Current Events

The silo blinds us…what is normal or not?

In the aftermath of 9/11, Americans have been asked to be vigilant for suspicious activity, particularly in travel situations. Even in little ole Portland, Maine, at the local Transportation Center, a recorded voice goes off at regular intervals reminding us  that “If you see something, say something” which in theory sounds great yet is increasingly problematic.

What we see is often shaped by our perceptions, and in a world where whiteness is centered as a norm…with the vast majority of white people living in silos of whiteness…where anything that doesn’t fit into the norms of whiteness is often viewed with suspicion.

Case in point: A few weeks ago, an olive-skinned, curly-haired man boarded a plane to Syracuse, N.Y., and before the plane departed, he decided to start doing some work. Nothing out of the norm, as many travelers decide to work while flying, except in his case his seatmate (who has been described as blond-haired, 30-something year old woman in flip flops with a red tote bag) found the man’s work to be suspicious. In a story that sounds like something straight out of The Onion, it turns out the man was Guido Menzio, an Italian, Ivy League professor of economics who was hard at work on differential equations as part of a paper he was preparing on the properties of model setting.

This apparently very white woman apparently missed the advanced math offerings in high school and mistook Menzio’s scribbles as possibly being Arabic terrorist code and decided to follow the “see something, say something” advice which lead to the plane being grounded while Menzio ended up being questioned after the woman passed a note to the flight attendants. It seems that in addition to being hard at work at passenger-suspected terrorist math, Menzio didn’t answer the unidentified woman’s questions in a way that she felt was suitable. Thus, a plane load of people were delayed more than two hours because a man doing math on a plane was not the norm for one woman.

Menzio was far more good-natured about the disruption than I would have been if I were a math bad-ass. Instead, Menzio says he was: “treated respectfully throughout,” though he remains baffled and frustrated by a “broken system that does not collect information efficiently.” He is troubled by the ignorance of his fellow passenger, as well as “A security protocol that is too rigid—in the sense that once the whistle is blown everything stops without checks—and relies on the input of people who may be completely clueless. ”

Like I said, he was far more generous and good-natured than I would have been about the situation since the flight should have been only 41 minutes…yet he is right, we have a system that relies on the input of clueless people and in the vast majority of cases, it is clueless white people who are determining what is “normal” or “suspicious” without questioning why they believe what they believe. Instead, they see as “logical” that a man’s scrawlings could be threatening (even if it was terrorist code…which would look very unlike math…how exactly would that go from paper to threat on the plane when it isn’t transferred to anyone?). This system harms people and in most cases it is non-white people who are harmed. (And let’s not forget that since it was formed, the TSA and enhanced airport security hasn’t caught terrorists or prevented terrorism so much as it has allowed a fair number of TSA agents to mistreat and even steal from passengers)

However, the matter of perception and norms goes far beyond our traveling habits; it affects every area of our lives, including who we choose to extend compassion to and who is not worthy of compassion.

Lesley McSpadden, the mother of the slain Michael Brown, the young man shot and killed by Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson, recently wrote in her memoir “Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil” that Michael Brown’s untimely death became the catalyst for the Black Lives Movement and helped open up the national dialogue on police violence and racism.  Given the significance of Brown’s death, it’s not unexpected that his mother would write a book. Yet in another instance of WTF?!, racist trolls took to the book’s Amazon page to leave hurtful comments and to refer to her deceased son as a “thug.” There are still far too many who still refuse to see the humanity of Michael Brown as a kid who did nothing to warrant what was essentially an execution at the hands of Officer Wilson. The fact is that he was a big Black teenager who didn’t meet someone else’s standards of normal, and even in death he is assaulted and his parents must live with the aftermath.

Earlier this year, Sue Klebold, mother of of Dylan Klebold, one of the two teenagers who, in 1999, walked into Columbine High School and shot and killed 13 people and wounded 24 others before taking his own life, released a book. Sue Klebold’s book is about the aftermath of this heinous act that forever shattered a nation’s innocence around schools as safe spaces.

To be fair, Dylan Klebold was a perpetrator of violence and a killer whereas Michael Brown was a victim yet in the aftermath how their families have been treated speaks volumes to who we choose to humanize and who is forever othered because of our own perceptions of what is normal and what is not.

The Klebold family most certainly has endured much pain and heartbreak and even stigma yet there is still enough compassion in the well to attempt to understand and humanize this family. Meanwhile Michael Brown’s family continues to fight to be seen as human, to have their son’s memory be more than the imagery that the Ferguson Police Department and Darren Wilson tried to leave us with and unfortunately, because our sense of normal is shaped by our very small social words, we often can’t see the humanity of anyone who doesn’t fit into our silo of normal. And those limited viewpoints that control most of the social norms and dictate what is abnormal come from white people who have very little knowledge of other races or cultures and, frankly, don’t care to expand that knowledge.

Professor Menzio is right that the system is broken and that we ought not to rely on the input of clueless people, but I will add that the system has a name and its called white supremacy. And until we get serious about dismantling the system of white supremacy, any and all who don’t fit into “white norms” will be at risk. In the meantime, let’s hope that “Al-Gebra” doesn’t come for us…heaven help us if we are attacked by those pesky-ass quadratic equations.


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On Black women, girls and a side of Lemonade

Growing up in Chicago in the 1970s and ’80s; I often felt like I didn’t belong. Sure, I had my family, which was for the most part loving and no more dysfunctional than any other family…though we might have been financially broker than most. But as a Black girl who dreamed of being the titular character in Harriet the Spy and later a bounty hunter or assassin…yeah, I was different.

My earliest school memories are of being in kindergarten and being seated behind a girl whose name was “Kate.” Kate was everything that I wasn’t: blue eyed and blond with a cool lunch box and even cooler school supplies. Even at five, I had started to internalize the deceptive and destructive messages that white was better, though it would take decades before I could even begin to unpack that. I just knew that the girls who looked like Kate seemed to be treated better than me.  As the years went on, the Kates of the world were my nemeses; they were everything that I could never be. In high school it only got worse. When I should have been discovering young romance, I was doomed for a life of always a friend and never more because I was seen as “pretty for a Black girl.” That is a phrase all too often used for Black women whether directly or indirectly but , in fact, a young dude used that exact wording with me in the 10th grade and I have never forgotten the sting of those words and the feeling of rejection. The truth is even now, occasionally my 16-year-old self rears up inside my 43-year-old body. I am too rarely seen as a pretty woman but as someone who would only truly be pretty if I were white. Too often I’m only desirable as some fetish object or as an exotic distraction, if I’m found desirable at all.

Always an avid reader, I immersed myself in books only to still find myself longing to be what I could never be because at that time far too many of the fun and desirable characters in books were always white. Sweet Valley High anyone?

No, I could never be pretty enough but damn it, I could most certainly be weird enough. So in the late ’80s, I attempted black girl Mohawks and I wore Doc Martens and black lipstick while chain smoking my non-standard little cigarettes. I wore my grandfather’s old trenchcoats to my grandmother’s horror and I listened to music that scared the shit out of my folks and occasionally wore chains as necklaces. Fake ID allowed me to dance all night and drink too. It was my pushback against a norm that I knew I could never meet.

It would only be that when I finally made it to college in my mid 20s after marriage and motherhood that I would encounter classes that would shift my perspective and that would allow me to understand that this culture was the result of white supremacy and that women like me would never find a home in it. We would have to push back against it and work to claim and even reclaim our personhood and womanhood as Black women.

The thing about this system is that, to be honest, it’s not good for any woman. But it is downright toxic for Black women and girls. How do you exist in a place where you rarely if ever see yourself modeled? Where your representation is flat and two-dimensional and lacks wholeness? Where your humanity, dignity and worth is rarely validated or even acknowledged?

Raising my second and last child, my now-tween daughter, I am utterly aware of how Black girls in particular have to fight to be seen. How their intelligence is not assumed, how their soft spots are not recognized and how utterly dehumanized they are. And as a Black girl who has now become a Black woman raising a Black girl, I refuse to let this system have my girl…yet I know I am fighting a war that I may not win. There are moments when my daughter and I are talking when I have to fight my instinct to scream out and punch the air against this system that is already starting to sow the seeds of doubt in her despite my efforts to keep her safe. The subtle messages that she is just starting to internalize that subtly tell her that girls like her don’t have place. To live this life as a Black woman raising a Black girl understanding the psychic scars is something that only another Black woman knows and understands fully.

It’s why when Beyoncé’s latest album “Lemonade” came out that it has resonated so deeply with Black women beyond the story of alleged infidelity. “Lemonade” is an acknowledgment of Black womanhood put on display in a way that has rarely been captured. It is a celebration of Black female personhood in our full spectrum of human emotions with no hiding. I am hardly a Beyoncé fan but watching the visual album  caused emotions to well up in me that have long been dormant and, based off the many pieces I have now read on this album, I am not the only one.

I have written before about how vitally important it is to see representations of ourselves and increasingly we are turning a corner where representations of Black womanhood beyond Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire are starting to happen. While it gives me hope for the future, there are many of us for whom this shift is too little, too late. In the same week that we celebrate Black womanhood thanks to Beyoncé, pictures surfaced of rap star and legend Lil Kim who over the years has transformed herself from a gorgeous brown-skinned woman to a caricature of a white woman. Her appearance is heartbreaking because over the years, Kim has spoken about the pain of being just a regular Black girl and the pain of being dismissed because of it. This is the legacy of white supremacy and the toll it takes on Black bodies. Some of us reach a place where living in these Black bodies becomes too much.

Which brings me to the last story this week that has just gutted me as a person, a Black woman and a parent. A 16-year-old Black girl, Amy Inita Joyner-Francis was beaten to death in a school bathroom.  A young girl walked into a bathroom at school and left on a stretcher being airlifted to a hospital and, within hours, is dead. We live in a world where even among ourselves seeing our own humanity has become increasingly harder to do and instead violence becomes our norm. Yet in many ways, violence against Black women and girls has been the norm since our ancestors, enslaved Africans, were brought to a  land that was not theirs and forced to work and give life against their will. Many times having their children taken away from them. This is a nation and a culture that has normalized violence and dysfunction against Black women and girls.

But the pushback has started. And it begins with the recognition of Black female humanity and a tearing down of all that holds us back from full participation in the human experience. We’ve been here a long time; soon enough, we are going to make sure society does not ignore or disregard us any longer.

So, if you have been, wake up and take notice. We’re not going away; we’re not going to cringe in the shadows.
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The Value of Black Lives in The Presidential Race and Mainstream Media

Today’s post is written by a special guest, Teddy Burrage is a Portland, Maine native and local activist who focuses on social justice. He is an organizer with Portland Racial Justice Congress, a group of students, activists, and concerned citizens who are promoting multiculturalism, social consciousness, and racial justice in the Greater Portland area. Teddy’s writing can be found on his blog

There has been a major call for racial justice across our country with millions of people taking to the streets, organizing, and literally crying out for the lives of their communities. Despite catching mainstream attention, the recent movement for Black lives is often dismissed and trivialized while still being exploited for TV ratings and political gain. We expect descent from Republicans but how responsive have progressives and Democrats been? Are our leaders and presidential candidates really listening?

THE REAL MESSAGE

The Black Lives Matter Movement has it origins in the epidemic of police brutality and misconduct that has plagued Black communities for decades. Having made Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland household names, the movement has also inspired important conversations about what it means to be Black in America:

The typical Black household now has just 6% of the wealth of the typical white household. More than 60% of the people incarcerated in this country are Black or brown. Predominantly Black communities such Flint, Michigan face neglect and blatant mistreatment by their state governments. Transwomen of color bear the brunt of transphobic violence and murder. And even Black school children suffer from this disparity as they are subject to a disproportionate amount of suspensions and detentions in school districts across the country.

It’s hard to argue that these statistics are not the result of 400 years of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation, only ending one generation ago. And that was just on paper.

THE MEDIA PORTRAYAL

Regardless of the complexity and urgency of these issues, politicians and media still frame the Black Lives Matter movement, and its protests, in a single dimension. If one relied solely on the word of our leaders or cable news for their information (which many do), the take-away would be that the Black Lives Matter movement is just a group of angry, unorganized, and irrational Black people who interrupt America’s favorite white politicians, disrupt travel, and burn down CVS drugstores for fun.

The belittling, exploitative, and dehumanizing lens through which Black plight is portrayed in the mainstream contributes greatly to the ignorance and acts of violence exemplified by recent Donald Trump rallies.

We all saw the young black woman who was assaulted at Trump rally in Kentucky and the Black man who was sucker punched at another in North Carolina. In both incidences, Donald Trump encouraged the violence and even offered to pay the legal fees of the batterer in North Carolina. Ted Cruz said that the Black Lives Matter movement was about “celebrating the murder of police officers” and former presidential candidate Chris Christie agreed with Cruz’s misrepresentation. But the buck does not stop with Republican candidates and their supporters.

It’s easy to call out those who we consider the opposition, but the true measure of integrity is when we allow ourselves to critically examine the attitudes of self-professed progressive allies and leaders.

PROGRESSIVES AND RACIAL INSENSITIVITY

The recent Hillary Clinton rally during which her husband “shutdown” protesters was actually the impetus for this post. He doubled-down in defending his wife’s use of the racially coded term “super-predators”—a term she’s expressed regret for using. He went on to say  to the protesters, “You are defending the people who killed the lives you say matter.” Again, I repeat, the Black Lives Matter movement has come to the defense of Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland among others – but in many ways that is beside the point.

It’s also important to note that despite the mainstream reports, it’s not even clear if the protesters were part of the Black Lives Matter movement.

In an interview with Mic, one of the protesters said: “We were not there to say black lives matter, just there to show discontent with Hillary Clinton because she’s profited off of the black vote and now she’s going after mothers who’ve lost their children due to unjust policing.”

Former-President Clinton is often characterized as an “honorary Black person” which makes his brash attitude towards the protesters a bit dismaying. Moreover, the grievances and concerns of the protesters were legitimate and deserved a more understanding response.

With all that said, one can understand why he came his wife’s defense: it was a rally intended to boost her credibility and campaign and he was there as keynote speaker. But the question remains, is this an instance of him wanting to have his cake and eat it, too?  Does he get to receive affection from the Black community while dismissing and deflecting their concerns?

The incident seemed to be only an extension of uncomfortable and racially insensitive moments in the Democratic primary.

At the beginning of the race, Governor O’Malley said in response to Black Lives Matters protesters at Netroots Nation Conference,”Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter” for which he later apologized, recognizing that the comment was inappropriate in the context of systemic racism and the murder of Black people. In March, a peaceful protester was removed from a $500 per plate Clinton meet-and-greet where attendees hissed and jeered at the young Black woman.

Even at a Bernie Sander’s rally in Seattle, Washington, supposedly one of the most liberal bastions of the country, a Black Lives Matter protester was booed and heckled by audience members as she tried to explain the atrocities that were happening in her community. While it was commendable that Senator Sanders gave the protesters the stage, as with other incidences, it was most disheartening to witness the negative reaction of self-professed progressives in the audience and on social media in the following days.

DEMOCRATS VS REPUBLICANS

It’s clear that Democrats are more sympathetic to concerns of the minority communities, and many of them express that they are committed to substantive efforts to reform public policy to improve lives of Black Americans. Out of the 43 Black members of Congress, only 3 are members of the Republican party, so that says something.

There are also stark differences between the priorities and messages of the two major parties on most issues. The 2016 Republican debates can only be described as something between a circus and playground quarrel, while the Democratic debates have covered real policy and solutions.

But at the core of this post is the question are we committed to equality and justice even above political party?

Paying allegiance to a certain affiliation, candidate, or political ideology doesn’t make you immune to being part of the problem. To solve issues like racism (sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc., etc.), we need to shed our political labels and have hard conversations.

Mainstream liberalism has proven time and again that it is okay to protest and stand up in the name of Black lives at conservative events, but when those protest fly in the face of liberal white leaders, it’s gone too far. That, my friends, is what you call hypocrisy.

During the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr. often talked about the subtle racism of Northern white liberals and how it was just as dangerous as the segregationist attitudes in the South. He recognized that people can contribute to racism regardless of being liberal or conservative; Democrat or Republican; Confederate Flag waving KKK member or self-professed ally.

In order to realize equality, justice, and every other right we are promised in this country, we must look beyond the narrow scope of the mainstream. We must seek common ground with people outside of the framework of Washington, DC and Augusta . We must put integrity above all else if we are going realize the dream Dr. King described on the steps of the Lincoln Monument fifty-three short years ago.


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