Why can’t you hear us?

Today’s post is written by  Teddy Burrage, who joins the BGIM family as a contributing writer. Teddy is a Portland, Maine, native and local activist and organizer. When he’s not writing or working, you can usually find him exploring Maine’s vast interior and coastline.

Ever since I was born, the color of my skin has been the subject of curiosity, envy, disgust, perplexity, and hate. My race has defined my relationship with people and institutions. And now that I speak publicly about my experiences—and those of other black and brown people—the scrutiny and challenges I face have only increased. But that’s okay; I’ve made the choice to be vocal. Though with all that in mind, I still find it very frustrating when people say that racism—particularly implicit racism—is all in my head.

From the outset of my parents’ relationship, before I was born, the evidence was clear that racism was alive and well in Maine, including even within my own family.

One of the first few nights that my parents started dating each other, they were accosted by skinheads in Portland’s Old Port. Heading back to their vehicle in the parking garage, they were followed as the white supremacists aggressively yelled and approached them. Apparently, there had been a White Power rally in Portland earlier that day. Seeing a white woman with a black man must’ve drove them over them edge. Trying to get in their car to drive away, one of the men grabbed my father, attempting to drag him out on to the pavement. Luckily, my father was able to issue a few devastating blows to the back of the man’s head, and they sped away.

When my parents got married in 1989, they were the only interracial couple in both my mother’s paternal and maternal families. Just twenty-two years after Loving v. Virginia, the union was a bit controversial, too much so for some members of the family who protested by refusing their invitation to the nuptials—people who I would eventually grow up to know as my own family.

Soon after the wedding, I was born. My white mother often faced questions from strangers when out in public alone with me. “Is he adopted?” “is he Greek?” and “whose baby?” were among the few she told me that I can recall.

Fortunately, my parents instilled in me a pride for my skin color and heritage, teaching about the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and also having taught me to recite the phrase, “I’m black, I’m white, and I’m proud” at a very young age. It’s this pride that I frequently had to refer to as I grew older.

Growing up in Maine, spending a lot of my childhood in rural areas, much of the time I was the only child of color in my classrooms and extracurricular activities, including my neighborhood. I can’t say that I experienced the forthright sort of discrimination that my parents did when they started their relationship, but I was reminded by my peers that I wasn’t exactly the same as them on a fairly consistent basis.

Prodding at my hair, conversation about my “tan” and being called “the black kid” were more than enough to confirm that I was different. Even adults would participate in what felt like an othering of my body. This is when I was first started noticing the subtleties (and sometimes explicitness) involved with the way many white people talked about other races.

At a very young age, I started to notice that when a white person told a story of someone they met or saw, it was always prefaced by the person’s skin color or ethnicity—but only if they weren’t white—and even if it had no real importance to the story. I quickly learned to assume everyone was white when being told a story unless otherwise noted. I learned that being white (heterosexual, able-bodied, cisgender) was the standard and everything else was a deviation.

I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’ve heard someone say “big black guy” as way to convey fear in an account of an incident, or heard people talk about women hanging out with “black guys” as if it were some sort of egregious taboo.

I’ve even been told by many white people that referring to someone as “nigger” isn’t a racialized act. They told me that even whites could be described using this expletive. But the unsurprising part is that I’ve never heard anyone call a white person this word that I, a man who’s half black, rarely utter or write.

Raised in almost exclusively white environments, I was often confronted with the tasteless jokes and mischaracterizations about black people like “what do you call a black boy with a bike? Thief!” and the absurd notion that black people are good a basketball because of an extra bone in their leg. I even heard them from my family.

Living much of my life at locations on lakes and the ocean, I learned to love swimming. I spent (and still spend) my summers on Sebago Lake. One of my relatives used to recite this joke, “what do you call a black man in a scuba suit?” The answer: “Jacque Custodian.” I remember one time I was fully outfitted in snorkeling gear—goggles, flippers, a little bag to collect rocks; the whole bit. Pulling myself out of the water onto the dock, I was asked by the same individual, “what do we have here? A little Jacque Custodian?”

I was too young to even understand the meaning behind the quip at the time and later in life I grew to learn the essence of what he was trying to say. As lighthearted as it may have been intended, that’s nothing you say to a 8-year-old. It’s experiences like these that I increasingly became aware of as I moved through my life.

The culmination of these instances have confirmed for me that my skin color—and that of other POC—is either at the forefront or the back of many white people’s mind during our interactions. I’m not saying that it’s abnormal to see color or that people’s thoughts are always bigoted. What I’m saying is I’m not delusional and I know my skin color is often the subject of conscious and unconscious thought processes.

In a recent article written by Black Girl in Maine, Shay Stewart, entitled “The $62 no-meal, or Racist tacos in Ogunquit,” Shay described how she and her family faced an implicit racial bias at a local restaurant. In the article, she said “The thing is that I think these women are not intentional racists. They probably don’t think of their actions as racially biased. But I do think the server held biases that affected her interaction with us.”

For Shay and other POC such as myself, our race literally colors many of the encounters that we have. We’ve had lifelong lessons on what that looks and feels like. But still, many white people default to the notion that racism is somehow rare and isolated. They believe that POC are too quick to pull “the race card” because after all, they never see racism.

Understandably though, it is only the explicit instances white people actually see. The implicit biases are difficult to spot when you are not the target.

I notice when three people in front of me at the convenience store get a full smile and welcome and when I approach, the cashier is suddenly flat-faced and silent. When a retail associate asks me if they can help me find anything, I know when it’s genuine and I know when it’s just an excuse to keep a closer eye on me. I don’t expect everyone around me to see when these things happen, but I expect people to believe me when I say it happens.

The sooner people begin to err on the side of believing POC, rather than looking at racism like it’s some kind of antiquity from yesteryear, the sooner we can collectively begin to unpack this complex and destructive scourge. It’s hard enough for many POC to speak out when these things happen to them. Let us not make it worse by applying a burdensome skepticism that only breeds more silence, fear, and resentment.
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