“Similar to the criminal justice system, stark disparities, particularly with respect to race, exist in school discipline. Black students, for example, are nearly universally overrepresented in suspensions. This occurs even here in Maine, where in Bangor, while blacks represent only 2.5 percent of the student body, 12 percent of all suspensions at Bangor High School are black students. Is this the result of differences in misbehavior? The research tends to suggest not.” – Michael Rocque
One of the most consistent questions that has managed to stay in my inbox since I started this blog is what is life in Maine like for non-white people? Honestly, your results may vary. I have a Black girlfriend here who states that she has encountered very little in the way of direct racism while I have heard from hundreds of other people of color that microaggressions are a daily part of their existence in Maine. A Mexican friend up in the northern part of the state recently shared a racist exchange she had at a Bangor area bookstore. I have heard tales of jobs where being called outside one’s name and referred to as a racial slur is a daily norm. This may be illegal, but Maine is a small place (population-wise, at least) and many choose not to take action for fear of blowback; after all, we are all but two degrees of separation from knowing each other. I have heard the most grueling tales of racism endured on a daily basis. I have friends here whose adult children no longer come home to Maine due to the racism they endured here as children and teens. I have met older adults who regret the years they spent here and the high toll it took on them to be “other” to always be fighting for their humanity. I have experienced my own all-too-frequent racial interactions that were subtly or overtly abusive to me.
I have received more than enough hate mail over the years telling me that I have no right to critique Maine and that my job is to assimilate and shut up! I never do as I am told…sorry! Besides, assimilation stew is nasty, it all melds together and nothing stands out.
Even in a racially homogenous state like Maine, the number of Black youth and adults disproportionately involved in the prison system rivals that of the national data. Our kids are still suspended at rates that are not proportional to their enrollment in school systems. Even in a quiet, homey, polite white state like Maine, mass incarceration and the “school-to-prison pipeline” exists. Which is ironic, since far too many white Mainers are unwilling to engage in deep conversations on race; because of the absence of a large number of people of color, many believe that racism is someplace else and race isn’t an issue of concern here. Hell, much of New England has a mental block when it comes to seeing racism. After all, we never had the history of the Southern states. Thus we are “better”…but that is far from factual. Better for whom? In many ways the Southern style of straight-up racism served on a platter with the steaming stench of outright hate leaves no room for ambiguity. Hell, even in my beloved Chicago, the hate was far more outright than in Maine, and that is confusing and troubling. Maine is a place that even in our younger and hipper spaces, we haven’t unpacked the racial morass nearly as much as we believe that we have. Many of us notice when we walk into galleries and upscale eateries, we don’t receive the same warm reception that our white peers and colleagues do and if you are like me, you can even get banned from a restaurant just for complaining politely about one meal after having enjoyed and tipped generously for many previous ones.
The hateful racism so many of associated with the South may seem worse, but is it really better for people to force smiles in your presence or hold their tongues, only to slyly stab you in the back later?
Navigating Maine as a non-white person requires a willingness to go the extra mile; it means realizing that you will probably have to offer up more of yourself than you are accustomed to doing in order to be accepted. It means living with limited access to things that everyone else takes for granted: getting a proper haircut (Black hair texture is very different), buying any kind of makeup (my but almost all those shades at the drug store are geared toward pale skin), worshipping at church or just buying the yummies for a holiday meal.
For the vast majority of people of color in Maine, racism is a very real thing and it does impact your life, yet living in a world that elevates whiteness means that there are very few safe spaces. In a sense, knowing that makes Maine just as good as anywhere else. I mean, racist cops and racist school systems exist in places where people of color are a majority as well.
The demographics of Maine, though, at least make it easier to take a stand and work for change at times. In our largest city, Portland, Pious Ali, an African-born American, won a seat on the school board a few years ago and is now running for City Council. Rachel Talbot Ross, a Black woman whose family has been at the forefront of working for civil rights in this state, is running for the Maine legislature. Two people of color in a state this small running to make a difference! And hell the number of people in this state is so small that I can actually say that I know both of them personally!
Maine lacks a geographic community that belongs to Blacks, Latinx and so on, yet people tend to know people and despite the jokes about how small our communities of color are, we are seeing a shift in Maine especially in the urban areas. (Quit laughing, you folk farther south and west. We have urban areas here)
I moved to Maine in 2002, I never meant to stay here this long but life happens and I will be here for the foreseeable future. Which means that for better or worse, Maine is home and sometimes home is a messy place that requires elbow grease to get it right. And for me, writing and speaking up and out on racism here is my contribution to help make the place feel more homey for all. Maine has her imperfections but I think an honest awareness of what one is facing can make a state like Maine feel like home. However, my best advice to anyone thinking of relocating anywhere is to spend time in the city/town that you want to move to. That is really the only way to get the feel of a place. So happy hunting!
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