Random babble

On words and silence in a racialized world

Several years ago when my adult son was still a college student, one night as we were catching up during one of his visits back home, he shared with me that when he had been living in Northern Maine with his father during the late elementary school years, he had routinely been subjected to racist language directed at him. Ranging from being called “Rory Raccoon…coon; Get it?” and other taunts, these words were a part of his every day experience. It was why, when he landed on the campus of a predominantly white college in Northern Wisconsin (and when confronted with classmates who would use racialized language and taunts to remind him that he was other), he had no patience with them.

I asked him why he didn’t tell his father and I when he was in elementary and middle school and he never quite gave me an answer. But as an adult, he is fiercely protective of his sister, who is now in middle school. His watchful eye over his sister is no doubt born out of his own experiences as a child and teenager in Northern New England.

As his mother, I knew about the blatant racialized events that were regular enough occurrences during his high school and college years, ranging from being brought home in the back of the police cruiser because he “fit the description” (he didn’t, by the way…the suspect was white) to being pelted in the ribs with a full unopened soda can from a moving car while being called a nigger. It was those incidents that were the impetus for much of my writing and later my decision to head up an anti-racism organization. However,  as a mother, it hurt on a molecular level that his very existence made him the subject of ridicule.

In recent years as my work has expanded beyond writing but to speaking with groups on the issue of race, I am struck by how often I will hear that an area doesn’t have a racial problem. At least until the question-and-answer section happens. This year alone, I have heard a Black teenager in a tony town in Massachusetts share that she is singled out for her hair and that her “friends” have used the N-word with her even despite her requests to stop.

Just a few days ago, I gave a talk in Kittery, Maine, where several teens in attendance spoke about how prevalent it was for their white peers to use the N-word at school. Despite parents talking to school officials, there was a belief that the school and by extension the town has no issues with race. The next days, the students who attended my talk went to the school officials who once again intimated that white kids using the N-word is a non-issue. The students staged a walkout, and several of their peers and even some teachers were hateful in their responses to this courageous group of young people.

Words matter and too often we brush words to the side if we cannot grasp the magnitude of them. Despite our attempts to tamp down bullying within our schools and society, when it when it comes to racialized language and acts that are othering and dehumanizing people, we are missing the mark. And it has real consequences far beyond simple hurt feelings. 

Too often we are looking for the truly egregious acts like lynchings and police brutality when in reality, it is the “small stuff” that often we are complicit in agreeing with by our silence. More importantly, the failure of those in charge (which too often are white people) to grasp the nuances of racism and how racism works and impacts not just people of color but white people and creates an environment that allows racism and other forms of hate and bias to thrive unchecked.  

I am often approached by white people who in recent years have started to wake up to their whiteness and who are starting to form their own analyses around the toxicity of whiteness; however, living in predominantly white spaces, they don’t quite know how to proceed. The act of dismantling toxic whiteness does not require that a non-white person be present, though. It starts with the recognition that whiteness is the ultimate shell game upon which we have built whole societies and yet nothing good can come out of something that required the dehumanization and subjugation of Black and Brown people in order to live. It continues to thrive because we have a world that is firmly rooted on the foundation of anti-Blackness.

Whether you choose words or you choose silence, understand that your action or even inaction has consequences.
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Calling all white people, part 13: And now for a brief update…

Calling All White People, Part 13

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: What this thing is all about

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

I’m going to take a very brief break from the usual pontificating and thinking and sharing and perhaps even sometimes sticking my foot in my mouth to say “Hi” and let you know what this column I write here at Black Girl in Maine is all about. And what I’m about when I show up here.

Nope. Not gonna tell you who I am. If anyone does that, it will be BGIM herself. That’s her business and her call.

However, in this installment of “Calling All White People,” I’ve now reached that “baker’s dozen.” That lucky number 13. Seems a good a time as any to make clear what the purpose of this regular column is.

First off, I’m surprised we’ve gotten this far, folks. Or at least that we’ve gotten to a 13th post from me this soon. Honestly, this whole thing was started with the idea it wouldn’t run for long or at least not run very often. I figured those first three posts I did would be something BGIM peppered the blog with lightly every couple months and that maybe she would call on me every once in a while thereafter to address some issue of value for her readership, in particular the white readers.

And while I hope my words have value to most of the readers of this blog, or at least a large chunk of them, this column is aimed primarily at white people. One of the things I’ve sensed about this blog is that as well-read as it is by many people of color, in particular Black people, BGIM has a lot of white readers. And while she has great things to say to white people and to others, I’m also cognizant that we white people have been urged for some years now to not only educate ourselves about the lingering stink of racism and to understand what white privilege, white supremacy, institutional racism and implicit bias are (among other concepts) but also to educate our fellow white people and open their eyes (or open them wider if they are already opening up).

And, by the way, that white privilege thing is one of the reasons I don’t have a byline here. Why my name isn’t up at the top (or even the bottom) of these posts. I’m not shy. I’m not hiding behind anonymity. I just am really unwilling to center myself in this venue. I don’t need the publicity. I don’t want a spotlight on me. I have other places and ways to do that. This blog was started by a Black woman and has grown to become a platform to showcase and elevate the voices of other people of color, especially women of color. That’s where it deserves to continue to go.

So, here’s hoping what I write here has value. Here’s also hoping that the contributors of color continue to grow in number and I become even less prominent on these pages. But here’s also hoping that I’m here as long as some of you need me to be (BGIM included) and that I say things that are worth saying.
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Losing our humanity one click at a time, or What has social media wrought?

The year was 1998 and I had returned to school to work on my undergraduate degree. It was my second year in when I took a research class that required being online. Let me refresh your memory: In 1998, less than half of U.S. households had personal computers, barely a third of Americans had cell phones, and smartphones didn’t exist. Social media as we know it didn’t exist. Livejournal wasn’t even created until 1999. It was still a fairly analog world.

However, I fell in love with the Internet despite the fact that most of the people in my life were utterly confused by my fascination with it.  In a few short years I would become immersed in discussion boards that ranged the gamut from learning how to manage my hair in its natural state to learning about my mother’s cancer and, later, from living with the death of a parent to learning how to parent the second time around.

In my early years in Maine, the Internet allowed me to stay connected with friends and my Blackness. The connections made online in the early 2000s would literally become my life preserver at times; those connections have sustained me through some of the darkest moments of my life. Many of the people I met online in the early days have become lifelong friends and associates.

Given my overall familiarity and comfort with being online, my decision to start blogging in 2008 wasn’t completely out of line.  The decision to blog coinciding with my son’s teen years and the rise of social media with the advent of Facebook being made available to the general public and later the rise of Twitter propelled me into the modern-day world of social media.

Initially, Twitter made no sense to me, after all. Why would I talk to myself? However, after a few readers of my local work discovered me online, Twitter changed the trajectory of my life in many ways. My initial connections were primarily with Maine-based people but it later grew. And, as I realized a few days ago, I have been on Twitter eight years now. I have been on Facebook nine years. I also have a few other social media accounts as well but unlike the old days, my feelings about social media have shifted.

It was bound to happen. After all, we have a president who freely tweets on matters that frankly he knows nothing about and often raves about other things he ought not to be wasting valuable presidential time on. Once upon a time, the idea that the leader of the free world might tweet us into World War Three would seem preposterous but that’s no longer a far-fetched concept. The Internet has always had dark corners but lately it seems like the dark corners have become neighborhoods and entire states.

There is no mistaking the power of the Internet and the potential it holds for good; after all, the world has shrunk to a common space. No longer are we beholden to our local media or the cable channels to tell us what’s going on. When tragedy strikes anywhere in the world, the odds are high that someone near to the situation can share with us right away with a few tweets. With smartphones and cameras being a societal norm, many people who thought overt racism was dead have realized that racism is still very much a problem as we have seen with the many  of the well-publicized cases in recent years.

However, even these tools can be used for evil as seen a few days ago in the tragic death of Robert Godwin Sr., an elderly man in Cleveland, Ohio, walking home from Easter dinner  who was senselessly killed by Stephen Steve, who recorded the killing and uploaded the video to Facebook. In recent months, other violent and horrific acts have been recorded live on Facebook. In almost all of these cases, the videos are viewed and shared countless times before they are finally taken down. We have become psychological rubberneckers feasting on the sorrows of others as a way to mindlessly kill time.

The dark side of the Internet has become personal to me as I have watched an article written online and circulating in racial justice spaces nationally create a great deal of angst for my organization, colleagues, and friends. It most certainly has added to my workload as I have been asked my views on the piece. This isn’t the time or place for my thoughts but as I joked recently, in all my years of running non-profits, I never thought that I would see an article become a point of crisis.

In recent weeks, I have watched people I know ripped apart online by what at times feels like packs of wolves circling the wagon. Just a few nights ago, I found myself being confronted online by someone demanding to know why I would allow space for the Average White Guy to share his thoughts and was referred to as trash for doing so.

The same type of polarization that has crippled this country has infected the Internet too. No longer can we agree to disagree; instead, if we hold opposing views or don’t agree with others, we risk being labeled and disposed of. Increasingly anyone and anything that does not work for us is simply disposed of because with the click of a button, we sic our pack on the offender or we can end our connections sometimes even our familial ties. The ease at which we dispose of people is staggering to me.

Perhaps it is my advancing age, but I am very aware that life and people are far more complex than what we are privy to online. The older I get, the more I realize that there are few absolute truths and that it is possible to hold two opposing truths simultaneously at the same time. Rarely is life truly black and white. Instead much of it is shades of gray. Yet in a world where emails are too much trouble, phone calls are tedious and even a text can feel tiresome to many people, when we rely on these electronic mediums to shape our world and connect, we are risking losing a piece of our own humanity in the process.

I suppose there is a certain rich irony in the fact that a writer whose work grew in prominence due to the Internet is admitting that they have grown to fear the Internet. After all, one misstep can end a career or a relationship and occasionally even a life. I know there is a lot of good work still happening in these digital spaces, especially in activism spaces but for this old-head, increasingly I wonder if I am getting closer to the end of the line. I am just a simple woman, writing simple truths and sharing my musings with the world while grappling with the realities and complexities of life.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

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