Shay Stewart-Bouley

Shay Stewart-Bouley

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.

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