By Stephanie Harp
Larissa Malone thinks she came to Maine at a good time. Two years ago, she began working for University of Southern Maine as an Assistant Professor of Teacher Education. That was in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and during the Black Lives Matter protests. At the time, two key organizations stepped up their support for educators of color – USM’s association for faculty and staff of color, and the Maine Education Association’s new committee for educators of color. But even with these in place, she still experienced the isolation that exists for a woman of color in the whitest U.S. state. However, she was pleased to note the new awareness.
“I’ve been impressed in many ways with the progress that has occurred just in the last couple of years. There’s a hunger here to really do the right thing in a lot of ways,” she said. She previously taught at Greenville University, in the Illinois suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri. Her primary research interest is how minority students and their families, as well as minoritized teachers, navigate educational institutions. Among her areas of expertise are critical race theory, cultural and social foundations, equity in schooling, and multicultural studies.
“Overall, I’m so impressed with the students of Maine. They are aware of who they are and their racialized identity. Some of this is because the political ethos is progressive and aware in this area. I feel like conversations about equity can start at a higher level.”
But when she talks about racism in Maine, she finds limits to that awareness. When working with student interns, someone always says, “It’s not an issue here. We’re from Maine.” After such comments, she asks them to complete an equity audit comparing gifted and talented programs, suspension rates, and other matrices – which clearly show racism as a problem in Maine. “This past year, our department shared 10 articles about racialized incidents across K-12 classrooms in Bangor, Kennebunk, Portland, and elsewhere during an equity workshop,” she said. And the students are always surprised by the examples.
“It’s surprising to me that it’s surprising to them. Most are from Maine or at least from the region. Yet, they feel like Maine is exempt from those issues,” said Malone. Through her consultation with Portland Public Schools on African American history, she has attended workshops hosted by Atlantic Black Box about New England’s complicity in the slave trade. “Different scholars are all saying the same thing. This region prides itself on local control, but people here don’t know about this. How is this news now? There’s so much pride in being and knowing ‘local.’ But this is new to people.”
Malone finds it “almost devastating that they’re fed this narrative that Maine isn’t like everyplace else, that issues of race are only in southern states and not here. What’s unique about Maine is that it’s the whitest state in the whitest region.” But that means extreme isolation for people of color, except in certain pockets. “There are some places where a child is the only [student of color] in a whole grade, school, or district. That’s not so rare in Maine.”
But that doesn’t mean issues of race don’t need to be addressed in schools. “In the Teacher Education Program at USM, we try to bring a spirit of making a change in the classroom that you’re in – advocating for students and prioritizing issues of equity, whatever your classroom makeup is,” she said. “If there are no students of color, that matters even more. Why is this neighborhood of one particular race? What created that? Why is that being sustained? It’s your duty as a teacher to help your students know the entire fabric of the country. We are not preparing them to exist locally or in just in the state; we’re preparing them for the world.”
Malone recently spoke at the Lewiston YWCA’s 10th annual Stand Against Racism event, part of the YWCA USA’s program, which has the goal of eliminating racism and empowering women, while promoting peace, justice, and dignity. Her keynote address included a clear explanation of critical race theory, which is very much in the news and often referred to as CRT. A legal theory developed 50 years ago, CRT is an analysis of how society categorizes humans and attempts to explain that experience. In her speech, Malone said applying a few basic principles of CRT can illuminate everyday life.
These are intersectionality, the permanence of racism, and critique of liberalism. Intersectionality means individuals often have multiple identities – such as being Black and female – all of which are important to address in efforts for equity. The permanence of racism is about how racialization is threaded into the fabric of collective history, including viewing young Black girls and boys as older than their years and therefore less deserving of being treated as children. Critique of liberalism refers to efforts by well-meaning white people who unintentionally reinforce racial structures and harms, such as by saying, “I don’t see color,” which erases – rather than respects – identities.
CRT can be illustrated through stories, called counternarratives, that help bridge the gap between the primary narrative that is generally assumed to be true, and the experiences of people who have been historically marginalized. In discussing the aftermath of the 9-11 attack on the World Trade Center, many speak of the U.S. pulling together, that everyone was “just American” then, without regard to race. But that was not the experience of many Muslim Americans who may have been racially profiled, detained at airports, and had their faith questioned. Their stories are counternarratives that show how the primary, nostalgic story is incomplete.
Malone is not discouraged by the work ahead, pointing to sweeping changes that she called “promising,” such as African American history being added to the Maine school curriculum and the re-examination of integrating Wabanaki history. Scholar Derrick Bell, credited as a founder of critical race theory, saw salvation in the struggle for racial equity, not necessarily in the arrival point.
“That gives me comfort,” said Malone. “Despite ebbs and flows, it’s the process that you can get joy from.” She likes to challenge audiences to commit to pursuing one change that can’t wait in their community, asking them, “How will you make a more equitable world now?”