By Ashley Lodato
Here is one of the faces of racism in the Methow Valley:
A man approaches two teenage girls who are selling raffle tickets outside one of the local grocery stores. He asks what they’re doing; they explain that they’re raising funds to support the junior class Close Up field trip to Washington, D.C. — an annual trip that is part of a program aimed at preparing young people to be active, informed participants in a democracy.
“Washington, D.C.?” the man responds. “Why would you want to go there? That city is full of chiggers.”
Except the man didn’t say “chiggers,” he said another word that is a familiar racial slur used against black people. You know this word, of course, but you wouldn’t dream of saying it in such a context. Yet someone else felt comfortable enough to say this to two high school juniors, right in front of the grocery store, not in Birmingham in 1963 but last week in Winthrop.
Understandably, the girls were stunned, so much so that they couldn’t respond. And really, what could they possibly have been expected to say? They’ve been raised in a community that, while not ethnically diverse, is grounded in tolerance and acceptance. They’ve been raised to believe that such comfortable public expressions of racism are things in their history book pages, not something they might expect to hear in the town they’ve grown up in.
And they are 16 years old, for Pete’s sake. Is it reasonable to expect them to stand up to a man four times their age — a stranger to them both — and call him out on his bigotry? Of course not. This is not only racism, but it is also harassment of two vulnerable girls.
I don’t know whether there were others around to witness this incident. If there were, they didn’t speak up. Had I been there, I hope I would have had the courage to say something in defense of the girls and in criticism of the man. But speaking up in such circumstances is scary.
To me, what’s surprising is not that there are still people in our society who harbor such prejudices — I’m not that naïve — but instead that people like this man feel emboldened to share their contemptuous and small-minded biases in public places. It’s both a frightening and a depressing statement about our social norms.
You’re used to me writing about giant pumpkins and Christmas tree debacles, missing flip flops and family trips: fun and fluffy stuff. But when I hear about an occurrence like this — which, thankfully, doesn’t happen very often — I feel compelled to bring it to the light. This is our community and we should care when we hear about disturbing situations like this one.
In closing, I give you Dr. Seuss’s sage reminder: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”