Education about racism in Maine can be a tricky business. Especially when leaders of racial justice groups feel like they’re wasting time citing evidence where racism occurs, instead of moving on and collectively combating the issue. So is asking about racism inherently racist?
“It is disheartening to understand that white people constantly look to black community members to educate them on race and seek for individuals to be their personal experts, when their work is deeply personal,” said Nickie Sekera, a white Portland resident and supporter of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. “When we are demanding of people of color to labor for us, are we not perpetuating the ideas of exploitation for our own gain?”
I fell into this naive way of thinking myself, when pursuing a story for the Phoenix. I reached out to the leadership team at the Portland Racial Justice Congress, because I wanted to learn about their plans for the near future. The PRJC is a group of seven community members, that have organized several public rallies, protests and activist events, with the hopes of creating an opportunity for Portland’s community to take a strong stance on police brutality, systematic racism, racist violence and xenophobia. With Black History Month coming up, I wanted to to see if the organization had any rallies or lectures planned around racial issues. I also encouraged one leader, Edward Burrage, to share stories or experiences in Maine that dealt with instances of harassment, aggression or discrimination based on race. Unbeknownst to me, considering Maine a “tame state,” and asking for personal examples of racism, is in itself, a “microaggression.”
“As people of color, it is exhausting to start with Racism 101 when asked for interviews or vetted questions by curious white members of the community,” wrote The Portland Racial Justice Congress Leadership Team in an email to the Phoenix. “Not only because we have deeper issues to address, and our time is valuable, but also because it feels like a constant defense as if we have to prove something. Having our pain tokenized and exploited is part of the very racism we are fighting.”
In my attempt at highlighting examples of racism in Maine, my inquiry seemed frowned upon because of its unintentional redundancy. Community organizations like PRJC, which mobilize for a more socially conscious, culturally vibrant and racially just Portland, want to spend time dismantling the institution of racism, not proving that it’s there.
Burrage suggested that I contact Gina Mitchell first, a white member of the PRJC network, whose mission is to educate other white members of the community with “Racism 101” questions.
“The PRJC team and their communities deal constantly with instances of harassment, aggression and discrimination,” said Mitchell. “As white folks, we’ll only witness or hear about a fraction of these instances, and if we’re not paying attention we can miss many of them entirely.”
Mitchell explained that media and journalism play an historical and ongoing role in racist misrepresentation and exploitation.
“The big take-away here is that racism permeates all aspects of our society; from our school systems, to our legal system, to our media and entertainment industries — resulting in subtle ways we as white people diminish or dismiss the experiences of people of color,” said Mitchell. “As white folks we’re bound to misstep. I make these kinds of mistakes all the time, and when I do I try to hold myself accountable, apologize and commit to doing things differently moving forward.”
“Taking time to self-reflect to understand what racism really is within the construct of colonialism would be a first step,” said Sekera. “I've seen racism in what seems like hundreds of different types of ways and it astounds me that anyone can think of Maine as a non-racist state.”
So is asking about racism racist? No it’s not, as long as the inquirer asks questions with a sense of mindfulness and under the assumption that racism does exist. The PRJC urges that Maine journalists recognize the subconscious impacts writing (and questions) can have on an often misunderstood (or flat out ignored) community of people.