Finding courage

Last week, I saw a thread on twitter that got me thinking about Black people, white people (especially women), and the concept of courage. In the stream of tweets, Dr. Jenn M. Jackson wrote, “Courage and vulnerability require so much of us. And, I keep thinking about my Black foremothers and ancestors whose courage was about evading the noose or marooning from slave plantations.” She continued, “I’m not sure courage and vulnerability are big enough containers for Black willpower in the face of white violence.”

Reading those words again, I have to pause and sit with them. [I stopped typing and breathed with my physiological response for several minutes.] I have to pause because whiteness wants me to stay in my head, stay intellectualizing, stay thinking—all to avoid the depth of the feelings that come into my body when I consider the truth in those statements.

Yet another example of how essential “both/and” ways of being are required.

Breaking free from whiteness for me requires a significant level of courage. It requires courage because I have so very, very little experience living in a world that isn’t designed to protect me.

AND the courage required for me to be on a path of liberation is a whisper. It’s a microscopic droplet when compared with the kind of courage—and I want to repeat Dr. Jackson’s noting that “courage” as a word doesn’t feel big enough—that Black people must have to live in this world. As she writes, “For many Black folx, courage is the very thing the State uses to incarcerate them or put them in an early grave.”

[Again. Pausing. Breathing with and in this truth.]

One of the reasons I keep needing to pause and breathe as I write about Dr. Jackson’s message is because I have an emerging awareness of how much I don’t know and of how little courage I have had. That is to say: As a white woman, our dominant culture is built to protect me (the threat of sexual assault and other violence is a real too, though, another example of “both/and”). As readers of this blog surely already know, protecting white women like me has been used as an excuse and as a weapon to abuse, oppress, and murder Black people. Black people being some kinds of courageous can get them killed for doing nothing wrong.

Writing about the emotional courage that is required of me on this path toward collective liberation and dismantling white supremacy can land—can have the impact regardless of my intention—as a minimization of the courage required of Black people in their everyday lives. I want to be very clear here that the small story I am about to share reveals how far away from courage I am when it comes to breaking free from white supremacy.

Last spring, I participated in an “Embodied Social Justice” program. In most of the sessions we were led in various somatic embodiment practices to “arrive” in the class, frequently leading to what I would describe as a meditative state. In one session, after we had all reached a very centered space, the guide/teacher/instructor asked the Black and brown-bodied people one set of questions and then asked those of us who are white bodied a different set of questions. One of the questions touched a place of such deep terror that I was not able to stay with even the imagined experience of the answer for more than a few seconds. The instructor asked us to imagine: What it would be like to do something that would put us at risk of State violence?

[Pausing. Breathing. Not typing.]

Since that time, I have been taking steps to build resiliency and develop emotional skills that will allow me to reach and process that fear. It is this fear, along with others just as deep, that prevent me from being fully human and trustworthy as a potential “ally” or “conspirator” or whatever other word you want to use in transformational change work.

The fear that white supremacy has installed inside of me will insist that the racial justice work I do must be “safe” and, therefore, ensure that it will have limited impact. I believe it’s because we white people haven’t excavated our fears and because we don’t have a lot of skill when it comes to facing and holding horrific truths while also (both/and) continuing to live our lives that we historically have these cycles of awareness and action among well-meaning white people that always fizzles back down into apathy.

We must face what courage has been required of Black people (see Dr. Jackson’s tweets). We must face what our ancestors and now our peers and we ourselves continue doing to uphold the systems of oppression. We must have the courage to see that we have been willfully ignorant. We must work with each other to develop the capacity to stay in the truth. When George Floyd and Brianna Taylor were killed, so many white people were “activated.” For our own sake, so we can be fully human, and for the future of all the Earth, we must not let each other slide back into lies and avoidance.


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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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No strings donations: Breaking the cycle of privilege’s rules

A few months ago as I was walking with a friend, she was telling me about people in her home country who had even less money than she does. She was telling me about them because I had given her some money and she wanted to tell me about who the money was helping. I had a physiological response to her sharing the details of this with me. I desperately wanted her to stop. I’m still confused by this response, but am going to tease out some aspects of it here.

On the one hand, I come from a culture where we “don’t talk about money.” Talking about money signals a crassness, or, more accurately, a lack of the right kind of culture. While I didn’t grow up with enormous wealth, I grew up with people who did and I learned their language. I learned enough to know what it would take to be a part of their circles. I spoke their language with varying degrees of success.

As I’ve been practicing recovering from my addiction to whiteness, I’ve become more aware of all of the unwritten rules of speaking the language of class—and this is a cross-racial issue, though white people are more likely to be very wealthy and it’s white people I’ve known in this socioeconomic class. I wasn’t even aware that the rules were woven into me. They dictated how I moved in the world, and to a large extent they still have an impact. Even just thinking about writing this post made me feel tension in my gut, like I might be doing something shameful. I’ll get in trouble. I’ll lose access to networks. I’m not sure what else I’m afraid of, but my body has me on alert. I’m breaking a class rule, even though I’m not a part of that Super Rich class. I’m talking about money and I’m talking about the language of the moneyed class.

Another reason I flinched when my friend told me about the good results of the money I shared was because I didn’t want to feel like there were any strings attached to my gift to her. People in the upper socioeconomic classes frequently ask organizations and individuals to “sing for their supper.” I didn’t want to be one of those people. I gave the money to my friend because I had it to spare and wanted to share it.

Donors to nonprofit organizations or individuals can be very controlling about their donations. I’ve seen donors ask that recipients of financial assistance write thank-you notes to trustees, for example. Maybe that seems harmless to you, but what it does is enforce the power imbalance. You (recipient of funds) are beholden to me (donator). Individual donors often require special meetings with nonprofit management before they will make donations, too. In fact, this is very common. It’s a part of the donation process most people don’t even question. Executives in nonprofits regularly need to “court” wealthy donors. What is this courting process?

In my experience, when someone donates money but wants to be sure they have a say in how it’s used, there’s a level of white supremacy culture that is playing a part. As a white person who comes from a background of financial stability I have recently uncovered fear that real justice will mean I have to give away all of my family’s money. I have only begun touching on this fear in an embodied way. (My personal bank balances don’t show a whole lot of money to lose.) The fear lives at a deep, deep level. Existential. Cellular. I understand the urge to want to control what happens to money I donate. I think that’s why my friend describing the use of the money made me so uncomfortable. When I share money, I want to do it differently than whiteness wants me to. When I share money I do so with trust that the recipient will know best how to use it.

If you are among the class of people who has the option to share your financial resources, what do you expect of recipients? Do you trust them to use the money you share in a way that will have the most impact? If you don’t trust them, why don’t you? Are you asking people or organizations to sing for their supper? If you are, what need are you really trying to meet?


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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Image by lucas Favre via Unsplash