Can we at least stop the blackface this month?

It’s Back History Month and I am exhausted. The month designed to honor the achievements of Black folks has become the reminder of just how little progress we have made racially. In part because we actually haven’t made any progress. Rather than dealing with the horrible wallpaper and the horsehair plaster walls in this very old American house, we decided to paint over the crap and hope for the best.

However, as I can attest to from the 13 years I spent living in an 1880s Victorian house, this is a quick fix at best and ultimately the ugly starts to peek through. In the end, you have yourself an even worse mess because now you have to scrape off what you slapped on over what was going to be hard to remove and replace anyway.

America’s racism problem won’t go away until we acknowledge that we have a problem, and that the problem harkens back to our early days as a nation. A country that intentionally created a human hierarchy that privileged those with white skin (and male bodies) and then doled out humanity based on proximity to certain standards that always involve proximity to whiteness. A country that massacred and stole the land of the original inhabitants and then went on to steal another group of people and enslaved them for hundreds of years.

We keep trying to run away from our past, but as you learn after four decades on this dusty rock. You cannot run from your past; you cannot pretend it doesn’t matter because the past has a funny way of showing up. The past lives within our souls. We can talk about the effects of generational trauma and acknowledge how what happened in our families of origin decades ago still affects us but we lack the emotional maturity to acknowledge that racism is real and is still very much a part of our lives.

Our national media can’t even name racism, instead we dance around using words such as “racially charged” and “racial allegations.” So we are in a moment where we are discussing blackface and whether or not a certain Virginia governor and Attorney General are racist.

Think about that: We are discussing whether blackface is racist. In 2019. We are discussing whether an act designed to deny the humanity of Black folks is racist.

We are discussing whether Liam Neeson’s admission to wanting to avenge the rape of a white friend by a Black man by looking for any random Black man to kill is racist.

We are also discussing whether these men are worthy of forgiveness. After all, none of them have supposedly engaged in any racist acts lately, so why must we hold them accountable for past actions?

Funny how when we are talking about racism, the only option is to forgive and move on. Yet, when does life work like that?

Forgiveness and redemption are possible but it does not happen in a few news cycles. It does not happen with empty words, it is a process and it takes times. Frankly the governor is not there and the only way to get there is to step down from his post and start the work of decolonizing his mind and as hokey as it sounds, he might even consider decolonizing his heart as well.

As a Black woman, I can say with authority that the onus is always placed on us to forgive white people for their racist behavior. Rarely are white people asked to show that they have become better people before the calls for forgiveness start to swell to a crescendo. Yet where, outside of race matters, do we ask people to forgive and move on without proof of change? Yes, it happens but far too often (and more often, I think) when it comes to race, no proof of learning and growth is required.

We can’t even agree on what is racist despite having clear definitions. In part because for the average white person, white fragility is real and the thought of being complicit in the system is too hard to accept.

Whiteness in America is a petulant child that refuses to grow up and take responsibility for its actions. No living white person in America owned slaves; we got it. But all white people regardless of socioeconomic class receive some type of benefits from whiteness and the system of white supremacy. And that goes all the way back to slavery, reinforced periodically by other things like Jim Crow and post-World War II programs designed to give only to white people and lock out the Black ones. And more.

If you don’t believe me, watch this little clip by Chris Rock. it’s humor but it’s also truth.

My wish for Black History Month is that Black people can catch a break. That we can breathe, we can sigh and we can live. We can acknowledge the strength of our ancestors and know that we stand on their shoulders in the struggle for humanity. That we don’t have to wake to the daily assault of white ignorance and supremacy.

My wish for white people during Black History Month is that they learn, not just about Black achievements but learn how they have been complicit in upholding white supremacy and that they commit to decolonization. That they stop taking Black people for granted and that they think about what they are willing to lose to achieve equity. Racial equity requires actively giving up something. It means stepping back and maybe even walking out of the house so that they can move beyond the macabre blueprints that have guided their lives.

However if my wishes are too extreme, I will just wish for no more tales of blackface this month.

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Adding grace and community to activism, accountability and equity

I don’t consider myself to be an activist or an organizer but, having trained another lifetime ago with the Midwest Training Academy via the Americorps Vista program in the mid 1990s and having spent the past 23 years working in communities for social change, I realize that there are some who do see me as an activist or an organizer—or both.

In recent years, I have lived, breathed and slept anti-racism work. I came to this work as a frustrated Black woman who had relocated to Maine for family reasons. The racism that I saw early on in this state was downright shocking. Whether it was having my son brought home in the back of a cop car because he dared to go buy a sandwich and was deemed suspicious or me being called colored on a good day to nigger on a bad day. To be clear, racism in Chicago was real and quite present as a constant fog around me, but in a predominantly (and overwhelmingly…more than 90% of the population) white state like Maine, it was more blatant to me and thus more soul-crushing

After five years of running a community-based center for families in Biddeford, Maine, I stepped down from that position in 2013 to become the first Black woman to head Community Change Inc. (CCI), a Boston-based anti-racism organization with a holistic approach to tackling systemic racism. I took the job because I wanted to do more than write about racism; I wanted to actually be a part of the larger movement for change.

When I started at CCI in 2014, I had already built a small but loyal following on social media, as I had started blogging in 2008. And while the initial focus of my blog was parenting and living in Maine while Black, my writing shifted to writing more in-depth essay style pieces on racism and systemic oppression, using personal stories as a vehicle to make people think critically about race. The other purpose of my writing was (and continues to be) to connect with other Black people and other POC who live in overwhelmingly white spaces. Having spent almost the first 30 years of my life in Chicago, my own analysis on blackness shifted as I met Black and brown people who lived in Maine and other parts of Northern New England. It allowed me to process the richness of the Black experience outside of living in areas where people expect to find us.

As I settled into my role at CCI, I had no idea that anti-racism/racial justice work would go mainstream and move beyond academic and activist spaces. Thanks to technology and  the ability to capture extrajudicial violence against Black and brown bodies would shift the narratives and lead to long overdue conversations.

The election of our first Black president was a smokescreen that allowed many white Americans to deem racism a thing of the past. Yet it was under our first Black president that police violence towards Black people escalated. Barack Obama was tentative at best when it came to racial matters, having to walk the type of fine line that the system of white supremacy and capitalism demands of its chosen tokens. I say this with great fondness for Obama the man while recognizing that in many ways, Obama the president was the worse thing to happen to Black America.

The atmosphere and technology that allowed trauma porn against Black bodies to be viewed from the comforts of our homes also gave rise to a new type of activism. One that led directly to the creation of groups and movements such as Black Lives Matter.

There is no doubt that these newer, more inclusive and often young people led movements that were in large part what we needed to shift the narrative. They are still part of what we need and yet, as an older head, I worry about the personal impact on those in the trenches. I worry that in this race to save ourselves, the very human parts of working for change are being lost and that in our quest to create an equitable world, we are losing parts of ourselves and others.

The same technology that is moving the needle threatens to destroy our very humanity as we can now package and sell parts of ourselves and take the difficult and clumsy work of dismantling white supremacy and offer it in a package complete with a to-do list.

Anti-racism work is hard. It’s taxing for Black folks and other POC because this work is about us getting free and it’s hard for white people because few white folks want to willingly give up their privilege. While you can learn about the system of oppression and want to end it, most people will stumble; to be frank, people will fuck it up. It’s messy, it’s emotional and what keeps people in the work is their community.

We talk a great deal about accountability, which is absolutely essential to anti-racism work but we leave out the piece that accountability requires being in community with people. With accountability comes grace, the type of grace that we rarely will offer up to people with whom we don’t have an emotional attachment.

Without community and grace, people in movement spaces often become disposable at that inevitable point when they make mistakes or we realize that we are susceptible to the type of personalities looking to gain access to power and privilege.

In the past several years I have watched a number of people and programs come and go in anti-racism spaces. I have watched as people have become stars only to be deemed trash a few years later. And it’s true that some of those people whose stars dimmed were problematic and perhaps toxic but others were simply humans who stumbled for a moment in time.

There are always a few folks who are not operating in good faith; these people are everywhere. Bad actors are an unfortunate part of the human experience. From where I sit, I am not sure if we will ever weed these people out but what I do know is that the current anti-racism climate is ripe for hucksters and those who are looking for a payday and not liberation.

I worry that as social media allows us to talk openly about our work that we are creating anti-racism superstars and that type of celebrity, while it can help inform, can also hinder if one is not self-aware and does not have a community to which they are accountable.

As I think about my personal and organizational goals for 2019, I feel a sense of urgency to be grounded and connected to my own communities both in Maine where I live and in Boston where I work.

There are many schools of thoughts about racial justice and anti-racism work. For some, it is never about the heart and mind connection to shift things but instead the focus is strictly on dismantling the system of white supremacy. Yet I believe that both parts are critical to making the shifts we need. When I look at our current systems and racial disparities, I see the people working in those systems. I see a nation that shifted laws to create parity and yet very little has changed. My own personal view is that eradicating the disease of white supremacy will require a heart, mind and systemic approach. Which will also require a reallocation of material resources to create parity.

This isn’t going to be easy—especially in the era of white nationalism and Trump—which is why those in the trenches and those supporting those in the trenches need to be grounded in not just sound organizing principles but within a community which will hold them in grace and hold them accountable when necessary.

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Yes, I’m POC, but 95% of the time I’m simply Black

This week, I made a little self-affirming, declaring-my-identity tweet, and it went like this:

Just a reminder, I’m Black. I’m not a Person of Color. It’s cool if you are but I’m not. I’m just Black. If using the term Black makes you feel uncomfortable, you should sit with it and examine why. Signed, A Black Girl in Maine.

It got some support. It got some raised eyebrows. It got some negative responses.

So, let’s have some real talk about the term people (or person) of color, or POC for short, and Black. And understand that while my tweet and this post focus a lot on Black (and blackness) because, well. I am, this is a post that could easily be substituted with “Indigenous” or “Latinx” or just about anything else besides “Black” (assuming you changed some of the specific historical examples and whatnot). But I’m blackity black Black, so lemme keep it real and personal, OK?

Yes, I am a POC. I live in a white supremacist, white-privilege-focused, white-centered nation in a world that in huge portions of it is pretty much the same way. POCs as a whole get pushed down and shoved to the side. That’s true. So, yes, I belong to the large group known as POC.

But you’ve heard of white-adjacent, right? Or “proximity to whiteness” maybe? OK, maybe not all of you. But the fact is, certain POC are treated less badly—sometimes way less badly than a Black person—because they aren’t as dark as Black people and because they are perceived differently by white people in terms of “threat level.” That’s a fact. And aside from how light (or not) a POC is, there are all kinds of cultural and historical differences (good and bad) that make us distinct as well from each other.

Black people and Indigenous people here in the United States and a whole lot of other places are pretty much the most maligned and abused POC groups. Blacks got chattel slavery and being seen as literal property with no agency for centuries, followed by brutal segregation and state-sponsored abuse and lynching that frankly continues to this day in many ways. Indigenous people were subjected to genocide and then their few remaining numbers put on reservations with few resources. And both groups have been subjected to efforts to dismiss their cultural traditions or stamp them out entirely, all at the same time as white people appropriated what they wanted from those cultural traditions.

Latinx people have had to deal with a lot of overt racism and cultural appropriation and disproportionate levels of police violence, too, but the history is different and the kind of hatred expressed toward them is different. And with other POC, like various Asian people, there is also a different flavor of racism directed toward them. And so on.

It’s true that as POC, we have a lot of shared goals. But the problem with casually and regularly referring to me as a person of color (when I identify as Black) or lumping any other non-white person into the POC category, is that you are ignoring their central identity. You are erasing the core of who they are for the most part. Because most people, at least in my experience, identify within their group primarily, and not primarily as POC.

In other words, when we are talking about issues that really affect all POC in a similar way (or most of them), by all means let’s say “POC.” But if you want to honor who I am and what I deal with day in and day out, you need to call me “Black.” Because my experience with racism, for example, day in and day out, is as a Black person. A Black woman.

And that’s another spot where I see an example of erasure. Being a woman under the umbrella called feminism. Because as has often been noted by women of color (Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Indigenous, etc.), much of feminism is white-centered, and the moment non-white women try to bring attention to particular sexism or misogyny tied to their race (or in the case of trans women, their sexual identification), they are called divisive and accused of derailing the movement. They are called upon to just be women and to follow a white-led party line and to put their specific concerns aside for now (which really means over and over again forever), no matter how horrible their specific experiences are compared to white and/or cis women.

I am not rejecting my shared plights with POC when I insist on being called Black. I am not being divisive when I say I am a Black person first and a POC secondarily. I am asserting my identity and my experience. I am embracing my racial history and culture and being proud of who and what I am. Being Black has a ton to do with how I was raised, the way I speak, the food I hold dear, the notions I hold sacred, the music I love and the way I dance—and so much more. The same is true of so many Latinx or Hispanic people and Asian people in all their varied forms, and other POC who are not just part of some monolithic group called “people of color.”

I am also identifying myself in a specific way because my blackness causes me to be treated in a way that other POC are not, just as their race or ethnicity or both cause them to be treated in a different way than me.

We have a shared struggle against white supremacy, but burying our cultural and racial identities under the term POC to me doesn’t feel like it will honor our ancestors, our history or our culture.

It seems to me it will only help to erase or obscure them, and that serves whiteness more than it serves us, I think.

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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