Amara Ifeji (left) and Ijeoma Obi, who recently graduated from Bangor High School, dealt with racism throughout their high school years at the predominantly white school. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

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“Racism is my high school experience,” Kosi Ifeji, a 15-year-old Black student at Bangor High School, told the BDN as part of an eye-opening story published Tuesday. “I know it sounds bad, but it really is.”

Think about that, and give it time to really sink in.

If anyone needed proof that racism exists here in the whitest state in America, it’s right here in this story. Right here in Bangor.

A group of four Black students described how they regularly hear white students use the N-word in school hallways, bathrooms and on buses — sometimes having that word directed at them. They described how they’ve heard white supremacy and slavery defended. They described having to walk out of class or quit extracurricular activities as the offensive comments persisted. A fifth student described being told multiple times by classmates to “go back where I came from.”

And, perhaps most importantly, these students described ways that school leaders failed them after these comments and actions were reported.

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Superintendent Betsy Webb and high school principal Paul Butler told the BDN that they were unaware of most of the incidents (so they knew about some) outlined by these five students. They said that the school department doesn’t tolerate racism and descrimination, even when meant as a joke or coming from a position of ignorance rather than malice.

But there is clearly a disconnect between what officials say they do not tolerate, and what Mainers of color are being asked to tolerate from their peers. It’s time for all of us, as a community, to speak in one voice and make it clear that this type of racist behavior and environment is not acceptable, and to put policies and systems in place to root them out.

“Schools in general, and certainly the Bangor School Department, have been too silent,” Webb said. “We cannot be silent anymore. We have to talk about these things, and we have to listen to our students, our employees and our families.”

Listening and committing to speaking up are good first steps but concrete action will also be necessary, here in Bangor and across the state. Following Tuesday’s article, the school department announced that it will order an outside investigation.

We agree with Michael Alpert, the president of the Greater Bangor Area branch of the NAACP, who said that appears to be a good first step.

“But the problem of racism in schools in Maine and Bangor in particular runs very deep,” Alpert said. “It’s a long history, and what’s going to be needed are a lot of steps.”

We said earlier that this story is eye-opening. But for many Mainers of color, it may feel all too familiar. And that’s not just a problem now, it’s a problem for our future.

“I love the state of Maine. It has afforded me so many opportunities. But I know to be the person that I want to be, I can’t stay here. It’s just not an option for me,” said Amara Ifeji, who graduated earlier this month. “I can remember all the social injustices that I had to go through, and every racially motivated incident that I had to go through. And it’s quite sad that those are the sentiments that I’m leaving Bangor High School with.”

Refusing to acknowledge and deal with racist incidents and structural injustices is not only a dangerous form of silence against our neighbors of color, it’s also pushing away bright, talented, courageous young people at a time when our state couldn’t need them more.

“It is exhausting being a student of color at Bangor High School, so I was so happy to have had these last three months off because I physically can’t deal with the students in my class anymore,” Amara said.

The need for action doesn’t fall solely to administrators and teachers. Parents must educate their children about the power of words and the dangers of racism, and yes, even other students have a responsibility as well to step in and step up for their classmates.

The story of these five Bangor students is also a reminder of how eloquent and courageous young people can be. Those qualities aren’t reserved only for students sharing their own experiences of pain and mistreatment; white students can and should use them to speak out in support of their Black peers.

It is worth acknowledging that everyone, particularly young people, make mistakes and don’t always realize the impact of their words. It is certainly possible that some of these events came from a place of ignorance rather than hatred. But after reading a story like this, and listening to how racism has defined students’ high school years, people can’t use ignorance as an excuse anymore.

Mainers of all ages should listen to these experiences, reflect on their own actions, and make the decision now to be part of the solution moving forward.