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I spoke with other black women in Portland about racism. Here’s what I found

Posted Aug. 19, 2016, at 9:46 a.m.
Last modified Aug. 22, 2016, at 9:41 a.m.

“Vote Trump! Make America great again!”

Tanya Lima, 25, of Portland, looked up from her lemonade and into the faces of three white men aggressively yelling at her as they walked by.

“White lives matter!”

Lima had been relaxing at a Portland coffee shop on a recent Wednesday morning before work. Now, confusion and anger built in her body. She watched, almost from a distance, as everyone else continued their day. No one around her offered support. They even avoided eye contact.

“They just kept walking,” Lima recalled.

Disheartened, she wondered whether she should have chased the men down to confront them. She wondered about the reactions of other people within earshot. Then, she picked herself up, packed away her unresolved feelings, and went to work.

I’d been listening to stories like Lima’s all week — stories from black women about the experiences we have had in Maine — experiences we had to live through only because of the skin we are in. I spoke to black women who claimed simultaneous identities: LGBTQ, Muslim, immigrant and people with disabilities.

In our discussions, I wondered what determined whether we would share our experiences with others. For many of us, it comes down to the relationship. Are you really my friend? Have we seen the inside of each other’s homes? Do our children play together? Do we socialize together? Do we have a relationship built on trust and mutual respect?

Now, I’ve been to marches, rallies, vigils, forums, and most recently, the Portland Racial Justice Congress’ disruptive protest on July 15. I watched a panel discussion on “ Race Relations in Maine and in preparing to write this post I researched some of what has already been written on the subject in the state throughout the years.

It seems to me that with every new incident or iteration of the movement, people question the very existence of racism in Maine.

Dear reader, I need you to know that there are racists among us in 2016. And they are emboldened by Trump’s recent visit to Portland. I need you to believe people of color have traumatic experiences of racism in Maine — interpersonal, structural and violent. I need you to hear it, see it, so that we can begin to address it together. As a black woman and a mother, I feel the need to address systemic racism with a fierce sense of urgency. We need to do this as a community. Right now.

Perhaps, that is one value of disruptive protest: to interrupt daily routines of those who otherwise wouldn’t engage with the issue. To communicate a sense of urgency that some may not relate to.

Edwige Charlot, 29, of Portland, spoke with me about the trusting relationships she’d cultivated, her “village.” She described the sisterhood she felt with her friends, many of whom are white and had done significant inner work on confronting their privilege and implicit bias. She shares her experiences of racism with this group.

Charlot also described the litany of questions she faces when she first meets someone. How do I pronounce your name? Where are you from? There are black people in France?

These conversations are happening even in predominantly white, liberal, progressive and highly-educated spaces, she emphasized. Strangers express surprise over her own level of education and how articulate she is — making her feel as though she is “constantly having to prove your worth and your contribution.”

Samaa Abdurraqib, 39, of South Portland, talked to me about how these constant interactions, or microaggressions, can wear on a spirit.

“It does happen that you just don’t believe anymore that your stories or experiences are going to be validated,” she said.

Shay Stewart-Bouley connected her experience of her family being called niggers in Old Port and the silence of those around her to power, privilege and relationships.

“Part of the reason that whites aren’t aware of what life is like for Black folks or other people of color is that far too many white people live, work and love in spaces that are all white. Too many white people don’t have real connections to Black folks or other non-white people and in a state like Maine, it is fairly easy to live your entire life never interacting with or knowing a non-white person. This creates a perfect setting for assuming that there is no racism,” she wrote.

When I asked about Abdurraqib’s approach to addressing racism she said, “In my life in Maine, I mostly refrain from talking about my individual experiences with racism. Because I don’t need the caretaking of me to overshadow the institutional racism. People will say, ‘I’m sorry that happened to you’ but ignore whether there are people of color represented in boards, government institutions, and so on. Everyone wants to feel their feelings but not do the work to eradicate.”

Personally, I don’t tell just anybody about my own experiences with racism. These are some of my most vulnerable, traumatic moments. If I’m going to share them, it has to be someone I trust with my heart. Someone who I know won’t force me to defend my perspective gained through so much lived experience. Someone who has more than a rudimentary analysis of racism in America. Someone who believes just about anything can happen, at any time, in any place in America, for any person of color. Basically, a really good friend.

When I do choose to share my experiences of racism in Maine with white people, often they shake their heads and express disbelief that racism is still a thing.

Marena Blanchard is an early childhood educator, mother, and community activist. She lives in Portland with her family.

 

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