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Exploring Racial Justice in the Whitest County in California

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There is so much to fight for these days in the Resistance. Healthcare, getting dark money out of elections, not letting the President of the United States talk to any more Boy Scouts. But the most enduring and pervasive issue we face is racial inequality, especially in our justice system.

In the 80s and 90s diversity was exploding in California’s public schools. Political correctness was a big deal, and “preferred terms” were introduced to tone down negative conversation about race. At least in public. Maybe it helped soothe rising tensions at the time, but PC culture ultimately silenced the conversation. As a result, kids like me who grew up holding hands and singing “We are the World,” grew up to be well-meaning white liberals who believed that racism simply no longer existed.

via cnn.com

In my mid-20s I learned about privilege from Debra Meyerson (of Stanford’s Graduate School of Education). I was back in the classroom, but this time we were talking frankly (and sometimes heatedly) about real impact that socioeconomic status, race, gender, sexual identity, disability and even good looks have on a person’s challenges and opportunities in this world. We did our research in one another’s stories. I choked on a lot of tears. My precious illusion – that the United States is a meritocracy – was shattered. We don’t all get the same fair shake. Including me.

I now live in one of the whitest counties in California, in a Congressional District that is 86% white. What does it mean to fight for racial justice in white, rural California? Some of the most thoughtful, passionate, and committed women I know here in Nevada County have chosen to take on this issue in our local community. So I asked them.

“The biggest thing in our way,” says Bonnie Stewart, “is that we see racism as an individual thing, something that one person does to another. That’s overt racism, and there are incidents with that in our local community. But what’s more important is understanding that we are all biased because we are living in a biased society. It’s ingrained in our systems, education, businesses, institutions. We are all racist because of the messages that we have received all of our lives. We can’t help it, but if we at least accept that idea, we can become more conscious of our behavior and what we can do to stop perpetuating the cycle.” (Not convinced? Harvard will help you check your own bias).

Margo Stebbing expands on the topic, “People of color do a great deal of emotional labor when gathered in groups with white people. Sometimes I’m up for it, sometimes I’m not. To name the bias and hierarchy of white privilege in a predominately white-centered group is important to address the issues of racial bias that often get overlooked.”

Margo and Bonnie both shared with me recent instances of racism, subtle and gross, here in our local community. From schools to the streets, people of color are being confronted either by prejudice emboldened by the permissiveness of the current administration, or loaded slights, like waiting longer for service, perpetrated by those blind to their own bias. This includes the original inhabitants, members of the Nisenan tribe, who in the recent past were forced to claim alternate heritages, as there was no work for a Native American in this area for generations.

First annual Nisenan Heritage Day in CA District 1 circa 2012. Image: rlcrabb.com

“We really have to work on educating people, that’s the first step,” says Margo. “We (Indivisible Women Nevada County’s Racial Justice Team) ran a workshop on deconstructing white privilege. I was also able to participate in bias training presented by Michael Flynn from Common Vision at a local school. In addition, I think it’s very important that we reach out to educate young people, high schoolers. The team is exploring a number of ideas to make a positive impact with that age group.”

“When it comes to social justice work, if you don’t feel angry and upset all of the time, you probably aren’t doing it right,” says Bonnie. “As the benefactors of this system, we white folks end up subconsciously supporting and reinforcing it. It benefits white dominance not to think about white dominance. It’s up to us to educate ourselves, to be mindful, to re-examine our own behavior. You feel guilty, and that’s OK, it’s part of the learning process. But we have to get past the guilty feelings so that we can focus on the work that needs to be done.”

So what can you do? Margo and Bonnie were kind enough to collaborate on the following:

Tips for Well-Meaning White People

  1. Listen up: It’s time to start learning about the experience of being an American of color by listening. Comparing your experience or an experience you’ve heard about to the person expressing themselves is not helpful, because frankly, you can’t empathize. Just listen, take it in.
  2. Educate yourself: In this day and age, it’s your responsibility to get the facts about systemic and institutionalized racism. See the handy links below for a start!
  3. Manage your emotions: Your awakening to social injustice is not something that people who have been riding that rollercoaster their whole lives want to process with you. Find a way to deal with your guilt and righteous anger without putting a burden on your friends of color. But do deal with it, cause it’s a lot.
  4. Leverage your privilege: Has a person of color been interrupted in the meeting? You jump in, interrupt yourself and say, “Excuse me, but I would like to hear what X has to say …” Heads up: suggesting what they just suggested so that it gets airtime is you stealing someone’s idea. Let the person of color talk. Go here for more ideas.
  5. Quit trying to solve it: Asking a friend “Did you try to …” in response to their story about experiencing racism is equivalent to saying “If only we could find out what you did wrong, we could preserve our belief that the system is virtuous and that this is a rare and isolated incident.” Go back to the listening thing, just take it in.

Hey, it’s a start. Political correctness left us ill equipped to see and speak up about racial injustice, but too many lives are at stake to remain silent. Please see our resources down below to learn more:

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Meri Mohr

Meri Mohr

Meri lives in Nevada County, CA.

1 Comment

  1. George Davis
    August 4, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    Why are American Asians considered White, especially the college educated?