One of the challenges of being a non-white person living in an overwhelmingly white state is that when matters of race relations come up, it creates awkward moments. It’s hard to share your lived experiences with others when they think that you are “stirring” the pot or making mountains out of molehills. In a nation that overall lacks the racial literacy skills to talk honestly about the impact of our racial past, it means that to venture into racial talk is to make oneself vulnerable and vulnerability, no matter who we are, is rarely welcome or comfortable. So the result is that for far too many people of color, we choose not to talk about the daily experiences that affect us while living in overwhelmingly homogeneous spaces like Maine.
When I started writing about race in 2003, I had no idea how “radical” that act was. For me, as someone from away, I was simply giving voice to my experiences as a newcomer to Maine. It was my way of dealing with the culture shock of being in Maine. However, the longer I am here, it is clear to me that silence around race and the racial slights and slurs that are commonly experienced by people of color must be shared. Silence will never create safety nor create change. When my family’s story of being called the n-word in downtown Portland on a busy Friday afternoon went viral, I heard from many who couldn’t believe this was happening in our largest and most liberal city. Yet I heard from far too many people of color who all had their own stories to share of being accosted with nasty words on streets and in stores. I reached out to a few people and asked if I could share their stories in this space because the longer I write in this space, it is no longer about just this Black Girl in Maine. Instead, it’s about all of us who struggle to make a home in an amazing state that has exquisite beauty and solid bones yet find ourselves being viewed with suspicion and carrying that burden of stuffing it down in our souls.
“I was on my way to work when I stopped at the Cumberland farms in Portland to get gas.I was minding my own business when I heard someone shouting louder than the music on my headphones. I looked up and saw a white man and he was apparently shouting at me. I pulled out my head phones and looked around until he said “yeah you!” I asked him if I was in the way and he said “where are you from?” I was really confused at this point so I simply replied by saying “um portland?” He laughed and said “no you’re not” and I said “yeah- I was born here” he then proceeded to tell me to “go back to my country” calling me specific explosives that I didn’t care for.
The name calling isn’t what bothered me. I was scared- I’m afraid of strangers speaking to me in general- especially white men. I was so visibly disgusted and uncomfortable but no one said anything- everyone kept their heads down and seemed to feel as uncomfortable as me. I said repeatedly “you’re scaring me- please stop” as he continued to yell at me while I paid for my gas. No one said a word- no one stuck up for me. I was honestly afraid he’d follow me. This is normal to me- it’s the fear of being attacked and the fact that I knew no one would have done anything that was scary. This is a common if not regular occurrence for me, the fear of being hurt or killed is and may always be very real for me.”– A millennial woman of color in Portland, ME.
“Last year I was attacked physically by a women in Walgreen’s, she spit in my face, She spit in my face because us niggers think Mike Brown was innocent and we’re all animals and should be shot down like dogs. All while I was just trying to grab a half gallon of milk.”- A millennial of color in Maine
“I teach alternative students. One of my students is a Black kid; they call him “Black sheep.” When I first heard that, I asked why. They said it was because he’s Black and his hair is like a sheep.” – A Black baby boomer
These are just a few of the stories that come across my desk on a regular basis, for most people who deal with this, they don’t want to stir the pot, they just want to go through their daily lives without dealing with the ignorance of others. People often ask me: Why don’t I just move? Well, why should I move? Don’t I have a right as an American to live in peace and safety anywhere in my own nation? In a country that is becoming more racially diverse, we need to move beyond a place of mere tolerance to a place of true acceptance that is based off of creating a racially just and equitable state. Last month, after several racial incidents, including the one that affected my family, Portland, Maine’s city officials came together to denounce racism and bigotry in the city. While a public proclamation against racism is a good first step, ending racism requires intentional actions that go beyond camera-ready moments. It requires some pain, some sweat and some tears to dismantle the systems of oppression that have created the mindset in some that sees non white bodies as inferior. I can only hope that we will have the courage to start this journey for the sake of us all.
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4 thoughts on “Voices from People of color in Maine or thriving against the odds”
Reading this made me very sad. I visited Maine once from Canada and I wasn’t very impressed. It seemed like a very closed place and unfriendly, to me, even as the scenic views were sweet. Yet, having spent much time in rural southern Vermont, I hoped it was just that I was with a woman friend, we were traveling alone, camping our way and kind of scruffy for it. Yet, to think the same folks have progressed so little in all this time and are so mean spirited and vicious to people, especially women, of color is awful. There used to be a saying “As Maine goes, so goes the nation.” After reading the women’s stories, I dearly hope and pray not! Thank you for publishing them, though, I’d rather be in the know. My heart goes out to the brave and beautiful women who shared their stories.
Unfortunately a great deal of truth lies in this observation…..the State of Maine is stuck in its provincialism and it is voices like Shay’s that can serve as her much needed change agents.
So true! I am always grateful for Shay’s voice!
And, on the hopeful side, Vermont, despite Bernie Sanders, hasn’t always been so enlightened. The first time I heard a white man use the N-word to hurt African American children present at his picnic was in southern rural Vermont!
Thank you for all your comments, Viola!
…. the more that the people of Maine can be stirred up, the better !
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