With the public face comes some unwanted attention

The past five months have been a whirlwind! When I decided to run for public office, I had no idea how much work even a relatively small local campaign would be, nor did I fully grasp how much my life would change. For those who aren’t local or who don’t follow Black Girl in Maine on social media, I won. Not only did I win, but I won with 64.9% of the vote. 

I wish I could say that I have been relaxing since the election but I can’t. I quickly learned the hard way that after winning, everything I say, tweet, or retweet would become newsworthy to the local media. A less-than-mindful late-night retweet on election night that was meant to signal a celebration of the win, for one thing, placed me in the middle of an unexpected storm related to someone else’s views and comments. I will just say that it is a lesson learned and that I am looking forward to being sworn in on June 28 and getting down to the actual work that I was elected to do. 

Given the recent kerfuffle with the local media, though, I find myself wondering about this life of visibility that I have created for myself (and not for the first time, mind you). It’s not all that it’s cracked up to be, and while it has given so much to me, it also takes away a great deal. 

As I have written in the past, when I started this blog back in 2008, I had no idea how far it would go. After all, was there a market for reading the musings of a Black woman living in the whitest state in America? Apparently there was, and over the years, I have cultivated some amazing friendships and connections from this little space and its related social media. But in more recent years, what used to be genuine reciprocal connections have turned into something that increasingly makes me feel deeply uncomfortable. Unsettled. 

No longer are the connections a two-way street. No longer do people see me as a regular person just writing my thoughts and learnings as offerings to the larger world. Instead, there is this strange dehumanization of me as an actual person to make me some kind of object or tool or icon. Which is at odds with anything that I have ever written. 

In recent years, with social media becoming a cultural norm and people having greater access to celebrities and other media types or influencers, we have seen a marked increase in parasocial relationships. Intimacy at a distance is not new; it was first researched in the late 1950s and in layman’s terms, it’s when we consume media and it makes us feel as if we have an intimate bond with the media’s creators. In a TikTok and Instagram kind of world, the rise of parasocial relationships makes sense, but to be on the receiving end of some fans’ outsized affections (or sometimes stalkers’ attentions)  is jarring, disturbing, and mildly terrifying. 

After all, at what point does the person imagining a relationship attempt to create that connection outside of their mind? 

Sadly, I find myself dealing with such a situation right now, with a Maine-based reader who has been insistent that my work has changed their life. Upon hearing this several years ago, back when I didn’t worry as much about my personal safety, I offered words of support and encouragement which I now regret. Apparently, my words of support and encouragement were seen as a gateway to a deeper connection and a “relationship” which—given that I have never broken bread with this person or invited them into my intimate spaces as a guest—is a figment of their imagination. However, their imagined close connection with me has become a source of great irritation to me in recent months. 

As a writer and speaker, it is a blessing to know that my work has touched so many people across the world. In 2019 and early 2020, several universities asked for the rights to use my work in their studies. Readers across the United States and even some on other parts of this dusty globe help financially support this work—and I am still ticked about the day when I was a featured speaker at an event on the West Coast and a gentleman came up to tell me how much he appreciated my work (only for me to learn he was someone whose work I had long enjoyed). It was a weird fan moment on both sides.

For many in Maine, my writing was the starting place to bring an anti-racism lens into their work and lives. I was one of the first to help normalize discussions of race in this state, and nothing has touched my heart more than to know that at least one of my fellow commissioners on the Charter Commission to which I was recently elected came of age reading my work—and that work helping them to develop their own anti-racism praxis. 

The downside of all of this has been that I have endured a lot of pushback and still receive pushback. There are those who would brand me a racist because I have written and spoken openly about white supremacy over the years. As I have shared previously, I have received hate mail, death threats, and (as recently as last year) I had my own personal stalker. Last year, the trainers at my organization were pushed off a long-term assignment after a community member used my tweets as “proof” that we were carrying out a nefarious plot to “indoctrinate” white youth. Even now, I have had to face the chilling reality that I am not sure the last person I dated was actually into me as a person, but was perhaps just into seeing what life was like with BGIM, the persona. 

There is a certain irony that my work is about lifting up Black humanity and creating liberation vis-a-vis an anti-racist lens, but increasingly I find myself not being seen or valued as an actual person with feelings, burdens, and concerns. And when someone demands “accountability” from me for a situation I have nothing to do with and does so when we have no pre-existing reciprocal relationship, that doesn’t make me want to develop a connection. It actually enrages me.

Lately, I find myself listening to Eminem’s old song Stan. And you know, it’s okay to appreciate the work of others and be a fan. But when you cross the line and assume a relationship that isn’t there—and you start making impositions and demands—it’s not a healthy place to be in. Nor is it okay to dehumanize others when the journey is about mutual liberation. And our mutual liberation is about working in our respective authentic social and relationship circles to create larger societal change. 

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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Government names, a stalker and other things

The first task that any new parent has is to provide their progeny with a name, since the baby cannot be forever known as “The Baby” or “My Baby.” They need names and, as a parent, you may decide to bestow a weighty or whimsical moniker upon your blessed offspring—the kind of thing that, as the child grows up, often feels like an ill-fitting suit at best.

I mean Grandma Esther may have been your favorite Grammy, and when your new daughter was born, naming the child Esther may have seemed like a great way to honor Grammy Esther. However ‘Lil Esther may well decide it’s an awful name, and decide that being Esther is awkward as fu*k as the kids say—and opt to use a nickname or to just rename themselves. Often without ever going through the legal name-changing process. 

I was born in the early 1970s, during the era of the Black is Beautiful movement, at a time when many Black folks were exploring their connection to the continent of Africa. Jim Crow had legally ended just a few years prior to my birth year and Black folks were in a state of exploration of self. 

As a result, there were many Black kids born in the 1970s who have African-inspired names. Yours truly is no exception. Though I almost ended up with a “standard American” name.

You see, my parents couldn’t agree on a name for me. So, for two weeks, I remained nameless. In fact, my birth certificate does not have a first name listed. Which, with my dad’s passing, means getting a passport to get out of this raggedy country just got exponentially harder—but that’s another story. 

The story I was told was that Dad wanted me to have a more traditional American name. But my mother, who was named for a very white and popular blond actress in the 1950s, did not want me to have any name that sounded remotely white. Which is why my given name is not Charlotte as my Dad wanted and is instead Shamika. 

Yep, Shay is a childhood nickname. Other childhood nicknames include Meka and a few others that only family and a handful of friends know. 

So why do I use Shay professionally? Truthfully, growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, people always butchered my name and by my late teens and early 20s, my own internalized racism made me want to distance myself from that name. 

However it was around 1995, when I was sending out resumes that I did an experiment—eight years before the National Bureau of Economic Research did a similar thing as an official study—where I started sending out resumes using my nickname and not my given name. And what did I learn quickly? That Shay received a lot more return calls than Shamika. Back in those days. the first contact with a potential employer was by phone, and thanks to having perfected the “white voice,” let’s just say that I landed a lot of interviews. Granted, when I showed up in my full Black glory, some potential employers balked but others were fine. At that point, almost 25 years ago, I started using Shay professionally and publicly. It’s easy to say and easy to spell. I did think about legally changing my name, but decided against it for myriad reasons, including the fact that Shamika is who I am—as is Shay. 

The reason I am sharing this tale is that for over a year now, I have been dealing with an intermittent internet stalker. Someone who last year discovered my legal name and who sends me taunting messages by email and on my blog. This person makes a special note of using my legal name and mocking my personal life—and implied in their messages at times is a “threat” that they will “out” me. 

Look, my legal name is a matter of public record. As the executive director of a 501(c)(3) non-profit, our organizational tax records have to be public. So, anyone savvy enough to use Guidestar can pull our tax records and see my legal name since the CEO and all board members have to be listed—and for purposes of the tax man, I use my legal name. And if you have ever made a donation to this site’s Paypal, you get my legal name, too. It’s hardly a secret. 

At 48, I no longer am filled with internalized racism or anguish over my given name. Fact is, racial bias is real and racial name bias is even more real. I started my career at a time when the conversations we now have really didn’t exist. I used all the tools at my disposal to get my foot in the door. Many a BIPOC person has used an “American” or, to be real, a “white” name to gain entry to spaces where we have not been easily allowed. 

Thankfully, the world is changing and we are moving to a place where young Black people less often have to change their “ethnic”-sounding names to get a job, and I would like to think that the work done by folks like myself and many others has helped to create that change. 

I will not be shamed by some anonymous coward who has nothing better to do than to scan all my public social media to try and attack me. I know who I am; do you know who you are? 

On another note, there is also a good chance that this Black girl’s made-up, back-to-Africa name will be on a ballot coming soon. If you live in District 1 for Portland, Maine, stand by—more details coming. 

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.

Calling All White People, Part 46: You already know the answer

Calling All White People, Part 46

TODAY’S EPISODE: Stop asking other people (especially POC) what you should do   

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

BGIM recently posed a question online—I think it was on Facebook but it really doesn’t matter—asking people what “Black Lives Matter” means to them beyond just putting up signs or sharing memes. To ask them what they are doing to actually show that Black lives really do matter and to support those lives.

Predictably, it didn’t take long for someone to ask, “What would you suggest that I do?”

BGIM noted that it seemed she shouldn’t have to offer suggestions—that people should have some sense of what Black lives mattering mean to them and what they are willing to do. And yet the ask was re-asked: But as an anti-racism expert, what do you think I should do?

Now, this may seem perfectly fine—there’s an professional in a field there, and you ask them their opinion. But it isn’t fine, because it’s actually deflection. It’s what we white people so often do: Express that we care about something, do little or nothing about it…and then when called on our horsecrap say, “Well, what can we possibly do to move the needle?”

Here’s why asking BGIM what to do was wrong, and why it’s just as wrong to ask other Black people or, depending on the situation, other people or color or other marginalized people, what you should do. (And there are better questions to ask—a better way to ask—but we’ll leave that for the end).

The reason is that most of us know what we should do. We white people are not ignorant of what to do. We may not know the best things. We may not know all the things. But we do know what we can do. And to ask someone else what we can do—or should do—is to pretend to be helpless because often what we really want to do is nothing but offer platitudes from our sofas and easy chairs.

Let me give you an example that isn’t about racism or other forms of bigotry: The environment.

Instead of a Black Lives Matter sign in your yard, you have bumper stickers on your car that say things like “Save the Whales” or “We Don’t Have a Backup Planet.” And someone asks you what protecting the environment means to you—and what you are doing beyond rocking some bumper stickers.

Can you really tell me that in that moment you couldn’t express even an awkward statement of what the environment and its preservation mean to you? Are you really telling me that you couldn’t mention anything you’ve done, however small, to protect the environment? Are you telling me you couldn’t think of other things that maybe you could (or should) do to be even more environmentally conscious?

If you can answer yes to any of those three questions, chances are you’re a damn liar and just don’t want to accept that BGIM’s pushback on the social media response to her question was entirely appropriate and that my assessment it’s deflection is largely accurate.

We all know basic environmental things we can do: Drive less, recycle more, buy gently used items instead of new ones, don’t purchase and consume so many non-biodegradable products.

Those are just the easy ones—the tip of the iceberg. People have been talking about them for years, and finding more things you could do if you were so inclined is as easy as a Google search. Or, you know, actually listening to the people talking about what to do when they talk about fighting racism. Like challenging fellow white people when they are being racist, or supporting anti-racism organizations, or supporting Black people’s work with money, etc.

Black people and Indigenous people and other people of color have been talking about racism for a long time. Telling us what we shouldn’t be doing and suggesting what we should. Black people in particular. The information is out there. If you don’t know what to do, you are ignoring them and refusing to put any work into looking up all the information they’ve already put out there. And more likely you know what to do but aren’t doing it, and you’re asking the nearest Black person (especially if they’re an expert) to tell you what to do so that you can either:

  • Make it seem like you care more, instead of just answering the question or silently going about doing what you should be doing to fight racism
  • Declare how the thing(s) they’ve suggested are beyond your ability, so that you can do nothing while telling yourself you did all you could do

We can’t all be the ones who put our bodies between police and Black people at protests. We can’t all be the ones with endlessly deep pockets to support numerous Black causes, Black artists, Black businesses. We can’t all be the ones to boldly confront—or sometimes punch out—racists in public. But some of us need to be—more of us need to be—and often we simply choose not to be. As for the rest who really can’t do those things, there are other things within your ability other than just posting a Black Lives Matter sign.

And you know it. So stop pretending you don’t.

Now, for future reference, the better kinds of questions to ask BGIM or someone else on this topic:

  • Hey, I’m doing [this thing or that other thing] but do you have any thoughts on how I can push that to the next level?
  • I’m doing [whatever] but wondering if this way of doing it is wrong and/or if the entire activity is a misuse of my time and energy—what do you think?
  • Well, I’m looking to support [XYZ kinds of activities] but I don’t want to choose unwisely. Do you have suggestions about the most reputable or effective ones to give to?

I mean, I’m sure there are other valid questions, too, but those are the biggies. Point is: Do something other than just put up a sign. And when you’re asked to do more, don’t just ask what to do like some passive observer. Don’t act like you’re powerless. Moving the needle anywhere is valuable, even if you don’t move the bigger societal needle in any noticeable way. And the more of use moving the needle in small ways as well as big ones, the quicker we’ll get past the worst of anti-Black racism and others of the ugliest forms of bigotry we have on tap in this country.

(As always, this column is my 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. – Average White Guy)

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.