crisis. In order to move forward, we must find the courage to have the uncomfortable conversations. To understand that the systemic racism and violence go together like a hand in a glove. That the same culture that allows mass shootings to happen regularly also allows systemic racism to thrive and that the same key is required to solve these issues. We must start unpacking whiteness and its destructive properties alongside with unpacking the culture of toxic white masculinity. The question is, are you ready to create change or are you looking for another quick fix?


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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.


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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