Random babble

Digital selves and real lives

Once upon a time in a world not that long ago, the acquisition and exchange of information was a multi-step process. When I was a wee lass, it often involved a physical trip to the library and meant asking the librarian for guidance, looking things up in the card catalog, trips to the stacks and then physically skimming books. Now we possess handheld devices that can deliver the world to us and we don’t even have to leave the bed. This brave new world has also allowed voices that often didn’t have access to an actual audience to be heard. It’s allowed me, a child of the working class, to create a voice and a following and to integrate my thoughts into my actual work in a way that I never could have imagined as a younger person. Yet increasingly I am aware that there are pitfalls to this brave new digital world that in many ways has become our actual world.

I am not big on podcasts, but there is one podcaster whose work I often listen to and this morning Audacious Kay had a podcast that felt like it was tailor-made to me. I think it’s a worthwhile listen for anyone who uses digital means as a platform to build a brand or to promote their actual work.

Back in 2008, I never could have imagined that one day this blog would have such a huge impact on my actual work. Until late 2013, I tried to keep this space separate from my day work because frankly as a Black woman heading up a faith-based organization in a very white space, talking about race was deeply frowned upon and when the white man signs your paycheck, you do what you have to do in order to stay gainfully employed. It’s what millions before me have had to do to survive and it’s what millions will continue to do to ensure their daily bread.

However in moving to an anti-racism organization, I was free to talk about racism without jeopardizing my livelihood and while that has been incredibly freeing, it has started to take a toll on me because increasingly, I am not Shay Stewart-Bouley, a woman who is Black and who writes and speaks on race. For many, Black Girl in Maine is the whole of my being, and frankly I am so much more than the head of an anti-racism organization and a writer on race. I am a mother, daughter sister, friend and a woman looking to find myself in the second act of my life. As people who work closely with me know, I rarely shy away from allowing myself to be human even in the moments when I need to be in charge. As a manager, sometimes my greatest strength is admitting that I sometimes don’t have the answers and that I even need help.

I recently had to take a medical leave of absence from my day job to address some health issues and there is nothing like being in a state of unwellness to give you clarity about your life and where you are heading. Things that seem important are inconsequential when you are working towards full health. During my convalescence period, social media was my near constant companion, and given that for two weeks, I was physically restricted in my movements, I had a lot of time to really think about how we live our lives in a digital world.

Presidential candidates are now elevated on the strength of their digital selves, a la Donald Trump. Everything that we deem true is only true if we can grab our device and “prove” it. Words are read and shared and rarely do we look behind the words to the people who speak them. People become the sum of these words that have become memes or hashtags. for both good or bad. Overall, though, I cannot help but think that this not a healthy way of being.

Given the emotional weight of this election season, I am sure that most of us are only one degree at best removed from relationships and connections that have been altered based off something someone said or shared online. It used to be that someone actually had to do something egregious to alter a relationship but now declaring our candidate can lead to the end of a connection.

As I struggle with the reality of needing to ensure that me the person is not consumed by the personality that writes this blog, I cannot help thinking that what once promised us growth and freedom has become a tool to control us and limit our human potential. We are  people who are ideally living whole lives and we need to remember that behind the words we read and share online are whole people who at best are only sharing a fraction of themselves via these digital channels that have become our masters.
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It’s bigger than no dates for Black women or How we avoid naming racism

Last night, I had one of those rare moments in a social setting where someone’s willingness to speak truth to racial reality caught me off-guard…but in a good way. The truth is, we would all be better off if we stopped skirting the issues and instead faced them head-on.  

As I settle into my post-marital life, I have found myself thinking about things that I haven’t needed to think about in over 20 years. The last time I was single, I was a slip of a young thing in one of America’s largest cities so, as a young woman of color, I didn’t have to think of age and race as being barriers to a dating/romantic/grown-folks life. But that is no longer my reality;  I am a firmly middle-aged woman with one adult child and one still underfoot (so to speak, at 10 years old you won’t find her crawling around much anymore), I also live in one of America’s whitest states as a Black woman. These truths mean that my odds are probably higher of having a decent-sized winning lotto ticket than of meeting a human or two for casual dating, much less any type of relationship. I have no illusions about the fact that as long as I stay in Maine, I will probably be alone. Right now, I am more or less okay with that though I know there will come a point where I may feel differently.

Dating while Black or Brown in predominantly white spaces has always been hard regardless of age. I have met young Black women in Maine who went years without ever having a date. I recently met up with a Black woman in her 50s who was born and raised in Maine and who told me she didn’t have her first date until well in her 20s…why? She was pretty for a Black girl but no one was taking her out, much less taking her home. The pain with which she relayed that story was so palpable that it hurt my soul. Most of us are hardwired for connection and companionship, and when race becomes the barrier that prevents those connections from happening, it leaves a stain on your essence.

Typically, whenever I talk about dating or even considering dating in this post-marital life with friends and acquaintances, the response always falls along racial lines. My friends of color pretty much ask when the hell I am leaving Maine, whereas my white friends insist that I am too pretty, charismatic, dynamic, blah, blah, blah for race to matter for such things. I have to admit these responses had been leaving me with an uneasy feeling until last night when at a local gathering, I found myself chatting with a forty-something-year-old white woman who, when the conversation turned to dating, she actually agreed with me. Surprised the shit out of me!  It was a good conversation and it was a real conversation. Sometimes being strangers allows us to drop our guards and just be real.

This tale of my post-marital life isn’t really the issue here, but it’s the vehicle to show us just how hard we work to avoid racial realities. If we can’t tell a friend/pal/person we know that yeah, you probably are screwed and your race is a barrier because people are small-minded, how can we find the courage to tackle the larger issues? How can we call each other out in love when racism is one of the most pressing issues we face as a nation but we are so uncomfortable naming it that the stench is overpowering the air we all breathe?  This current election season seems to have unleashed a current of hate that too many are ill-prepared to not only deal with but to actually do something about.  We shake our heads in disbelief and hope that things will get better when what we need is an action plan to combat the hate. Yet how do we expect to find the courage to tackle the big stuff if naming the small stuff feels too uncomfortable? Start close to home on being the change and let it grow from there. Naming racism and acknowledging it on a micro-interpersonal level is a good start.
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The rise of intolerance and the value of dialogue

Intolerance is the new black and, frankly, we should all be scared regardless of who we are. Living in Maine, many of us have become almost immune to the bombastic rantings of our governor, but the truth is that Paul LePage is a microcosm of something much larger than an intolerant bigot in a predominantly white state who often makes for good laughs across the country.

Bigotry and intolerance have always existed and I suspect that as long as humans roam the earth, there will always be a group of humans who live in silos of intolerance. To be human is to be flawed and for some of us, our chief flaw is the inability to see all humans as equals. Growing numbers of people are clinging to their intolerance and some of those people hold great power. Others aspire to even greater power.

As President Obama’s tenure draws closer to the end, the floodgates of hate have been unleashed in the United States and the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump seems to be capturing just how real intolerance is and how we have all been deluding ourselves with the idea that we were all just getting along fine.

The thing about today’s intolerance that differs from the intolerance of yesterday is that few will name it and call it what it is; instead, intolerance is couched in words that distract from the real issues. At the core though, it is fear that drives today’s intolerance. Fear of the “other,” fear of losing our spaces and places to those who we deem different than us. Fear rooted in supremacy that tells some of us that to accept equality and to share power is to become weak. Fear of losing security in a very impermanent world where the only true guarantee that we have is that our time in this space is time limited.  We seek the permanent in the impermanent, which is a recipe for disaster.

Yet no matter how bleak the future seems, to accept that hate will be the law of the land once again is not acceptable. We have to do better, and doing better starts with breaking down the walls that divide us and choosing not to validate the words of those who traffic in hate and wall building. To not simply refuse to embrace that hatred but also to combat it actively. Increasingly, I believe that change that leads to true hope for all will require dialogue. Not just talk. Dialogue. Real conversations that go beyond the weather and the latest Facebook meme.

A couple of years ago, my colleague, author Debby Irving, and I got together for what we assumed would be a one-time gig where we talked openly about race as a 50-something-year-old upper middle class white woman and a 40-something-year-old working class Black woman. The dialogue grew out of a natural synergy and a series of personal talks we were having where we found ourselves talking openly about race. Over the years we have modeled this dialogue to different groups and each time I am utterly surprised at how well received it. After all, we are just two chicks having a conversation.

In a culture that finds discussions of the real often uncomfortable, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a cross-cultural dialogue between two women would strike a chord with many. However we don’t need to be racial or social justice educators or activists to have a real conversation with the people in our world. All we need is a willingness to be real, to be authentic and to know that serious conversations, while often messy and damn uncomfortable, have the potential to serve as powerful catalysts for change. 

Too often we look to the experts to save us and make change. But the truth is that systemic change requires active participation from all members of the system; anything less is unfair and won’t contribute to lasting change.
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