Current Events

Either we destroy white supremacy or we stop lying to ourselves

“Beyond the ebb and flow of racial progress lies the still viable and widely accepted (though seldom expressed) belief that America is a white country in which blacks, particularly as a group, are not entitled to the concern, resources, or even empathy that would be extended to similarly situated whites.”

Derrick A. Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

Since 2003, I have shared my struggles as a Black woman living in one of America’s very whitest states, but really the reality that I have lived in Maine is the reality of the majority Black people in America. “How could that be?” you might ask. Well, it is because we are confronted with overt and covert racism in our daily lives. Regularly. Virtually every day for most of us and more than once a day by far. Racism existed in my hometown of Chicago; after all, it was there that at the age of 16, I had a white child call me a nigger. It was was there where a police officer accused me of being a sex worker for the “crime”of being in the passenger seat of the car with my then husband as we drove down the highway (this being the 1990s, mind you, not the ’60s or even the ’70s, in case you got confused and thought I was an adult back in those decades…hell, I wasn’t even born until the 1970s). It was in Chicago where teachers chose to ignore the fact that as a sullen 16-year-old whose father had been diagnosed with cancer that I wasn’t just being hard-headed and not going to school but that I was in crisis.

The racism that I discovered in Maine was not, in hindsight, particularly extreme in terms of actions or behaviors. But what it was (and continues to be) extreme in the utter lack of racial representation. Simply put, in Chicago, there was a community that provided safe harbor and respite from the slings and arrows of racism. But in Maine, for the majority of Black people and other people of color, we are isolated and that makes the racism that we face even more dangerous. Rarely do we have a safe harbor to retreat to and nourish ourselves. Few (to the point of being almost none at all) largely Black neighborhoods or shops or hangouts. Instead, we are hyper-vigilant and always on though because we are constantly surrounded by whiteness and people who expect us to “act white.” Granted, that is slowly changing thanks to younger activists who are working diligently to change things. But it’s still very much an unfinished work in very early progress.

I must confess that I am tired, I am weary and I am mad. Recently a “friend” suggested that I tone down my rhetoric on race as I was turning people off. Funny thing is that for the past several months, I have been in a deep funk about my work because at times, I wonder if my writing or work has any real value beyond knowledge or camaraderie. As I watch a younger generation of Black activists and thinkers come up, I think they are on to something: The humanity of Black people cannot wait for a collective mass of white folks to realize that we have as much right to sit at the table of humanity as they do instead of always requiring that we twist ourselves to be palatable to the white gaze and aesthetic.

Technology’s ability to capture racial injustice on camera has led to millions of white people starting the process of waking up to the realities of race in America and while that is a good thing, it is not enough. It is not enough to realize that white privilege is a real thing regardless of one’s economic situation. Waking up to whiteness and acknowledgment of injustice do not lead to the structural overhauling of this entire system which is desperately needed. In short, it is no longer enough to educate yourselves and work towards being anti-racist in your personal sphere.

White privilege exists on the foundation of white supremacy, which is what we need to address as a collective body. To be born in a body labeled as white is to be born into white supremacy, it is to be as steeped in white supremacy as a Lipton tea bag is in a mug of steaming hot water.

Western civilization was built on white supremacy and affects every interaction in our lives from how we run our meetings to how we buy our homes. Whiteness is the cultural norm that we are all forced into and for those of us in bodies that are not white, our ability to survive is often tied to just how well we can fit ourselves into this narrative that upholds whiteness as the cultural norm. If you think I am lying, look no further than the former President of the United States. Barack Obama’s ability to distance himself from Blackness was part of his ability to capture the hearts and minds of millions of white people. He was our first Black president and yet it was under our country’s first Black president that Black people mobilized in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights era as we affirmed our right to exist thanks to the growing numbers of Black people being killed by police.

This space has long served as the starting place for many white people to create awareness around racism but that is no longer enough for me as the creator of this space. We must move the needle on racism and while education and knowledge are central to that process we must also have action. We need to ask ourselves are we upholding white supremacy and thus perpetuating the never-ending cycle of racism or are we taking stock of our lives and actions and looking at where we can be the change?

The past several days have been hard for Black Americans as we saw yet another police officer acquitted in the death of an unarmed Black person who was so clearly undeserving of lethal force. Last summer, Philando Castile was pulled over for from the crime of having a busted taillight while driving with his girlfriend and her child. After being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer that he was licensed to carry a firearm and that he had one on his person. He was polite and complaint, the two things we are always told will keep us from being shot. Yet the officer decided that his life was in danger and shot into the car multiple times killing Castile. Castile’s girlfriend recorded the incident on Facebook Live as her 4-year-old daughter witnessed this all from the back seat. Yet in the end, the officer was acquitted. People wonder why we say Black Lives Matter but more times than not the system sends the clear messages that Black Lives Don’t Matter.

As many of us sit with this unsettling reminder that our lives only matter when white America says they do, we were faced with another brutal reminder that our lives don’t matter. Seattle police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old Black mother with a reported history of mental health issues after she called to report an attempted burglary. Lyles, who was pregnant, was armed with a knife which apparently triggered the officers to shoot and kill her; her children were present in the apartment. A woman calls the police to report a burglary and ends up dead. In moments like this, I find myself wondering is there any reason for any Black person in America to call the police given that the system has the uncanny knack of finding us so threatening that whether we are 12-year-old kids engaging in play with a toy gun at a playground or driving in our cars or calling for help, we still are killed. Yet white men who go into Black churches and shoot and kill people can be delivered safely to jail with a pit stop for fast food before being locked up. Or they escape from jail, go on a crime spree and can still be captured alive.

If this space resonates with you, what are your plans for change? How are you affirming the humanity in Black and non-white people? How are you supporting people of color? How are you taking your learning and putting it into action? What is holding you back? If Black lives really matter to you, how are you letting the Black people in your life know that?

Lastly, to the “friend” who said I was too much, I say no. In fact, what I have been doing is not enough and I will work until my last breath to create change. If that makes you as a white person uncomfortable, decolonize your mind and break free from the shackles of white supremacy. Do better, think better and be better. Dismantle the system that says whiteness is rightness and everything else.

Do these things. Do them, or else acknowledge that the lives of non-white people, especially Black ones, are simply not enough of a priority for you to unplug yourself from white supremacy and white privilege. Make change in yourself and around you, however you can, or stop lying to yourself.
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Trump effect becomes deadlier, or Will Portland killings open more eyes?

There is a thing called the “bystander effect.” You’ve probably heard of it. The term goes back at least a couple decades; I seem to first remember it applied to a situation when a woman was knifed in broad daylight on a busy New York City sidewalk and no one came to her aid.

Officially, the term refers to a social psychological phenomenon wherein individual people are less likely to assist or defend a victim if other people are present. Presumably because everyone thinks (or prays) someone else will step in so they don’t have to.

We saw something different on Friday, May 26; something both incredibly uplifting but also, to an ever greater level, heartbreaking and worrying for its larger implications.

On that day in Portland, Oregon, two men (Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and  Ricky John Best) were stabbed and killed when a man (Jeremy Joseph Christian, currently in custody for that attack) shouted racial slurs at two women, one of whom was wearing a hijab, and they tried to intervene to defend and protect those women. A third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, was also stabbed in the attack though the most recent word on him is that his injuries are serious but not life-threatening.

It is comforting to see strangers move in to protect two people who are being targeted…as seems in this case to be a case of racism/Islamophobia against the women. It gives me hope that we aren’t lost and unable to care or to risk ourselves to protect others, especially when they are people on the margins. My heart goes out to their family and friends with sympathy but also gratitude for the selfless actions of those men and how they were raised.

But it is incredibly sad, too, and perhaps a bit demoralizing as well to see yet again a racist emboldened in the age of Trump. Feeling empowered to threaten, terrorize and strike out at people who pose no threat, simply because they aren’t “real Americans” in the eyes of these hateful people.

Hate crimes have been on the rise since Donald Trump became president. To act like there is no connection between the two things is ridiculous when Trump campaigned on a platform of blaming undocumented immigrants of being dangerous criminals, demonizing refugees as being potential terrorists while ignoring that most terrorism in this country is committed by white conservatives, and demeaning Black people and other marginalized groups. When white people at his rallies would assault and threaten non-white people over and over. When people commit hate crimes now and admit they were inspired by Trump’s victory and what he stands for.

Trump has made it clear that making America great again, in his eyes, means making it whiter and/or taking safety, dignity and power away from people who aren’t white as much (and as fast) as possible.

To be fair, the racist (and misogynist and religious and sexual) hatred in the hearts of these people was always there. Racism and the other nasty ‘isms didn’t remotely go away in any of the years since the Civil Rights Movement. But Trump, along with others before him like Fox News and all sorts of conservative pundits who helped lay the foundation (but make no mistake, Trump was the one who essentially announced it was OK to hate and he would support and defend hate, as long as it’s from white people against those “other” people)…well, he and they made it honorable somehow. Made it socially acceptable again to openly despise POC, LBGTQ people, women, Muslims and more. Trump leads the way in telling hateful people that there is dignity in their hate and goodness in white supremacy, male supremacy, Christian supremacy and more. That holding other people down and denigrating them is just being “enthusiastic.”

It’s not enthusiastic. It’s just hateful. And undignified. And pretty much counter to most of the religious and ethical philosophies of this planet.

The Trump effect remains fully in force, and it is only going to grow the longer Trump remains in power and fans the flames. Frankly, even when he leaves office, whether willingly or not, the effect will linger. A fire has been stoked for hate, and it won’t burn to ashes anytime soon. And if you know anything about forest fires, even hot ashes can start a conflagration after the open flames are gone.

In this period of renewed hate and increased support for that hate from on high and in many forms of media, I can only hope there are more people like Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche and  Ricky John Best to protect the innocent and sometimes helpless.

And I hope fewer of them have to die in the attempt.
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Challenge the narrative don’t co-opt it…thoughts on Black pain and art

Today’s post is from return contributor Veronica A. Perez (b. 1983). She is an artist and educator who works mostly in the mediums of sculpture and photography. Usually utilizing construction and kitschy materials in her pieces, Perez creates intense personal moments by means of hybridization, ideals of beauty, nostalgia, while fragility echoes sentiments of a lost self, and at the same time paralleling contemporary feminist tensions.
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The debate surrounding Dana Schutz’s painting Open Casket (2016) is continually drawing controversy since the opening of the 2017 Whitney Biennial earlier in March. The central argument becomes about “a white artist depicting black suffering and potentially profiting from it.” (ArtNet) But it becomes about more than that.

Recap:

Dana Schutz, b. 1976, created a painting called Open Casket (above), depicting Emmett Till, a 14 year-old boy who was tortured and lynched in 1955 by two white men. Till’s mother, Maime, decided to have an open casket funeral, exposing the ongoing racism in American society.

Schutz created this piece in summer of 2016, a volatile year in American society (Philando Castile and Alton Sterling had just become the 135th and 136th Black people killed in the U.S. by police officers under questionable circumstances), with the hopes to expose the ongoing injustices and murders of unarmed Black Men. Schultz says in an interview with ArtNet, “what was hidden was now revealed,” with regards to injustices enacted upon Black people.

Injustices enacted on Black people have been happening since and before this country was founded. This has not been a “hidden” thing. There is nothing hidden about how Black people have and are continually treated in this country. And a white woman cannot fathom to know (and neither can I) how it feels to be Black in America.

I teach at a Community College and one of my students was late to class the other day. During break, she pulled me aside and said, “Sorry I was late; I got pulled over by a cop.” I joked with her about making the story up to get out of me giving her a tardy; then she said to me, “The cop asked me about my nationality; is that weird?” “Yes, that’s totally unacceptable for a cop that pulled you over to ask about your nationality,” I said (from this conversation you can garner that the student in question is not white). She asked me what, if anything, she should do. Before I could answer, a passing student told her to get over it and forget about it. She shrugged it off and I was again mobbed by students needing help.

What that vignette is here for is to shine a light on a few (already known) things. First, there are still injustices against Black people today and second, the comment from my other student showed me how far some of us have to go as a society to just begin to understand how Black people feel and are affected daily by social injustices.

(Don’t worry, I didn’t ignore the student. We ended up having a conversation outside of class-time about how this affected her).

Schutz could and can not possibly know the feeling of losing a child to a terrible violence such as this. Yes, Schutz is a mother and has that connection with Maime Till, but this isn’t a picture of the first day of school. This is a morbid reminder of what faced and still faces Black people today. Schutz gets to go home and be white. Sandra Bland, for example, didn’t have that privilege. Schutz can make a painting depicting one of the darkest times in American history; Bland is laying in a coffin, all over a “routine” traffic stop.

Schutz and the curators of the 2017 Whitney Biennial feel that this piece is important for taking the conversation of racial injustices forward, but it sets the conversation back. These curators and white artists need to let POC [people of color] speak about their own struggles within society. How does it actually feel to be Black in America from a POC POV?

Beginning to become an advocate for POC is what is needed in society today instead of attempting to feel the same pain POC have felt for centuries. This may sound counterintuitive but it’s about showing up. It’s about challenging structural racism; showing up when there are racist attacks and murders of POC. It’s about supporting and loving all of our Black, Latinx, Muslim, etc. brothers and sisters. It’s about supporting and struggling together for racial justice, harmony and human dignity.


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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