When I played high school basketball, we travelled up to The County to play a couple times. Because of the distance we would stay with host families, and we attended social events. Even though I had to be one of the only dark-skinned people to cross the threshold of some of those doors in the mid-1980s, I was treated like all the other players.
I did foul out of every game I played up there. My father and I would bet on whether I’d foul out in the end of the third or beginning of the fourth quarter. In the referee’s defense, we did play a more physical game than was the norm for girl’s ball, myself especially, so there’s no evidence that fouling out was race-related.
And that about sums up my experience as a mixed-race person in Maine since 1973: At the worst I might sense some slight surprise at the sight of someone different, but most Mainers treat me just fine.
Mainers are so polite; I can tell the ones who show that slight surprise are uncomfortable with their own reaction. I usually throw down a gentle good-natured poke at the whole race thing, and the discomfort becomes laughter. I like that about Mainers, and I don’t want that to change in light of the current and necessary discussion about race in our state and across the nation.
I also don’t want Mainers portrayed as racist because that just hasn’t been the majority of my experience. While I appreciate the sentiments of the protesters in Portland, I kind of resent the fervor reaching such a pitch that people outside our state might perceive Maine as some racial hotbed.
It’s not, and I don’t want Mainers, who have mostly treated me so well, portrayed that way.
Is there racism in Maine? Yes. Have I ever been called a nigger in Maine? Yes. Have I ever felt unsafe as a black person in Maine? No. Most Mainers would be just as inclined to help a black person fix a flat on the side of the road as a white person.
Honestly, the situations that make me the most uncomfortable are the ones with Mainers who are overly conscientious about political correctness. They usually look confused by my race jokes and tend to want to talk about things linked to white guilt and slave ancestry.
In no way am I minimizing the important discussion our nation is having regarding police practices, especially regarding black men; and I have written with concern about the disproportionate number of blacks in incarceration. Further, the struggles of blacks to gain socio-economic footing post-slavery are very real as are the passions resulting from 150 of this very slow evolution.
In Maine our larger communities are experiencing the growing pains of becoming more multicultural, which adds a unique component to our part in the necessary dialogue. Dialoguing about uncomfortable subjects isn’t something polite people find easy to do. Most of the time even racist Mainers are too polite to use the “N” word when black people are around.
But occasionally someone does, and if there’s a child involved, it’s especially ugly. Generation after generation of children get this disturbingly heavy weight put on their heads called race in America. Grownups should have reached more resolution on this issue by now. It’s just not fair to children that we haven’t, any of them — black, white or otherwise.
Race is one of the many reasons I’ve raised my children understanding that life can be quite unfair. I remember being exposed to the issue and trying to come to terms with it long before I had the experience or cognitive capacity to do so. It was a developmental mind blow to try to figure out where I fit in this white/black thing when I knew I wasn’t the exact color of either one.
I knew I was adopted, and I must have finally asked about my skin because I remember being told my birth father was black and my birth mother was white. My father also suggested my color might have something to do with how much I loved chocolate milk. Finding out I was both colors made the race more confusing, and I kept that confusion to myself.
When my oldest was born, I tried to totally shield him from the topic, which was relatively easy in Maine. I attached no words to people’s skin tones. He spent the first few years of his life thinking it was perfectly normal to be lighter than his mother and a little darker than his dad, especially in summer. He saw his fair-skinned grandparents and relatives no differently than my best friend and constant in his life who was much darker than me. In my oldest’s mind, skin color was not a line of demarcation at all.
Until he went to school. I’ll never forget him coming home from some event he had attended without me. He was 5, and he had this really confused look on his face. I should have recognized a race-oriented rude-awakening in the making. I wrote a poem about the conversation we had that night at bedtime and have attached it to the end of this piece.
Born in the shadow of his brother’s rude awakening, my youngest was exposed to the issue much earlier. Almost eight years younger, he came of age listening to teenagers toss the race subject around as fodder for edgy humor. Like the time his brother got in trouble for running for class president on the tongue-in-cheek slogan, “Elect the first black president.” The teacher berating my son had no idea of his ethnicity and thought the whole thing was making fun of Obama.
Over the years I’ve tried to raise my kids to understand the weight race puts on their heads and how to carry it responsibly. Other than trying to make it lighter for the next generation, there’s not a darn thing they can do about it. I’ve tried to help them see the socioeconomic factors that make up the bulk of the weight. Like how freeing the slaves was the right thing to do, but doing so without a viable plan for socio-economic inclusion created the bulk of the mess that is race in America today. It’s a tragic but valuable lesson in the importance of planning.
I’ve tried to teach them not to own it if someone uses a racial slur as an insult. It’s better to be the “N” word than someone who uses the word in hate. If not ignored, such an action should prompt empathy, not outrage. Last time it happened, I laughed. On the other side of the “N”-word coin, my children have heard me use the word frequently with affection in private conversations.
Two times now, the third Monday of January has found me longing to call my best friend and say, “Happy “N” Day to my favorite “N,” but he passed away in 2013. I know, I know, there’s a million reasons why that’s inappropriate. For us, though, it prompted laughter and wonderful conversations about race and his grandfather who was a slave. My friend was 38 years my senior and a walking history book. And my favorite “N.”
So what’s my point? If people got all up in arms about someone using a racial slur toward my family, I’d be mortified. I know such a reaction is well intended, but were it my family, it would be unwanted well intention.
People have every right to feel passionately about whether police practices should be improved, whether the criminal justice system is fair, and whether socioeconomic opportunity is equally accessible to all. Black and poor people disproportionately struggle in these areas.
But please don’t portray the state I love as some hotbed of racial discontent, and please do not get upset if someone calls me an “N” out of hate or otherwise.
In our family we operate on the “penny and M&M principle,” which brings me back to basketball, Bangor Auditorium, Eastern Maine Finals, 1986.
We were getting smoked but came back to tie it up toward the end of the game. Somewhere in the upper bleaches of that infamous V shape, fans started throwing pennies and M&M’s on the court. Even though these items are small, by the time they traveled from the top of that V to the court to ricochet off a bare leg, they stung.
We started signaling our coach, trying to get him to stop the game. Instead, Coach Vachon called a timeout and chewed us out. He said the pennies and M&Ms were hitting players from both teams, but instead of complaining to their coach, the Stearns team was running up the score again. He said the clock was ticking, and the end buzzer was going to sound regardless of what the fans were doing.
We could either pay attention to the stings or play our game.
It was a great life lesson that I have shared so many times since. Life has its fouls and its game interferences, and when those don’t get called, it’s a problem. A random racial slur, though, is more like a penny or an M&M flung from the upper echelons of the old Bangor Auditorium.
It stings, especially for a child. Ideally such incidents wouldn’t happen. However, we are not there, yet. Until we are, we should help children learn not to let life’s hindrances keep them from playing their game.
The Color of Love
Sometimes when we talk
And I listen
I know why my son is here.
Like the time he said,
“Mom, you’re like brownish,”
He left the like brownish
Hanging like a giant comma
Waiting for my open quotation marks.
The exact tone and hesitation of the comma
Suggested he had a specific dialogue in mind
But I would not be privy to a script.
So I took a deep breath
“Yes, I am most definitely brownish.
Are you thinking about the word black?”
“Yes because people say you’re black,
But you’re not. You’re brownish,”
Again with the giant comma—
I fumble momentarily,
“It’s funny the word black like that …”
“Yes, because people are like maybe
Whitish, or vanilla-ish, and brownish, but never”
“Blackish?” I finish,
“I guess that’s one time when black
Is just a word, not a color;
Is it hard having a
Momma that’s a different color?”
“No, because of how much you love me.”
Flat. Like that. Period.
Me, I’m silently gushing exclamation points
All over the place.
“So I guess love doesn’t have
“No, definitely not.”
“I love you, sweetheart.”
“I love you, too, Momma.”
Trish Callahan lives in Augusta.