For so many things in life, there's The Talk. Sometimes The Talk is when we sit our children down to discuss the birds and the bees. For Black parents, The Talk means having to coach their kids about how to deal with police officers in ways that white kids and parents never have to think about.
But The Talk doesn't only involve parents and kids. Sometimes, The Talk involves grownup-to-grownup conversations. And The Talk that we desperately need in this country — the Talk that doesn't get Talked — is The Talk about racism in America.
One of the hardest parts of talking openly and honestly about racism is the lack of shared understanding of what exactly racism is. Any sincere discussion of racism must involve looking at it from four dimensions: internal, interpersonal, institutional and cultural. Unfortunately most discussions around racism never progress beyond the internal and interpersonal, thus missing a large part of the discussion.
It’s hard enough to explore one’s own racism. It’s hard enough to talk about racism expressed by one individual to another, from calling someone the N-word to waving around Confederate flags to treating people of color differently — and often worse — than white people in customer service or medical care.
But to explore how racism permeates our institutions and the overall culture? That's critical, and rarely discussed enough. The fact that institutions have seen very little change in the level of racism supports this. In many institutions and cultural behaviors, it’s gotten worse.
In Maine, the prevailing thought has long been that the relatively low numbers of people of color means there is little to no racism in Maine. Hard stop here. Racism does not require people of color to be present — the racist framework is already in place regardless of who is present.
Racism, in short, depends less on personal feelings and more on who has access to power and the privilege to make laws and policies. Often, these laws and policies negatively impact others and favor the dominant group. In this country, it's always been the case that laws and policies are predominantly created by white men and tend to favor white people, while other policies adversely affect non-white people, in particular Black and brown people.
That’s why the recent increase of white men in Maine in positions of power (or running for them) holding views that are clearly not inclusive of others is problematic. Over the last couple months, that's included Tom Kawcynzski to Leslie Gibson to Mike Downing.
Kawcynzski, the now-former town manager in Jackman, was looking to create a white utopia in Northern Maine. Then Gibson, a Republican candidate for the Maine House who openly disparaged teen survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting using offensive language. Finally, Downing, an RSU 16 bus driver who was fired for referring to Martin Luther King Day as N-Word Day and has been accused of using sexists slurs — and who was recently elected to the RSU School board. In other words, he is now on the board that supervises the same superintendent that fired him for his racist and sexist language.
Some have theorized that people surrounding these men most likely didn’t know this vital information before they ran for office or even when they were voting for them. That may be true, but that lack of knowledge is aided by people’s silence on racism and the unwillingness by so many white people to publicly call out other white people. That type of silence that makes folks complicit in structural racism.
In the case of Kawczynski, there were some who felt that his private thoughts didn’t render him unable to do his job. This argument is patently false — we carry our beliefs with us wherever we go and if we harbor negative feelings about certain groups, you can best believe that these feelings will impact the decisions that we make. These biases and preferences, when paired with power, have the ability to do cause real harm.
These three men each exhibited internal and interpersonal racism, the two areas we've lately taken to talking about more in this country. Kinda. But they were brought to power by racism in our culture that allows them to argue their personal animus doesn’t matter. They were put into positions of power because the institutions all around us harbor and nurture racism.
Let’s get to talking about all four aspects of racism, so we can root it out.
Shay Stewart-Bouley is the editor of Black Girl in Maine.