The Dark Side of Race Talk

Back in 2003, I submitted my first piece on race to the Portland Press Herald and was eventually asked to become a rotating columnist for a now-defunct column called “Community Voices.” I had a degree and professional expertise, but no background in writing; however, being married to a career journalist with a degree from a top J-school allowed me to learn about writing and also gave me access to an in-house editor to help me figure out the mechanics and to even learn the difference between a lede and a lead.

I soon went on (later the same year I started writing in “Community Voices,” in fact) to write a long-running column for the Portland Phoenix “Diverse City” which only ended early last year. Along the way, I started this blog and, well, the rest is history as they say. I have contributed to anthologies, I have had my work analyzed in academic spaces, and I have even appeared on national television.

However, for all that I publicly share, what I often don’t share are the hateful, threatening emails. The calls that come into my place of work, the creepy people who have shown up at public discussions and gotten a little too close. Early in my writing career in Maine, a letter was sent to my editor that was so hateful that he contacted the police immediately. In the past couple of years as word of this space has spread in spaces such as Facebook so has the number of people reaching out to give me a piece of their minds in some of the ugliest ways imaginable. To say that I find such correspondence disturbing is an understatement.

Last year’s viral story about my family’s unfortunate nigger experience raised the level of vitriol directed at me. I still remember the Facebook statements referring to my children in words that made me want to take a baseball bat to the skull of the writers. I seriously considered shutting the blog and all my public social media accounts down at that point. I enjoy writing but I don’t enjoy hateful words. I don’t enjoy people popping into my office to “talk” to me in a day and age when frankly random violence is too high. One of my deepest fears and concerns is that one day someone will harm me because of my words.

Yet I am the descendant of people with a strong will and I rarely back down. After many discussions within our family, I did decide to keep this space open and to keep speaking truth to power, because words can make a difference.  However, I have drawn the circle around myself a little closer. I am less apt to meet a reader for coffee anymore unless they share mutual contacts with me. I have always been circumspect about things like my children’s names and our locations (the adult son is different as he is a public figure). With the shift to living alone, safety looms large in my mind at all times.

However, today I read something that made my blood run cold and reminded me of the very real risk of writing and speaking about race and racism as a woman of color. TV show host and professor Melissa Harris Perry, whose show I appeared on many years ago, narrowly avoided an assault while at the Iowa caucus. A man comes too close and starts talking, it becomes immediate that his intentions are not good. Thankfully Melissa was not harmed yet as she states in her writing of the encounter, she receives hate mail and threats so when a person gets too close, you don’t brush it off. Yet what was disheartening is that when she got up and went to hotel security they listened but did nothing. Having went to my local police several years ago when I was being followed by a local man, I know that experience well.

The thing is that these are not isolated incidents for those of us who speak on the ills of racism; just yesterday a prominent white blogger who is the mother of both Black and white children had her Twitter feed overrun by white supremacists and racists because of a video she made about her white children playing with Black dolls. America’s relationship with racism is at a crossroads as it becomes clear that the work of previous generations has not leveled the racial playing field and not really softened the hatred and disgust for people of color, especially Black ones. It’s only really reduced the most overt and obvious forms of racist activity, and it’s a long way from truly eliminating even that factor. We are light years away from racial inclusion, and the desires of many of us to move the needle to a more racially inclusive society is occurring at the same time that White America is dealing with its own unchecked baggage.

To speak up and speak out does not come without risks and, while it’s easy to say dismiss the haters, the truth is that it is easier said than done. When your personhood and very essence is under attack, it isn’t easy to turn away. It most certainly isn’t easy to turn away when agitated and hateful people invade your physical space. Yet the struggle for freedom and justice has never been easy, so we carry on knowing that silence never changes a thing.
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