Why is your Colin making you Uncomfortable

Today’s post is written by a very special contributor, L. David Stewart, MBA, MSRE, a Black man who also happens to be my brother. As a Black man, he has words that I believe need to be heard. 

Race is for me is never as simply as the proverbial “black and white.” Folks I know on both sides HATE talking about it… so its Friday l want to make some folks uncomfortable and think.

As a Black MAN in this country (Black WOMEN have a separate sect of things to deal with, including from some of us as Black men, but that’s for another discussion…and I point you to PLENTY of women who are experts on my Friend’s list, including my Blood sister, for more about that) my very EXISTENCE makes people uncomfortable. Why? Because if I am the stereotypical assumed [insert, thug, drug dealer, extremist, etc.], that scares people for presumed safety reasons. And maybe they should be scared, but for other reasons, as I may be more dangerous to their comfort zone in other ways. I am educated (two master’s degrees and working on a doctorate), well-traveled, and all these other things that by society standards, say “well you made it so you have nothing to complain about.” Au contraire!

Some of my own accomplishments I don’t share because, to be honest, folks don’t believe me.  My dad, a Southern born and raised Black man, told me in my 20s: “Son, with the things you have done, if you were not Black, you’d be on Time magazine and fast-tracked for infinite growth!” I hated hearing that, but it was true. I have known racism first-hand since I moved to the North Side of Chicago. I played baseball for 12 years and was scouted actually by a MLB team. One year, I was denied the best pitching award, because well…you can figure it out. You may say “Well, maybe you weren’t the best.” Except the numbers said I was. But the golden boy of the league had to win it. Press ops and the like. Did it motivate me to defeat him in the championship game? Damn skippy! That’s when I thought, JUST BE BETTER!

If you are Black in this country, you have most likely heard “You have to be TWICE as good to be where THEY are.” I took it further; I feel you have to be TWICE as good to be half as far, so to be even you have to be four times as good, and to be TWICE as good you have to be eight times as good! What am I basing that on? I worked in architecture from 1996-2009. My undergraduate degree is in architecture. My initial dream was becoming an architect. I tasted racism in high school when I was told I could NOT be an architect. (I was the only Black youth in the room). I tasted it working in firms, when I was not exposed to the same things other interns were in the form of opportunity.  In undergrad at a prominent university where I graduated, it was obvious, but systemically obvious. Was I called a N*GGER to my face? Only once and well, thankfully, I had some restraint. However, any time race was discussed I was told indirectly to not make it racial. I remember vividly my freshman year, discussing race, and these twin male students, who were White, and blessed to live and come from good money, told all of us that were not White: “You have no excuse! You are hiding behind race and need to get over it; you are here, what is the issue?” One continued to opine on the socioeconomic plight of the South Side of Chicago (where I am from) and how it’s “THOSE PEOPLES” fault. Now I professionally rebuked him and invalidated all of his claims, but it reminded me that Black men only comfortably exist when it’s comfortable to be in an accepted space. If it’s music (certain types), if it’s entertainment (certain types), and if it’s negative (all types), it is comfortable for the general society.  Cultural pride or social awareness makes non-People of Color NERVOUS PERIOD!

As I got older I went from the overly militant, to moderate to trying to take race out of it.  DIDN’T WORK!  I’d lead discussions with my education to make people feel better. I would HIDE the fact that I am a hip-hop artist (www.refgenmusic.com, artist name NIZM) because I would be stereotyped. Other co-workers can talk about the cool things they do, and when they do perceived “Black things” like rap or are into hip-hop it’s cool.  When I as a Black person say I am in to Modernist architecture I get told I am “acting White.” All of this subconsciously builds and you learn to either numb yourself or face it. I learned to face it.

As an educator, racism welcomed me with her pungent aroma when I became a college professor. I was literally prevented from going into a faculty office because of my attire. (P.S. it was at an art and design school and almost everyone at an art and design school looks like a student, lol).  From there I was forced to revisit this. If I was a non-POC with ripped jeans and Birkenstocks and a t-shirt, and said I was a PhD student, there would be NO QUESTIONS ASKED! Might be a weed head but you know “kids these days” (insert Ryan Lochte HERE lol). Meanwhile if I got some fly gym shoes, a fitted hat, a t-shirt and jeans (that don’t sag), I am thug. I was motivated to dig into this with my first exhibit called “Hear We Are” (www.thehearwearexhibit.com) showing 10 Black male educators.  These men are well-educated but if you saw them on the street, it would be negatively inferred the worse. WHY?

So all that said, Colin Kaepernick! His stance, (or non-stance, lol) hits because when he was just being a quarterback (which is a LOADED position for Black males in NFL history in itself), he was adored. Now he has a position OUT OF HIS COMFY SPACE and folks are burning his jersey. The counter is that he is rich and he was raised by White parents so he has no basis to show his “contempt.” As I paraphrase James Baldwin, to be Black in this country is to be in a “state of continuous rage.” When you are an athlete and winning, it’s cool!  Living in the South now, I chuckle at how folks I KNOW don’t like Black people ROOT on their favorite college or professional Black athlete in sports. When that athlete becomes aware of cultural matters particular to him or her, they are immediately vilified. Why? To better illustrate this, if a non-POC athlete addresses something like domestic violence (which is no laughing matter) or their own country’s wrongs it is saluted. However, history has shown time and time again, that when Black athletes do it, and in this case Black males, it’s reminiscent of a “N*gger forgetting his place”

Now I can opine on this for MUCH longer, but I will transition to a potential solution. What are we asking for? Respect! “Put some Respeck on it!” Also, don’t be afraid to be uncomfortable about Black people and the history and things we went through and still go through. Privilege allows for you to NOT understand. This is no different than what women of color go through. I do not nor will I experience the world as a woman. However, that does not excuse me from being sympathetic, empathetic and aware. Issues like rape and domestic violence I give the same zeal for as I do Black male issues. Also overcome your stereotypes and bias. Black people in America alone have a diversity that is unrivaled. If for nothing else, we have merged with many cultures in different geographies, and systemic issues have forced creativity that, to be frank, is envied and emulated the world over (exhibit a, hip-hop fashion; exhibit b music; etc.) Lastly, as you accept your “un-comfort,” don’t patronize or antagonize. Admit it scares you and help those that want to help themselves and step BACK! If invited to the discussion then you give feedback and in an assisting capacity. Racism is as much of this country as is the flag. It will NEVER dissipate; however, real conversations can go a LONG way toward UNDERSTANDING each other and why we are the way we are. And if Colin NOT standing for the Flag which has HISTORICALLY oppressed Black people (not theory; facts) bothers you, be man or woman enough to confront yourself and ask WHY it bothers you. If you do, you will understand why Colin, and many more of us, continue to remain hesitant about a lot of other things from expression to existence that you dare not consider.

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What happened Wednesday night at Cumberland and Washington?

For eight years, I have managed Black Girl in Maine the blog and related social media as a labor of love and as a one-woman operation (aside from the very rare and sporadic guest post) but in recent months it’s become clear that this site and the related social media has grown larger than my original vision. Thanks to a dedicated readership and those who have gone one step farther to become patrons, I am now able to add a contributor to the site. Today’s post is written by Marena Blachard. Marena is a dynamic “Black girl in Maine” herself who is also a mother, model, creative force and early childhood educator. 
By the time I got there, almost no one remained at the scene. A man was sweeping broken glass in a restaurant doorway. Two men were smoking by a car at the gas station. A small group of people sat on a stoop. I paced.

A Facebook post from a friend brought me out into the humid night air in this part of Portland, Maine, close to midnight.

“Something’s happening at Cumberland and Washington…” it read.

I met Susanna Rajala, who was standing on Cumberland Avenue, looking down on Washington. A police car was parked in a lot to her left, facing Northeast, headlights on. It was slightly foggy, humid, and surprisingly quiet.

Her eyes were alert.  

“What happened?” I asked, out of breath from my cross-town jog. I’d questioned some of the people around, but Susanna was the only one with an answer.

Below is my brief interview with her from the following day. In it, she describes an emotional scene and talks about police conduct.  

The events of the night of Wednesday, August 10, are unclear. I expect that there is an ongoing investigation but I have so many questions. Where does one go for answers? It’s not been reported in any media, as far as I can tell. In working through my feelings of confusion and concern for members of my community, in this national political climate that feels dangerous for people with black and brown bodies, I am led to ask the seemingly age-old question: who is policing the police?  

There aren’t any national standards for powers and features of civilian oversight of law enforcement. But, there are organizations working toward that end. A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice was recently published by a group of over 60 organizations affiliated with Black Lives Matter. The publication is thorough, detailing both problems and policy solutions on local and national levels. The document demands “direct democratic community control of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies, ensuring that communities most harmed by destructive policing have the power to hire and fire officers, determine disciplinary action, control budgets and policies, and subpoena relevant agency information.”

What does our local community oversight look like? Earlier Wednesday evening, I’d gone to the police station on Middle St. to attend a meeting of the Police Citizen Review Subcommittee (PCRS). I was a few minutes late but when I arrived, there were 17 people in the lobby. We were dismayed to find out a few moments later that the meeting had been cancelled without any notice.

In recent interviews including this one, Police Chief Michael Sauschuck has cited the PCRS as an example of the Portland Police Department attempting transparency. I’d never been to one of their meetings before and was really curious about its purpose and function.  

While at the police station, I met a local woman who was even more curious. She described how she’d attempted to find information online about the subcommittee. She’d emailed city councilors, searched for meeting minutes, tried to locate the required annual report, and couldn’t find much information beyond the basic offerings of this site.  

Later, I was able to find an interview with Kelly McDonald, Portland lawyer and PCRS chair, in which he stated, “We do not have a lot of power as a subcommittee.”

From what I could tell, this subcommittee is tasked with reviewing the process involved with each investigation into a complaint, but not the outcome, and reporting to the city manager. Since Sauschuck became chief, McDonald said they haven’t had any misgivings about a single internal affairs investigation. Sauschuck’s tenure began in January 2012.

I wish I could give you an informed analysis of what that means, but I’m not an expert in this area. And, I guess that’s why I’m writing this post. The past few days have been a blur of trying to get information and as an average citizen, I don’t feel well-equipped to launch my own personal investigation. My reliance on institutions, like the media, for information about that night reveal that there is opportunity for events like this to go entirely unnoticed. Unreported.

I’m concerned that there are eyewitnesses in my community recalling unimaginable police behavior and the entire incident seems invisible. What would it take for it to become visible? An official complaint? Has anyone filed one? Is there even a point in doing so? If you feel an injustice has been done to you, you have to report it to the police… and then the police decide whether or not there was any wrongdoing. If you’re a person who feels wronged, how can you be expected to trust completely in the system that wronged you? Especially if you have any past trauma involving the authorities, experienced on American soil or abroad.

Here in Portland, we were recently visited by Trump. He used the opportunity to cast suspicion on the local Somali community and immigrants in general. His message resonates with and emboldens bigots. Anecdotally, there seems to be an increase in the frequency of personal stories of black and brown people being harassed locally. This is an atmosphere of fear and traumatic stress. So many in Black Portland and Black America are in the depths of a crisis. Living while black in 2016 feels like at any moment you or a loved one can become a hashtag.

In the aftermath of the July 15 Portland Racial Justice Congress’ protest, there were folk questioning the need for disruptive protest in town. As if “The Forest City” were an exceptional enclave of racial harmony. Or as if the fact that black people are only 7 percent of the population meant that the national movement for black and brown lives is somehow irrelevant here. Or as if access to the police chief or other officials for meetings and conversations was the highest attainable goal in the fight for equality.

“This is Portland,” these folk said.

The erasure of local racial experiences directly mirrors the national issue of white silence. The intersection of Cumberland and Washington may be physically located in Portland, Maine, but it is really Anytown, USA.

On Friday, in Portland, a  young Muslim woman was verbally assaulted in a library. A white man called her a “nigger bitch” and told her to go back to her country. Her story made it into the paper because it was spread on social media and the University of Southern Maine issued a statement. The majority of the newspaper article is dedicated to the administration’s response. What was missing was any mention of how the USM police navigated the situation. What steps did the police take to address the issue in the moment? Why was the young woman compelled to post on social media? Ignoring crucial facts is one example of the erasure I mention above. Only telling part of the story is white silence or worse. Our reliance on the media for this information and it’s inadequacy is institutional racism. Yes, in Maine. (Also, as a side note to the Portland Press Herald: she posted about it on Facebook, not Twitter. Smh.)

This young woman’s courage in speaking out wasn’t without consequences. Almost immediately, she was a victim of online harassment over the incident. That was also missing from the newspaper article. Shay has written extensively in this space about the consequences of speaking out about experiences of racism. Online harassment and death threats are not uncommon for our local black leaders. Is it any wonder that victims are afraid to come forward with their stories? They face a press that can choose to ignore key details, a largely ill-informed public, and a powerless citizen oversight subcommittee. What recourse can they dare hope for?

Portland Racial Justice Congress made demands for more accountability when they shut down a segment of Commercial St. during high tourist season. Traffic patterns were upset. People were enraged. Disruptive protest is a known tactic to gain visibility for civil rights issues. I wonder how many events like Wednesday night’s remain invisible? Unnoticed and unreported. No complaints filed.
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.