When they stare

Being marginalized and ignored in society is terrible. But the irony is how much attention can sometimes be focused on various people—Black people among them—whom people otherwise ignore.

I mean I know what it’s all about. Homophobic conservatives don’t want to see LGBTQ+ people living life in any way or being happy. A whole heaping crap-ton of white people can’t stand to see Black success or achievement. And so on and so forth.

Believe me, I’ve been on the receiving end of stares and gawking hundreds of times over a couple decades in Maine. Maybe they think they can beam thoughts into my head of “Go away; you don’t belong.”

A local columnist, The Maine Millennial, wrote a piece in her weekly column recently related to this phenomenon, and that is the inspiration for this post. In the piece, she discusses what it means when white people stare at people who aren’t white or who don’t appear white in Maine. Given that it was those stares that literally were the springboard for my writing career, reading that piece brought back a lot of memories. As well as serving as a reminder of just how much more work remains in Maine. 

When I moved to Maine in 2002, I literally felt like I had been put in the witness protection program and shipped off to an entirely different world. To recap, I didn’t move here because I fell in love with the beauty of the state, or because I fell in love with some amazing man who convinced me to give the state a chance.

I moved here because of an acrimonious custody situation with my first husband which escalated when I remarried when my son was five. The result being a custody battle across state lines, lots of money, and lots of lawyers. In the end, after several years of fighting, my son’s well-being meant more than being right and my second husband and I packed up our lives in Chicago to move to Maine. My son is now a man in his 30s, with his own children, and I will say that no matter what, I have no regrets. I did the best I could as a young momma. 

That said, leaving my family, friends, and everything I knew to move to Maine so that my son could have both his parents was one of the hardest things I have ever done. I had only been to Maine a handful of times prior to the move. We actually came out a month after Sept 11, 2001, and I knew that moving to Maine was not going to be easy. I just had no idea how hard it would be and the psychic toll that it would take on me. 

From the moment we arrived in March 2002 to start our new lives, everywhere I went there were stares. I arrived in Maine, years before Portland—our largest city and internationally known foodie scene—was a big thing. I arrived before the great gentrification, and before the time when seeing non-white people every day was a thing. I arrived at a time when going to the Maine Mall to buy lipstick was an act of frustration, as there were no makeup lines for darker-hued women in the mall. There was no Sephora or Ulta, and there were most certainly no staff at these places who looked anything like me. 

The Maine I arrived in was a place where from the moment I walked outside my home until I returned, I had to mentally prepare myself to be looked at like some invader (at worst, or as an exotic oddity at best)—and even to be referred to as colored as if that were a normal and neutral way to refer to a Black person in their face. Yes, that really has happened, more than a few times.

I was made to feel that my essence made me an outsider—even to feel less than fully human in the eyes of others because of my skin color.

To be clear, being in predominantly white spaces regardless of locale—as a Black person—means knowing your very presence is being scrutinized. But in a place like Maine, where whiteness permeates the fabric of the state, it is an extra layer of scrutiny.

That problem is compounded by the lack of community and support. In recent years, as more people of color move to the state, things are shifting and there are communities of color being created and sustained, but those communities are still small. Unlike in larger cities with historically Black areas, there are few places in Maine where whiteness and, by extension, the stares don’t reach. Even the Black churches in Maine have white members. There are no fully Black spaces where whiteness isn’t present in some form. 

To live with such scrutiny takes a toll on you. You are always having to decipher the meaning of the stare. Is it just a curious stare, a quizzical stare, or a stare of hostility? In today’s climate, there is also the added layer of trying to ascertain that the person staring is not affiliated with any white supremacist outfits. 

Even after 21 years in Maine, I have not completely accepted the stares and to be clear, I still get them. Hell, I get them when I step outside my house for fresh air. Because I live on an island that is heavily overrun with tourists in the summer, sometimes that means stupid questions to accompany the stare. “Do you live here?” ask the tourists on the sidewalk. No, mothafukka, I think in my head, I am the help and that’s why I’m dressed in clearly going-out attire, exiting right in front of you from a private residence.

When a white person chooses to stare at someone, it is typically to question them and the legitimacy of their very presence—to assess them and to decide whether or not to pass judgment. The thing about the stare is that without intentionality, it is passed down in families. I have been quizzically eyeballed by children. 

I know that not all white people who stare have ill intent, but understand that by choosing to stare, you are saying what lives in your subconscious. You are announcing that you think certain people are out of place and don’t belong. The stare, regardless of intent, is not welcoming—the fact that it remains even in this day and age of “wokeness” is a reminder of just how much work remains for white people. But I fear that that current climate has put the brakes on racial justice growth for white people for a while.

In any case, I’m going to say it anyway for those still listening: It is not enough to say that you aren’t racist. You have to back that up with lived action and values. It starts with how you choose to engage with people who are different from you.  If you have ever found yourself staring at someone you perceive as “different,” ask yourself why you are doing that. Are you aware that you are creating an uncomfortable situation that is stressful for someone, or is this just another example of hidden privilege that of which you are unaware and need to rein in?

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Or consider bringing me to your organization or group.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Image by Edward Howell via Unsplash