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.

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On being the Black friend

Today’s post is written by special contributor “Aya,” a Black Millennial making her way in Maine’s most populous city. 

Even before moving to Maine, I’ve spent most of my life in primarily white spaces. I’ve learned to accept that if I want to be surrounded by people who look like me, I have to deliberately seek those spaces out. I’ve come to live with the constant underlying discomfort of knowing that everyone is aware that I don’t quite fit in. It’s become my norm, to the point where I hardly recognize it anymore. And I’m used to people being “polite” enough to pretend they don’t notice it either. Which is why I was taken aback when a colleague interrupted a spiritual breakfast sandwich experience to proudly share a story where she used my existence as a Black person in the periphery of her life to one-up a friend in a game of Who Is More Open-Minded.

She’d gone with her friend to see “Get Out,” a movie I’d deliberately avoided discussing with non-POC, and one they only considered worth seeing when it was being shown for free at a rooftop bar. Over post-movie beers, the friend conceded that she kind of gets it; there are places where she feels uncomfortable too. To which my colleague apparently angrily replied “No you do not! I have a coworker who comes to work every day knowing she’ll be the only Black person in every room!” After telling me this story, my colleague looked at me, seemingly with the expectation that I will commend her for so bravely standing up for Black people everywhere. Instead I took another bite of my breakfast sandwich (seriously, don’t interrupt my meals, particularly pre-coffee, especially with nonsense) and told her I had a lot of work to get to.

First of all, we already know how rude it is to expect Black people to be happy to drop whatever they’re doing and take up the emotional burden of discussing race with you. Second, you don’t get any cookies for not being racist. It’s the correct way to be. If that is the sole purpose of you engaging in a conversation with me, don’t bother; you won’t get what you’re looking for. Now third, let’s talk about tokenism.

It’s bad enough when people assume all Black people share one collective brain. Whenever I’m asked to be the voice of all melanated people, I’m quick to reply with a “I have no way of knowing what any other individual thinks, but here’s what I think and why.” Normally people get it, and reply with an embarrassed “Oh, I mean you keep up to date with facebook/blogs/think pieces so you know what people are saying out there; I didn’t mean that.” And we generally leave it, both knowing they meant exactly that. I won’t even get into how I respond to people who claim colorblindness. But what I find especially frustrating lately is the people who use me, without my permission and often even without my knowledge, to make a point about themselves.

Here’s the thing: there’s a difference between the friend who happens to be Black and The Black Friend. Usually, I have an idea of which I am to someone. A friend who happens to be Black is someone you regularly interact with in a way that that does not center around their blackness AND has nothing to do with commitment to work/church/family/etc. You know what is going on in their life and they know what’s in yours. Maybe they’ve presented themselves as a resource for you to educate yourself, but even then, you’re respectful of the emotional labor they’re investing in you. The Black Friend is the person you apologize to for other people’s racism; the one to whom you make a point to prove how “woke” you are. They are the person you think of when the news is full of reports of another person unjustly victimized, and desperate to separate yourself from “those people, you send them a meaningless text that you’ve got their back, before you change the channel to GoT and move on with your life. The Black Friend is not really a friend at all, or maybe more accurately, you’re not really a friend to them.

In that moment at work, as my breakfast sandwich grew colder with every wasted moment, my colleague made it clear: To her, I am someone who exists solely as a symbol of how not-racist she is.

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I’m light-skinned, not thin-skinned

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.
I was shopping at the local grocery store last week, in the aptly named “Hispanic” section. As I was looking at the Goya goodness, a man and woman came up behind me and the wife asked the husband if he maybe wanted some tacos for dinner. The husband curtly replied, “I don’t want none of that Spic Mexican shit!” and let out a hearty laugh. My jaw dropped as I mustered up a small and tiny “Excuse me” to which he angrily replied “You got somethin’ to say?”’ I at this point just walked away to the fading sounds of his laughter.

I bring up this story because it has a lot to do with being a white passing POC within the state of Maine. There is usually disbelief when I tell someone I am Latinx (Puerto Rican on my father’s’ side; additionally, Latinx is indeed a word, it is a gender-neutral alternative used to move beyond the gender binary and the more commonly used masculine form of the word). I am most definitely white-passing and I am also half Italian on my mother’s’ side. I was recently asked if I sometimes I use my Puerto Rican-ness to be more ethnic and othered, by a very ignorant white male.

Light-skinned privilege is exactly what it sounds like; it means POC with lighter complexions usually get a pass because they are not as dark as their peers. Colorism is a major driving force behind racism in America. Big Bill Broonzy’s 1947 song Black, Brown and White explains colorism perfectly:

“If you was white,
You’s alright,
If you was brown,
Stick around,
But if you’s black, oh, brother,
Get back, get back, get back.”

Basically, what Broonzy is saying is “If you’re darker than a white tan girl, something’s not right.”

Now, I obviously pass for white. I have not faced the contemptuous discriminations or systemic oppressions that my darker brothers and sisters face everyday. I grew up in a lower-middle-class family that lived on an army base in New Jersey. My father, Miguel, was much darker than I and I would pick up on small cues when we would go out together; specifically, the way people would act around him and change their tones when talking to him. I clearly remember one time when we went to the florist to pick up flowers for my mother and the woman behind the counter, once realizing that this was the man she spoke to on the phone, said, “Oh, I didn’t realize you were Black, you sounded white on the phone.” My father always had this way of subtly disarming people, while at the same time putting them in their place. He smiled and kindly asked this woman, “Well, what have you done differently if I was white?”

However, I have had my share of bias; specifically speaking, while I was in grad school in Maine. I was making a lot of work related to feminism, my interpretation of feminism, Latinx feminism. And it wasn’t taken seriously.  Well, let me stop there, I am not sure if it wasn’t taken seriously or if the type of work I do isn’t accepted here. Maine, artistically, is a very traditional place with traditional craft values (It is taking steps to right this; I am seeing more and more diversity. But it’s moving at a glacial pace). I work with very untraditional materials and kitschy ideas. The work is messy and loud. I was told more than once that I am “too emotional, too passionate” (like being passionate is a bad thing) within the discourse that I am working in.

I’m sure if I was white, or having a white conversation, others would have been able to glom onto my ideas and identify with the experiences I was having. When POC share their knowledge and experience within a room of white peers, the POC is interrupted, corrected, and explained to, instead of giving POC the space to speak their truth and lead. In these conversations, POC are “allowed in” and their work becomes a footnote within the privileged white discourse. The frame of reference always returns to white cultural norms. And since I am a white looking woman, who am I to be talking about Latinx experiences? What do I know about it? My work shifted to become more traditional sculptural forms, devoid of meaning and passion. They were just forms. The identity had been ripped away and all that was left was dust. Boring, white dust.

I’ve learned, living in this state, and with the recent sitting president, that bias and discrimination is real. I’ve always lived and grown up in very diverse areas along the eastern seaboard: New Jersey, New York, Philadelphia. And always knew that racism and biases were real. However, it was not until I moved here that I realized that it was still vibrantly, actively alive. Some Mainers believe that there isn’t a race problem, when the problem is that there is nobody to be racist to most of the time; there are mostly just white people. Portland and surrounding areas are the most diverse of the state, and even then not really so. And even when a light-skinned POC like myself attempts to speak upon the matter, I am shut down for not being ethnic enough because of my light skinned-ness. No matter though, I won’t stop.

Recognizing the privilege you have as a light-skinned person is imperative. Light-skinned POC need to recognize this privilege and use it to be an advocate for those whose voices people decide to drown out because of the color of their skin. Light-skinned POC have a responsibility to defend and use their light-skinned-ness to voice equality.  Just like that jerk in the grocery store, he thought I was just another white woman living in Maine, but what he didn’t realize is I have a voice and I will continuously use it to fight, even though I didn’t use it in that moment at the grocery store. I still have this burning passion to be an advocate to others.
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