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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Shred the net, a little personal responsibility and some churches and charities

I apologize in advance for this rant, especially since I am trying to squeeze it into my work day but I really just need to get this off my chest.

I run a small but rapidly growing faith based community center, when I took over as the chief executive in 2008 we had a total client list of maybe 100 totals. Our work was primarily concentrated with very low income youth and their families in a specific area. In the past 4 years we have grown, last year we served over 400 individuals and our clients are no longer the usual very poor folks. Nope in the past two years we have seen families from neighboring towns and counties seeking assistance and while we strive to assist all, the reality is we are stretched.

So much so that a few months ago, I had to put my foot down despite the tightness of our organizational budget and demand that my salary be adjusted as well as that of my assistant. I was working  40 hours a week for 25 hours of pay with no benefits, I still have no benefits but I am actually now paid for all my time worked.  Now I spend most of my time looking for money to keep the doors open. The plight of my agency is that of thousands of other small and mid-size agencies in the US especially  those of us outside of major urban hubs where the social services agencies are asked to do as much as our counterparts in bigger cities on a fraction of the budget that most large  urban social service agencies have.

I was thinking about this last night as I turned on the TV and stumbled on to the Ed Show where I learned that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan thinks that the social safety net in the US is too much. Instead of federal programs such as SNAP benefits, etc., Mr. Ryan thinks that churches and charities should pick up the slack.

You may not understand how absolutely comical that is to those of us in the social services sector. In my case as a faith based agency, it is doubly comical as we have seen church ministries reduce their giving to agencies like ours because frankly churches especially those of the non-mega church status simply don’t have the money to give.

At my agency for years, the bulk of our support came from area churches and their auxiliaries but in recent years, most of our church partners don’t have it to give. Instead we have turned to private foundations and even some government support to keep our doors open. Now even that money is harder to come by at a time when the need is greater than ever so we are now looking to the business community.

This brings up a conversation I had today with a local businessman about my agency. He told he thought that while the work my agency does is good, it seems a lot of the work is what used to be done in families and essentially he is a big believer in people taking personal responsibility. Needless to say, I think we won’t be receiving any support from his organization. Granted I have heard that argument before and I am sure I will hear it again and lucky for me my first career was in sales so hearing no is something I can live with.

The problem I have is how does a child take personal responsibility when they are born into a tough financial situation? A family takes responsibility by utilizing agencies such as mine but if no one gives money, eventually places like mine shut the doors. Thankfully my agency is in no danger of shutting down but our money pressures are real and as the chief executive, it’s my duty along with my board of directors to keep that money flowing by any means necessary.

In 2012, churches and charities cannot take care of all those in need, the money is simply not there and if the government says sorry we are cutting the net, are we simply saying some people are not entitled to having a meaningful life? Sorry it sucks to be you? Are we even prepared as a nation to see the fallout if all nets were suddenly removed? Let me tell you this is the shit that keeps me up at night and as I see Romney’s poll numbers shoot up, it frightens me to think where we could be in a few short years.

Anyway back to work, I gotta do the rain dance.

Note: I usually add links when referring to articles, etc. but I am writing this while on a lunch break, so I will add the links to the Ed show later tonight.

 

 

Down with this “us” versus “them” sh*t

Once upon a time in a world long ago, there were two topics most folks knew to avoid, religion and politics. It seems folks back in the old days knew that these were two of the most volatile subjects around and unless you were surrounded by your nearest and dearest, chances are nothing good could come of bringing up such topics around folks in a casual setting. Of course back in this same world, people also knew that sometimes it was okay to agree to disagree and still be friends/family, etc. Now this old world might not have been a great place for those of us who weren’t white, male, heterosexual, privileged, you get the point. Funny thing is even in 2012 for all of us “others”, the world can still be a rough place, the more some things change, the more some stay the same.

Technology and social media have broken down many barriers and brought so much to our lives, I mean how many of us want to go back to the world where information was only available in dark cavernous spaces? I didn’t think so. I am rather fond of the internet and while I could live without it, if it’s available, why not use it?

The thing is technology has broken down many barriers including polite discourse. Thanks to technological advances we are inundated with information and world happenings. Shit, when I was a kid or even a young adult, you got your news via the nightly news; you weren’t being overwhelmed with news. So when something big happened, you had time to think about it and actually process it before you started talking about it. Generally you could talk about it with the folks in your house or you could call a friend up but basically you got to sleep on it before you went to school or work and talked with others. So by the time you did talk about whatever major happening with someone outside your family or inner circle, you weren’t coming from a place of pure emotion.

Unfortunately now thanks to social media, as soon as something happens, we can take to our blogs, Facebook, twitter, tumblr or whatever and often with no true and deep thought, offer up our immediate thoughts on the matter and this is where shit can get ugly.

Case in point earlier this week, Todd Akin, a US Representative from Missouri, recently put his foot in his mouth, hell one could say he put his foot and legs in his mouth and made a statement that is bothersome to say the least. No need to repeat it since chances are if you are reading this post, you know what happened. Akin, ia an old school conservative Republican and while he and I will never sit down to a beer, the truth for me is if that is what he truly believes  he is entitled to believe it. Let me repeat that, he is entitled to believe what he wants to believe and if I lived in his district I would do everything in my power to mobilize to make sure he never serves again in any public capacity higher than dog catcher. However in the days since Akin’s cruel and insensitive remarks, the backlash from the left at times has been equally cruel and insensitive at times. Look, even Akin’s own party wants him to disappear, so he done fucked up, no need to hold his face in that steaming pile of shit.

When did it become alright to belittle those who don’t believe what we believe? Why is it okay to call someone who holds views different than our own views names? Look, I like my snark and I admit to occasionally joking but some of what I have seen leveled at people who align themselves with the GOP or hold more conservative views is wrong…insulting the intelligence of your opponent doesn’t change their views, it simply fans the flames.

The vast majority of Americans if you strip down the surface details want the same things. They want to live a happy life, that includes housing, healthcare, access to education for them and their kids, they want to know they can pay their bills and maybe just maybe get that vacation every few years and sock a few bucks away for their retirement. Where most of us differ is on how we will reach that outcome. Some of us believe that the role of government is to assist us in reaching our goals when it comes to basic needs and some of us believe that the government has no role in helping us reach our goals and achieve basic happiness. Now I will admit the differences in thought are large but the way to reach consensus is not to alienate the folks on the other side and insult them. In the end snide comments and belittling folks accomplishes nothing no matter how good it feels at the time.

Someone online recently asked me if I thought it was okay for people to have thoughts/feelings/opinions that were hurtful to certain other people. In other words is it okay for people to have openly homophobic, racist, misogynistic views? No, I don’t. In the ideal world, the isms and hate wouldn’t exist because we would all know it’s wrong and our internal GPS would tell us that it’s wrong. However we don’t live in an ideal world, we live in the real world, where you are entitled to your beliefs; however you aren’t necessarily entitled to act on them. We live in a world where we are often shaped by the views of our parents and others close to us, we live in a world where even in our access to opportunity or lack thereof also shapes us. In other words we aren’t all looking at the world from the same set of glasses yet as long as you don’t interfere with my rights, harm me or mine, think whatever you want to think. The problem in too many cases though is the actions we take and that includes the language we use. Words hold power, don’t believe me, think about if the person you love most told you they hated you, hated the sight of you…chances are those words would impact you in ways you couldn’t imagine.

In the end, we can’t be responsible for others; we aren’t even responsible for the humans we bring into the world once they reach a certain age. Yet we can choose  to mind our words, our thoughts and if we don’t like the system we live in, get active and work to change it. We all have a say in both our actions and words but if we do nothing but attack others who we disagree with, use snide comments, tear others down, then in the end aren’t we as much a part of the problem as those others?