Thursday, January 20, 2011

Moving Forward

I live in Maine, so I've spent many hours over the last week thinking, reading and talking about our newly elected governor's response, which made national news, when he was questioned about his refusal of multiple invitations to attend events sponsored by the local NAACP chapter.

I've reflected at length on what I wanted to say that hasn't already been said wonderfully by others, including some brilliant friends of mine, Rachel Talbot Ross, state director and local chapter president of the NAACP, and Catherine Anderson of "Mama C and the Boys."

There is the dismay of hearing such coarse and dismissive language coming from the state's highest official, to some of those he is supposed to be serving. There is the concern - beginning with LePage's very first executive order, to rescind the previous governor's order that state agencies could not inquire about the immigration status of individuals seeking services - that the new governor doesn't see constituents of color as true Mainers. There is the distaste of hearing LePage offer up the young Jamaican man who has become part of their family as proof that he doesn't have a problem with race (though nobody had suggested he did). There is the disappointment of once again hearing a white man accuse people of color of "playing the race card." There's the thought of four long years ... Where to start?

But a few days later, I see opportunities.

On Monday, people kept streaming into the Preble Street Resource Center in Portland for small-group discussions before the planned Martin Luther King Day march to City Hall. Originally envisioned as a conversation about economic justice, the conversations kept returning to the issue of LePage's remarks, and many people said that's what had motivated them to attend. Propelled by our reaction against what we didn't want, we were moved to show up, stand up and speak up for what we did want: welcoming, connection, unity.

That same Monday morning, Effie McLain, a black minister, offered reconciling words, an outstretched hand, and an invitation to dance when LePage unexpectedly showed up at the MLK breakfast in Waterville. She acknowledged that his "foolish" words had caused pain, but urged people to stop beating up on him and to move forward.

LePage's remarks are a wake-up call that we still have a lot of work to do. When people behave like this, our first response is often to distance ourselves as quickly and as far as possible from them. Especially if we're white, we want to make it clear that we're not like them. One of the trickiest yet most essential pieces of the work is not to divide ourselves from anyone as we work to overcome division. Instead of judging, how can we reach out a hand to those who feel that our increasingly diverse population is somehow a threat to them?

We can have the honest, ongoing conversations about race that we avoid for fear of discomfort. We can recognize the places in ourselves where we are fearful, defensive, blind. Then, with humility and without judgment, we can listen and talk to others until we create what we want: welcoming, connection, unity.


Anonymous said...

Well put Mama. I agree that a lot of positive can come from this. I have been working very hard this week on holding the "we" in every uncomfortable situation I face, and not giving into the "us" and "them" or the "them" and "me". This has been a practice I am not actively familiar with. I feel myself stretching in exchanges with colleagues, the receptionist at the doctor's office, my family. It is great practice for larger, other conversations. All this came about a discussion I was having with a dear friend and social justice advocate--around holding the "WE" around the Lepage piece too.

To shifts!

Tow speaking our words.

Anne Sibley O'Brien said...

And it's great to know that others are out there, speaking their words, shifting, speaking their words, shifting.

Thanks for your fierce heart and deep commitment, Mama C.


sheila said...

Excellent overview of what's happening in our dear state, Annie! I've tried to avoid reading about LePage; there's enough craziness in Arizona. But I have to. What I'm grappling with is the inordinate amount of fear and anger in our society, and my impatience, wanting to do more than be a menschette myself! Thank you.