The other day I got a notification on my phone. A friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long posted a picture and Facebook thought that I might be in it. I got nostalgically excited trying to imagine what the photo might be. Was it that time I went to ...

 

Black Girl in Maine - 5 new articles



The technological side of racism

The other day I got a notification on my phone. A friend whom I haven’t seen in far too long posted a picture and Facebook thought that I might be in it. I got nostalgically excited trying to imagine what the photo might be. Was it that time I went to visit her and her family at her in-laws’? Maybe it was that time she sang with me onstage. It might have even been from when we worked together nearly a decade ago.

It wasn’t any of that. it wasn’t even a picture of me. It was one of those memes with a quote and a picture of the person being quoted. The person in this case was the rapper Common and Facebook wanted to know if I wanted to tag myself as him. I did not.

ICYDK, I look like this and Common looks like this and if I’m being perfectly honest, people often say I look like him. People in Maine, that is. White people in Maine, to be more specific. In other places where there are more Black people, this rarely happens.

Anyway, I compare my feeling of this false identification with how amazed and terrified I was a few years ago when Facebook correctly auto-tagged my white girlfriend despite the fact that most of her face was hidden behind giant diva sunglasses. Now, to be clear, my problem is not that I want to be auto-tagged by Facebook. I’m perfectly happy for it to have no idea who I am. This isn’t about being left out, or snubbed. It’s about a terrible sci-fi future in which racism doesn’t erode so much as advance just as exponentially as technology.

Some of you may think this is silly. Some of you may even be saying to yourselves “At least it’s not as bad as when Google was tagging Black people as gorillas or when cameras were commenting on Asians’ eyes,” However, this is not the first time I’ve come across these little bits of techno-racism. For example, I’d always thought those automatic soap dispensers in public restrooms were just broken. Then other Black people started posting videos of the same thing not happening for them and I realized something more specific was happening.

While perhaps seeming small, these things are all part of a pattern forming a terrifying future for everyone not white. Because, while the inability to detect darker skin tones is a problem in automatic soap dispensers, it is being reported as a much bigger problem in driverless cars not recognizing Black pedestrians. The problem gets even bigger just by reading this recent Washington Post headline: Racial bias in a medical algorithm favors white patients over sicker black patients.

As terrifying as all of that is, it doesn’t take much to imagine the horror of a Minority Report-like world in which similar racist algorithms are used in the criminal justice system. In fact, it takes no imagination at all because it’s already happening. The algorithms are called “risk assessment” tools and not only are they just as terrifying as you think, but according to theappeal.org, “Nearly every U.S. state and the federal system have implemented risk assessment in some form.”

While the current wave of tech offers the usual promise of a bright future for some, for Black people it’s threatening to send us back into a much more ruthless past. Not that racism in the tech world is anything new. It’s not. It’s been there from the very beginning. The very first American tech pioneer was a man named Herman Hollerith. He invented an electromagnetic tabulator that not only ushered in the computer age, but assisted and massively accelerated the institutionalization of racism from late 19th century America all the way through Nazi Germany.

As Yasha Levine wrote in his essay on Hollerith, The Racist Origins of America’s Tech Industry, “The data provided by Hollerith’s invention did not cause the racism, nativism, and eugenics that saw class and poverty through the lens of breeding rather than politics and economic policy. But it gave those fears concrete shape—and it provided data to which those fears could be hitched.”

Racism is in the foundations of this country and everything it’s built. It hasn’t gone away or necessarily gotten any better. Like technology, racism has, however, become more complicated. And as long as technology requires us to understand less and less of the world around us, these complications, while seeming innocuous to some, will only prove to be more and more deadly for others.


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Progress in the polls for people of color

Y’all I am going through what legitimately might be the single worst period of my life with a heartbreaking and exhausting family health crisis, so I need to catch some joy and light where I can. And at least one small bit of light I was able to snatch this week in an off-year election cycle was news of historic election wins by people of color.

And one of those wins was close to home in Maine. As many of you readers know, I live in Maine. I live in Southern Maine. I live in the Portland area. Therefore, I live in the bluest part of state that otherwise tends to be fairly split down the middle. So when people of color (Black people in this case) like Pious Ali are elected to city council and people like Rachel Talbot Ross are elected to the state legislature (these two aren’t new wins this election, by the way), it’s great news (and welcome news and news we don’t get often enough) but it’s not entirely earth-shaking.

But this week something particularly special happened: Safiya Khalid, who arrived in Maine as a refugee about a decade ago, became the first Somali-American to be elected to Lewiston’s city council.

Look, if you’ve been reading my stuff long enough, Lewiston might ring a lot of bells for you. It’s where quite a lot of Somali refugees/immigrants were settled. It’s a fairly conservative town in one of the two whitest states in the nation. And there have been many tensions around welcoming (or more precisely, not welcoming) so many brown-skinned people, especially from another country, for many residents. Past mayors and other community leaders have, at times, been openly hostile to them.

During her campaign, she took some serious hits. Online trolls from as far away as Alabama and Mississippi rushed in to tell her to go back where she came from and tell her she had no right to be running for office.

But she won, y’all. By a significant margin. And at 23, she’s not only the first Somali person on the city council (itself a bit eye-opening considering how long Somalis have been a major part of the town) but probably the youngest person who will have sat on the council.

But she wasn’t the only such news this week. There were historic wins by candidates of color, notably several women. Nadia Mohamad, who is the same age as Khalid, scored a win much the same, becoming the first Muslim woman and first Somali elected to the city council in St. Louis Park, Minn. In Virginia, the state senate and the Fairfax County School Board got their first-ever Muslim women (and notably, Ghazala Hashmi also becomes the first Indian-American woman on the Virginia senate). Also, Chol Majok, a 34-year-old who fled violence in South Sudan, became the first refugee elected to public office in Syracuse, N.Y. Moreover, in Arizona, a state quite red, democrat Regina Romero became the first woman and first Latina to become mayor of Tucson.

None of this changes the fact that the United States is still a nation mired in institutional and systemic racism and has been steadily ramping back up on the interpersonal racism as well in the Trump era. But it does show that people can change. Voters can change. It shows that we can adjust our thinking to stop electing white people—especially white men—to every office. It shows that we can, if we choose to, make elected offices represent the actual population instead of the ruling power group (white men). We aren’t there yet, but we might be getting there.

And that, for the moment, can put a smile on my face as I survey all the crap piled around me (and us) in this world and wonder what to shovel next.


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Calling All White People, Part 38: Ripping off the masks

Calling All White People, Part 38

(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: In this season of wearing costumes, let’s start aiming to be real  

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

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Now, some of you maybe are planning to put on masks today or tonight—maybe you already have for some pre-Halloween costume parties or whatnot. Maybe you’re not dressing up but you’ll be helping your kids fit their masks to their faces. Maybe costumes still aren’t picked out yet and you still need to get a mask (and more) in a last-minute frenzy at the local Halloween store.

Maybe it’s also time—as we do that thing where we take on roles for a few hours to celebrate—maybe it’s time to dedicate yourself to playing fewer roles and being real.

We are in what for many people is an unprecedented (for them personally at least) period of overt racism promoted from on high (the White House and elsewhere) and unfettered cruelty (abandoning the protection of refugees, locking kids in cages and taking them away from their parents and so much more). Many of us weren’t alive for things like the internment of Japanese citizens during World War II. Many of us weren’t alive or were tiny children during the peak of the Civil Rights Movement. Even for those people who hate racism and were alive for such things, seeing them return now with literal Nazis marching with torches and police protection and anti-fascists being criticized for punching Nazis is jarring.

Welcome to the horror show. If you didn’t get it before, get it now: The United States was literally built on racism, with slavery a key part of the economy and many founding fathers defending slavery as part of the natural order. The dehumanization of Black and Indigenous people as savages or subhumans has been part and parcel of the American makeup and all its institutions were created with that in mind somewhere, somehow. The educational system has relentlessly hidden this part of history and the media has often been reluctant to highlight it. And so with all that in place, it’s easy for people to be racist, overtly or casually. It’s easy not to challenge things and to accept, on some level, the notion that people who aren’t white deserve less or pose a threat to you and your white kin and peers.

You personally may not feel that way. You might dream of a country were race isn’t a deciding factor in one’s humanity and worth. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t wearing a mask now—that perhaps you’ve been wearing one all along.

Maybe you aren’t racist. Or at least you’re mostly not racist. And that’s not bad. It’s certainly better than being racist. More people like that in this country would be a better thing. It would be progress. But it doesn’t change things when a good chunk of the country is pretty comfortable with racism.

If your kid really, really wants to be an “Indian” for Halloween or dress as Disney’s Pocahontas, will you say “no” and explain why? If they want to dress as a favorite Black celebrity but they aren’t Black and think they should paint their face brown or use literally black blackface, will you put a stop to it? If your kids are grown and in college putting on blackface or whatnot, will you check them? If you have friends dressed as “Mexicans” with sombreros and bushy fake mustaches, will you challenge them on it?

When Halloween has passed and Thanksgiving and Christmas family dinners occur, will you refute your relatives when they spout racist feelings or theories? Will you take the chance to educate and to deflate ignorance, or will you keep on that mask of politeness?

In day-to-day life, will you keep wearing that mask and being as “not-racist” as you personally can while also letting racism grow around you? Will you keep that mask on so that you don’t lose out on your own opportunities because giving up white privilege is too scary and you just want to continue to quietly be as not-racist as you can?

Movements and change don’t happen in silence. They don’t happen when people are quiet. If what the world sees is a mask that says you are OK with the way the world is, then the world will keep spinning on in a horrible direction.

Or maybe it isn’t a mask.

Maybe it’s your real face. Maybe you don’t care enough. Maybe trying to be not-racist is more important to you than actually being an anti-racist.

It’s never too late though. If you’re wearing a mask but you know you can do more, you can take it off now. If the apathy isn’t a mask but your true self, you can turn that around—not put on a mask of anti-racism but get a social and philosophical face-lift.

The face of America is racism; the equality for all idea was always a mask. So, while we are ripping away our masks of quiet civility, let’s rip that one off as well.


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Real lynchings and the worst face of whiteness

When the president likened his impending impeachment to a lynching, several things exploded in my brain. The first explosion was that he has to be trying to distract us from his impending impeachment. The problem there is that he’s a racist and racism is not a distraction. It’s another separate, very real and all too often deadly problem.

The second idea that fired off in my head was that there is no language for his situation. Lynchings were how a white male power structure punished Black people. The president often claims to be a victim of a witch hunt—how a white male power structure punished women. If you are a white male, the power structure that supports you will not punish you. This is not to say white men don’t get punished by a system, just that being white isn’t the cause for their punishment. In other words, white guys don’t get pulled over for being white guys, no political party is trying to take away the white guy vote, etc., on and on, ad infinitum.

The third thought that fired off in my head was about my grandfather, Gus. He was born in 1890, less than 15 miles outside of Waco and he didn’t know any white people. Everyone in his neighborhood, everyone he worked with, everyone at his church and everyone in his family was Black. He only ever even heard about white people when something bad happened.

Between 1882 and 1930 there were 492 recorded lynchings in Texas. In 1916, when Gus was 25 years old, Waco was thought of as a particularly forward-thinking and progressive place. That same year in Waco was when Jesse Washington was lynched.

Jesse was 17 years old and had been accused of raping and murdering his white boss’ white wife. Even though it was probably his white boss who killed her, Jesse was given a “trial” and convicted. Immediately following his conviction, a mob came into the court, wrapped a chain around Jesse’s neck and dragged him outside. They marched Jesse up and down the block while people in the street beat and stabbed him. Then they castrated him. Then he was chained up, his fingers cut off to keep him from climbing the chain. They covered him in oil and raised and lowered him over a fire for two hours, occasionally cutting and stabbing him to keep him conscious. This all happened in front of 10,000 cheering white people. After Jesse eventually died, his body was dragged through the streets and picked apart, teeth and toes and other pieces of his corpse sold as souvenirs. Photos were taken and turned into postcards. Jesse’s lynching would be known all over the country as The Waco Horror.

In the weeks that followed, the newspapers spoke very little of the Waco Horror. When the rare editorial spoke out against the lynching, the response from other editorials called them “Holier than thou.”

That’s what whiteness was to Gus. It wasn’t the innocent mildness that it associates with itself. It wasn’t Donna Reed or Goop. It didn’t give him a heartfelt smile or make him roll his eyes with embarrassment. It wasn’t anything close to innocuous and it certainly wasn’t any kind of victimhood. Whiteness was only what it showed itself to be, and all it ever showed Gus was a ruthless and deliberate and all too often deadly animosity.

Gus died in 1957. So much of the world changed in his lifetime. So much more has changed since, but were he alive today, I think the president would seem very familiar to him.


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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The dark side of speaking to truth

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. 


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.

Photo by Nadine Shaabana on Unsplash