By Sultana Khan
On November 16, Dispatch hosted a civic forum titled “How Do We Protect Our Community?” Attendance was high — about 500 folks filled the Urban Farm Fermentory and an adjacent spillover warehouse — as Portland residents split into dozens of arbitrarily assigned groups to share resources, strategize, and discuss how to defend against folks becoming threatened (by attack, loss of benefits, deportation, or otherwise) by an autocratic conservative administration.
The event was a reflection of a political moment — one week after the election — that was teeming with fear, anger, urgency, and confusion. Many reported feeling mobilized and grounded, and that it was useful for connecting folks eager to organize. In an era dominated by social media, showing up in person is a crucial step. Yet the open dynamics and overpowering attendance were such that people whose voices and needs most need to be heard and to feel safe were overpowered by post-election explanations, inadequate design, and heaps of white liberal solutionism.
Here’s a take that can’t be shouted over. Portland writer Sultana Khan published her reaction to the event on her blog, and a revised version is reprinted here. —NS
Last night, I attended a community-organizing event hosted by Dispatch magazine. It was held at Urban Farm Fermentory, an “experimental urban farm, fermentation factory, and community engagement hub” in Bayside. They sell growlers of kombucha.
I’d been eyeing the event with some trepidation. In the wake of the election, the event felt too soon — I hadn’t quite moved beyond denial, though anger was certainly simmering below the surface. I was leery of attending an event where my voice was suddenly deemed important, when a week before it hadn’t mattered at all.
I’ve often remarked that being a person of color in New England has stripped me of the anonymity I enjoyed in other cities. I’m 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 night before, I’d gotten into a heated discussion with a young white woman at a house party who asserted — insistently — that she knew what real racism, sexism, and homophobia looked like because of a toxic work environment.
I’ll shamefacedly admit I wasn’t kind or empathetic to her viewpoint. Mostly, it seemed like she needed me to acknowledge she wasn’t one of those bad white people who had voted for Trump, and I was done feeling othered while simultaneously being asked for absolution. I threw down the words “white fragility” like a gauntlet, only to be poleaxed by the fact that I had to explain them. 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. It might not have furthered productive conversation, but this line has always been there. I’m exhausted by pretending I’m not acutely aware of it every moment I’ve lived in states where 96 percent of people think my name is “exotic, but, like, soooooo pretty.”
The meeting was well attended. I’ve never been in a room with so many white people drinking expensive fermented tea. 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 concern 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.
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, so the concept of privilege was broached again at the behest of one of the organizers. 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 being 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 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 constant reminders of the work left to be done in order to have relatively simple discussions 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 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 to facilitate civic education — transportation, financial help, child care, etc.
We’d both been frustrated by a conversation about one of Portland’s adult education centers’ (alleged) practice of kicking students out if they missed more than two classes. A woman in one of the groups had been endorsing it, because it ensured only those students who really wanted to be there could take advantage of the program. Extenuating circumstances be damned.
I reached out as she was leaving the restaurant 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.”