“I’m so tired … It’s just difficult when people hate my skin color.”

It’s hard for me to put into words what I felt when I read 19-year-old Hamdi Hassan’s words in the Press Herald last month (“Hundreds turn out in Portland to decry racism, honor victims of Charleston shootings,” June 23). Sad, angry and tired are three that applied but it was so much more.

Twenty years ago, I remember being stopped in Maine after an officer followed me for several minutes through three speed zones and finally stopped me to tell me I had gone through a red light. That came as a shock to me since I knew I had been sitting at the light waiting for it to change. When I said that I had, in fact, been stopped at the light, he told me I was wrong, took my license and returned to his car.

I was outraged while I sat there waiting for him to decide my fate. I still remember the two thoughts racing around my mind. I knew that I hadn’t done what he had said but there was no way I was going to be able to prove it. And, I knew that this must be how people feel when they are stopped for “driving while black.”

When the officer came back to the car, he told me that he was just giving me a warning because he wasn’t 100 percent sure I hadn’t been stopped at the light. I’m pretty sure that tiny bit of doubt didn’t enter into the head of the officer who stopped my African-American friend Eric recently. He was arrested for no reason other than the car he was driving looked like one the officer was on the lookout for.

I had high hopes that racial bias would decrease after Barack Obama was elected president. But things really hadn’t changed, and I watched in disbelief as Rep. Joe Wilson yelled out, “You lie!” in the middle of the president’s State of the Union to a joint session of Congress. I do not believe that would ever have happened to a white president. So much for my daydream.

Here we are six years later with people swearing we are now living in a post-racial society, their ancestors suffered too, and we should all just move on.

If that were true, white people would believe that they were more likely to be killed by someone with white skin than with black skin because, according to the most recent FBI statistics, 83 percent of white victims were killed by white perpetrators. Thirty six percent of those murders were men murdering their female partners, but I leave that disturbing thought for another column.

If it were true, when Native Americans say they are not mascots, the fans would understand and change their team name.

And, if it were true, Arab and African refugees and political asylum seekers would not be fair game for politicians to use to incite fear among Mainers that they are being taken advantage of.

In order to really move on, it would be necessary for white people to examine our past and understand how it affects what we believe today. It would mean examining a past that starts with our “discovery” of a New World and our belief that the inhabitants of that world were not our equals.

It would mean remembering that we gave these welcoming inhabitants of this New World blankets infected with small pox when they wouldn’t give us their land.

It would mean remembering the Trail of Tears and other forced evacuations to small areas of land we didn’t want and on which the descendants of those inhabitants are barely able to survive.

It would mean facing a past that allows us to call large Southern tobacco and cotton farms “plantations” rather than to call them what they were — slave labor camps.

It would mean remembering the Chinese Exclusion Act passed by Congress once Chinese immigrants had built the transcontinental railroad.

And, in our more recent history, it would mean putting Timothy McVeigh, Ted Kaczinski and Dylann Storm Roof in the same category as Mohamed Atta and calling them all terrorists.

Moving on would mean accepting the fact that people with white skin in our country have been, and continue to be, treated better than non-white people.

I am not sure why accepting that fact is so threatening to so many. Maybe it’s because we’ve provided 300 years of examples of how not to treat people and we’re all too aware of what the repercussions might be now that we are on the verge of becoming the minority.

I am sure, though, that we will be a better, stronger and more prosperous society if we make the effort to acknowledge our privilege rather than denying we have it. I look forward to the day when we can actually move on.

Karen Heck is a longtime resident and former mayor of Waterville.


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