Musings on power, privilege and last thoughts on the n-word ordeal

It’s been 10 days since that most unfortunate incident and while I am moving beyond my rage and even my shame and getting ready to rejoin the land of the living, it seems appropriate to share a few closing thoughts that I have on why a “mixed-race” family being called niggers in Maine’s most populous city was so shocking that it was worthy of being news outside of the state. After all, there are very few Black people alive who will escape this life without having that ugly word hurled at them as a weapon used to dehumanize them. It is a sad fact of what it means to be Black in America in 2015.

We aren’t post-racial and we never have been, despite what the media and pundits tried to tell us. A strange confluence of events created an environment that allowed Barack Obama to become president in 2008. It wasn’t about an America that was beyond a man’s skin color; more that he really was the best choice in both 2008 and 2012. Nothing more. The number of hate groups has increased since 2008, the rhetoric from the right over the years has been nothing but dog-whistle politics (which is racially coded language designed to appeal to whites without being overtly racist) and the state of life in America for Black folks continue to be rather depressing as a whole. On average, the net worth of whites is twenty times that of Blacks and eighteen times that of Hispanics. Conflicting studies show that for Black women on average, their net worth is somewhere between $5 and $300. Obviously, I am speaking in broad strokes but my point being, this idea of a level playing field sans racism is a creation of the white mind and not based in any type of reality.

Part of the reason that whites aren’t aware of what life is like for Black folks or other people of color is that far too many white people live, work and love in spaces that are all white. Too many white people don’t have real connections to Black folks or other non-white people and in a state like Maine, it is fairly easy to live your entire life never interacting with or knowing a non-white person. This creates a perfect setting for assuming that there is no racism. In the absence of real knowledge, it is easy to make assumptions. We all do it and it’s not specific to race.

For people of color in Maine or any white-dominated space, talking about our racialized experiences is a risk and one that many literally can’t afford to take. Because, truth be told, when non-white people speak openly about race, it makes white people terribly uncomfortable. And in this country, most non-white people are working for white people, renting from white people, doing business with white people. So, making them uncomfortable is often a bad idea. This is what is meant when racism is described as “power plus privilege.” Non-white people rarely hold the type of power and privilege over whites that whites hold over us. It is an uncomfortable reality that we prefer to put our heads in the sand about.

Yet if you look at my blog prior to the latter part of 2013 (which is when I accepted my position at Community Change Inc.), I wrote about race but not with the level of openness that I now do. Why? I no longer have to worry about offending an all-white board of directors or white foundations as a Black woman living in a predominantly white state. In the past 10 days, I have heard from so many people in Maine as well as people outside of Maine. Many people of color who have suffered indignities greater than mine yet they rarely mention these indignities because they can’t afford to ruffle feathers, so they stuff it down. Even when you do bring it up, you are often told that racism doesn’t happen here, you must be mistaken, etc. In other words, what you lived isn’t seen as valid. Which frankly is a mental and emotional assault.

Many white people have written me asking what can they do, well as I always tell people, read Debby Irving’s book Waking Up White if you haven’t already, but also look in your communities. Are you talking about race? When Black people are killed every 28 hours in this country by law enforcement officers, does that register on your radar or do you assume that the dead Black person clearly should have done XYZ? Do you need to see grainy cell phone videos of Black children being killed by cops to think that maybe there is a problem? Do the words “Black Lives Matter” make you automatically squirm and rephrase it as “All Lives Matter?” Do my words make you uncomfortable? These questions are the first steps in tearing down the silos of whiteness that thrive at the expense of Black humanity. To move to that place where all lives really do matter requires being uncomfortable and messy in a world where waiting in the grocery store line is so uncomfortable that we’d rather check our Facebook feed rather stand in space with others. We are all the recipients of a world 400 years ago that denied Black humanity yet we do have a choice now.

What choices will you make?

7 thoughts on “Musings on power, privilege and last thoughts on the n-word ordeal”

  1. Great blog, Shay. Your words make me think and challenge me to listen more than talk. They also inspire me to lead a more authentic life. Thank you.

  2. Exposure is a key here and the earlier that “black” and “white” children are educated together the better for this to occur. In the south with the large county wide schools this is a fact of life and you do find these strong friendships. Although in the school lunch rooms we still find segregated tables according to race and status— association is ongoing and particularly relevant in these schools is that black history is being taught to all the children. This is not the case in New England with its “ghetto’s” of white privilege. When the Norfolk Virginia schools were desegregated in the late 1950’s my young “white”male cousin was able to “come out” and expose his own ongoing friendship with an equally studious young “black male”. Since then my cousin has been on the forefront of whatever anti- racism movement that he has encountered and is another very vocal voice ……he was particularly active in the bastion of racism found on Maryland’s Eastern shore and he even found it when living in Portsmouth, NH. Such expose is critical !

    • In the case of New England not only does its covert racism need to be overcome but as well a certain culture identity based on its own extreme puritan antecedents …. along with its dominant WASP culture (French, Catholic, Latino and definitely Afro American or black need not apply) there is a Puritan mentality undermining all behaviors here, whereby emotions are shunted, conflict is diffused and to fit in a certain code of proper behavior is enforced and above all you must not bring shame on your ancestors…. to be poor, in need of help and dependent on others for financial or other support is to shame them. This goes back to that Mass. Bay Extreme Puritan ethos whereby you are predetermined by the “Puritan God” to be either a saint with a certainty of wealth, white privilege and status or a sinner with none of these attributes. Thus to be poor means that you have fallen from grace and this reflects on you, your family and your ancestors. So you can imagine what your reception is in New England if you are both a minority and in need ! The “white privilege” may throw out a few crumbs but this is simply to assure the continuation of their own “sainthood”.

  3. Yikes, that went right to my lily white heart! I thought I was pretty comfortable with the race conversation. Thanks for opening my eyes!

  4. To comment on…. “A strange confluence of events created an environment that allowed Barack Obama to become president in 2008. It wasn’t about an America that was beyond a man’s skin color; more that he really was the best choice in both 2008 and 2012. Nothing more”. However the present President Barack Obama in both background (both had Irish roots) and inexperience is similar to that of the former President John F. Kennedy. While Kennedy was on the blunt edge of some criticism …he was never exposed to the vile attacks that the Obama’s have had to endure plus he never had the degree of White House security incompetence that this “black” family has to endure. This again sounds like an affirmation of Kennedy’s own “white privilege” and backed up by both his network, family wealth and status !

  5. So, I’d read the Debby Irving thing, and the ally thing you recommended, and just got around to reading St. Louis/Paul Kersey thing just now. Wtf? So glad racism’s on its way out.
    So, I’ve tried always to speak out, and since I became really aware of it some years ago, to be aware of my privilege, to remind others of same, etc., but what is there to DO? If there are people in the mid coast, specifically Rockland area, who are in need of an ally, I’m willing to help. I’m limited, due to being sole caretaker of a spouse with degenerative disease, but would like to do what I can. I worked with poor kids, LGBTQ kids for a number of years, don’t know how much good I did, but I did some, and at least I did something. I’d like to do something. So, sing out, please, mid coast people.

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