Skip to content

Confronting West Michigan Nice: An interview with Shayna Akanke Marie

August 17, 2021

We recently interviewed Shayna Akanke Marie, the host and creator of the podcast Reachin and Reaching Beyond Bias. 

GRIIDYou will be presenting at an upcoming Freed Peoples Teach-in your insights on what many people commonly refer to as West Michigan Nice. Can you give us a working definition of what the phrase means to you?

ShaynaTo me, West Michigan Nice is our ability as a community to collectively put on our blinders. Rather than address sensitive issues because they are “too controversial”, we pretend that they are not happening, or we downplay its effects. Our brand of niceness allows some people to maintain guilt-free comfort and status quo while others suffer. 

GRIIDIn your essay on this topic, you discuss the fact that Grand Rapids is a city that claims to have lots of institutions practicing Diversity and Inclusion, yet the city is still steeped in racialized oppression. Can you talk about the difference between diversity and inclusion practices as opposed to dismantling White Supremacy?

ShaynaThe fascinating thing about Grand Rapids is that from the outside looking in, it seems to be very progressive. You see Pride Flags and Black Lives Matter stickers on business store fronts, but then when you ask what life looks like for LGBTQ+ people and / or people of color who work at those establishments, you get a different story. Diversity simply means having people who are “different” represented in a space. Inclusion speaks more to those “others” feeling as though they belong in that space. (Side note – the fact that these “others” are “other” relative to…. Whiteness? Heteronormativity? Says a lot). So, it’s very “nice” to bring different perspectives to the table… to make them “feel” like they belong, but frankly diversity and inclusion does nothing real to address racialized disparities that have been formed throughout the history of this city. I see diversity and inclusion practices as surface-level, box-checking that companies do in order to be considered “not racist.” But when it comes to actively dismantling White Supremacy, well, that doesn’t seem to be in everyone’s best interest. Dismantling White Supremacy goes beyond hiring practices… beyond having a “Holiday Party” at work instead of a “Christmas Party.” Dismantling White Supremacy will require us to identify and be honest about the racial disparities we see in or community… to examine the truth of history and identify pivotal moments that allowed these disparities to grow exponentially… and to actively implement innovative solutions that close these gaps. But when we fail to have honest, critical, and productive dialogues, we fail to acknowledge that these problems are lingering and growing. 

GRIIDA friend of mine said that Grand Rapids does charity real good, but they don’t do justice for shit? How does the function of charity and non-profits fit into the framework of West Michigan Nice?

ShaynaCharity and non-profits are a great example of West Michigan Nice in action. We love a good charitable cause and doing the “Lord’s work” but we forget that this God is a God of Justice, too. What we see in Grand Rapids are vastly wealthy institutions / non-profits that put Band-Aids over bullet wounds. We’d love to “feed the homeless”, but we can’t afford the house the houseless. We’d love to paint pretty murals over riot damage, but we ignore why riots are even happening. It almost seems that it would be more beneficial to the benefactors of these organizations to keep things the way that they are. If there are social problems, there are opportunities to fundraise and to amplify these “non-profits,” but what if we work together to solve these problems? Not to say that all non-profits are explicitly harmful, but there is a long, dark history of philanthropy being used as a form of managerial and structural racism, and we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about them being a tax shelter for the extremely wealthy or the fact that many of these non-profits do not have internal representation of the communities that they claim to serve. 

GRIIDWhat has been your own personal experience as a Black woman living in this area?

ShaynaAlthough I am a bi-racial Black woman, I have always been keenly aware of my Blackness. I grew up in West Michigan in very white community, and my earliest memory of explicit racism happened when I was in elementary school. I was told by a classmate, nonchalantly, that her father thought it was “disgusting” that my mom was married to a Black man and that I wouldn’t be allowed to attend her birthday party. I was bullied for my body type, my facial features, and my hair for as far back as I can remember. I witnessed my older brother being targeted by a biased school system… and my father being targeted by police. I’ve been told that my natural hair was “unprofessional” by managers, and I’ve been the target of countless “micro-aggressions” (although I prefer the term racist abuse) in just about every workplace I’ve been in. Growing up in a community like this, I always felt ostracized. These experiences became my motivation to educate myself and to understand the root of racism in the United States so that I could be a voice of change. As an adult, I began to see the world through a different lens, and I began to understand how and why these experiences came to be. I have mixed and complicated feelings about living in West Michigan, specifically Grand Rapids. Sometimes I feel defeated because our community is so polarized, and it feels like everything has become a political hot-topic instead of serious issues that need addressing. I wish that more people would genuinely listen to the experiences of others, and I wish that people would understand more about the legacy and history of racism in our city. I’m tired of people acting like we are in a post-racial society and that things would get better if we stopped talking about race. No, things would be better if we had honest conversations about these issues that are turned into solutions and accountability.

GRIIDHow does the reality of West Michigan Nice impact people in Grand Rapids, especially African Americans?

ShaynaUltimately, being West Michigan Nice, means that we are not addressing the issues that affect the community, and we are not being honest about its context or its effects. Many people don’t know about the history of “redlining”, “sundown towns” or the countless other examples of explicit racial discrimination in Grand Rapids because we don’t talk about it. Racism is a public health crisis because of the vast disparities in health outcomes that African American and Latinx citizens face. Many people in this community don’t understand what these disparities are or why they are occurring. Our neighborhoods and schools remain segregated, 60+ years after Brown v Board of Education and we need to ask ourselves: Why? How? From healthcare and housing to education and employment, African Americans face a different reality than our White counterparts. 

GRIIDWhat are some things you think need to happen in Grand Rapids to challenge West Michigan Nice?

ShaynaWe have to TALK. We have to be willing to sit down and engage in critical dialogues, not debates, about these issues. People must be willing to learn from each other and to accept that just maybe we are all playing a role in sustaining racial disparities in our community by refusing to acknowledge these realities and to create sustainable changes. We must “see race,” because it is extremely naïve and ignorant to act like race has not shaped every aspect of our society. If we don’t “see race” how, then, do we get past racism?

I think we also need to educate ourselves and the community about the truth of our community’s history. When I read A City Within A City: the Black Freedom Struggle in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it was a bit of a paradigm shift because it provided so many examples of exactly what Black citizens in Grand Rapids have dealt with in terms of their struggles against White Supremacy in the city. When I read Sundown Towns, I realized that “de-facto segregation” is not the reason why the community is still so segregated, but that we are segregated because of decades of racist policy and practices that were designed to maintain White Supremacy. We must reckon with that fact that even if the majority of our White citizens are not “White Supremacists” we still live in a community that is rooted in those ideologies.

I know that these conversations are very uncomfortable, but we cannot be more concerned with our personal comfort than we are about the suffering of entire communities. People need to understand racism if we ever hope to heal from it and move forward. We must accept that when one community is suffering, it affects every single one of us. And we must work together to take massive action against racism and other forms of discrimination in our community. It’s not going to be easy or comfortable, but it will be worth it in the end when everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender and sexual orientation, ability, etc. can thrive and live more harmoniously.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: