Connections and understanding

Whether you are an active scroller or user of social media sites—or consider yourself too good for the likes of TikTok or Twitter—there is no denying that social media has reshaped our world, down to the very way that we access information. Today’s journalists frequently break stories and find leads and sources on Twitter, or at least they did before the world’s dumbest rich guy bought the joint to assuage his fragile ego. 

In the last decade-plus, white-bodied people in white spaces could learn all about non-white people, particularly Black folks, from social media. I mean, if it weren’t for social media, which helped to birth the Black Lives Matter movement, would you even be aware of the racial disparities in policing? Would you even know that racism is more alive than ever? Probably not.

Social media’s ability to create awareness is unparalleled. 

However, awareness of societal inequity is never enough to create change. More importantly, social media—for all the potential good it does and that it can do—can also create a one-dimensional view of people. 

My experience both personally and professionally has been that social media can add to the flattening of Black people, and frankly white folks too. We end up existing in a place where we are defined by a limited binary. One that can, for example, assume all white women to be Karens and all Black people to be underprivileged people with no other lives beyond constant struggle. Neither of which is true. 

Black American culture is a rich tapestry, not a monolithic experience or existence—any more than white American culture is high-browed racists with unseasoned food. Life is simply not so simple or cut-and-dried.

During my recent holiday break, I spent an inordinate amount of time surfing social media, as I pondered the future of Black Girl in Maine. It has been suggested that I consider using platforms such as TikTok and Instagram to expand my readership.

As I found myself falling deeply down the TikTok hole (that app is a time sucker, where 10 minutes becomes an hour), I was deeply entertained and occasionally educated but the societal flattening became very real to me. If I didn’t know better and didn’t possess the depth of lived experiences combined with learned knowledge that I do, I might think all Black people were living a similar existence that only comes in a handful of styles. 

Yet, my Blackness allows me to know that what I see is a snippet of an experience, not the totality of an existence. At the same time, I also understand better why so many white people I engage with online and in person assume that all Black people celebrate Kwanzaa or Juneteenth. In fact, these are two Black holidays that many Black Americans before the era of social media may have considered fringe at best. 

That the Biden Administration made Juneteenth a federal holiday in the aftermath of the Racial Awakening of 2020 only adds to the limited view of what actual Black people care about or do with their lives. 

What I am saying is that we are currently in a world where you can be a racial justice ally but have very little in the way of real connections to actual Black people. And, as a result, almost no understanding of their lives—their joys, priorities, struggles, needs. This can lead to white people with laudable but problematic behaviors.

It’s how you can easily end up with performative allyship even among well-meaning people. This is why the ultimate goal for white people in racial justice spaces should be to learn how white supremacy not only harms Black folks and other people of color but also harms white people—how collective liberation should always be the goal. The dismantling of white supremacy and capitalism is about all of us getting free from the dehumanizing shackles of whiteness. 

Knowing Black people and then attempting to be an advocate for blackness without centering actual Black people beyond the one-dimensional versions of us that exist online is performative and counterproductive. 

I say this as someone who is coming up on 21 years in Maine. Living in one of the whitest states in America has given me a view of whiteness that I never would have gotten in Chicago. Many years ago, back when I was the director of a non-profit in Southern Maine that worked with low-income families, it was my first experience with the generational poverty that exists in many white spaces but that is often hidden by the brokers of power, who only want to project one image of whiteness. 

Let me be frank: I honestly had no idea a couple decades ago that any but the most isolated and remote white people could be that poor in America. I had no real conception that little white kids outside of Appalachia could live in squalor in the very same Maine county where the 43rd president’s family had its historic family vacation compound. 

What I learned in my five years working in that community—while still having to deal with the racism from some of the families that we worked with—has deeply informed my anti-racism work. Not just that but also generally how I work with people, specifically white people. It is why I am thankful to have a personal therapist who trained with Resmaa Menakem and was able to bring his racial lens into my own therapy. It allowed me—and continues to allow me—to bring compassion into my work even when I am dealing with racist white people. Whiteness demands that we dehumanize one another and, admittedly, it can feel well-deserved when you are on the receiving end of racism. 

But my personal freedom and growth will not come from using the tools of whiteness. 

It is when I saw just how deep the lies of whiteness impact white people—like when a family needed me to sign off on assistance for them, yet all the while I was helping the mom made it clear she didn’t want to deal with a nigger. It will either break you or give you pause. It gave me a lot of pause, though I did have moments of coming close to breaking. 

The five years I spent there, working with families in abject poverty, while at the same time having to deal with white folks with means to fund our work, allowed me to see more of the fullness, pain, and brokenness of the system of whiteness. It also became the fuel to launch into full-time anti-racism work as I left that position nine years ago to become the executive director of Community Change Inc.  Just as I had to learn the tapestry of whiteness beyond what I “knew,” I encourage you to learn the rich tapestry of Black people and other people of color beyond books and reels. I encourage you see the fullness of our humanity, without assumptions. It is a critical part of growing in your anti-racism work.

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Image by Nathan Dumlao via Unsplash

5 thoughts on “Connections and understanding”

  1. The need to be superior in order to be okay. That’s whiteness, white-mindedness if not white-bodiedness. And maybe even American-ness. It’s why the call for equality and justice is met with such rage; it threatens believers (in their whiteness) with their very existence, it’s the life or death of their reality.

    I recall an ongoing debate about the psychologist Alfred Adler’s philosophy I had with an author I was editing for some years ago. Adler’s definition of mental health was a “feeling of superiority” according to my author. “Superiority to what or whom?” I asked him. He was stymied by my question. I tried to explain that a comparative word like superiority had to have an inferior to measure itself. And that therein, a sense of self dependent on feeling superior just to be okay was bound to fail, personally, interpersonally, and socially. *Who will be willing to be your inferior so you can feel empowered?* He didn’t see it, demanding that it was an abstraction — you would feel superior to your former (unactualized) self. I didn’t buy it and pointed out how Western (white) culture was all about dominance and constant claims of superiority giving white men the right to exploit, alienate and destroy all other living beings — any woman, all other races, ethnicities, nationalities, religions, every other species, all the elements, differing points of view. He and I were (and are) both white (Adler as well obviously, though he was ostensibly associated with social justice movements. An odd contradiction to my mind.) And he felt himself quite superior for being able to take suggestions from not just a woman but a lesbian one to boot. So how did this disagreement go? Very fraught. Hearts pounding, passions alit, we would have ended our professional relationship over it if he didn’t feel the privilege to ignore anything I said. If he didn’t, my author told me, he was afraid I would topple his “core ego strength.” Huh. That sent my brain in a whole ‘nother wild direction. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.

    Thanks for your post here. You are absolutely right as usual. If whiteness doesn’t get toppled, we’re all going down with our “supremacy” leading the destructive way.

  2. You might want to correctly capitalize this sentence: “i encourage you see the fullness of our humanity, without assumptions. It is a critical part of growing in your anti-racism work.”

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