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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