Cherish myself? But I’m a white woman…

When I wrote about racism back in the days of my Bangor Daily News column, the comments always included someone telling me I shouldn’t “hate myself” because I’m white. I always thought the readers were missing the point—I had worked through “white guilt” back in the ‘80s and ‘90s. I knew all the facts about how I wasn’t a “bad person” necessarily just because I’m white. Learning about the horrors of racism and facing the truth required me to stretch into knowing that I wasn’t personally a bad person and also that because of my social location I have played a part in upholding oppressive and violent racist systems.

About 10 years ago, I lost a friendship with a woman who is Black because I still hadn’t dug into my own skewed way of being in the world. I didn’t understand how whiteness—not “being white” but rather the culture of white supremacy—shaped how I lived. With spiritual practice, lots of reading and workshops and conversations, I’ve been growing in my own racial identity. I thought I didn’t have “white guilt” anymore. The systems aren’t my fault; I just need to work to change them.

Let me add that as I’m writing about my personal experiences as a white woman from a privileged and liberal background, I am not speaking for all white people. I have my own emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physiological life that informs my racial identity growth; my individual experience is unique to me, but there are many aspects of it that I know are common to other white people who have gone before me and who are now on this journey toward collective liberation. And, we white people who want to live in solidarity with people of color need to know ourselves. We need to understand and change the parts we play in upholding white supremacy if we are ever going to be trustworthy.

A week or so ago, a white friend—having white friends who are invested in transformational healing as white people is so important—and I met on Zoom so I could process a cross-racial/cross-class/cross-gender social experience I had where I was stuck in my head, frantically unable to be present in my body. She told me that she was curious about my mentioning that I am working on “shedding whiteness” (something I’ve written about here before a lot). She said, “But you are white, how is that something you can shed?” And I was puzzled, because I know she understands the concept of “whiteness,” so I said, “I’m not trying to shed being white, I’m totally fine with being white.” She said, “I’m going to stop you there…really? Are you sure?”

Cue the big dramatic DUN DUN DUNHHHHHH music.

Whoa.

What?

A lightbulb went off in my head (and because we were using embodied practices in our Zoom call the light flowed through my body)! Holy crap. Wait. Am I okay with being white?

My friend on this call invited me to use a Buddhist practice of breathing in and saying to myself “I cherish myself,” and breathing out, “I cherish all beings.” Cherish myself? When it’s white women who are used as a tool to kill people? See “How White Women Use Themselves as Instruments of Terror” for some examples. Everything Hannah L. Drake writes in “Karen Is You” lines up with my own process of looking in the mirror and finding racism (especially anti-blackness) that initially horrified me and threw me into an identity crisis. I always considered myself “one of the good ones,” before I started digging.

In my heart and in my brain, I know that cherishing myself, holding myself as beloved, will benefit everyone around me. But, the conflict of facing the truth of how horrific white women have been and continue to be has blocked me. There’s shame I’m uncovering. It’s too newly discovered to share understandings about it, yet, but I am sure it isn’t something helpful. A consultant I’ve been working with described a scene from Game of Thrones where a character was walking down a street naked and people were throwing rotten vegetables at her. I have to admit, I think I’ve been doing that to myself. And I’m also blocked because I’m “not supposed to center myself” and I’m also finding out that I need to learn how to love myself as a white woman.

This isn’t linear or tidy or simple. Thankfully, I’m finding the path of excavating the garbage from inside me is also a path of joy and connection with the world around me. One thing I’m sure of: I have a lot to learn.


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A double-dose of empathy?

I used to get road rage. Like, real road rage. It was bad. I mean, I’ve never gotten into a physical altercation with another motorist, but I’d be lying if I told you there weren’t several occasions on which I’d gotten out of my car. Not my proudest moments, hypothetically. COVID means I haven’t been on tour and since I’m not in my car all the time, you’d think my road rage would calm down a bit. The opposite is true. It turns out, being on the road all the time actually gave me a callus for bad drivers. Not being on the road rid me of this callus and on the rare occasions I found myself driving, my road rage was worse than ever.

The cause of my road rage is always the recklessness of other drivers. Always. It angers me to no end how thoughtless, selfish and even malicious some can be when others’ lives are at stake. But, you know, a Black man getting out of his car yelling in traffic is tempting fate, so I needed to make a change.

So, I did.

I figured if my problem was others’ lack of empathy, then I’d just double up on my own. I decided to grant everyone an assumption of emergency. That guy who stepped out in front of me at a green light? Well, he probably just received the worst news of his life. That guy who cut me off? He’s probably rushing to give a family member a ride to the hospital because they can’t afford an ambulance. The guy riding my tail? Same guy, with the family member in tow.

You know what? It worked. I’m not going to tell you it wasn’t a struggle, and it definitely took a minute, but it absolutely worked. Last night a BMW flew up behind me on a windy country road. He was less than a foot away from me with LED headlights so bright I’m sure the driver could see my skeleton. I thought to myself, this guy’s probably got a cooler with a beating heart inside trying to get to the hospital! I just pulled over, the guy rocketed past me and my heart rate didn’t raise a single BPM.

This country often thinks of its own problems around race similarly—single, problematic individuals who we need to empathize with. They just don’t know any better, right? If you’ve ever read this blog before, you know that’s wrong. Personally, as far as arguments with racist individuals go, I don’t have them. I don’t engage at all. If I’m going to argue with someone, they need to have a certain level of education on the subject. Education primarily comes from experience and/or study and anyone who’s ever tried to argue with me about race has never had either.

Also, when it comes to single individuals, the problems with race in America are perpetuated much more often by the less obviously racist.

The core problem, of course, is not the individual, but the systems that are designed to empower racists and their ideas throughout the country. For example, last week a Louisiana judge got caught on tape laughing and yelling the n-word. The systemic problems caused by a racist judge can be obvious, and so the solution can seem obvious: fire the judge. The deeper problem is that she comes from a community that allowed these ideas to flourish or flat out encouraged them. The same can be said of the educational institutions that accredited her and the legal institutions that enabled and rewarded her.

The problems with COVID-19 are frustratingly similar. Even though this is a systemic problem, we are led to blame the individual. The numbers go up and we’re told it is the fault of the unvaccinated. Well, we all started as unvaccinated and since then the majority of us have either been vaccinated or died. There are fewer and fewer unvaccinated people every day, as has been the pattern since the vaccines were made available. Clearly the recent enormous rise in COVID cases and deaths cannot be caused by the ever-shrinking number of the unvaccinated.

On November 26, 111 people went to a party in Oslo, Norway. Even though all were fully vaccinated and all tested negative before entering, the party ended with 80 of the attendees infected with COVID-19. Vaccines are not enough, tests are not enough, and blaming the unvaccinated is not enough.

Yes, assholes exist. As far as I can tell they always have and always will. We can bet our lives hoping that every single one of them will suddenly and permanently mend their ways—which absolutely will not happen—or we can find empathy within ourselves and demand systemic change. Despite test or vaccination status, you can still become infected and still put others at risk. Don’t do that. Don’t go to parties. Don’t go to restaurants. Don’t travel. Stay home. And while you’re at home push for mask mandates in your community. Contact your representatives and demand stimulus checks and shutdowns.

We know what to do. We’ve just got to do it.


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Maine is changing and diversifying

Over the years, people have asked many times what brought me to Maine. I used to tell folks that I was in the witness protection program, but when people started taking me seriously, I started giving the short answer: family reasons.

Family reasons indeed are why I landed in Maine almost 20 years ago, but even that simple answer is far more complex. I moved to Maine in 2002 due to a then-nasty and protracted custody battle with my first husband. The sanitized and public version is that we needed to be in the same state and he wasn’t coming back to Chicago—and regardless of who did what, our son deserved better than to be a frequent flier before the age of 10. 

Suffice to say, moving to Maine didn’t bring me joy. But as a mother, I would walk the depths of hell, literally and figuratively, when it comes to my children. There are three people in this world who I would lay my life down for if I had to: my son, my daughter, and my grandson. Given the length I will go to for my kids, moving to Maine wasn’t such a bad sacrifice.

However, the daily reality of Maine in 2002 was otherworldly compared to my life in Chicago. Believe it or not, despite the questions I’ve gotten over the years about it, the weather here has never been an issue. Look, I was born in the dead of winter in Chicago. The city’s nickname is the Windy City, and the wind in Chicago isn’t just the wind, it’s called the Hawk. Growing up, winters with temperatures of 5 degrees Fahrenheit with a wind chill of 20-below were not uncommon. Long underwear was a staple of my youth. And snow? Before the acceleration of climate change, snow and lots of it was part of my winter life. I will never forget starting a new job in 1998 and needing to call out on my first day due to 18 inches of snow and the city buses being delayed. My new employer was not pleased. In the Chicago of my youth, 18 inches of snow didn’t stop the show. 

No, the weather was fine; winters on the Southern Maine Coast were temperate compared to the brutal winters of Chicago, and summers were a delight—again, before the acceleration of climate change. 

What was otherworldly to me was how utterly white Maine was at that time. How the state was physically so white and how the culture of whiteness was so deeply embedded that it didn’t even allow for the possibility of others to survive and thrive in this state. Things as simple as buying a tube of flattering lipstick or getting a proper haircut in the state’s largest city were virtually impossible in the early aughts for Black folks. I often would trek down to Boston to get my hair done and just to see Black people. 

It was not uncommon in my early years to go days without seeing another Black person or any person of color. I have never forgotten my camping trip to the Millinocket region in 2009 or so, when we went to a diner on Main Street in Millinocket and there was a Black man in the diner. He literally ran over and hugged me and said “Hello sista!” Everyone in the diner thought I was a long-lost family member. But I understood him, even though having a stranger hug me was weird. 

Around the time I moved to Maine in 2002, Somali immigrants relocated to Maine—primarily in the Lewiston area—and frankly it was scary times, as the then-mayor of Lewiston was openly hostile to the newcomers and white supremacist activity was visible. Despite living almost 50 miles south of Lewiston, I was terrified—and yet, I had to be in Maine. For my son. 

When I started my now defunct “Diverse City” column in 2003 for the Portland Phoenix, I was immediately met with pushback and death threats. Starting this blog in 2008 and gaining national visibility in 2012, thanks to the blatant racism of then-governor Paul LePage, only raised the stakes and helped put a permanent target on my back. 

My early years in this state were painful and oftentimes, writing was my only solace. It also allowed me to connect with others. But as the years have passed, things have shifted, Maine is still overwhelmingly white but Black people and other POC have become more visible. By the 2010s, it was possible to get a haircut in this state and find lipstick, and there were more folks of color getting involved in local communities and gaining visibility. 

However, racism is not erased because we allow a few folks to become visible. Black visibility alone doesn’t start to dismantle white supremacy. Black folks and other POC accessing the levers of power does create change, though—however creepingly incremental—because ultimately racism is about power and privilege. 

Until recently, there was one known name in Maine as far as Black folks: Talbot. The Talbots go back at least eight generations in Maine. Gerald Talbot was the first Black legislator in the Maine legislature and he was also the founding president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP. Gerald’s daughters are all trailblazers, including his daughter Rachel. Rachel was the first Black woman elected to the Maine legislature and currently serves as assistant majority leader of the Maine House of Representatives. 

Thanks in large part to the path blazed by the Talbots, change was coming—and it continues at a more rapid pace today. In the past several years, we have seen an increase in Black and brown folks not only running for public office but getting elected in the whitest state in America. 

This week, South Portland, Maine’s fourth-largest city, with a demographic that is 90% white, just installed its first-ever for the United States: a Somali-American mayor. That would be Deqa Dhalac, who only entered the political arena a few years ago. 

Just over the bridge in Portland, our largest city, earlier this week, new city councilors were sworn in, including Roberto Rodriquez, who is Puerto Rican, and Victoria Pelletier, a young Black woman. In fact, our city council is now a minority majority. We have two Black women sitting on Portland’s school board, Mickey Bondo and Nyalat Biliew.

We also have the Portland Charter Commission where five of the twelve Commissioners are people of color, which includes yours truly. All over the state we are seeing Black folks and other POC moving into leadership positions, including Angela Okafor, who serves on the Bangor City Council, and Craig Hickman, who after serving several terms in the Maine House of Representatives now serves in the Maine Senate. In addition, we have Maulian Dana who serves as the Penobscot Nation Tribal Ambassador. No doubt my frazzled perimenopausal brain has forgotten someone, but it is not an intentional oversight. 

While it is easy to get bogged down in the day-to-day minutia and feelings that as people of color we are erased in Maine, we are not. We are not only growing in numbers, we are growing in access to power and the ability to effect change, which recently has included the creation of The Permanent Commission on the Status of Racial, Indigenous and Maine Tribal Populations.

It might be easy to say this change is nothing more than tokenism or limited to POC with class privilege, but most of us didn’t come from privilege. While many of us are newcomers to the state, we are united in our desire to make a difference in our state and to ensure that future generations of youth of color in Maine will see themselves represented in their communities. 

Often we expect immediate large-scale, visible change but rarely does change happen that way, especially without legislative action. It’s sort of how I started working out this year, but the number on the scale hasn’t gone down to my liking. But my pants are looser, I feel stronger, and working out no longer feels like a torture session. It has taken 12 months to notice the actual changes happening in my body. In the case of race in this state, it has taken almost 20 years for being Black in Maine to no longer feel like a lonely existential crisis. 


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