Vail Daily column: An uncomfortable truth
On a recent Wednesday, I called my son, a 23-year-old living in South Carolina, to see how he was doing. I expected an update on his job-hunting and his new relationship. What I heard was, “I got stopped by the police today.”
My son had been strolling around his neighborhood, when a patrol car pulled up and a police officer got out and asked where he lived. The officer told him that he had been stopped because a male matching his description was assaulting women in the area. After assessing that my son was not the perpetrator, the officer — a female — admired his driver’s license photograph, and departed.
I listened with half a brain. The other half thought about his black roommate. Would he have been offered an explanation for why he was being stopped and a compliment before he was sent on his way, or would he have been frisked, pushed face-first to the ground, held in a chokehold, accused of lying, or assumed menacing and wrongfully killed?
This, I thought, is what people mean by white privilege.
My son’s skin color allowed him to be presumed innocent, to be treated with respect, and to walk away with a quirky story.
So what does this story have to do with us here in Eagle County?
Fast forward one week to the Sunday of Super Bowl 50. That morning, in pursuit of half-time provisions, I drove to Village Market in Edwards. My 26-year-old stepson, visiting from Virginia, came along to give me a hand.
Once in the store, we went separate ways in search of different items. My shopping was uninterrupted. My stepson, however, was stopped by another customer.
“Do you work here?” the customer asked.
“No,” my stepson told him. “I’m just Hispanic.”
An amusing anecdote? It depends on your perspective. Other than my stepson’s facial features, which reveal his El Salvadoran heritage, there was nothing about his appearance — no nametag, no workplace apron — to suggest that he worked in the store. Rather, the individual likely noticed the predominant race of other employees, presumed he must be an employee, too, and chose him over a white customer like me to question.
Certainly the customer meant no harm, but his unconscious assumptions caused harm by reminding my stepson, yet again, that he is easily stereotyped because of the color of his skin. It is the same unconscious assumption that causes security guards at retail establishments to follow him around because they view him as suspect. And it is the same assumption, in reverse, that may have made my light-skinned son’s questioning by a police officer so pleasant.
White privilege and racial bias are subtexts of our country, and our county. A 2013 Pew Research Center survey found that 35 percent of blacks and 20 percent of Hispanics and Latinos reported having been discriminated against or treated unfairly during the prior year, compared to 10 percent of whites.
Which leads me to ask — where is the black community in Eagle County? The Latino community I see on a daily basis, but I rarely see a local of African heritage.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports why. In 2014 only 1 percent of Eagle County’s 52,921 residents identified as black. That’s only 529 black residents, compared to 39,784 white residents and 15,876 Hispanic or Latino residents.
No wonder my stepson was typecast. He is the visible minority here. The unexamined assumptions of the white customer at Village Market had no other “other” to rub against.
And like him, unless we white residents of Eagle County consciously self-examine, we too can remain oblivious. We can neglect to wonder whether our 529 black neighbors face (or have faced) local systemic or interpersonal injustices. Or overlook the fact that so many of our 15,876 brown-skinned neighbors must double or triple up in local housing. Or pretend that a third of Eagle County high school students don’t need free or reduced-fee lunches.
During this Lenten season, I contend that the thing we should be giving up is our ignorance about the daily advantages we white residents enjoy because of our race.
Please join me in getting uncomfortable with this truth.
Kathleen Valenzi Knaus lives in Avon.
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