If I close my eyes and think really hard I can remember a time in my life when I never thought about the color of my skin. Those times are now distant memories that I can barely recall.
I moved to Missoula from Denver when I was 9 years old. Living in Denver, I was surrounded by people of all different backgrounds. In elementary school, I didn’t give much thought to the Asian American teacher I had, or that students whose first language was Spanish were able to have classes with a Spanish-speaking teacher. Culture and diversity were the next-door neighbors I grew up hanging out with.
However, when I moved to Missoula, I realized that not everyone shared those same neighbors.
Walking into school on the first day of 4th grade, I looked at all the kids and thought, “One of these things does not look like the others, and one of those things is me.” While I was one of three African-American students in my grade, all I saw was a sea of white. I couldn’t feel more out of place. I started to notice every difference I had with my white classmates – particularly my girl classmates. It felt like there were absolutely no similarities between us. My skin color, nose, build, hair, and eye color were all things I suddenly became extremely aware of and embarrassed by. It was on that first day of school when I realized I was black – and that black, for some people, was synonymous with bad.
It wasn’t too long after I started this internal battle in my head, that another war began – one that was outside and public. It seemed as if the mob started to gather, and stares and questions were their torches and pitchforks. Questions like: How do you have a white cousin? Wait, why do you have a white mom? Can I touch your hair? Do you like fried chicken and watermelon? These questions were daily occurrences, and it didn’t stop there.
I remember in 5th grade we all had to write a report on any historical topic we wanted to. Kids chose subjects such as the Hershey’s factory or the invention of popsicles, but I chose slavery. Why I did this, I don’t think I will every really know. Maybe being bombarded with race stirred something inside me to want to learn more, to want others to learn more. And while I learned a lot about the slave trade and plantations, my classmates were not as enthused to read about the subject. When the reports were done and laminated, we had to go around the room, read each other’s reports, and leave sticky notes on them with our thoughts. The comments I received ranged from disgust to confusion. Not a good topic. Why did you pick this? These were statements made by ten-year-old kids, by my classmates, by some of my friends.
From that first day of 4th grade to now, stereotypes, conformity, and discrimination have not left my side. They are shadows that constantly follow me, and I have come to expect them. And yet, I have not learned exactly where to place my hands when I am followed in stores so as not to be accused of stealing. I have not figured out how to stand up for myself when people touch my hair without asking. I have not found the perfect response when people use the “N” word around me.
Discrimination in Missoula happens every day, but the stories of those who experience it are often written off or simply not told. Here at YWCA Missoula, our mission is “Eliminating Racism and Empowering Women.” While we know racism exists here in Missoula, others might not. That is why Lydia Schildt, the coordinator of the Racial Justice Initiative embarked on the journey to create a video shedding light on experiences of discrimination. The film is called “Missoula Voices: A Safe Space for Conversations about Discrimination”, and it tells the stories of racial discrimination that Indigenous people and people of color have had to face in Montana. The film was shown at the Roxy Theater this May, with a panel discussion afterwards.
It was incredibly cathartic to be a part of this film. Telling my story helped me grasp how my experiences from a young age have shaped me, and hearing other people’s stories made me realize I wasn’t alone. When you watch this video I hope it stirs something inside you like it did me. I hope you feel encouraged to learn more and to act on the knowledge you gain. YWCA Missoula continues to strive towards our goal of eliminating racism, by acknowledging the discrimination people in this town face. We hope to see you there on the front lines with us, because it takes all of us, together, to make change happen.
By Sierra Pannell, Racial Justice Intern