There are some terms that serve as “goals” in social justice work that I have come to dislike (or at least be really conflicted about). One of them is “tolerance,” which was popular for a while in my early days (before the term “anti-racism” got tossed around). You can probably imagine why I’d dislike “tolerance.” Being tolerated is hardly a lofty goal. You tolerate a pile of dishes in the sink because you don’t want to start an argument. You tolerate hateful co-workers and bosses because you need a paycheck. If people tolerate you because of your race or ethnicity or whatever else deviates from the mainstream or baseline, they don't necessarily like or accept you, much less embrace you and your difference.
You might be surprised, given the title of my column, but I’m also not fond of “diversity” — at least not as an end goal. Of course, diversity is great if we're talking about actual equity, inclusion, and honest work toward anti-racism (or other oppression), but too many people think diversity itself is a victory, as if the mere presence of Black people, other people or color and/or other people of “difference” equals progress. If that’s what you think, let me refer you back to “tolerance.” (Also, look up “tokenism.”)
These thoughts hit home for me right now as a longtime Maine resident. We have a new governor saying a lot of the right things, who is at least creating an environment where we might finally be able to address racial, ethnic and other wounds caused by white supremacy and patriarchy, both of which have had been able to prosper in this state over the past eight years.
These thoughts hit home for me as I deal with a situation with my daughter's school, where a teacher spoke the “n-word”. It was not as a means to attack (the teacher did apologize later and I've had worthwhile discussions with them and the administration), but still in a manner unnecessary and inappropriate. The situation was a reminder that many white people don’t see how their acts can be racist even when malice isn’t intended.
These thoughts hit home for me as I mourn the news that Danielle Conway, dean of the University of Maine School of Law, will depart in June to head Penn State’s law school — yet another Black person who has come to Maine in a high-profile role and then left. In my years in this state, fast approaching the two-decade mark, I’ve seen a Black chief of police in Portland, a Black superintendent of the Portland Public School system (currently, we have a Latinx man originally from the Midwest heading the Portland Public Schools, and I keep my fingers crossed that he will stay quite a while longer) and many other Black professionals and other professionals of color. All too often, they stay for a while and leave.
Now it may be that they come here and gain experience that elevates them to better positions elsewhere, but I also have to think that many find Maine to be not as welcoming as they need it to be — or as it should be. No matter how white we are as a state — and we are among the very whitest — that doesn’t mean we have to present an unwelcome landscape. But I think we often do, because we don’t actually discuss matters of inclusion, equity or anti-racism.
Instead, most people in Maine want to stop at diversity. They “politely” ignore talk of systemic racism, institutional bias, oppressive policies and all those things that white people too often think are things of the past, but which have continued since the Civil Rights Movement. But there is room for far more than diversity; there is room for discussion. I and so many other people of color (and people of difference) are hungry for discussion and actual talk about real change for the better. Something I hope will be possible and encouraged as we move away from the LePage era.
We need more diversity, sure. Absolutely. But what we need with that is honesty, openness, and a willingness to be real. We need to let it be messy sometimes, and to let feelings be hurt. Especially the feelings of people in the mainstream or majority group who, whether they know it or not, are routinely supporting systems and actions that oppress people of color, trans people, Muslim people, women and more. With that, we can actually open up the ability to really talk. To really address the faults throughout our systems and to commit to a gut rehab of the whole system so that when we have diversity, we are already situated to embrace and include everyone. To give them all seats at the table and not to ignore those who are different for the sake of our own convenience, comfort or success.