Saturday, January 23, 2016

Racialized Thinking in Maine: A Guest Blogger's Response

So already, every once in a while I share in my blog something written by a friend or colleague that, in my opinion, deserves a broad audience for any number of reasons. Today I share an op ed piece that Margo Lukens, a long-time friend and fellow educator, submitted to the Bangor Daily News. Whether or not her piece is printed there, I hope you will read it here.

Margo--that's her in the photo to the right*--is an English professor at the University of Maine in Orono. She also serves on the board of the Abbe Museum, the mission of which, according to the subtitle of the home page of its web site, is "Inspiring New Learning About the Wabanaki Nations with Each Visit." Located in Bar Harbor, the museum recently developed a strategic plan that has as a principal aim the decolonization of the museum's practices. Margo has been thinking about the encounter of historically less powerful and more powerful groups for her entire career, aiming always for encounter that addresses and corrects that imbalance of power respectfully and productively. As you might expect, she is a strong advocate for White people's acknowledging their white privilege and exploring its role in the conscious and unconscious perpetuation of race-related social inequality.

The governor of Maine's early January race-related comments about impregnated white girls and drug dealers and the aftermath of those comments prompted Margo to write; her piece, in italics, follows. Thank you, Margo, for letting me share it here.

An Open Letter to My White Brothers and Sisters                                   

Gov. Paul LePage has given the State of Maine, and specifically the white people of the state, an occasion to examine the deep structures of our society and the thought processes underlying our speech, actions and policies.
After his remarks about drug dealers from New York with names like D-Money, Shifty and Smoothie who “impregnate young white girls” before leaving Maine, there has been a landslide of public rhetoric repudiating LePage’s speech as racist, and even a petition on calling for LePage to repudiate his own speech.  Mike Tipping and Ron Schmidt both wrote thoughtful reflections on the ways his speech violates the values our communities try to maintain.

LePage’s speech indicates racialized thinking.  His explanations of his gaffe showed even more plainly that he really did mean he was talking about white women being impregnated by men that he pretends he didn’t mean to say were black.  In the minds of most readers or listeners there hasn’t been any question his fictionalized drug dealers were black.  

The BDN  [Bangor Daily News] Jan 11 editorial begins to home in on the problem of systemic and habitual racism in our state, and links LePage’s comments to historic fears held by Anglo-Europeans since the introduction of slavery in North America in about 1619.  These fears persist because the owners used a system of chattel slavery to do the work it took to exploit the land through agriculture and create wealth, which could only be enforced through violence.
The BDN cartoon Jan 9/10** showed LePage’s face as the joker with the caption “The Race Card.”  Actually, we as white people have held all the aces and face cards in the race deck, whether we descend from slaveholders or not.  Whiteness was institutionalized as an identity in North America to separate from and thereby justify the enslavement of African people and their descendants.

The BDN editorial rightly references the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a Chicago 15-year-old who fell victim to horrific violence while visiting southern relatives.  The men who kidnapped, tortured and killed him for whistling at one of their wives, acted on the stereotype that white womanhood needs defense against sexual advances by black men.  This was only sixty years ago.   

Last fall my literature students read James Baldwin’s play “Blues for Mister Charlie”**** which Baldwin wrote in response to the events surrounding Till’s murder. The play contains no suspense or question of guilt—the audience sees Lyle Britten shoot Richard Henry in the first seconds of Act 1.  The action centers upon the relationships among white people: in particular Lyle, his wife Jo, and the town newspaper editor Parnell Jones.  Despite being known for his liberal leanings and his friendship with the victim’s father, Parnell discovers his deepest allegiance lies with his childhood friend Lyle, the murderer.  The play ends on a note struck by Juanita, the murdered Richard’s girlfriend, who to Parnell’s question “Can I join you on the march, Juanita?  Can I walk with you?” responds, “Well, we can walk in the same direction, Parnell.  Come.  Don’t look like that.  Let’s go on on.”   We as white people have much work to do ourselves before we can be good neighbors, allies, or family to people of color.  And I am sure Paul LePage loves his family and wants to do all that is best for them.

So rather than calling for repudiation of this public utterance, we should let LePage’s speech reveal the need for deep teaching among white people by white people about how we have profited and continue to profit through white skin privilege, even if we do not have access to privilege through other means such as social class, gender, or religion.

This is where our work needs to begin—not with the speed bump of Gov. LePage’s words—but with the mountain of unexamined and habitual attitudes that need to change in order for us to move forward and live in the 21st century.  My point is that although we white people may not identify with or understand people of color, we can at least begin to educate ourselves, join the march, and walk in the same direction. 

* This photo is a screen shot of of Margo's LinkedIn profile photo.
** Screen shot of my own FB page on which I shared another person's post.
*** Screen shot of following web page:  "The Joker." George Danby Editorial Cartoonist. Bangor Daily News, 08 Jan. 2016. Web. 23 Jan. 2016. <>. 
**** Screen shot of one result of my "Blues for Mister Charlie Images" search: <cinema/photos/2013/03/greatest-african-american-plays.html#!032013-shows-star-cinema-plays-langston-hughes-black-nativiry>


  1. Hi Joan,
    Although white folks collectively have benefited, and still benefit from power and privilege, not all white folks buy into the behaviorally enacted ideology which sanction existent arrangements. So, please read my piece on a racially motivated event from not that long ago in my life; and please pay attention to the situated context of the racist act.

  2. Hi, Charley--really enjoyed reading your piece; thanks for sharing. I concur that not all white folks enact existing arrangements, as you call them, but I do think that we benefit lots from being white, even when we're not aware of it. The juxtaposition of those two memorable events in your life is so striking--definitely illustrating two ways of being in the present, let alone in the future. Glad you had JPJ--and a JPJ--in your life and that you're writing about him.