Delusions of Change…We Must Do Better Now

Today’s post is dedicated to all the women and girls color in the state of Maine who stand tall in the face of racism and continue to work in the face of hate. To the girls who steal shy glances and laugh the carefree laugh that only the young truly know. To all the Black girls in Maine because we are here and I see you.

Yesterday I was the keynote speaker at the YWCA Central Maine’s Stand Against Racism event, which was part of the national YWCA’s Stand Against Racism programming. At this stage in my career, I speak with groups on a fairly regular basis but nothing could  prepare me for the emotional heaviness that I felt at yesterday’s event.

Truthfully, my keynote wasn’t my strongest speech ever, owing partly to the fact that since my return to work after surgery I have, as usual, taken on too much (and/or been required to do too much). After several weekends in a row of work-related events, my cup is close to empty. It seems that in returning to a mostly pain-free existence, the key to staying pain-free is recognizing my own human limits and putting my Superwoman cape in the closet as much as often.

But back to the YWCA and Stand Against Racism.

The audience for yesterday’s event had more people of color than many of my events and as we moved to the panel discussion, that’s where my own mask came off and the collective weight of racism just slapped me in the face. A group of young Muslim women…students in the Lewiston-Auburn area mostly…had been gathered to ask me questions but early on it was clear that we were having a conversation as women and girls of color about the lived realities of racism and, more importantly, our very existence living in one of the whitest states in America.

One young woman shared about walking down the street and grown white men yelling nigger at her. Another talked about being involved in an extracurricular program to promote literacy and a young white child telling her that because she was Black, she couldn’t work with her. Stories of blatant and ugly racism being directed at teenagers. At young people trying to do better and make a difference. Young people whose only “crime” is their skin color. Then we opened the questions up to the audience and a biracial man shared how his white mother used to call refer to him as her “nigger baby” and he had always been an outsider because he wasn’t white. One of the last people to ask me a question was an elderly Black man who was clearly well known in the community (turned out that he was one of the first Black teachers in Maine, having taught for almost five decades, and having served in positions for several Maine governors). As a true elder, he has seen his share of racism and oppression and he came to bear witness to the change in Maine…that we now openly discuss racism and some of us are even working to create change…while also acknowledging how much hasn’t changed during all his decades.

Dialogues on racism, while informative and eye opening, are simply not enough. There are real people living with the real emotional and mental weight (and sometimes literal pain) of racism because racism in many ways is like high blood pressure. You know it’s there and it might not kill you today but if you don’t make changes over time, it will weaken the body and cause harm that will eventually kill you before your time.

Given the state of race relations in America at this moment, there is great interest in workshops and training on diversity, equity and anti-racism efforts, which are needed. But even more so, we need programs to help those who live with racism to craft whole lives, to learn to find the joy and to get out of the fight-or-flight response that in many ways is the normal unconscious conditioning for those of who feel the pain of racism. How can I truly relax when I know at any minute someone might attempt to steal my humanity by reducing me to nothing more than the color of my skin and a heap of stereotypes with words or perhaps ultimately even physical violence? How can I relax when a carload of white boys can yell that hateful N-word and steal my children’s joy in an instant and leave them an emotional wreck over it for weeks…even months…afterward?

Living in a small state like Maine, where every person of color is about two degrees of separation away from each other, I know that there are many of us toiling in the trenches, giving far too much of ourselves trying to make this space better for the next generation of Mainers of color. Still, the act of dismantling racism requires all hands on deck. It means that if we are sincere about racial equity, recognizing that righting the wrongs that were created long before any of us alive today were born means that to balance the scales we have to give up something that we hold dear. We decrease a little of ourselves to increase someone else to create wholeness for us all.  In other words, for the most part, it means white people need to give up a ton of unearned privilege, accommodations and access to systems so that everyone has a fair shot at those things (since most non-white folks are every bit as deserving). That’s a lot to ask and a lot to give and ultimately a barrier to change.

Lastly, I ask my white friends and readers to think about the toll it takes on people of color to work for racial change. One of the last people I met at yesterday’s event was Fahmo Amed. Her story was recently told in a local paper. She shared with me how, since her story of being Muslim came out, she has received support but she has also received hate mail. Even hate mail received at her place of employment that was so intimating the local authorities have had to get involved. Nothing she shared with me is surprising, given that I now avoid going to my own speaking engagements alone after several uncomfortable encounters (and heaven knows, every few months, I get a letter that makes me reconsider my stance on handguns and carrying them).  I know other women of color who do work similar to mine across the country and many of us have had encounters as result of the words we write and speak where we are reminded that there are people who would happily harm us.  Still we carry on because to do nothing is to surrender and change never happens if you do that. With that, I leave you with the words of that great orator, Frederick Douglass:

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others. 
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The closet of hate and intolerance has been opened, or Trump in Chicago

“Also known as implicit social cognition, implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner.  These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without an individual’s awareness or intentional control.  Residing deep in the subconscious, these biases are different from known biases that individuals may choose to conceal for the purposes of social and/or political correctness.  Rather, implicit biases are not accessible through introspection.

The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.  These associations develop over the course of a lifetime beginning at a very early age through exposure to direct and indirect messages.  In addition to early life experiences, the media and news programming are often-cited origins of implicit association”- Kirwan Institute

For months, the world has seen America’s unresolved racial ugliness laid bare courtesy of GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and his supporters. What started out in the minds of many as a passing media cycle and joke has reached a boiling point and is far from being funny. Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric is having real consequences for people of color, immigrants,  Muslims and anyone who Trump and his followers deem not American or at least not American enough. Others. People who are “the problem.” In other words, anyone who is not white, Christian or cisgendered in Trump land.  

Trump’s rallies and events have taken on the air of a demented circus where dissenters and those who do not physically meet the standards of acceptable are joyfully thrown out. Hateful words and physical assaults at these events are increasingly the norm with Trump as the head ringmaster loudly proclaiming that people are “bad dudes.” while providing no evidence of that and constantly downplaying or defending the physical aggressions his supporters inflict on people who aren’t part of the Trump camp.  Trump trades in dog-whistles and has been richly rewarded for his bombast by now being on a speeding train headed directly for the GOP nomination, much to the dismay of the establishment GOP who must now grapple with the house they allowed to be built on the foundation of hate after the 2008 elections.

However some of us are tired and as Trump’s campaign stops have started to go into more racially diverse cities and towns,  Trump and his hatemongers are facing the reality that America is a place of diversity and there are people who will organize and show up to send a message to his hate show.

Trump’s recent stop in St. Louis turned out many who were opposed to him and his message and several skirmishes broke out leading to a number of arrests. But it was Trump’s attempted visit to my hometown of Chicago that has gotten the attention of the nation.

As soon as it was announced that Trump was coming to a rally at the University of Illinois-Chicago campus, many including personal friends of mine started organizing on the ground after efforts to get the school to cancel Trump’s appearance failed. The result was that thousands took to the streets to show their displeasure. Streets surrounding the campus were blocked as many Blacks, Latinos and others effectively went to shut it down. Many more filled the inside space where Trump was to speak. Trump canceled his appearance at the last moment after falsely saying that law enforcement suggested that he cancel due to security risks. Chicago interim police superintendent emphatically stated that was not true, in fact the Chicago Police Department was more than capable and able to keep the peace.

Yet in what should have been a moment of victory for those committed to inclusion and racial justice, the narrative that the media chose to project was one of utter chaos. A narrative that took advantage of the fact that many of the protestors in Chicago were people of color and played on underlying racial biases that see fear when too many Black and Brown bodies are gathered in one space. Given the fact that only a handful of arrests were reported, those of us who have been to large-scale protests know this indicates a relatively peaceful event. Given the fact that so many of Trump’s supporters are white and hold views that don’t include a racially inclusive America and that so many of the protestors were people of color, the overall lack of violence speaks to the restraint and desire for peaceful protests. Not to mention that what violence was reported broke out after the event was cancelled, strongly suggesting Trump supporters started most of anything that might have happened.

Yet the narrative that Trump is responding with is that it was “thugs” who shut his rally down and with the national media choosing a framing that essentially plays into Trump’s words, we now have many people asking why couldn’t the protests be peaceful? They were for the most part peaceful, so that’s a loaded question. And by the way, where were the cries for peace when an almost 80-year-old white man sucker-punched a Black protester who was being escorted out of a previous rally that week and later suggested he might need to be killed next time he shows up? Where were the national cries for peace when other people of color peacefully attended Trump rallies and were ejected despite not uttering a single word? We know that many of Trump’s rallies are almost de facto white nationalist gatherings yet too many say nothing other than to shake their heads in dismay.

For those of us who are “other,” we are only one maybe two generations removed from parents and grandparents who lived with overt bigotry and racism every day. We know of the relatives who toiled under Jim Crow or loved ones who survived the Holocaust, and the internment camps and we aren’t going back.  We understand all too well that silence in the face of direct hate is to be complicit and that sometimes we must roll up our sleeves, get loud and make our case lest we find ourselves trapped in a historical repeat of a horror show.

America is a nation that sits on stolen land, built on the blood of displaced and enslaved people that was birthed in ugliness. An ugliness that too many of us want to forget but that some of us can never forget because we are the descendants of an anguished people who for reasons beyond our control carry the psychic weight of those displaced and enslaved people in our souls.

If Trump and his merry hatemongers have the right to gather then those who are committed  to justice and inclusivity have that right too. Anyone who chooses to accept the violent narrative being peddled needs to ask why they can only see the violence when Black and Brown bodies are involved? This election cycle is a ride where for once we as a nation are being asked to open the closet and have a long overdue discussion on race and and what it truly means to be an American. History will capture this moment and hopefully there will be more people on the side of right than wrong.
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Getting back to the issues or Not now, Black people

Since the untimely demise murder of Michael Brown in August 2014, matters of race and racism (both systemic and personal) have been very much at the forefront of many discussions in the US. The barrier of politeness that made in-depth talks of racism taboo outside of academic and racial justice spaces has been lifted and we are all talking. Now, that’s the kind of thing I encourage normally, but the problem is we aren’t all having the same conversation on race and racism. Sometimes, it seems we aren’t even speaking the same language.

The racialized silos that we live in make honest racial discussions very hard to come by. Far too many white people have no meaningful interactions with people of color and, frankly, in many cases they have literally no interactions period with people of color. For people of color and specifically Black people, a power imbalance creates a system where speaking openly and honestly to a white employer, colleague, etc. could have disastrous effects.

Yet a younger Black generation is showing itself to be fearless. They have seen their parents and grandparents grapple with race, they have seen the realities of racism play out in their communities and with their peers, and they are saying “Enough is enough.” This presidential campaign season we have seen candidates forced to address the racial questions in ways that many of us are not quite used to seeing. However the questions must be asked. Racism is the stain that we can’t quite seem to ever wash out in part because we aren’t trying hard enough. We aren’t comfortable with discomfort, and to acknowledge that a white middle class was created at the expense of Black people sits uneasily in the pit of stomachs. Which is why most white people don’t try to think about it much.

To acknowledge that the “hood” and the “ghetto” were government constructs used to keep those people in their place is to acknowledge that many of the truths that white Americans were raised to believe in are lies.  To look at the last 60 years in the United States is to see an ugly reality, and some realities are so horrible and so ugly that for many of us we cannot allow ourselves to feel the weight of that inequity. So we look at inequity in bite-sized morsels that won’t choke us to death and we pat ourselves on the back because we aren’t “those” ugly racists, and we do the best that we can and leave it at that. But to those of us staggering under the psychic weight of racism, bite-sized morsels of racialized compassion and care are more a slap in the face than anything else.

I was thinking about this a few days ago when a video surfaced of two Black activists who attended a private Hillary Clinton event and confronted Clinton with words that she had spoken in the 1990s. Clinton wasn’t the president in the 1990s (her husband was) but she also was not a “typical” first lady. The Clinton legacy of the 1990s is one that created hardship for Black and Brown communities, and we are now living with the impact of mass incarceration and other societal changes adversely and disproportionately affecting people of color that really picked up during the Clinton administration. So there is a justification in asking Clinton where she stands on issues that impact communities of color.

In the end, the activist was thrown out and we hear Clinton utter “Let’s get back to the issues.”  That single sentence is how I feel most matters of racial justice play out for white people. When you are fully free (and acknowledged as fully human), you don’t understand the urgency of someone else’s desire to get free because you have never not been free. Whether you are the poorest white person in the backwaters of the Delta or Appalachia to the waspiest WASP in the northeast, to possess white skin in a society that normalized and centered whiteness is to hold a privilege that others see but often the holder of said privilege cannot see. Your issues and actions are normalized; they are business as usual. They are the important issues; they are not seen as pesky interruptions or uncomfortable moments. To see someone demand accountability and full humanity is often viewed as rude when the real rudeness is that people have to ask these questions in the first place. Then again, if we lived in a world where all lives mattered, maybe we wouldn’t.

Lately, I find myself wondering how we can shift the narrative so that Black Lives Matter becomes something that really matters to all. That it is as important to us all as the air we breathe and the people we love.  How do we take racism out of its compartment and make the full weight felt enough that we all will say enough is enough? I wish I knew…
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