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.
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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.
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To be or not to be…a Black girl in Maine

Today’s post is written by Samara Doyon.  Samara has been a Black girl living in Maine for the past 30+ years (read: her entire life). She is a writer, educator, wife, and mother. Despite the roots of her family tree, half of which reach generations deep inside the cool soil of the Pine Tree State, she recognizes that she will most likely remain an outsider for life, as the definition of “Mainer” upheld by the governor and half the state does not include people who look like her.

Whenever I have the chance to really get to know a sister in Maine, the “escape plan” always comes up. Always. I never skip the “Get Out” talk with another Black Girl in Maine unless I am unable to make a sincere connection. Sometimes, the escape plan is hypothetical, as in, “If I start getting serious death threats/if my kids start drowning in overt racism at school/if I can’t take another second, THIS is where I know I can go” (Boston, New York, Hartford, Chicago; almost literally anywhere more diverse). Sometimes it’s more of a fantasy–a vague yearning for a diverse city in Canada where healthcare and education won’t bring a sister to bankruptcy or an island nation where we aren’t a minority and where misogynoir isn’t so fierce and ceaseless. Sometimes it’s a solid, practical, step-by-step, “I’ve already had way too much of this, and I’m moving by this specific date” kind of plan. The point is, there is always a plan. There’s always an inner debate about whether or not, and for how long, we should each continue living as a Black girl in Maine, and there is an obvious reason for that.

If you are a regular reader at this site, you probably already know that Maine, for all its rocky coasts, blueberry fields, lupine hills, and forest sanctuaries, isn’t an easy place for people of color. It’s not the five months of winter or some fabled fear of nature that shifts our sight to cities far away and further still. The natural beauty here is actually a kind of tonic and can be deeply healing.  Neither is the entire reason a pervasive sense of isolation in living as one of a handful of people of color in your own neighborhood. As long as I’m not the only black woman in the grocery store, children aren’t pointing in awe and wonder, white nationalists don’t view my public appearance as their one and only opportunity to express violent hate, loud and proud, I feel as safe here as I probably would anywhere in the nation. But, related to this isolation, and pointed out on this very publication by Shay Stewart-Bouley herself, is a unique Maine atmosphere of highly insulated whiteness. It’s a whiteness untouched, unchallenged, by any perspective or reality in which whiteness is not the center or the norm.

To put it another way, most white Mainers have never had to think about race critically. And, having no need to do so, simply haven’t done it. Some have told me as much, explicitly. And while I can’t say I blame them for skipping the draining work of paradigm shifting, especially when the perspective they hold now is so peaceful and comfortable, it makes living with a different perspective (and living inside a separate reality) a maddeningly lonely and heavy burden to carry. This burden reaches its peak when white discomfort with our black and brown reality triggers hostile resistance to our voices, which is basically every time we speak out. I feel it when I’m accused of whining, playing the race card, or “politicizing” social issues by acknowledging racism as a factor. I feel it when I see people calling Black Lives Matter protesters selfish, angry, and without a message, as if speaking the truth that we are human beings and deserve to be treated like human beings by authorities is equivalent to saying nothing at all. I feel it when I when I go to a community meeting about student suicide and encounter fierce resistance to the idea that racism could possibly exist in a given community and should be addressed by adults within that community in order to keep our children safe. I feel it constantly, and it makes me want to scream.

What I have to say next, I say directly to white readers, and I say it with all the love in my heart and with a sincere desire for your own greater freedom and understanding: Not having to think about race is a privilege. Choosing not to think about it, or to dismiss, downplay, and deflect it every time the subject is broached, is an example of compliance with racial oppression. I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to really examine the ways in which this country still profits from systematic injustice. It’s overwhelming to realize how extensive discrimination and inequity are and the extent to which America embraces it. From educational inequity to implicit bias in hiring practices, from police brutality to voter suppression, from privatized, profit-driven prisons to housing, and even to the mainstream language we use to describe human beings, our society thrives on oppressing, scapegoating, and exploiting minorities and underprivileged populations. The enormity of the crisis is enough to drown us in despair, and nobody wants to feel that way. But if thinking about this crisis is overwhelming to you, and you aren’t the one receiving a direct blow, how difficult do you think it is to live everyday in country where you ARE on the receiving end of this crisis, and where most of the people around you don’t want to be bothered to even acknowledge that reality?

If you don’t live in fear of losing your job for not chemically treating your hair to make it straight, or fear of not getting the job you want because you chose to put your given name that “sounds Black” on a resume…if you don’t live in fear of loved ones being deported, jailed for profit, executed by some law enforcement officer with something to prove, all because their appearance matches the national image of “dangerous” and “guilty”…if you don’t live with the certainty that at some point another white supremacist WILL see you in public and target you with verbal assault and threats to your physical person (AGAIN)…then you are privileged. If you refuse to acknowledge that reality of such a high level of social privilege every time we bring it to your attention as we demand social change in an effort to make life safer for ourselves and our children, you are contributing to our oppression and choosing your own comfort and rosy perspective over our safety.

So this is the crux of the issue for many Mainers of color: When you live in a state where the majority of residents choose compliance over resistance to social injustice, choose to silence you rather than listen to you whenever you bring up your oppression, you begin to understand what it means to be unwanted in a place. That’s why there’s always an escape plan.

One force preventing us from acting immediately is not as obvious, but it is equally powerful, hence the dilemma over whether to stay or go. The unwanted have a way of finding each other. Over the past several years, I have begun to reach out from a place I hardly acknowledged before (See my personal story of growing up as a Black girl in Maine). Something inside me was literally dying for Black and diverse community. And as fate would have it, my awakening arrived as communities of color (intentionally, painstakingly cultivated communities) began to surface in the Greater Portland area. Since the last election especially, and the subsequently heightened danger and despair hanging over the heads of the marginalized, Black writers, artists, performers, and activists invigorated with a fresh urgency, deadly serious about creating space for our voices and safety for our children, even if the communities around us would rather we shut up and sit down, have been showing up and showing out. Organizations like For Us By Us (www.facebook.com/fubufund/), Theater Ensemble Of Color (www.facebook.com/Theater-Ensemble-of-Color-136946773355353/), Lala Drew and contributing voices in the literary/performative event series known as Bloodletting, Daniel Minter and other visual artists featured in A Distant Holla at the Abyssinian Meeting House (www.pressherald.com/2017/05/14/a-distant-holla-is-a-deeply-spiritual-show-on-hallowed-ground/), and the expansion of the BGIM blog itself are some specific examples of our diverse community blooming against the grain. And these are just the beginning. Art and stories, voices and truths singing from our souls to the edges of the universe are giving birth to an alternative plan, an escape to a place we create for ourselves rather than a destination we find and flee to elsewhere. Something revolutionary is happening here, and it kills me to think about missing it.

I can’t say for sure that 10 years, five years, or even a solitary year down this road I will remain a Black girl in Maine. There are too many potential twists and turns ahead to make that kind of prediction. But for now, as the inner battle rages on, as our community grows and perfect insulation from it begins to falter, for better or worse, this is where I am. And I intend to co-create space for us as long as I’m here.
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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.