By Shay Stewart-Bouley
In the years since I started writing about racism in Maine (beginning in 2003 with my now-defunct Portland Phoenix column “Diverse City”), there has been a general shift in attitudes around race in our state and an acknowledgement that even in the palest state in America, racism is a problem.
No shit! After all, here in Maine, we are living on the unceded lands of the Wabanaki people. So, just like all of the United States, our very existence and physical space starts with building on stolen land.
On the brighter side, in many parts of the state, DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) work is becoming a norm, and representation is happening throughout all levels of government. Heck, we even have folks of color in the Statehouse. And if you want to support Black-owned businesses, there are not only a growing number of them now, but also a source to find them in the form of Black Owned Maine – all of which is an absolute delight to me after being here almost 20 years now and seeing so little Black-owned or other non-white businesses much of that time.
In other words, despite what it may feel like at times for Black folks and other folks of color who call Maine home, the needle has absolutely moved on race in this state. I mean, I don’t even get hate mail at the level I once did – and that’s not me being flip. When I started writing on race, death threats were not uncommon. But as more voices have been added to the mix and the work has become more visible, there has been an acceptance that Maine is more than white folks. Always has been, if we are telling the truth.
That said, even with a shifting terrain when it comes to race in Maine, there are still racist folks who frankly have no problems making their white supremacist views known. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that there are three known hate groups in Maine: New Albion, Patriot Front, and The Colchester Collection. All three have been identified as white nationalist groups. Also, a recent piece online at Mainer reported that the Proud Boys have been meeting regularly in downtown Portland, the most racially diverse city in the state.
In 2020, Maine – like the rest of the country – saw a significant increase in hate crimes, with 83 reported incidents and the majority involving Black people. In 2020, we had more reported hate crimes than in the previous three years combined. Given the level of increased anti-racism activity in the state at the time, that may seem surprising to many. But is it really?
Aside from the fact that racists tend to push back hard (and often violently) when they see things shifting away from their narrow worldview, the fact is that racism is not merely a matter of personal feelings. Racism exists on multiple levels: interpersonal, institutional, structural, and cultural. There is no doubt in my mind that the Trump years elevated the cultural racism that often spilled out in the interpersonal realm, which is why we saw an increase in hate crimes in 2020.
In late August, Bangor resident Tahmoor Khan, a first-generation Pakistani-American whose family has been a part of the Bangor community for three decades, discovered his car had been vandalized with racist graffiti of the most heinous kind, which included a call to kill Black people and numerous instances of the N-word.
The perpetrators were caught, two 15-year-old girls, who were issued a summons for criminal mischief and released into parental custody. In more naive racial justice spaces, there is the belief that racism will eventually die out along with the passing of the older generations. I am sorry to say that if two 15-year-old girls are running around spray painting N-bombs on cars, racism will not die out that easily. Not without an intentional shift and anti-racism framework to move the needle on a societal level.
Which brings me to what I want to say to white folks and others: Part of creating an intentional anti-racism framework is the realization that it starts with us. All of us, every day. It starts with our words and how we use them.
When racist incidents happen, it is not OK to say such empty words as, “There is no place for hate in our community.” Really? Hate is one of the biggest stones set for the foundation of this country, and to deny that truth is simply a manifestation of how whiteness operates culturally – that is, it doesn’t like to rock the boat. But you can’t solve a problem if people still grapple with naming it. In the case of those two youngsters in Bangor, they were no doubt inspired by the cultural racism they have absorbed in whatever form, and that’s why they decided to engage in interpersonal racism against a man of color. And by giving them a summons for criminal mischief, the institution of policing essentially isn’t holding them (or their parents) accountable for their intentional racism.
No doubt these kids are not beyond hope; they could learn and grow up and do better. But we can’t count on that, and letting young folks begin with hate makes everything harder. Also, let’s remember that we live in a world where missteps by Black and brown kids often do not lead merely to a summons and going home. White folks are given breaks that too often are denied to the rest of us, and that’s just one of the many ways that whiteness thrives – not to mention encouraging racism among white people.
The praxis of anti-racism work requires intentional action and regularly checking in on yourself to ensure you aren’t falling back into whiteness. The truth is, even much of the DEI work that is popular at the moment still elevates whiteness and will not truly move the needle for fear of rocking the boat. I mean it’s hard to tell the people paying you that they have to do better, right? … Or does it just seem hard because you, too, prefer the status quo? Let’s commit to being intentional in our words and correcting others. “No, there should not be any place for hate in our community, but we know it’s here and we need to root it out – so let’s get to work on dismantling whiteness and white supremacy.”
Shay writes regularly about race relations, social justice, and white supremacy. She is a prolific blogger at her award-winning website/blog Black Girl in Maine Media. In June 2021, she was elected to the Portland, Maine Charter Commission. She is executive director of the oldest continuously operating anti-racism organization in the nation, Community Change Inc.