Go Back to Where You Came From, or Casual Racism

In big cities, warmer weather often seems to correlate to an increase in crime and in Maine, I am starting to wonder if warmer weather correlates to an increase in random and casual racism. Looking back on my years in Maine, it seems that spring and summer is the peak season for casual racist experiences. Maybe we just need a year-round chill in the weather so that people can stay chill.

My week started with me giving a keynote address on racism and having a conversation with young immigrant women about the racism they encounter living in Maine. Then a few days ago, I had my own experience that reminded of just how powerful words are and how, when they are wielded as a weapon, they can cut as deeply as the sharpest knife.

Several days ago, I was walking along Portland’s waterfront en route to the ferry terminal so that I could head back home after running a few errands. I walked past two older white men on a bench who appeared down on their luck and most likely homeless. I didn’t formulate any judgments about them personally at first; however, as I walked past them one of them yelled out “Go back to to your own country!” Given that I was the only person of color on the sidewalk at that time, it was clear that I was recipient of the comment.

Let the judgments begin, I thought…

In that moment, just a few feet away from their bench, I stopped and started to turn back around to actually give the gent on the bench a piece of my mind as I toyed with the idea of just slapping the man. I realize that even saying this sounds over the top but sometimes you get sick and tired of being sick and tired. And, let me just be honest: I am tired of white people thinking they have the right to say whatever thoughts come to mind without regard for my humanity. Or the humanity of anyone they deem to be “less than.” The man’s words weren’t as jarring as being called a nigger but make no mistake: In choosing to say those words, his implication was that I don’t belong here (even though I was born and raised in this country and descend from enslaved Africans) and his desire was to intimidate me into leaving “his” country.

Last night I found myself in a work-related conversation with a representative from a group that works with African immigrants in New Hampshire, and she shared that one of the most common comments their program participants hear is “Go back to where you came from.”

America is a nation built on the stolen land of indigenous people and built with the labor of enslaved people; those stolen people were my ancestors and if a white American feels that this is their home, well it’s my home too. America is a country of immigrants and newcomers of all hues and stripes. Unless said people have a far darker hue and then, no matter what our background, we are are seen as outsiders by much of white America, perhaps even most of it.

I have lived 43 years in this body called Black and female, and I recognize that racism is one of the many illness that America the nation suffers from. While it never gets easier to deal with racism, there is a place where, for self preservation, you just don’t allow every incident to touch your inner spirit. That man on the bench annoyed me and while I wanted to say something, I decided to walk away and trust that the ugliness he chose to dole out will be repaid to him a thousandfold. I believe that what we put into the universe does come back to us in one form or another and if hate is what we hold in our hearts, we will have to face that at some point in our lives.

As an adult, I have the ability to manage dealing with hate. What concerns me is the impact of racism and bigotry on developing minds. I know that last year when my daughter first heard that ugly word of nigger, the experience affected for months quite intensely, to the point she feared going into any part of Portland. Even now her anxiety around young white men comes up. What about young people whose families have braved things that Americans can’t even begin to imagine who are hearing words of “Go back” on a regular basis? How do you make a home in a place that is legally your home yet people insist that you don’t belong? How do you find peace when the simple act of walking down the street and dodging the stares and the comments is simply another act of warfare being done against your person?

We know now that verbal abuse harms children and yet too few of us will do anything against the casual racism that is meted out against people who are different than us.

Racism is abuse and yet we expect the people who are most affected by racism to save the collective us from racism; it’s not unlike asking abused spouses/partners/children to fix abusive behavior against them. Just another toxic byproduct of America’s longstanding and deeply ingrained racism and white supremacy; it is interwoven into the fabric of almost everything and it help give more weight and power to racism and racist acts.

We can do better. So let’s, shall we?
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Delusions of Change…We Must Do Better Now

Today’s post is dedicated to all the women and girls color in the state of Maine who stand tall in the face of racism and continue to work in the face of hate. To the girls who steal shy glances and laugh the carefree laugh that only the young truly know. To all the Black girls in Maine because we are here and I see you.

Yesterday I was the keynote speaker at the YWCA Central Maine’s Stand Against Racism event, which was part of the national YWCA’s Stand Against Racism programming. At this stage in my career, I speak with groups on a fairly regular basis but nothing could  prepare me for the emotional heaviness that I felt at yesterday’s event.

Truthfully, my keynote wasn’t my strongest speech ever, owing partly to the fact that since my return to work after surgery I have, as usual, taken on too much (and/or been required to do too much). After several weekends in a row of work-related events, my cup is close to empty. It seems that in returning to a mostly pain-free existence, the key to staying pain-free is recognizing my own human limits and putting my Superwoman cape in the closet as much as often.

But back to the YWCA and Stand Against Racism.

The audience for yesterday’s event had more people of color than many of my events and as we moved to the panel discussion, that’s where my own mask came off and the collective weight of racism just slapped me in the face. A group of young Muslim women…students in the Lewiston-Auburn area mostly…had been gathered to ask me questions but early on it was clear that we were having a conversation as women and girls of color about the lived realities of racism and, more importantly, our very existence living in one of the whitest states in America.

One young woman shared about walking down the street and grown white men yelling nigger at her. Another talked about being involved in an extracurricular program to promote literacy and a young white child telling her that because she was Black, she couldn’t work with her. Stories of blatant and ugly racism being directed at teenagers. At young people trying to do better and make a difference. Young people whose only “crime” is their skin color. Then we opened the questions up to the audience and a biracial man shared how his white mother used to call refer to him as her “nigger baby” and he had always been an outsider because he wasn’t white. One of the last people to ask me a question was an elderly Black man who was clearly well known in the community (turned out that he was one of the first Black teachers in Maine, having taught for almost five decades, and having served in positions for several Maine governors). As a true elder, he has seen his share of racism and oppression and he came to bear witness to the change in Maine…that we now openly discuss racism and some of us are even working to create change…while also acknowledging how much hasn’t changed during all his decades.

Dialogues on racism, while informative and eye opening, are simply not enough. There are real people living with the real emotional and mental weight (and sometimes literal pain) of racism because racism in many ways is like high blood pressure. You know it’s there and it might not kill you today but if you don’t make changes over time, it will weaken the body and cause harm that will eventually kill you before your time.

Given the state of race relations in America at this moment, there is great interest in workshops and training on diversity, equity and anti-racism efforts, which are needed. But even more so, we need programs to help those who live with racism to craft whole lives, to learn to find the joy and to get out of the fight-or-flight response that in many ways is the normal unconscious conditioning for those of who feel the pain of racism. How can I truly relax when I know at any minute someone might attempt to steal my humanity by reducing me to nothing more than the color of my skin and a heap of stereotypes with words or perhaps ultimately even physical violence? How can I relax when a carload of white boys can yell that hateful N-word and steal my children’s joy in an instant and leave them an emotional wreck over it for weeks…even months…afterward?

Living in a small state like Maine, where every person of color is about two degrees of separation away from each other, I know that there are many of us toiling in the trenches, giving far too much of ourselves trying to make this space better for the next generation of Mainers of color. Still, the act of dismantling racism requires all hands on deck. It means that if we are sincere about racial equity, recognizing that righting the wrongs that were created long before any of us alive today were born means that to balance the scales we have to give up something that we hold dear. We decrease a little of ourselves to increase someone else to create wholeness for us all.  In other words, for the most part, it means white people need to give up a ton of unearned privilege, accommodations and access to systems so that everyone has a fair shot at those things (since most non-white folks are every bit as deserving). That’s a lot to ask and a lot to give and ultimately a barrier to change.

Lastly, I ask my white friends and readers to think about the toll it takes on people of color to work for racial change. One of the last people I met at yesterday’s event was Fahmo Amed. Her story was recently told in a local paper. She shared with me how, since her story of being Muslim came out, she has received support but she has also received hate mail. Even hate mail received at her place of employment that was so intimating the local authorities have had to get involved. Nothing she shared with me is surprising, given that I now avoid going to my own speaking engagements alone after several uncomfortable encounters (and heaven knows, every few months, I get a letter that makes me reconsider my stance on handguns and carrying them).  I know other women of color who do work similar to mine across the country and many of us have had encounters as result of the words we write and speak where we are reminded that there are people who would happily harm us.  Still we carry on because to do nothing is to surrender and change never happens if you do that. With that, I leave you with the words of that great orator, Frederick Douglass:

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others. 
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Open Letter to Gov. Paul LePage from a Black Mainer

Dear Paul,

I hope that you don’t mind, but I am going to call you by your first name. I don’t stand on formality and titles are so overrated. Besides, to be frank, using language like “Honorable” doesn’t quite feel right in the context of what I need to say to you.

Paul, I am hoping this post reaches you but seeing as how you have publicly stated that you don’t really read the newspaper and don’t care much for journalists or blogger types, I am not holding out much hope that you will actually read this. However, I am hoping that one of your handlers will get wind of this and share the contents with you. Because I think you need to hear what I have to say.

My name is Shay Stewart-Bouley and I am a Black woman who lives in Maine. I write a blog called Black Girl in Maine and I have written for publications such as the Portland Press Herald, Journal Tribune, Portland Phoenix and the now-defunct Dig Portland. I have even appeared in a few national publications as well as a few anthologies. However, I am not a writer by trade. No, my current day job is as Executive Director of Boston based Community Change Inc, the oldest continuously running anti-racism organization in the country.

I currently live in the Portland area on one of the islands of Casco Bay though I spent many years in Saco and still have a family home there.

Paul, I have a big problem with the false narrative that you have been constructing around Maine’s horrendous drug problem. First off, Maine really does have a serious drug problem. From York County up to The County, drugs are a huge problem. However, this narrative that  you are fixated on is wrong and it’s downright dangerous. You seem hell bent on blaming out-of-state Black people, specifically Black men, for bringing their drugs up to Maine…thus insinuating that these out-of-state Black folks are the ones causing this drug epidemic.

You keep waffling on the race piece. I mean, you have always had some issues around race. I won’t go into your past because presumably you recall, but to be frank, I don’t think that you think that Black people are part of Maine’s history. Which is pretty funny seeing as how books like H.H Price’s Maine’s Visible Black History: The First Chronicle of Its People does a marvelous job of documenting the history of Black people in Maine. Never mind that many of our fine institutions in this state such as the University of Southern Maine even has an African American Collection of Maine History. I am just saying Paul…Black people have roots here. Some of them very deep and long roots. We are part of the community, albeit a small percentage, but we do exist.

The thing is that right now you are clinging to a dangerous rhetoric that causes Black people to be “othered” and given how on-edge people are about this drug epidemic, frankly I think it’s only a matter of time before someone is going to get hurt. After all, you have cracked wise about Maine being an open carry state and that maybe Mainers should just shoot dealers. Of course, every time you make one of these highly offensive remarks, you attempt to spin it but frankly I am tired of it and your latest comment about how you had to scream at the top of your lungs about Black dealers to the state legislature was the final straw for me.

Look, you don’t have to like me, I don’t have to like you. But as the chief officer of this state, you need to mind the gap between thoughts and words. You actually need to be a responsible and reasonable human being in addressing the state’s drug epidemic rather than assigning blame to Black boogeymen. Yes, there have been some Black folks from out of state who have been caught dealing up here but how do you think they got here? Real talk, Paul…someone had to tell these characters that there was even a market up here. My guess is that some white folks in Maine made those connections to even get that ball rolling. Trust me Paul, while you may see Black people especially Black men as subhuman magical beings that just landed in Maine and set up a drug shop, the reality is that it had to start here and most likely it started with white people. Never mind that last year, there was a record number of meth busts; pretty much everyone I have seen arrested on meth charges is a white person. Hell, meth pretty much seems to be a white boy’s game if we are being honest.

The thing is, your rhetoric isn’t doing anything to get help for Mainers struggling with addiction. After all, you have made it virtually impossible for single low-income folks to access healthcare. We have few treatment options to begin with and that says nothing for addressing the reasons why so many in our state are going down this path to begin with. Instead you are going for the cheap fearmongering tactics which aren’t getting anything solved.

Frankly, it is hard to be Black in a state like Maine. Hell, I moved here back in 2002 for family reasons and it continues to be a struggle to plant roots in a place where I am from away and I am Black. Raising kids in this state, however, gives me a moral imperative to speak up because I want my kids to feel that this is a safe state for them.  My eldest at 24 has long had to endure the weight of Blackness and maleness in this state. Our story isn’t unique. I know more than a few Black families in Maine where the duality of Blackness and maleness causes our sons to flee this state. I know Black women here who are reconsidering if Maine is a place where they can raise their families. In most cases these are white-collar, college-educated folks…a demographic that this state could use given that we have the oldest population in the state.

Paul, I guess I should wind this up but I would love to sit down and talk about race relations and give you some professional guidance wearing my professional hat. Though I suspect this post is nothing more than me spitting in the wind. However, I believe in the power of faith and I believe in the possibility of change so perhaps you or your handlers will reach out  to me so we can start a productive dialogue that will result in you not demonizing Black people and in real solutions to addressing the drug issue. Thanks for your time!

Shay Stewart-Bouley, M.Ed, aka Black Girl in Maine

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