A decade plus of being the token: reflections from a Black Girl in Maine

As word spreads of my possible departure from Maine, I have found myself in numerous conversations both on and offline with local residents. Where upon explaining why I feel it’s time to leave this state, I realized that the majority of people who I spoke with really weren’t grasping why I don’t feel comfortable in this state and why after a decade plus, I just can’t hang anymore.

Diversity is a word that is often thrown around but truthfully none of us can reach consensus on what it means. In part because the very meaning of diversity depends on who you are.  As a professional woman of color currently living in Maine, who came here after almost 30 years in a very diverse city, I am painfully aware that I spend all  of my professional time being one of the few people of color in the spaces that I occupy. It is a lonely feeling.  I really didn’t grasp how lonely I was until several days ago when I found myself in a meeting in Boston and for the first time in 11 years, I was not the only person of color in the room.

Our largest city, Portland may boast of schools where many languages and dialects are spoken, and there is a plethora of ethnic restaurants. But in 11 years here, I only know of a handful of professionals of colors either in Portland or outside of Portland. Currently Portland has a Black superintendent at the helm of the public schools and a few years ago there was a Black police chief. That’s nice but how many people of color are employed by the school systems and police departments?  How many kids actually see people of color as doctors, nurses, police people, fire people, etc.? How many of us actually conduct business with people of color?   If you think these things don’t matter, let me explain how occupying predominantly white spaces, can have unexpected and even deadly consequences.

While the dream of a colorblind society is nice, and race may not be “real” to some, it is very real in regards to certain health ailments. A few years ago, I found myself arguing with a healthcare provider over the need to have a mammogram because my breast wasn’t feeling right.  Triple negative breast cancer is a form of breast cancer that is far more evasive and deadly and women of African American and Hispanic descent have higher risks for triple negative breast cancer at younger ages. African American women face a worse prognosis compared to other ethnic groups. I learned the hard way that there are healthcare providers in this state who because they have so few patients of color, if any at all are absolutely clueless about such matters. Sure, maybe they learned about it in their medical training but without any actual patients of color, you tend to not stay cognizant of such things. The data is also very real that Black people face worse outcomes even when all other factors are equal such as income and education. It turns out that not even being a college educated, middle class-ish Black woman, can keep me from dying early in a nationwide system that does not treat Blacks as early or as aggressively as it treats whites, regardless of the ailment.

The same goes for therapy, several years ago, I found myself thinking of going back into therapy but quickly learned there are few therapists with training to understand nuance in therapy when it comes to serving people of color. A person of color seeking therapy with a therapist who is not trained to understand cultural differences in depth, risks being a guinea pig who leaves therapy in worse shape than they started.

I often think about children of color who are raised in states such as Maine, and I think of several friends of mine who raised their kids here and how every single one of those kids, put Maine far behind them as soon as they could. Even my son who comes from a long line of Mainers on his father’s side has reached the place where Maine is no longer his safe haven after experiencing time in truly diverse spaces. This summer while he was on the road, he called me, his voice joyous in the proclamation of how good it felt to not be the Black guy but one of many men of color.  It is tiring to be the ambassador of diversity; it is tiring to never see yourself reflected in the people in positions of power. It is tiring to know that while whites look at you and see hope and promise all that you feel is the weight of the world weighing you down.

For me diversity should not just be on the surface but it should be woven into the daily minutia of life. To live in a diverse space means that I will see people of all hues in my daily life, it means I will interact with people from all walks of life, not just people like me. I think that one of the reasons diversity is hard to actually accomplish in spaces like Maine is because if you have never experienced a Latina realtor, a Black banker, a Korean physician and a biracial teacher, you assume that whiteness is the norm especially if you are white. It becomes easy to look at the immigrant kids and think that diversity is really happening and never question why 99% of the staff members at the local school are white.  

One of the reasons that I have stayed as long as I have in Maine is because in many ways I am an idealistic dreamer who believed that I can make a difference. I no longer believe that to be true, instead I am the token that gives others hope and that hope has come at the expense of my spirit. I look at my daughter and know that all our talks about race and discrimination mean nothing when mine is only one of a handful of faces that she sees that looks like her. I watch my daughter see whiteness as beauty and something to aspire to because there are no other messages aside from mine. She is rapidly moving to an age where the voices of her peers will drown out all my messages. I know historically and personally that living in spaces where you are nothing more than a token make for a great recipe of racial confusion. In many ways my daughter is my guide to let me know that it is time to leave. That all the good of Maine cannot make up for all that is lacking and the cost to my family if we stay. A few years ago, I told a friend who was leaving because hers sons were starting to experience the subtle stings of racism that I would never leave. She just looked at me and smiled that smile, I am thankful that when I broke the news to her last week she didn’t remind me of my smugness about how I as the ideal Negro could change this place. These systems are larger than me and they weren’t built by me, it was rather naïve to think that I could undo a system rooted in a history that goes back hundreds of years.

PS: If you are local and enjoy dialogues such as this, there are still some tickets available for A Night with BGIM: A discussion on race, class and life that is happening on October 10, 2013. Tickets available here.

 

 

14 thoughts on “A decade plus of being the token: reflections from a Black Girl in Maine

  1. I felt every word of this post.
    I’ve been in “tech” for almost 20 years and when I describe the environment I steal a line from a comedian I heard once. I feel like “a speck of pepper in a sugar bowl”
    Like I’m marker in the road.
    “How do you get to the datacenter?”
    “You go left about 30 feet, swing right…….See THE BLACK GUY over there, make a left and walk down the hall.”
    So when you talk about fearing for your children’s soul as they get older in Maine (and we used to visit on vacation yearly but every time, I felt more and more uneasy as I could feel the eyes on me), I find myself with two biracial kids in Brooklyn more concerned about their well being than my own comfort.
    My wife is from Hawaii and I beg her that we should return and live there because environmentally, the kids would love it. But the old school mentality of Hawaii is full FULLLL of racism and stereotypes. As poor as the people there could be, if you aren’t brown born to live and die on that rock, you the ‘papolo’ don’t belong because you are either military or family of former military stuck on the island. Or the monied white folks….well we know how that story goes, whether on the Hawaiian Islands or the Mainland.
    Hell, even at 8 and 5, my kids seem to know where their ‘diversity bread’ is buttered. My 5 year old son loves to push back at the serility that Manhattan has become and constantly pushes back that he wants to stay in Brooklyn. Maybe he doesn’t see it, but when he plays, he’s always in the midst of a rainbow of colors of kids.
    Thank you….thank you for helping me see this!

  2. I’m happy you may be moving! I know you want more out of life and more from the place you call home so I know you’ll find it and be much much happier.

    • Thank you. I am grateful for the experiences that I have had in Maine in many ways they have made me a better person. Coming from Chicago, I brought my own baggage and assumptions and living here definitely helped but I won’t lie the idea of being back in an urban and diverse area is pretty thrilling.

  3. Moving doesn’t mean that you have to lose touch with people you are moving away from in the physical sense. I have a few friends that I keep in touch with despite the distance and, curiously, they all know each other and have visited one another from time to time. I’m not there yet, but I definitely ardently respect the value of distant friends and perspectives. Follow your heart, your maternal instinct and your sense of self worth/value. I second Lanna Lee, whatever happens will be the right thing.

    • The saddest thing is that I really didn’t make any lasting connections in my time here. Most of the connections that I have made were pretty superficial, which saddens me greatly.

      • When I was a girl of eight years or so, I attended a summer gathering of maybe 75-100 people or so with my family in Southern Vermont. We brought along two African American youngsters about my age from somewhere in New York who were staying with my family for a few weeks to be part of a “fresh air” program happening back in the 50’s. The host of the gathering was a man of means and considerable family and land. This otherwise (?) sterling member of the community complained about having “n*****s” at his party! We all left pretty much on the spot as I recall, but I have to admit that my glimpse into the realities sometimes behind faces that smile on children who will grow up to look like them but not on all children, has never left the core of my consciousness. It sounds like time to leave the ersatz beauty of New England for psychologically safer ground. The vein of racist fear and ignorance is still pretty damnably strong in the blue states of New England and systemically has never been rooted out. It will be interesting to see where your blog goes. I am excited for us, your readers. As a bounty hunter once told me, “It’s all love.” Yeah, and sometimes it’s a lot easier to see that from a distance.

  4. I guy is driving with his wife and stop at a gas station. He asks the attendant how far it is to the next town. Attendant says about 10 miles. Guy asks what the people in the town are like, and the attendant says they’re the biggest jerks in the world. Couple drives to the town and stops for lunch and some sightseeing. Later, they get in their car and continue their trip. Husband comments to the wife… You know what? That gas station guy was right. Those people WERE jerks. I’d never set foot in that town again.

    Couple hours later, another couple stops at the gas station, but get a different attendant. They ask how far to the next town, he says about 10 miles. They ask what the people in the town are like. He says that they’re the nicest people in the world… friendly, generous, welcoming. Couple drives to the town and stops for lunch and some sightseeing. Later, they get in their car and continue their trip. Husband comments to the wife… You know what? That gas station guy was right. Those people WERE wonderful. Warm, friendly, welcoming… just like he said.

    A wise man once said, “Life is like a sweater. You only get out of it what you put into it.” Good luck. I hope you find the peace for which you search, but at the same time I don’t believe you will.

    • Bob, I’m not sure what you mean by that…are you implying that the blog author’s unhappiness with life in Maine is her own fault?

      Look, Maine is a lovely state…it is the type of natural, woodsy place that appeals to people like myself. I like it far more than my home state (Florida). But I realize that perhaps living in Maine is very different from simply visiting. I don’t think it is right to tell BGIM that she is wrong for feeling the way she does about Maine. Certain places aren’t for everyone, and she needs to find a place where she and her family are more “at home”.

      Everyone’s perception is different. Everyone’s experiences are different. As a woman of color, she doesn’t feel truly accepted after living there a long time…I don’t blame her for wanting to leave if she is unhappy. I am also a woman of color (albeit very light-skinned) and I’m thankful that she has chosen to share her experiences of life in Maine with all of us. I still like Maine a lot, but it helps to know what I might possibly encounter if I’m ever able to move there.

      I agree that sometimes it is good to make the best of a bad situation but sometimes all a person can do is walk away and start over, in a new environment.

    • Strangely, this commenter completely contradicts himself ! The story he tells at the beginning is meant to caution against forming a preconceived opinion about someone. But at the end of his comment, he states that he holds a preconceived opinion about BGIM! (He says, “I don’t believe you will (find peace).”) A strange admission, to say the least!

      Above all, his comment shows that he hasn’t actually read this entry, let alone the rest of this blog. This powerful bit of writing explains so well the situation of a person who has idealistically tried for years to be effective in an environment that works against one’s effectiveness in some or in many ways. Many of us know what this is like, and how hard it can be to decide whether to stay or go.

      To engage in this way requires a MORE open mind than most. It requires MORE energy and hope in order to carry out small achievements. It requires a state of mind that is quite the opposite of the story he tells.

      Somehow, he missed the point entirely. I suspect due to his own fixed ideas.

  5. As someone considering having kids soon…this is something I think about a lot. They will be white kids and how will I teach them about diversity? How do I do that here, in Maine, with so few different faces? Where I came from, it was just there. There were so many people who looked and acted and spoke differently than me…I stopped even seeing the difference. People were just people.

    I wrote about this in my own blog the other day. How will I teach my kid about cultural diversity without it being like going to some exhibit. I don’t want to say “hey lets go to Boston so you can look at all the people who have different skin colors”.
    Difference is not an exhibit. How will I work against the racist ideas he or she might hear at school, where they will be surrounded by a majority of white faces?

    I will need to find ways to bring diversity into every day life as you said. To make it something my children live and not something they just gawk at.

    • I love this post! Questions like this may ultimately make the difference between us moving forward on matters of race, or not. Education, education, education. Field trips are not necessarily a negative, but consider festivals, celebrations, pow-wows, etc., that people of color will be attending to make a more well rounded experience. This may take a little research on your part. Also, if you are visiting a city, visit parks and notable sites in neighborhoods that celebrate people of color. Teach you kids about the real history of the U.S., which may not be what they are getting in school. Teach them about how lucky they are, about poverty, racism as a learned fear and hatred, etc. I am convinced that with imagination, this can be done without scaring your children, but rather inspiring in them the kind of compassion that only children have. The kind that reaches out to others with such sweetness and caring that the heart is touched. You can talk about how Emmett Till was hurt so badly before he was killed that his mother didn’t recognize him, that she was so shocked that she wanted the world to see and insisted on an open coffin. Of course, on the last, I would wait until your kids are the same age as Emmett was (14). Provide books of appropriate age level that are written by people of color for children. Use your imagination! Parts of it will be fun and funny and parts of it will be sad, but none of it should be hurtful. Good Luck!!!

  6. Strangely, this commenter completely contradicts himself ! The story he tells at the beginning is meant to caution against forming a preconceived opinion about someone. But at the end of his comment, he states that he holds a preconceived opinion about BGIM! (He says, “I don’t believe you will (find peace).”) A strange admission, to say the least!

    Above all, his comment shows that he hasn’t actually read this entry, let alone the rest of this blog. This powerful bit of writing explains so well the situation of a person who has idealistically tried for years to be effective in an environment that works against one’s effectiveness in some or in many ways. Many of us know what this is like, and how hard it can be to decide whether to stay or go.

    To engage in this way requires a MORE open mind than most. It requires MORE energy and hope in order to carry out small achievements. It requires a state of mind that is quite the opposite of the story he tells.

    Somehow, he missed the point entirely. I suspect due to his own fixed ideas.

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