One month ago, a man walked into Emanual African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot and killed nine people. A witness stated that the arrested suspect said he was there “to shoot black people” in addition to stating “you’ve raped our women, and you’re taking over the country. I have to do what I have to do.”
This horrific and hate-driven tragedy took place in a community far across the country so it’s tempting for many of us to find solace in thinking, “Well those things happen elsewhere, to those people. Not here in Missoula.” However, as two organizations who have an extensive history of working in this community and state to empower people, fight oppression and eliminate racism, we’ve heard countless stories from ages young and old about real experiences of being targeted with severe racial slurs, hostility and yes, violence.
We have heard people share their painful stories: a Native woman who had her hair pulled and was called a “squaw”; black university students who hear derogatory comments like, “You’re pretty white for a black person”; Asian grade-school students being taunted with the infamous “ching chong” slurs.
We also know the statistics. Native women experience sexual assault, predominantly by white men, at rates higher than any other ethnic group. In Montana, Native Americans make up 17 percent of the incarcerated population when they only make up 6.2 percent of the state’s population. According to the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice, nationally, Native Americans are most likely to be killed by police followed by African Americans. The stories and staggering numbers go on.
And so, what to do about all of this? In the national conversation and reaction to Charleston and other acts of violence targeting people of color, a term is emerging to describe white people’s feelings of inadequacy and fear and lack of participation in the conversation about racism: white silence.
We all struggle with silence in our lives because we feel held back, angry or powerless in some way, but when severe racial inequalities – like hunger, socio-economics, health, sexual assault, incarceration rates and more – are rampant in our community, state and country, no one should be silent.
If we truly want a community that is safe, inclusive, welcoming and equitable for all people, we need to be able to ask ourselves and each other what it is that holds us back from doing the hard work that makes us think critically and act differently: from correcting those unintentionally offensive racial remarks we hear on a daily basis (microaggressions); addressing laws and policies that are harmful to communities of color; to taking a stand against racially motivated violence.
We live in complicated times and race is an extremely complicated topic. While there are no quick fixes and no single panacea to dismantle racial injustice, we must continue the lifetime of work – moving from awareness, to education, to action – with ourselves and with our communities.
By Katie Koga of NCBI Missoula and Amanda Opitz, Communications Coordinator at YWCA Missoula