AUGUSTA, Maine — When 95 percent of the people around you have a different skin color, it’s hard not to notice that you’re different.
That reality marks life for people of color who live in Maine.
“I recently took my family to an agricultural fair,” said Professor Charles Nero, who moved from the South to teach rhetoric and African-American studies at Bates College in Lewiston. “In the back of my mind, I asked if I should bring my family there. I didn’t see other black people, but people were really nice to me. As a black person, you do think a lot about how freely you can move about.”
“I have an 8-year old daughter who is biracial. She and her mother, who is white, went to see a concert in Bangor,” said Pious Ali, a native of Ghana who now lives in Portland.
When she returned from the concert, Ali’s daughter asked him why there were so few people who look like her in the audience.
“In Portland, she sees a very diverse community,” he said. “She sees a lot of kids like her: Arabs, Asians, Hispanics. When she leaves Portland, she doesn’t see many other people. I think she was amazed when she looked around and saw very little diversity.”
Although Maine ranks just behind Vermont as the whitest state in the nation, census figures indicate that the Pine Tree State is slowly becoming more racially and culturally diverse. Ethnic populations increased in all 16 counties between 2000 and 2010.
And the state’s three largest metropolitan areas — Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn and Portland-South Portland — saw increases during the past decade of 6.2 percent, 3.8 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively, in the percentage of residents who identify their ethnicity as something other than non-Hispanic white, according to data compiled by Harvard School of Public Health.
But that change toward a more culturally diverse society in Maine occurred at a much slower pace than in most other parts of the United States during the past 30 years, according to a recently released Brown University study. That report lists Bangor, Lewiston-Auburn and Portland-South Portland among the 25 least diverse metro areas in the nation.
The Brown study measured how evenly population is spread across five groups: Hispanics of any race, non-Hispanic whites, blacks, Asians and “others,” which includes non-Hispanic Native Americans, other races and multiracial people.
While the number of Portland and Lewiston-Auburn residents who identified themselves as non-Hispanic blacks increased 109 percent and 496 percent, respectively, between 2000 and 2010, that ethnic group still only represents 1.5 percent of the overall population in Portland-South Portland and 3.6 percent of Lewiston-Auburn’s population, according to the Harvard School of Public Health information.
Why do so few people of color choose to live in Maine?
Ali, who moved to Portland from New York and founded the Maine Interfaith Youth Alliance “to create community dialogues” among young people of different backgrounds, believes “culture shock” has something to do with it.
Because Maine is a large, rural state with a few scattered metropolitan areas, “even for a white person from New York who moves here, there will be shock,” he said.
Being a person of color increases the challenge of adjusting to life in Maine, and being an immigrant makes it even more difficult, Ali said.
“You need support from people who understand you,” he said. While most Mainers he has encountered are “warm-hearted” and try to be supportive, they don’t share the common experience of being a relatively new immigrant.
“I honestly think there are a lot of people out there who want to understand where you come from. I’ve been a lot of places where people are open-minded,” he said. “But people are scared of what they don’t know. The fear of the unknown plays a big role.”
Young people who come to Maine from more ethnically diverse communities, especially those where white people are a minority, often feel “anxious about moving to a different kind of place,” said Laura Lee, assistant dean of student affairs at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. Lee advises international students and coordinates the college’s host family program for them.
The weather and isolation from a major city top concerns among international and nonwhite students, according to Lee. “Being a really white state did not seem to be their top association with Maine,” she said.
Having grown up in the warm climate of Ghana, Ali said that adapting to Maine’s cold winters played a role in his adjustment to life here.
But Nero warns that blaming the cold for Maine’s limited diversity feeds a false, negative stereotype.
“I don’t agree that cold and remote location discourage migration,” he said. “There is a historic black population in this state. Black people have a pioneering spirit and have moved to diverse regions of the nation. There is this belief that does circulate that black people are warm-climate people. That’s not true.”
Instead, Nero points to Maine’s rural character and economic climate as factors that discourage people of color from settling in the state.
“Diversity is created by economic reality,” Nero said. “Currently in Maine, we don’t have those economic realities. The [Brown University] study refers to certain kinds of business and educational structures that attract diversity. Maine doesn’t have those. Half of Maine is called the ‘unorganized territories.’ We are a very rural state.”
Nero and Ali both question whether government can directly affect the level of diversity in Maine.
As with so many other challenges Maine faces, the best way government could help would be to promote job creation, according to Nero. “Government actions have to deal with how we make the economy of Maine more robust, so that it is a location that is desirable to a greater diversity of people,” he said.
Ali notes that immigrants often distrust government.
“The government would not know who my neighbor is,” he said. “They make people sign up for things. I think it’s more effective to work person to person.”
A government approach to diversification that inherently devalues cultures not based on European models also creates barriers between people of different ethnicities, according to a Wampanoag man named gkisedtanamoogk. He is an adjunct instructor in peace, reconciliation and Native American studies at the University of Maine.
For example, environmental policies make it more difficult for indigenous people, including the Penobscot Nation and Maine’s other tribes, to maintain their cultural integrity, he said.
An assumption that “Westernization” improves American culture produces the corresponding — and damaging — notion that “anything of importance that comes from indigenous knowledge is considered somehow less important,” according to gkisedtanamoogk.
“As a society, we’re more open to other cultures and less open to indigenous cultures,” he said. “But for certain, multiculturalism is crucial in the framework of world relationships. Within that mingling, there should be more respect for indigenous knowledge. We have to have a different relationship with each other and deeper respect.”
To foster that type of respect, Ali encourages an approach that frames the issue as a shared attempt to achieve “plurality” rather than diversity.
The responsibility to reach out doesn’t just rest with Mainers, according to Ali. “People who move here must reach out, too, and work to understand the culture and the society,” he said.
“Not only do we live next to each other, but we need to make an effort to understand each other,” he said. “We don’t need to agree. The bottom line is that underneath all the differences, we all have the same human bodies.”
Robert Long is a political analyst for the BDN.