Black life in Maine and what racism in Maine looks like…a student’s story

When I moved to Maine in 2002, I did not set out to become one of Maine’s best known Black residents. I was simply a mother who didn’t want her child to be caught up in a protracted custody battle. Yet when I arrived here in the spring of 2002 from Chicago, the casual racism that I dealt with on an almost daily basis threatened my very being. Knowing that I was committed to being in Maine, I decided to do something about it, thus launching my writing career for publications such the Portland Press Herald, Journal Tribune and eventually the Portland Phoenix where I have written on race and diversity for over a decade now. This blog came along 6 years ago and while the initial intent behind the blog was not to write solely about race with a name like Black Girl in Maine, it’s hard to avoid matters of race. 

Over the years, people have reached out to me seeking support, advice and occasionally a signal boost on matters of importance when it comes to race in Maine. Today I am sharing a letter from a University of Southern Maine student who reached out to me this weekend after experiencing a rather jarring experience at the school’s campus. I have never been a student, faculty member or employee of the university but I have known more than a few people of color who have mentioned questionable treatment on the school’s campus. Which is why I am sharing this letter in its entirety at the request of the letter writer. Many in Portland, ME feel that Portland is the progressive hub of the state yet for those of us without white skin privilege we don’t share that view. If we are going to create real change, it’s time to shine some light on the experiences of all Mainers. 

My name is Idman Abdul and I am a Canadian International-Student here at University of Southern Maine (USM). I am also a member of the Multi-Cultural Students Association, and a new student senator here as well. As much as I am proud of these positions, it doesn’t really mean much if my institution does nothing to aid its students in ensuring a more progressive and inclusive environment.
Over the past two years at USM, it has become evident that my institution has failed to foster an environment where students of color have felt comfortable, safe and engaged. For example, many students of have attempted to run for student government seats and as a result, they were confronted with racism and xenophobia. USM has failed to address these concerns in the past and continue to do so now.
Yesterday evening, two students decided to wear “Ebola Nurse” costumes to campus. These two students were approached by USM’s Multi-Cultural Student Association members (myself included) and were told, kindly and calmly I may add, that their costumes were insensitive and hurtful. They were told that this didn’t mean they were bad people and that we were coming from a place of love and understanding. 30 minutes after walking away we were approached by the POLICE. The students had told the police that we seemed dangerous and that they felt threatened. The fact that students like these walk around campus triggering students with their hurtful behavior and then can go ahead and call authorities on those they have offended is beyond me. I find myself obligated to shine light on this issue (them calling Police on us, 6 women of color) and all of its ethical, moral and racial implications. As black Muslim students, I find no other reason for them to have believed we meant them any harm other than our obvious physical appearances. We have since provided the authorities with our statements. With the history of occurrences at this school, I know as much as we approach administration for a change, that this will only get swept under the rug or they’ll offer up one of their “trainings” that never seem to do the job. That is why we are trying to get the word out there and show people what is really happening to students of color here. 
These two students put on costumes that had the potential to cause widespread hysteria across the campus and then proceeded to not only defame us by making a false call to the police but also used State Funds to coddle their own egos. These women are nurses! Anyone in their field particularly, should know better! How desensitized have we become as people that an epidemic killing thousands, could honestly be referred to as a joke? Those people, I’m afraid, are too blinded by their own ignorance to see that they have actually affected us deeply. I will never forget locking eyes with another female in the room, the moment we saw them in their costumes. I will never forget the hundred horrible thoughts that crossed my mind the second I assumed they were CDC officials. And lastly, I will never forget the offense and shame I felt after being approached by an officer who believed me to be anything other than a regular student. A threat is what I, along with 5 others, were called ‘A threat’. After being terrified beyond belief all for the benefit of someone carrying out their own sick, tasteless joke (if we can even call it that).  
I have attached a two photos of the women in the “Ebola Nurse” costumes. And here is a link to a post made on tumblr by another student who was there. She included the times and you can talk to her too if you like! 
Thank You,
Idman Abdul
Note: I am keeping comments open because I believe dialogue is important but I will not tolerate slurs, insults or attacks. 

24 thoughts on “Black life in Maine and what racism in Maine looks like…a student’s story”

      • Well, 6 women with no authority approached these women and started telling them what to do. I don’t blame them for feeling offended and threatened by that. Perhaps a more appropriate approach would have been contacting school authorities to handle the costume situation. The assumption that the women called the police because they were white and those approaching them weren’t is the only instance of clear racism I can see.

        • They didn’t tell them what to do. They told them their outfits were offensive. Those nursing students were free to go right ahead and continue to be insensitive idiots with their “Ebola healthworker” costumes. People of color have the right to freedom of speech as well, and it’s not limited to uttering only that which pleases White people.

          Also, you need to come back when you learn how racism really works and let go of your kindergarten ideas of it.

  1. So this is the new thing White people are doing when people of color, especially Black people, approach them like subject, agent, human beings, call the cops on them? Seems like those “nurses” learned something from Ronald Ritchie. This sounds like the old fashioned, Jim Crow custom of getting the law on “uppity ni88ers” who dare to look White people in the eye. What’s next? Gonna call the cops on Black folks who won’t cede the sidewalk to you too?

  2. Being from southern Maine I can attest to the racist quality of the state. There is NO DOUBT in my mind that these “nursing”students contacting police was purely motivated by race. It’s a sickness & its sad. I no longer live there & I won’t go back. Specifically for the attitudes that dominate the region. I’m sorry that this happened. I wish I could have been there as backup for the brave young ladies who stood up to the lack of for thought & sheer ignorance displayed by the white students. If you’re old enough to be in college,then you’re old enough to take responsibility for your blatent insensitivity & pure outright stupidity. Running to the cops was a waste time & energy. Your ego was the only thing threatened. Wake up White Mainers, or you will be left behind.

  3. I’ve already commented but adding more to the conversation.
    This isn’t about race?? Tell me, seriously, if a white person approached these “nurses” that they would have felt threatened? Probably not. We fear what we do not know, and I assume being in Maine, a fairly racial homogenous state, that they know “white” and that’s about it. Other side of the story? What? So we can hear excuses? “Jia”, rather than being vague and stating that race had nothing to do with this, tell us why you think that. Don’t be defensive without backing up why you think so. This IS about race and about a poor decision on a costume that likely would be very triggering for people given the world events and your reaction. Your reaction to the peaceful students telling you this was inappropriate is racist. For the record, I’m white, I’ve worked at the CDC, and my husband currently works for the CDC, being one of the many sent to Africa to help track and isolate Ebola. I talk about this stuff everyday. It still doesn’t sensitize me to thinking an “Ebola nurse” costume is appropriate. And I know when I see white privilege in action. This is it.

  4. My question for you is as a college student is how is costume based on uniforms used by the CDC defined as racist? Ebola is not confine to Africa or to the African American community in the United States. I find that this kind of thinking is simple minded and limited.

    • First, Kenneth, the racism is inherent on calling the police on a group of non-white students for pointing out the thoughtlessness of the costumes. Given the history of sometimes shaky race relations at USM and what seems to be poor handling of such incidents by USM administrators, this seems a continuation of an already racially intolerant campus environment. Second,, as someone noted recently in my online wanderings, a look at the comments section for many of the stories related to Ebola shows that racism is very much at the heart of fears and mocking of the disease outbreak in West Africa.

    • When did Idman ever say that wearing the “hazmat costumes” were racist? Please try to quote her on that. Oh wait…you can’t because she never said such a thing. To be frank your thinking is limited. Did you even read the article or are you just jumping to conclusions? The “nurses” were the ones who made this a race issue so redirect your question to them. They called the police on us once our student leader addressed the severity of their costumes because they felt “threatened.” Five black female students peacefully addressing something is definitely “threatening.” I wonder how the outcome would have been if five white females approached these “nurses.” The best part of the night was how they needed a white male to escort them to bathroom because we seemed threatening. Why don’t you question the “nurses” who wore the “Ebola nurse” costumes for fun. Yeah, thousands of people dying definitely needs some humor.

      • I can’t be sure, but I think Kenneth was referencing Grimalkin’s post, not the article. And if he was, I agree with him. The costumes are incredibly insensitive, but I don’t see them as (at least overtly) racist. I understand that emotions are high, but there’s no need to jump down someone’s throat over a misunderstanding on the internet.

        And just so there is no misunderstanding /here/: yes – I think their reaction was childish and played upon the inherent issue of racism we have in Maine. I’m sorry that you’re all going through this, and I hope that USM addresses it appropriately. (Of course, I don’t think that USM’s administration is effective in any sense, but, ya’s hopin’.)

  5. As a nurse, I find it incredibly short sighted for nursing students to wear “Ebola Costumes” for Halloween. I am disappointed. I truly hope this comes back to their nursing school and they are disciplined for their lack of professional behavior. Wearing an “Ebola Costume” is racist and harmful to the nursing profession. These students do not represent nursing.

  6. I am amazed at the cluelessness of these student nurses and at the perceived threat of the students explaining calmly how offensive their costumes were. Thank you for sharing your story, Idman. I hope it raises more awareness of oppression, race, and how perceptions are built on fear.

  7. I’d just finished reading an article on what not to wear for Hallowe’en, and guess what was right at the top of the list? Not surprisingly, ebola suits, and for exactly the reasons cited by the young woman who wrote the letter. Happily, I didn’t need to be told. I just am blown away, though, by the actions of these young women in costume. Okay, they’re kids. They made a thoughtless choice. Say, “Sorry!” and take them off? No, call the effing cops? WTF? They were in the Center for Sexualities and Gender Diversity, for Pete’s sake, a place where they, at least, should have felt supported! As well, their report of the incident to the Student Nurse Organization was clearly such that the group felt it necessary to pursue it further with the police, according to the tumblr post. Were they so intimidated by a half dozen young women of color, so fearful, that they felt this was necessary? Or are they complete racist a-holes. (Sorry for the language, but I really would like to say much worse.) Either way, it’s heart breaking, and beyond appalling. Way, way, way beyond. USM has a LOT of work to do. As do we all

  8. It is sad that you published this without first getting the other side of the story. I don’t doubt for one second that racism exits in Maine, and that disgusts me. But you are dead wrong about this one. Race had nothing to do with this.

    • Can you let me know what happened, I would be happy to hear your side of the story and publish it here as well. Thanks.

    • Race had nothing to do with this? You can go ahead and continue believing that but you are dead wrong. “Jia Townsend” this has everything to do with race. You’re not even a student at USM and yes I did check. I’m going to assume you are one of the nurses or one of the nurses defenders. From the moment the “nurses” called the police on my friends and I when one of our student leaders peacefully approached them to address the severity of their costumes to the moment the “nurses” had a man escort them to the bathroom because the bathroom just happened to be near the room we were seated. They were threatened because we are five black girls. Idman told nothing but the truth but you can go ahead and continue thinking this has nothing to do with race.

      • I wanted to say that I have tried to reach out to Jia to see if she would be willing to share more of her perspective but I have yet to hear back from her at this time.

  9. Racism in Maine also looks like a self appointed “liberal” teacher in a public school displays Tin Tin in the Congo in the nonfiction section of the school library during black history month because she “wanted the students to learn about Africa”

    Racism in Maine also looks like a neighbor who we lived next to for 10 years doesn’t recognize my now teenage son as he is going for a jog down our street and yells to him, “Hey… who are you and where do you live???”

    Racism in Maine also looks like my husband being followed by the police as he leaves Rite Aid after picking up asthma medication with our nine year old son in the back seat to witness and experience being followed by the police.

    And the list goes on….thanks for the post.

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