Everything in this country is about race

“Everything in this country is about race.”

Even though it’s a cliché at this point, you’ve probably heard that and said to yourself, “Well, not everything.”

Now, look, I’m obviously not going to itemize every single thing that’s racist. But to give you the single best example I can, to give you just a peek at how deep it goes, I’m to talk about something so basic, so omnipresent and so eternal that you would think it couldn’t possibly have anything to do with race.

But first, let me start at the beginning:

How we experience time is relative, but generally, we all have a similar sense of how it passes. Things start of as simple and as time goes on, they become more complex. Seeds, babies, ideas, technology all grow in complexity with the passing of time.

As an individual, being attached to a sense of time allows for growth and advancement and it defines expectations and practicalities. We’re taught this from the moment we learn to stand, as is evidenced by the children’s names and dates marked up and down our door frames.

As it works for the individual, so does it work for the society. In this country, there is a national sense of time to which we also attach ideas of growth and advancement as well as definitions of expectations and practicalities.

OK. Now, I’m going to need any old bigots reading this to get their CPT jokes (CPT is “colored people time” for the uninitiated or those living under rocks) out of the way because I’m about to explain how…

In the United States of America, even time is racist.

That’s right, white people are allowed to experience time in ways that Black people are not.

See, generally, white people experience time much in the way I just described. Things start off simple and become more complex as time passes. Black people, on the other hand, experience time in a much more disjointed and convoluted way.

When it comes to social problems, Black people generally live in the future—until white people catch up. Then Black people stay in the past while white people move ahead.

The opioid crisis is a current example of this. It’s hitting white people hard right now, and the solution that’s been presented is to treat addiction medically. I think that is the proper solution, but that is not how it went with the crack epidemic.

The crack epidemic was killing black people 30+ years before the opioid crisis arrived, and the solution presented was to treat addiction with prison sentences.

Black people live in the future, experiencing a social problem before white people and being punished for experiencing that problem. Once white people experience that problem, however, they are not punished. Instead a solution is presented that allows them to move ahead. This leaves black people stuck in the past with their future taken, and white people moving forward with a future protected.

The examples are everywhere. Just last week, a video was released showing Mesa, Arizona, police officer Philip Brailsford killing Daniel Shaver, a 26-year-old, unarmed, white man. Already, I am hearing new, white voices speak up that had been previously silent while Black Americans have had to relive the same moment countless times. While this has not played out yet, these new, white voices are much more likely to spark some sort of police reform, as the Black voices from the past remain unheard.

Too abstract? Well, so is time, so let’s keep going.

For white people, an effect of how they experience time is a fondness for the past. I see it constantly and am always puzzled by it, especially when they play that time machine fantasy game. You know the one:

“If you could go back to any era, which one would you pick?”

Professionally, I perform music inspired by Black American folk traditions, so “Wouldn’t it be great to go back to a time when this music was just starting out?” is how I am usually asked.

“Motherfucker, are you out of your goddamn mind?” is how I usually respond.

Would it be great to visit a time in which all white people were allowed to kill all the Black people in a neighborhood and burn the whole thing to the ground just because they felt like it?

No, I do not think that would not be great.

From kids playing cowboys & Indians to adults watching period-piece movies, so much of contemporary white culture tries to exist in the past. But that past is a fantasy in which, like so many real places in the actual past, people of color are just not allowed.

(By the way, seeing American kids playing cowboys & Indians should be just as disturbing as seeing German kids playing Nazis & Jews. But that’s a whole other conversation. But for now, let’s just talk about that cowboy…)

From John Wayne to Johnny Cash, the image of the cowboy is immeasurably important to American culture. The cowboy is America. He hearkens back to a time in which white nobility blanketed the countryside with the pleasant, stoic beauty of a winter’s first dusting of snow.

But there was no such time.

In reality John Wayne was an admitted white supremacist, one in four cowboys were Black and so was Johnny Cash’s first wife.

Black people are essentially erased from history, but it’s so much more than not having your story told, which is bad enough. No, being erased from history means not being allowed into the identity of a nation that would never have, and could not continue, to exist without you.

As a group, an effect of not being tethered to an historic past is that Black people create the cultural future. For example, look at all forms of popular music throughout American history. Blues, jazz, rock, funk, soul, R&B, rap, and yes, even country were created by Black people. Eventually white people catch up to us, at which point we create the next. On and on. This is evidenced by the fact that all of those forms of music are now primarily white. Except rap, but even that is changing in this very moment.

As an individual, an effect of being misplaced in time is that Black expectations and practicalities can be incomprehensible to white people.

For instance, the last presidential election…

Most of the Black people I know thought it would turn out how it did. And most of the white people I know are still baffled. This is because a Black expectation is that racism will continue to run this country, so it would only be practical to think that the loudest racist would win.

Now, I know that some white people still don’t believe that racism was why he won, so let me say this, plainly:

For five years, an obviously stupid man who was a known racist and admitted sexual predator got on TV at every opportunity, pointed to the Black president and talked that same, old, this-nigger-ain’t-from-around-here bullshit. Then, without any policy or experience, the obviously stupid, racist sexual predator attained the presidency by winning the white vote in every single category—including white women.

But, in the end it was the racist institution of the electoral college that gave us our common bigot of a president.

And most of the white people I know continue to be shocked at just how destructive he is. But that’s only because they’ve been living in Black peoples’ past. Black people have known the destruction caused by racist institutions and common bigots for a very long time, and I hate to tell you this, but, while it will certainly get more complex, it is not going to get any better.

Welcome to the future.


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Diversity isn’t the goal; we must do better

I have a confession to make. Raising non-white children in the whitest state in America is draining. I spent my first 13 years in Maine living in a town so utterly white that my dearly departed mother, who had a chance to visit Maine before her untimely death, referred to it as “Pleasantville” in reference to the film of the same name.

Two years ago when my marriage ended, I relocated to our bustling metropolis (granted, not a metropolis by the standards of most other states, but our most populous and vibrant city nonetheless, and a pretty cool one). Portland is touted as Maine’s most diverse city. Portland public schools are held up for their diversity and the many languages spoken in their schools. On the surface, it does look different from most of Maine. But the truth is that it is an illusion. It’s not real. It’s not real at all and the truth is I am tired of it.

I typically steer clear of discussing my children in this space but today I am going to break my rule because what we are facing is larger than being Black in Maine. It’s what life is like in any racially homogeneous space that is dominated by whiteness. It’s how we can lose our sense of self if we are not vigilant.

Last year, my daughter started middle school. Her school is known nationally for their style of teaching, and it is considered by some to be a good school. However, from the time mini-me entered middle school, our experience has been nothing but lackluster. Not even a week into middle school, my daughter pointed out that all her teachers are white and that the Black kids are Black immigrants from various countries who rarely interact with others groups…including Black kids like her. (My kids are biracial but identify as Black and, honestly, even if they didn’t most of the rest of society would).

A visit to any of the school-related events confirmed what my daughter was seeing: white people running the show and even at the parent level, parents tended to stay grouped together based on race/skin color. Most interaction along racial lines is superficial at best with the occasional interracial friends. Yet this school and most of the parents whose children attend it insist that the school is diverse.

Let me be upfront and just admit that I hate the word diversity; over the years, it has become the catch-all statement used to tokenize people of color. In predominantly white spaces, if we have a few flies in the buttermilk, we call it diverse but we don’t do the deeper work of dismantling whiteness or creating an anti-racist lens (or a truly inclusive and interactive space) because those efforts would require the deeper work of unearthing and restructuring. A commitment to “diversity” however allows us to do the work of adding color without really doing the work of changing anything.

Despite the reality of the “diversity” issue at the school, the co-parent and I were willing to keep the girl child in this school. However, as time went on, her enthusiasm for school waned and by this current school year, it reached code-red status. This isn’t typical tween ambivalence about school. This has become tears and angst in the weekday mornings, at night, fading Friday night and Saturday but beginning again by Sunday afternoon. Pretty much any mention of school was treated like a pending trip to the clink. Regardless of what was going on or which parent she was with, her feelings about school were loud and clear.

We reached our breaking point and brought the situation to the attention of the school, they were flabbergasted. The tween is a stellar student, never gets in trouble and is polite. I won’t bore you with the details but I hit the wall after meeting with all of the kiddo’s teachers and the principal and the tired diversity line being trotted out. As I said in that meeting, I am a Black mother sitting in a room full of white people in charge. I don’t see diversity, I see white people in charge. I am paraphrasing but you get the point.

The thing is, this isn’t just my daughter’s school. This is about how organizations and institutions in Maine and most white spaces approach people of color. POC are recruited or brought in and, in most instances, they won’t be there in a few years. At  one point, Portland had a Black police chief and a Black school superintendent. Neither one stayed longer than three or four years if memory serves correct. In my 15 years in Maine, I have known more than a few talented POC who moved to Maine, only to pull up stakes after a few years. Are people using Maine as a stepping stone to greener pastures? Possibly, but my gut says that it is tiring being one of the only ones. It is tiring never fully relaxing, it is tiring always being on guard. I can mostly say that feeling is what led me to take a job out-of-state.

The goal should never be diversity and tolerance, that is simply not good enough. Just having a mix of people (diversity) doesn’t mean anything fundamentally changes. And tolerance is terrible; I tolerate my annual mammogram but I certain don’t like or look forward to it. Organizations should be dedicated to creating a vision of wellness and an understanding that systemic racism is a barrier to that wellness. This barrier cannot be addressed or eliminated until a critical mass in any given system understands the systemic nature of racism and addresses it as a threat to the health of all members of the system. Any systemic barrier must be addressed within four dimensions:

  • internal: within the individual
  • interpersonal: within relationships individuals have with each other
  • institutional: within the organizations created to structure society
  • cultural: within the values, norms, belief systems, behavioral patterns, etc. of groups of people

In other words, we need to be willing to examine our systems and make sure that we are creating spaces that are not upholding the status quo and thus perpetuating the type of harm that too often is a part of being the diversity.

No doubt my words are  harsh but this space and my work puts me in contact with many POC throughout Maine and in other predominantly white spaces and the stories I am privy to are at times heartbreaking. They are also a reminder of how often white people don’t truly see POC as actual people. White people don’t see the real harm that is perpetuated onto POC—sometimes intentionally but sometimes out of sheer ignorance. Regardless, it’s not okay and organizations and schools need to do better.

As for my daughter, the odds are high that she may end up at a private school that, while not diverse, can at least meet her academic needs and is upfront about their diversity or lack thereof. At this point, honesty and intentionality are better than the superficial.


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Stop shrinking us

I was brought to Maine to live a better life. Better than what, I’ll never know. I have many feelings about that. My mother gave me away so that I might live up here, among the trees and the ocean and the nice white folk. I am meant to be grateful. I gathered this from spending my childhood being told that I was ungrateful. As though I had a say in being born.

When I was in kindergarten kids used to tell me: I was Black. I knew my colors quite well (having had the opportunity to acquaint myself with all 98 Crayola crayon colors in the crayon box). I was very confident that my skin was brown and not black. I decided to do a demonstration. Pulling a black crayon and a brown crayon from the 98-color Crayola crayon box, I held each up to my skin. I would ask my classmates which color best matched my skin? They would point. I would then ask them to read the color of the crayon. Guess which one matched best? They still told me I was Black.

Most days it feels like I’m drowning. Hands pulling me under, bodies weighing me down.  Growing up in Maine does that to a person. Excuse me, growing up Black in Maine does that to a person. It shrinks us. Makes us smaller, more compact. Easier to move and use and throw away.

I am from a small town. Thirty minutes north of where I live now. A town of subtle racism.

You know I used to argue with people about the color of my eyes? My eyes which I stared at each morning, and again each night. I memorized the shades in them, the size of my pupils as they dilated. People said they were black. My hair too. I studied each strand and was certain, they were brown. I told people as much. People being classmates, friends, family. All white. All so sure I was black to the core. I suppose they were right.

In middle school I was finally able to get extensions in my hair. I was so excited. Finally, my hair (which I had no idea how to manage, and my white mother even less so) would be beautiful. Finally, I would be beautiful. My braided bliss endured for the car ride home. After that, my brothers laughed and called it horsehair. They took that taunt to bus and it followed me through to high school.

I played the violin and piano, sang, did drama, competed in track and field. I listened to Whitney Houston, Amy Grant, Jewel, Usher, and American Idol covers. I watched Star Trek Voyager, The Lost World, Sister Act (I & II). I was not allowed to listen to rap music or watch R-rated movies. I was raised by a white family, in a white town, in a white state.

Because of these things, my white friends (my only friends) called me an Oreo. Said they were blacker than me. Like they were the ones who were called a ‘nigger’ on a school playground at the age of seven, by a white boy with a knife. Like they were the ones who stared at themselves in the mirror, day after day, hearing voices deny the truth their eyes could see; trying to find the black in their brown.

Like they were the ones who lived in a house where everyone looked the same, except for them. Went to school every day taught by people who did not look like them. Had to learn that the only thing worth knowing about people whose skin is dark, is that we were were enslaved. Robbed. Slaughtered.

Look. I love my Black. I have always loved it. I just didn’t know it until now. Wasn’t allowed to know it until now. When I gave myself permission. Growing up, I let people shrink me. Allowed them to define what my blackness was. Gave them permission to judge what I am worth. We live in a world that is burning. In a state which is continually shrinking its brightest stars.

I met a kid last night. Their hair was kinky and curly and beautiful. They told me ‘I like your hair!’ I said, ‘Thanks! I like yours too!’ Then they said, ‘Thanks! It’s really curly. But if I put it in a bun before I go to bed it’s straight.’

It wasn’t until later that their meaning sank in. I love my Black. I want our kids to love theirs too. Please, stop shrinking us.


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