Archive for the ‘ Current Events ’ Category

Another dead black teen, humanity denied yet again

Another dead black child, another childless mother and another scared white man who feared for his life at the hands of an underage and unarmed black teenager. The only difference this time is that unlike the last case involving a dead black child and a scared white man who took a life, the latest scared white man who felt he had no choice but to fire a gun into a carload of teenagers will most likely die in a cold prison cell. Yet even that knowledge is no comfort or victory to the parents of Jordan Davis as their son’s killer is going to prison not for killing their son but for attempting to kill their son’s friends who were in the car with Jordan. The jury in the Michael Dunn trial was deadlocked on whether Dunn committed murder in a case that was sensationalized by media outlets as the “Loud Music Murder Trial” instead of the white supremacy trial which would have been far more fitting. Whiteness as rightness and its many manifestations is what allows a 40 something year old white man to see an underage kid and perceive him as a threat worthy enough of immediate and violent death.

Last night as I mulled the verdict over in my head, I found myself thinking of run-ins I have had in recent years with local white teens. Run-in’s that serve as a regular reminder that no matter what we say and attempt to believe when it comes to race in America things are neither equal nor fair. Behaviors that are normalized in white youth are criminalized in Black youth.

A decade ago when our family bought our house, there were few kids/teens on the block, over the years the demographics have changed with the yard space between my house and my neighbor’s becoming a de facto hangout space for the preteens and teens who live in the area. This situation was worsened last year when our neighbors across the way, a pair of twenty something brothers put up a collapsible basketball hoop on the side of their house which faces the front of my house. It meant for weeks and months enduring white teenagers treating the area like a public park, complete with loud, braggadocios behavior, sometimes late into the night. It meant sometimes pulling into my driveway watching said white teens sitting on my porch, noshing while watching a ball game and side eyeing me as if I were an unwanted guest on my own property. The situation eventually came to a head after one long afternoon when I couldn’t take it anymore and was ready to just smash their heads into the backboard of that damn basketball hoop.

Yet a funny thing happened as I marched down the stairs and crossed the street and peered into the faces of the young men who all stood at least six feet tall. I looked into their faces and saw the faces of kids, teenagers on the cusp, straddling the line of almost adults and not quite kids anymore. A space where mistakes can easily be made, a place where forgiveness and understanding is required if we acknowledge the humanity of others; a place where boundaries of youthful pride and arrogance are pushed to the full limits and adults help to guide them to respectfully test the limits. In the end, it seems the kids never realized that they had been annoying me and my family and I recognized that ours is a culture that provides few safe public spaces for teens.

To see others as fully human requires putting aside all preconceived notions. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable, as a 40 year old Black woman walking into a circle of white teens, I can say that as pissed off as I was, I was also scared. What if they hurt me and/or my house for daring to speak up? But when we deny the humanity of others, we end up taking the lives of others and for what?

Every time a verdict is read in one of these stories, we are saddened and stunned. Tears flows, words are written, words are spoken yet the injustices keep on happening because for the vast majority of people we don’t see people who aren’t like us in the same light that we see people who are like us. I often wonder what would happen if the data showed that young white men were being profiled. What if every year going back 20+ years there were well known cases of young white men being killed for reaching for their wallets, going out to get a snack, etc.? What if every white mother knew of someone who had buried a son before the age of 25?

The sad and tragically short life of Jordan Davis is another chapter in America’s sordid racial history, the chapter that we now pretend doesn’t exist. There will be more Jordan’s and Trayvon’s as long as the only people fired up and affected hail from black/brown communities. While none of us alive today created the institution of racism, the fact remains that whites are her beneficiaries and that black and brown bodies are disproportionally affected by racism. It means that whites who had nothing to do with creating systemic racism will need to actively work to dismantle it but that requires a willingness to be raw, vulnerable and messy. It means seeing and truly believing that my son is as good as your son. Until then all the faux crocodile tears won’t stop the next George or Michael from taking a precious life.

 

Several years ago, I shared in this space how terribly difficult it is for me to have honest and real friendships with the vast majority of white women that I know; the only exception being white women who hail from working class backgrounds similar to my own where we can meet at the intersection of class.  To admit such a thing is not comfortable but as my own knowledge of systemic and structural racism grows from both a personal and professional perspective, I now understand the awkward dance that exists between myself and most white women.  It is the same awkward dance that exists between many white and Black woman in a nation founded on the backs of enslaved Africans.

Despite the lies that we tells ourselves and the truths that we are not comfortable uttering and the false belief that some of us cling to that race is irrelevant, the fact is that even in 2014, race matters. It matters because ours is a culture very much rooted in white supremacy and whiteness is the default setting for acceptability in the eyes of many. White supremacy is not just people in hoods burning crosses on the lawns of non-white people, but it’s also a system that privileges whiteness and white ways of being over all others regardless of the presence or absence of racial hatred. In other words whether or not you like or dislike non-white people, ours is a culture that values whiteness. Whiteness and white ways of being set the tone for how our culture operates. The inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that uncomfortable truth creates a myriad of problems for all of us. We cannot and will not move forward and dismantle systems of unfairness when we cannot even name said systems.

This past week, several stories came across my mobile device that left me shaking my head and made me realize that any forward momentum as a whole will be halted until we (and to be frank, when I say we, I mean white people) start to move beyond talk of just acknowledging white privilege but start to become intentional in dismantling the systems that work in their favor. 

XO Jane, an online publication published a piece “It Happened to me: There are No Black People in my Yoga Class and I’m Suddenly Uncomfortable with it”, this piece was horrible and on a personal note as a yogi, I felt that the writer needs to spend less time on asana (poses) and more time learning the eight limbs of yoga.  However the writer in sharing her personal feelings and observations on seeing what she describes as a heavyset Black woman struggling with the poses juxtaposed against her own skinny white girl body and her imagined feelings revealed not only a sense of personal ignorance but the insidious nature of how white supremacy operates: “Over the course of the next hour, I watched as her despair turned into resentment and then contempt. I felt it all directed toward me and my body. I was completely unable to focus on my practice, instead feeling hyper-aware of my high-waisted bike shorts, my tastefully tacky sports bra, my well-versedness in these poses that I have been in hundreds of times. My skinny white girl body. Surely this woman was noticing all of these things and judging me for them, stereotyping me, resenting me—or so I imagined.”

The question is how did she know any of this to be true? She didn’t; but in a culture that promotes the idea that whiteness and thinness is the desired way of being, the writer assumed that the not thin, not white woman must clearly be upset to not be the writer.  This piece is an extreme exaggeration of what white supremacy can look like and chances are that if you are reading this piece, you are thinking what a stretch?

Later in the week, The Nation  published a piece “ Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars” where the writer talks about the changes in the feminist movement as more nonwhite women enter the movement and utilize tools such as twitter to create change, give voice to our struggles and to connect. However the tone of the piece is less than complimentary towards women of color. As the face of feminism changes and more marginalized women come forward, the rules of acceptability in the feminist world are being changed as the marginalized create and make spaces that address our needs. This change is unsettling as change often is and more so when the old ways of being suddenly end.   In theory as women, we should all just be able to get along but the reality is that we are coming from vastly different places. Middle class white women want women of color and other marginalized women to play by their rules lest they be seen as bullies but to quote Audre Lorde “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” To ask women of color to bend in order to be accepted is just another subtle way that white supremacy lives on in our culture. We use language that describes social norms but who created the social norms that dictate how we are to engage? The norms come from a white perspective and in our culture we either adapt to those norms and as people of color are seen as “safe” or we don’t and we wear labels that “others” us. In my case as a Black woman, that often means being seen as an Angry Black Woman.

In the end though, we can move beyond this but as I stated earlier it takes intentionality and a turning inward to examine ourselves and the ways in which we are held hostage by systems we didn’t create but that we still live with and in some cases benefit from through no effort of our own other than being born a certain color.  Of course the flip side is that some of us are held back by these same systems through no fault of our own, other than being born a certain color.

I am reading a book, Waking Up White that I would highly recommend to any white person interested in moving beyond this matrix of race that we all live with in this culture.

 

Back in the dark ages of 1998, I jumped on the internet as part of a research class I took in my undergraduate years and I guess you could say that I have never looked back. The internet of old barely resembles today’s internet. While we didn’t have a thing called social media, we most certainly were social and connecting but for many of us there was always a sense of weariness and mindfulness when connecting with virtual strangers. Somewhere along the way that sense that used to be a part of the internet experience has gone the way of the rotary phone for many of us and as a result, we are just wide open for the players who want to play with our emotions.

In the past week, I have seen two stories go viral that frankly should have made someone stop and think. Instead in this brave new world, we forget that anyone can put anything on the internet and just like we wouldn’t just trust a physical stranger who tells us a fantastic tale, maybe we shouldn’t trust virtual strangers as freely either.

Linda Tirado, who goes by the handle of Killer Martinis wrote a piece several weeks ago that slowly went viral. It was an awesome piece on poverty, as someone who both professionally and personally is fairly knowledgeable about poverty I thought it was a well written piece. It most certainly was a piece that made the scourge of poverty more digestible to those who are not familiar with it. Linda gave us a tale of a life so miserable and so grinding that by the end in this season of giving, you just wanted to help make her life a little better. Next thing you know, the Go Fund Me campaign is in full swing and Linda receives over $60,000 in donations. This would be an amazing example of the human spirit if only it were true. See, Linda is not poor, back in the day Linda would be called a grifter. Linda is now claiming that her fabulous tale was not meant to be viewed as a present day reality, just a piece of good writing. Nevertheless, Linda collected a whole lot of cash from people who thought she worked a shitload of jobs, lived in a motel and had a mouth full of teeth in need of dire repair. Linda, you played the game player and caught a payday. Simple as that. Never mind that by presenting as a well-spoken white woman, you knew you had the magic card to getting this unexpected payday.

Next up on players who played, we have Elan Gale; a no name producer for “The Bachelor” who spun a tale on twitter about a fellow passenger on a plane caught misbehaving; all because she wanted to get home on Thanksgiving Day. Elan regaled the masses with an imaginary woman named Diane who apparently had a personality so hard, that Ebenezer Scrooge would have been shook up. In the process of telling a fantastic tale of dumpy middle-aged Diane, Elan managed to fall back on sexist and misogynistic behavior that involved telling imaginary Diane to eat his dick. What’s interesting is that millions applauded Elan for his compassion but few questioned his behavior. Is telling a stranger to become intimate with your intimate parts how we behave in 2013? Anyway like Linda of the killer martinis, Elan’s tale turned out to be a product of his imagination. He claims he gave a few people a few laughs on Thanksgiving Day, no harm.

Increasingly we live in a world, where we act first and think later and frankly there is a huge danger in doing so, it leaves us open to people who prey on our vulnerabilities and who have no compunctions about exploiting them for their own purposes. We also live in a world where truth is fungible and everything goes, call me a grumpy ole woman but I do not like this brave new world. We may no longer live anonymous lives online but it seems clear that people are not who they claim to be either despite no longer hiding behind a fake name and photo. As they used to say in the old days, if it sounds too good to be true…you know the rest.

 

 

 

 

The cultural mandate to stand in our own personal truth has reached the point where it is almost meaningless, after all who defines truth? What does it even mean to stand in our own truth? What if my truth is different than your truth? Clearly “truth” is in the eye of the beholder; yet sometimes you hear someone sharing their truth and it resonates so deeply that you realize that it is a truth that is larger than any one of us at any given time. In fact it is a cultural and societal truth that we all strive to ignore because there are times when to speak truth is to speak pain.

Such was the case when I read about two reality stars engaging in a conversation that for many would be easy to write off; after all the speaker of this truth is known as one of the most villainous reality stars ever to exist. Omarosa Manigault is best known for her appearance on the first season of The Apprentice, where her tactics earned her the label “the woman America loved to hate.” Omarosa is an aggressive, no holds barred Black woman in a world where womanly aggression is already hard to swallow but even doubly hard to swallow for a Black woman. Omarosa recently appeared on the daytime talk show Bethenny, named for reality star and talk show host Bethenny Frankel and the conversation while made for daytime ratings and buzz (after all I am writing about this) offered a snapshot into how race still matters even when we try to deny that race is a factor.

“It’s different for you and I,” she told the talk show host. “I am an African-American woman. You get to walk around and be mediocre and you still get rewarded with things. We have to be exceptional to get anything in this business.”

In choosing to make this statement, Omarosa shared with the world some commonly shared thoughts within the Black community and I suspect thoughts that are never even considered within the white community.

Recently I have been struck by the fact that almost all my Black friends hold advanced degrees, it is the entry price we pay just to be allowed just to play on the field of opportunity. Yet within my white circle of friends, advanced degrees are still the exception and not the rule.

Opportunity in the land of the free and home of the brave is not equally distributed to all. Despite the myth that affirmative action opens doors for all people of color, there are many of us who never had a single door opened by virtue of our skin color. In fact doors were closed and we worked twice as hard just to get the door to budge and we still work hard every day just to keep that door cracked just a bit.

As the internet redefines how we receive information, I often think of the number of white writers who I am familiar with; who are able to take spaces such mine, in other words a blog and turn such spaces in to a full on income generating career. I can’t even begin to count the number of white writers for who this has happened. On the flip side, I only know of a few writers of color who have been able to do the same as their white peers. Many writers of color who write online are much like me, our spaces are labors of love that we do to feed our souls but if we depended on them to feed our bellies and the bellies of our loved ones, we would be hungry. However when one of us does land that book deal or get picked up by a mainstream publication, you best believe we were doing the work of several people in many cases.

In the end, it is not sour grapes to call out this truth, but a weary acknowledgement of just how much further we have to go. It wears on a soul to know that day in and day out, you are always being asked to prove yourself and your worth and that being just good enough is in fact not good enough at all. When you start to realize that others around you are allowed the luxury of being just good enough, instead your 200% effort must often compete with good enough. It feels like a race, you can never win.

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Why Blackface just won’t go away

It seems this weekend while I was busy learning the fine art of how to become a yoga teacher, the social media world was ablaze with a viral Blackface problem. I wish I could say that I am shocked but I am not. Last year when my now grown up kiddo was slugging away in Northern Wisconsin playing the role of studious college student, I learned that many young, white adults are utterly clueless about how hurtful and dangerous their decision to don blackface could be.

Last fall, my son called home clearly shaken up as he shared with me how he had come across several photos of classmates in various states of blackface, one young lady was even dressed as the Black gymnast Gabby Douglas. To say that my head was spinning was an absolute understatement. My son decided that the matter was egregious enough that the school should be forced to actually address the issue, after all this was happening in 2012. The school failed to see what the big deal was and in the end it was just another case of kids being kids and the pesky person of color being too sensitive. Needless to say, when the kiddo informed me this past summer that he really couldn’t deal with going back to that college to finish his senior year; as much as I wanted him to wrap up his degree, his emotional well-being was more important.

When certain white folks decide that imitation is a twisted form of flattery, it negates the fact that Blackface in the US is rooted in white supremacy and the belief that Blacks are inferior. Blackface is painful and while time moves extra fast these days, we are nowhere near far enough away from America’s legacy of racism to ever don Blackface.

In recent years every Halloween season now seems to bring out hoards of white folks who think Blackface is no big deal but the ugly racist intent lurks beneath the surface, after all, what is funny about dressing up as a murdered Black teenager? Sorry, I fail to see the humor but I do see the bigotry and ignorance.

Well-meaning and well intentioned white folks often express shock and outrage at these horrible incidents. But we need to move beyond shock and outrage and in order to do that, it means that white folks need to start picking up the racial load too. Somewhere along the line it seems the belief sprung up that only people of color (POC) should do the heavy work of eradicating racism; when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. To quote the mission statement of my soon to be new employer “white people have had the power to create and control the institutions that govern the lives of all who live here. This has produced a system of advantage for white people who benefit from unearned privilege at the expense of people of color and damages our collective humanity.”

Living in Maine, I have spent the past 11 years in predominantly white spaces and I know that for many whites, there are few topics more uncomfortable than race. Yet if you think that individual acts of racism are abhorrent, you need to intentionally work to dismantle the system that allows these acts to continue. Many years ago one of first events I attended in graduate school in New Hampshire involved a Halloween party where a white colleague came dressed as a Rastafarian complete dreadlocks. It was uncomfortable and awkward yet no one other than me spoke up, instead my colleagues just nervously chuckled at our dreadlock wig wearing colleague.  I will never forget how powerless and utterly alone I felt and the fact that people later came up and said our classmate was wrong for his choice of costume, never took away from the fact that no one had the courage to publicly speak up and call him out. Racism wears many faces and in the end if affects us all.

I leave you with this clip from a Birth of a Nation, if there is any confusion on why Blackface is wrong.

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A belt is not a belt…structural racism 2013

Shopping while Black, the ultimate in personal humiliation whether your goal is recreational retail therapy or securing much needed items. The shopping while black experience strips you of your retail goals and your humanity as store clerks in retail establishments decide that based on the color of your skin you are a threat to the merchandise they are charged with selling.

On the surface, the shopping while black experience seems petty and bothersome but hardly a civil rights violation worthy of press coverage and discussion. After all, even Oprah is stopped when she is shopping while Black. If a lesser and well known Black person experiences this phenomena, sure it is annoying but is it really a big deal?

It is a big deal. Shopping while Black and all of its ugly cousins are rooted in a system that cannot see the individuality of Blacks as worthy and equal.  The lingering notion that somehow Blacks are just a little different is part of the continuing legacy of white supremacy that has been bred into most white Americans through centuries of structural racism and inequality that have not vanished. Sadly most are unaware of how deep the roots are of their supremacy because for most, how can you even be aware of that which you cannot even name?

Yesterday the story broke of a 19 year old Black college student Trayvon Christian, who earlier this year after working and saving his money went to Barney’s in New York City and purchased a $350 designer belt. During the transaction he was asked to show his identification to verify that he belonged to the credit card that he was using to purchase the belt. Despite producing valid identification, Christian was stopped by undercover cops who had been called by the clerk, who was concerned that the transaction was fraudulent. Even the cops were reportedly concerned after all, “how a young black man such as himself could afford to purchase such an expensive belt? The kid found himself handcuffed and hauled down to the police station where it was later determined that no crime had been committed; he indeed was the rightful owner of the credit card used to purchase the belt.

For many who read the story, the takeaway was why was he buying a $350 belt? Wrong question. Why does society continue to see people of color specifically Black people in a one dimensional lens where even when we play by the rules and do all the right things, our actions are still seen as suspect. Frankly the desire to own a $350 designer belt is no different than the desire to own a $700 iGadget or the purchase of a daily $5 latte, the difference comes when our one dimensional thinking about race decides who can legitimately participate in such endeavors.

Racism in 2013 is largely a structural affair that picks and chooses who is worthy and who is not, yet in the end we all lose. Trayvon Christian learned that his relative youth and skin color made him unworthy in the eyes of those who hold the power but if we can get beyond the surface maybe one day, we can dismantle this system piece by piece. So that one day when a young man of color who saves his money up to buy something special can go home and simply wear his designer belt without middle aged ladies like me needing to write about it.

The United States of Me

The world that I currently live in is very different than the one that I grew up in and for once it has nothing to do with race.  It wasn’t that long ago that relatively small acts of kindness were the norm and not the exception. When a financially vulnerable person returning a bag filled with cash would not be met with amazement but with the expectation that the vast majority of us are wired to do the right thing and that includes returning items to their rightful owner. A time when helping a stranger in a strange city find the taxi stand is not seen as some honorable act, but simply something that you do.

In this 24/7 world we are living in, we can do amazing things. The very fact that I am sitting in my office in a sparsely populated state writing this piece and the fact that you are reading it and I am just some middle-aged nobody speaks to how wonderful this brave new world can be.  Our ability to connect with others and stay connected is awesome but the downside I believe is that too much connection makes us disconnect. The quiet spaces that used to naturally occur are no longer there; it’s one of the reasons that I believe yoga is so popular, it makes us plug back into ourselves and in connecting with ourselves, we start to see the inherent worth and dignity of others too.

We have become a culture of me, where me and my needs outweigh the greater good. If you think I am kidding, how many drivers have you spotted today driving with heads bowed and looking at what appears to be a screen? Despite the fact that we now know for certain that texting and driving isn’t far removed from drinking and driving, we still do it.   In our minds, our individual need to send that text or take a quick peek into our social media space of choice often outweighs the greater need to ensure that we focus on the task ahead…driving.

To live a life where we place the needs of others above ourselves (and our loved ones) is almost an outdated notion. Not even our elected officials care to look out for the needs of others anymore. Today the United States government essentially shut down because the grown-ups who were elected are so focused on their personal agendas that everyone else can be damned. The problem with a me focused agenda is that the fallout affects millions.  Individually and collectively a society works best when most of us care about something greater than our own needs. When we recognize that very few of us truly make it on our own. Even when we think are making it on our own, we are either exceedingly lucky or we get a little help along the way.

The United States is a relatively young nation that is slowly dissolving into a puddle of teenage angst as it battles to find its place in the world.  Are we becoming a nation where our historic legacy of “rugged individualism” slowly turns us into the greatest nation of me? Where the needs of the few can hold the many hostage and destroy a nation or will we create a place where we all have skin in the game and as such think beyond our own individual needs?

 

It’s been almost ten years since I started publicly writing about race in Maine and if I had a buck for every time some well-meaning soul has leveled allegations of reverse racism at me, my eight year old would actually get that Disney vacation she so desperately wants.

Honest dialogue about difference makes some people very uncomfortable because it shows just how much work we still have to do as a society to achieve true parity. Yet dialogue is not divisive in fact empty and well-meaning platitudes along with heaping platters of avoidance are dangerous.

One of the reasons that I talk frequently about race is because race matters, no matter what we think. It matters to people of color and frankly it matters to white people too. Part of what makes white privilege a true privilege despite what some believe is the knowledge that you are always allowed to simply be a person. That no matter what you do, it is not held against you and your fellow white people just you as singular person.  This may not seem like a privilege but knowing that you don’t carry the burdens of others on your back is a privilege.

Several weeks ago, the media reported the death of Abu Mansoor Al Amriki, in case you are scratching your head. Abu was an American born of the union between a Syrian man and a White woman from Alabama. Abu at 15 was the class president of his sophomore class with a “charismatic” personality. On the surface Abu had white skin privilege and by all accounts his upbringing in Alabama was uneventful. Yet somewhere along the way he lost his way and ended up as a leader in the Somali Islamist militant group al-Shabaab. In fall 2012 he made the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list and his death was announced on September 12, 2013 to little fanfare. Abu isn’t the first American to lose his way, remember John Walker Lindh?

When white folks make bad choices they are deemed bad individual choices; nothing more. No one fears groups of white men even though by and large they are the typical mass shooters. We most certainly don’t fear the white men who rob and pillage in the name of business, instead some of us aspire to be just like them.

Yet when a person of color commits a crime or goes wrong, it is an indictment on the entire group from which they derive. A young Black man commits a violent act and suddenly all young Black men are suspect. Several days ago, a group of Islamist militants stormed a mall in Nairobi, Kenya killing many and creating terror and mayhem. Reports are that several of the terrorists are Americans with one possibly being from the great state of Maine.

For Maine’s Somali community, this is bad news indeed. After a decade of struggling to be accepted and actually finding that acceptance, the news that one of their own may have broke bad is not welcome news. Somalis in Maine are concerned against a backlash and I am too. The truth is that should these reports prove true that one of the Kenyan attackers is from Maine, I would bet good money it will have repercussions for the rest of the group.

But why? Why must an entire group be subject to carry the weight of a few bad apples, why is the humanity that is naturally given to white people not extended to people of color? Why do we accept the status quo that routinely denies humanity to some but blindly gives it to others?

Black bodies, black names in a white world

I was born in the early 1970s at a time when many Black Americans were experimenting with connecting to their diasporic roots and when unable to find true connections, they created their own. The result is a generation that was given dubious-sounding African names that were really just creative concoctions that reflected the angst of the time and the need to claim a heritage that had been denied. I know this because my legal moniker is one of these concoctions. My legal name is very much reflective of my working-class Black roots and for many years it brought me much pain and agony.

In the mid 1990’s, during a particularly long and grueling job search that was going nowhere, I decided on a whim to change my name on my resumes to the more race-neutral Shay, and to simply use my middle initial of L instead of its full form in all its “Blackness.” This was well before the now well-known Harvard study on names and let me say, the difference in using a shortened and less racially connected form of a family nickname was like night and day. Suddenly I was getting more calls than I could handle. On the phone, since my voice held not a hint of stereotypical Blackness, potential employers had no idea that I was Black until I showed up for the interview. Start the laugh track now.

A race-neutral name will get you in the door, but few people excel at hiding their obvious shock of a Black person walking in the door when they were expecting a white person. The sad reality is that a name is just a name and people who are hell-bent on denying another’s humanity based on race care not if you are Laquita Shante Jones or Sally Anne Ross.

This week, this piece ran in the New York Times.  A Black mother agonizes over what to name her unborn child, because the name that her partner wants for their unborn child when searched on Google comes up with images that include mug shots of Black men. This mother only wants to best for her child and she does not want him burdened with the baggage that comes with a Black name.  But after 40 years on this dusty rock in the land of the free and the home of the brave which was built on dubious roots that included enslaving people and denying them their humanity, I am sad to say that you have to face facts: We, as the descents of those people, still carry those burdens as a collective society and there is no white name that can take that away.

Living in Maine, I have met more than a few young Black men raised here who are have very white names, very white mannerisms and overall are safe and respectable young men of color and all have had moments where the cloak of respectability that is all the rage in the Black middle class and above circles did not protect them from the harsh reality of bigotry.

A writer who I adore who just so happens to be Black Ivy League graduate and attorney wrote a response to the NY Times piece ; it was Carolyn’s piece which inspired me to write today. Respectability politics is a dangerous game for people of color to play because no matter what we do the goal keeps getting moved. We are arguing over suitable names for Black folks but whites are quite comfortable with unusual names. Tagg Romney? Hell, in Maine I have met more than a few white folks with Black sounding names including an Ebony White who worked at a sneaker shop. Yet we are over here trying to get the most race-neutral name possible.

Names are deeply personal, I spent weeks poring over names when I was pregnant with my son and I didn’t name my daughter until she was three days old. In the end my children have names that fit who they are as people. The older I get, the baggage of changing my name even informally has become a weight, as I realize that my given name is very much a part of who I am. My given name symbolizes the working class Black kid from Chicago and while that may not be who I am at this moment, it is my history.

Over the years I have made peace with my very Black first and middle name, though I rarely use them, but I was reminded of how far I have come in getting over my own quest to be “respectable” when I was asked a few days ago to submit copies of my college and graduate school diplomas for a position that I am up for. My official documents, of course, still bear my legal name (by the way a very Black name is very handy when using a credit card while Black; people are less prone to think that I stole the card). In the past, being asked for official documents was unnerving…oh, no! They will learn that I am Black. Duh! I am Black. In less than an hour I emailed the required documents, and thought nothing more of it. Hell, I am a Black girl.  

Parents of color carry burdens that our white counterparts will never know nor will they ever carry. Yet we cannot live our lives or plan the lives of our future kids with the hopes of being deemed safe and acceptable in the eyes of whites. If we do, we are only living life at half capacity, if we start denying our own humanity to even ourselves.  As the young folks say, “haters gonna hate.” If you want to give your kid race-neutral name, do it because you want to and not because of the fears this society instills in us.

Signed,

Shamika LaShawn aka Shay aka Black Girl in Maine

Tolerance, racism and road rage in Maine

Tolerance: the ability or willingness to tolerate something, in particular the existence of opinions or behavior that one does not necessarily agree with.

Acceptance: the action or process of being received as adequate or suitable, typically to be admitted into a group.

Yesterday a story hit the local news here in Maine, the state’s attorney general filed civil rights violation charges against a man who was alleged in a case of road rage gone really wrong to have shouted a racial slur at a Black woman and later yelled at her “I should hang you up in that tree behind you, over there where you belong!”

In a state like Maine that is known for being quite tolerant, this news is quite jarring for many.  After all this is not the backwoods of Arkansas where my dad as a young boy did have the luxury of seeing a man lynched. However this man’s alleged actions aren’t surprising to me at all. Nope, I am not surprised; wish I could say that I was surprised.

Maine is a very tolerant state, in fact it is so tolerant that for most of my eleven years here, I made the mistake of thinking that tolerance was acceptance since on the surface, they often seem to be the same thing. However tolerance is not acceptance, in fact to the one whose presence or lifestyle is being tolerated, there comes a point when you realize that you are not part of the group.

Recently I was talking with a friend of mine who is gay, he and his partner settled here not long after I moved here and like me over the years he has worked hard to become a part of the community. It was by dumb luck that we ended up having this discussion, where he shared feelings that felt eerily like mine. His feelings were so identical to mine that at one point, I thought he had had gotten a hold of my private journal and was regurgitating back feelings that I have written down over the years.  That after a decade here, he too felt he was only tolerated and that the weight of merely being tolerated was too much to bear.

Tolerance allows us to pay lip service to acceptance without doing the heavy lifting of acceptance. It allows us to pat ourselves on the back when we have done nothing to deserve those pats on the back. It also allows people of difference to feel they have a place at the table when really you just invited us to your house but pretty much ignored us after saying hello.

The danger with tolerance is that it allows us to think that the ugliness of yesterday is all gone when really all we have done is toss it in the back closet in the spare room that we never go into. So that when we hear about racist road rage types we can become righteously indignant when in reality we aren’t that far removed from such ugliness ourselves. While we may never utter ugly words, we also don’t truly accept people who are different than us because in the end we keep them at arm lengths as the different and exotic beings that they are in our minds and we teach our kids to respect them but really the cycle of tolerance without acceptance goes on and nothing really changes.

So yeah, Maine is a tolerant state, in part due to the deeply private nature of its natives but let’s not mistake that for acceptance. While most of us won’t engage in racist road rage, we are only one or two more steps evolved than the fella who did.

As for me, this Black Girl in Maine is tired of being tolerated and looking for a place where acceptance is possible.

PS: I know my posts have been heavy with emotions lately, I suspect that will pass at some point until then; this is my space to share what is suitable for public sharing.