Shay Stewart-Bouley

Shay Stewart-Bouley

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The long-overdue task of kicking Columbus overboard

I realize that many people think I’m ungrateful, or that I'm part of an effort to ruin Maine for white people. As I urge Maine to do and be better on sensitive and important issues (as I do also for people and organizations for which I have affection and connection — a perfectly natural and reasonable thing), what often gets lost are the times I mention what I love about the state. I do say nice things and recognize good things, even if it doesn’t feel like it (to some of you).

So, let me take a moment to thank Portland (and Bangor, Orono, and Brunswick) for designating the second Monday in October as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, thus kicking Christopher Columbus to the curb. Each city formally made the decision last week, following what Belfast first did in 2015.

(Now, cue angry emotions from people with a tenuous grasp of history and/or an unhealthy attachment to tyrannical and cruel Italians. I wonder, though: Do the folks who keep lifting up Columbus also dig Benito Mussolini?)

As I’ve pointed out before, this entire nation was primarily built upon two rather nasty things: the enslavement of Black people and the stealing of land from Native Americans. The displacement of Native Americans was accompanied by genocide, which is why the original people who lived here before white people did the massive land-grab number somewhere around one percent of the U.S. population — far smaller than the roughly 13 percent Black people account for.

Basically, Native Americans and enslaved Africans (and their descendants) got totally different deals, but pretty much on par with each other for heinous treatment. One was seen as a pest and impediment to white progress; the other was seen as an important resource/tool for building wealth — neither was, strictly speaking, considered quite human. In my mind, given the raw deal Native Americans got, the very least we can do is honor them with a day and take it away from the man who was a key part of introducing colonization, exploitation, and victimization by Europeans to what we call the Americas.

So, I applaud the communities in Maine that have made this move. However — isn’t there always a “but” in these kinds of things? — there was this from the Portland Press Herald's report last week:

While the initiatives in Belfast and Bangor saw no public opposition, Italian-Americans, including representatives of the Italian Heritage Center, opposed the proposal in Portland. They said Columbus Day is less a celebration about one individual and more a celebration of Italian-American heritage.

 

Look, I’m as sympathetic to any group wanting to celebrate its legitimate racial and/or ethnic heritage as anyone. I certainly want my own recognized. But if folks want to celebrate Italians, how about we call for an Italian Heritage Day; the arguments to keep Columbus’s name on the second Monday in October are ridiculous. The arguments to honor his victims instead are stronger.

Columbus didn’t discover the Americas; the Vikings did that — he merely was the devil who told Europe Here’s the route you take to exploit a whole new group of people. He maintained that he had found the east coast of Asia, even after folks like Amerigo Vespucci headed in the same direction as Columbus and theorized it was a whole new continent. Columbus didn’t even prove the Earth is round — scholars mostly already accepted that notion long before Columbus. Even sailors were substantially on board with the round Earth thing by Columbus’s time.

No, Columbus was a cruel man who massacred indigenous people in the Americas, ruled over them harshly, enslaved them and justified it via his religion. He was a clueless navigator and a thickheaded scoundrel. I’m pretty sure Italian-Americans can do better than that for a poster boy and I encourage them to do so. Or, better yet, honor their heritage more generally.

For now, though, after far too many generations of Columbus Day, I’m happy to toast Indigenous Peoples’ Day this year and hope that this recognition can be a step toward less marginalization of Native Americans.

Now if we can just get the state on board. The legislature did receive a bill this year to make Indigenous Peoples Day a state holiday, but it didn’t become law. States as overwhelmingly white as Vermont, Alaska, Oregon and South Dakota already have stopped recognizing Columbus Day; let’s join that bandwagon.


Read more of Shay Stewart-Bouley's work at www.blackgirlinmaine.com 

 

White supremacy runs deep — Do we have the willingness to uproot it?

The horrific events that came out of Charlottesville, VA, have forced many regular white folks to realize that America has a white supremacy problem. But it's not enough to state that we have a white supremacy problem; we must grapple with how we got to this moment.

We need to investigate why, in the wake of Charlottesville, it was when a white woman became white supremacy's latest victim — 32-year-old Heather Heyer — that suddenly the Trump Department of Justice is willing to consider a hate crime had occurred. Why was is suddenly easier for white people to see that white supremacists, Nazis and their ilk threaten more than just hateful speech only when there's a white victim lying dead?

As a nation, we've never grappled with this. Instead, much like an insolent child, we have attempted to stuff our racial baggage in the closet rather than to take time to truly clean the mess in our room. We have allowed our textbooks to be white-washed, and we have avoided the uncomfortable conversations that indict white supremacy. This is because we too often lack the maturity to realize that an indictment of whiteness as a social construct is not always (or even usually) an indictment of white people. We have created the perfect environment for white fragility to thrive regardless of what side of the political spectrum we fall.

We have taken the token successes of certain people of color and allowed an alternate version of reality to take hold. One in which a significant percentage of white people believe that that they are danger of becoming extinct. Many Americans believe this instead of the truth, which is that the vast majority of Black and Brown people are very much living with the vestiges of open racism and discrimination.

We lied to ourselves, saying that racism was the domain of grumpy, old white men who would soon die off rather than accepting that technology (and the anonymity it affords) and dreams lost have allowed a new generation of white supremacists to rise up.

And the problem isn’t just a closet door behind which we stuffed our past. Most of America also barricaded itself behind a door of whiteness to stay in a comfy silo of supremacy and privilege. A place where people would pacify themselves that if they were loving and not overtly racist, they had done their part. Never realizing that a younger generation was watching our every move and learning our bad habits; never realizing that what we often leave unsaid actually speaks volumes.

Even now, we are practicing radical dishonesty when we simply lay the blame for Charlottesville at the feet of President Trump and his avowed white supremacist pals, including recently departed White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon. It is far easier to blame a man with loose lips and little self control for bringing the nation to this point than it is to search ourselves and uncover how we uphold white supremacy in our daily lives. It is easier to see white supremacy as the domain of just certain people — other people — than as a system we are all caught up in. To see that the America is a deeply imperfect country, the foundation of which required the dehumanization of bodies, and to understand that even in 2017, we still require those bodies to be dehumanized to make the system work.

To heal and move forward is to examine a system that few white people have the racial literacy to understand, and to sit with a level of discomfort for which too many people lack the fortitude. This lack of literacy and fortitude are two of the biggest threats to our nation right now.

In Charlottesville, we saw the direct results of what white complacency buys us. For many it was the first time truly realizing the threat. It propelled many into action, as the following weekend 40,000 people— including many Mainers — turned out in Boston to say no to the hatemongers. I fear, though, that many will think that turning up at protests and rallies, making donations and engaging in the occasional confrontation is all that is required to turn the tide.

It isn’t. The destruction of white supremacy requires a shift within ourselves that involves actively rejecting toxic whiteness in our own lives. It means lessening ourselves at times to create a more just world; it means sacrifices. In some cases, it might even mean the ultimate sacrifice of the very selves to which we have become too dangerously attached.


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

As Trump Calls for Violence, We Must Actively and Loudly Say No

On Friday, July 27, President Donald Trump gave a speech to law enforcement in Long Island, New Yorkduring which — for all intents and purposes — he essentially advocated violence against criminal suspects.

“When you see these towns, and when you see these thugs being thrown into the back of a paddy wagon," Trump said. "You just see them thrown in. Rough. I said, 'Please don't be too nice.' Like when you guys put somebody in the car, and you're protecting their head, you know? The way you put your hand — like, don't hit their head, and they've just killed somebody? Don't hit their head? I said, 'You can take the hand away, okay.'”

Many of the police officers in the audience applauded after Trump spoke. Automatic reflex or a genuine show of support? We may never know.

But what we do know is that in an era where rarely a month goes by without an extrajudicial killing, to have the leader of the Free World advocating violence is nothing less than horrifying. In the hours after his speech, numerous law enforcement officials across the nation took to social media to repudiate Trump’s heinous words.

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When the President of the United States openly advocates violence against criminal suspects — which will almost always disproportionately affect marginalized people — we need our local officials to take a stand. To borrow a line from the local advocacy organization Progressive Portland, “As long as we have Donald Trump in the White House and Paul LePage in the Blaine House, the only way we are going to make any progress is at the local level.”

We need to hear our local police chiefs being vocal and saying “No, we will not abuse our power.” They need to commit to anti-racism/implicit bias training and be transparent about that process. We need to see them actively working against what is increasingly looking like a regime rather than an administration. In Portland, that means Police Chief Michael Sauschuck needs to speak up, as do Mayor Strimling and other elected officials.

We need to see concerted grassroots and high-profile pushback against the Trump narrative that too often demonizes people who aren’t white and which has consistently advocated violence against criminal suspects, dissenters and others. Let's not forget that this is a man who continued to call for the death penalty for the “Central Park Five” — four black and one Hispanic teen charged with a brutal assault of a Manhattan jogger in 1989 — long after it was shown they were wrongfully convicted. Fairness and decency are not high on his agenda.

Too often, our city and state equates growing racial and ethnic diversity alone as indicative of progress when, at best, such efforts are cosmetic change. Despite the growing awareness of racism in Maine, and despite many good-faith efforts from white people who are working to dismantle racism and other forms of oppression, many people of color in Maine do not experience Maine as a welcoming place. For many people of color, the “good-faith efforts ring hollow as they often are not backed by momentum for actual change; as such, they can end up being lip service and be experienced as yet another form of violence.

Black and other non-white pain is consumed and dissected and real systemic change rarely happens. Progressive whites rarely do the heart-level work that is required for change — the kind of work that means a willingness to lose something in the fight toward racial equity. It means a willingness to lean into the discomfort and recognize that ultimately our battle is against unfettered white supremacy. It means the courage to walk away from the privileges inherent in simply being white.

These are admittedly lofty, possibly abstract goals, and they will be a long time to achieve even with committed movement. But for now, it's a start to be vocal against everything President Trump’s administration is attempting to normalize — drawing a line in the sand and not crossing it. Trump may be a master at dog-whistle politics when he speaks to his base, but we can be diligent about denouncing such statements.

And we must. Because if we don’t, we will help tacitly give consent for state-sponsored violence. Violence that will grow and spread to harm even more people on the margins and — as happens when states turn to violence against pockets of citizenry — begin to be used as tools against everyone else too.


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

 

Having to Work Twice as Hard (It's Far More Truth Than Hyperbole)

Even in a place as overall blue as Portland — we’re talking political inclinations, not summer skies and Casco Bay on a calm, clear day — that even progressive white people often think we people of color overstate just how steep a hill we have to climb in American society. Especially Black people.

I've come to believe this from personal experience talking to white people and from gut feelings (not to mention the copious anecdotal evidence from POC I talk to). 

Now, there are any number of ways we can break that down. Black people not only have to climb a steep hill, but they have to do so with heavy weights chained to their ankles while white people on the same path just get to sport some nice L.L.Bean boots and a light daypack. I could break down economic history in the United States, the lingering generational effects of slavery into modern times, the expansive nature of systemic racism and the myriad ways white privilege plays out, etc. Well, to be honest, I couldn’t properly do any of those things in the amount of space I have here. I’ll refer you to The Atlantic and the article “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates for a start on those topics.

How about we stick to one statement that I’m pretty sure prompts even open-minded, liberal white people to think, “Well, it’s bad, but not that bad...”

That statement would be the one that goes something like, “Black people have to work at least twice as hard to get the same amount of credit.” Or, as it goes in a similar vein in the series Scandal (I am a fan) from the mouth of Rowan Pope to his daughter Olivia: “You have to be twice as good as them to get half of what they have.

In June of this year, a report from the nonprofit Institute for Women’s Policy Research notes that Black women are drastically underrepresented in political positions, despite voting at higher rates than any other group in 2008 and 2012 (and more than any other group except white men and women in 2014). They have worse job prospects (and higher student loan debt) even though the number of them getting college degrees has increased by nearly 24 percent since the early 2000s. And they are second only to Native American women in the chances of living in poverty, despite participating in the workforce at higher rates than other women.

In 2014, the Center for Economic and Policy Research reported that in 2013 (the most recent periodfor which unemployment data were available by both race and educational attainment), 12.4 percent of Black college graduates between the ages of 22 and 27 were unemployed. For all college graduates in the same age range, the unemployment rate stood at just 5.6 percent.

And how about an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data three years ago showing that a Black man with an associates degree has around the same chance of getting a job as a white male with a high school diploma? (I’ve also seen the data interpreted as being that a Black man with a college degree has the same chance of landing a job as a white high school dropout. Either way, it’s pretty telling.)

Also in 2014, a study showed that when law firm partners read identical memos, those partners were far more critical if they thought the author was Black rather than white — in fact, the partner evaluators found an average of 2.9 spelling and grammar errors for the supposedly white authors and 5.8 such errors for the Black ones.

And please don’t tell me you think much has changed between 2014 and now, especially with the atmosphere created by the campaign and the post-election actions of Donald Trump.

So, yes, Black people typically do have to work at least twice as hard. It’s not hyperbole. Maybe in some cases, it’s a very slight exaggeration, but it’s pretty much on the nose.


 

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

'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.

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