Media is feeding the toxicity; this needs to stop

I recently posted online about a toxic experience I had during a presentation in Kittery, Maine, on encouraging conversations about race and racism. Also recently, a story was run about the incident, and while me and my co-presenter and friend Debby Irving were quoted (in terms of our comments from the talk), I find it interesting neither of us was interviewed regarding the man who disrupted the event and worked very hard to remain menacing to me up until the end of the event and past it. He was given voice; I, the person who was made to feel under literal threat of harm, was not.

The problem with interviews like these with people who feel threatened by talk of racism (or feminism or LGBTQIA rights or Islamophobia or whatever)—which have become so commonplace now on cable news, in magazines, at online media venues and more—is that it gives space to people with abhorrent viewpoints that are manifestly unjust.

Now, am I saying one should never write about people like this and never interview them? No. There are times and places. But so-called “journalism” (and a lot of the journalism nowadays seems to be more and more about generating page clicks and viewers and boy does controversy and bile help that along, which is part of the circular problem we have now) is not just covering the white supremacists. Media is elevating them. Giving them forums and a voice, often entirely unchallenged. Empowering them and making them seem reasonable.

Richard Spencer dresses well and doesn’t scream at the top of his voice and avoids racial epithets on-air, and so he seems “well-meaning.” And yet he espouses white supremacy and racist policies. He see non-whites as inferior. What is well-meaning about that?

Or writing human-interest pieces on people running Nazi websites. Let’s talk about how this person who hates Black, Jews, gays and/or a heap of other “non-mainstream” folks shops at Whole Foods and loves his kids and is warm and friendly. He hates large portions of the American population for being different from him. That is not humane; why are we humanizing that kind of person with a feel-good piece?

Media stories keep justifying the views of people who literally want to oppress other people or keep them from gaining equality in life. What is justifiable about that? To do so only makes such people feel more empowered. Making them seem reasonable when they hold unreasonable views only helps make it easier for such people to insidiously sway more people toward white supremacy and making America more racist.

And people like the guy who tried to disrupt the talk I was part of in Kittery who say they are “pushing back.” Pushing back against what? I am pushing for people to be treated according to their abilities and the content of their character rather than to be judged and held back (or shoved away) because of the color of their skin or their gender or their sexuality.

White straight Christian men have long held most of the cards in the deck and still do. For them to “push back” against people like me calling for equality means they are pushing back against people being treated the same no matter what their color or gender or sexuality. To push back against equality is to push FOR supremacy. White supremacy. Male supremacy. Cis supremacy. Christian supremacy.

And when has pushing to be supreme over other people and control their lives ever been something we should cheer for—or even give the time of day in the average news story? Supremacy and control are something we are supposed to fight against as a matter of basic decency.

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Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Let’s not make a supercharged new Mammy trend, ok?

During the recent Golden Globes broadcast, Oprah Winfrey was honored with the Cecile B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement and, in accepting the award, she delivered a helluva speech. Given this current horrid moment in history, we needed her words and her energy—we needed a momentary respite from the fire and fury of the “very stable genius” who on a daily basis continues to lead our nation down a very dark path.

However, that moment of respite that earned the right for loud applause and a collective “thank you” has turned into very vocal calls for Winfrey to make a run for the White House in 2020. While there are murmurings that she may very well be considering such a step, I have to admit that waking up to a nation pinning its hope on Winfrey isn’t quite sitting right with me (and not just because of the risk of elevating someone else to the highest office in the country based on celebrity like we did with Donald Trump, no matter how much more stable the theoretical next celebrity president might be).

Our nation’s relationship to Black women is complicated at best. Since the first African woman was brought to this country against her will, Black women have been expected to produce for others and take care of others before caring for themselves. Often to the detriment not just of themselves but of their own loved ones. One of the first roles that was designed for Black women in this new country was that of “Mammy.” Traditionally Mammy was the caretaker for the white children and household but over time, even after the legal ending of slavery, there is a vision of Black women that looms large in the American psyche and it is that of the Black woman as caretaker: savior, self-sacrificing and all-giving.

In the past year as this nation continues to grapple with the fallout from the 2016 election, and albeit without intentionality but doing it all the same anyway,  we keep tapping into our psyche for comfort and reassurance and too often, we are looking to Black women to save us. Whether it is the calls for Michelle Obama to consider a run for office, “Auntie” Maxine Waters or now Oprah, we look to Black women to save us from ourselves.

Make no mistake, as a Black woman, I can say that the strength and the grit that is embedded in us as the descendants of a people who endured the unspeakable over and over does not make us unqualified; in fact, we are often far more qualified than our white and male counterparts. But the national conscience that demands our service is far too happy to take away our agency. Michelle Obama has explicitly stated that she has no interest in running for office and yet among progressive/liberal whites too often you will hear Michelle’s name bandied around to this day as if they can draft her to the presidency.

Despite the daily challenges we are facing as a nation, this is an exciting moment where we are potentially poised for a true shift where women—women of color and specifically Black women—are positioned to take the reins and potentially make some real systemic change. But rather than exalting Black women who are not asking to be exalted (and perhaps are not much more qualified to hold certain offices than is our current tangerine nightmare-scream), let us look to the Black women who have already entered politics or have been consciously building their resumes to do so and decide how we can support them.

When we try to exalt those who have not asked to be exalted or press them into public service, we need to examine why we are doing so. Yes, Black women have continued to show up and oftentimes as Black women we do hold a mirror to the collective American face to raise awareness or highlight flaws. But we cannot blindly expect Black women to lead us or to save us from the worst in ourselves if they have not explicitly said that they will play that role. And we must stop asking Black women, explicitly or unconsciously, to wear themselves down to save everyone else, whether at the grassroots level or the top offices of the land. Otherwise we risk reducing Black women to tired tropes and continue the dehumanization of them that for too long has been part of the fabric of our nation.

Better that we respect Black women for what they choose to do and embrace them in their work (rather than use them up and spit them out). Better that we provide the same kind of space for Black women as we do white women (and hopefully one day everyone will get the same room as white men) to be encouraged and uplifted to embrace things like political or other public service from early on. Better that we treat Black women as fully human and give them agency rather than cherry-pick from their ranks someone whom we think will magically save us because of celebrity or personality or reputation.

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Reflecting on the year of flames, or Change is possible

As someone who is almost never without words, increasingly I come to this space unsure of what to say and how to say it. So today, I go back to my roots and I write the words to which I simply need to give life to—and hope that they will resonate with others.

This past week marked one year since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Like many, a year ago I felt a sense of paralysis when he won. And yet, I can’t say that I was surprised that he won. As someone whose work explores race and its various intersections, I always knew on a gut level that his winning was not so terribly far-fetched as many believed it to be. A large part of that is due to the conversations I often find myself engaged in with people where, in the quiet moments, I heard the angst that many felt and their desire for radical change.  Unfortunately for us, Trump was not the change you could believe in and instead, over the course of this year, we have all borne witness to the dumpster fire that is now our nation.

Yet on a certain level, this country has always been a dumpster fire due to our inability to address how this nation came to be. We are a nation built on treacherous ground. Always the hope has held that something good could grow from the blood-soaked soil, but in metaphorical harvest after metaphorical harvest, while there have been many a fine-looking crop, the product always has a rot at its core. And the harvests are increasingly blighted now.

The reality that many don’t want to face is that we truly never escape our past. We can run but it always catches up with us or we reach a point where we have no choice but to turn our heads and look backward so that we can better gauge our path forward. We are in a moment like that right now.

As we face the almost daily assaults on our sensibilities and watch in horror as the Trump administration attempts to dismantle everything that made any semblance of sense, there is the realization for many that radical change (the kind that might lead to something better rather than the senseless disruption and destruction Trump represents) is actually within our grasp if we find the strength to stay the course and ride out the discomfort.

Over the past year, many whose privilege shielded them from the cold truth of America have been forced to see what previously they could easily hide from. When you have a leader who gives space to racists and other types of domestic terrorists, you see the underbelly and you are forced to rise in that moment lest you be pulled into the undertow of vileness.

Instead, millions who previously have never fancied themselves as activists have started the work of change and conversations that previously were not the norm have gone mainstream. For a time there recently, the makers of posterboards and markers were doing a brisk business and that’s likely to continue. Many more people now have their lawmakers’ phone numbers and emails saved onto their devices and are constantly in contact with their offices. This off-season election nationwide yielded a more diverse group of changemakers than ever before. People in communities across the nation are tackling the once taboo discussions in their own communities.

Radical change rarely happens all at once though; instead, it is a slow and steady process (and often a messy one) and while the din of media would have us to believe that all is lost, I don’t believe that to be true at all. I do believe, however, that we are standing on the crossroad of change and that it is important to choose the right road. Even in the midst of the widening string of sexual assault and harassment stories that are almost a daily occurrence, we are starting to move the discussion beyond the individuals and instead shift it toward the toxic masculinity that is rooted in our patriarchal system—a tradition that creates people with penises who feel entitled to women’s bodies. A system that for too long has destroyed far too many lives and left a legacy of trauma. But we have a better chance than ever now for a future soon where our boys and men won’t be initiated into that system—if we keep the conversation and work moving.

While a controlled burn is always preferable, the flames of change can be uncomfortable and they can at times get out of control. Through the flames  we have the potential to see something better. And, as easy as it would be for me (or you) to sink into a private pit of despair, I believe that this moment in time can eventually lead us to a better place—a place where we can say that all lives matter and truly mean it. We aren’t there yet, though. And the truth is, many (perhaps all) of us alive today may never see that moment. That doesn’t make the necessity for action and commitment any less. If we care about the collective good, we will tend to the smoldering and ashy ground and plant the seeds now that can bloom for later generations.

How are you doing this year? How has the Trump administration motivated you to work for change? I would love to hear your thoughts.

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.