After the turning point, Part 1

Losing a friend because I was steeped in white supremacy (and didn’t even see it) was the beginning of my turning point in racial justice work; she showed me that my “writing for white people” in a newspaper, however good my intentions were, had the impact of harming people of color. Without realizing it, I erased them entirely from my consideration, as if they didn’t matter. It was this new perspective, that I was much more racist than I realized, that was transformative.

So, what did I do next?

Before I answer that question, I need to be clear: I do not think I have somehow passed into “the good ones” group in terms of racial justice. I want it understood that I’m talking about my own personal journey. I also do my best to share in community with others who recognize the value of inner racial justice work for us white people. The fear of seeming like a “know-it-all” has kept me quiet in many ways. So, I’m going to share with you what I did after that pivotal moment with the caveat that I think what I’m doing is the bare minimum of what it means to be a decent human being. I’ll write here about the time immediately following our conversation, and I’ll write later about the more recent past, present, and future actions.

One reason I spoke with my former friend is because I was expanding my spiritual life. In my spiritual practice, built in great part on a twelve-step program of recovery from substance use disorders, I examine my past and identify where I have harmed other people. I approach those people, asking if they would be willing to talk with me about my making amends. The conversation I referred to in my last post was related to the growth of my spiritual life. At that time, I was doing my best to flow in life, rather than trying to force change; doing those things I knew were under my control, and accepting those things (most things) that weren’t.

Something happened in that conversation. It felt like blinders had been ripped away from my eyes. For decades, I had been involved in some way or another in social justice work, including anti-racism work. In that conversation it hit me that I lived inside whiteness (see “Key Features of Whiteness here: I began some very uncomfortable self-searching. I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t sure who I was. If I could be this wrong about myself, where else was I also unaware or wrong?

I’ve mentioned Rev. angel Kyodo williams here before, and I will be forever grateful to the synchronicity that introduced me to her work at just this time. Because of her words I could take what I had learned from spiritual leaders like Thích Nhất Hạnh and practice examining my whiteness with those tools. I was able to hold concepts I felt were deeply in conflict—that I believed with all my heart in racial justice, and that I was also moving in the world causing harm to people of color—in my awareness at the same time. I connected spiritually in a way that freed me from the fear that had been blocking me.

For all of the research I had done about the life experiences of Black and brown bodied people, for all of my understandings of how systems in our country were set up to keep them down, it was terrifying to see that I wasn’t really comfortable with what might be required of me. If I really want to dismantle white supremacy, what might I have to do? How might I have to change? What might I have to give up?

In the last three years, I have incorporated my inner learnings and some answers to these questions into an ongoing spiritual practice that involves actions in the private and public spheres. I find the more I practice, the more effective I am. However, one of the biggest lessons in this is that I must shed the idea of getting “good” and “not racist” anytime soon. I can’t. It’s been a lifetime and generations of living in whiteness. I can’t unlearn it quickly. In my next post, I will write about the day-to-day and longer term actions I take to unlearn whiteness and work toward racial justice.

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Being Black in a white state: Why I “stick it out”

This story ran in Maine’s largest paper this past Sunday and it reminded of a question that I was recently asked by a Black woman from the south. What is it like to be a Black person in such a white state? To be frank, I have received some version of this question pretty regularly and frequently since moving to Maine in 2002.

The short answer: It’s lonely, it’s tiring and it’s exhausting. However it’s far more complex than that because life, regardless of race, can rarely be distilled down to one sentence.

As someone known in Maine and the region for writing on race, I am quite accustomed to being asked, “Why do you stay here if all you are going to do is complain?” First off, I don’t only complain about the state but let’s be honest: I write on racial and other social issues so I have plenty of flaws I need to draw attention to about this state and the region. But, if you want to know why I stay, let me ask this. Why do so many white people in Maine complain about winter weather so vehemently after the first month of it, and expect Florida weather in January or February? Or complain about the tourists who are such a big part of the economy here but continue to live here and deal with them in the summer?

Maine is a very white state and while it is easy to say that our racial issues are related to our lack of racial diversity, that is lie. Even how we discuss our lack of racial diversity isn’t straightforward as this piece makes clear.

Fact is: America is a racist nation. If there is nothing else we should all be clear on in the past few years, America has a racism problem and we have always had a racism problem. Whiteness was created to keep white people in positions of power and privilege. Period. The reason that we can’t love our way out of hate or “just be nice and be patient” is because in our current system, whiteness is currency and a power structure. It’s why even in majority-minority (by the way, I hate that phrase) cities, more often than not, white people are still the ones in charge. It’s why Trump, a serial loser at life (except for his uncanny ability to stay rich and influential despite failing at business and personal relationships so overwhelmingly) played the ultimate race card based on white fear of annihilation and loss of power and rode his lazy, unqualified ass into the White House.

So when I understand how racism and whiteness operates, I understand that there are very few safe spaces where I will be free of racist behavior. After all, blatant acts of racism happen in racially diverse cities every day.

As a teenager in Chicago, I was called a nigger by a child who couldn’t be more than 5 or 6 years old. I showed up to see apartments that were suddenly not available though I had spoken to the landlord less than hour earlier and, of course, my favorite racial incident, being followed around in stores by general staff or security guards. Let’s not even get into the time I was accused of being a sex worker as a passenger in the car with my then-new-husband by a police officer who pulled us over for absolutely no driving infraction whatsoever—since Black women riding in cars with white men can only be sex workers in the eyes of the police. All of these incidents occurred in Chicago. The third largest city in America which has a large Black community as well as one of the largest Mexican communities in the country.

When you have experienced racism in large, racially diverse cities, you come to realize that racism is everywhere. The only difference being that in Maine, having a supportive community is harder to find and that’s where good extended networks across the country are a lifesaver. However, the small, mostly rural nature of Maine also provides the opportunity to start conversations that can make tiny inroads into shifting the current power structures because there are fewer layers to navigate.

Unlike in a city like Chicago or even Boston, the people who are part of the systems and power structures in a place like Maine are far more accessible. In Maine, I personally know several state lawmakers, and both the mayor and school superintendent of our largest city. I can access the folks in charge in ways that were simply not possible in Chicago. If I were to move back to Chicago, sure I would have an easier time finding a good church home and a hair dresser and I would have other better choices but accessing the power structures and having the ability to effect change would be an almost Herculean task compared to being in Maine.

The truth is that being a Black woman over a certain age in America is lonely, tiring and exhausting. The racial health disparities data tells that story, despite the adage that “Black don’t crack.” No, it may not crack on the outside but it is cracking day by day in this country. Racism steals from the well of human potential and it does that by ensuring for Black women in particular, the odds are that your chances of a long life free of heath issues is like playing the lottery and hitting big.

Understanding racism at the deepest level is, to some degree, freeing. It frees me from believing that I must exist in a way that will lessen racism. It frees me from believing that there is a safe space for me. Instead, I work to navigate this racist country and seek joy on at the deepest internal level where there is no white person or system that can touch me. My soul is free and eternal. It frees me to fight the system knowing that like the ancestors before me, my work will only be a minute piece of the larger vision for freedom. It frees me to know that even anti-racist white people will mess it up pretty often and to not be surprised when they do. It also allows me to be free to pursue the best life that I can and for me, access to nature is central to that and nature is something that Maine has an abundance of. When I look at the ocean, I see something larger than myself or any of the systems that oppress.

That is why I stay in Maine—at least for now—and why I will continue to live here not in silence but in contemplation, conversation and yes, also in criticism.

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My racism turning point

It required a lot of emotional pain for me to begin understand how, as Rev. angel Kyodo williams says, “love and justice are not two. without inner change, there can be no outer change; without collective change, no change matters.”

For a few decades, I haven’t been entirely clueless about racism. From the 1990s to the 2010s, I began to understand that I couldn’t help but be racist because of our country’s historical foundation of patriarchal unchecked capitalism built on a system of discrimination based on a social construction of race, e.g. white supremacy. I think I was a little proud of the fact that I’d figured out that that I wasn’t a bad person; that as a white person I couldn’t help being racist. I liked my willingness to be bold, to say things we “weren’t supposed to say,” as white people. Of course, admitting my racism as a white person in a white supremacist society didn’t really carry many risks. Some white people closed their emotional/social doors, but for the most part, people thought I was “brave” for speaking out. There were more benefits than costs for me and I went along like that for many years.

In my whole 49-year-old life, I’ve had two close friends who are people of color. I don’t write about this much because intimate cross-racial friendships are not simple, and I feel deeply protective of these bonds. However, sharing about my process of trying to face my addiction to white supremacy is part of what I do in this space, so, with the permission of the person involved, I’m going to tell you just a bit.

About 10 years ago, my racism—my whiteness, the way I moved in the world—cost me one of the best friendships I’d ever had. As I said, I had been speaking out about racism for years and, as far as I knew, that boldness was mostly doing more good than harm. I had been writing an opinion column in the Bangor Daily News since 2012. In July of 2013, when I decided to use Trayvon Martin’s murder to point out to white people like me that we need to face our own racism, my column was harsh.

In the column, I start out by revealing some overtly racist thoughts I had worked to admit to myself I’d had in passing in my lifetime. I had recently recognized that trying to quiet racist thoughts (that I didn’t even know I was having!) was blocking me from being relaxed or normal around Black people; an idea I’ve shared in this space. I was referencing what Shankar Vedantam’s calls the “‘hidden brain’…shorthand for a host of brain functions, emotional responses, and cognitive processes that happen outside our conscious awareness but have a decisive effect on how we behave.” I knew the first lines of my column would be shocking, and I used those words intentionally. I wanted to draw in readers in the same way people “rubberneck” as they pass a car wreck on the highway. This was a mistake.

Before the column was published, I thought about letting my one friend who was Black (I hadn’t yet met my other friend who is a person of color) know about it. It was going to be startling, I knew. But, I reasoned with myself, with the exception of the first extreme couple lines, she and I had discussed and mostly agreed about the rest of the content. It wouldn’t be too big of a deal, I thought.

It was a big deal.

I broke our friendship. I hurt my friend deeply. It was one of the most painful losses I’ve ever endured, and there was nothing I could do about the hurt I had caused. I thought I understood why she was so upset. I thought it was because what I said was disgusting and racist and that she’d been blindsided that I could have such ugly thoughts. And, to be sure, that was part of it. But I didn’t come close to a full understanding of the harm I had done until that ex-friend was gracious enough to talk with me about it a few years later.

What I missed after making that terrible mistake in 2013 was how much my view of the world centered on whiteness. I reasoned that most of the readers of the paper as white—“Maine is a white state” was a phrase I still said in those days—dismissing the possibility that any readers would be Black or brown. The truth is, beyond a twinge wondering if my friend might be “startled,” I never seriously considered what impact my words might have on Black readers. I thought of myself as writing “to white people.” But I only thought about how white people might respond to my column; how Black or brown people might feel didn’t cross my radar in any significant way. What a selfish and self-centered asshole I was.

The loss of this friendship, and her generosity in taking the time to share with me just how I had harmed her, helped me start moving forward again in my path toward liberation. Over decades, I had tried to be a better white person and tried to work toward racial justice, but I hadn’t recognized the spiritual sickness my addiction to white supremacy was causing in my heart. The cognitive load required to stay in denial about racism, both systemic and personal, kept me from being fully human. I hurt someone I loved, and quite possibly I hurt other people, too. I was doing harm where I wanted to help because I was so deeply in the world of whiteness, I couldn’t see any other way.

Every single day, I address my addiction to white supremacy just as faithfully as I address my substance use disorders. The spiritual solutions I use for my alcoholism help in my addiction to white supremacy and both paths of recovery require regular actions to stay spiritually fit. I know that complacency will lead to relapse which will lead to pain for myself and people I love. My recovery depends on my connection with powers greater than myself, including connections with other people. Recovery is a path of progress, not perfection, and I hope my experience might benefit others.

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.

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