Progress in the polls for people of color

Y’all I am going through what legitimately might be the single worst period of my life with a heartbreaking and exhausting family health crisis, so I need to catch some joy and light where I can. And at least one small bit of light I was able to snatch this week in an off-year election cycle was news of historic election wins by people of color.

And one of those wins was close to home in Maine. As many of you readers know, I live in Maine. I live in Southern Maine. I live in the Portland area. Therefore, I live in the bluest part of state that otherwise tends to be fairly split down the middle. So when people of color (Black people in this case) like Pious Ali are elected to city council and people like Rachel Talbot Ross are elected to the state legislature (these two aren’t new wins this election, by the way), it’s great news (and welcome news and news we don’t get often enough) but it’s not entirely earth-shaking.

But this week something particularly special happened: Safiya Khalid, who arrived in Maine as a refugee about a decade ago, became the first Somali-American to be elected to Lewiston’s city council.

Look, if you’ve been reading my stuff long enough, Lewiston might ring a lot of bells for you. It’s where quite a lot of Somali refugees/immigrants were settled. It’s a fairly conservative town in one of the two whitest states in the nation. And there have been many tensions around welcoming (or more precisely, not welcoming) so many brown-skinned people, especially from another country, for many residents. Past mayors and other community leaders have, at times, been openly hostile to them.

During her campaign, she took some serious hits. Online trolls from as far away as Alabama and Mississippi rushed in to tell her to go back where she came from and tell her she had no right to be running for office.

But she won, y’all. By a significant margin. And at 23, she’s not only the first Somali person on the city council (itself a bit eye-opening considering how long Somalis have been a major part of the town) but probably the youngest person who will have sat on the council.

But she wasn’t the only such news this week. There were historic wins by candidates of color, notably several women. Nadia Mohamad, who is the same age as Khalid, scored a win much the same, becoming the first Muslim woman and first Somali elected to the city council in St. Louis Park, Minn. In Virginia, the state senate and the Fairfax County School Board got their first-ever Muslim women (and notably, Ghazala Hashmi also becomes the first Indian-American woman on the Virginia senate). Also, Chol Majok, a 34-year-old who fled violence in South Sudan, became the first refugee elected to public office in Syracuse, N.Y. Moreover, in Arizona, a state quite red, democrat Regina Romero became the first woman and first Latina to become mayor of Tucson.

None of this changes the fact that the United States is still a nation mired in institutional and systemic racism and has been steadily ramping back up on the interpersonal racism as well in the Trump era. But it does show that people can change. Voters can change. It shows that we can adjust our thinking to stop electing white people—especially white men—to every office. It shows that we can, if we choose to, make elected offices represent the actual population instead of the ruling power group (white men). We aren’t there yet, but we might be getting there.

And that, for the moment, can put a smile on my face as I survey all the crap piled around me (and us) in this world and wonder what to shovel next.

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The dark side of speaking to truth

Back in the Stone Age when I started writing about race in 2003, there was little in the way of social media. Obviously, there were discussion boards and Google but back then, people often looked at you oddly when you talked about your online life. There was no Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or Tik Tok. Hell, a lot of people were feeling pretty pumped about the launch of Myspace. 

While there were writers writing on blogs, it was still a fairly brave new world. The average person had no idea what the heck a blog even was. 

I got my start writing for local Maine publications where, back in 2003, more people than not read a physical copy of the paper and if they disagreed with you and were passionate about it, they generally had to write a letter to the editor, get a stamp and an envelope and mail it to the paper. 

I received my first threatening letter several months after the debut of my column in the Portland Phoenix. It was disturbing enough that my then-editor contacted local law enforcement. 

From 2003 until 2008, my primary writing was local and although I quickly developed a following of haters, in many ways writing back then was simple. A few times a year, some disgruntled reader would pen a letter and the editor would forward it to me or it might run in the paper. I could read the letter and go about my day. The letter didn’t invade my personal space. In most cases, unless they were death threats, the letters were more like annoying gnats you swat away and move on from. 

Fast forward to 2019, and the majority of my writing now happens online with the occasional print guest piece or contribution. My writing and my audience is no longer local but in fact national—even a smattering of the global.

While this might be seen as a good thing, increasingly I am seeing a dark side. 

No longer are the people who take issue with my work locals who are probably harmless. I now receive messages and emails from people all over the country. If you follow my social media accounts, I occasionally share some of the messages that land in my box. 

A few weeks ago, a gentleman from the Pacific Northwest  told me that the white racists are waiting to get their payback on folks like me. Then a few days ago, a man, who describes himself as a Chilean-American told me that I am the victim of Black victimology and that American Blacks are a lazy and well taken care of by society. Let’s not even discuss the gentleman from Maine who is a top fan on the Blackgirlinmaine Facebook page and whose only mission seems to be to demand labor from others—a person who seems unwilling to even entertain the possibility that America fed him a load of lies. 

These are just the public pieces I am willing to share. I have received much worse, including a message so awful once that I went directly to one of the local sporting goods mega-stores to look at firearms. 

Often when I share the messages, well meaning people will say block and move on. The thing is, it’s not that easy.

For starters, my work is personal. As a Black woman who does anti-racism work, this is personal. My family bears the generational scars of this country’s racism. My father along with the majority of my aunts and uncles lived on a sharecropping plantation—they actually picked cotton under racially oppressive conditions. 

Racism isn’t just some academic debate for me. It is a lived experience because there are few instances where I can leave my house and simply exist as a woman. I am almost always a Black woman. 

Just the other night, I was having dinner on the island where I live and chatting with a friend, when a random white woman came up to me and asked if I was the woman who had the racist experience this past summer at the island bar. She then went on to say that she thought it was me, since there are few people of color on the island at this time of year. I am sure she meant no harm but I was in mid-bite of my meal and I just wanted to be an average human enjoying a meal and chatting with a friend. 

And the thing is that the racism that lands in my box in response to my work is the same racism that periodically lands in my face—because not all people who approach me are nice or even neutral. 

It’s the racist drunk. It’s the young white nationalist who showed up at my public talk. It’s the former Maine conservative talk-show host who once sicced his fan base on me after I turned down a request to be on his show several years ago—he now apparently has a penchant for looking at all my Instagram stories. Yes dude, I see you. 

I can no more block and forget the hate that lands on my digital doorstep than I can forget the ice cold blue eyes that looked at me with pure hate in a bar. A hate that ran so deep that the man was willing to spend a night in jail because having a cop telling him to pipe down (and stop calling me a nigger) made him so mad that she decided to take a swing at the cop. 

I haven’t forgotten the young white nationalist who—in a room filled with hundreds of people who had come to hear me and my colleague speak—felt entitled to confront me and derail the afternoon. I haven’t forgotten having to sneak out the back door through the kitchen of that venue to get to my car because the young man wouldn’t leave the premises. 

Maybe it is because I still remember the little girl who called me a nigger when I was 16 that I can’t just block out the trolls. See, the keyboard emboldens folks to say things, but the truth is that this hate has always been there. As well as the tendency to ask Black folks not to feel their feelings about such hate—and certainly not to express them.

Part of the survival and so-called resiliency of Black people in America has required us to not feel. How could you feel watching your family being ripped apart, whether on the slave auction block or by the unfair criminal justice system that sends young Black people away for decades for crimes that white people receive a slap on the wrist for. Or watching your family diminish because of a racialized healthcare system that sends to many of us to an earlier death than white people. How are you supposed to feel every day dealing with racial microaggressions in the workplace and knowing that you need the job, so you stuff down your true feelings and make sure that your mask is firmly in place. 

A constant theme that runs through much of the hate that lands in my box is that I am arrogant and uppity. I won’t shut up, and I piss people off. I am not as knowledgeable as I claim to be. I won’t entertain other people’s views. Etc.

No, it’s not any of that (well, except that I won’t shut up and piss some people off). I do know plenty, and I am simply unwilling to cower. I stand on the shoulders of my elders who at times had to wear their masks and stay silent, so they could stay alive. I’m sorry, but I have seen too many loved ones die early. I have seen too many elders get beaten down by white supremacy and its demands, and I refuse to play that game. The greatest gift that I can give to myself and my loved ones is to feel and to be open—to not downplay the hurt and the pain and to allow ourselves to emotionally and mentally heal from the wounds of white supremacy. 

Instead of asking Black people and other marginalized people to ignore targeted ignorance and hate, instead ask: “How can I assist?” Ask how you might be able to serve as a buffer. Ask how you can support them and their well-being. But asking them to deny their feelings is another manifestation of how white supremacy dehumanizes us all. 

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Niceness isn’t the look in this kind of work

Despite the clear chorus of voices in recent years—including yours truly—being quite clear that racism is intentional and systemic in nature, I’m not sure the message has gotten through much. Too many people fall back into believing one of the greatest scams of white supremacy and the system of whiteness—that somehow niceness is a key ingredient in creating social change. While there are times to be nice, the process of fighting racism is typically not one of them.

For those of you who want to hug, smile or sweet-talk our way out of racism or any other system of marginalization and oppression, I am sorry to inform you that for these kinds of things, niceness is a tool of control. Niceness is how we have stifled women and girls, it’s how we have stifled Black people and other POC, and it’s how we’ve stifled so many others. Frankly, white society’s demands to be nice drains many of us of our full human potential.

Too often, niceness keeps us from getting real and having the conversations that we need to have. Niceness also has become a lazy excuse for doing the actual work of change when in fact we aren’t doing anything other than giving ourselves a self congratulatory pat on the back with no real benefit to marginalized people. Or, worse than that, when we create real harm instead through “polite” behavior and keeping things “positive.”

As of late, the news has been filled with serious stories that should make us all pause but, instead, many of us focus on the feel-good, “nice” moments and images.

When disgraced former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was recently sentenced to 10 years for the killing of her neighbor, Botham Jean, Jean’s brother Brandt read a victim impact statement where he spoke directly to Guyger and told her that he forgives her. He said, “I love you just like anyone else. I’m not going to say I want you to rot and die, like my brother did. I personally want the best for you.” He also embraced Guyger.

Afterwards, the presiding judge, Tammy Kemp—a Black woman—also embraced Guyger and gave Gugyer her personal bible.

While there have been many hot takes about these incidents, the one that has really stood out to me is the emphasis by many on how heartwarming both Kemp and Botham’s brother’s actions were.

Yes. They were absolutely heartwarming and if you happen to not be among the inheritors of a 400-year-old, intentionally designed system which has categorically denied Black humanity. An act of kindness could simply be an act of kindness, but that’s not the world in which we live.

The reality is that Black anger is scary to most white people; in fact, a lot of Black emotions are scary (or bothersome in some other way) to a lot of white people, even joyous ones.

That fear or hatred of Black emotion is why, as soon as a Black woman raises her voice or shows an iota of emotions other than demurely pleasant ones, she is labeled an angry Black woman.

White fragility cannot handle Black emotions and, as a result, far too many Black people—as a matter of survival—have learned to tamp down our feelings in the vicinity of white people. Until the day in which most of us are not beholden to white people on some level for our daily bread and there is a collective healing of white people which includes an ancestral atonement and the dissipation of white fragility, there will always be some level of hiding going on. And that shoving down of our real and legitimate feelings  is read by white people as being civil, a “class act” or nice.

The problem is that these feel-good, nice moments are not how we dismantle white supremacy. It’s how we feed the system that allows white supremacy to continue to perpetuate.

While the Brandt Jean’s actions along with Judge Kemp’s actions create an illusion of change, the fact is that historically when Black people have been harmed by the actions of white people, it is almost always incumbent upon Black people to extend grace and forgiveness to the white people who created the harm.

Rarely is that grace and forgiveness a two-way street. Too often, white people refuse to extend that level of humanity and grace to Black and Brown people. If you doubt me, go look up Trisha Meili, better known to the world as the Central Park jogger. Despite the eventual exoneration of the men, who were children when they were initially charged and convicted of attacking her, she still doubts whether her actual attacker acted alone.

Her comments in the wake of the release of Ava Duvernay’s “When They See Us” makes clear that she didn’t see the men who were children initially as victims of a corrupt and racist system and that together, there were six victims that night. She and the falsely accused men all had their lives turned upside down and destroyed, but in her view they don’t seem to be victims at all.

As an assault survivor, there is not some notable call by society asking her to extend grace or forgiveness to her actual attacker—we don’t have any expectation of such a response. Yet we regularly ask the victims of racism to forgive and extend grace to those who harm them.

Moving along, Ellen Degeneres found herself sharing a “kind moment” that warmed the hearts of many, when she was hanging out with former President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys game. It seems that the two have a bit of a friendship, which raised many eyebrows (but not as many as one would hope).

After all, Bush is the man who was at the helm of the United States when the 9/11 terrorist attacks and who rushed us into a series of bad decisions in the aftermath of that terrible day that fundamentally reshaped the United States and led to many more unnecessary deaths than the actual 9/11 attack caused. That’s the quick and dirty version. Never mind this is the same man whose ineffectual actions led to needless suffering and death in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (actions which disproportionately harmed Black people)—a man who got on national television and told us that the former director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), was doing a heck of a job, with the cleanup process after Katrina, when nothing could be further from the truth. Bush would also be the same man who opposed same-sex marriage.

Truth be told, there wasn’t exactly a lot good that occurred under Bush and the effects of the harm he did still linger. Yet for Ellen, following the golden rule and being kind to all, matters more than Bush’s past transgressions—to the extent that she will participate in the steady work to “rehabilitate” Bush’s image and absolve him of sins he hasn’t acknowledged or apologized for, much less tried to remedy. That’s nice that you want to hang out with Dubya, but Bush wasn’t just any old person. He spent eight years as the most powerful human on the planet—hell he is the son of a former president who had sin aplenty himself.

Look, there is being cordial because that’s decent behavior, but jaw-jacking with a guy who in another time and place would be considered a war criminal is a very different thing.

We can be decent, we can be cordial. But extending open warmth and grace to a man whose actions caused vast undue suffering is beyond the pale. But such actions are how power, privilege and white supremacy continue to perpetuate and go hand in hand.

Admittedly in the era of Trump, when the world is a fucking dumpster fire, many are looking back at the Bush days as warmer and kinder. But really, it was just a more sanitized version of our current reality. Trump is honest about who and what he is and as a result, we have been forced to face our own reality about who we are as a nation.

We are a racist, sexist and xenophobic nation with pockets of hope and the potential to do better. But the potential to do better involves a reckoning and a level of action that extends far beyond civility and kindness. If the foundation of your house is rotting, you aren’t going to slap a coat of paint on it and declare the problem fixed. Yet that’s what we are essentially doing when we believe that structural issues in our nation can be fixed with a collective dose of niceness.

The fresh paint job may look great but it doesn’t fix the underlying problem that will one day bring everything crashing down. And ultimately that is the problem with kindness as the cure to racism. Individual kindness will not change a criminal justice system that disproportionately locks up Black and Brown people. Kindness will not close the racial wealth gap or racial health disparities gap. Kindness won’t stop a Black person from being killed by a white cop whose societal upbringing and implicit bias teaches him to see Black bodies as threatening even when they are unarmed and sitting on their own couch enjoying a bowl of ice cream.

Kindness just feels good in the moment and make for a good photo opportunity. Let’s do more than be kind. Let’s create real change.

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.

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