The crisis of anti-black racism

People in the city where I live (Portland, Maine) have been rising to the occasion as a welcoming community for approximately 300 asylum seekers mostly from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola who have arrived here in just the last few weeks. Some local folks even organized a picnic on the Fourth of July. My own spiritual community, the Quakers, have been on the ground gathering and sorting donations, and doing all kinds of hands-on volunteering. It’s amazing, and wonderful!

At the same time, across the country there has been outrage at the inhumane treatment of people crossing the southern border of the USA. There have been #ClosetheCamps protests, and the national media is finally sharing the story of the “detention facilities.” My father’s family came from Germany, so I feel especially compelled to not look away as so many Germans did before the Holocaust; the concentration camps there were established before the “extermination” or “death camps.” It may not be exactly the same, but we can’t pretend it isn’t similar.

So, believe me when I tell you I’m not here to yuck on anyone’s activism yum, so to speak. It’s true that our mostly white town here in Main has done the right thing and has been welcoming our newest neighbors. And, it’s true that activists are kicking it into high gear to get the government to change their policies, reunite families, and let the people out of the CPB prisons at the border.

But it’s also true that we white people are very, very good at avoiding even talking about anti-Black racism, let alone taking action to change our anti-Black racist systems.

It’s been my experience that speaking about anti-Black racism to my fellow white people can be so fraught with feelings of guilt and shame that we will do anything to distract from the topic. Just bringing up anti-Black racism very frequently leads people to tell me they don’t think they should feel guilty. And, um, no, I never said you should. I never mention “guilt,” but someone almost always brings up that word. To me, that’s revealing.

The reason I identify this common need to change the subject or make statements about “not feeling guilty” as feelings of guilt or shame is mostly because of my own experience learning about racism as well as the experience of other white people I know who have really dug into this crap.

First, I didn’t know how bad it was. Then, I started to know how bad it was and I felt really bad-sad-mad feelings, peppered with feelings of what I now think of as “white guilt.” I didn’t want to be a bad person, and racists are bad! The next phase, that I’m in now, was that I realized my feelings aren’t the point: anti-Black racism exists and I benefit from the white supremacist society that depends on it. So, sure, I think it’s awful and ideally I’d love to not be a part of the problem. But there’s not a lot I can do, realistically, to get myself out of the benefitting-position of the systems around me so “guilt” is a waste of energy.

In “How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective,” edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, #BlackLivesMatter co-creator Alicia Garza points out that “anti-Blackness is the fulcrum around which white supremacy works.”

So as these good and right protests and volunteer efforts have been happening, I’ve been glad to see it and participate in them. But I’ve also been angry and frustrated. Anti-Black racism, the fulcrum of white supremacy, has been a crisis all along. It’s a set of systems that morph to keep Black people at the bottom rather than an enormous bang-splash crisis *event.* Because it creeps along, it’s easier for us white people to avoid seeing it. Most of us white people aren’t ready or willing to dive in as real allies, accomplices, or just generally good human beings to see—to really face—the crisis that includes but is not limited to mass incarceration (slave labor) and housing/healthcare/education/wealth disparities. As Black Girl In Maine Media’s Shay Stewart-Bouley has written about extensively, simply existing in our country as a Black person puts people at risk of punishment or death.

I’m not suggesting we should stop supporting asylum seekers, or stop taking action to free the people imprisoned at the border. I am suggesting we white people need to notice how we are not doing the same for Black Americans, despite the ongoing crisis of white supremacy. We white people need to notice, learn (skip the guilt!), and do something about it.


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Parenting white children (A book review)

Parenting white children (A book review)

Co-sleeping or sleep-training? Bottles or breastfeeding? Parenting is filled with complicated decisions. How we respond depends a lot on our backgrounds, our support networks, and our individual personalities. As a white parent of white children, I’ve thought quite a bit about how I want to address race and racism with my children.

My children are 15 and 10, now, and my parenting regarding racism has grown as my own knowledge and awareness has grown. For example, as a relatively typical white liberal parent who knew I wanted to be not-racist from the day my first child was born, “exposing my children to difference” was important. (It took many years before I realized that, for me, white was the default and “difference” meant not-white, but that’s another topic.) We bought dolls with different shades of skin, books with stories about children who were Black or brown, and we attended festivals held by different ethnic communities celebrating their cultures. We didn’t go so far as teaching “everyone is equal, race doesn’t matter” in the color-blind way, but we were on the parenting-white-children road without a map.

In my gut, I knew we weren’t doing enough. The trouble is, I didn’t know what to do differently.

I’ve been reading books and writing and talking with people about racism for years. Despite that, most of the time I really and truly feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. I feel like I’m flailing, though I keep trying. There are resources out there to help us white people dig into our own biases and privilege, and there are many, many ways we can actively begin undoing whiteness in our lives. Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America by Jennifer Harvey is the book I wish I’d had when my babies were littler, though I’m glad to have it now. (It’s never too late to start parenting race-conscious children!)

Among the white people I know, there is a deep hunger to figure out what we can do. We know that talking isn’t enough, though we also know that’s not nothing. The guidance in this book is concrete and clear. On the publisher’s website, it describes how the book “offers age-appropriate insights for teaching children how to address racism when they encounter it and tackles tough questions about how to help white kids be mindful of racial relations while understanding their own identity and the role they can play for justice.”

In the book, among many other things, Harvey addresses the common fear I hear from my white peers when it comes to teaching our white children about racism: We don’t want to scare them; we want to keep them safe from the ugliness of the world for at least a while. That understandable fear blocks us from being honest with our children about racism. Setting aside the fact that parents of color, especially Black parents, don’t have the option to keep the ugliness away from their children if they want them to stay safe (so educating our white children in solidarity feels like the least we can do), Harvey makes a strong argument that equipping our children with the specific language of racism, including some of the harsher realities, will ultimately protect our children. As she points out, our children hear and learn about scary stuff—police killing Black people at higher rates than white people, for example—even it we aren’t the ones teaching them. If we haven’t been there proactively helping them build a vocabulary for talking about the issues, we make it difficult for them to process what they learn and they may turn to denial, shame, confusion, fear, or even racism itself. For example, maybe they will begin believing the lie that all those Black people did something to deserve being killed.

Rather than clumsily try to restate what she says in the book, I want to encourage parents or teachers of white children to read it. (Or, do what I do, and get the audiobook.)

And, honestly, though the book is meant to help parents of white children, I feel like it’s also a guide for us white adults about how we might talk to each other about racism. The fact is, most of us white people haven’t learned how to talk about it, I know I haven’t. We’re like little children who don’t have an extensive vocabulary, and it can feel super-awkward. The examples Harvey gives are easy to imagine happening in a wide variety of contexts, not just in conversations with our children. Plus, she recognizes that white adults also need some basic education about racism, including information about the process of racial identity formation. She gives us that. So, we learn more and can be better prepared to help our children learn and grow.

This book isn’t the end-all be-all for dismantling white supremacy, of course. But as I imagine the ripple effect of many of us parenting white children in a race-conscious way, it fills me with hope. We and our children might become much more effective participants in building a more just and fair society where all children get to be safe and get to be children, for all of their sweet little childhoods.


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White supremacy stays strong thanks to white liberals

Last week I had an exchange on Twitter that gave me a tiny glimpse into the disrespect and dismissal Black people face at every turn in our anti-Black country. It was infuriating and offensive. The white woman with strong ties to the establishment Democrats was rude and close-minded. Without calling her out directly, I’m going to review how she upheld white supremacy in ways I’ve done in the past. More importantly, I’m going to share with you what I try do differently now.

First, when another white person is acting in line with white supremacy, it angers me. I use that anger as a cue to look at myself. I wanted to tell her to “eff” off, but that’s a luxury I don’t afford myself anymore. I don’t shut the door on white liberals who are still stuck in the denial I was in; the denial I can continue to be in if I’m not mindful about my own racism.

Second, I’m new to confronting or interrupting racism. I don’t always see it when it’s there. When I do see it, I’m never quite sure what the right response is. And, if I see it and I do know how to respond, I decide if I’m in it on a committed level or in passing. Either is okay, but I think about it. I don’t want to get bogged down in white culture’s insistence on perfectionism, but I also don’t want to thoughtlessly cause more harm.

When this woman tweeted using the phrase “women and African Americans” it rubbed me the wrong way. I’ve come to hear that phrasing as erasing Black women. Honestly, I don’t know where I’ve heard it over the years, but I know in my gut that I’ve heard Black women say that phrasing like that is harmful. In my own opinion I think it’s ugly. I think there’s an underlying assumption in our white supremacist culture that Black women don’t count fully as women. Any time we aren’t explicit that we mean “all women” when we say “women” it’s adding to the “white as default” use of the term and that’s harmful.

The woman responded not with openness but with defensiveness. In her defensive response, I recognized my old behaviors. I remember being so afraid of being racist that if someone told me I was doing something racist, I might have found fault in their opinion. Protecting my self-identity as not-racist was more important than anything.

She defended her use of the phrase, saying “All experts in the field use this terminology,” and “we all know that views of subgroups within particular groups can vary.” Yes, of course, “women and African Americans” is used commonly, but that doesn’t mean it’s right. As Audre Lorde said, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

Summarizing the exchange: I told her that I’d heard Black women say the phrasing “women and [racial/ethnic group]” was harmful to them. I’ve come to hear it that way myself. It grates on me to hear it phrased that way. It seems to me a simple adjustment of the phrase would be easy, “women of all races and African Americans of all genders.” See how easy that is? But instead of being interested about what Black women have said, she defended her [mis]use of the phrase and expected evidence or proof from some authoritative source.

That’s the next aspect of white supremacy in this woman’s response: Only institutionally recognized sources will be considered valid. I, too, used to put academic or expert citations on a pedestal. General statements based on feelings, intuition, or word-of-mouth are typically dismissed by white supremacy. Instead of evoking curiosity, my tweet was met with disrespect. I’m not a blue check account with thousands of followers and I have no advanced degrees or obvious popular forms of expertise. It reminded me of when I was dealing with DHS (getting food stamps/SNAP benefits and MaineCare) and was treated with more disrespect than I’d ever experienced before. My knowledge alone didn’t count to this woman; imagine how a solitary Black woman speaking up would be treated? White culture, supporting white supremacy, has a limited view of whose voices are valid.

The exchange went on and there were more displays of white supremacy, but this post here is already getting too long. To dismantle white supremacy, we need to change how we value human experiences and voices. We need to live in love, justice, open-mindedness, and curiosity. We need to listen and break patterns if we want our systems to change.

P.S. I told the woman it wasn’t my job to prove anything to her. I was wrong about that. Part of my “job” as a white person in recovery from whiteness is to share useful information with other white people. So, to the woman on Twitter I present just a couple sources she might consider “valid” enough to pique her curiosity. I am confident if she explores the issue with an open mind, she will find it generally confirmed beyond these two links that the phrasing she defended is harmful: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3477987/ and https://upcolorado.com/about-us/blog/item/2843-the-problem-with-the-phrases-women-and-minorities-and-women-and-people-of-color.


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