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 mix. But 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.