When the now notorious Joe Dunne signs went up in Lewiston labeling mayoral candidate Ben Chin “Ho Chi Chin,” I saw many well-intentioned people imply that the scenario represented an anomaly. “This is not Maine,” they asserted.
But this is Maine, and that’s the problem.
I understand where folks are coming from when they suggest these things, but such a proclamation is counterproductive to their good intentions.
Most immediately, this suggestion invalidates the experiences of those in Maine who experience racism on a regular basis. More broadly, the first step in confronting a problem is to acknowledge that you have one in the first place. We fight cancer, but we first acknowledge that it exists, then treat it accordingly. Saying “I don’t have cancer” because that’s the idealized scenario is a nonstarter.
When one declares that such blatant displays of racism don’t represent Maine, I imagine the statement to mean “this is not the Maine I care to be represented by” or “we should be aspiring to more than this.”
Understandably, Mainers feel fatigued by the negative attention that has been drawn to the state over the past five years. And I love this state so much, so I understand the desire to highlight the good in the people, the landscape and sense of community. Bill Nemitz highlighted as much in his commentary about the debacle.
But we need to realize and acknowledge that racism exists in order to root it out. Unfortunately, cognitive dissonance gets in our way of doing so. We — particularly those relatively untouched by its negative impact — think racism looks like the Klan, and because we don’t see any burning crosses it’s a thing of the past, right? As one person with a Confederate flag avatar pointed out, Maine was of the first abolitionist states.
And we can’t possibly be responsible for or own whatever racism exists here because we are not bad people. But the chasm between not being a bad person and actively trying to become a better person is wide, and we tend to let ourselves off the hook easily.
A number of people got in touch after reading my blog post on this subject earlier this week to let me know how not racist they know Maine to be. I believe they believe they are telling the truth: No Klan and only occasionally does overt racism enter the political narrative.
But just last week I heard someone comment on how it was obvious that some sketchy drivers we’d experienced were black before we’d even seen them. I grew up around very casual employment of the N-word at school and around town. Either I’m the only one having these experiences — I’m a magnet for it, for some strange reason — or we’re not being honest about what is immediately before us and all around us.
It can be hard to recognize these tendencies when we believe they imply evil. In other words, we might not believe ourselves and loved ones to be capable of racism — even though evidence points to the contrary — because we don’t see ourselves on horseback in hoods. Aside from an off-color comment here or an overreaction there, we see ourselves as otherwise decent people. And this is true. I live in an area where neighbors will do nearly anything for you at any time. But with that sweetness come some sour doses in a place where backward attributes can be embraced, adopted and overlooked. It doesn’t always come in the form of a crass sign.
Racism is at the core of the very real problems we have to tackle in order to make progress, to become a destination, to retain a workforce that will propel this state’s economy. We can’t become the Maine we imagine when we suggest racist incidents and commentary are merely exceptional outbursts.
Racism, we must acknowledge, goes beyond tempter tantrums and political statements; it is institutionalized and abstract. It manifests itself in ways whites can rarely perceive. If we are to confront it, then we must first admit that it is part of our reality. Otherwise, we render ourselves incapable of curing this illness.
Alex Steed has written about and engaged in politics since he was a teenager. He’s an owner-partner of a Portland-based content production company and lives with his family, dogs and garden in Cornish.