An anti-racist midlife crisis

Last year, when I met a man almost 11 years younger than me—whom I fell in love with—I took to joking that our relationship was my “midlife crisis.” After all, it fit the stereotype of a divorced middle-aged woman—just one of those “cougars.” I would later realize that he was definitely not my midlife crisis. If anything, he was and is more like my midlife stabilizer. He is one of the few people who is not afraid to call me on my shit and, well, I have a lot of shit. But I digress. 

Which is why when I turned 50 earlier this year, I wasn’t sure what to expect. If falling in love with a “younger man” wasn’t my midlife crisis, maybe there would be no midlife crisis? 

Having navigated my 40s, which included losing my last parent, becoming a granny, and a host of other “grown up” things, the one place where I have always felt secure is in my professional identity. 

Despite a rough landing into adulthood, starting with marriage at 18 and motherhood at 19, I actually settled into my professional self fairly early in life. At 23, I served a stint as an Americorps Vista, which is what launched me into the non-profit sector. I went to college at 25, graduating with my bachelor’s degree at 28.

Even with the unwelcomed move to Maine, I settled on a graduate program early on, and received my master’s degree at 32, and my first executive director position at 31—albeit in an interim position. Until recently, I have almost always been the youngest executive director in the room. My track record of leading non-profit organizations is good enough that I’ve long referred to myself as a non-profit extraordinaire. 

A decade ago, I applied to my current position, which I was offered in September 2013. I was in heaven. A chance to use my skills (non-profit leadership) to work on a cause (fighting racism) that I care deeply about. What more could I ask for? Especially when so many are trapped in work that doesn’t fill their souls.

I had long accepted the fact that non-profit management, especially with grassroots organizations, would always be dicey when it came to income. So, being the ambitious Type A overthinker that I am, I decided to turn my blog into a business—a combination of writing, speaking, and consulting. It seemed like a plan, yet the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. 

Fast-forward a decade. I am now 30+ pounds heavier than I was when I took this position, I officially have hypertension, and for all the gains I made in moving our organization forward over the last 10 years we are in many ways right back to where we were when I was hired. The only clear progress has been creating well-defined programming that now spans far beyond our original Boston base. As our board of directors turned over, it is increasingly hard to find board members and let’s not even talk about how funding after the “great racial awakening of 2020” has once again become elusive—or the fact that staffing remains a challenge because of funding.

In today’s world, people are less willing to do good work for less money. I get it. At the same time, you cannot pay what is not there from grants or fundraising. My name is not Jesus and I cannot turn our meager budget into millions. And, after talking with a colleague this week who also runs a small non-profit with a similar mission, I am not the only one in this boat. It comes with the terrain. 

As if that weren’t bad enough, even the BGIM Media side of things is going through its own changes. My stomach drops every time I log into Patreon and see the notifications of folks who have canceled their pledges—which, when bookings for engagements are going well, isn’t a problem. But, like many others in the field, including those more well-known, I am also experiencing the downturn on that front. 

This all plays into the changes in the social media landscape. For almost two decades now, social media has been a powerful tool in this work. But as the social media overlords change their platforms, engagement are down and also requires more time than ever before. Time that, frankly, I don’t have. Or to be honest, I don’t want to spend time making videos or looking for new ways to beat the algorithms. 

All this is to say that at 50, I find myself at a crossroads. What exactly am I doing with my life and does this work really matter? I like to believe it does. I have seen people change; I have seen white people actively become anti-racists and do the work in their families and communities.

I have also seen white people decide that I make them uncomfortable and pull their support. I have seen white people who claimed to be colleagues and comrades who then actively engaged in behavior that negatively affected me and my organization, all because of personal differences that at their root are about power and privilege.

There are too many white people taking up space in anti-racism circles who are not willing to go deeper within themselves. They want to be anti-racists but also want to live a white-privileged life. So, when challenged in even the smallest and most constructive way, those people end up behaving like most white people in this society when their comfort is threatened by change or judgment. They lash out and cause harm to Black folks and other people of color, except these ones hide under the anti-racism cloak and no one says anything because they wield considerable power. 

That has been the hardest part of the last few years: Trusting white people and having that trust betrayed while being painted as a caricature of an angry Black woman. All when my “crime” is thinking I could be real with them because we were supposedly on the same side. 

Someone recently suggested that if the work is too much, perhaps I should consider changing my work. I don’t know, but after almost 20 years of public anti-racism work and now a decade at the helm of an anti-racism organization, I am a marked woman. The reason I took my job was because once the board at my previous organization discovered my anti-racism work online, it created tensions. I don’t have the cloak of whiteness to allow me to gently fade back into something else. 

There are days when, to be honest, I feel an anger at the majority of white-bodied people that scares me. There are days when I want to just yell. Days where watching how white privilege operates, I am at my breaking point. Days where I think about “what if I were white and doing this work; what would my life look like?”

Lately, I find myself wondering: What does my future hold? How do I leave this work at some point on my own two legs before it destroys me. Or do I hold on until I can no longer do the work and spend my golden years at the mercy of my kids’ kindness, since without a retirement plan, I am seriously at risk for being a housing-unstable elder. Lord knows that Social Security probably won’t be here in 18 years when I can retire, and if it does Uncle Sam will no doubt garnish it for the remains of my student loan debt—which was over $100,000 when I graduated with my master’s in 2005, but  has grown over the years because that’s how that racket works. 

It seems my midlife crisis is regret, fear, and rage as I ponder the reality that in the end, everything I have done might be for nothing—except an express train to early death due to stress. Where is my midlife crisis with a fancy sports car? Oh, that’s the white man version. 

I do hope this funk passes, but as I prepare to work the month of August instead of taking the month off as I usually do, the grumps might just be settling in. I suspect if this oppressive heat wave ever wanes, maybe I can see some more of the joy of this life I have created and see hope that my legacy is more than smoke and mirrors. Right now though, I feel a sense of regret and pain for daring to believe that change is possible, wondering it’s nothing more than a game of three-card monte.

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. Or consider bringing me to your organization or group.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Image by Sigmund, via Unsplash.