Shay Stewart-Bouley

Shay Stewart-Bouley

'Black Lives Matter' is More Than a Mere Slogan

Theyre just protesters. They dont have a message. They dont have a complaint. They dont have nothing to say except Black Lives Matter, and thats a bumper sticker.

 

Those are the words of Stephanie Anderson, Cumberland County District Attorney, when she discussed her decision to end efforts to revive a restorative justice process with the 17 Black Lives Matter protesters who were arrested at a July 2016 demonstration on Commercial St. in Portland. 

 

In choosing to use those words, Anderson revealed her own bias. And, frankly, the bias of many white people locally and nationally when it comes to the Black Lives Matter movement.

 

In the aftermath of last summers Black Lives Matter protest, which shut down a few blocks of one of Portlands busiest streets at the height of tourist season, many white people have failed to understand why protesters were out on the streets in the first place. Given that Maines Black population is less than two percent, with much of that population being clustered in Southern Maine (especially in Portland, around seven percent), there is the mistaken belief that Maine has no racial issues. In the minds of many, its hardly as if there are enough people of color (or specifically Black people) to be affected by the issues that Black folks in larger areas face. Even in Portland, our bastion of liberalism in the state, white folks who grasp the idea of white supremacy too often perpetuate white supremacist thinking and actions towards people of color.

 

America was built on the foundation of white supremacy. This is a country that was founded on stolen land and built by the labor of stolen people. White people as a collective have never publicly acknowledged that. Instead, we offer down a watered-down version of history and pacify ourselves. White people refuse to understand that the sins of yesterday still impact the world today and that whiteness is a form of currency because the norms we have created, structural and otherwise, favor white people. Insteadpeople of color are often reduced to proving their worth and their humanity. In a state like Maine where our numbers are even fewer, that proving of worth is an almost daily gig.

 

However, as Maines demographics shift, we have a younger generation that is refusing to play that game. Building on the foundation of the national Black Lives Matter movement created in the aftermath of Trayvon Martins death (shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., for the crime of walking down the street to his fathers house with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea), it's a movement to affirm Black humanity — to say that the lives of Black people matter and do have value in a country that has historically not valued them. What started as an affirmation has grown into a movement, with chapters throughout the country. As the BLM website states: Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

 

In Portland, Black people are, as in most of the nation, overrepresented in the police logs. In 2013, Black people made up 18 percent of all arrests in the city. Our governor has made national headlines repeatedly with his assertions that Black and Brown people from away are responsible for Maines drug issues, despite the lack of data to support his claims. So, is it surprising that a younger generation of Black Mainers are standing up to declare that Black lives do indeed matter?

 

No. And District Attorney Stephanie Anderson revealed her own unwillingness to understand what many Black Mainers face on a daily basis. In characterizing the protestors as a group with nothing of substance to say, she proved the very point that they were making in their July 2016 demonstration.

 

Given that this case has been in the legal system for some time, Anderson has had ample opportunity to look at the data that point to the racial disparities and projections in the criminal justice system and gain further clarity around why the protestors were protesting in the first place. Instead, she chose to stay ensconced in the system of whiteness that requires non-white people to prove their humanity or, in this case, prove why they were upset with this system. This is why we say 'Black lives matter' and why we will continue to do so until they actually do to the larger society.


Read more from Shay Stewart-Bouley at www.blackgirlinmaine.com

The Virulence of Racism, Even When Non-Whites Abound

A few weeks ago, a dear friend (who, like me, happens to be a Chicago transplant to Maine)  asked if I wanted to go to Boston to watch the Red Sox play the Chicago Cubs at Fenway Park.


To be clear, I am not a sports person. However, coming from Chicago, I do feel a certain affinity for the Cubs, who only recently rejoined the winner’s circle with that World Series win after a nearly 110-year drought.
But after going back and forth, and despite my love of the Cubs, my answer to his invitation was: “Let’s pass.” Part of it was practicality. After all, it was a late game and we would pay a dear price for tickets.


And then there’s that part where I try to avoid spending time in spaces where there are many white people packed together, many of them drinking piss water that masquerades as beer who might peer over at us, see my dark skin and decide that my new name is nigger.
Part of me felt bad for dealing in worst case scenarios like this, even though I’ve been called by that name in several settings less booze-soaked and emotionally intense.


A few days after deciding to not go to the Cubs/Red Sox game, the story of Adam Jones emerged. Jones is the Baltimore Orioles outfielder who was showered with racial epithets (and peanuts) while playing at Fenway during a game on May 1, a story which made national news.
Boston’s history is rife with racism. And despite wearing the label of a majority-minority city (a little over half of its population identifies as a race/ethnicity other than non-Hispanic White), Boston is still, in the opinion of many people of color (including this writer), a city brimming with racism.


Racism is about power and privilege, and in Boston as in most of the world, power and privilege both reside primarily in the hands of white people.


In the aftermath of the Jones story, far too many white folks and fans tried to paint the incident as an anomaly. And yet, two days later, another racialized incident occurred at Fenway. This time a Kenyan woman (whose name has been withheld) had been invited to sing the national anthem, and in the stands a middle-aged white man called her a racial slur. In this case, another white man in the stands overhead this racial slur, reportedly confronted the man, and notified stadium security, who promptly ejected the offender and issued a lifetime ban.
Now, there are a few different things going on here. For starters, there were those after the incident who discounted what happened to Jones and discredited his words, which is a reminder of whose voices are heard and heeded in this country and whose are often not. Historically, we do not hear Black and Brown voices. In the second incident, a white man reported the racialized language and immediate action was taken. A reminder of the privilege inherent in being a white man — though in this case it was used for good.


Watching the aftermath of these two events in less than a week has been fascinating. People have been quick to state these incidents are not representative of Boston. But they are, in fact, representative of Boston, and of the larger New England area. Boston’s past and present is still filled with racism. Racial slurs may not be in style, but a quick Google search reveals a history and pattern that includes, for recent examples, racist actions at Boston’s tony Latin School as well as a study revealing a lack of home loans to people of color in several Boston neighborhoods.


Too often, racism is only seen as the racial slurs and epithets and the overt or public actions of individuals. But racism is structural. It is deeply entrenched in all our systems. In New England as a whole, racism is often polite and hidden as the lower numbers of people of color compared to other regions can at times obscure the view of hate. But make no mistake, racism is here and it is virulent, just like one of those viruses that lurks in your body, just waiting for the next time to flare up. Until we figure out how to kill the virus entirely, we need to stop thinking these things don’t represent something fundamental in our communities.


Read more from Shay Stewart-Bouley at her blog Black Girl in Maine [blackgirlinmaine.com]

Racial Diversity is Only the Starting Point

I moved to Portland from York County almost two years ago after the collapse of my marriage. Seeing as how I wanted to stay in the area to ensure that my minor daughter would have access to both parental units, Portland seemed like a good fit. An added bonus: She likely wouldn’t be the only child of color in her classes. And at King Middle School, indeed she isn’t.

However, it's become clear to me that what we praise as being diverse isn’t really as diverse as we think, nor does it equal what should be the true goal: racial equality. Too often we see racial diversity as the end goal. It’s really only the starting point.

 

Last week was the annual faculty talent show at King. Since this is our first year at King, I had no idea what to expect. I noticed though, as I have other times I’m at the school, that while there are students of color, they reside predominantly in racialized silos, just like the adults in their lives. The African kids tend to stick with the African kids, the white kids with the white kids, etc. I am sure that the faculty and administrators are proud to have a school with a rich, racial mixBut are they aware that this surface diversity is often little more than a feel-good Instagram moment?

 

Portland makes a good attempt at being a diverse city. We have a man of color as the school superintendent and three of our nine city counselors are people of color (POC). The city is 85 percent white and 15 percent non-white in a state that is more than 95 percent white. Many local businesses believe that Black Lives Matter and stand in solidarity with our immigrant neighbors and friends. We have a mayor who, at least according to his Facebook page, seems to care about diversity. Even in this very paper, I am no longer the only person writing on matters related to race and racism. Portland now even has a chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a national group that works with white people to dismantle white supremacy.

 

Yet it isn’t enough. To talk to the young POC in Portland is to see a world where they don’t feel safe, and rarely do they feel heard. The response to last summer’s Black Lives Matter solidarity action on Commercial St. made many feel that maybe their lives don’t matter so much. Adding to this, Muslim students at the University of Southern Maine are dealing with anti-Muslim graffiti which began to surface last fall.

 

Many in Portland are truly doing all they can to move the needle on racism, but racism is about power and privilege and both are overwhelmingly held in the hands of white people. Are we doing enough to dismantle the pre-eminence of whiteness? Are we actually working with POC to do this? Are we also building relationships — as important as it is for white people to step out of their silos to dismantle white supremacy, do they actually really know any POC? It’s the one-on-one between people where change often occurs. A local non-profit, Treehouse Institute, has been holding a series of events (called “A Seat at the Table”) where people from various backgrounds come together to engage on such uncomfortable topics as race, privilege, gender, and climate change.

 

 

If we are serious about wanting to move the needle on racism and oppression in our own community, we need to be willing to have the messy and complex moments that create true connection and often give us the strength to stand up for racism and other oppressions. We need to examine our professional and personal spaces and acknowledge when our stated goals and our reality are in disconnect. We need to move from diverse spaces to truly equitable and interconnected ones.

 

Read more Shay Stewart-Bouley at http://blackgirlinmaine.com.

Moving From Talk to Results

While on Facebook recently, I read with a heavy heart a status update from a fellow woman of color in Maine that announced she and her family had decided that as much as they loved the state, they couldn’t make this place home. They felt that the racism was too deeply entrenched and it was too great a risk to their wellbeing to remain.

On the surface, this woman’s plight (and her family’s response) might appear extreme. But many people of color (POC), especially Black Americans in Maine, struggle with our place in this state. Even now.

Perhaps, after years of LePage and years yet to go with Trump, especially now.

I have been here since 2002. On the surface, much has changed since then; in actuality, very little has changed. Even in our beloved Portland, which is often lifted up as a bastion of multiculturalism and acceptance.

What has changed is that discussing racism is no longer taboo. To walk around on the peninsula is to see signs promoting acceptance and, in some cases, public declarations that Black Lives Matter. Even in this very publication, no longer am I the lone wolf talking about racism. It’s almost trendy to talk about racism. Hell, the recent showing of the James Baldwin documentary at the Portland Museum of Art actually sold out.

More and more local organizations are attempting to tackle racism. I acknowledge that and can even applaud it at times. But truthfully, the end result is often nothing more than a feel-good circle-jerk for white folks and another slap in the face for POC. Too often when we POC show up, our words are not heard. At best, we are the tokens that ease the collective guilt of people trying to do better, but the gap between intention and impact is still far too great. At worst, we are labeled as angry troublemakers.

In the March 5 issue of The Phoenix, Tim Gillis wrote a piece titled “What is a criminal? The intersection of racial justice and policing in Portland.” The piece spoke about the recent Think and Drink event that was hosted at Space Gallery and sponsored by the Maine Humanities Council. The panel included several academics as well as an attorney from the National Lawyers Guild. Interestingly, Gillis reports that no one was present from the Portland Police Department — which, considering that last summer I sat on a televised panel with Portland’s police chief and he made the public declaration that Black Lives Matter, is troubling. Just weeks ago, a young Black man, Chance David Baker, was killed by a Portland police officer. So, the department’s lack of representation at a public forum discussing the intersection of racial justice and law enforcement sends a very clear, very negative message.

However, that same message is ultimately sent by many well-meaning white people attempting to tackle racism and white supremacy. In the end, people do enough to start the process of change but rarely hang in long enough to create any lasting systemic change.

There are very few POC in power in Maine. Yes, we have elected officials who are POC, but they are few. In Portland, we seem to be able to attract POC to public leadership roles (like police chief) but rarely do they seem to stay. In most of our corporations and nonprofits in Maine, how many POC are in leadership roles?

We are eager to label any POC brave enough to speak out as a “leader.” But do these “leadership” roles come with power and the authority to create systemic change? Until POC have access to power and privilege and the scales of justice start to balance, nothing really changes. And to get there requires that white people understand and embrace that POC must be key drivers in this process — that our voices must be heard and centered regarding issues of anti-racism and racial justice. Anything else is just racial justice performance.

Our Foundation is Crumbling Because It Was Built on Supremacy

Remember that bit of wisdom that those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it? Well, start digesting this as well: America was built on the foundation of white supremacy.

That’s not a guilt-trip or an accusatory slap to white people today. It’s simply a fact. We are a nation that was built on land stolen from nonwhite natives largely by the labor of people stolen from another continent and enslaved.

That is the foundation of our national house. Yet here in 2017, far too many would have us believe that the past does not affect the present. But until we get serious about acknowledging the toxicity and perseverance of white supremacy, we are doomed to watch the house sag, prop it up again and wait for the next crumble and sag.

Humans are, I know, adverse to change. At best, change is incremental, and frankly when dealing with oppression, the oppressed and the marginalized want change to happen now — and rightfully so. To quote the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

But in the daily fight for humanity while living as a nonwhite person in the U.S., it often seems that justice will never happen. Especially when you have a president who is embraced by the likes of David Duke, a former Grand Wizard with the Ku Klux Klan, as well as Richard Spencer, the darling of the so-called alt-right who openly espouses views of white superiority, open racism and bigotry, which have become vogue again in a lot of circles after several decades of being out of style. We’re not back to the 1950s yet (or worse) racially, but we’ve definitely taken several somersaults backward.

Often, Trump supporters will tell you that race had nothing to do with their decision to support him. But for those willing to look closely and critically, it isn’t hard to see that his slogan “Make America Great Again” speaks deeply to white people who feel disenfranchised in a racially and culturally changing world — a world where whiteness-as-currency is slowly starting to lose its value. Make no mistake, though, whiteness still offers up huge societal benefits no matter how much those who enjoy them may deny the fact — but they do see their dominance slipping a bit.

Thus, the potential for conflict grows keener. Here in Maine, we are balancing on the brink, as many people of color and marginalized people simply don’t feel nearly as safe anymore — and rightfully so. Maine is governed by a guy who is a mini-Trump, or perhaps more accurately, the prototype Trump. The safety and comfort of nonwhite Mainers (or visitors) have never been important to him.

In recent weeks, there have been reports of KKK flyers popping up in random towns (in step with a growing trend in other parts of the country as well). Just a few weeks ago, four Black Casco Bay High students were accosted by a white man after school, and when Portland Schools Superintendent Xavier Botana issued a statement of support of the students, the Maine GOP accused Botana of playing politics. Most recently, a group of University of Southern Maine students invited State Representative Lawrence Lockman to give a speech titled “Alien Invasion: Fixing the Immigrant Crisis.” Given the racial and cultural makeup at the USM Portland campus, there is an implicit message in the student conservative group Young Americans for Freedom choosing to invite Lockman. Hint: It is not a message of inclusivity or forward thinking.

These unpleasantries don’t come from nowhere; they come from a crumbling and rotten foundation that needs replacing. Filling the cracks and propping up the house won’t work any better now than in the past. It’s time to build a new foundation that dismantles white supremacy. It’s time for a foundation built on unity and equity. 

Once More Into the Breach

After a hiatus from this space for a couple years, it feels quite timely that my return column kicks off the same week that this nation’s president-elect, Donald Trump, will be sworn in … barring any shocking last-minute twists. Nothing has been normal since the 2016 presidential election, so I’m not about to assume that the inauguration will go off without a hitch.

“DiverseCity,” which ran in The Portland Phoenix from 2003 to 2014, has always been a space to examine and touch on differences that define and sometimes (unfortunately) separate us, like race, class and religion — albeit with a heavy focus on that racial one. In 2002, when I landed in Maine as a Black woman from Chicago, the reality of being brown-skinned in the whitest state in America felt like an arrival in an alternate universe. My mere presence and existence in those days was often met with curiosity, and frequently with suspicion. I spent my first year in Maine trying to avoid leaving my house as much as possible and figure out how to survive (what I originally thought would be only eight years) in a state where my race branded me as an “other.”

Writing about the realities of race in this space, and later on my blog Blackgirlinmaine among other publications, would become an important outlet for me in processing and relieving my stress. And my increasingly vocal efforts became the appetizer for an ongoing meal of discussing race, inequity and even oppression here and beyond the state’s borders.

I was one of the first in Southern Maine to regularly give public voice to the frustrations, fears and lived realities of a person of color in Maine, but I’m certainly not the first to live here, and the landscape has shifted since I arrived. And I don’t mean just a slight decrease in the still-overwhelming level of whiteness. The spread of camera phones and social media, the high-profile racialized deaths of so many unarmed (and often unthreatening) Black people at the hands of white people nationally, and the election of our nation’s first Black president are just a few developments that have brought race to the forefront of the national consciousness.

But racial discussion and awareness that should have begun a process of progress and healing has gotten twisted. Instead, it blames victims of racism, and even bases presidential campaigns around exclusion and blame of nonwhite people for national problems. The hopes for a post-racial society many held after Obama’s election eight years ago have been aborted.

With the rallying cry of Black Lives Matter, we are standing at an important crossroads. As city, state and nation, we can no longer afford to deny that racism is still very much a part of our collective reality.

Millions voted for Donald Trump. Even in Maine, enough voters chose Trump that he won one of our electoral votes. Many Trump supporters claim they wanted a new sheriff in town, one who was not enmeshed in the current political system. But what really attracted many of them was a campaign loaded with covert racism and imagery designed to inflame white fears in a changing world. A world where white skin no longer pays the dividends it once did.

Those declining dividends have resulted in anger, and anger may mean more threat to people of color, as expressed by the election of a man eagerly supported by white supremacists. And while whiteness may not be as profitable to all white Americans as it once was, it still provides many protections, advantages and opportunities others are often denied.

Racism never went away; in fact, it’s gotten a very energetic resurgence in recent years. It’s not unlike alcoholism in that it can never be properly dealt with if it isn’t ever acknowledged. And so I return to these pages to help spark, encourage and expand consideration and discussions on issues around race and other forms of difference from the American “norm” that is not, frankly, the only right way to be.

Subscribe to this RSS feed