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. 


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2 thoughts on “With the public face comes some unwanted attention”

  1. Growing up in Nashville, decades ago, public sightings of music stars was certainly a thing. My mother explained what to do if I happened to catch their eye. She said, “smile and nod politely to acknowledge that you know who they are,” and then just go on about your business. The message I took is that a public person is a private person first, and a role second. Thanks for bringing her voice back to my ear.

    Congratulations on the election, and best wishes going forward.

  2. So happy for you, Shay. And your election results are awesome. If you have not yet reached out to them for “navigational advice” do so, meaning of course the pros at this- Rachel Talbot Ross and her dad, Jerry.

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