When gelato gets racial or a little girl hears the N-word for the first time

As the wheels continue to fly off my personal life, moments of simple joy and normalcy are increasingly hard to come by. My son’s unexpected visit home this week promised to be an opportunity to simply be present with family and savor the simple joys of togetherness. To share in the love that makes us a family, without the heady labels that often weigh us down.

Yet, as a mixed-raced family in a white space, the reality is that anytime we leave our house as a family, we risk incurring the wrath of the ignorant and hateful. To partake in the joys of the first treats of spring can turn ugly without notice and, sadly, a visit to Maine’s most populous city yesterday was the day when the ugly became personal and my nine-year-old daughter learned that there are people who will never know her essence but instead will reduce her to nothing more than a nigger.

I had no intentions of blogging about what happened to my family yesterday in Portland, though in a fit of anger, I did tweet about it in vague terms. However our degradation was witnessed by many, including a local news anchor who shared what she witnessed on her Facebook page and when a news anchor shares such a tale in a state the size of Maine…well, it seems I should just write about it myself.

My husband, son, daughter and I were walking in downtown Portland in an area known as the Old Port. The Old Port is a cute little area with cobblestone streets and an assortment of boutiques and eateries that draw crowds. We had already shopped at several local shops and were off to grab gelato before heading back to our little hamlet when suddenly and without warning as we were waiting to cross the street, a carload of young white men approached and without warning, the young man in the passenger seat yelled out very clearly and very loudly “Hey, niggers!” In that moment, I was frozen, I was scared…I was hurt. Yet before I had time to process what I was feeling, my son dropped the bags he had been carrying and ran off after the car.  As I snapped to and realized that my son might be doing something foolish, the sounds of my daughter wailing for her brother to not run pierced my soul. I called out to him, too, in the hopes he would stop but he said he had to run and never paused for a second.

We stood there unsure what to do next, a sense of shame seeping into our souls. To be othered so publicly in such a vile manner is not a comfortable feeling. In that moment, the three of us stood, not sure if we should run after my son. My husband walked across the street to see if he could see our boy, he couldn’t. My husband asked if I felt he should go after him, I said no. We needed to be here when he returned. In those excruciating moments, nothing was said to us, though what seemed like minutes later, a white man crossed the street and asked if we were okay. I explained what happened and he asked if I could recall what the car looked like and that he would go look for my son once his own ride arrived to pick him up.

Eventually, the standing became too much and the weight of worry caused me to start walking and look for my son, while I had my husband and daughter stay put. I walked a few blocks down the street and came upon my son who was walking back our way. He wasn’t harmed but his anger was apparent. As we walked, I held his arm just as I had done when he was a small boy which, considering he is now a full head-plus taller than me, is laughable. I asked him why he ran, he told me he ran for every time growing up in Maine that a grown man had called him a nigger and he was too little to do anything but hang his head. He ran because he is tired of hanging his head and feeling nothing but shame. He ran because having his baby sister hear those vile words was simply not acceptable to him. He ran because a pack of white men calling his mama a nigger was not okay. He knew the risk inherent in running but he also knew that at 23, he is tired of stuffing down the weight of racism and being asked to be the “better person” by silently taking the abuse and waiting for society to change when it clearly has little impetus to do so. He realized that sometimes, a man has to be willing to risk everything, including an ass kicking or a jail cell, to right some of the wrongs in this world. It may seem…or maybe even be…foolish, but there comes a time when one is simply tired of dealing with injustice.

I have spent the last 11 years writing about race and racism. I head one of the few organizations in the United States dedicated to anti-racism work. While I can go into an academic head space about racism, the fact is it is very different when it is your family and your children living with the reality and weight of being different and being seen as less than fully human. It hurts and if you think about it too much, it will crush your spirit. Yesterday’s events were a psychic gut punch in a week that had already doled out a more than a few psychic kicks.

When I tweeted about the exchange, I was literally blowing off steam on the ride back home and had no intention to really talk about it again. But waking up to numerous messages and to see my painful exchange shared publicly and in detail, well…I am grateful for the anchor’s observations but I am also saddened. Saddened that she was not comfortable enough after seeing the entire exchange to come over and ask “Are you okay?” In my professional work, I work with white people on race and the white American culture is a, all-too-polite space where too many times white people don’t speak up and unfortunately silence can be harmful. Racism is a system, and that silence upholds that system even when we don’t believe we are actively creating harm.

In having the story go public, it created many questions and one being: What happened afterwards? Well we had a sober ride home, the mood of the day being utterly destroyed on a day that we honestly needed to be good. We needed a perfect spring day to savor as we grapple with the uncertainty and fragility of life. Instead, we were reminded that the world can be an utterly ugly place, my daughter asking on the way home if we could move away from this place. I reminded her that ugly can live anywhere. If I felt there was a place that was safe and where we could be assured that we would never hear that word again, I would move heaven and earth to get us there. However, there is no such space in a world that is not comfortable with Black and Brown bodies, instead all I can do is prepare her for what she faces and pray that her gentle soul is not destroyed in the process. Prepare her to wear the mask and stuff down her self just enough to stay strong but not too much otherwise the weight of the mask that Black and Brown people wear in spaces becomes too much and will eat you alive.

So, that’s what happens when you go out on a gorgeous spring day and you’re Black. Your humanity, security and even dignity can get snatched away in a second. You feel the pain, you try not to let it utterly consume you, and then you take it and stick in the jar and keep it moving.

I will keep moving. As will my family. Sometimes, if you try to tear us down, we will run. Not away from you but after you, and you will see us in your rearview mirror or over your shoulder. Even if you outpace us, we will ensure you do not forget us or take us lightly ever again.

226 thoughts on “When gelato gets racial or a little girl hears the N-word for the first time”

  1. in Holland the period of transferring slaves is portrayed as history and dark on all people but here it seams to continue sorry

  2. Had to weigh in. I feel so bad for your family. No one should have to experience that feeling of despair, especially a 9 year old. As a mom and grandma, I treasure our young ones and feel so sad when they do learn of the ugly hateful things one human can do or say to another. I, too, have had similar experiences but a bit different. I was a white older teen, in love with a Native American boy, visiting his family on a South Dakota reservation (oh and NOT catholic!) back in the early 70’s. I have been called many ugly names, shamed by my mother-in-law and many other family members -until they need money usually. Very few of them show my husband, myself or our wonderful family any respect. My mother in law would not even accept a kiss from her then 7 year old granddaughter a few years later. This took place years ago. I tired of fighting the battle. We moved frequently for my husband’s work (military) and found many bi-racial families that we became close friends with. We never stopped overnight to rest in many states when traveling to new assignments because many states are well known for their mistreatment of ANY bi-racial families. I had thought better of Maine. But I also know that things constantly change. We came to Maine to retire, to live out our lives and enjoy. I hope and pray you can do the same. Maybe one day our paths will cross and I will be happy to call you friend.

  3. I have been your daughter, even though I’ve never been to Maine.

    I was her in rural Pennsylvania when a group of wanna be confederates got their kicks calling my mother a nigger as she dropped me off for school.

    I have been your son when in that same area, a high school boyfriend threatened to hang me from a tree; he did this in his parents kitchen. I pulled a cleaver from his mother’s drawer and dared him from across their kitchen island to try.

    This is a sick first communion,; a jump in to a gang they put our babies through. Thank God they meet us on the other side with wisdom and so much love. Blessings to you and your family; especially your little one. I’m so sorry she has to be exposed to the hate.

  4. Your story broke my heart…I’m so sorry this happened to you. I grew up in Maine and have since lived many other places. I agree that intolerance and ignorance is unfortunately everywhere, but it sickens me that this happened to you in your home, a place that should feel safe and inclusive. Thank you for writing this story, silence is dangerous and your words will help.

  5. As the mother of two children I can relate to the fury, hurt, and blind sidedness you felt. Our moment happened on a spring day fourteen years ago when as I made my way to the door of a resturant with a three and a one year old in tow. I was alone in a crowded resturant in a large city I had recently moved to. I am a smaller sized individual and I found my path to the door blocked by two larger ladies. As they ridiculed me for being a n lover and questioned why I STOLE A BLACK MAN all I could do was run. I wish that I had had the courage your son has. I ran away, so glad he didn’t. Best of luck to your family.

  6. I actually live in Maine (not far from Portland) and it is pretty clear that this is one of the whitest states in the country. I found that out the hard way when I moved from California to Maine when I was in middle school. Everyone stared at me all the time. At first I thought it was because I dressed and acted differently than my peers, but I came to the conclusion it was also because I am mixed. I’m half white and half Mexican.

    In a populated area, like southern California, mixed racial ethnicities are more common and I fit in there. Here, I have been called “spic,” “wetback,” “mutt” etc. Some people made fun of my mother because she has a “thick” accent and talked to her like she was an idiot and that angered me. Even if some were joking around, it hurt and there was nothing I could really say or do that made that feeling go away.

    I feel hurt and anger reading you’re blog. I am torn by the fact that someone would think that it is “okay” to say such insensible words to a family walking down a street. It is sad, but true that ignorance is bestowed upon some people. Some people have not even lived anywhere else besides their torn up shack home on a farm in Nowhere, Maine. Be grateful for the things that most people who live here do not possess and that it is wisdom, bravery, and dignity.

    We, as people, need to take a stand together and fight for what is right, always. Stand up to people and say what you believe in. We can not let society think it is alright to let someone call a family “niggers,” because for God’s sake if it was a white family… we know it would be a different story.

  7. There is a longstanding issue of our stories being told for us by well-meaning people. “Selma” struck a chord with many because it didn’t tell the story through white surrogates as a “window into their world”. I think what BGIM is reacting to is her voice not being heard as part of what happened to her family.

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