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.