By Baba Ly
Imagine the complexity of having to learn a new language, understand a new culture, try new food, adapt to a new lifestyle, and acclimate to different patterns of weather. This is what I have gone through many times in my lifetime, and the effort has certainly prepared my brain and my body to be flexible and adaptive. All my years I have navigated different places, cultures, languages, ideologies, and tones of skin color – from Africa to Europe. And along the way, I have met and gotten to know many people across all races, genders, and identities. In Maine, my biggest challenge has been – and still is – making authentic and trusted friends among White Americans, particularly White Mainers.
I have had several experiences in Maine of having a person I considered my trusted friend abruptly ghost me, without giving me the benefit of the doubt. That has been such a difficult experience to process and overcome. I asked myself, Did I do something wrong? Did I say something offensive, socially awkward, or morally unacceptable? And if so, why wouldn’t the person tell me, so we could talk through the situation, learn from it, and then move on to building a stronger relationship?
I have spent a lot of time analyzing the patterns of these experiences and the types of discussions I have had with these people – White friends who claimed they were liberal, progressive, and anti-racist. Friends I assumed were trusted allies, and thus safe to vent to. What I have noticed is that every time I brought up topics related to race, and/or my experience (or the experience of someone else) of racism, these friends found ways to avoid me, and slowly move away from me – as if they had just heard I had contracted a deadly contagious disease. After reflection, I concluded that discussing racism and race related topics are invisible red lines not to be crossed.
So more than half a century after the civil rights movement, and despite the debates around racism in American society following the murder of George Floyd, as well as the Black Lives Matter movement over the last two years, the taboo surrounding talking about race and racism remains a big deal among many White Americans regardless of their political identities or philosophical ideologies.
I often hear comments such as these when it comes to discussing race: It’s divisive; it’s a threat to our society; racism is evil and it’s over; these were intentional, hateful acts that happened centuries ago; it’s no longer a relevant debate. But hélas! as I am concluding this column we have just witnessed another allegedly racially motivated mass shooting targeting a Black community – this time in Buffalo, N.Y.