A New Approach to Combating Racism in Maine

A march last year organized by Portland's Racial Justice Congress. photo/PRJC
A march last year organized by Portland’s Racial Justice Congress. photo/PRJC

A New Approach to Combating Racism in Maine
An op-ed by Lindiwe Priscilla Krasin

I write this in utter dismay at the persistence of racism in Maine. I need to talk about the interpersonal racism I have experienced here and my efforts to end it for myself and others.

When I was a little girl, I lived on Peaks Island for two years. Peaks Island is the first place I was called a nigger. One does not forget things like this, because they change one’s outlook profoundly.

This was the 1980s. My sister and I were the only children of African descent living there. Other than my biracial family, the island was lily white. While rap music was already taking off in New York, all we ever listened to on the island were the big hair-metal bands. There were no Reggae Sundays back then!

One day after school, while my friends and I were playing on the streets of the island, a young boy named Orion called me a nigger.  This was out of the blue, completely unexpected. I chased him right up to his family’s house. All I wanted was an apology. Though he never did say sorry, he certainly never called me a nigger again.

Now a woman of 38, I have been called a nigger many times in Maine since. To be frank, as ugly as the word sounds when it comes out of a white person’s mouth, I figure, “Better the devil I know…” Openly racist people — crackers, rednecks, or hick racists — are not the dangerous ones. It is the white, privileged racists of the conservative left, who live quietly as supporters of “good causes,” that are the most dangerous.

The racism of the conservative left is extremely dangerous because it is stiff-upper-lip, class-based bigotry. Ironically, it is now all tied up in the multicultural and diversity movements for which Maine so lauds itself. Many of the funders of Maine’s multicultural and diversity initiatives are members of the conservative left. They are the money men (and women) black Mainers are forced to court in order to pay for projects big or small.

Unlike the political right in Maine, who openly show that they have zero interest in humoring the idea that racism is still an issue, the conservative left agree that it nominally exists. They opine that by funding things like multicultural concerts, bean suppers, lectures and mixed-race summer camps, they are successfully addressing the issue. These events are spaces in which black Mainers and black culture are simply an entertainment for well-off white folk. Though these events do help a select, small number of black Mainers get white patronage and realize some success in the educational and professional sectors of society, they do exactly zero to combat racism or build a safety net for the larger, growing black population in Maine.

The black leaders here are spiritually broken. There is a visible weariness about them caused by their fetishized existence at the hands of the conservative left — the money they court is the same money that causes their weary looks. Aside from the questionable benefits accorded a tokenized black elite, Maine gives no sustenance to black folks.

It is time for serious reflection and change. Courting the conservative left is no longer the way to heal the disease of racism in Maine. It has not worked yet. It is not going to ever work.

I was recently speaking with a white sister who has a vested interest in racial justice. She said something I have only ever heard out of the mouths of black people: that Maine and the rest of northern New England are the most racist places in America. She placed some of the blame on the aforementioned dynamics involving the conservative left.

She went on to explain that the racism of white women in Maine is particularly venomous because they are gatekeepers to services and education for poor black women and families. We have to deal with their racism just to eke out an existence. She also explained that sexuality and race are linked. We do not just live as black people in Maine. The racism we face also has a sexual aspect. As an ex-sex worker who speaks and writes about gender and sexuality, I knew all of this, but had never heard a white woman say these things. Our conversation was a turning point in my life.

I have been blogging about racism in Maine and northern New England for a decade, but I’ve always taken my blogs down. My writing has been used against me in court and in other situations. Every time I have said Maine is extremely racist it has caused me to be marginalized. When I started following Shay Stewart-Bouley’s Black Girl in Maine blog, I realized she has faced the exact same thing. (Unlike her, my writing on race has never been accepted or requested by any publication — until now, that is.) If I had not come across her blog, I am not sure I would have the courage to openly discuss racism in Maine anymore. It is socially dangerous to do this — even black Mainers get angry. I have been snubbed many a time just for telling my truth.

The time has come for the emergence of a new infrastructure to protect Maine’s multi-ethnic, multi-class black population from racism. The safety net that has been accorded the well-nourished, but timid, black elite is no longer going to cut it, because it only helps them — the rest of us are left to wade through Maine’s racist culture on our own.

An example of structured racism is the child-protective system, which is riddled with racist frameworks and social workers who are always adversarial to biological parents. Marginal black women and families have zero protection from this system, and when their children are taken it is very hard to get them back.

Maine’s medical and mental-health systems are riddled with racist doctors and, especially, racist female nurses. When black clients complain that racism is a stressor in their lives, mental-health workers conclude the clients are experiencing paranoia or depression. The black homeless in Maine are accorded even worse treatment than homeless whites, and the domestic-violence-shelter workers here are some of the most spiritually violent racists I have ever seen. I sound like I am exaggerating, but I am not.

The black GLBTQ population is also in a terrible position in Maine. They ally with the white GLBTQ set and find a limited welcome. Maine’s GLBTQ movement has no vested interest in being anti-racist. Now that gay marriage is legal, they do not have to ascribe to liberal paradigms. Most of the GLBTQ people I have met in Maine are conservatives on the left, and this will only increase as their population continues to mainstream. They are not going to entertain the idea of addressing their white privilege and racism. They no longer have to.

I believe all closed doors are an opportunity for the opening of new paths. Though the NAACP was active in Maine for many years, I am not sure they are capable of tackling racism here alone, or perhaps at all. The local chapter has been largely dormant for a long time. (The scandal earlier this year, when the Los Angeles chapter attempted to give a lifetime achievement award to a major donor who is also a known racist, seems emblematic of what the NAACP has become.)

I place my hope in the recent organizing that has taken place in the wake of the Eric Garner case. Portland’s Racial Justice Congress movement appears to have a framework that fits my own. They dare to express the ideology that all black lives matter, not just one type of black people.

Inspired by this new anti-racism movement, I will continue to build my own platform south of Portland, and will continue to seek collaboration with other individuals and entities dedicated to human rights and social justice across the board. On January 30, at the McArthur Public Library in Biddeford, a small group of organizers are coming together to present the first Human Rights and Social Justice Biddeford platform. It’s a day-long event meant to encourage interest in, and dialogue about, these issues. Groups involved thus far include the Southern Maine Workers’ Center, Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights, and the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition.

Unlike Portland, where this type of organizing is already going on, in this part of the state there is none. There is a lot of work to do to make this world a good place, and it takes all hands on deck to do it. I am very excited and humbled to play my small part in this new stage of Maine’s, and America’s, history. Though none of us know what the future holds, as we walk into 2015, let us hope Maine will develop a safety net that protects black folks from racism in the years to come. The current situation in this state is nothing short of unbearable, and only we can change it!

Lindiwe Priscilla Krasin lives in Saco and is a graduate student studying sex and sexuality in modern and contemporary Middle Eastern art, at Goddard College. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Progressive Social Work. For more information about the Jan. 30 event in Biddeford, e-mail lpk@sexandsafari.com.

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