I’m in my feelings; where are my white folks who are riding or dying for justice?

I have spent the past week unearthing my feelings regarding a recent speaking engagement that took a very wrong turn. If you don’t follow my social media feeds or missed this post, let me recap: On January 28, I and my colleague, author Debby Irving, presented our cross-racial dialogue to a group in Kittery, Maine. Our event host was the Southern Maine/Seacoast chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a group that I have worked with in the past.

By all accounts, it should have been a routine event for Debby and I. We are both seasoned presenters and this particular talk is one that is dear to both of us as it is a public exploration of a cross-racial friendship. It is never scripted and we talk about the real trials and tribulations that we face as middle-aged women of different races. It is a learning moment for all involved as we navigate authentic connections where matters of race are not off limits but instead where the lens of race is central.

The first hour of the event went off without a hitch; it was during the Q&A portion where a young white man decided to disrupt the norms and present with a menacing and demanding personality that at times made many in the audience including myself fearful of his intentions. In this current socio-political climate, such fears are not without merit.

I am no stranger to disruptive or even concerning people attending my public events. I rarely attend my own events alone at this point as a general safety precaution but never have I encountered an individual who seemed hellbent on disregarding norms and whose attempt to engage with me generated abject fear.

At this point, I am less concerned about rehashing feelings that I have shared openly on the BGIM Facebook page than I am digging into what it means to feel safe as a person of color or another kind of marginalized person (whether POC or white) when people let us down or when people tell us we are not entitled to our feelings.

In the past week, I have felt surrounded by the love and goodwill of friends and strangers alike but human nature being what it is, it is the words of the naysayers that have stuck with me. It is a lot easier said than done to disregard hostile or even hurtful words and asking me to do so feels like asking me to deny the reality of being a Black woman who does work that can make white people feel uncomfortable.  

As my profile grows so does the attention that I create and while much of that attention means change is afoot as more people are committing themselves to an active anti-racist life, it means that those who are committed to the dehumanization of Black and brown people are also becoming aware of me. Those are the people who come with either open hostility and racial ignorance, or who offer conditional support based on my not disturbing the status quo.

This past week alone, I have been told that I need to be able to debate the issue and get out of the echo chamber. I’m sorry but I don’t debate the humanity of POC or marginalized people. I have been writing about race since 2003. My body of work speaks for itself and when all else fails, libraries and Google are useful tools in unearthing the reality of our shared racial history and the dishonesty that many of us have been fed through outright lies or half-facts (Black people as “forced immigrants” or as people brought to this continent so they could be give jobs? {as some teachers and textbooks like to paint it] No, we were enslaved human beings). Or through actual erasure of the facts. Like acknowledging that Black people were freed from slavery but then failing to continue the story with details of how after Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws took over and were essentially “slavery lite” and that this was legal until the 1960s. In that context as I have said before, Black people have barely been truly free for a little over 50 years (and we’re still not as free as white people). To put that in context, my next big birthday milestone, which is only a few years away, is 50 and that certainly doesn’t feel like forever to me. My childhood isn’t ancient history.

No, we have been racially dishonest in this country and the result is that far too many white people today (the majority of them, in fact) are ill-informed about reality when it comes to race and equality, yet think themselves informed enough to lecture me—and then balk when they are corrected by people like me, often lashing out or ceasing to engage with me when faced with truth.

Just a few nights ago, I had a woman tell me that she was unfollowing me because she sees people like me as the problem. To her, I am angry and divisive. Why yes, I am angry but I’m almost always respectful and if talking about the reality of race as it is lived even now is divisive, then I guess I am guilty as charged. However, talking about race is not the problem; the problem is that we are intellectually dishonest and because we don’t talk about this stuff we continue to raise generations of woefully ignorant white people when it comes to race. That is what continues the racial divide: ignorance and silence.

If we want change, that change starts with the hard conversations. Which is the basis for my work, including this space. And when someone attempts to stifle my voice, you are continuing in the tradition that sought to destroy Black humanity by silencing us.

In this moment, now more than ever in racial justice spaces, POC need white allies and accomplices who understand that part of their work is the safety of their colleagues and friends of color. It is not enough to learn the theory and understand it. It is necessary to use your whiteness to push back against white people who want to harm POC, whether literally or figuratively. It is the strength to remove disruptive white people. It is to make sure that POC are not left feeling even more raw and vulnerable. It is to understand that POC who engage in this work in the public eye are targets and that your support also means listening to us. It means if we tell you that we don’t feel safe, we don’t want that to be your teaching moment. Shut it down.

This work is a continuous process and we are all learning. This is not the time for licking wounds. Instead, we must continue the work. But safety of body, spirit and mind is tantamount, especially as many of us carry the ancestral scars of knowing that safety was never ours. Freedom requires safety. I cannot work for collective freedom if I can’t trust that my fellow soldiers in the trenches won’t have my back. If I can’t trust that you will put your body on that line for me, then I am forced to ask what makes you any different than white people who seek my destruction?

No, to paraphrase from hip hop culture, I need you to ride or die for me. Are you in?


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Photo by Isaiah Rustad on Unsplash

6 thoughts on “I’m in my feelings; where are my white folks who are riding or dying for justice?

  1. I’m in…but I’m ashamed to say it took me much longer than it should have for me to get here. I read your post on the referenced event and “thought” I knew what I would have done if I had been there. Then I read through the comments and one white woman said something like,”It wasn’t our [white attendee’s] place to intervene…” and I had to admit to myself that that’s likely the excuse I would have used to not do anything, to commiserate but not combat. And that’s not who or how I want to be. Your experience and words that followed prompted me to re-visit the March for Black Women Houston site and sign up to volunteer and for solidarity training in preparation. I had made a donation (like the white attendee to your lecture bought a ticket) but had opted not to show up (intervene). I truly appreciate your honesty and courage in sharing a hard lesson I should have learned years ago.

  2. I have been committed to the struggle since around 1955 when I helped with a boycott that desegregated eating places in a small down in Missouri. I thought then that when the older generation was gone, racism would disappear. The election of Obama encouraged me to think that day had come. But now, I am–at 89– the older generation, and things are not better. I belong to an integrated church and try to create an integrated circle of friends. It seems to me that racism comes from either ignorance or psychological damage. Ignorance when the person only knows of black people indirectly from stereotyped sources, and psychological damage when the person has endured so much trauma from poverty, familial abuse, etc. that they seethe with anger which can easily focus on those who seem different. The ignorance is easier to address and I would recommend something like a series of meetings here last year, called Conversations on Race and put on by the black owner of a small coffee shop.

  3. ” It means if we tell you that we don’t feel safe, we don’t want that to be your teaching moment. Shut it down.” Exactly and if the white’s surrounding you are not going to intervene in your behalf – than you must insist on a Security detailed at such gatherings !

  4. Got caught up on Shay’s postings and not exactly surprised. Heard that crap that if the Irish and Italians made it in the good old USA, why can not POC— many, many times and it just affirms the total and continuing lack of knowledge of historical facts by most whites in the USA and why Shay’s work is so critical. While her co–parent is a really, really nice white guy — as far as your / her protection at such events — needed is an Armed Security Detailed to boot such idiots out of her space. Did the Cop hold off to wait until some one got physically harmed before intervening? York County, go figure !

  5. Thank you for speaking talking writing reflecting teaching. I’ll ride. I’ll stand up, and I’m learning to speak to the naysayers so it all isn’t on you or POC. Tip to follow 😉

  6. Historically, it looks like medieval folk were pretty comfortable with the idea of PoC in the academic sphere, as well. A Blacksmith, Merchant, or Townsperson If medieval Europeans were so comfortable with depictions of PoC in their art, does that mean that PoC were a part of everyday life in the middle ages?

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