Maine is an unlikely forum for the conversation about race.
Northern New England, in general, is the whitest place in the country. At least 96 percent of the population of Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire is white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Those numbers bear out as you wander through the snow. There just isn’t a lot of diversity here.
Which means when white nationalists and xenophobic groups — like Richard Spencer and his National Policy Institute — seem to be finding a voice in the national mainstream, it can be difficult for white people to figure out what to do. How do you show solidarity with people of color when you live in a sea of white faces? What kind of conversation can you have about race in such a pale state?
In the basement of the Portland Public Library last week, USM professor Dr. Leroy Rowe tested exactly that. Rowe is an assistant professor of African-American History and Politics, and with the backing of the Maine Humanities Council, he hosts "Race and Justice in America," the latest iteration of the library's "Let's Talk About It" book discussion series.
Dr. Leroy M. Rowe is a Assistant Professor of African American History and Politics at the University of Southern Maine.
In the room was Rowe, one other young black woman born in South Africa, and 50 white faces. Yet Rowe had support — for the first discussion in the five-part series which concludes April 10, he came armed with The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race, a 2016 collection of essays compiled by the novelist Jesmyn Ward, and written by a diverse group of young writers of color on the American experience in the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and the growing list of racial injustices.
Their voices, paired with Rowe’s, fed the conversation, prompting questions like What is blackness? How does it affect our country and our politics? What is white fear? White rage? Who does the American criminal justice system protect? How does American-style policing impact people of color?
It was a room full of white people sitting in a circle talking about a topic often seemingly off limits, white hands looking to offer support, white ears hoping to listen. Maybe this is what race conversations in white places are bound to look like — pale, paired with black and white of a book. Precious few interlocutors to engage with, yes, but maybe this is how the conversation begins. In a progressive city like Portland, this might be the expected outcome.
How can white “allies” support people of color, turn “white privilege" into a tool of the disenfranchised? I don’t know. No one ever taught me how to load, aim and fire my “white privilege” in a direction that counts. It’s something I’ve always carried, never controlled. My whiteness gets me out of laws and codes like Stop and Frisk, and in routine traffic stops my only risk is getting ticketed, but these perks seem like impotent tools for confronting systemic racism.
But power resides within me nonetheless. In court for example, as one essayist points out in The Fire This Time, white testimony means more than black testimony. According to this account, in the American criminal justice system, a white witness matters. Judges and juries believe me. That is power.
In public gatherings, white crowds are protesters; black groups are rioters. One gets deference and assistance; the other, tear gas. That is power.
In filling out job applications, mine is an uncommon last name, but it is a white name. That means I get more calls returned and more interviews. That is power, a privilege I never knew I had.
One woman in the group remarked that she did not ask for this privilege. She would give it away if she could, she said.
Not me. I didn’t ask for it either, but I would instead trade my “privilege” for “rights,” make them a commonality afforded to all Americans. This is, after all, the aspirational claim of our country: “All men are created equal.” Yet color is still a marker of worth. That is a mistake that is ours to undo.
But to break the pattern we have to recognize the power of whiteness and call it what it is. What I assumed are my “rights” are not afforded to all. Unpacking that reality required someone willing to show me.
That conversation has to happen everywhere, even here, where we stand surrounded by whiteness. It may be clumsy, a dialogue mostly between white people, with black voices coming mostly from books, but it’s better than no conversation at all.