It's Time to Talk About Race in Maine Public Schools

Jun 7, 2018

Part One: Issues of Racism in Maine Public Schools

First in a series. 

As a white person living in a predominantly white community and state, I often feel uncomfortable discussing race. I feel ashamed and guilty. Like many white people living in this country, I’m ashamed of behaviors of those who share my skin color from the past and, in some contexts, the present.

I have a sense that I am one of millions of people who feel this way, but by avoiding the topic of race in order to keep myself comfortable, I’m allowing others to continue living in a state of discomfort, disrespect, exclusion, fear, and the list goes on. 

I had the recent privilege of attending the 2018 Maine Civil Rights Team Project’s State Conference, which was held in Augusta in May. It was here where I heard Shay Stewart-Bouley address hundreds of Maine students from grades 5-12 about racism, past and present. 

Shay provided student attendees from all over the state of Maine with a brief history of racism in America, as well as context for racism today, in our country as well as in Maine.

Shay speaks through storytelling, and her experiences being a black girl in Maine provide insight through a lens that 94.3 percent of the Maine population cannot share.

As co-advisor for Gorham Middle School’s Civil Rights Team, it’s part of my job to teach students how little they as individuals, and we as a society, have to gain from discounting the feelings and experiences of others, especially those who are different from us. A consistent thread woven through Shay’s talk with Maine students was the importance of communication and engaging in dialogue about really tough, uncomfortable topics, such as race. 

I teach in one of the 620 public schools in the state of Maine, where I’m so proud to co-advise a group of student leaders who passionately work for social justice. The Civil Rights Team at Gorham Middle School is one of many public school teams in the state of Maine that participate in the larger Civil Rights Team Project. The purpose of Maine’s Civil Rights Team Project (CRTP) is to get students thinking and talking about race and skin color, national origin and ancestry, religion, physical and mental disabilities, gender (including gender identity and expression), and sexual orientation. 

I can count on only my hands and feet the number of students of color with whom I’ve interacted in my four years as a sixth grade teacher at Gorham Middle School (GMS). At GMS, just like in much of the state of Maine, our student population is predominantly white. I know that the reason why there are issues of racism at Gorham Middle School is not only because there aren’t many students of color, but because there are issues of racism in all Maine public schools and schools all around our country. I know this because racism is an issue in America, and thus, it becomes an issue in our schools.

All it takes is a glance at your local newspaper, the evening news, or Facebook to see reports of racism happening all over our country. Yet, how often do we hear, “...but I’m not a racist”? This disconnect should lead us to question, then, how acts of racism occur with such frequency when so few Americans openly identify as racist.

According to a June 2017 article from the online BBC news magazine, while few will admit to holding racist beliefs, there is evidence that the majority of us are unintentionally racist; this concept is referred to as implicit bias and will be addressed in Part Two of this four-part series. Understanding our implicit biases is just one effort we can make to reduce issues of racism in our country, state, and schools. 

I truly believe that many of us living in the state of Maine have opened our eyes to race and our minds to understanding racism, but then again, I’m an idealist. It’s time to open our mouths. By not talking about race at school, we are creating another generation of people who will not talk about race.

The work of the Civil Rights Teams around the state of Maine can be a tipping off point for this groundbreaking work, but it’s going to take more than these teams to truly change the culture of our schools, communities, state, and country. It’s going to take everyday people overcoming their fear of discussing tough, uncomfortable topics in an effort to understand the feelings and experiences of those who are different from us. 

So, I leave you with a challenging question to consider before you read the second part in this series: 

Why do you feel it is most important to eliminate issues of racism in our schools? My answer? It is never okay to force anyone by law to enter a space where they feel unsafe, unwelcome, or disrespected. 

Meghan Rounds, a Maine Public Educator, teaches sixth grade English language arts and social studies at Gorham Middle School in Gorham where she is also co-advisor of the Civil Rights Team. Follow her on Twitter: @msroundstweets