When they call you a racist

What a week! Seriously, it’s not every day that  the leader of a country decides to tweet shame a sexual abuse survivor. I don’t know about you but under the leadership of Trump, the world moves at such a rapid pace that even as a news junkie, I can’t keep up.  

If world happenings weren’t enough, my own life has been moving rapidly. Last week, I launched the long awaited podcast and a few days afterwards, the October issue of Maine magazine came out where I was named as one of Maine’s 50 people whose work is making a difference. While I have known about this honor for some time now, having it actually out in the world officially is an entirely different thing.

Which brings me to my thoughts for the day. I have spent the past decade-plus writing about racism in Maine and in the larger world. I have now had the pleasure of serving as executive director of a small and scrappy Boston based anti-racism organization. I also speak on race and current events throughout the region. In many ways, my dad’s upbringing under Jim Crow in rural Arkansas combined with dealing with racism as a Black woman in America are what led me to this work. Change requires intention and it requires people to roll up their sleeves and start doing. I want change, so I am doing my part.

Over the years, I have racked up my share of detractors and frankly, scary-ass people who don’t like me or my work. I am well familiar with the hateful, online trolls who say horrible things and even question my existence. Earlier this year, I even had a white nationalist show up at one of my speaking events. I have long accepted that I am not everyone’s cup of tea and that some people will just not like me.

However until a week ago, I had never had the experience of being called a racist to my face in a social setting. While out enjoying adult beverages with friends, I had an encounter with a white man and was told that I was pretty cool for a racist writer chick. Excuse me?

I can’t lie, the encounter bothered me because, without getting too deep in the weeds, it was clear that his “information” most likely came from someone who lives on the same small island that I live on. It means that the place that has become my safe haven isn’t really safe and yet safety for Black and brown people has always been an illusion. I know this and yet I wanted to believe, that there could be a safe space for me. A place where I don’t have to look at every white person as a potential threat.

However, once I got over the shock and got out of my feelings about this situation, I realized that a white man calling me a racist is exactly the type of white fragility that permeates our daily rounds and makes real discussion on race impossible at times. After all, trying to argue with anyone who calls you a racist when your work is anti-racist, is a waste of time. Frankly, I am long past the age where I defend my work to the willfully ignorant. It’s one thing to be racially illiterate and wanting to learn, it’s another to be steeped in white supremacy and uncomfortable with anyone who confronts unjust systems.

A Black woman who is critical of a white supremacist system is not a racist. My work is not based on a dislike of white people; it’s based on the dislike of a system that was built that elevated white people while disenfranchising others. A system that rewards whiteness and to be honest, demonizes blackness. A system that sets white as the societal norm and “others” everyone else.

I also was reminded how for today’s white people, the use of the word racist has lost all meaning. Far too many white people are more bothered by being called a racist than they are actual racist behavior. Our own president in the aftermath of the tragedy last year in Charlottesville could not call out racism without equivocating. He regularly engages in racist behavior but goes into full rage when called a racist. On the flip side, when white people are uncomfortable with POC for speaking up and out, we are quickly painted with the racist paint brush and labeled as such.

Even our children are not immune from a fundamental lack of understanding on what racism is and what it means to be called a racist. I have recently encountered several instances of white youth asking me if calling a Black person Black was racist.

In the end, it is all about the white fragility that keeps any and all discussions on race so intellectually dishonest. The majority of white people were raised to not have the emotional resilience necessary to have uncomfortable conversations and racism is very much an uncomfortable subject, so the goal is to deflect and shut it down. To do anything to make the discomfort go away. Well, after an emotional roller coaster of a week, I am here to say that if you call me a racist, I will take it as a sign that I am doing my job: To stop white supremacy by any means necessary.

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Believe in something and get uncomfortable: The truth about fighting racism

I am wrapping up my sabbatical from my day job as the Executive Director of Community Change Inc., which I sorely needed. After almost five years at the helm, I was burnt out and dangerously close to wanting to just quit my job. Instead, I went to my board of directors and negotiated taking the month of August off, and I return to the office next week.

This past month has been a time of rest and relaxation but also a time to dive deep into my personal issues. It’s meant weekly and even twice-weekly therapy sessions as I worked to unearth things and move toward optimal mental and emotional health. To say it has not been an easy road would be an understatement; the work was uncomfortable and there were more than a few sessions where I frankly wanted to skip or end early. It got even messier when life threw a curveball and I had to figure out how to handle it.

Change is a process, and rarely is it easy. True change often means sitting with the uncomfortable and facing ourselves. Our real self. The one that we might hide from the world but that we know is there.

As I start to turn my attention back to anti-racism work, I am struck by how the work of white people dismantling racism is a process much life working on yourself. Actually, as a white person, you are working on yourself if you are doing such work. Racism isn’t simply about ignorance and individual hate. Rather, it is a system of power that was crafted by and for white people and undergirds every system we have. Even when society “allows” an individual Black person or other people of color (POC) into a position of power, the system itself is controlled by white people.

Barack Obama was our first Black president and for many his presidency signaled that we had moved beyond race in America. Yet the U.S. Congress remained and continues to remain primarily white. When you see that, it becomes a lot easier to understand how we went from Obama to Trump. The power structure that supports white supremacy was never dismantled and Obama himself had little power to dismantle that system. Yet look at the unbridled power Trump has to reinforce white supremacy and boost it in ways many Americans would have thought was impossible just a couple years ago.

Since the election of Trump, I have had countless conversations with white people who are stunned. They can’t believe it that we have taken this turn. This isn’t the real America! How could Congress let this happen? Where are the checks and balances? Etcetera. If you are stunned by the current state of race relations, you haven’t been paying attention and your own whiteness served as a buffer to keep you from seeing. However, now that you are seeing, we have work to do.

Correction: If you are white, you have work to do.

Your work will be messy, it will be intense and frankly, it won’t feel good. Much like the process of healing from physical, emotional or mental scars, it will not be comfortable. Like therapy, dismantling whiteness requires you to bring your whole self to the table. Right now, we have too many white people who are attempting to engage in racial justice work and they aren’t bringing their entire selves to the process. It’s why many still struggle to talk to loved ones who hold hateful views. It’s why it is easy to consume the work of POC and others who do this work and simply parrot words of truth that end up being empty and shallow because of that.

Truth is, much of the work done under the guise of racial justice simply perpetuates white supremacy in a kinder and more gentle format. Even the process of how we fund racial justice work requires a tacit agreement that we are going to overlook the fact that we are replicating the same oppressive structures that are the norm.

This work requires a retooling of ourselves and leaning so far into it that we will no longer recognize ourselves. One day, we’ll wake up and see that our entire way of being and doing has shifted to a more fair and equitable space where we understand that POC want to hear more from you than simply that you know that you are a beneficiary of white privilege. That’s great but frankly, but if you don’t have a plan beyond that public declaration—something that is more than reading and thinking about racism while sitting comfortably in the bosom of white supremacy—then what will change?

I have a colleague who often poses the question: “What are you willing to risk to create a racially equitable world?” I think it’s a question that we all need to ask ourselves.

This current moment has white people cutting up and burning their Nike apparel because Nike chose Colin Kaepernick as the spokesperson for the 30th anniversary of their “Just Do It” campaign. Think about that. White people who are so bothered that Kaepernick,  who lives his values that one day Black people won’t be killed or harmed by extrajudicial killings, are taking to social media to share their ignorance and racism. Elsewhere, you will find white folks who are constantly stymied by any talk of racism, these are the folks for whom such conversations feel divisive.

The amount of work that most of those who proclaim to be be anti-racist still need to do (internally) is staggering. Also, there is no is shortage of work externally (changing systems and policies) and yet most never move beyond thinking and feeling and being overwhelmed. This is white people’s work and while POC can lead the process and provide assistance if they feel called to do so, white people have to step up and step into the discomfort because it’s their system and their peers who are keeping white supremacy going strong.

To quote the Nike ad, “ Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.”

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.

Photo by Felipe P. Lima Rizo on Unsplash