Downward spiral into hate: A year after Charlottesville, a few thoughts

It’s been a year since last year’s deadly Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Va., which took the life of Heather Heyer, a white anti-racist activist. It was an event that shredded any last hope that America was post-racial, especially when the president couldn’t bring himself to condemn the actions;  instead, he equivocated and said there were many fine people on both sides.

For many, Charlottesville was the moment when the racial blinders came off and many were forced to see the real America right in the eye—perhaps for many, right in the mirror in their own eyes and faces. To see a nation where the virtues and dreams we have espoused are not who we are in reality. Instead, we are a nation that was founded on the stolen land of Indigenous people and built with the labor of enslaved Africans. A nation where white supremacy is as much a part of our daily rounds as the air we breathe. Charlottesville was when the door of that closet where tried to keep all the hate stashed away flew open and it, would no longer close, spilling out it contents.

In the year since the horrifying event at Charlottesville, despite the stated desire of many to unify and do better, in reality it’s been an almost daily assault on Black people, other people of color and other marginalized people. We now live in a country where babies are separated from their families for the crime of families wanting a piece of the American dream but lacking the white skin that historically has allowed those we deem white to emigrate to this country.

Donald Trump’s vitriol towards people of color has intensified, and in the past year we have seen far too many average white people emboldened to act as modern-day slave catchers. Giving rise to BBQ Becky, Permit Patty and a host of other white characters who are so offended by the audacity of Black and Brown people daring to exist in anything other than misery that they call the police to report non-white people for the crime of living.  There are few daily acts of living which are immune from police involvement: a trip to Starbucks, a kid selling lemonade, a visit to your local pool. And the daily acts we haven’t seen criminalized by white people surely will be soon enough, until it is clear that police will be called on any Black person, any time, for any action.

At the same time, the national media has been forced to report on racial issues, but instead of using accurate language, too many times, blatant acts of racism are cowardly reported as “racially tinged” or couched as “racial anxiety” rather than named for what they truly are: “racist” and “racism.” Vile and racist white people who are steeped in the clutches of white supremacy are given equal air time because there is a “need” to hear both sides. Those who push back are told they are not being tolerant. The need to be fair overrides the need to be just or sometimes even accurate. Because ultimately those in charge of making these decisions are themselves steeped in white supremacy, albeit a weaker version. Hence their inability to understand that they are upholding the rules of white supremacy that reward a certain type of docility when it comes to uncomfortable topics or matters of race.

Let’s not even talk about the hundreds of pieces dedicated to examining the economic fears of a certain type of white person.  White “economic fear” is simply another version of dog-whistle politics. Fear of losing the benefits of whiteness that gave the white people a headstart and that continue to give white people a head start. Fear of sharing space with any more non-white people than we already have. In fact, fear of sharing space with non-white people to the extent that they will support not only cruel acts to “protect” our borders but also condone the stripping of citizenship from naturalized citizens.

On the flip side, millions of white people are waking up to the reality of white supremacy and becoming aware, as evidenced by the flood of books on the market talking about racism. Awareness of white supremacy runs rampant in certain segments of the population and while my own work is predicated on creating awareness, we are quickly coming to the end of the awareness train. Because awareness isn’t enough to produce change and reverse the increasing racial damage being done lately.

We need more white people who are well-versed on white supremacy and who can think about the issue without centering themselves. We need white folks who are ready to move the needle. White people who will put themselves on the line or even in harm’s way to protect non-white ones from abuse. We need white people who have examined the ways in which they were socialized and indoctrinated into whiteness and who can do this work without a person of color as their tour guide. These same people must increase their own awareness of how to actively question everything and start to notice when they are operating under the rules of whiteness.  We need white people who are thinking critically about racism and privilege and who understand that the societal change we need will require skin in the game and moving beyond the good and bad binary to the deeper work of dismantling whiteness within and in the larger world…while also understanding that the work is messy and deeply uncomfortable and that there is no list of best practices to follow with a list to check off. You aren’t going to read 75 books, amplify marginalized voices online, donate money, attend rallies and occasionally have an uncomfortable encounter and earn a good white person badge. That’s not how any of this works.  Instead, your mission if you accept it is to strike at the heart of white fragility both internally and externally.

We are a nation with a white nationalist at the helm, an aggressive white nationalist whose key advisers hold racist and xenophobic views which are affecting national policies. Can you say Stephen Miller?

Looking back over the past year, I wish I could say things have changed for the better but I would be lying if I said so. To be honest, the rate at which horrific change is happening is downright scary.  That said, the midterm elections are coming up, and the abolition movement is growing. Glimmers of hope in an otherwise dark space.

Many showed up today in Washington, D.C., to protest the white supremacists who were holding a rally. The white supremacists were outnumbered by those who condemn their hateful messages. While it is tempting to give into feel good messages that love trumps hate, that isn’t a good path. While love is amazing, it is not a useful tool enough tool alone in the work to dismantle white supremacy. It’s just one tool, and probably not the best one in the box. Let the good moments give us joy in the dark spaces, but understand that we are playing the long game.

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Photo by Tim Gouw from Unsplash

Either we destroy white supremacy or we stop lying to ourselves

“Beyond the ebb and flow of racial progress lies the still viable and widely accepted (though seldom expressed) belief that America is a white country in which blacks, particularly as a group, are not entitled to the concern, resources, or even empathy that would be extended to similarly situated whites.”

Derrick A. Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown v. Board of Education and the Unfulfilled Hopes for Racial Reform

Since 2003, I have shared my struggles as a Black woman living in one of America’s very whitest states, but really the reality that I have lived in Maine is the reality of the majority Black people in America. “How could that be?” you might ask. Well, it is because we are confronted with overt and covert racism in our daily lives. Regularly. Virtually every day for most of us and more than once a day by far. Racism existed in my hometown of Chicago; after all, it was there that at the age of 16, I had a white child call me a nigger. It was was there where a police officer accused me of being a sex worker for the “crime”of being in the passenger seat of the car with my then husband as we drove down the highway (this being the 1990s, mind you, not the ’60s or even the ’70s, in case you got confused and thought I was an adult back in those decades…hell, I wasn’t even born until the 1970s). It was in Chicago where teachers chose to ignore the fact that as a sullen 16-year-old whose father had been diagnosed with cancer that I wasn’t just being hard-headed and not going to school but that I was in crisis.

The racism that I discovered in Maine was not, in hindsight, particularly extreme in terms of actions or behaviors. But what it was (and continues to be) extreme in the utter lack of racial representation. Simply put, in Chicago, there was a community that provided safe harbor and respite from the slings and arrows of racism. But in Maine, for the majority of Black people and other people of color, we are isolated and that makes the racism that we face even more dangerous. Rarely do we have a safe harbor to retreat to and nourish ourselves. Few (to the point of being almost none at all) largely Black neighborhoods or shops or hangouts. Instead, we are hyper-vigilant and always on though because we are constantly surrounded by whiteness and people who expect us to “act white.” Granted, that is slowly changing thanks to younger activists who are working diligently to change things. But it’s still very much an unfinished work in very early progress.

I must confess that I am tired, I am weary and I am mad. Recently a “friend” suggested that I tone down my rhetoric on race as I was turning people off. Funny thing is that for the past several months, I have been in a deep funk about my work because at times, I wonder if my writing or work has any real value beyond knowledge or camaraderie. As I watch a younger generation of Black activists and thinkers come up, I think they are on to something: The humanity of Black people cannot wait for a collective mass of white folks to realize that we have as much right to sit at the table of humanity as they do instead of always requiring that we twist ourselves to be palatable to the white gaze and aesthetic.

Technology’s ability to capture racial injustice on camera has led to millions of white people starting the process of waking up to the realities of race in America and while that is a good thing, it is not enough. It is not enough to realize that white privilege is a real thing regardless of one’s economic situation. Waking up to whiteness and acknowledgment of injustice do not lead to the structural overhauling of this entire system which is desperately needed. In short, it is no longer enough to educate yourselves and work towards being anti-racist in your personal sphere.

White privilege exists on the foundation of white supremacy, which is what we need to address as a collective body. To be born in a body labeled as white is to be born into white supremacy, it is to be as steeped in white supremacy as a Lipton tea bag is in a mug of steaming hot water.

Western civilization was built on white supremacy and affects every interaction in our lives from how we run our meetings to how we buy our homes. Whiteness is the cultural norm that we are all forced into and for those of us in bodies that are not white, our ability to survive is often tied to just how well we can fit ourselves into this narrative that upholds whiteness as the cultural norm. If you think I am lying, look no further than the former President of the United States. Barack Obama’s ability to distance himself from Blackness was part of his ability to capture the hearts and minds of millions of white people. He was our first Black president and yet it was under our country’s first Black president that Black people mobilized in numbers not seen since the Civil Rights era as we affirmed our right to exist thanks to the growing numbers of Black people being killed by police.

This space has long served as the starting place for many white people to create awareness around racism but that is no longer enough for me as the creator of this space. We must move the needle on racism and while education and knowledge are central to that process we must also have action. We need to ask ourselves are we upholding white supremacy and thus perpetuating the never-ending cycle of racism or are we taking stock of our lives and actions and looking at where we can be the change?

The past several days have been hard for Black Americans as we saw yet another police officer acquitted in the death of an unarmed Black person who was so clearly undeserving of lethal force. Last summer, Philando Castile was pulled over for from the crime of having a busted taillight while driving with his girlfriend and her child. After being asked for his license and registration, Castile told the officer that he was licensed to carry a firearm and that he had one on his person. He was polite and complaint, the two things we are always told will keep us from being shot. Yet the officer decided that his life was in danger and shot into the car multiple times killing Castile. Castile’s girlfriend recorded the incident on Facebook Live as her 4-year-old daughter witnessed this all from the back seat. Yet in the end, the officer was acquitted. People wonder why we say Black Lives Matter but more times than not the system sends the clear messages that Black Lives Don’t Matter.

As many of us sit with this unsettling reminder that our lives only matter when white America says they do, we were faced with another brutal reminder that our lives don’t matter. Seattle police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old Black mother with a reported history of mental health issues after she called to report an attempted burglary. Lyles, who was pregnant, was armed with a knife which apparently triggered the officers to shoot and kill her; her children were present in the apartment. A woman calls the police to report a burglary and ends up dead. In moments like this, I find myself wondering is there any reason for any Black person in America to call the police given that the system has the uncanny knack of finding us so threatening that whether we are 12-year-old kids engaging in play with a toy gun at a playground or driving in our cars or calling for help, we still are killed. Yet white men who go into Black churches and shoot and kill people can be delivered safely to jail with a pit stop for fast food before being locked up. Or they escape from jail, go on a crime spree and can still be captured alive.

If this space resonates with you, what are your plans for change? How are you affirming the humanity in Black and non-white people? How are you supporting people of color? How are you taking your learning and putting it into action? What is holding you back? If Black lives really matter to you, how are you letting the Black people in your life know that?

Lastly, to the “friend” who said I was too much, I say no. In fact, what I have been doing is not enough and I will work until my last breath to create change. If that makes you as a white person uncomfortable, decolonize your mind and break free from the shackles of white supremacy. Do better, think better and be better. Dismantle the system that says whiteness is rightness and everything else.

Do these things. Do them, or else acknowledge that the lives of non-white people, especially Black ones, are simply not enough of a priority for you to unplug yourself from white supremacy and white privilege. Make change in yourself and around you, however you can, or stop lying to yourself.
If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense