What (relatively small) prices have I paid in the name of anti-racism?

NOTE FROM BGIM: While much of the content at BGIM Media is definitely for the education and mobilization of white people to fight racism, I have tended to reserve the space for “feelings” primarily for Black and other people of color. There is a need for safe spaces for white people to “work out their shit” but it is not my ministry to provide such space (nor should that generally fall to any person of color; that’s white people work). That being said, it probably bears reminding to some people that white people striving to be anti-racists do have significant internal struggles and do pay prices for their efforts. And so with that in mind I run this latest post by Heather Denkmire, with the caveat that even more so than most of her posts, this is primarily aimed at the white readers of BGIM Media.


We white people need to have more conversations among ourselves where we process what it’s like to be effectively anti-racist. The costs can be small at first, but they can feel big. I suppose this is a kind of a trigger warning for Black and Indigenous people as well as other people of color: This post will be addressing my white-person feelings. In future posts, I will address some of the larger prices we white people might have to be willing to pay as we practice being anti-racists.

Recognizing that I can benefit from racism and still be a good person was a complicated process that I’ve already written about. It’s ongoing. I have to remind myself regularly that while I’m trying to break free from the whiteness that has been my reality for all of my life I’m also still benefiting from other people’s oppression. There are many resources available to explain what “whiteness” is, but Nell Irvin Painter’s piece in the New York Times is an excellent primer. So, one price I pay is space in my brain for a lot of cognitive dissonance: good person but benefitting from a bad system. Both are true.

At some point in my racial identity development, a bell rang that hasn’t yet stopped ringing. I can’t just watch television, listen to songs, attend social events, hear about my daughters’ days at school, sit in a coffee shop—all of my everyday life is permeated with awareness of how white supremacy has built it up, how whiteness rules most spaces, and how it used to be easy to not know. It’s not the same as when I started to be aware of my own racism, it’s not something that makes me socially uncomfortable most of the time. It makes me angry, frustrated, and it sometimes makes me feel helpless. Again, this is uncomfortable. I have had to do some grieving now that I am keenly aware that almost everything I know is infused with white supremacy.

Grieving the loss of once-pure parts of our lives certainly isn’t a whites-only experience. In great part because of Tarana Burke’s #MeToo movement, many of us have had to change how we view people we used to hold in high esteem. Would I ever consider watching The Cosby Show again? Not enjoying a television show certainly seems a small price to pay, but when awareness of racism means just about everything is now tainted with the stench of white supremacy, it requires some adjustment. It also requires emotional and intellectual effort to not adjust in the ways white supremacy wants me to: numb it out, minimize it, look away, change the topic, somehow pretend it’s not so bad. Or maybe make a big deal about it, get outraged and furious and tell everyone how awful it is to continue enjoying [insert latest #MeToo disclosure] person’s work. Sometimes excessive outrage can be another way to distance ourselves from the ugliness.

Similarly, a price I pay is the awareness of white supremacy coloring how I experience so much of what I have loved in my life. For example, my daughters’ beautiful childhoods were extraordinary in part because of the ways I benefit from white supremacy. With this new lens, can I still feel sweet nostalgia for the days when I sat with my young children on the edge of a stream (on occupied Wabanaki land) by an old farm home (purchased family wealth passed down for generations, built on white supremacy’s slavery and segregation) breathing in the fresh and clean mountain air? Being an antiracist surely doesn’t have to mean throwing away everything in my life, does it? These kinds of questions are complicated and require a lot of thoughtful consideration, and sometimes lead to changes in my behavior.

Even just writing this out has my mind going in so many directions. Is this self-serving navel-gazing? Does it seem like I think I’m special because I have thoughts and feelings about white supremacy? (The answer to that is no.) Is it centering on whiteness in a way that’s inappropriate for this blog? I mean it to be an example of what I experience as a white person addressing my racism and becoming an antiracist. I know that relative to the daily violence racism forces on people of color, it is a walk in the park. But I feel strongly that if we white people don’t “process” what’s going on inside of us as we try to figure out how to be white without supporting white supremacy, we’ll keep slipping back into the relative comfort of ignorance.

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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.

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Photo by Joel Valve on Unsplash

Forgiveness is expected (even required) from Black people

When I saw Brandt Jean hug his brother’s killer I felt my face get hot. Rage. Pure. I was in an airport, and since I couldn’t react with the volume I normally would have at home, I just sat with it. Silently. I forced myself to examine my rage. Admittedly, I found that some of that rage was from knowing that as soon as he hugged that murderer, every Black person in America was going to have to deal with at least 2.5 white people saying, “Well, he forgave her, so you should, too/you’re so angry/it’s not that bad/etc.” Somehow, in times of need there is never a shortage of white people to set our examples for us.

Shamefully, some of the rage was at Brandt for not taking the rest of us into account in his decision to publicly embrace a killer. Then I wondered if I was abiding by that very same white supremacist setting of examples. This man should get to grieve however he feels to be necessary. He shouldn’t have to set an example for the rest of America. He shouldn’t have to hold back his compassion because of how it’s perception might affect the rest of us. White people don’t have to worry about that. White people aren’t told to grieve a certain way because of how Black people might perceive it. They have a freedom in their grief.

Then, in thinking about freedom I remembered my father’s letter from George HW Bush.

It was a thank-you letter signed by the dead ex-prez himself. My father got it by donating to Bush’s campaign. He kept the letter in a frame on the wall in the living room just under his own eye level. He placed it there because he wanted his friends to see it and my father was taller than his friends.

Lest you get the wrong idea, my father was not a fan of George HW Bush. He thought Bush was the racist milksop war criminal history shows him to be. But my father was a veteran and his community was made of veterans. White veterans. In a white town. In the whitest state. This meant, for my father to feel that he and his family were safe, he needed to do certain things to shield himself and us from that whiteness. In this particular case, that meant sending $10 to the 1988 George HW Bush Presidential campaign.

My father grew up walking through colored entrances and using colored bathrooms and drinking colored water in a white world that that would kill him if he did otherwise. If he even said what he thought about Bush, there could be consequences, but not just for him.

My father was not free to speak his mind and neither is Brandt Jean. Both my father and Brandt Jean are from a country in which the police are a leading cause of death, in which white supremacy continues to run rampant—especially throughout law enforcement, in which law enforcement officers continue to be the most punitive, petty and vengeful members of society, yet the only ones permitted to kill.

Brandt Jean lives in a country in which his own brother was just murdered by an admittedly racist police officer. He lives in a country in which there are ruthless consequences for not being nice to white people and those consequences aren’t only paid by the individual. They are often paid by an entire family.

I am not saying that Brandt Jean’s compassion is insincere or implying anything about his motivations. This is not about him. This is about a country that demands white humanity be constantly and vibrantly visible while commanding Black humanity to be silent, worthless and invisible. This is about the outcome of that inverted relationship; their inhumanity encourages them to kill us while our humanity forgives them for it. This is about a system that only goes in that specific direction. This is about a pattern that must stop because the forgiveness will eventually stop, either because the violence has ceased and/or simply because there will be none of us left to grant that forgiveness.

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.