Indivisible, Part 3 | Talking about race in Routt County: Change can only come through acknowledgment, understanding and reconciliation
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There exists a theory that talking about race and racism makes the racial divide worse. That by not talking about it — by not calling attention to who is Black and who is white and who is brown — we are truly colorblind.
Kelly Schaeffer, who works in social justice and anti-racism education in Steamboat Springs, knows this argument well.
Some people think that by talking about it, “We are making it a thing,” she said. “But for a person of color — from birth — it’s always a thing. The only people it doesn’t affect are those with white privilege.
“By not acknowledging it, you are not acknowledging the history of people of color and that they don’t have the same power and privilege in our society and the global society,” Schaeffer explained. “If you don’t acknowledge it, you are erasing a very real experience.”
Race is a social construct, not a biological construct, points out Amy Phillips, TRIO success coordinator at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs.
“Knowing this, we must examine our understanding of race for what it is — a fluid definition based on geographic location, cultural circumstance and personal assumptions and biases,” Phillips said. “This understanding allows us to recognize that our understanding of race is largely influenced by these factors and challenges us to explore what stereotypes and biases we bring to interactions.”
According to a 2016 article in Scientific American, “Today, the mainstream belief among scientists is that race is a social construct without biological meaning.”
Schaeffer, who is white, has a master’s degree in language literacy and sociocultural studies and is a Spanish teacher at Mountain Village Montessori School. She recently has begun creating anti-racist educational materials for both her students and fellow faculty members.
“We all see color,” Schaeffer said. “By saying we should look past that — that takes away the experience from people of color. That may be something we don’t understand, but we need to understand.”
To Angie Gamble, who lives in Steamboat and Hawaii and conducts trainings in racial understanding and reconciliation, diversity must be valued.
“Unity is not uniformity,” Gamble said. “We are not all meant to be the same. If you say, ‘I’m colorblind,’ you are saying ‘My culture is the standard,’ and you have an ethnocentric view without realizing it.”
“We need to respect and understand each other’s culture,” said Hayden Mayor Tim Redmond, who is Black. “And we need to understand that Black people are not white people with dark skin.”
There is also the argument that racism — and systemic racism — do not exist in this country. This article is written on the premise that both exist.
Janel Washington, who is Black and lives in Steamboat, describes one aspect of systematic, or institutional, racism with the following example.
There are two 16-year-old males. They both get caught with the same illegal substance. The offenses are identical on paper, and the boys are identical on paper except for skin color.
“The white boy gets a slap on the wrist; the Black kid gets arrested. Now, he’s in the system,” Washington said.
It’s less about the behavior or offense and more about who gets caught and who gets punished.
“If white people got stopped like Black people, this would have stopped a long time ago,” Washington said.
According to a Business Insider article titled, “26 simple charts to show friends and family who aren’t convinced racism is still a problem in America,” extensive academic research and data collected by the federal government and researchers has documented numerous ways that Black Americans experience life in the United States differently from their white counterparts.
“It’s called ‘systemic’ racism, because it’s ingrained in nearly every way people move through society in the policies and practices at institutions like banks, schools, companies, government agencies and law enforcement,” the article states.
Marijuana usage rates are similar between white and Black Americans, yet Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely to get arrested on marijuana possession charges, according to an American Civil Liberties Union analysis of FBI and U.S. Census data.
There is also a belief that slavery, genocide and colonization happened so long ago, why should white people today, who had nothing to do with it, have to apologize? Why should white people be responsible for changing things they had nothing to do with?
Despite the passage of time, Gamble said, mindsets still linger. As does a sense of “cultural dominance,” she said.
“Those mindsets are current and need to be overcome,” Gamble said. “Policies are still going on because of those mindsets.
White privilege is less about individuals and people and more about policy.
From disciplining kindergarteners and mass incarceration to health care and homeownership, there is an increasing body of evidence showing how people of color experience different treatment, and thus different outcomes, under the same systems as their white counterparts.
According to a 2018 report by the Government Accountability Office, how a child is punished for acting up in school could depend on his race. The report found Black students in kindergarten through 12th-grade are far more likely to be disciplined, whether through suspension or referral to law enforcement, than for the same offense committed by their white peers.
In 2019, white households had a 73.1% homeownership rate, compared to 46.6% for Hispanic households and 40.6% for Black households.
A Harvard University study found when Black and Asian job applicants “whitened” their resumes — using American or white-sounding names, for example — they got more callbacks for corporate interviews.
According to a Center for American Progress report, African Americans have the highest mortality rate for all cancers combined compared with any other racial and ethnic group. And, there are 11 infant deaths per 1,000 live births among Black Americans, which is almost twice the national average of 5.8 infant deaths per 1,000 live births.
The report lists numerous other health disparities, and contends, “These disparities are not a result of individual or group behavior but decades of systematic inequality in American economic, housing and health care systems.”
Mass incarceration may be one of starkest examples. With about 5% of the world’s population and about 25% of the world’s prison population, the U.S. leads the planet in locking people up.
And Black and brown people are affected disproportionately.
Among state prison populations in 2000, Black people were incarcerated at a rate 8.3 times higher than white people, according to a report by the independent, bipartisan Council on Criminal Justice. Hispanic people were incarcerated at a rate 2.6 times higher than white people.
But that gap is narrowing. In 2016, the report found Black people were incarcerated at a rate 5.1 times higher than white people and Hispanic people 1.6 times higher.
But for younger Black men, the gap remains vast. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ analysis of 2018 data, Black men age 18 to 19 were 12.7 times as likely to be imprisoned as their white peers.
When introducing her students to the idea of white privilege, Schaeffer uses a sensitive and deliberate approach.
“I don’t want to make the kids feel bad — it’s not their fault what they are born into,” Schaeffer said.
The discussion on white privilege does not begin until the older grades. It is an evolution.
With the youngest students, she talks about identity and diversity and normalizes a discussion on skin color. She exposes the kids to different cultures. Then, the kids start to learn about historical events, such as the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Latin America. They also learn about people of color who have made major societal contributions.
She points out how people of color are by far the global majority and how demographics are shifting in the United States and are projected to change within her students’ lifetime.
Older kids learn more in-depth history, Schaeffer said, largely on a timeline format, giving context of what happened to whom and when. They talk about who wrote the history — typically the victors — and how to seek out the history of the people.
Schaeffer said she and her colleagues are always conscious to not put their own ideas onto kids, but rather, to present information and allow for discussion. The kids determine a lot of the direction of the lessons, she said.
And Schaeffer finds, when kids learn about injustices, they want to know more.
“Kids are natural social justice advocates,” she said. “They want things to be fair.”
After being very upfront with parents about what they would be teaching, Schaeffer said she has only gotten positive feedback — literally not a single complaint.
In working to “spend” her own privilege and be a part of creating a more equitable world, Schaeffer emphasizes the difference between equality and equity.
Equality means “everyone gets the same thing,” she said. “The problem with that, is, if someone starts below and gets the same, they are still below. Equity means leveling the playing field.”
Schaeffer uses the example of the pay gap, applying it in this case to gender. If a woman is earning 72 cents to a man’s dollar for the same job, and everyone gets a 10 cent raise, the woman is now earning 82 cents to the man’s $1.10. The pay raise was equal but not equitable.
On average, a Black worker earns about 60% of what a white worker earns. While the gap between what Black and white men earned did shrink from around 1950 until about 1980, today it is roughly as large as it was in 1950.
Presenting in June at the National Council for Social Studies Conference, Steamboat Springs High School teacher Deirdre Boyd described the “History Matters” curriculum taught to 10th-graders by a small team of teachers.
It isn’t about learning names or dates, she said, it is about helping students learn history.
History is not just a study of the past, Boyd said.
“It’s a study of the present and why things are the way they are — right now,” she explained.
The goal is to provide students with accurate, objective information so they can be informed citizens, Boyd said, and to come away with increased empathy and compassion.
Tenth-grade history is taught through the lenses of race and gender, illuminating things Boyd said can’t just be looked up in a book, such as the cost of living in poverty, the psychology of fear, the trauma of mass incarceration, the responsibility of government in the American dream and the context behind what is happening in today’s protests against racial injustice
“It’s deep, it’s powerful, it’s hard curriculum,” Boyd acknowledged. “It’s emotional, and it’s important.”
On whether it is controversial, Boyd said facts, by definition, are not controversial.
“U.S. history has a lot of great moments and a lot of awful moments,” Boyd said. “We can’t truly engage in democracy without knowing the realities.”
And her students disagree with each other, she said, a lot.
“But they know how to listen and be respectful, and they can make the distinction between opinion and fact.”
Advice for white people
For those who accept that racism, systemic racism and white privilege do exist, people of color living in the Yampa Valley have some advice on how to make things better.
Steamboat author and playwright Jorge Avila said people should first start with acknowledgment.
“How can you find a solution if you don’t see a problem?” he asked.
Avila, who was born in Mexico, makes a point on how pervasive the elevation of whiteness can be.
“If you go to buy pantyhose, when you buy the color ‘natural,’ what color is that?”
“Racism is not a minority problem,” Washington said. “It’s a white people problem. It’s not anything I can solve.”
Today, much of the conversation is centered on being actively anti-racist rather than just not racist.
“One either believes problems are rooted in groups of people, as a racist, or locates the roots of the problems in power and policies, as an anti-racist,” writes Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist.” “One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an anti-racist.”
For real change, said Washington, “White people have to turn to other white people and say, ‘That’s inappropriate.’ You’ve got to have courage. If you really want to make change, you’re going to have to be an advocate and be an ally. You need to be able to risk it all. If you see injustice, you need to step up. You need to get your hands dirty. It’s not going to change by me saying anything.”
Tony Counts, who is Black and married to a woman of Native American and Swedish descent, said his wife calls out her white friends when they say something racist. And she’s lost friends. Be like her, he advised. “Do the uncomfortable thing. When you hear it, call it out.”
Confronting racism — or bias, or ignorance — is “not an easy thing to do,” acknowledged Redmond. “Be honest. Everyone was raised with biases, and they aren’t always aware.”
“We would like to talk on the subject,” Redmond said about himself and other African Americans he knows. “I understand it makes most white people very uncomfortable and puts them in a situation of self-examination.”
“The answer for any issue is to have an open conversation,” said Maria Paula Gonzalez, who was born in Colombia and now serves as interpretation/translator program coordinator at Integrated Community. “Go deep — have those conversations with people . . . Make an effort to understand a situation. Then we can talk about making change.”
B Torres, who was born in Mexico, works as an interpreter/translator and community liaison for the Steamboat Springs School District.
“Listen to Black and brown voices,” she said. “Center the conversation and policy and process around the most marginalized. That not only makes things better for the marginalized but for everyone.”
Second-grade teacher Mary Yamamoto, who is Japanese American, encourages communication — one-on-one conversations about difficult topics, especially between teachers and their students. And expand your horizons, she suggests.
“Go out of your comfort zone. Step over that fear and into other cultures. Be the awkward person in the room.”
Winter Clark, whose father is Black and mother is white, suggests, “Consider the lens you grew up with and consider widening your perspective. Go find a book or a film that will help expand your perspective.”
Washington points to the country’s changing demographics, where it is projected non-Hispanic white people will become the majority by 2050. Washington urges people to think about the world they want for their white children or grandchildren, who very well may have brown and Black bosses.
“What life do you want for them?” she asked.
Clark said she feels hopeful about the future despite the pandemic, the protests and the political turmoil.
“I feel like things are in a new space,” she said. There’s a little more awareness . . . We can’t go back to the way things were. The only thing to do is move forward.”
To reach Kari Dequine Harden, call 970-871-4205, email kharden@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @kariharden.