Self-care is fighting racism

I wrote my first piece on race in the fall of 2003. My mother was dying but she did live long enough to read a few of my pieces in both the Portland Press Herald and the Portland Phoenix. At the time, I had no idea that writing about racism would fundamentally change my life.

In 2008, when I started this site, my main goal was to write the type of pieces that editors typically squashed at that time for fear of upsetting their readership. It was also a way for me to connect with other Black people and also non-Black people of color living in predominantly white spaces. Again, I had no idea how much this site and my work would eventually change my life.

As I have shared many times, I would later go on to become the executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston-based anti-racism organization that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

Given the fact that I run an anti-racism organization and write and speak about racism, I spend a lot of time thinking about racism—more so than the average Black person, and the average Black person has to deal with and think about racism a lot. So, as a Black woman in America—thinking about racism almost 24/7 is not always a good thing.

Unlike my white colleagues and peers in anti-racism work (and outside it) taking a break from my work is harder than one might think. After all, I can take some time off from the day job, this site and speaking gigs, but I can’t take a break from being Black in America.

Over the years, I have written extensively about how racism can creep into everyday life. It was four years ago this month, where a family outing to tell the kids that their father and I were separating turned into a racial moment that went viral. A trip for gelato became the day that my then nine-year-old daughter had her first experience with the n-word.

The number of moments that have become racialized events are too numerous to count and frankly, the majority of these events occurred long before Trump became President. The day my daughter experienced the pain of that horrid word, Barack Obama, our nation’s first Black president, was still in office.

In other words, America had a racism problem long before Trump. It’s just that prior to Trump taking office, racism was on simmer and Trump turned the fire up. Simmering racism is just as toxic as the raging flames of racism—it just might kill you slower.

Since 2016, we have seen average people of all hues attempt to address the racial issues in this country and while that’s a great thing. The problem is that anti-racism work requires constant self-care, self-awareness and, at times, the ability to detach.

Given my work, that may sound surprising but the truth is, you cannot stay in this work long term without knowing your limits and when to walk away.

As Kenny Rogers sang in “The Gambler”: You gotta know when to hold’ em, know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away and know when to run

For Black folks and other people of color, this work of anti-racism isn’t just our work or even our side-gig; it’s our lives. Day to day and hour to hour. A rarely acknowledged truth is that even within the anti-racism community, when we are with our white colleagues, the relationships can be toxic and take a toll on us.

I repeat: Even in anti-racism spaces, white folks can and do cause harm. These are our allies and accomplices, who often by their own lack of awareness perpetuate the same systems of oppression that we are fighting against.

Which means even the good guys have the potential to be the villains and that means that we are getting it on two fronts. As you still have to exist in the larger world, which is filled with white people who have not a clue and are slamming you left and right with either direct racism or microaggressions.

You can fight each and every act of racism that comes at you, and while it may be the right thing to do, it will probably destroy you. We are not designed to be in a state of flight or fight all the time. It feels awful and it’s harmful. Stress in Black bodies is real and is one of the reasons for the greater level of health problems many of us face compared to white people. We can’t be on all the time.

I am not saying to stop fighting, but instead saying that we need discernment in picking our battles—and also knowing when to walk away. If the work is too much, it’s okay to sit out the protest, calls, etc. It’s okay to unplug and just take care of yourself. More important, though, is creating a community or a few good people who can hold you in community. People you can be real with and who know you and the work.

In recent years, many people, particularly young Black and Brown people, have come into movement work and I worry about whether we are giving them the support they need. Our work requires being in both community and relationship with one another, it’s what allows for accountability in the work. It’s also what nourishes us in the darker moments of the work.

In a world that struggles with the inherent beauty and value of Black life, it is a radical concept to love yourself so completely as a Black person that you put yourself first and tend to your inner garden as part of your movement work.


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The virtues of anger

Anti-racism work is tiring. Unlike other jobs (whether it’s truly your day job like with me or virtually a job like for those who dedicate their off time to it), where time off is important to one’s overall sense of well being, it doesn’t necessarily work the same. Doing anti-racism work as a Black woman in Trump’s America means that even time off can be a loaded issue. After all, racism, whether personal or systemic doesn’t operate on my time clock nor does it take a break. I have had racism find me on vacation, when shopping, when eating, when caring for an ailing family member…oh yeah, any activity that I engage in can be interrupted by white supremacy and racism. It’s just an uncomfortable truth and it has always been an uncomfortable truth.

As a result, I believe in blowing off steam by any means necessary. When I learned that letting things out was vital to my well-being, my anxiety decreased and my blood pressure thanked me. My usual venue for blowing off steam is Twitter. Those who follow me on Twitter tend to know this. Despite the site being a cesspool so often these days, there is still much good and useful about it. And, as someone who often works alone and from home, Twitter serves as a de-facto water cooler. I can pop in and pop out.

A few days ago, I did just that. A well-meaning but racially ignorant white acquaintance made a comment and it was the type of comment that will never fail to piss me off. For some reason, white people and their system of whiteness believes that when a Black person or other non-white person experiences racism, that it is far more important to “go high” or be a classy act than it is to stand in truth.

As a 46-year-old Black woman, who has been Black all my life. I am here to tell you that being the “better person” in the face of injustice get tiring; it wears on you. And after a while, it steals your humanity. Between the large acts of racism and the daily microaggressions that are pretty much par for the course, that means you spend more than half of your waking hours (assuming you are a POC around white people) stuffing down your feelings and playing a role. What people see on the outside does not match what’s on the inside. You are seething with rage and you can’t or don’t express it because if you do, you risk being labeled. And as long as most of us earn our daily bread working in white-owned institutions, showing up in our fullness as people is simply not an option.

So, after fielding an ignorant comment from the casual, white acquaintance, I went on Twitter to blow off steam and that’s when things got weird.

A white woman tweeted back to tell me that she was unfollowing me because my tweet was sad and that I need to find peace with myself and the world because my anger is poisonous.

*blinks*

So, a Black woman expressing herself is poisonous? Clearly this woman didn’t know or care that she was the embodiment of what Black folks deal with everyday. The denial of our humanity via tone policing. Tone policing is one of the oldest tools in a white liberal’s bag when it comes to race. Rather than seeking to get at the heart of what’s causing the anger, the anger becomes the focal point.

Remember, this all started because of the casual acquaintance suggesting that I should go high/be a classy act and now a random white woman on Twitter is telling me that I need to find some peace.

Instead of asking how they can be a part of the solution and work toward becoming actively anti-racist, the onus is placed on me (or any marginalized person) to a better person. There are times in life, when being the better person can be a good option, but never has Black humanity been granted by being the bigger person. If one is constantly abused by the system and individual white people, how is shrugging that off “better” or “bigger?” When has passively accepting chronic abuse caused it to disappear? Giving a pass to the oppressors only gives them license to continue.

Systemic racism and white supremacy will not be dismantled by being a better person. If that were the case, racism should have been eradicated during Barack Obama’s eight years as U.S. president. Obama and his wife were always going high and this country thanked them by electing an ignorant buffoon and openly racist, sexist SOB. People may have admired the Obama’s both in and out of office but even when the most powerful man in the world was a Black man, the needle didn’t move on racism. Instead, a nastier and more virulent form of racism sprouted up in our collective yards. Weeds on steroids.

To be honest, it is disheartening when people who would probably see themselves as allies of sorts engage in the same violent behavior towards POC as the openly racist. Make no mistake, tone policing is violent and harmful. It also widens the gulf and ensures that no real change will happen.

Whiteness is a system of rules and norms designed to ensure the long-term survival of white supremacy. One of those norms is discomfort with uncomfortable feelings and an avoidance of the unpleasant and uncomfortable. Another of those norms is a minimizing of the feelings of those harmed.

Black people, Indigenous people and other marginalized groups have every right to their anger. As a Black person whose ancestors were enslaved and whose father grew up under Jim Crow laws and who lives every day of my life fighting to be seen as fully human, I am very angry. Thankfully, I have learned to use my anger for good by working for social change. Anger and a willingness to not accept the status quo is often the fuel that motivates people to change. If you can move past the place of being immobilized by anger or wildly flailing about with it and instead by fueled by it, your anger can be a source of good and you can actually find peace by being angry.

The question I have is: Why aren’t the good white people angrier? Why can’t white people who purport to care about racial justice use their anger and privilege for systemic change instead of stifling the anger of marginalized people? Why can’t white people use their anger to confront the bigots in their lives? Instead, only racist white people are actively at work using their anger to protect their self interest, which is to maintain whiteness and white supremacy. And it’s getting them pretty far lately.

Rather than feeling sorry, shocked or immobilized, tap into your anger and let it be the guiding light on your journey to change.


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Making the grade or paying for it: Meritocracy is a lie; so are quotas

So, let’s talk a bit about the college admission testing scam, bribery, fraud story that involves dozens of parents with enough money to try to buy their kids’ way into college but somehow not enough to educate and raise them well enough to make it into college on their own.

This is the part where, probably, those of you who don’t like me much will mutter, “She makes everything about race” and even those of you who agree with me a lot here might say, “Are we really surprised that people with money buy their kids’ way into college?” So, there may be a bunch of eye-rolling as people read this, because it may not seem like a racial issue.

But it really is. A good chunk of it anyway.

I mean, on one hand it’s both absurd and funny. We have a list of people who may or may not go to jail but nonetheless are facing serious federal charges, among them the actors Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman (though somehow Huffman’s husband, actor William H. Macy dodged being charged with anything). And jokes about “Aunt Becky” from “Fuller House” going bad or Macy possibly somehow avoiding arrest for what some of his iconic characters get nailed for are all well and good out there on those social media streets, and I’ve made some of them myself, but this is serious business.

And I need to say it again: Race matters here.

A New York Times article talked about some of why it matters, including as one interviewed source said: “This scandal exposed the fact that there is a misplaced emphasis on so-called affirmative action inequities, rather than privilege.”

I mean, you’ve heard people before gripe about “quotas” and people only getting into college because they’re not white, right? Maybe even had some of those thoughts yourself. You may recall a few years back Abigail Fisher, a white woman who sued claiming she didn’t get into the school of her choice because some person of color got her spot instead (instead of because her grades weren’t good enough), which ultimately failed but points to how pervasive this belief is, given that she actually decided to ram her case through the courts even though she didn’t deserve the admission. And think about it: How could she possibly know a person of color got her spot anyway?

Black parents in particular often have to tell their kids that they will have to work twice as hard to get as much as a white person does—and the reality is that we often get half as much for working twice as hard.

So much of the country buys into the lies that students of color, especially Black ones, are getting into schools without any qualifications and effort. People have accused me of getting my degrees only because I’m Black while also suggesting that I got a free ride for them for being Black. Let me tell you, the more than $100,000 I owe in student loans says otherwise. And after working my ass off for both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I spent years in low-paying positions (which people still assumed I didn’t deserve because I was Black) before getting the one I have now that actually pays me something approaching what I’m worth, and people still want to say I’m not qualified despite my continued successes.

I’m not alone. Black women, for example, are among the most educated people around and yet they have massive debt as a result and continue to be underpaid and under-represented in high-level positions.

To be honest, it’s really galling to me that the Lori Loughlins and Felicity Huffmans and William H. Macys of the world (and their non-celebrity ilk) have been getting away with this kind of thing for years and people shrug and say “That’s the way it’s always been” and then have the nerve to question the right of someone like me to be in a school or to prosper from my degree.

Here are some other random thoughts about why this scandal matters in terms of race for a lot of non-white people but most especially Black ones:

  • We are constantly told that we’re held back by laziness or lack of ability and told to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and yet the mediocre white people get to ascend the ranks constantly (remember slacker George W. Bush with his “gentleman’s C” grades in the Ivy League who got to be president…or the even less academically minded orange guy currently in the White House). That means mediocre (or worse) white people with fewer qualifications get to regularly and typically exert power and authority over smarter, more competent non-white ones.
  • Nobody questions that some partying, slacking white person in a college or university got there on merits, but we get questions about whether we’re part of a quota only because of the color of our skin, while we’re often making the grade and working our asses off to earn money.
  • People in this current scandal were faking sports participation/talent by their kids with doctored records and photos because their grades weren’t good enough, while non-white kids who get athletic scholarships and have good grades get accused of being idiots who only got into college because they can dribble or kick or pass a ball.
  • Black people who use other peoples’ addresses (like Tonya McDowell or Kelley Williams-Bolar) to ensure their kids can go to decent high schools under safe conditions have been given felony convictions and jail time—just for trying to make sure their kids get basic education. And I will be very surprised if the white people in this current scandal get much, if any, time at all in the end (possibly not even convictions). And even if they do, there are all those white people out there who did “less illegal” ways of getting their kids into college who probably think jailing those Black parents for faking an address is just fine, and that ain’t right.
  • Meanwhile, while people complain about “affirmative action” that doesn’t really hold white people back from opportunities at all and those same people claim to be all about real educations for people who “deserve it,” yet they also tend to be silent on the lack of funding for schools in largely non-white areas, leading to a $23-billion funding gap between mostly white schools compared to most non-white ones. They ain’t about educational equality; they’re about trying to ensure that Black, Latinx and Indigenous people are as under-educated and given as few opportunities as possible and that the social status quo of white’s first remains intact.

In the wake of this admissions scandal hitting the news, white America and Black America in particular are having two different discussions about it. And while it isn’t all about race, the problem is that in too many of the white discussions there isn’t any time devoted to the racial implications at all. And that’s why the affirmative action myth and all the related myths will continue to dominate for so many of them when they see a Black or brown person in a university setting and question their right to be there or look at their degree on a resume and disregard its validity.


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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash