Good faith isn’t always enough to close the gap

My father had a saying: “You wanna talk to somebody, you gotta meet them where they are… But some muthafuckas are just too far away.”

This saying applies to a lot of situations, but he would use it most often when it came to talking to white people about race.

Talking to white people about race is a hard thing to do. The main reason is that it’s not always clear just how far away some muthafuckas are. It can be difficult to tell if a white person is speaking in good or bad faith. If you discover they are speaking in bad faith, then they’re too far away and it seems easy to just not engage…

But it’s not necessarily that easy. There could be other white people involved who don’t recognize the bad faith and question you as to why you’ve ceased engagement. Suddenly you’re in a debate about the intentions of a person with bad faith while that person remains unaccountable and all the other white people just think you’re overly sensitive or paranoid.

But even if you can manage to successfully navigate all of that, stay away from those with bad faith and end up communicating with a white person who is speaking in good faith, there is still no guarantee you will be able to get them to understand.

It’s like the difference between the current president and Joe Biden. Obviously, the president is a man of bad faith. Joe Biden, on the other hand, has all the markings of a man of good faith. He always seems to have a kind word to say. He seems friendly and optimistic. Plus, he’s got that Black friend we all know about!

Unfortunately, there was that time he said of that Black friend, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Naturally, he later non-apologized saying, “And I really regret that some have taken totally out of context my use of the world ‘clean,’” as if that were the problem.

I know right now some of you are thinking So what? He said some bad stuff a long time ago, but he’s learned and he’s better. To you I say, first of all, if his current situation in being told not to touch people who don’t want to be touched is any sort of signifier—which I think it is—he hasn’t learned anything. He was publicly mocking the entire idea and then non-apologizing again just last Friday.

The problem isn’t that people just say some “bad stuff.” The problem is that if we accept that “bad stuff” from each other, then we also accept it from our leaders. In Biden’s case, some of that “bad stuff” he said in the 1970s was against integration and nearly 20 years later he was a leading proponent of mass incarceration. There’s a high cost to be paid for saying that “bad stuff” for such a long time, but Joe Biden doesn’t have to pay it. Countless Black men—or “predators,” as he called them—paid and will continue to pay.

Meanwhile, voters are just hoping Uncle Joe gets through this one OK. And I think that’s because we can all tell that he more or less operates in good faith. Unfortunately, good faith alone still leaves some muthafuckas too far away.


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Photo by David Zawila on Unsplash

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.


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Self-care is fighting racism

I wrote my first piece on race in the fall of 2003. My mother was dying but she did live long enough to read a few of my pieces in both the Portland Press Herald and the Portland Phoenix. At the time, I had no idea that writing about racism would fundamentally change my life.

In 2008, when I started this site, my main goal was to write the type of pieces that editors typically squashed at that time for fear of upsetting their readership. It was also a way for me to connect with other Black people and also non-Black people of color living in predominantly white spaces. Again, I had no idea how much this site and my work would eventually change my life.

As I have shared many times, I would later go on to become the executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston-based anti-racism organization that celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

Given the fact that I run an anti-racism organization and write and speak about racism, I spend a lot of time thinking about racism—more so than the average Black person, and the average Black person has to deal with and think about racism a lot. So, as a Black woman in America—thinking about racism almost 24/7 is not always a good thing.

Unlike my white colleagues and peers in anti-racism work (and outside it) taking a break from my work is harder than one might think. After all, I can take some time off from the day job, this site and speaking gigs, but I can’t take a break from being Black in America.

Over the years, I have written extensively about how racism can creep into everyday life. It was four years ago this month, where a family outing to tell the kids that their father and I were separating turned into a racial moment that went viral. A trip for gelato became the day that my then nine-year-old daughter had her first experience with the n-word.

The number of moments that have become racialized events are too numerous to count and frankly, the majority of these events occurred long before Trump became President. The day my daughter experienced the pain of that horrid word, Barack Obama, our nation’s first Black president, was still in office.

In other words, America had a racism problem long before Trump. It’s just that prior to Trump taking office, racism was on simmer and Trump turned the fire up. Simmering racism is just as toxic as the raging flames of racism—it just might kill you slower.

Since 2016, we have seen average people of all hues attempt to address the racial issues in this country and while that’s a great thing. The problem is that anti-racism work requires constant self-care, self-awareness and, at times, the ability to detach.

Given my work, that may sound surprising but the truth is, you cannot stay in this work long term without knowing your limits and when to walk away.

As Kenny Rogers sang in “The Gambler”: You gotta know when to hold’ em, know when to fold ‘em; know when to walk away and know when to run

For Black folks and other people of color, this work of anti-racism isn’t just our work or even our side-gig; it’s our lives. Day to day and hour to hour. A rarely acknowledged truth is that even within the anti-racism community, when we are with our white colleagues, the relationships can be toxic and take a toll on us.

I repeat: Even in anti-racism spaces, white folks can and do cause harm. These are our allies and accomplices, who often by their own lack of awareness perpetuate the same systems of oppression that we are fighting against.

Which means even the good guys have the potential to be the villains and that means that we are getting it on two fronts. As you still have to exist in the larger world, which is filled with white people who have not a clue and are slamming you left and right with either direct racism or microaggressions.

You can fight each and every act of racism that comes at you, and while it may be the right thing to do, it will probably destroy you. We are not designed to be in a state of flight or fight all the time. It feels awful and it’s harmful. Stress in Black bodies is real and is one of the reasons for the greater level of health problems many of us face compared to white people. We can’t be on all the time.

I am not saying to stop fighting, but instead saying that we need discernment in picking our battles—and also knowing when to walk away. If the work is too much, it’s okay to sit out the protest, calls, etc. It’s okay to unplug and just take care of yourself. More important, though, is creating a community or a few good people who can hold you in community. People you can be real with and who know you and the work.

In recent years, many people, particularly young Black and Brown people, have come into movement work and I worry about whether we are giving them the support they need. Our work requires being in both community and relationship with one another, it’s what allows for accountability in the work. It’s also what nourishes us in the darker moments of the work.

In a world that struggles with the inherent beauty and value of Black life, it is a radical concept to love yourself so completely as a Black person that you put yourself first and tend to your inner garden as part of your movement work.


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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