Several years ago when my adult son was still a college student, one night as we were catching up during one of his visits back home, he shared with me that when he had been living in Northern Maine with his father during the late elementary school years, he had routinely been subjected to racist language directed at him. Ranging from being called “Rory Raccoon…coon; Get it?” and other taunts, these words were a part of his every day experience. It was why, when he landed on the campus of a predominantly white college in Northern Wisconsin (and when confronted with classmates who would use racialized language and taunts to remind him that he was other), he had no patience with them.
I asked him why he didn’t tell his father and I when he was in elementary and middle school and he never quite gave me an answer. But as an adult, he is fiercely protective of his sister, who is now in middle school. His watchful eye over his sister is no doubt born out of his own experiences as a child and teenager in Northern New England.
As his mother, I knew about the blatant racialized events that were regular enough occurrences during his high school and college years, ranging from being brought home in the back of the police cruiser because he “fit the description” (he didn’t, by the way…the suspect was white) to being pelted in the ribs with a full unopened soda can from a moving car while being called a nigger. It was those incidents that were the impetus for much of my writing and later my decision to head up an anti-racism organization. However, as a mother, it hurt on a molecular level that his very existence made him the subject of ridicule.
In recent years as my work has expanded beyond writing but to speaking with groups on the issue of race, I am struck by how often I will hear that an area doesn’t have a racial problem. At least until the question-and-answer section happens. This year alone, I have heard a Black teenager in a tony town in Massachusetts share that she is singled out for her hair and that her “friends” have used the N-word with her even despite her requests to stop.
Just a few days ago, I gave a talk in Kittery, Maine, where several teens in attendance spoke about how prevalent it was for their white peers to use the N-word at school. Despite parents talking to school officials, there was a belief that the school and by extension the town has no issues with race. The next days, the students who attended my talk went to the school officials who once again intimated that white kids using the N-word is a non-issue. The students staged a walkout, and several of their peers and even some teachers were hateful in their responses to this courageous group of young people.
Words matter and too often we brush words to the side if we cannot grasp the magnitude of them. Despite our attempts to tamp down bullying within our schools and society, when it when it comes to racialized language and acts that are othering and dehumanizing people, we are missing the mark. And it has real consequences far beyond simple hurt feelings.
Too often we are looking for the truly egregious acts like lynchings and police brutality when in reality, it is the “small stuff” that often we are complicit in agreeing with by our silence. More importantly, the failure of those in charge (which too often are white people) to grasp the nuances of racism and how racism works and impacts not just people of color but white people and creates an environment that allows racism and other forms of hate and bias to thrive unchecked.
I am often approached by white people who in recent years have started to wake up to their whiteness and who are starting to form their own analyses around the toxicity of whiteness; however, living in predominantly white spaces, they don’t quite know how to proceed. The act of dismantling toxic whiteness does not require that a non-white person be present, though. It starts with the recognition that whiteness is the ultimate shell game upon which we have built whole societies and yet nothing good can come out of something that required the dehumanization and subjugation of Black and Brown people in order to live. It continues to thrive because we have a world that is firmly rooted on the foundation of anti-Blackness.
Whether you choose words or you choose silence, understand that your action or even inaction has consequences.
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