It started with an ugly racial slur yelled from a passing car on a sunny afternoon in Portland. But it has mushroomed into a much larger conversation on social media about the state of race relations in Maine, the nation’s whitest state.

On Friday afternoon, Shay Stewart-Bouley, her husband and two children took advantage of the nice weather to visit the Old Port for some shopping and gelato. Stewart-Bouley, a Saco resident, was looking forward to spending some quality family time with her 23-year-old son, who was visiting. While the family waited to cross Fore Street, a carload of young white men drove by and one passenger yelled a derogatory word for blacks at the family.

Stewart-Bouley is black, as are her son and 9-year-old daughter. Her husband, Jeff Bouley, is white.

Jackie Ward, a morning news anchor for WCSH-TV in Portland, saw the incident and was stunned by the blatant display of racism. She later wrote a Facebook post about what she saw.

“My heart broke for that little girl as she harshly learned how our society has such a long way to go when it comes to racism,” Ward wrote Saturday morning.

The post quickly went viral. It was shared on Facebook nearly a thousand times and triggered more than 850 comments, with participants engaging in a vigorous debate about race relations in Maine. By Monday, the account of the incident and reaction were being posted on websites around the world, including the Daily Mail in the United Kingdom.

BACKLASH AFTER SYMPATHETIC POST

Stewart-Bouley is executive director of Community Change Inc., a Boston-based nonprofit that challenges systemic racism through education and action. She blogs about her life in Maine under the name “Black Girl in Maine.”

She didn’t intend to write about her family’s experience, she said, but after Ward’s post went viral, she shared her experience in a blog titled “When gelato gets racial or a little girl hears the N-word for the first time.”

She wrote that when the family heard the slur, her son dropped the bags he was holding and raced after the car on foot, but was unable to catch up with it. Her daughter was visibly upset at hearing her first racial slur.

To Stewart-Bouley’s dismay, only one man on the crowded street approached them to ask if she was OK.

“That hurt me more than the fact a carload of young men did that,” Stewart-Bouley said.

Stewart-Bouley also took to Twitter to share her disappointment with how Ward described her family on Facebook, and for not contacting her before posting about the incident.

“You tell a story about us, make us sound like some cute Keebler elves … special, exotic and othered. Control of narrative matters,” Stewart-Bouley tweeted.

The majority of comments on Ward’s post expressed disgust at the men, but some also criticized Ward for not approaching the family herself.

“Have you thought about your own actions since then?” one commenter wrote. “What would you change about this in the future, if anything?”

Ward wrote a follow-up post Sunday, apologizing for not acting at that moment.

“I understand now that my inaction was hurtful to the family and for that I’m very sorry,” she wrote. “It was not due to a lack of outrage or sympathy but simply that I didn’t know whether the family would appreciate someone interjecting themselves into the situation.”

Contacted Monday, Ward declined to comment on the episode.

Stewart-Bouley said Monday that although she was initially upset about Ward’s post, she’s now glad that it started a conversation. She said that sometimes discussions of race begun by people of color are quickly discarded, but when a white person brings up the issue, more people are apt to pay attention.

“To be completely honest, I often find as a person of color that when I talk about racialized experiences that I have, there’s almost a certain sense of people not quite believing me because they really think this can’t possibly be true,” Stewart-Bouley said. “Yeah, I wish Jackie had reached out to me before she even posted the first post, but to some degree, her as a white woman posting that gave validity to the racialized experiences that people of color have. Because she stood there witnessing it with her own eyes, not believing that this could actually happen, when in fact this sort of stuff is unfortunately fairly common and it happens in Maine.”

Maine’s lack of racial diversity means people may not think racism is a problem, she said.

“I’m not saying most of the people in Maine are racist – I don’t believe that to be true at all – but I do think that a wide majority of people in this state don’t have real-life experience with people of color,” she said.

NO NORTHERN RACISM EXEMPTION

Sue Houchins, chair of the African American Studies program at Bates College in Lewiston, said it can be difficult to have a conversation about racism in a state where most people are white. Houchins, who is black, hadn’t heard about Friday’s incident in Portland, but laughed that some people were surprised that such open racism could occur in Portland in 2015.

According to 2013 data from the U.S. Census, Maine’s population is 95.2 percent white and 1.4 percent African-American.

“I think people of the North somehow or another think they are exempt from racial misbehavior. Of course, we know that’s not true. It’s been years and years since I’ve been called a racial epithet, but I was called such things when I came here,” said Houchins, who grew up in a racially segregated Washington, D.C., but moved to Maine a dozen years ago. “Maine has never been exempt from the fray around the issues of race, so I suppose part of me says when you tell me something happened, ‘Yeah… So what’s new?’ And it’s not because it’s Portland. There’s no place we can escape it.”

The conversation on Ward’s Facebook post also delved into the idea that ignoring race could be the solution to racism.

That suggestion could be construed as condescending and an example of white privilege, said Rachel Talbot Ross, equal opportunity and multicultural affairs director for the city of Portland and president of the local chapter of the NAACP.

“If it was as simple as that, my heart and head tell me we’d be there by now,” said Ross, whose family ties in Maine go back nine generations. “It doesn’t work that way, and to think that maybe it could suggests a level of naiveté that is astounding to me.”

Rather than outrage and surprise at individual instances of explicit racism, the battle against racism is a systemic one and needs to be waged every day, Ross said.

“Awareness is great,” Stewart-Bouley said. “But in 2014, race became a major topic in this country. I think at this point we should all have the sense that racism is alive and well. Our next conversation is, what are we going to do about it?”


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