Are you an anti-racist? If not, let’s talk about it

After writing on race for over a decade as well as spending the last five years as executive director of an anti-racism organization, I have a few thoughts on how we could be tackling our race problem. The problem, though, is that dismantling the system of racism requires action—because change is a verb…and most white people aren’t ready for that level of engagement. To actively create change is to walk into the unknown and human nature—being what it is—well, people fear change. Especially the type of change that requires giving up something. Or creating seismic and uncomfortable shifts. 

Despite millions of white folks waking up since 2016, it’s become clear that the change that many white people want is a return to the status quo. Where racism hides in the shadows and was well known to Black and Brown folks but mostly hidden from white people with some exceptions.

People want to return to the niceness and politeness that hide our true intentions and keeps people in their places, as the system designed it. The “niceness” of whiteness is the backbone of inequity and participating in that system is to be complicit. 

Which is why, as we head into the 2020 election season, we need to sit down and be honest with ourselves. It’s easy enough to stick to the “anyone but Trump” line, but is anyone but Trump really progress? 

Given that we here in the United States are living with an illiterate, ignorant, and hateful leader, the desire for a quick fix is understandable. I mean, it would be nice to have a leader who isn’t an international embarrassment and who doesn’t regularly practice cruelty beyond words. The truth though is that as we enter this 2020 cycle, we are also standing on the cusp of real change. 

While the last several years have unearthed the truth of how deeply embedded racism is in our country, that unearthing has opened the doors for knowledge as many have tried to get a better understanding of how this moment came to be. In 2020, we can take this newfound knowledge and look at candidates with a deeper and broader understanding of the system and decide on a new type of leadership, a leadership that brings in the voices of the marginalized and ushers in candidates who don’t shy away from naming the long-ignored ills that plague this country.

As Ibram X. Kendi states in his latest book, “How To Be An Antiracist,” one is either a racist or an anti-racist; it is not enough to be against racism. To simply be against racism and to love and accept all people is simply passive racism. An anti-racist supports anti-racist policy through their actions. Which begs the question, what are your anti-racist actions? 

Over the years, I have asked that question and the most common response is that people are reading, learning and perhaps engaging in online spaces and—during the heyday of Black Lives Matter protests—perhaps attending a protest. 

Those are great things and honestly, they are necessary steps to move toward becoming an anti-racist. But you have to do more, because how are any of those actions creating change for Black, Brown and Indigenous people? How does your reading about systemic oppression create material change in Black, Brown and Indigenous spaces? How does your reading lead to policies that benefit Black, Brown and Indigenous people? Reading and talking online are gateways to newer ways of being but they are merely the first step, not the final destination. 

Furthermore, because of the intentional design of our communities in the United States, most of us live in racially segregated spaces which creates racial silos, or for white folks (and especially problematic), silos of whiteness. Thus, unless one is intentionally being an anti-racist through action, it means that even with the least racist of thoughts in your head, you have created a racial silo that benefits no one other than yourself—and means that you are centering whiteness. This is not anti-racism work, though it may seem like it. 

No, moving into 2020 requires shifting to examine our actions and thoughts and hold them up against an anti-racist framework. It means moving beyond simple binaries, and asking ourselves: Are we upholding white supremacy or are we dismantling it? If you find yourself drawn to the nice, articulate candidates, examine it. Assuming you have some level of class privilege and resources to spare, are you supporting the work of Black, Brown and Indigenous people? While the national reparations discussion is ongoing, in many communities across the country, people are starting their own community-based reparations work. Projects such as the Boston Ujima Project. Are you supporting online fundraisers for Black, Brown and Indigenous people. Frankly, if you are a regular reader of this space are you a monthly patron or have you ever given? While there are very real costs to running this site and paying our writers and back-end help, we also use our funds to support women of color in Maine as needed. 

There are a plethora of ways to offer support and to actively be an anti-racist in 2020. I would encourage you to think about what you can do and what you will commit to as we move forward. We need all hands on deck and it is simply not enough to be against racism anymore (and honestly, it never was). 

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Buttigieg’s mediocrity reveals racism in his supporters

There’s a phrase that comes to mind when I consider Pete Buttigieg: “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” Of course, the phrase has a complicated history; I don’t mean it in the way it was originally used. When I use it here, I mean that Pete Buttigieg is milquetoast mediocrity and I am confident that white people’s support of him is based in racism.

Why do I think white people’s support of Buttigieg is based in racism? For two reasons. First, he is not well-qualified for the position of the president of the United States of America. He’s only been a semi-successful mayor of a relatively small city; he’s had no federal experience. And, second, his policy ideas are so “centrist” they’re practically Republican.

Why are those reasons racist? Here’s where the soft bigotry of low expectations, or maybe “dancing backwards in high heels“ comes into play. We white people have extraordinarily high expectations for candidates of color. Na’ilah Amaru, policy strategist and Iraq veteran, said it well, discussing Kamala Harris leaving the campaign, “…women of color understand from our own lived experience: We must be twice as good for half the opportunity—and even then, that may not be enough.”

The fact that he is even being considered a serious candidate with so little experience is an example of how low the bar is for white men. The current president is another example, of course. The candidates who are people of color all have so much more experience than Buttigieg, but the bar for them is higher. Most of the candidates of color also don’t have the connections to global consultancy firms like McKinsey & Company for fundraising opportunities (most of which are closed to the press). So, yes, supporting Pete Buttigieg is racist because he’s not as qualified as most of the other candidates and apparently that doesn’t matter to you; for you, it’s enough that he’s a book-smart white man.

The other reason that supporting Buttigieg is racist is because his policy ideas are almost exclusively non-threatening. Nothing he is suggesting requires radical change in our white supremacist systems. He doesn’t support Medicare for All and he wants to increase military spending, for example. Here’s a good example of how wishy-washy and not-radical he is, when asked about a wealth tax: “I think we certainly need to consider a higher marginal tax rate for top income earners. Maybe it doesn’t have to be as high as it was historically, but we should at least admit that when it was higher, the American economy was growing pretty well. We should consider a wealth tax.” Notice that he’s not saying we should do it, only that we should consider it but not at too high a rate. That’s how he talks about anything approaching actual change. He uses lots of subtle cues to appease more conservative or wealthy voters.

I will also freely admit that I don’t trust him because none of the Black people I know on- or offline trust the guy; there’s plenty of press coverage about his lack of support among Black voters. I don’t think all Black people are always right, but the overwhelming dislike of this candidate by Black people is something I take seriously.

Plus, racism is rampant in South Bend. 26% of the people in South Bend, Indiana are Black but 0% dollars of the government contracts have gone to Black-owned businesses. There is a consistent lack of support from Black and Latinx voters in his small city. Referring to Buttigieg’s “1,000 homes in 1,000 days“ project, “[B]lack and Latino residents panned the aggressive blight eradication project that put local homeowners at the mercy of inflexible bureaucrats, did not incorporate community voices and concerns as much as it should have, and cast the pall of gentrification on those neighborhoods.”

The fact is, I can’t prove that you like Buttigieg because he’s white and doesn’t threaten to radically change anything. I’m sure you have reasons that make sense to you. But as Rafia Zakaria writes in “Why is Kamala Harris gone while Pete Buttigieg is still here?“ “while there is no direct evidence (there never is) [emphasis added] that a combination of race and gender hastened the end of the Harris candidacy, it is true that all the front-runners left in the democratic field are white.” I believe the same reasoning holds true for why I’m confident that white people’s support of Buttigieg is racist. As Gabrielle Gurley of the Prospect says, “Contemporary problems cannot be willed away with an earnest demeanor, good intentions, and a plan named for a fabled abolitionist by someone who has shown himself completely unqualified to sweep away the detritus of the country’s original sin.”

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Shopping while Black: Walgreen’s edition

Did you know that back in 2007 the U.S. government sued Walgreens for racism? It’s true! Nationally spread, racially discriminatory hiring practices, to be precise. Do you know how racist you have to be for the U.S. government to sue you for racism? We’ll probably never know the answer to that question because Walgreens settled out of court for $20 million to keep anyone from ever finding out.

You’d think Walgreens would’ve learned their lesson from that, but no. They just keep on keeping on. Last year there were multiple cases of Walgreens racially profiling customers including one particular case in which they actually used their motion sensors to harass a Black Netflix comedy writer.

So far this year Walgreens has been called out for racially profiling a Black school board president and they’ve been named in a lawsuit over the shooting death of a Black man named Jonathan Hart by a security guard at a Walgreens.

Over this past summer the Rite Aid closest to my apartment became a Walgreens. They mostly kept the same staff and the only thing that seemed to change was the layout of the store, so I didn’t think much of it. I wasn’t thinking about any of that when I went into that very same former Rite Aid at the bottom of Munjoy Hill in Portland, Maine, last Friday.

I had just driven four hours from my girlfriend’s parents’ home where I had forgotten my toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant and cough drops. I thought about that and I thought about how cold it was outside. Those were the only things on my mind when I walked into Walgreens that afternoon. I had even forgotten that it was Black Friday so I was surprised at how busy the store was.

I made my way past a few employees, several customers and was almost at the back of the store when a white woman in her mid/late-50s in a Walgreens uniform said to me, “Please take off your hood while you’re in the store.”

Now, look. I’m 40 years old and I’m self-employed. This means that every decision I make is based on how much time any given task will take. And so, I responded to the Walgreens employee the way I think any 40-year-old, self-employed person would were they to be presented with the very silly idea that a dress code was now required in purchasing toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant and cough drops: I said, “No,” flatly, without breaking stride.

“Sir!” the employee called after me, “You have to take your hood off while you’re in the store!”

I stopped, turned around, surveyed the store, turned to the employee and started pointing out all of the other customers with hats on. “He’s wearing a hat. She’s wearing a hat. So is he. And her. And her. And him.”

“Those are hats. You’re wearing a hood,” she said.

“Right. But I don’t have a hat. I have a hood. It’s connected to my jacket. It’s cold outside and I don’t have any hair on my head,” I replied, baldly.

“I’m sorry, sir. It’s posted at the front of the store. It’s store policy,” she lied.

Because here’s the thing: before I was self-employed, I worked retail for 20 years. I know all about the “it’s store policy” line. It doesn’t mean anything. It’s the “because I said so” of customer service. It’s a thing you say to get customers to obey you, the implication being that it’s out of our hands—rules etched in stone from the corporate gods on high and there’s nothing any of us mere, customer, employee or otherwise earthly mortals can do about it. Except that’s bullshit. It’s not in the bylaws, it’s not on the website. There are almost always more exceptions than there are rules and “it’s store policy” is said at the employee’s discretion 100% of the time.

So, I called her bluff, “Prove it. Show me.”

She turned and walked back to the front of the store and I followed. She went back through the vestibule and outside and back in and—try not to act too surprised—couldn’t seem to find the “no hoods inside Walgreens” policy anywhere. No signs, no stickers on the windows, no standees. She made a big show of searching for them and even said, “I thought they were right here. Huh…”

“Sure. Sure you did,” I replied.

I figured we were even now. She attempted to humiliate me, but since she got caught so blatantly in her own lie, I was willing to let it go. Wasting time with this silly bullshit was embarrassing and I just wanted to get the goddamn toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant, and cough drops, so I went back into the store.

But she wasn’t done. She called after me again, “Sir! I’m going to have to ask you to leave the store if you don’t remove your hood!”

I’d had enough. “Out of all the people in this store right now, you’re gonna hassle the one Black guy?”

“Sir, that’s not what this is about.”

It sure felt like that’s what it was about. It felt I’d sassed her authority, caught her in a lie and now I had to be brought to heel.

“No?” I asked, “Is it about identifying me? Because you know who I am. I’ve been coming in here at least once a week, every week for the decade I’ve lived in this neighborhood. You know who I am.”

“It’s not about that, sir.”

“Prove it.”

“I made Patty take off her hood, too. Isn’t that right, Patty?”

“That’s right!” said someone I assumed was named Patty.

I looked over to see just who Patty was and noticed two things right away. First of all, in that moment as far as I could tell Patty’s coat didn’t have a hood. Secondly, Patty was an elderly, white woman in an electric wheelchair. Apparently Black people weren’t the only ones this Walgreens employee was eager to publicly humiliate.

I turned back to the employee and said, “I don’t believe you, but even if that were true, surely you must see how ridiculous that is.”

Before the employee could respond, Patty piped up with, “Why’s it always about color with them?”

By “them” Patty meant me. So, I pointed to Patty and asked the employee incredulously, “Is this the case you’re trying to make?”

The employee said, “Patty, stop.”

Patty said, “OK. But it’s true, though. They always wanna make it about color.”

Patty seemed to be saying out loud what the employee only wanted to imply so she continued trying to shush Patty. But the rest of the customers were watching. People were taking out their phones. Some recording, some making calls and it was clear by the looks on their faces that some of them were not on my side. Some looked angry. Some scared.

I’m a cold, bald guy covering his head to get warm, but I’m also a Black guy in a hoodie. Which one of those did I look like on their screens? How were they describing me to whomever they were calling? Were they calling the police? How many of these customers believed in that moment that this Walgreens employee was actually stopping a potential robbery?

Am I about to end up like Jonathan Hart? Like Alton Sterling? John Crawford? Trayvon? I just wanted to buy some goddamn toothpaste, pre-workout powder, deodorant, cough drops and not be cold while doing it.

“That’s fine. That’s fine,” I said over my shoulder as I quickly walked out of the store.

I got in my truck and drove the three minutes back to my apartment. For the last two minutes and forty-five seconds of that drive I was followed by a police cruiser. It was the longest 2:45 of my life, but I wasn’t pulled over. I walked into my apartment, tossed my bags on the couch, sat on the floor and grew increasingly frustrated and infuriated with how genuinely lucky I felt just to be alive.

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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