From ‘Where are you from’ to ‘Go back where you came from’

White America has always been very good about telling people they don’t belong, since before there was even a United States of America. Let’s face it: This country started with colonists and then expansionists telling the Indigenous People who had been here for millennia forming societies and mastering agriculture and art and more that they weren’t as worthy of the land and its resources as the white people who had just “discovered” that land.

And now we live in a time when people who have been living in this country since they were very young children or even babies are rounded up and kicked out because they aren’t “officially” citizens, even though they’ve been everything and done everything a citizen does and don’t know any other home. When brown people who are citizens and have birth certificates and driver’s licenses to prove it are rounded up and threatened with deportation to countries they don’t come from and sometimes held in concentration camps for weeks. When other brown people who haven’t been here as long but do the jobs we need done that white people won’t do (like pick all those fruits and vegetables and process those chickens we need to live) are also rounded up because they aren’t citizens—never mind that we rely on them and they are every bit the productive American regardless of citizenship.

And if I’m going to keep it real, it’s not just about all those “suspicious” maybe-not-really-citizens-because-they’re-Latinx folks either. It’s about people like me, too—Black people—who have been part of this country since our ancestors were dragged here as enslaved people. Even if we couldn’t rise from “property” to “citizen” until a relatively short number of generations ago. We are part and parcel of this messed-up country. We were forced to help build it and here in 2019 we are still pushed down and held back so that white people can have someone to look down on and abuse.

But somehow we still don’t belong.

This has all been on my mind a bit more heavily than usual since some incidents recently that I tweeted about in venting mode last week. Fortunately, no local media types decided to turn it into an article like they did with that other recent story of mine that I was just venting about on Twitter but wasn’t even sure I’d blog about because it’s so common in my life and other Black people’s lives.

But honestly, in Trump’s America, our increasingly fascist nation, it does need to be addressed, so let me go on about addressing it, shall I?

In the span of just a few days, here’s what I’ve dealt with as a Black woman in America:

  • I go to my favorite local breakfast spot alone. Like I always do when I’m solo, I sit at the counter. Next to me is a white woman, who visibly and dramatically turns up her nose at the sight of me, like she’s a damn character in a melodrama, and very quickly leaves without finishing her food.
  • I’m out having drinks with a friend I haven’t seen in a while, and I notice a white woman giving me dirty looks. My friend, who has the white male jackpot of privilege, even notices it, to the point of commenting that “yeah, she is mad-mugging you” and proceeds to mad-mug right back at her, until the escalation of dirty looks finally makes her back down.
  • I’m at the same watering hole where I got confronted by that Florida racist a few weeks ago, and some Gen-X or earlier white dude asks where I’m from. When I say “here” he insists on asking, “No, where were you born?” to which I respond “The South Side of Chicago” not only to be honest but in the hopes that he knows that song about bad, bad Leroy Brown and backs off before he catches hands from me or someone else.

OK, sure, these things aren’t as dramatic as being one of dozens of little Hispanic children who come home to find your parents have been rounded up and disappeared by ICE like some re-enactment of Nazi Germany, like happened just this past week too. But they are important to note and to bring to your attention if you’re a white person who doesn’t realize how bad things are getting.

I’ve always had to deal with micro-aggressions like this (and they often don’t feel very “micro” when they happen among a lot of white people and you’re the only Black person and you might actually be in danger), but the flavor is different now.

Since moving to Maine, I am accustomed to (NOT immune to or unaffected by it, mind ya) having people treat me like I don’t belong. This is one of the two whitest states in the nation. And especially during tourist season, I notice an increase in people glancing at me funny as though to say, “Why are you here; they told me there would only be white people here during my vacation.”

Even the famously and supposedly polite Canadians who like to visit during the summer do this to me and to other Black people here.

But with these three so-obvious incidents in the span of a couple days—which follow shortly after that incident with the guy from Florida—I can tell things are different. It’s not just that it is happening more frequently. People are more bold about it.

In the atmosphere that Trump has created, white people who weren’t all that fond of people of color (POC) in “their” spaces are feeling emboldened. They are very direct, very confrontational now and very threatening—menacing even. Actually dangerous in more cases now. They don’t feel like they have to hold their racism in anymore—not that they’d tolerate you calling them racist as they do racist things.

Make no mistake: White people overall, even the well-meaning ones, tend to think of all spaces as theirs. They feel entitled to access (over and above the needs/wants of POC). They feel entitled to dictate the rules of engagement (especially to POC). They feel entitled to challenge you (if you are POC and dare to mention any of these things as being problematic).

The very idea of turning up your nose as if I am vermin is awful. The idea of trying to stare me down in a public place while I am minding my own business with a friend is awful. The idea of questioning whether I am from America just because I’m not white when you not only don’t know me but these are your very first words to me—and then insisting even when I say I’m from here that I must originally be from somewhere else—is awful.

These are the things white people do to tell you that if you are Black or Brown, you don’t belong here. Even if you were born here, you really don’t have the same entitlement to rights and freedom here. No matter how successful you are, you are beneath me. You are OTHER.

White nationalist violence against people of color picked up in response to Barack Obama’s presidency because blackness suddenly was seen as a major threat to many Americans. It picked up even more when Donald Trump starting campaigning on a platform of racism and then turned the White House into white supremacy HQ. The hatred that is condoned from on high and that is enforced so violently, evilly and publicly with the ever-expanding powers of ICE and other law enforcement agencies gone wild makes the rank-and-file racist white people feel like they can dictate to me and challenge me. And other Black and Brown people.

It’s not right. And even if you want to say they have a right to express their feelings, however wrong…or if you want to say, “Why should they have to bottle up their feelings if you complain about having to bottle up yours to fit in”…well let me tell you something. People of color spend their whole lives mostly having to deal with white people all around them, at work and teaching them in school and policing their neighborhoods and doing what they want with communities of color. We have to bottle stuff up constantly just to survive and not be persecuted. White people occasionally have to deal with a little color in their white spaces and might feel some kind of way, but it passes quickly and they end up back in safe and controlled spaces often enough.

White people sometimes have to push down their feelings of racism and not let them show. Black people and other POC always have to think about what they are doing and resist saying things they want to say just to keep the peace. Which do you think is harder? Why do you think so many Black people die earlier than white people because of stress-related illness?

No, it’s time for pushing back. It’s time for racist white people to get some dirty looks in return. Some nasty comments. It’s time for some of them to maybe catch some hands and get bruised for their behavior. It’s time for those white people to stuff the racism back down and pretend they don’t have a problem with me because I do belong here. Whether I always love this country and what it does or not, I belong here. This is my place too. And don’t you forget it.

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An incident became a story no one needed…and one that harms me

Over the years, as this site and thus my profile have grown, I have often had to decide if the racial incidents and microaggressions that are a routine part of “living white Black” are worth writing about. Whenever I write about a personal racial incident, it invites a certain level of racial animus from white people lacking in their racial analysis—which results in threats, nasty messages, hacking attempts and basically causes additional labor and mental anguish on my part. 

The culture of white supremacy works to reduce the humanity of others—to keep us small—and it often works. 

I am not ashamed to admit that sometimes, speaking my truth is not worth it. I say that as someone known for my writing and speaking. With exposure has come the reality that my need to be authentic and write about how white supremacy impacts me also makes me a target, especially living in a predominantly white state, and there are days when the weight of it all is too much. 

I cannot always carry that weight; I am not always that strong. 

It means that while I strive to be as authentic as I can be, I do self-censor as a way to stay safe while writing on race. 

This week, I experienced a racial incident on the island where I live. While out at the local watering hole, having drinks with friends, I was talking about an upcoming work project. Given that my day job is running an anti-racism organization and my side work is writing and speaking on race, I was having a discussion about race in public. This is my norm and frankly, it should become everyone’s norm. Talking about race and racism is how we start to move the needle and create change. 

For me, this is a normal conversation but apparently for a visitor to the island, this conversation was not acceptable. So, as soon as my friends left the bar, while I was finishing up my drink in preparation to head home, the visitor went to the bartender to complain that I was an “inappropriate” Black woman. Unbeknownst to the man, the bartender was a white woman with a commitment to racial justice principles, a background in anti-racism work, and is also an associate of mine. 

It took me a moment to realize what was happening from my perch at the end of the bar but it became clear that the man was telling the bartender that I should be removed from the bar because I was Black. The bartender took the man’s drink, told him that she didn’t serve racists and asked him to pay his tab and leave. Without going into a play-by-play, I will just say that the man refused to leave at first, then eventually did depart, but returned with apparent malice in mind, and the police were called. When the police arrived, they found a highly intoxicated white man beating on the door of the bar after being ejected from it due to his racist behavior. 

Instead of doing what most sensible drunk vacationers would do when faced with the police, which is avoid escalating and the possibility of getting into trouble, this drunk white man decided to share his racist views about me with the police, become even more disorderly and decided to lay hands on the officers. While the police can’t arrest anyone for being racist, they can arrest you for assaulting them, so the racist vacationer earned a special trip on the island fire boat where he was met by mainland cops who promptly took him to jail. 

To say that I was shaken was an understatement. At no point had I ever spoken to this man. He had, however, leered at me at the bar and seemed to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to my conversation before my friends had left. 

After the man was arrested, I went home shaken and unable to sleep and decided to fire off some tweets about the situation as a way to blow off steam. The incident, while jarring, felt like it could have been much worse. What if I had left earlier? Was this man lurking outside, waiting to harm me? A distinct possibility, given that he left after he was cut off but returned. I will never know, but I do know that having a bartender who recognized the threat and police officers who were responsive was a good thing. 

The next morning, I woke up concerned for my safety, not knowing if this man would return to the island. If so, what would happen if I ran into him on the ferry or at the store? What if I ran into him and was with my child? If a man was that racist, what else might he do? It scared me enough that I went to speak with the police officers on the island about a restraining order. Instead, they explained that the man was visiting from Florida, his vacation rental had just been terminated due to his arrest and as soon as he was released, a notice of no trespass would be issued for both the vacation rental as well as the bar and—given that this is the height of vacation season—armed with that information, I decided that a restraining order was overkill. Especially as the officer assured me they would notify me once he bailed out and picked up his things from the vacation rental. The officer kept his word and later that evening, I was informed that the racist tourist had indeed bailed out, retrieved his belongings and had been seen leaving the island. 

I breathed a sigh of relief, especially as the management of the establishment had reached out to check in on me as well. Frankly as awful as the man’s bigotry was, this was the best outcome, especially in a world where too often Black women’s concerns are not taken seriously. In fact, while I was relieved, I was saddened that this type of care and concern is not normal for Black people. As someone who frankly isn’t comfortable with the police, I can say that my interactions with them were good. 

I attempted to decompress and shared some more on social media but truthfully, I wasn’t sure this incident felt blog-worthy. While my sharings on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook were substantial, they were more born out of the frustration of being Black and dealing with white entitlement in public spaces. This man felt entitled to a space in a community in which he is a guest; it’s typical behavior rooted in white supremacy. He wanted to exert power over a Black person so he could be a Barroom Barry just like BBQ Becky and other the other very publicly active racists of late. Instead. he was arrested and his vacation was shortened. 

Which is why when one of Maine’s largest media outfits reached out to me for comment on the story, I was confused. What story? A racist acted a fool and ended up getting arrested because white entitlement does not save you when you decide to assault a police officer. Or maybe it did since if he had been a Black man, we don’t know how this would have turned out. Local police and others ensured my safety and for once the majority of white people didn’t cause harm to a Black person.

In a moment that I am now regretting, I spoke briefly with the reporter but was very clear that this didn’t feel like a story and that I didn’t want to name the establishment. I also mentioned that I hadn’t even written about it on my own site as it didn’t quite feel like a story. Given the times that I have written about incidents, and dealt with the ensuing harm, as much as I needed to unpack what happened, I was leaning towards doing that in private. 

Which is why when I received a text hours later from a girlfriend that my situation had become a story in the Portland Press Herald, I was stunned. Not only was it a story but a story with a sensational and inflammatory headline and lede along with a photo of me. Randall Hunt of Vero Beach, Fla., was named as the perpetrator, but nowhere in their story do you see his mugshot. 

A white man assaulted a cop, spent the night in jail and no one could be bothered to get his photo? Surely there is a mugshot. The paper also decided to let everyone where I live, something that while not a total secret is also not something widely known. Then to add insult to injury, the initial piece mentioned that I had been involved in a racial incident in 2015. Thus leaving the feeling that I am engaged in nefarious activities and not the victim of white people’s anti-Blackness and racism. Instead the original piece would lead many to believe that I am stoking the racial flames of the good white people and causing harm wherever I go.

Thanks to the actions of the many Black Girl in Maine readers who are active on social media, the paper edited the original digital piece to remove my photo and a few other details. Your emails and calls mattered. There is strength and power in numbers. But the harm has been done because the story wasn’t just online. They decided to put it in the print edition. In the issue that came out the very next morning after the online posting, my face is on the front page of local/state section. Meaning that everyone who gets a physical paper saw the one with my picture and not the perp’s, suggesting a bit that I am the troublemaker.

I have heard from several staff members from the Portland Press Herald but frankly the damage has been done. Whiteness protected itself and the perpetrator was shielded while the victim was exposed and left to fend for herself. Given the current racial climate, this is what race-baiting looks like. Readers, especially of the print edition, are left with an image of a Black woman rather than the white man who created the harm and was arrested. If only I didn’t have a history of being involved in racial altercations, if only I had not been speaking about racism, if only… This approach makes racism look like a problem created by Black people with white people as the victims rather than the reality that, since the founding of this country and the abduction and rape of Black people, we have always been relegated to a second-class status. Even now, we are free but are we really? 

In less than four days, I have had to deal with a racist man creating harm and now a local media publication deciding that what at best was a newsbrief from the police blotter should instead be a story featuring me rather than focusing on the perpetrator. It only took me a few minutes online to learn that this man works in special education back in Florida—a fact that they didn’t share just as they didn’t share his face—yet it was important for some reason to name in the story that I write a blog called “Black Girl in Maine” where I write about race. Again, I was minding my own business. I didn’t get ejected from a bar and nor did I spend a night in jail. I was the victim but a story was written where you know all about me and nothing about him. 

I have heard from several people today who have mentioned that this is a public interest story given that I have a high profile in the state of Maine. No, these are the types of norms that are created by a white supremacist culture and it is not okay. Part of dismantling white supremacy culture and racism is to question the norms. Who created these norms? Who benefits from them and who is harmed? Had the man not been arrested even after the assault on the police and he had later come in contact with me and harmed me or killed me, that would be a story. 

My personal uncomfortable evening has become a story to be shared across the state. What was merely distressing for a short time now threatens to make me a target for weeks or months or more. The print story showing my photo has some of my fellow island dwellers thinking I did something wrong when I didn’t.

Once again, just as in the 2015 incident that the article mentioned, I have become fodder for the news without my desire or consent to be. I have become once again very visible to those who already hate me because I refuse to accept a second-class status in the country of my birth and simply accept scraps from the table of inclusion. 

I end this with a thanks of gratitude to all who worked to ensure that the harm to me was minimized. I would also ask that the Portland Press Herald issue a written apology in both their print and digital versions explicitly stating that the reporting on this piece was shoddy and harmful. I imagine this request will fall on ears that cannot hear me, but I strongly suggest that the organization receive anti-racism training at all levels of the organization. This is not the first time that a story involving race was presented in a manner that left the impression that a Black victim was not really a victim. 

This is infuriating. It is scary. It hurts. But my work is anti-racism, and I will continue, even though I now have to grow eyes in the back of my head once again. But, as Emiliano Zapata said “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.” 

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.

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July 4th isn’t really the jam for Black folks

I saw a tweet recently that went something like, “We Black people celebrate the BBQ, the fireworks and the summer shorts. We don’t celebrate Independence Day.”

That isn’t true about all Black people but it’s pretty prevalent and, for the record, it isn’t about hating the country or being anti-American. Because, for better or worse, we’re Americans too.

But July 4th as Independence Day doesn’t sit well with a lot of us. You see, white people in the colonies got independence from Britain but that’s about it, and most of that independence was really for white landowners. It sure wasn’t for Indigenous or Black people.

For a lot of us, celebrating “independence” is a bit of a slap in the face when we can’t even enter or leave our own apartments and houses without neighbors calling the police on us for simply living. Or shop without being followed. Or go for a doctor-ordered walk hooked up to an IV drip without being arrested for “stealing” hospital equipment. Hell, even the BBQ thing, so appropriate a metaphor on July 4th, is the rallying point for us to complain about “BBQ Becky” types who call the police on us for no reason and thus put our freedom, health and even lives in danger.

One of my great joys during my time as executive director of the anti-racism organization Community Change Inc. has been to be a part of the annual reading in the Boston Common of the Frederick Douglass speech “What To the Slave is the Fourth of July.” (Note, the article I link to above totally got the title of the speech wrong in the headline AND in the article; maybe it will be corrected by the time you read this but boy does “What Is the Slave to the Fourth of July” change the meaning…). In any case, I would highly recommend reading the speech, which you can find here and many other places, too.

But if you don’t, at least take this part of the speech to heart:

“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common—The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”

Douglass wrote and delivered that speech 76 years after the United States declared its independence. Now the nation is more than 240 years old and still we’ve got the same kinds of problems that Douglass talked about. We still aren’t equal. Black people still don’t enjoy full independence.

I don’t ask you to ignore July 4th because a lot of you have the day off and I feel you should be able to enjoy your BBQ food and fireworks just like many of us Black people do. I don’t expect you to shred your shirts and roll around in ashes like some Old Testament penitent.

But it would be nice if you would take a moment (or a few hundred of them) to remember that the United States has never fully made good on the promise of liberty and justice for all, and Black and Indigenous people just happen to be the most aggrieved folks. We ain’t alone.

I might suggest that it’s time to give Juneteenth a place as a national holiday, though. It would probably mean a lot more than Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday to Black people who still don’t feel very free. Though to be fair we deserve both at this point, among a lot of other things. And I think starting next year, I might just resolve to stay inside on July 4th and celebrate Juneteenth instead—at least until it starts getting more love and attention like it deserves. Then maybe I’ll feel better about celebrating both.

So, as you enjoy your festivities, let us Black people and others enjoy our BBQs without police or other nasty interruptions. And if you see any BBQ Becky types headed toward us, kindly take their cell phones out of their hands and shoo them away.

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.

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Image by Nicolas Tissot from Unsplash