Last night I attended a community organizing event in Portland, Maine, hosted by Dispatch Magazine. It took place at Urban Farms Fermentory, a self-described “experimental urban farm, fermentation factory, and community engagement hub.” They sell growlers of kombucha.
I’d been eyeing the event with some degree of trepidation. I’ve often remarked that being a person of color in New England has entirely stripped me of the anonymity I enjoyed while living in Brooklyn. I’m very clearly “from away” here, even though I’m from Vermont, a state that enjoys a comparable degree of liberal whiteness. People often ask if I’m tan.
Yes, very tan. From all the sun in Maine.
The previous night I’d gotten into a heated discussion with a young white woman who insistently asserted that she knew what real racism, sexism, and homophobia looked like because of a seemingly toxic work environment.
I’ll shamefacedly admit I wasn’t kind or empathetic to her viewpoint, mostly because it seemed like she needed me to acknowledge she wasn’t a bad white person, and I was done feeling othered while simultaneously being asked for absolution. Wine was involved.
I drew concrete lines between us. Me with my brown skin on one side, her with her white skin on the other. I may not have furthered productive conversation, but this line has always been there. I’m exhausted from pretending that I’m not acutely aware of its existence every moment I live in a state where 96 percent of the population think my name is, “so exotic, but, like, soooooo pretty.”
The meeting itself was well-attended. I’ve never been in a room with so many white people drinking expensive fermented tea wine. There were a few of us melanins scattered throughout the space, most wearing the same look of cynicism and frustration I know was branded on my face. We were heavily outnumbered by pale people burdened by guilt and confusion and uncertainty, hardly a comfortable place for colored folks to voice concerns or offer suggestions under even the best of circumstances.
The meeting began with a few speeches about the fact that we were all there to participate in discussions while operating on the premise that sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and climate change exist, and that those assumptions were not up for discussion at the time. A megaphone was passed back and forth between a surprisingly diverse group of facilitators, and the idea that privilege must be addressed and incorporated in order to actually hear other cultural viewpoints was affirmed.
And then, midway through the meeting it was said again. And then a group of people of color left because they didn’t feel safe or heard. And then privilege was addressed again. And again.
There were some great discussions taking place in between. There was tension, of course, because this shit is hard and we’re all learning. But the main thing I took away from the meeting, personally, is that my capacity for listening to folks in positions of privilege be reminded about their status in life is long past.
I’m tired of being an educator. I’m tired of being called to exhibit empathy and patience when I’ve been doing the work to understand where I fit in this world my whole damn life. I’m so tired.
And the unfortunate result of this focus on privilege meant that a meeting which called for an emphasis on allowing disenfranchised voices to be leaders ended up doing the exact opposite. People of color who came for collaborative group discussion felt excluded anyway because a number of white folks didn’t do their homework beforehand. The cribbing that took place left many of those prioritized voices listening to lectures about privilege rather than speaking about how to combat its effect on their lives.
There were productive things to come out of the meeting. Good white people showed up. Discussions about how to best support the trans and immigrant communities in Maine were front and center. How to intervene when witnessing assault or confrontation was prioritized. The disabled community was underrepresented in a seriously egregious way, but that was acknowledged and marked as urgent for follow up events.
After the event I went to dinner with a friend and was seated near a young black woman who’d also attended the meeting. She’d been vocal in one of the discussion groups about understanding the basic needs of immigrant communities in order facilitate civic education—transportation, financial help, child care, etc.
We’d both been frustrated by a woman who spent a fair portion of the time saying she thought it was great that one of Portland’s adult education centers kicked students out if they missed more than two classes, because it ensured that only the people who really wanted to be there could take advantage of the program. Extenuating circumstances be damned.
I reached out as she was leaving and thanked her for speaking so honestly. She asked if she’d see me again at any meetings and I said yes. She replied, “Good, I’m not going anywhere.”