When I made the decision at the beginning of the year to run for a seat on the Portland, Maine, Charter Commission, I knew that my work as the director of an anti-racism organization—along with being the creator of this site—might be an issue for some. It was the reason why, during the campaign, I didn’t talk about racial issues much. I knew that while Portland is our state’s most diverse city, it is still almost 80 percent white, and I would be representing all the people in my district, not just the people of color. Yes, I knew race might factor into my work if I were elected, but it wasn’t a core aspect of what I was going to be doing, and I wasn’t in the race to push a personal agenda.
Instead, I chose to focus on my 25 years of work in the non-profit sector as a frontline worker who worked with the unhoused back in Chicago, as well as my most recent management and organizational experiences as a non-profit director.
Despite that approach, of course, plenty of negative labels were still slapped on me—or at least labels that were intended to make me look bad even if they weren’t negative in and of themselves.
I wasn’t naive enough to think that as a Black woman who is “from away” (as nativist locals tend to say) that I would not encounter a level of scrutiny more intense and biting than my white counterparts. Which is why I will forever kick myself in the ass for my election night decision to retweet the words of one of my newly minted fellow commissioners. Knowing how white people perceive Black women, I should have known better.
After what felt like an attempted lynching by the local media over one simple retweet, I committed to doing everything in my power to avoid unnecessary public scrutiny as an elected official. I rarely publicly talk about the Charter Commission’s work on any of my personal social media feeds. I even made the decision this fall election cycle not to publicly endorse any candidates because, honestly, I don’t have the stomach for the public vitriol that seems to be directed at me and the only other Black woman on the commission.
Despite the fact I’ve been simply hunkering down to do my elected work and participate in public meetings to focus on getting the job done responsibly, completely unnecessary attacks continue. In the months since being elected, I have been subjected to emails that assume me to be an uncouth, barbaric illiterate who is hellbent on destroying the city. I have had to endure listening to people at public hearings speaking down to me and fellow commissioners, knowing that their words were aimed primarily at those of us of color. Through it all, I have committed myself to doing the work in an open and transparent manner, stuffing down the hurt feelings and remembering that I won almost 65 percent of the vote in my district with two opponents. So stepping down, even in the darkest moments, couldn’t be an option.
However, late this week I woke up to find myself placed in a city kerfuffle that has nothing to do with me. I won’t go into the back story—that would need to be its own piece—but it seems that several days after winning my seat, a local who was then a vice principal—Robyn Bailey (whose husband also ran for a seat on the Charter Commission but lost)—wrote a letter to the city mayor and the full city council expressing her disgust at my win and the win of another commissioner, who is also a Black woman.
As quoted in the 10/8/21 issue of the Portland Press Herald in a column by Bill Nemitz: Specifically, Bailey cited repeated claims by commission member Nasreen Sheikh-Yousef that the city manager was a “white supremacist.” Bailey also took issue with commission member Shay Stewart-Bouley’s “tweets about sodonmy (sic), her hatred of white people (and) her covid pounds in relation to her breast size.”
As you can imagine, reading about things I have never tweeted about wasn’t exactly the way that I wanted to start my day. While I believe in having difficult, awkward and real conversations about race relations and body changes and other issues, the idea that on a public platform—where my family including my children, professional peers and my board members follow me—I would tweet about sodomy is laughable. Or, it was laughable until I realized several hours later that this woman’s baseless accusations would have real implications for me as a Black woman.
By evoking sexual imagery, Bailey pulled from the well-worn bag of tropes about Black women, and placed as herself as the gatekeeper of decency and purity. Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia describes it far better than I, in this moment of rage: The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. The descriptive words associated with this stereotype are singular in their focus: seductive, alluring, worldly, beguiling, tempting, and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, were portrayed as models of self-respect, self-control, and modesty – even sexual purity, but black women were often portrayed as innately promiscuous, even predatory. This depiction of black women is signified by the name Jezebel.
Bailey also wrote in her letter that: “I am embarrassed for me, you and as an educator I am not sure how I explain all this to the middle schoolers I work with. My families would not tolerate such behaviors from me, nor should they have to. I work FOR them. These newly elected people need to do better.”
The real kicker in her comments, though “No one wants to hear my next words, but we all know that if the people saying these things were NOT people of color, they’d be done, gone and trashed. Please hold ALL people accountable for their words.”
I wonder how she feels about being held accountable for her own words, untrue and put into my mouth by her.
Actually I don’t have to wonder. Because when Bailey’s email to the mayor and the City Council surfaced before her recent appointment to school principal, it is quite clear she wasn’t feeling the need for the same level of accountability that she was asking of me and my fellow commissioners of color. Given the reality of racial dynamics and the fact that her employer, Portland Public Schools, has made a very public commitment to equity in the school system, I think any thoughtful person might want to inquire about that email and dig a little deeper instead of just tossing it out there in a column in the city’s major newspaper. Especially knowing that her husband, William Bailey, had run for an at-large seat on the Charter Commission and two days after losing his bid, his wife felt moved to denigrate the characters of two Black people who ran and won. Was there some underlying racial animus? Who knows. But in the in end, Bailey’s rant was promoted without deeper examination, and now this email is being circulated to assassinate my character with untruths.
I could brush it off as yet another unhinged diatribe, perhaps, if not for that fact I am currently being vilified in pockets of social media by her lies. And the fact that a columnist at our city’s paper with its sizable readership felt compelled to share this woman’s lies about me without even the decency to contact me is unconscionable. Never mind that as an elected official who is also a public figure in other ways, this has the potential to be a safety and security issue both for me and my fellow commssioner in this current climate. While Portland is a city, in many ways it is also just a big town. People tend to know each other and stuff gets around fast, and knowing that people will read what was written and assume it to be the truth and judge me for it is a burden that I didn’t ask for.
Furthermore, given that I am known as an anti-racist, the fact that Bailey as an educator in 2021 would reduce my work to “hating white people” is reductive at best. Certainly, she should have a rudimentary understanding of racism to know better—maybe this a living example of the downside of equity work that is conducted with institutions and white people that is not also explicitly anti-racist.
I will say that yes, I have tweeted about my weight gain during COVID, including the distribution of that weight, but I will also say that there is nothing wrong with that. I find it rather puritanical that an acknowledgement of my own weight is seen as vile, even if it occasionally includes mention of my bosom.
I want to say that I have been on social media for many years. Social media is a tool that I use for promoting my work here on the blog, but it is also a way to connect with others. When it comes to Twitter, I am a Twitter OG. I joined Twitter back when my then 17-year-old son joined because I wanted to make sure it was a safe space for him. Mind you, this was back before social media became woven into our daily lives.
In my years on Twitter, I have made friends and professional connections. Let’s be honest: As an Executive Director, my work is rather solitary and isolating at times; in many ways, Twitter is my watering hole. It’s a space where sometimes I allow myself to be simply human. I realize that at times white folks may misread my tweets, not understanding the nuance of Black folks and how we communicate at times. That said, Robyn Bailey chose to create an entire false narrative about me. That is harmful and I would welcome a conversation with her about that.
I would also welcome a conversation with Bill Nemitz. In choosing to write about Bailey without exploring or challenging her claims, and putting me so publicly into a column, I am being turned into a caricature and subjected to attention that I didn’t ask for. In accepting this white woman’s words as truth without thinking about the implications for Black women, Nemitz is choosing to perpetuate the type of racism that is hard for the average white person to grasp.
And, in the end, I would ask—since I was accused of being racially hateful—who are the real racists here?
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