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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