Governor LePage and White Reality

It’s been almost five months since I last wrote about Maine’s bombastic governor, Paul LePage, who suffers from several chronic health conditions, ignorance and verbal diarrhea being chief among them. Just when I had started to forget that he was our dishonorable governor, he opened his pie hole and boy, was it a doozy!

To recap, in the event that you have been unplugged or hiding under a rock, civil rights legend and congressman John Lewis recently made a statement that he had no intention of attending the upcoming inauguration of Donald Trump because he didn’t see Trump as a legitimate president. It’s safe to say that Lewis is not alone in his thoughts. Since at this point, we may never know which end is up as far as how Trump won.

The  president-elect does not appear to be a man with a great deal of impulse control and rather than taking option A, which would be to say nothing or option B, which is to agree to disagree and let the matter die…well, he didn’t do either. Trump decided to go for option C, which is get on Twitter and assassinate Lewis’s character and say that Lewis represents a broken-down district and that he was all talk.

I don’t know, but given that Lewis was one of the original Freedom Riders who actually worked alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and had his head bashed in for racial justice as well as being arrested numerous times during the Civil Rights Movement, I’d say that the last words that one could use for Lewis are that he is all talk. Lewis has literally put his ass on the line.

So while the rest of the country was paying homage to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this past weekend for the MLK holiday, the president-elect  was showing the world why his nickname is Cheeto Jesus and reminding us that he is a petty little man.

Anyway, the situation ramped up when one of Maine’s U.S. representatives, Chellie Pingree, said that she too was taking a pass on attending the inauguration and, well, that’s when Maine’s chief buffoon, the dishonorable Paul LePage, had to throw in his two cents.

On a local Maine radio show LePage said the following: “John Lewis ought to look at history.” LePage told WVOM, a Maine radio station. “It was Abraham Lincoln that freed the slaves. It was Rutherford B. Hayes and Ulysses S. Grant that fought against Jim Crow laws. A simple thank you would suffice.”

Then if that wasn’t bad enough, a few hours later, LePage speaking to a reporter with the Portland Press Herald said that Black people and the NAACP should apologize to white folks. To be exact, here is what LePage said, “The blacks, the NAACP (paint) all white people with one brush,” LePage said. “To say that every white American is a racist is an insult. The NAACP should apologize to the white people, to the people from the North for fighting their battle.”

Mind you, LePage is the governor who said that President Obama could kiss his ass, and he had long refused any meaningful connection with the local NAACP. He is the same man who said that Black men are coming to Maine to sell drugs and impregnate its white women. He is also the guy with the “binder of drug dealers” that supposedly showed how most people involved in drug trafficking in Maine were non-white (something that was clearly disproved with actual crime statistics).

Now, it’s easy to chalk it up to LePage being racially ignorant and shake our heads, but frankly in the era of Trump, taking that tack is no longer acceptable. In fact, it is dangerous. The sad reality is that far too many white people are racially ignorant, meaning they have no idea Black American history is a part of American history and that it is far more complex than slavery, freed slaves and the Civil Rights Era. Most have no clue that the American government was complicit in creating the White American middle class while making sure than Black folks would always be relegated to a de-facto second class.  That when we talk about the plight of Black folks in places like Chicago, we have to look at how the system created the conditions and that no amount of hard work and boot straps is gonna work, especially when the system has been rigged except for a few tokens that white people love to show off. Ben Carson, anyone? (Or any number of others who are the very rare exceptions to the rule, from notable generals to musical artists to actors to beloved athletes)

LePage’s words express a common misunderstanding of history. Lincoln didn’t exactly free the slaves because he was a wonderful man (in fact, he considered a plan to send them all back to Africa, even though the ones actually from Africa at that point were probably a very small percentage of the whole). And given that Ulysses S. Grant died in 1885 and that Jim Crow was alive and well into the 1960s, it’s safe to say that Grant was not leading the charge to end Jim Crow.

To LePage’s other point, I think that LePage said something that is unspoken but often thought in many white spaces. Look at the comment section of any race-based article and you will see white people telling Black people that we can go back to Africa if we don’t like it. Given that my ancestors were forcibly brought here and made to build this country, why exactly would I be going anywhere? Or if I am leaving, it seems that white people should leave too; after all, this country really belonged to Native Americans. But I digress.

There is an air of superiority that exists in many white spaces and frankly, despite the number of white people who are striving to break free from toxic whiteness, far too many are happy in their racial silos where whiteness is exalted and learning about other people rarely happens as anything other than a footnote.

If nothing else has come out of the 2016 elections, it’s that America is not nearly evolved as many thought when it comes to matters of race, gender and other difference from the cisgender straight white male “norm.” Given the gravity of what we are facing as a nation, we can no longer afford to look the other way or remain suspended in progressive disbelief when the LePage’s of the world speak. Men like Trump and LePage are not the outliers that many believe them to be; instead, they are the men in power who can make millions of people’s lives miserable. And the first part of resisting is to look honestly at what we are facing.

In looking at our shared reality, looking at white reality is an important first step and that requires acknowledging that millions of white people do not see non-white people as equal to them or perhaps even equal to the pets in their homes. And the next step? Being prepared to take an actual stand against everyone who feels that way, from strangers to your closest relatives, and to change that reality to something much more just and equitable.
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Change requires courage or how do we move forward as a nation?

“Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”James Baldwin

Change requires courage and after the events of the past week in the United States, it is abundantly clear that America needs to make some lifesaving changes for the sake of her future and citizens.

We are standing on the precipice of change and it’s frightening as hell because we all share a collective fear. Black and Brown people fear for their lives in a nation where our skin has marked us for centuries as “other” and somehow dangerous no matter what, police officers are worried that racial violence is about to boil over and reverse a couple decades or more of declining police deaths, and everyday citizens are scared that their nation is unraveling. All these fears have some validity. Yet in recognizing and dealing with these fears, we as a nation need to stop denying certain realities. We need to buck up and deal with painful truth because, while truth and change is uncomfortable, it’s our only hope.

In 1619, the first enslaved Africans landed in Jamestown, Va., thus setting in motion the dehumanization of a people, the side effects of which we are all still living with in 2016. You cannot enslave people without lasting effects, you cannot systematically build a nation with enslaved people and not expect to one day have to answer for that decision. No living white person in 2016 enslaved people, but all white people in 2016 live with the residual benefits and perks that came about as a result of the dehumanization of enslaved Africans.

America has never righted that wrong; at best we have put band-aids on the wounds that remain. Slavery ended in the 1800s and we replaced it with Jim Crow which ended in the 1960s when we we made an effort to start righting the wrongs of the past. Unfortunately, we didn’t address some of the core issues and, worse yet, we stopped or reversed a lot of the programs and progress long before anything was actually fixed.  So, over the decades we have continued to haphazardly slap band-aids on our racial wounds. There are times though when we need must face reality and admit we’re in bad shape. And right now, we are at that place.

Increasingly, we know how we got here. In the past several years, the dialogue on race has gone mainstream and while we have needed these dialogues and need more of them, they are not enough. Knowledge of racism alone isn’t going to save us from ourselves  any more than a denial of our problems going to save us. Now more than ever, we need active change that requires all of us to examine ourselves and work within our silos to create it. Anyone who has ever had to make change in their personal lives knows this reality. Change is hard and frankly not at all comfortable. Whether we are changing jobs, homes, partners, or habits. Change is active and intentional.

The horrific act that happened in Dallas has the potential to be one of the many catalysts for change if we don’t allow ourselves to be derailed by the emerging narrative that pits the lives of Black people against the lives of law enforcement. It is not a zero-sum game though and one can be committed to racial justice, full humanity for Black people and a desire for law enforcement officers to not be harmed. The emerging narrative that Black Lives Matters is anti-police or a hate group is an attempt to deflect from the real harm that happens to Black people. It is an attempt to discredit the work that has occurred in recent years. If we allow that narrative to live, we will do worse than slap a band-aid on our gaping racial wounds; we will be ripping open old ones. If that happens, I fear that as a nation we will find ourselves in an even uglier place than we are right now.

Now more than ever, white people who understand structural racism have to take a stand and speak to truth within their communities.  People must look at the systems and institutions in their community and ask the hard questions…how are we upholding structural racism? We must look to make change where we can and within our circle of influence. I have said it before: You will piss people off and you may even lose some friends and loved ones. To stand up and talk about the uncomfortable knowing that you will ruffle feathers requires intestinal fortitude and courage, it requires an unwavering commitment to truth and justice.

As a Black woman, my words are biased, because I am personally invested in this fight for my children, my grandchildren and even myself. I want to be free, I want my people to be free. Yet I don’t hold the power or privilege to make that change, I don’t have access to that power and privilege but I try my best. No, this fight requires that those of you who hold that power and privilege be willing to leverage and even give up some of that power and privilege to right this wrong so that we as a nation and as a people can start to truly heal.

How far are you willing to go to create a nation where we can all be truly human and free? A nation where busted taillights don’t lead to instantaneous death and four-year-old children don’t have to bear witness to death from the backseat of the car? Only when we create a world where Black skin is not deemed suspect and traffic stops don’t become executions can we honestly say that all lives matter. Until that time, we live with an uneasy hierarchy where whiteness and proximity to whiteness allows you full humanity and where darker skin leaves you with second tier of humanity where you must beg for your life or explain why you matter.
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Go Back to Where You Came From, or Casual Racism

In big cities, warmer weather often seems to correlate to an increase in crime and in Maine, I am starting to wonder if warmer weather correlates to an increase in random and casual racism. Looking back on my years in Maine, it seems that spring and summer is the peak season for casual racist experiences. Maybe we just need a year-round chill in the weather so that people can stay chill.

My week started with me giving a keynote address on racism and having a conversation with young immigrant women about the racism they encounter living in Maine. Then a few days ago, I had my own experience that reminded of just how powerful words are and how, when they are wielded as a weapon, they can cut as deeply as the sharpest knife.

Several days ago, I was walking along Portland’s waterfront en route to the ferry terminal so that I could head back home after running a few errands. I walked past two older white men on a bench who appeared down on their luck and most likely homeless. I didn’t formulate any judgments about them personally at first; however, as I walked past them one of them yelled out “Go back to to your own country!” Given that I was the only person of color on the sidewalk at that time, it was clear that I was recipient of the comment.

Let the judgments begin, I thought…

In that moment, just a few feet away from their bench, I stopped and started to turn back around to actually give the gent on the bench a piece of my mind as I toyed with the idea of just slapping the man. I realize that even saying this sounds over the top but sometimes you get sick and tired of being sick and tired. And, let me just be honest: I am tired of white people thinking they have the right to say whatever thoughts come to mind without regard for my humanity. Or the humanity of anyone they deem to be “less than.” The man’s words weren’t as jarring as being called a nigger but make no mistake: In choosing to say those words, his implication was that I don’t belong here (even though I was born and raised in this country and descend from enslaved Africans) and his desire was to intimidate me into leaving “his” country.

Last night I found myself in a work-related conversation with a representative from a group that works with African immigrants in New Hampshire, and she shared that one of the most common comments their program participants hear is “Go back to where you came from.”

America is a nation built on the stolen land of indigenous people and built with the labor of enslaved people; those stolen people were my ancestors and if a white American feels that this is their home, well it’s my home too. America is a country of immigrants and newcomers of all hues and stripes. Unless said people have a far darker hue and then, no matter what our background, we are are seen as outsiders by much of white America, perhaps even most of it.

I have lived 43 years in this body called Black and female, and I recognize that racism is one of the many illness that America the nation suffers from. While it never gets easier to deal with racism, there is a place where, for self preservation, you just don’t allow every incident to touch your inner spirit. That man on the bench annoyed me and while I wanted to say something, I decided to walk away and trust that the ugliness he chose to dole out will be repaid to him a thousandfold. I believe that what we put into the universe does come back to us in one form or another and if hate is what we hold in our hearts, we will have to face that at some point in our lives.

As an adult, I have the ability to manage dealing with hate. What concerns me is the impact of racism and bigotry on developing minds. I know that last year when my daughter first heard that ugly word of nigger, the experience affected for months quite intensely, to the point she feared going into any part of Portland. Even now her anxiety around young white men comes up. What about young people whose families have braved things that Americans can’t even begin to imagine who are hearing words of “Go back” on a regular basis? How do you make a home in a place that is legally your home yet people insist that you don’t belong? How do you find peace when the simple act of walking down the street and dodging the stares and the comments is simply another act of warfare being done against your person?

We know now that verbal abuse harms children and yet too few of us will do anything against the casual racism that is meted out against people who are different than us.

Racism is abuse and yet we expect the people who are most affected by racism to save the collective us from racism; it’s not unlike asking abused spouses/partners/children to fix abusive behavior against them. Just another toxic byproduct of America’s longstanding and deeply ingrained racism and white supremacy; it is interwoven into the fabric of almost everything and it help give more weight and power to racism and racist acts.

We can do better. So let’s, shall we?
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