The Ouroboros that is racial (and religious) dog whistles

Do you wonder why Obama hasn’t endorsed Biden yet? Before I answer that, lemme lay some groundwork…

As you probably remember, most of the racist attacks against President Obama weren’t directly attacks on his skin color. Racists are too milquetoast to do that. A good portion of that racism was aimed at Obama’s supposed religion, Islam. They called him a secret Muslim so much that republican candidates still thought it was a good strategy as recently as last year’s midterms.

Now, calling Obama a Muslim did a few things. First, it singled out his race, sounding the alarm that he was not white, because we think of Islam as exclusively non-white in this country. Secondly, it declared him an enemy of America, a story we have consistently told ourselves about Muslims in this country for nearly 30 years. Lastly, in doing those two things, they doubled-down on the idea that to be non-white in this country is to be an enemy of the state as well as an enemy of the (white) people. If we can learn anything from the republican response to the Obama administration, it’s that if a dog whistle hits the right pitch it can get all the dogs barking.

Believe it or not, another president went through something surprisingly similar.

It wasn’t long ago that people of Irish and Italian descent were not considered white in this country. One of the ways white people would dog whistle about the Irish and Italians was to talk about “Catholics.” John F. Kennedy was of course, of Irish descent and so his Catholicism became a major talking point against him. Many white Americans openly said that, if elected, JFK would not represent the American people so much as work as an agent of the Vatican. Really. So many people believed this that, in an era of scarce screen time, Kennedy was forced to make a televised speech addressing his Catholicism. But since the actual problem was his Irishness and not his religion, that wouldn’t be enough to persuade the (white) American people. No. In order for them to leave their prejudice outside of the ballot box, JFK would need to be vouched for.

Enter: Lyndon Baines Johnson, a definitively white senator from a former slave state, with a reputation built on segregation and racism. With LBJ as the VP, JFK would be vouched for, his Irishness put in check, and white America would be put at ease, allowing the duo into the White House.

So, if you wonder why Obama hasn’t endorsed Biden yet or why Obama tried to talk Biden out of running in 2016, you will probably find your answer in 2008. Looking back at the difficulties involved in attempting to be the first Black president, you are likely to see a similarity between him and the first “Catholic” president. If you were to look at Biden in 2008 you would likely find a definitively white senator from a former slave state with a reputation built on segregation and racism and the perfect person to vouch for Barrack Hussein Obama.

Unfortunately, that vouching goes both ways as now Biden is thought of as far more progressive than his record shows and far more contemporary than he exclusively behaves. And if that’s not enough of an Ouroboros for you, you should know that if elected, Joe Biden would be the second of only two Catholic American presidents.

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Calling All White People, Part 36: Media is complicit in white supremacy

Calling All White People, Part 36

(A periodic attempt to mobilize white people for something other than supporting just other melanin-deficient folks and maintaining a status quo of a nation geared toward whiteness as the baseline and the norm)

By An Average White Guy

TODAY’S EPISODE: The media help prop up white supremacy and racist systems, and it’s not just Fox News  

[To find other installments of “Calling All White People,” click here]

We—and by “we” I mean we who are white more so than others—tend to put a lot of trust in the prevailing systems and structures of society in the United States. A lot of trust. Even when we say or act like we don’t. But rarely do we look critically enough at those systems and structures and the people and institutions that comprise them. Because of that we perpetuate, though both action and inaction, racism (as well as sexism, rape culture, Islamophobia and a host of other nasty things).

Media is one of those things we trust and which is a big part of the problem.

Oh, I know a lot of people say they distrust the media or look at it with a critical eye, but that’s not necessarily as true as we think. After all, we say we don’t trust politicians but many of us continue to trust that “the system” will work out and rebalance itself to remove Donald Trump specifically or reverse the darkly uber-conservative turn it’s take in recent years. Many of us still vote, and often without all that much research into candidates or issues. So too do we look to the media to tell us what’s going on, and that’s fine—just as voting is important—but we don’t look often enough or deep enough at what’s wrong in the media and, for example, how is perpetuates and props up racism—how the mainstream media is very much complicit in upholding white supremacy.

And when I say “media” in this piece, I’m mostly talking about news and analysis and not entertainment, though certainly other aspect of media like that are also complicit (look at the overwhelming focus still on white protagonists or “white saviors” in ostensibly Black-themed movies or the way non-white actors in films and shows have so many fewer prominent roles yet filmmakers will put white people in roles intended to be Asian or Indigenous).

But no, I want to focus on the news media and journalism.

Journalism touts itself on aiming for objectivity, but biases often creep in and the wording of articles and broadcasts can shift the way people see reality. The framing of situations and people can skew how people feel. The choices of who to interview or allow to comment very much influence the narrative and what people hear (or don’t) and what they believe (or don’t). And I say none of this as some person casually spouting off about something I only vaguely understand. The media business (journalism in particular) has been responsible for paying most of my bills over the years.

Look, it’s easy to point a finger at Fox News and waggle said finger judgmentally in the news network’s metaphorical face. You can say that they peddle twisted truths and outright lies. Or that they pour poison into the ears of gullible bigots and people uncomfortable with demographic shifts. Even that they are the propaganda wing of the Republican far right wing (which is increasingly the Republican mainstream). And so on and so forth.

And you’d be right. Fox News is terrible and naked in its willingness to stoke racial fears and fan the fires of bigotry, among many other awful things.

But look at the others, too. CNN recently had overt white supremacist Richard Spencer on to address whether Trump’s recent tweets attacking ‘The Squad” were racist—and CNN also had a group of white women on to defend Trump as not being racist when he obviously is and always has been demonstrably so. And lest you leap to the defense of NPR as a notable bastion of balance and perhaps liberalism, I’ve noted a steady increase in their willingness not only to give voice to the far right but not to challenge them when they blatantly deflect issues or spread lies and—more than that—an NPR executive recently indicated that we shouldn’t call the president’s tweets “racist” because that’s a label and a judgment. It’s part of the whole debate these days over the media’s insistence on using phrases like “racially charged” or something rather than “racist.” At a certain point, though, you call something what it obviously is. If it’s raining outside, your weather guy will say it’s raining, not that the air is noticeably wettened.

I mean, really? If the president had tweeted that a group of white female politicians should stop worrying their little heads about politics and get back in the kitchen would we have a problem defining that as sexism? I think not.

BGIM has had her own encounters with media framing with regard to racist incidents, just this month again in fact with a story that appeared in the Portland Press Herald. Initial handling of the article wasn’t done well, and she was subtly cast as a possible instigator in a racial incident or as someone “claiming” an incident rather than as the very clear victim, as well as having her safety and well-being compromised by the way the story focused on her and not so much on the perpetrator.

The fact is that even if we don’t regularly watch the news or don’t read the newspaper, we get a lot of our information from media—and media that is, for the most part, fairly reliable and honest. We get it from friends, from our Twitter feeds, from overhearing people talking or playing the radio. Whatever. But media forms a major foundation for how we find out what’s going on and what to think about it.

That foundation is also part of what holds up the house of white supremacy.

When one gives platforms to extremists on the racist and xenophobic side of things, whether inviting them as guests or doing puff pieces on their lives (like the New York Times profiling Nazis to give us a glimpse of their human side) or giving them actual jobs as commentators, one gives them legitimacy and power. That amplifies their voices and grants them a kind of authority, and in a world where we have problems calling racist people and things racist even when they obviously are, that’s a problem.

Because that’s how you normalize racism and white supremacy. To be fair, white supremacy has always been the baseline in the United States. But media helps prop that up and reinforce it by favoring the white voices more often and by often putting people of color in a worse light. Photos will often make white people looks better and more wholesome and Black people look sketchy or thuggish. Headlines written and quotes picked for stories will often cast people of color as troublemakers.

Most of this is done without intention to do harm. It’s not as if the entire media apparatus consciously sets out to reinforce an already white supremacist system. But like with so many things in this country, we white people don’t look at it critically enough—certainly not the way Black and Indigenous and other people of color are forced to as the system repeatedly puts them through the kinds of obstacles that white people don’t generally encounter. That is when intention ceases to matter and we need to look at the impact of what is being done so that we can stop doing it.

So, we need to stop blindly trusting or only vaguely questioning the systems in place, and that includes media. We need to hold all of these systems accountable and call them out when they fail. More to the point: Demand that they do better. The more we do, the more likely we can break up the stranglehold of white supremacy and maybe—just maybe—start building a society where people really are mostly just treated as people, regardless of the color of their skin.

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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.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.