Being made “not to belong”

A couple of years ago, one Saturday night I was called—as I often was—by the security company that monitors my former school. As an administrator, specifically an administrator that lives less than five minutes away, I was the one they called when the alarm went off. It was never anything serious but I responded every time.

  • 6:15 a.m.
  • “Hello sir, we are responding to an alarm and possible intrusion at your school; we have dispatched officers. Can you meet them there?”
  • “Yes, of course.”
  • “O.K., what will you be driving?”
  • “Silver Yaris, ‘08”

I jumped out of bed. I got dressed. I got in the car. I cursed my life. It’s probably one of my teachers, one who has insomnia and often shows up at 4 a.m. to work and forgets to turn off the alarm. Still, I have to take all of these calls serious; it’s part of my job. But I’m pissed.

I get to the school; I see his car. Before I unlock the back door I remind myself this guy is just here working? Why take my anger out on him? I will just remind him again about the alarm. I walk in and greet him; ask him if he’s O.K. I tell him I am going upstairs just to make sure “there really isn’t an intruder.”

The cops are probably upstairs at the front door waiting for me anyway. As I left his workspace and start to head up the stairs I stopped. Dead in my tracks. I looked down at what I was wearing, I reflect on how I look. I get scared. I try to discern—am I worried because I look like shit because I just woke up or because I look (am) black? I mean, its 6:30 in the morning and I jumped out of bed in a flash—my hair is all knotted, my beard is tamped down on one side, I’m pretty sure I still have some dried up drool lingering on the corners of my mouth. I don’t want to walk up the dark stairs into a dark room to meet the police who have no idea what I look like. I decide to turn around go out the back door and get back in my car and wait for the police out front. They know what my car looks like.

I was reminded of this episode as I was recently leaving a late school meeting in a predominantly white school district that I work with. At the end of the meeting it was just me and the superintendent. Everyone else on the floor had gone home. I needed to use the bathroom. I left him in his office, grabbed my bag, and walked across the hall to another office I knew had a bathroom. And then that old memory hit me. I walked downstairs, into my car, and drove to a gas station.

I remembered sitting In my car waiting for the police. I was angry again. But I was also relieved.

The feeling of not being welcomed is a terrible one. The sense that you do not belong is haunting. It sticks with you and you’re reminded of it on a consistent basis. The worst part about it is that most of the time you can little to remedy it—there is little you can say to someone who thinks you do not belong here. Especially not in the heat of the moment.

Make no mistake. The thought that you are where you do not belong is a threat to some.

While I understand that Trump is in fact threatened by the very existence of four women of color (“The Squad”) in what he perceives to be his world, I’m worried about the safety of these four congressional representatives recently attacked by our president—their president. Will they get killed just by showing up to work?

I worry that those who do not see anything wrong with what the president said also see nothing wrong with profiling, with stereotyping, with dehumanizing. But as much as I worry about them, I worry more about the people who are unaware they are being hurtful and violent—the ones who say they are acting out of “pride” and “love” and “safety.” I fear the outcome of weaponizing patriotism.

Ask yourself if you would have, even for one second, wondered about getting killed at your workplace because of how you look. And it’s not just at work that I worry. Being in predominantly white spaces I worry.

I worry when I get stopped by police. I’m one of the “good guys,” I contribute to my community, but does this cop give a shit or even consider those possibilities?

And it’s not just with the police. I worry when I am walking alone in Portland. I am a good husband, I do my best to stay positive, most people know me as a cheerful, shirt-off-my-back type of guy—but does that next white person whom I pass on the empty street give a shit really? I look out of place. I can feel it. I am not paranoid. I can be hurt at any moment because of the way I look. What’s crazy is that I know that in some bizarre twist of irony my presence also hurts those who feel I do not belong.

Telling someone to go back where they came from (whether they come from somewhere else or not) is not about patriotism, and it is not just racist. It’s also violent. It is meant to shock and meant to demean you. It is meant to take from you. Its aim is to amplify that painful sense that you are wrong for just existing. It’s also meant to deter you. It is a reminder that in the mind of those who believe they belong here, they have the right to oppress you.

Let us remember that it is the oppressed who will liberate the not just their fellow oppressed folk but also the oppressors themselves. We must continue to work on educating our communities, our neighbors, and if the chance presents itself even your fellow stranger. We must continue to correct the record and make space for each other. We must strive to create a sense that all who are here belong here. If we do this then we can ensure that our next generation of folks will walk with more confidence and less fear. Perhaps even that they or a generation soon after them will not have to worry when they show up to work. They will feel like they belong, they will contribute, and they will continue to make America free.


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Raising kids of color in very white places

For the last several years of my marriage, while we never doubted  that there was love between us, we were uncomfortably aware that there was something deeply amiss in our relationship. We spent our last few years together doing everything in our power to keep the relationship going until it became painfully obvious that love was not enough and that, on many levels, we were deeply mismatched as a romantic unit. That revelation, while painful, allowed us to end our romantic coupling and transition into our coparenting relationship with little of the anger and animosity that is often present when couples split up. Despite our differences, my former life partner and coparent remains one of my favorite people.

I find myself thinking about the end of that relationship and the clarity and strength it took for us to make that decision as I ponder the realities of raising a Black girl—now 13 years old—in a very white state. I must admit that I am wondering if raising Black children in such spaces is not borderline abusive. Is living in these spaces, even as an adult, a form of self-harm?

By the time I was 13, I had already had Black teachers; it’s almost 40 years later and I still remember my second grade teacher—the first teacher I knew who shared my race. By the time I was 13, several of my best friends were, like me, also Black girls with Southern roots and  working-class backgrounds. While I attended racially integrated schools, our home and family spaces were Black. I never had to struggle to see myself represented in my immediate life.

My weekends were rich experiences that involved shopping, living and loving with people who looked like me. I did not have to explain my family’s ways of being and have my friends inquire about why my parents were so strict.  While I had to code switch, and most certainly had awkward moments especially in my teen years, my existence and reality was so much more than being Black because I did not have to fight to exist. I simply existed.

In my 17 years here in Maine, I have seen Black folks and other people of color come and go. In many cases, the realities of always having to think about race and the energy of living that reality takes its toll.

My daughter will be wrapping up her middle school career in one of Maine’s most diverse schools, never having had Black friends or any non-white teachers. Despite me being her mother and my work around race, her external experiences are shaped by whiteness. We live in a state where our numbers are so few that we are reduced to simply being People of Color. No, we are not just people of color, we are  Black people and specifically, we are the descendants of enslaved Africans.

My Facebook feed is filled with the painful struggles that so many  twenty-something Black Mainers endure in their day-to-day lives, from racial slurs at work to the realities of dating while Black in a white state. I fear that our entire lives in this space are shaped by race.

In a country built on white supremacy, race will always matter but true wellness requires a more expansive view of ourselves beyond our race. Yet if leaving the house becomes an act of war that requires donning our mental shields and armor, what are the long-term implications? It’s not healthy to be in battle mode every time we leave the house and yet it is the reality for many.

This past weekend, I had the pleasure of being a keynote panelist at the New England Grassroots Environment Fund Root Skill conference which was held in Brattleboro, Vermont. The panel was racially diverse, so I was not the only non-white panelist. We were asked what we love about our communities—we all shared that we loved the natural beauty of New England and the overall feeling but for the panelists of color, the realities of being non-white  in these white spaces is never far away.

The thing is, after 17 years, I can say that there are some real changes happening. When I started writing about race in 2003 for the now defunct Portland Phoenix, I had to tread lightly and often my pieces were watered down and yet, I still received death threats for daring to name race.

In recent weeks, Maine has done away with Columbus Day and become one of fewer than 10 states in the nation to do so and replace it with Indigenous People Day. Maine’s governor just signed a bill banning Indigenous mascots within public schools. Conversations on diversity, equity and inclusion are becoming more commonplace across sectors and with individuals. And yet the day-to-day realities of living here as a non-white person, for all the progress, remains fraught, tense and downright uncomfortable at times.

It’s a place where microaggressions are as common as the morning coffee even with allies, and where I fear that for too many allies, anti-racism work is an academic activity that resides in the head and not the heart. A place where few white people are interested in giving up any privilege but are happy to show up at the rally and be a fierce online advocate. But in real life? Disrupt the status quo? Less so.

So for each step forward, it is still a half step back, meaning that the process of change will take a very long time. In the meantime, what becomes of the Black people and other people of color living here? Do we pack up and leave because it’s too much or do we stay? Do we raise our children here or do we take them away from the beauty of the state and all the joys of Maine because whiteness is toxic and—while we can never escape the toxicity of whiteness in this culture—at least being in spaces where we exist in greater numbers can provide some protection from the more virulent forms of white toxicity?

If only I had the answer…


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Actions I take (as a white woman) to help dismantle white supremacy

[An evergreen reminder: I am a white woman writing about racism so I might share with other white people what I learn—mostly what I learn from people of color—so we can all work toward societal transformation, liberation.]

“What actions do we take to help dismantle white supremacy?” I asked my nearly-10-year-old to help me brainstorm for this post. Of course, I already know a lot of the things I do on a daily basis, but I’d say 90 percent of the racial justice work I do is mostly internal or bit by bit with other individual white people. I know that internal and individual work is an essential part of the process of recreating our systems, but I want to share in this post actual actions I take as a white woman in this work.

I suggested to my daughter that our listening (and re-listening) to and discussing the “Seeing White” podcast series by Scene On Radio was an action we are taking. She disagreed because, she said, “That’s not action, that’s just education and learning.” She has a point. I want to get beyond the stuff I’ve talked about before in this space; I’ve already talked about self-education, reading and learning from people of color, and (as the kids say today) “diving deeper“ into my own inner world’s messy complicity in white supremacy to shed the garbage and be in the world differently.

One more thing I want to address before I share some of the actions I take is how uncomfortable it makes me to tell you about it. The magnitude of racial injustice in the United States is so vast, whatever I do will not be “enough” if I look at it through a white supremacist lens. Meaning, the perfectionism and the discomfort I feel is a part of what keeps be from sharing. I also don’t want to seem like a “show off.” I return to this document describing “white supremacy culture” very frequently when I’m feeling blocked. I see how white supremacy is keeping me quiet, I assess the context (have I been invited to share?), and I move through the fears.

What actions do I take to help dismantle white supremacy? Some of what I do is:

  • set aside several (usually five to 10) hours each month to do pro-bono grant winning or other consulting services for people of color who are engaged in systemic change work;
  • risk being seen as the “Debbie Downer” just about everywhere I go. For example, when I catch us white people falling into some of our patterns—such as believing we’re the “good ones” so it’s okay to politely coerce people of color to join our activities before we’re ready or safe for them—I find the courage to say something and help our white people groups take steps back and look at ourselves;
  • share resources with my daughters’ teachers and offer to help. I am so grateful that both of my daughters’ schools are doing great work in racial justice, but part of dismantling white supremacy is not being alone in the work, so sharing resources and offering help is a part of that;
  • attend events and participate in workshops geared toward helping us white people do better, such as Racial Justice and the Beloved Community (New England Yearly Meeting [Quakers]), or Tell Me the Truth: Exploring the Heart of Cross-Racial Conversations with our own Shay Stewart-Bouley and Debby Irving (author of Waking Up White);
  • hold a bi-monthly “whiteness class” with my daughters where we explore what it means to be white. If whiteness means oppression and greed and self-centeredness—and history shows that it does—how can we be white and good? (It’s possible, but it doesn’t happen without effort). We listen to podcasts or watch movies and discuss, we set our own “homework” assignments and check in with each other about what we’re working on, and, most of all, we practice talking about racism and whiteness. We also notice how easy it is to let our good intentions slide because racial justice work can seem like it’s not “life or death.” We keep making the time for it.

There. I’ve done it. I’ve shared with you some of the actions I take on a very regular basis to help dismantle white supremacy. I hope these examples can be helpful for you white readers. I’d also recommend looking at this list or this program/workbook for other ideas that might work in your own life.


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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