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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Racial tensions and the Drag community

So just recently the Met Gala, also known as the Met Ball, took place. It is an annual for the benefit of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute in New York City. Celebrities, writers, directors, rappers and other people of interest follow the theme that was set forth when choosing outfits, and this year the theme was ‘Camp’ (everyone got a book on Susan Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’). Some people got it, others didn’t. Lena Waithe, screenwriter, actress and all-around fucking amazing human wore this:

The back of their suit says, “Black Drag Queens Inventend Camp” (yes the misspelling is intentional). The stripes on her suit were lyrics from “I’m Coming Out” by Diana Ross and Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).”

Waithe’s jewelry buttons featured the faces of LGBTQ+ icons RuPaul, Dorian Corey, Freddie Pendavis, Octavia St. Laurent, Paris Dupree, Pepper LaBeija, Venus Xtravaganza, and Willi Ninja; all prominent black drag queens. Watch Paris is Burning and you’ll know: Black drag queens did in fact invent camp and it is a “crucial way of capturing and expressing the zeitgeist of any time period in culture.” (Harper’s Bazaar, Fisher, May 2019)

In the movie To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar, Drag Queen RuPaul plays a bit part; a character that goes by the name Rachel Tensions, in where she is wearing a dress resembling the confederate flag. This becomes such an iconic moment in this 1990s comedy.

Both of these instances of iconic fashion open up the conversation of race and queerness within the Drag community. I am a HUGE fan of Drag. The history, the glamor, the gossip, the audacity, the tea. Everything about drag, for me is perfect. It is a culmination of camp, the absurd, but also the honest. Drag will tell you the truth before anyone else will. Which is why season 10’s contestant of RuPaul’s Drag Race (RDPR), The Vixen, is such an iconic queen. 

Season 10 of RuPaul’s Drag Race is a good place to start talking about the racial tensions in the drag community even though they’ve existed since the time of Marsha P. Johnson. It is a good place to start because this is when the political aspects of Drag were brought into the public sphere. I am positive these conversations had been happening in other facets and pockets within the Drag community, but it was the first time that I feel a huge audience was seeing it; after all, a whopping 468,000 people watched season 10 in 2018. RPDR, in my opinion, has always been good about bringing the stories of LGBTQIA+ to a more mainstream audience. It began to foster understanding about the struggles and triumphs of that community.

The reason that season 10 was different is because the conversation of race came to the forefront of drag.

The Vixen, who is a “militant black queen” was unjustly cast as “a villain” in that season because she was always speaking up for what she believe in. She received so much hate that season for her words and actions. During that season, she got into it a number of times with another white queen who is known for her racial remarks (all lives matter and BS like that posted on her Instagram).

During her eight-episode arc on RPDR, she always firmly stood her ground and was always the one to speak up to defend herself, which people on and off the show began to refer to as “poking the bear” because she was always at a 10 and was always advocating for herself and for what she believed in. She, in her own words, choose to be “herself despite the repercussions.” but it seemed like anything she said was met with repercussions. She couldn’t get a word in edgewise without someone clapping back and tone-policing her.

At the end of RPDR, before the finale of crowning a new queen, there is always a reunion that invites all the queens back for a sit-down with RuPaul to discuss the season. It was during this segment that the multiple conflicts with other queens and The Vixen was brought up and it sent The Vixen to utter the iconic phrase “Everybody’s telling me how I should react but nobody’s telling her how to act” and promptly storm off the stage. The reason this phrase is so iconic is because it clearly shows the disparity of believing people of color and actually admitting that racism exists! All throughout season 10 and probably The Vixen’s own life, has she been met with hostility. Which is why she protects herself. She advocated and stands up for herself. Because she has too, nobody else will.

In light of all of the tensions that season 10 brought, there was amazing things to come out of it. Since 2016, The Vixen has had a successful show in Chicago called Black Girl Magic, which features other Black queens, that still runs today. It also showed the disparity and vitriol that is spewed at the Black queens from the RPDR fandom and how other Queens (white, Latina, Asian) are stepping up against it. It is bringing this Drag community together and realizing that it does have problems that need to be addressed. Even Ru herself has had to be confronted with the issue of race, because of the disparity of Black queens and Black-centric challenges on the show.

The Vixen is an all-around memorable part of RPDR, but she should be remembered for bringing this conversation of race to the forefront of everyone’s minds (and for being an all around beautiful and talented queen). Not for being a “villain” but for being a hero that championed herself and her thoughts and feelings to vulnerably open this conversation on race even further.


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Invisibly disabled at the intersection of marginalized identities

I knew something was wrong long before I was diagnosed. I was gaining weight. I was reasonably active or at least maintaining a certain level of activeness. I was a healthy eater. I didn’t fry anything but an egg and rarely that. I didn’t eat canned foods. I made baked goods with almond meal and smoothies with only soy milk and agave nectar. I sautéed my kale with fresh mango slices. And I was gaining weight. Continually.

Then I noticed I was budgeting energy the same way one figures out how long can their last $5 last them and on what. I don’t even know when it began. Just one day I realized that I was daily mentally negotiating: If I take a shower now, then I won’t have enough strength to get dressed and go to work. Gotta pick one or the other.

I’d go to bed at night. Sleep all night. A full night. Wake up in the morning. And within an hour or two, I was so sleepy, so exhausted, it felt like I had not slept at all. A tiredness deep in my bones that I can only liken to my last-week-of-full-term-pregnancy-with-an-eight-pound-baby-sitting-low-in-my-uterus tired. Every. Frigging. Day.

Something was definitely wrong.

The first folks to teach me that nobody gave a flip about signs of chronic illness in a Black woman’s body were the good doctors I saw at a west suburban Chicago hospital. I went specifically because of the weight gain. That was the red flag, oddly enough, that concerned me the most.

See, I was born with a congenital knee defect. I wore braces on my legs as a baby and walked fine, but somewhere around puberty, my knees started slipping out of place. After my father got me in to a specialist at The Shriner’s Hospital, I was given big shiny blue metal Forrest Gump leg braces and told to stop doing all the cool flexible stuff I could do with my legs because it was making it harder for my ligaments to remain tight enough to hold my knees in place. My teenage self, as can be expected, was not very gung-ho for these recommendations. And unfortunately, my knees never stopped slipping out of place and became even less stable anytime I regularly exercised. Then there was the little problem of not being able to breathe when exerting myself beyond walking due to damage from second-hand smoke as a child. And the thing about breathing is, it’s incredibly essential to being able to exercise.

That’s why the continual weight gain caused me the most alarm. Something was causing me to gain weight that had nothing to do with my actions or inaction, and if it continued, I knew my body literally could not engage in the very activities that could reverse the weight gain; i.e., lots of aerobic exercise.

So back to those good doctors at that hospital in Chicago. I came in. I explained the issue—that I had a job that kept me physically active, I had a healthy diet, never really ate junk food or very large portions, and I was incredibly concerned that I was continually gaining weight for what appeared to be no reason at all.

He processed nothing I said. He looked at my melanin and my Medicaid and decided that I was a poor Black fried chicken- and hog maws-eating caricature of an ignorant Aunt Jemima. To his admonishment that I not eat fried foods and change my diet and get exercise, I responded to the 400-pound White male doctor, “Sir. I can almost guarantee you that I eat healthier than you do. I already eat healthy. That’s why I’m here. I’m gaining weight, and it doesn’t make sense because of my diet and activity.” (And I mention his weight here not as fat shaming, but because: irony. So much hypocritical irony.)

Feeling desperate, I continued to list off my other troubling symptoms. He proceeded to tell me that he was writing me a prescription. He had run no tests. Taken no diagnostics. Done no due diligence. Ignored all patient history. And was writing me a prescription. He saw my melanin and my Medicaid and assumed I had not the education nor exposure to know what he was prescribing. He was wrong. I have a degree from Northwestern University and a career in a field that works closely with other disciplines such as medical physicians, psychiatrists and social workers. I work extensively with individuals with developmental disabilities and mental illness diagnoses. I knew what the prescription was. It was a psychotropic medication. And I knew the potential side effects included severe disruptions in psychological function. I literally would be putting my mind on the line.

“Sir. I know this medication, and the side effects are severe. You’ve not taken any psychological evaluations. You’re prescribing it for an off-label reason. I have no problem considering the medication. But if I’m going to put myself at risk, I just need you to tell me why you’re prescribing it.” He gave me no reason. He grew irate. He left the room and returned with a White woman doctor — his supervising physician — and they proceeded to angrily scold my refusal to do whatever they said like a toddler…and lecture me in the most infantilizing racist tone about not eating fried chicken and junk food. I was neither refusing to take the medication nor did I have a diet that regularly consisted of fried foods. But when all you see is melanin and Medicaid…

I was so traumatized by that experience that I did not attempt to seek medical intervention again for quite some time. It would be another four years before I would be diagnosed with lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia. The physician that diagnosed me sat in disbelief when he asked me if the previous doctors had run this test and that test, basic tests—and the answer to them all was “No, Sir. They didn’t.”

Lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome and fibromyalgia are three of many chronic autoimmune diseases referred to as “invisible illnesses” or “invisible disabilities.” Unfortunately, my story is not an unique fluke, but rather representative of the pervasive medical misogynoir that exists in America. Think Progress reported that “patients of color also received fewer recommended treatments for chronic illness, including HIV/AIDS, cancer, and heart disease. Differences in practitioner-patient interaction played a part in widening disparities.” And is any of it any wonder when one survey of White doctors revealed that some doctors don’t even believe Black people possess the ability to feel pain as much as White bodies do?

I think, for me, I often avoid outwardly identifying as disabled because frankly, in my experience, either no one cares or it puts me at even greater risk for things like loss of employment than I already am as a Black woman, especially in my field. I’ve already got a target on my back thanks to misogynoir. Adding disabled only sharpens the visibility of the bullseye. I’m a single mom that already feels like I’m running for my life. Publically or verbally identifying as disabled rarely protects me. It usually just makes me more vulnerable.

Someone might suggest that my not typically identifying as “disabled” is a form of internalized ableism. And that may be true for some who, in essence, utilize the societal privilege inherent in having a disability that no one can readily see (or at least not be able to see on a good day; bad days are a different story). But in my life, it boils down to what I can afford to risk. I have to survive. I can’t jeopardize my ability to feed my children. So I work hard to hide it and keep a roof over our heads because jobs have no incentive to believe the alternative: that I have a disability but can still be productive.

Thus, I rarely use the term to self-identify in the world. But every day, every pain, meds, every symptom I push and struggle through or some days don’t quite make it through like I hoped to reminds me in my private thoughts that I am disabled. I want to emphasize that my experience is just that — my experience. Does every Black woman with chronic invisible illness go through these things or deal with them the way that I have? No. Are Black women by and large subjected to and harmed by a medical system and community that is too anti-Black racist to effectively help us the way their Hippocratic oath demands that they should? Yes. And we all wade through that toxic water the best we can, the best we know how, to whatever varying degrees we are individually affected. Chronic illness is hard enough. Employer and medical racism makes everything so much harder.


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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