Over the years, as this site and thus my profile have grown, I have often had to decide if the racial incidents and microaggressions that are a routine part of “living white Black” are worth writing about. Whenever I write about a personal racial incident, it invites a certain level of racial animus from white people lacking in their racial analysis—which results in threats, nasty messages, hacking attempts and basically causes additional labor and mental anguish on my part.
The culture of white supremacy works to reduce the humanity of others—to keep us small—and it often works.
I am not ashamed to admit that sometimes, speaking my truth is not worth it. I say that as someone known for my writing and speaking. With exposure has come the reality that my need to be authentic and write about how white supremacy impacts me also makes me a target, especially living in a predominantly white state, and there are days when the weight of it all is too much.
I cannot always carry that weight; I am not always that strong.
It means that while I strive to be as authentic as I can be, I do self-censor as a way to stay safe while writing on race.
This week, I experienced a racial incident on the island where I live. While out at the local watering hole, having drinks with friends, I was talking about an upcoming work project. Given that my day job is running an anti-racism organization and my side work is writing and speaking on race, I was having a discussion about race in public. This is my norm and frankly, it should become everyone’s norm. Talking about race and racism is how we start to move the needle and create change.
For me, this is a normal conversation but apparently for a visitor to the island, this conversation was not acceptable. So, as soon as my friends left the bar, while I was finishing up my drink in preparation to head home, the visitor went to the bartender to complain that I was an “inappropriate” Black woman. Unbeknownst to the man, the bartender was a white woman with a commitment to racial justice principles, a background in anti-racism work, and is also an associate of mine.
It took me a moment to realize what was happening from my perch at the end of the bar but it became clear that the man was telling the bartender that I should be removed from the bar because I was Black. The bartender took the man’s drink, told him that she didn’t serve racists and asked him to pay his tab and leave. Without going into a play-by-play, I will just say that the man refused to leave at first, then eventually did depart, but returned with apparent malice in mind, and the police were called. When the police arrived, they found a highly intoxicated white man beating on the door of the bar after being ejected from it due to his racist behavior.
Instead of doing what most sensible drunk vacationers would do when faced with the police, which is avoid escalating and the possibility of getting into trouble, this drunk white man decided to share his racist views about me with the police, become even more disorderly and decided to lay hands on the officers. While the police can’t arrest anyone for being racist, they can arrest you for assaulting them, so the racist vacationer earned a special trip on the island fire boat where he was met by mainland cops who promptly took him to jail.
To say that I was shaken was an understatement. At no point had I ever spoken to this man. He had, however, leered at me at the bar and seemed to be paying an inordinate amount of attention to my conversation before my friends had left.
After the man was arrested, I went home shaken and unable to sleep and decided to fire off some tweets about the situation as a way to blow off steam. The incident, while jarring, felt like it could have been much worse. What if I had left earlier? Was this man lurking outside, waiting to harm me? A distinct possibility, given that he left after he was cut off but returned. I will never know, but I do know that having a bartender who recognized the threat and police officers who were responsive was a good thing.
The next morning, I woke up concerned for my safety, not knowing if this man would return to the island. If so, what would happen if I ran into him on the ferry or at the store? What if I ran into him and was with my child? If a man was that racist, what else might he do? It scared me enough that I went to speak with the police officers on the island about a restraining order. Instead, they explained that the man was visiting from Florida, his vacation rental had just been terminated due to his arrest and as soon as he was released, a notice of no trespass would be issued for both the vacation rental as well as the bar and—given that this is the height of vacation season—armed with that information, I decided that a restraining order was overkill. Especially as the officer assured me they would notify me once he bailed out and picked up his things from the vacation rental. The officer kept his word and later that evening, I was informed that the racist tourist had indeed bailed out, retrieved his belongings and had been seen leaving the island.
I breathed a sigh of relief, especially as the management of the establishment had reached out to check in on me as well. Frankly as awful as the man’s bigotry was, this was the best outcome, especially in a world where too often Black women’s concerns are not taken seriously. In fact, while I was relieved, I was saddened that this type of care and concern is not normal for Black people. As someone who frankly isn’t comfortable with the police, I can say that my interactions with them were good.
I attempted to decompress and shared some more on social media but truthfully, I wasn’t sure this incident felt blog-worthy. While my sharings on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook were substantial, they were more born out of the frustration of being Black and dealing with white entitlement in public spaces. This man felt entitled to a space in a community in which he is a guest; it’s typical behavior rooted in white supremacy. He wanted to exert power over a Black person so he could be a Barroom Barry just like BBQ Becky and other the other very publicly active racists of late. Instead. he was arrested and his vacation was shortened.
Which is why when one of Maine’s largest media outfits reached out to me for comment on the story, I was confused. What story? A racist acted a fool and ended up getting arrested because white entitlement does not save you when you decide to assault a police officer. Or maybe it did since if he had been a Black man, we don’t know how this would have turned out. Local police and others ensured my safety and for once the majority of white people didn’t cause harm to a Black person.
In a moment that I am now regretting, I spoke briefly with the reporter but was very clear that this didn’t feel like a story and that I didn’t want to name the establishment. I also mentioned that I hadn’t even written about it on my own site as it didn’t quite feel like a story. Given the times that I have written about incidents, and dealt with the ensuing harm, as much as I needed to unpack what happened, I was leaning towards doing that in private.
Which is why when I received a text hours later from a girlfriend that my situation had become a story in the Portland Press Herald, I was stunned. Not only was it a story but a story with a sensational and inflammatory headline and lede along with a photo of me. Randall Hunt of Vero Beach, Fla., was named as the perpetrator, but nowhere in their story do you see his mugshot.
A white man assaulted a cop, spent the night in jail and no one could be bothered to get his photo? Surely there is a mugshot. The paper also decided to let everyone where I live, something that while not a total secret is also not something widely known. Then to add insult to injury, the initial piece mentioned that I had been involved in a racial incident in 2015. Thus leaving the feeling that I am engaged in nefarious activities and not the victim of white people’s anti-Blackness and racism. Instead the original piece would lead many to believe that I am stoking the racial flames of the good white people and causing harm wherever I go.
Thanks to the actions of the many Black Girl in Maine readers who are active on social media, the paper edited the original digital piece to remove my photo and a few other details. Your emails and calls mattered. There is strength and power in numbers. But the harm has been done because the story wasn’t just online. They decided to put it in the print edition. In the issue that came out the very next morning after the online posting, my face is on the front page of local/state section. Meaning that everyone who gets a physical paper saw the one with my picture and not the perp’s, suggesting a bit that I am the troublemaker.
I have heard from several staff members from the Portland Press Herald but frankly the damage has been done. Whiteness protected itself and the perpetrator was shielded while the victim was exposed and left to fend for herself. Given the current racial climate, this is what race-baiting looks like. Readers, especially of the print edition, are left with an image of a Black woman rather than the white man who created the harm and was arrested. If only I didn’t have a history of being involved in racial altercations, if only I had not been speaking about racism, if only… This approach makes racism look like a problem created by Black people with white people as the victims rather than the reality that, since the founding of this country and the abduction and rape of Black people, we have always been relegated to a second-class status. Even now, we are free but are we really?
In less than four days, I have had to deal with a racist man creating harm and now a local media publication deciding that what at best was a newsbrief from the police blotter should instead be a story featuring me rather than focusing on the perpetrator. It only took me a few minutes online to learn that this man works in special education back in Florida—a fact that they didn’t share just as they didn’t share his face—yet it was important for some reason to name in the story that I write a blog called “Black Girl in Maine” where I write about race. Again, I was minding my own business. I didn’t get ejected from a bar and nor did I spend a night in jail. I was the victim but a story was written where you know all about me and nothing about him.
I have heard from several people today who have mentioned that this is a public interest story given that I have a high profile in the state of Maine. No, these are the types of norms that are created by a white supremacist culture and it is not okay. Part of dismantling white supremacy culture and racism is to question the norms. Who created these norms? Who benefits from them and who is harmed? Had the man not been arrested even after the assault on the police and he had later come in contact with me and harmed me or killed me, that would be a story.
My personal uncomfortable evening has become a story to be shared across the state. What was merely distressing for a short time now threatens to make me a target for weeks or months or more. The print story showing my photo has some of my fellow island dwellers thinking I did something wrong when I didn’t.
Once again, just as in the 2015 incident that the article mentioned, I have become fodder for the news without my desire or consent to be. I have become once again very visible to those who already hate me because I refuse to accept a second-class status in the country of my birth and simply accept scraps from the table of inclusion.
I end this with a thanks of gratitude to all who worked to ensure that the harm to me was minimized. I would also ask that the Portland Press Herald issue a written apology in both their print and digital versions explicitly stating that the reporting on this piece was shoddy and harmful. I imagine this request will fall on ears that cannot hear me, but I strongly suggest that the organization receive anti-racism training at all levels of the organization. This is not the first time that a story involving race was presented in a manner that left the impression that a Black victim was not really a victim.
This is infuriating. It is scary. It hurts. But my work is anti-racism, and I will continue, even though I now have to grow eyes in the back of my head once again. But, as Emiliano Zapata said “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.”
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9 thoughts on “An incident became a story no one needed…and one that harms me”
Thank you for writing about this and for being willing to expose your own pain in order to help some of us well-meaning but obtuse white folk to see how privilege works. I am grateful.
So sorry to hear this happened. I’ve heard you speak twice, and as a result became a monthly subscriber to your website. Your perspective and words are powerful, and necessary. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for your courage.
I’m sorry for what you’ve been through. I wrote a much longer comment but it disappeared because I didn’t understand the reCAPTCHA thing. I made a Paypal donation to you to apologize for not contacting the Portland Press Herald for their mishandling of the harm and damage done to you by the drunk asshole and by the PPH.
I’m sorry this happened to you and appreciate the discussion of how the media treated this. I don’t understand why people are disclosing where you live in the comments when you’ve been careful not to say it and that was one of the issues with the PPH.
Dear Ms. Stewart-Bouley,
I saw the PPH racial incident headline and thought of you immediately because of the Peaks Island connection. Today’s version of the article has no photo of you but your attacker has a mug shot; I have written to an email address of his to find out if he is indeed the same man employed at a school in Florida. I will be pursuing this to bring pressure on his employers to reconsider his employment or at least mandate some education/training for him. The PPH has heard from me also.
In case you missed it, I am just reading a new-to-me resource being shared in educational circles, Confronting White Nationalism in Schools Toolkit from http://www.westernstatescenter.org/schools.The Civil Rights Team Project directors here in Maine, Brandon Baldwin and Stacie Bourassa, had not seen it before and found it valuable.
Sorry that you and other people of color in Maine have to live with “eyes in the back of your head.” Some of us have your back and spend time every day thinking about why that is even necessary and how to change things for the better, one child at a time.
Thanks for your blog, your TedX talk, and all your other efforts to progress toward a safer, equitable society.
What you don’t mention, but what struck me immediately when I looked at the newspaper’s article, is that they chose a photo of you that could so easily have been taken as a mug shot. I have seen many many pictures of you. None that I have seen looked like mug shots, but they managed to find one that did–and that is what they chose to publish.
Thank you for sharing your story. It is ugly in so many ways, but I’m glad you received the help you needed from the police. They, at least, realized you were the victim.
I contacted the Paper and the entire school board where Randall Hunt works. It was *very* easy to find a photo of him. The reporter asked me to give him your phone number, which I wouldn’t even if I had it. 2 of the school board members contacted me and thanked me for the information. The incident is being reported to Human Resources. Let’s hope you get your apology and some security. Thank you for your work.
Thanks for “outing” the Portland News Herald for what it really is ! This incident on Peaks, while unfortunate; the response of this “rag” is even more troublesome.
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