It’s been 10 days since that most unfortunate incident and while I am moving beyond my rage and even my shame and getting ready to rejoin the land of the living, it seems appropriate to share a few closing thoughts that I have on why a “mixed-race” family being called niggers in Maine’s most populous city was so shocking that it was worthy of being news outside of the state. After all, there are very few Black people alive who will escape this life without having that ugly word hurled at them as a weapon used to dehumanize them. It is a sad fact of what it means to be Black in America in 2015.
We aren’t post-racial and we never have been, despite what the media and pundits tried to tell us. A strange confluence of events created an environment that allowed Barack Obama to become president in 2008. It wasn’t about an America that was beyond a man’s skin color; more that he really was the best choice in both 2008 and 2012. Nothing more. The number of hate groups has increased since 2008, the rhetoric from the right over the years has been nothing but dog-whistle politics (which is racially coded language designed to appeal to whites without being overtly racist) and the state of life in America for Black folks continue to be rather depressing as a whole. On average, the net worth of whites is twenty times that of Blacks and eighteen times that of Hispanics. Conflicting studies show that for Black women on average, their net worth is somewhere between $5 and $300. Obviously, I am speaking in broad strokes but my point being, this idea of a level playing field sans racism is a creation of the white mind and not based in any type of reality.
Part of the reason that whites aren’t aware of what life is like for Black folks or other people of color is that far too many white people live, work and love in spaces that are all white. Too many white people don’t have real connections to Black folks or other non-white people and in a state like Maine, it is fairly easy to live your entire life never interacting with or knowing a non-white person. This creates a perfect setting for assuming that there is no racism. In the absence of real knowledge, it is easy to make assumptions. We all do it and it’s not specific to race.
For people of color in Maine or any white-dominated space, talking about our racialized experiences is a risk and one that many literally can’t afford to take. Because, truth be told, when non-white people speak openly about race, it makes white people terribly uncomfortable. And in this country, most non-white people are working for white people, renting from white people, doing business with white people. So, making them uncomfortable is often a bad idea. This is what is meant when racism is described as “power plus privilege.” Non-white people rarely hold the type of power and privilege over whites that whites hold over us. It is an uncomfortable reality that we prefer to put our heads in the sand about.
Yet if you look at my blog prior to the latter part of 2013 (which is when I accepted my position at Community Change Inc.), I wrote about race but not with the level of openness that I now do. Why? I no longer have to worry about offending an all-white board of directors or white foundations as a Black woman living in a predominantly white state. In the past 10 days, I have heard from so many people in Maine as well as people outside of Maine. Many people of color who have suffered indignities greater than mine yet they rarely mention these indignities because they can’t afford to ruffle feathers, so they stuff it down. Even when you do bring it up, you are often told that racism doesn’t happen here, you must be mistaken, etc. In other words, what you lived isn’t seen as valid. Which frankly is a mental and emotional assault.
Many white people have written me asking what can they do, well as I always tell people, read Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White if you haven’t already, but also look in your communities. Are you talking about race? When Black people are killed every 28 hours in this country by law enforcement officers, does that register on your radar or do you assume that the dead Black person clearly should have done XYZ? Do you need to see grainy cell phone videos of Black children being killed by cops to think that maybe there is a problem? Do the words “Black Lives Matter” make you automatically squirm and rephrase it as “All Lives Matter?” Do my words make you uncomfortable? These questions are the first steps in tearing down the silos of whiteness that thrive at the expense of Black humanity. To move to that place where all lives really do matter requires being uncomfortable and messy in a world where waiting in the grocery store line is so uncomfortable that we’d rather check our Facebook feed rather stand in space with others. We are all the recipients of a world 400 years ago that denied Black humanity yet we do have a choice now.
What choices will you make?