Just because you spent 4 years in a Maine college doesn’t mean you know who we are

Dear Hari Kondabalu,

We Mainers have been getting a good deal of bad press lately. Our governor is garnering headlines like, “America’s craziest governor goes off the rails,” and much has been made of the fact that we are the whitest state in the nation — as if that means every person here has exactly the same lineage and thinks exactly the same. As if that means every person here is racist and actively keeping darker skin tones from crossing the Kittery bridge.

I’m not saying there aren’t certain mindsets that old-school Mainers would prefer to keep on the other side of that bridge, but race isn’t a factor.

While I appreciate your desire to be a part of the tough talks on race going on today in America, please leave Maine out of it. Four academic years in one town does not equate to experiencing day-to-day Maine or getting to know a significant percentage of the 1.3 million people who make up our state.

I am not minimizing your trauma. As a survivor of assaults during my childhood — which, for me at least, had nothing to do with my race — I can appreciate the gamut of feelings that come from being victimized. It must have been awful to be assaulted that way, and I am genuinely sorry it happened.

Perhaps the assault was racially motivated. Perhaps not. Perhaps the reason your friends didn’t recognize the assault as racially motivated was because of “white privilege.” Or perhaps it was because they understood the divide between “townies” and the “college kids” in rural college towns is as old as western academia itself.

Right out of high school, I attended the University of Maine at Farmington for a semester. During freshman orientation, we were warned about this phenomenon, and over the course of the semester, I watched it play out. One particular truckload of locals loved to yell at students as they drove by.

I did hear them use a racial slur toward a student, but it was included among a slew of vulgarities and rude comments directed at the white students, as well. They not only differentiated their commentary for the black student, but for the white girls, and other white males standing all together. They were truly non-discriminatory in their contempt for anyone attending the university.

As I have written before, please, please, please do not portray Maine in a way that suggests we have a huge race problem here. I get quite defensive about this point because Mainers have been so good to me. My roots are elsewhere, and I have had ample experiences elsewhere, and I am beyond proud to call this state my home.

Yes, there is racism in Maine. News flash — there’s racism all over the place, as some people still cling to reasons to hate. But up here in Maine, I’ve experienced more than 40 years of acceptance, tolerance, and inclusion — to such an extent that I always feel a sense of relief anytime I come home from away.

As a child, when we traveled, I loved the sight of that Kittery Bridge on the return trip. Even my young mind was able to appreciate this feeling that being in Maine meant leaving so much crap behind, especially when it comes to race. Four years in one town wasn’t enough time for you to understand just how kind most Mainers are. Growing up here since the age of 5, I do.

My life story is full of people with no “pigment,” as you like to say. People I love, people who have taught and mentored me, friends, colleagues, you name it. These pigment-less people are in every corner of my life, and I am grateful to them for providing me with so much, including respite as a mixed-race person who has experienced more intense racism elsewhere.

I am also not minimizing the importance of discussing police practices and equity in access to opportunity and quality education. These are important discussions our nation needs to have — not only linked to race, but all marginalized citizens.

I want you to know I understand. Maine is white and that made you uncomfortable. It is visually weird to people who are familiar with places with more variety in skin tones. I’d like to think that if you’d spent more time here, though, and went to more places, you might have ended up doing a routine about just how friendly and welcoming Mainers can be, even to people who look different.

Although a routine like that probably wouldn’t get you on Conan.

Patricia Callahan

About Patricia Callahan

Trish is a writer who lives in Augusta. She has worked professionally in education and social services.