At panel discussion about racism Tuesday night, Jerry Clark said he didn’t think about race growing up in Barbados, where he and most everyone else was of African heritage.
He said he learned about racism when he moved to South Florida at the age of 15, and then more formally during his years at college. When he moved to Billings, where he works for RiverStone Health, he said, he learned about another aspect of racial prejudice.
“The racism toward Native Americans is what is most apparent in Montana,” he said.
The truth of that observation was born out during “A Community Dialogue on Race” in the Community Room at the Billings Public Library, where Clark was one of five Billings residents on the panel who spoke of their experiences with racism and what can be done to fight it.
It seems safe to say that the most troubling accounts of dealing with overt racism were related by Michael Gray, a native of Browning whose father is an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe and who is also enrolled in the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians.
Gray, the owner of G+G Advertising — and the old Masonic Building in the heart of downtown Billings, where his business is based — said the most recent incident occurred at the Albertsons grocery story on North 27th Street. He went in to exchange some five-gallon water jugs, he said, but a clerk told him he couldn’t do that.
When he asked why, he said, the clerk responded, “You people steal these and bring them back for the deposit.”
Gray said he spoke with the store manager and took his grievance all the way to Albertsons headquarters in Boise, Idaho, and he’s not done yet. He also told of buying a few Zpizza restaurants a couple of years ago, and bringing in his cousin, an Apache Indian, to help manage his West End location.
Gray was out of town when his cousin called and said he had to go home, that he couldn’t take it any more. The last straw was when the soft-drink machine went out at the restaurant and a hairdresser from the salon next door said to Gray’s cousin, “You dumb Indian. Fix that pop machine.”
Gray’s stories — he had a couple of others, too — were met with groans from the audience of more than 100 people. That sympathy was noted by another panelist, Danny Choriki, whose grandparents hailed from Japan, the Philippines and Portugal.
Gatherings like the one in the library attracted mostly people already open to learning about racism and taking steps to end it, Choriki said, adding, “We need to be preaching to other people’s choirs.”
He mentioned the presence at the library of Billings’ new mayor, Bill Cole, and said he was struck by Cole’s campaign slogan: “Let’s start the conversation about our future.” Choriki said he hoped Cole could find ways of taking the conversation about race to a wider circle of Billings residents.
Another panelist, Sonia Gomez Davis, a native of Billings and the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, said that “breaking apart some of the myths” undergirding racism is something that needs to be undertaken head-on by white people.
“This is a conversation I’m asking white folks to have with other white folks,” she said.
Davis shared a recollection from her childhood in Billings, when she was at a cousin’s birthday party, at the age of 5 or 6, and was supposed to hold hands with the cousins on either side of her. She remembers hesitating to hold the hand of one cousin, who had very dark skin, for fear of somehow tainting herself in the process.
That “internalized racism,” she said, was one of her earliest memories.
The fifth panelist, Ana K. Diaz, was born in Peru and identifies ethnically as a Latina/criolla and racially as a mestiza. Like Clark, she also moved to Florida with her family, at the age of 6, but she said she was in the sixth grade before she realized that she was “different,” that she wasn’t simply “white,” as she had always considered herself.
She said it wasn’t until she moved to Billings, where there was less diversity than anywhere else she had lived, that she fully embraced her identity as a Latina.
Though she spoke of learning about racism and colonialism in college, Diaz said when it comes to learning about the experiences of minorities, “you’re never going to find that in the textbooks.” She said there was no substitute for one-on-one experiences, and she urged people to meet enough people of diverse backgrounds to finally realize that there is no fundamental difference between people of different races.
One question from the audience was, how do white people establish such relationships without appearing condescending?
Davis said one obvious way was by joining social-justice groups. She said she has met a wonderfully diverse group of people, including Clark, since founding a local chapter of Showing Up for Racial Justice.
Clark said that while individual change is essential to achieving justice, it was also necessary to deal with institutional racism by electing people opposed to policies and laws that harm minority communities. Those include include assaults on voting rights, stop-and-frisk laws that inordinately target minorities, a criminal-justice system weighted against minorities and the “war on drugs,” which has had a “devastating” effect on communities of color.
Diaz said she has felt something new in the air since the 2016 election. Realizing that she lives in a place where a majority of fellows residents voted in favor of policies “that clearly harm so many people,” she said she is more hesitant to speak Spanish in public, or to speak her mind about political events.
“It does feel like the world has changed,” she said.
Choriki said he no longer believes in either political or social change, but only in cultural change, and he said the perfect example of how that works is the “Me Too” movement of women testifying about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment.
Clark noted that, too, saying that most of the racism directed at him is oblique, as when a passing motorist throws the N-word his way. He said he has found that black women, as well as Indian women, are much more likely to be insulted directly to their faces.
“That’s one of the privileges I have, just as a man,” he said.
Clark said, in words that were echoed in one way or another by everyone on the panel, that the most important first step is to counter every witnessed act of racism by speaking out.
“You can’t let them slide,” he said.
The panel discussion was organized by Kari Kaiser, the former head of Billings Rises, a chapter of Big Sky Rises, an activist group that formed after the 2016 election. The moderator of the discussion was Russell Rowland, co-founder of the Native American Race Relations and Healing lecture series.
To read more about the panelists, go here.
A list of additional resources that included a reading list, upcoming community events, a listing of community organizations and more, was passed out at the meeting. You can find that here.