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Racial Lessons in Place

By Kate Vanskike

Selma, Montgomery, Birmingham.

They’re places we know – individually or collectively – as landmarks in the U.S. civil rights fight of the 1960s. Places where Black Americans put their lives on the line to end segregation and to take small steps toward equality, something their ancestors had envisioned 100 years earlier.

They’re cities I visited in 2017 during a weeklong experience with college students. We walked across that now-famous Selma bridge. We saw the bus Rosa Parks rode. We sat at the kitchen table where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his midnight epiphany. But we stepped into the future as well. At organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Equal Justice Initiative, we saw the powerful undertakings of lawyers and citizens and students to confront racial injustice in the U.S.

The March Continues, read the t-shirt I bought in the Civil Rights Memorial gift shop. After returning home, I wore it occasionally but soon lost it in a pile of t-shirts reminiscent of other times and places.

Montgomery, Alabama: The top portion of this image shows a mural reflecting the Selma-to-Montgomery march with Dr. King. The bottom portion shows an exhibit at the Equal Justice Initiative: Each jar contains soil gathered at the spot where a Black person was lynched. Those jars fill shelves that line a broad wall in the EJI’s headquarters. Today, a new lynching memorial publicly draws attention to the horrors of racial killings in America.

Spokane.

On a Sunday in May 2020, I found that t-shirt and wore it proudly. I intentionally determined what items to stuff in my jean pockets, prepared for the possibility of pepper spray, and carefully selected where I would park my car for an easy exit. My law-abiding husband reviewed the rights and rules of protesting with me, and then I was out the door to join a friend and a few thousand others protesting in Spokane, Washington, one of many cities where people gathered in response to the murder of George Floyd by a cop in Minneapolis.

We were an eclectic group, marching to the courthouse. I recognized former congress people in the crowd, university leaders, teachers. People wore their face coverings or kept safe from the threat of COVID in their cars, creating a parade through downtown. One feisty older white woman honked and pointed out her window to the sign duct-taped to the side of her car: “White Apathy = Racism.” There were young people and old people, white and Black and other people of color, making up the single most diverse group I have ever seen in Spokane.

We chanted and raised our hands in the air: “Hands up, don’t shoot.” And “I can’t breathe” – the famous last words of George Floyd before he died under the knee of a policeman. “Black Lives Matter” and “Our Lives Matter.” “When you can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” We knelt in wet grass, facing officers suited up in riot gear, some also kneeling in solidarity.

Black Lives Matter images, murals in Spokane and Montgomery, a roadside memorial for Michael Brown
Protests, marches, and educational gatherings took place in Spokane, Washington, several consecutive weeks in the summer of 2020. A beautiful Black Lives Matter mural – featuring the talents of 16 local artists of color – adorns a downtown building. It was promptly vandalized with red, white, and blue paint.

I’ve never been a protestor. I haven’t even participated in many marches. For someone who cares deeply about justice, the problem is, I haven’t done much to advocate for it. The extent of my care has been reading and learning more about racism and privilege, following local and national organizations working toward change, and trying to raise my teenager to pay attention and help lead the next generation. But to put myself out there in public, where there could be violence … that wasn’t so much my thing.

I admit it – I eventually moved to the sidelines. When people yelled obscenities at the police, I watched cautiously, looking for any clues that the air of the moment might change. Damage and looting would take place by white supremacists later in the evening, but I would watch that unfold on TV at home, in my unsoiled t-shirt.

Across the U.S. & Inside Myself

Through the summer of 2020, racial tensions still flare and demonstrations continue in cities across the nation – some with increased volatility and violence. The killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery have resulted in more white activism than any of the previous racial incidents in the last decade or more. I mean, look at the Wall of Moms in Portland – women locking arms, practically demanding that they take a beating in place of yet another Black person.

There’s speculation as to why we are all of sudden angry enough to join the protest. Is it the impact of COVID-19 and months of quarantine? Is it the 8-minute video we watched of that cop with his knee on the neck of George Floyd until the breath of life was extinguished before our eyes? Is it the cumulative effect of the vitriol spewed from our current commander in chief? Maybe it’s none and all of those things.

Regardless, the top-selling books on national lists are about white privilege, white supremacy, anti-racism, and exposing a racial history many of us never learned. Organizations like the YWCA began hosting 14- or 21-day challenges to provide people with daily activities to engage more in the conversation and the learning. In Spokane, there were educational and informative rallies in public spaces over several consecutive weeks. The lessons of widespread racism inherent in our nation’s systems of economics, justice and education (among others) are louder and clearer than ever before. Even mainstream churches that typically steer clear of anything remotely political from the pulpit are now examining what their faith calls them to believe and do. White pastors are gathering with Black pastors and asking questions, sharing ideas, coming to terms with just how segregated the church has been.

I’ve been chewing on it all. The articles, documentaries, podcasts, conversations. I’ve also finally engaged with white friends and family who don’t have the same opinions, and this is admittedly hard. But I continually hear the admonishment of people I respect who are far more acquainted with these tough conversations, people like Raymond Reyes, an educator and champion of diversity, equity and inclusion, who calls this work “productive discomfort.” In talking about race, the discomfort is guaranteed: How we choose to deal with it determines whether it’s productive.

I want it to be productive. I want to ask questions and make comments that call others to share how they came to a certain understanding or why they believe what they posted or shared is true. I want to foster a healthy dialogue that pushes politics out of the way and gets at the heart.

Ah, the heart. It can be such a fickle thing sometimes. We must also tackle what’s in our heads. What has formed our thoughts and opinions? What did we once learn that now we have to unlearn?

This is where it gets personal for me. Wobbly and confusing and emotional and personal to the core.

Perry.

I have great stories of growing up in a small Missouri town during the 1970s and 80s. It was idyllic in a way – a place where kids played in the streets and parents never worried where they were, and we left our houses and our churches unlocked. When I speak of childhood memories, it has always been with fondness. But …

Me. Just a small-town girl.

I had been oblivious to the inherent racism. I had no understanding that Black students generally were expected (or at least assumed) to be good athletes, and I wonder now: Was that because it may have been considered their primary opportunity to excel, despite also doing well academically? In our friendly town, neighborliness was a staple, but clearly meant for whites only. There were no Blacks from Perry in my county-wide high school; they lived in one of the other two towns, and they knew that Perry once had an ordinance forbidding “colored people” from staying after dark – what we refer to today as a Sundown Town. One of my brothers recalls how a Black friend was scared to come to our home for fear of staying too late, because that old ordinance* had never been forgotten. During the development of the local lake, several St. Louis families purchased homes in this cute little rural setting as a get-away from the city. I distinctly recall hearing someone say that the lone Black urban couple wouldn’t last one year in Perry. That proved to be true.

St. Louis, Compton Heights

From Perry with its 710 white people and one adopted Hawaiian, I spent the summer of 1991 in an inner-city section of St. Louis where, one block away from a perfectly manicured boulevard of stately old homes was “the hood.” In Compton Heights, there were rows of brick apartment buildings, every-other one with boarded up windows and spray-painted graffiti. The residents were 100% Black and 100% poor. Mothers sat on the concrete porches and their children kept cool playing in the spray of a fire hydrant. We offered to take their children to the church to play and have snacks, and they gladly let us walk away with their kids. Sometimes we visited with mothers inside their hot apartments, and choked back the sights and smells of abject poverty. This was my first up-close and in-depth encounter with a Black community, and now I ask myself:

How did that shape my racial views as a teenager and into adulthood?

A couple of years later, I had the fortunate experience of living for a summer in the Philippines, in a remote barrio where I was the only white person present and the only white many of the local residents had ever seen. The following summer, I lived in Chad, West Africa, and while I was by no means the only or first white to be seen, there was a distinct mistrust of whites (specifically, anyone who could be mistaken as French). These were fortuitous experiences that helped me – without me even recognizing it – to reshape race in my head.

North Idaho.

After moving across the country to the Inland Northwest in 1998, I married a proud redneck (his term) and relocated with him to North Idaho. I had no understanding the history of Aryan Nations prevalence there; the name Richard Butler meant nothing to me. But there I was, living again in a predominantly – and proudly – white community, one year after Butler’s final white supremacy parade took place and his compound shut down.

The family I married into had relocated to North Idaho from Southern California, in part because of racial mixing that occurred when schools began bussing in members of communities that had been segregated. I was in the car when my father-in-law pulled into a turning lane to get out of traffic for the express purpose of demoralizing a person of color very publicly. I was horrified. That traffic incident still haunts me today, not only because of what I witnessed but because I never felt safe enough to speak up or to question this behavior. It further reviles me to know how racism seeped into (or out of?) me; on one occasion in my professional setting, I uttered a slur related to people of the Jewish faith. Gratefully, a colleague called me out on it.

As soon as I divorced and returned to Washington, I felt as though I needed a cleansing – not just from the influences of North Idaho, but, I realized over time, a mental, social and spiritual purification from ALL experiences that contributed toward my implicit biases.

Inside.

The greatest work to take place in me along those lines has been fostered by intelligent and thoughtful people who are educators by trade and by practice. They challenge and push and inspire, they offer guidance, and they demand personal accountability, which is admittedly painful.

As an editor of a publication that represents an institution of higher education, I have the great joy of telling stories of such educators and those they teach. It never occurred to me, however, that this role would be considered by some as a position of “power.” Me, a lowly writer, in a position of authority? This was incredulous to me, but not to the person of color who called me out for abusing that power to tell a story that was not mine.

Being the named party in a bias report was the most devastating experience in my 20-year career as a writer and editor. But … as I am still exploring the various manifestations of white privilege, I’m learning to accept the fact that I am white and that I publish a publication reaching 50,000 homes indeed carries an influence others may never have.

And who am I, anyway, that I should deserve to have more influence than them?

Also – true confession – I rewrote this section after realizing that my original version had cast me as the victim of the bias report. Some lessons take more time than I’d like to admit.

Everywhere.

On March 31, 2020, thousands of Spokane area residents joined together in a peaceful march to bring light to recent hate crimes and to demand change in law enforcement policies and systems. That’s me in gray; what doesn’t show is my t-shirt reading The March Continues.

And so, whether I deserve it (I do not) and whether it is easy (it is not), I must stand with and for Black lives and Latinx and Native Americans and others.

Amid the riots and demonstrations – even the looting and destruction – more white voices must speak up in solidarity with those whose skin tone is darker, more white fists must be raised alongside others. We should shout until our voices are gone, until people of color are free of being targeted, free of danger in traffic stops, free of unnecessary retaliation, free of the obligation to teach their children how to protect themselves from white people in positions of authority and influence.

For many of us, that requires a willingness to deal with the uncomfortable realities of bias in our own hearts. It may unfold through more uncomfortable conversations, or giving up long-held beliefs that simply don’t stand the test of truth anymore. It necessitates asking why our history lacked the richness of diversity in places of power and authority. For us to be the kind people many of us believe ourselves to be, it’s time to dismantle the stronghold of prejudices that stand in the way of justice. Or if justice is too hard a fight, then for the love of all that is good, let’s start with simple dignity for all people.

It’s time for more productive discomfort. Because The March Continues.


Kate Vanskike is an occasional blogger and full-time university magazine editor in Spokane, Washington. All views expressed here are hers alone and don't represent any named or unnamed organizations involved in her story. She has future hopes of running a coffee shop that only serves fair-trade, sustainably made java, and maybe a limited selection of ice cream for making cafe affogato. Or maybe she'll be a "jammer," driving old-timey shuttle busses full of tourists gawking at mountains inside Glacier National Park. Or maybe she'll be an old hippie woman chaining herself to trees and city hall doors, protesting for positive change.  

Ferguson, Missouri. In 2014, Michael Brown was shot by police and left dying in the street in a St. Louis suburb called Ferguson. During a 2019 trip to my home state of Missouri, my husband and I visited the site. Just past the market from which he fled, there was a beautiful, shiny, modern Boys & Girls Club to serve the local population. We were impressed: This, we thought, heralded positive change and growth. Then we turned on to Canfield Avenue through a set of apartments and saw the makeshift memorial on the sidewalk. Teddy bears and stuffed animals and artificial flowers, all faded and dirty. Why wasn’t there a proper, “official” memorial? A plaque with Michael’s name and a brief story or a mention of his death as another unnecessary incident of lethal police response?