Raising kids of color in very white places

For the last several years of my marriage, while we never doubted  that there was love between us, we were uncomfortably aware that there was something deeply amiss in our relationship. We spent our last few years together doing everything in our power to keep the relationship going until it became painfully obvious that love was not enough and that, on many levels, we were deeply mismatched as a romantic unit. That revelation, while painful, allowed us to end our romantic coupling and transition into our coparenting relationship with little of the anger and animosity that is often present when couples split up. Despite our differences, my former life partner and coparent remains one of my favorite people.

I find myself thinking about the end of that relationship and the clarity and strength it took for us to make that decision as I ponder the realities of raising a Black girl—now 13 years old—in a very white state. I must admit that I am wondering if raising Black children in such spaces is not borderline abusive. Is living in these spaces, even as an adult, a form of self-harm?

By the time I was 13, I had already had Black teachers; it’s almost 40 years later and I still remember my second grade teacher—the first teacher I knew who shared my race. By the time I was 13, several of my best friends were, like me, also Black girls with Southern roots and  working-class backgrounds. While I attended racially integrated schools, our home and family spaces were Black. I never had to struggle to see myself represented in my immediate life.

My weekends were rich experiences that involved shopping, living and loving with people who looked like me. I did not have to explain my family’s ways of being and have my friends inquire about why my parents were so strict.  While I had to code switch, and most certainly had awkward moments especially in my teen years, my existence and reality was so much more than being Black because I did not have to fight to exist. I simply existed.

In my 17 years here in Maine, I have seen Black folks and other people of color come and go. In many cases, the realities of always having to think about race and the energy of living that reality takes its toll.

My daughter will be wrapping up her middle school career in one of Maine’s most diverse schools, never having had Black friends or any non-white teachers. Despite me being her mother and my work around race, her external experiences are shaped by whiteness. We live in a state where our numbers are so few that we are reduced to simply being People of Color. No, we are not just people of color, we are  Black people and specifically, we are the descendants of enslaved Africans.

My Facebook feed is filled with the painful struggles that so many  twenty-something Black Mainers endure in their day-to-day lives, from racial slurs at work to the realities of dating while Black in a white state. I fear that our entire lives in this space are shaped by race.

In a country built on white supremacy, race will always matter but true wellness requires a more expansive view of ourselves beyond our race. Yet if leaving the house becomes an act of war that requires donning our mental shields and armor, what are the long-term implications? It’s not healthy to be in battle mode every time we leave the house and yet it is the reality for many.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of being a keynote panelist at the New England Grassroots Environment Fund Root Skill conference which was held in Brattleboro, Vermont. The panel was racially diverse, so I was not the only non-white panelist. We were asked what we love about our communities—we all shared that we loved the natural beauty of New England and the overall feeling but for the panelists of color, the realities of being non-white  in these white spaces is never far away.

The thing is, after 17 years, I can say that there are some real changes happening. When I started writing about race in 2003 for the now defunct Portland Phoenix, I had to tread lightly and often my pieces were watered down and yet, I still received death threats for daring to name race.

In recent weeks, Maine has done away with Columbus Day and become one of fewer than 10 states in the nation to do so and replace it with Indigenous People Day. Maine’s governor just signed a bill banning Indigenous mascots within public schools. Conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion are becoming more commonplace across sectors and with individuals. And yet the day-to-day realities of living here as a non-white person, for all the progress, remains fraught, tense and downright uncomfortable at times.

It’s a place where microaggressions are as common as the morning coffee even with allies, and where I fear that for too many allies, anti-racism work is an academic activity that resides in the head and not the heart. A place where few white people are interested in giving up any privilege but are happy to show up at the rally and be a fierce online advocate. But in real life? Disrupt the status quo? Less so.

So for each step forward, it is still a half step back, meaning that the process of change will take a very long time. In the meantime, what becomes of the Black people and other people of color living here? Do we pack up and leave because it’s too much or do we stay? Do we raise our children here or do we take them away from the beauty of the state and all the joys of Maine because whiteness is toxic and—while we can never escape the toxicity of whiteness in this culture—at least being in spaces where we exist in greater numbers can provide some protection from the more virulent forms of white toxicity?

If only I had the answer…


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Actions I take (as a white woman) to help dismantle white supremacy

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation, liberation.]

“What actions do we take to help dismantle white supremacy?” I asked my nearly-10-year-old to help me brainstorm for this post. Of course, I already know a lot of the things I do on a daily basis, but I’d say 90 percent of the racial justice work I do is mostly internal or bit by bit with other individual white people. I know that internal and individual work is an essential part of the process of recreating our systems, but I want to share in this post actual actions I take as a white woman in this work.

I suggested to my daughter that our listening (and re-listening) to and discussing the “Seeing White” podcast series by Scene On Radio was an action we are taking. She disagreed because, she said, “That’s not action, that’s just education and learning.” She has a point. I want to get beyond the stuff I’ve talked about before in this space; I’ve already talked about self-education, reading and learning from people of color, and (as the kids say today) “diving deeper“ into my own inner world’s messy complicity in white supremacy to shed the garbage and be in the world differently.

One more thing I want to address before I share some of the actions I take is how uncomfortable it makes me to tell you about it. The magnitude of racial injustice in the United States is so vast, whatever I do will not be “enough” if I look at it through a white supremacist lens. Meaning, the perfectionism and the discomfort I feel is a part of what keeps be from sharing. I also don’t want to seem like a “show off.” I return to this document describing “white supremacy culture” very frequently when I’m feeling blocked. I see how white supremacy is keeping me quiet, I assess the context (have I been invited to share?), and I move through the fears.

What actions do I take to help dismantle white supremacy? Some of what I do is:

  • set aside several (usually five to 10) hours each month to do pro-bono grant winning or other consulting services for people of color who are engaged in systemic change work;
  • risk being seen as the “Debbie Downer” just about everywhere I go. For example, when I catch us white people falling into some of our patterns—such as believing we’re the “good ones” so it’s okay to politely coerce people of color to join our activities before we’re ready or safe for them—I find the courage to say something and help our white people groups take steps back and look at ourselves;
  • share resources with my daughters’ teachers and offer to help. I am so grateful that both of my daughters’ schools are doing great work in racial justice, but part of dismantling white supremacy is not being alone in the work, so sharing resources and offering help is a part of that;
  • attend events and participate in workshops geared toward helping us white people do better, such as Racial Justice and the Beloved Community (New England Yearly Meeting [Quakers]), or Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with our own Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving (author of Waking Up White);
  • hold a bi-monthly “whiteness class” with my daughters where we explore what it means to be white. If whiteness means oppression and greed and self-centeredness—and history shows that it does—how can we be white and good? (It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen without effort). We listen to podcasts or watch movies and discuss, we set our own “homework” assignments and check in with each other about what we’re working on, and, most of all, we practice talking about racism and whiteness. We also notice how easy it is to let our good intentions slide because racial justice work can seem like it’s not “life or death.” We keep making the time for it.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve shared with you some of the actions I take on a very regular basis to help dismantle white supremacy. I hope these examples can be helpful for you white readers. I’d also recommend looking at this list or this program/workbook for other ideas that might work in your own life.


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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Calling All White People, Part 33: Racism isn’t the white person’s call

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: Sorry, but white people don’t get to define what is racist  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

I know that most of us white people want to have a say in everything and express an opinion about anything we like, but guess what? We don’t get to decide when we are being racist. And we don’t have any place jumping into discussions and defending other white people who have offended people of color (POC), especially Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC).

I know that probably grates on many of you, but we just don’t have any business defending ourselves or other white people against the vast majority of claims of racism or doing something racist, even if the person isn’t of racist persuasion overall in life.

I’ve done racist things, however minor they might be—or rather, how minor I perceive them, even if I perceive them at all—but I don’t get to say “That wasn’t racist!” Because if there is a person who feels I’ve done something racist to them, chances are that they are either flat-out 100-percent right or at least “right enough” that they have a case to call me on tapping into white supremacy or white privilege in a damaging way.

Period.

I can choose to examine what I did wrong or what I did that hurt someone. I can work to change my behavior. But I don’t get to determine whether my actions were racist on some level, whether overt or subtle or somewhere in between.

I can already hear some people muttering (or even yelling), “But…free speech!”

OK, when the government is arresting people or otherwise oppressing them for their speech, we can talk about whether the First Amendment applies. But it has nothing to do with private citizens or companies or any of that. It’s to protect you against the government. If your speech is hateful or otherwise problematic, you are subject to potential consequences from other people, your employer and more. Deal with it.

And you know, part of the problem with Nazis and other white supremacists these days getting to have platforms and go on TV shows to air their filthy views and all that is because we keep acting like “free speech” is something to which everyone is entitled to in every venue, and it’s simply not true. And Nazis and their ilk shouldn’t be given platforms and humanizing profiles in the New York Times and crap like that. Even if they aren’t talking about extermination of POC or other “undesirables” they talk freely of separating the races. And that’s not to give everyone a safe and level playing field. You see, if we look at Black people, for example, Jim Crow laws were enacted in the wake of Reconstruction following the Civil War because white people didn’t like the gains and progress (and potentially power) that Black people were building. And when they found success in various places, like the creation of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa and similar progress, white people literally tore down and burned down those efforts to stop them from progress. And in the 1970s and beyond, when the Black Panthers and others were actively protecting Black communities or talking about “Black power” and feeding the poor and things like that, they got labeled as terrorists and sometimes, police would just do things like firebomb them and their kids. And oh, the 1980s? Let’s further set back Black people by sending people to prison and giving them felonies and ruining their lives forever just for using crack cocaine and other drugs. And when we talk about how POC should get college educations to get ahead and then they do…and we still don’t hire them or if we do we don’t pay them enough—instead, they get to earn in many cases the same amount of money or less (and have access to fewer opportunies) compared white guys with high school educations—or even white high school dropouts for that matter.

But, as almost always is the case, I digress.

I was really talking about how we white people want to define whether any of our actions are really racist. We want to talk about our intent, when the fact is that impact is more important than intent.  (And yes, the accepted and accurate description of racism needs to be “privilege/power + prejudice” because being white gives inherent benefit of the doubt, power, access and forgiveness/second chances in society—it isn’t the same as non-racist prejudice or bigotry; the impact is far greater with racism)

I mean, do accused criminals get to define whether their actions are crimes? They may have their day in court and someone might defend their actions and try to downplay how criminal they really were or if punishment is necessary, but if you assault or steal from someone, you don’t get to suddenly jump in and offer an opinion about whether those actions are defined as crimes and then have the rules rewritten.

OK, I probably struck a nerve with some of you with the criminal comparison. You probably don’t like thinking of any “racially insensitive” or “racially charged” acts or words (and the proper phrase for both is racist acts) as being the same as a violent or very harmful crime.

All right…do abusers rightly have a say as to whether their actions are abuse? If someone beats their partner (spouse or lover or whatever) or parents resort to routinely striking their kids for any old infraction because heaven forbid they use words or non-violent punishments and consequences—do they get to say, “But I’m not abuser.” No. “I didn’t mean to hit her; she just pushed me and I snapped.” Sorry, that’s abusive. “But I was really angry and not thinking straight.” Nope, you’re an abuser. “If I don’t do something violent, they won’t behave right.” ABUSE.

Still probably some hurt feelings among some of you. You don’t like being compared to people who do domestic violence, either? You say that even if you did say or do something maybe a little racist at least it’s not like you put someone in the hospital. And yet abuse is also emotional and/or psychological, isn’t it?…and that still does damage and you know it. And, also, racist acts and words (like calling the police for minor issues or non-issues) can get POC, especially BIPOC, killed. So, yeah, the abuse/violence analogy works just fine here.

But hey, let me cut you some slack. Let me ease up on the violence comparisons. Not that I need to, but hey, let me be more relatable to those of you who are dying to debate me on some, many or all of the points I’ve already laid out.

Let’s take the example of a person going to human resources or an upper-level boss because they are being taken advantage of or mistreated by a person with supervisory power over them or at least some kind of seniority or something.

Not getting the connection? Well, if that’s the case, let me clarify: White supremacy and white privilege put white people at a level of seniority (not deserved, mind you) over POC, especially BIPOC. It even gives them “supervisory” power. How else does someone like “BBQ Becky” (or the dozens of similar women calling police on Black people just for existing) get to call in the police for nothing and typically not be charged with a crime. Also, a white guy can actually beat up a Black woman and threaten her with a gun and get initially charged with a misdemeanor (later upgraded to a felony only because the police and prosecutors realized what a shitstorm they’d unleash if they didn’t) and then the law enforcement folks charge the victim with a felony for damaging the man’s truck after her attack by him (apparently the charges have since been dropped but they shouldn’t have been filed in the first place and they probably wouldn’t have been dropped if not for very public outrage).

So, yes, we white people have an undeserved role of power (seniority or supervision) over POC. And just like you, going in with a complaint at work, don’t think the person who misused you should get to define whether their actions were “just fine” (because that’s why you lodged an official complaint and brought in third parties), the fact is that you know in a lot (maybe most) work situations, you are going to lose. No matter how right you are, that person will get a say in whether they did wrong. And they will get treated to more deference and leeway most likely, because they are in some level of power over you. And it isn’t right. It isn’t the way it should be.

You put yourself in a vulnerable position by lodging a complaint, and your abuser will probably be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to define whether their actions were abusive and reduce their blowback as a result.

You know that’s wrong.

When BIPOC and other people of color say something a white person does is racist, they are making themselves vulnerable—in particular to other white people who will rush to defend their abusers and even forgive them no matter how much the POC was hurt. Calls of the “race card” or “race baiting” or “reverse racism” will come from the fact they even said a single thing, and maybe the white person will lose their job or something. Maybe. But it’s the person of color who is going to get the endless attacks and harassment for “overreacting”—even death threats.

So, no, we white people don’t get to say when we are being racist.

We do get to say when we are sorry—and realize that even when we are, we don’t automatically (or maybe even ever) earn forgiveness. And whether we are forgiven or not, it is still upon us to change for the better.


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.