Portland forum on racism urges residents to look deeper

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PORTLAND — Panelists urged people to consider their own levels of privilege and how intolerance can take root during a Sept. 1 roundtable discussion about racism.

University of Maine Law School Dean Danielle Conway moderated the discussion at Reiche Elementary School, organized by the Portland Democratic City Committee.

She was joined by Green Memorial AME Zion Church Pastor Kenneth Lewis, musician and composer Samuel James, teacher Ekhlas Ahmed, photographer Sean Alonzo Harris, local attorney Kate Knox, and Rachel Talbot Ross, president of the city chapter of the NAACP and the Democratic candidate in state House District 40. They answered questions for an audience of about 100 people.

Ahmed, who fled the Darfur region of Sudan as a child, said the racism she endures can come in small and large ways, including instructors who look at her clothes and skin and think she is in the wrong college class.

“I want to take that risk and speak my truth. I left my country; they kicked me out because of the color of our skin,” she said. “I came here thinking it was a different life, and it is not. I hope today we can have a real conversation with no sugar coating.”

Lewis said he saw racial violence growing up in Boston as students were bused to schools 40 years ago, including a friend shot on a playground. Today he still sees people putting up fronts that conceal private prejudices and intolerance.

“The majority does not like to be uncomfortable. When you talk about race, you think you are good people,” he said. “The conversation is not comfortable, so get over yourself and be uncomfortable.”

James said “I just wanted to point out one thing as everyone is listening to us: the only thing bringing everyone together is the diversity,”

Ahmed told of babysitting a child who began crying when it was time to leave a playground because she had been told not to trust an African.

“It is systemic; it starts in school. You might have certain ingrained biases you might not even know,” she said.

Tim Wilson, a teacher in the audience, agreed with Ahmed, pointing out the blue ribbon state commission on improving education had no students or minorities participating.

Defining racism and privilege was a key for audience speaker Hashim A’Allah.

“Until we define what racism is, we will just chase the tail round and round. Black people don’t have to look the way you expect them to look,” he said.

Nor do they come from assumed circumstances, Knox said. The mother of two adopted African American children, Knox said too often, people falsely congratulate her for rescuing them from unstable homes.

“I have to be a fiercely proactive advocate for my kids. If I don’t do it, they will grow up to think white is better,” she said.

Harris said real solutions have to come through changes that will stop pitting groups against each other.

“We have to be equal in some kind of way. If there are jobs, don’t hire the guy you are most comfortable with, hire the one who is best for the job or gives you the most challenges,” he said.

The audience was also invited to read literature chosen by panelists, which can be viewed at portlanddems.org. There will be informal discussions of the literature beginning at 5 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 15 at Novare Res at 4 Canal Plaza.

While encouraging the audience to read the selections, Conway said she wanted more activity than reading groups.

“I want you to talk to someone you do not know about issues that are compelling and complex and will not be solved in our lifetimes,” she said.

David Harry can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The Rev. Kenneth Lewis urged people at a Sept. 1 Portland forum on racism to look harder at their own biases. “The conversation is not comfortable, so get over yourself and be uncomfortable,” he said.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.