By Abukar Adan ’17
Maine hasn’t had the dramatic manifestations of racial tension seen in other states in the past year. But that doesn’t mean racial identity isn’t an issue or that the issue isn’t worthy of discussion.
For the second time in a year, the Colby and Thomas college communities joined for a wide-ranging discussion of racial identity in Central Maine. The more recent event, held at Thomas Oct. 7, included personal narratives about a multiracial student whose family was interrogated at the U.S.-Canada border, an immigrant whose hard-working father doesn’t fit the recently popular stereotype, a student from rural Maine who finds his views increasingly counter to those of his conservative family.
Both events, which featured students’ stories about their experiences with race, were strongly attended. “We thought that eighty to ninety people would show up, but fifteen minutes prior to the event we had to get more tables and chairs,” said Yohannes Tesfai, a senior at Thomas who helped set up the Oct. 7 session.
The initiative, led by students and faculty from both institutions and following a similar event at Colby last year, aims to place national issues into a more local context. “There are a lot of people who say we don’t have a race problem,” said Elizabeth Brady ’17, one of the organizers.
The six students who shared narratives about navigating identities, encountering prejudice, and learning to overcome difficulties were from both Colby and Thomas. A Colby student from Maine, Marcques Houston ’18, who is from Maine, talked about being stopped at the Canadian border as a child because authorities believed his mother was smuggling him out of the United States.
Another participant, Thomas sophomore Jordanna Agger-Barnes, who grew up in a small town in southern Maine, recalled what she considers to be her biggest regret from the sixth grade–wanting not to be black. Being treated differently by her peers made her uncomfortable with her identity, she said. In sixth grade, she said, a classmate refused to pass her a paper because of her race. Barnes said she told her teacher but, rather than seeing the classmate disciplined, Barnes was sent to the vice principal for disrupting class and later suspended. When Barnes’s mother called the school, she was told, “We are not equipped to deal with this.”
Because of the lack of racial diversity in Maine, Houston’s and Agger-Barnes’s experiences are relatively common, participants agreed.
Jake Bazinet, a Thomas freshman and a facilitator at the event, shared how the same socially conservative values have been passed down in his family for generations. His family, living in a homogenous part of Auburn, has had little interaction with people of different backgrounds. “It wasn’t until I moved out that I began to question what I’ve been taught,” he said. His views have since changed considerably but he tries to not be very political when he is home, he added.
While the personal narratives centered on students’ experiences with race, issues related to other forms of identity were raised as well.
Harim Park ’17, who was born in South Korea but raised in Iowa City and Scarborough, Maine, spoke about how the recent local and national discourse on immigration has been both unfair and hurtful. Park’s parents made many sacrifices for their children, he said. Visibly emotional, he shared how his father, who attended university while working to support the family, was seldom home. It’s unfair, Park said, for the media and politicians to characterize immigrants as lazy and only in the United States to abuse the welfare system.
“There is a reason why people immigrate here,” Park said. “The reason why they are here and often have to take minimum wage jobs is because of the lack of opportunity back home.”
The stories were followed by student-led roundtable discussions, offering an opportunity to hear the diverse perspective in the room. Issues raised included ignorance, exploitation, power, and privilege. Said Jari Javier ’16, “I feel I made some progress in terms of sharing ideas and moving towards a mutual understanding.”
After participating, President David A. Greene concluded that the event was bittersweet. “I leave with a heavy heart,” he said, “and a great deal of optimism.”
Organizers from both colleges are planning the third community conversation in the series. It will likely be held in downtown Waterville sometime around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.