I am a mixed-race parent of two boys, which makes the Ferguson situation hit home in complicated ways that are hard to put to words.
I was born in 1968 — Detroit, Michigan’s latest half-black, half-white ward of the state. I was fostered and adopted by a white family, raised mostly in white communities and strongly influenced by my Bostonian, first born Polish-American, very racist grandparents. I am that rare dark-skinned woman who can dance a polka while exchanging racial and ethnic slams in a Maine accent. My Irish Catholic name wraps the craziness up nicely with a mismatched bow.
I’ve experienced racism by whites and blacks, from benign to scary. In Maine, my race experiences have usually been awkward moments and sources of great hilarity. Once, when I was being prepped for surgery, the attending nurse kept insisting that my mother and I didn’t have to pretend to be mother and adoptive daughter.
She was sure we were masking our mixed-race, mixed-generation lesbian relationship under this unnecessary false pretense. Weirder still but not so funny was a kind of inverse racism when a liberal white college professor refused to let me make an anti-affirmative action presentation. He announced his refusal in front of the whole class — of white people.
Parenting around the issue of race in America is only easy if you’re white. In 2002, I was unexpectedly offered chances to interview for positions out of state. One was in Los Angeles and the other in Maryland between Baltimore and Washington, D.C. I said I was interested, but I had concerns because I am mixed and my boys are fair-skinned. Both contacts replied with a deflated “oh” of understanding. They knew what I was up against: our particular family dynamic was safer in the great white north.
Things have subtly shifted in recent years, though. Back when I was Michael Brown’s age, I, too, had a penchant for rebellious behavior. In Maine, I never particularly worried about the police treating me any differently than my white friends. On the contrary, I was pulled over more than 20 times for various infractions before receiving my first ticket. As the well-traveled granddaughter of a racist Boston cop, I knew that could only happen in Maine.
A friend and I used to joke that it was okay to be black in Maine because there weren’t enough black people around to get people all upset. We’d offend everyone by laughing and saying as soon as real “black” neighborhoods start cropping up, stuff will change. Sadly, since the percentage of blacks has crept up from 0.5 percent in 2000 to 1.4 percent in 2013, things have.
Last winter, I was pulled over for having a headlight out. Next thing I know, the officer was shining his flashlight in my eyes and asking if I had drugs, weapons or bomb-making materials in the car. Totally off guard, I was like, what? He already knew that I was 46 and a mom returning from the Lewiston Marden’s. He kept repeating the question. I said, “of course not,” refusing a car search on principle.
Apparently there’s been a rise in middle-aged terrorist, drug-dealing moms of which I am unaware. My children and their friends found the story hysterical and started calling me gangsta-mom. Underneath the humor was the reality that Maine may no longer be my safe haven.
My grandfather used to say that blacks were ruining Boston. Mainers used to say the same about Franco-Americans, and from that experience we should know better than to succumb to racial and ethnic lines of demarcation. That blacks make up 7 percent of our incarcerated population in Maine suggests we might not.
Mainers should know better because our jails weren’t exactly empty and waiting for black people to move to Maine to commit crimes. Our youth centers and behavior programs are full of white youth expressing the same mistrust of authority as their black peers in Ferguson. They share things such as poverty, lack of opportunity, unsafe childhood experiences, lack of mentoring, etc.
Our experience tells us that race and ethnicity biases may be deeply steeped in the American psyche, but the aforementioned issues run deeper still, and are the true source of what ails our society.
Trish Callahan is a mother and writer who lives in Augusta and does consulting work for a local nonprofit.