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.



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