Global protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people have kicked off many discussions about systemic racism in social circles where that topic has often been swept under the rug.
Oregon State University-Cascades hosted one of those discussions Monday evening in an online forum. Erika McCalpine, a business instructor at the university and a Black woman, alongside four other Black panelists and residents of Bend, discussed racial tension, being Black in Central Oregon and what non-Black allies can do to help.
“Bend is going to become more diverse, whether you like it or not,” said Rob Garrott, one of the four panelists. “Now is the time for us to be having these kinds of discussions so we don’t have a George Floyd incident here.”
The four panelists all had different backgrounds and experiences that were reflected in their personal stories about race.
Garrott, a senior content manager for LinkedIn, said he moved to Bend from Los Angeles a few years ago, partially because of his passion for outdoor activities. He said although he loves Bend, he still gets stared at every day for being Black in a very white city.
“Sometimes it’s a good stare — ‘Hey, I like that bicycle’ — sometimes, it’s, ‘Hey, we have those here?’ And I’m not talking about my bicycle,” Garrott said. “It’s the price I pay for living in paradise.”
Only 0.6% of Bend’s population identifies as Black or African American, compared to more than 13% of the U.S. population, according to the U.S. Census.
Judith Sadora, a wilderness therapist, was raised in New Jersey by a mother who immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti. Because of her mother’s sacrifices to provide a good education and life for her family, she can’t abide by the “all lives matter” response to the Black Lives Matter movement, she said.
“The reason why Black lives have to matter is because of systemic racism,” Sadora said. “I think of the risks and sacrifices that my mom had to take to have the opportunities that I had, … and the reason she had to take those risks was because of systemic racism.”
Dalton Miller-Jones, a retired Portland State University psychology professor, brought up some stories from his youth in the mid-20th century to remind listeners that 2020’s racial tensions are not new. He experienced segregation as a child, and was later part of a group of Black college students that took over the campus union building at Cornell University as a protest of racism — only to have to arm themselves because of threats from white fraternity members.
“I’ve been physically and emotionally close to the trauma of experiencing sitting in the back of the bus, having to go into movie theaters through the back door … drinking out of separate water fountains as a young kid, to seeing the murderers of Emmett Till,” Miller-Jones said. “This (current unrest) is absolutely continuous with my experience.”
Marcus LeGrand, a college and career success coach at Central Oregon Community College, said he felt hopeful at young people’s passion to combat racism after Floyd’s death. But he also had pointed critiques for educators who taught a whitewashed version of history and didn’t call out racism in their classrooms.
“If you’re in the classroom, and you hear something, speak up,” LeGrand told teachers. “I hear from students who hear the N-word on the daily, and that is sad.”
LeGrand also said he noticed that although other people of color and white women have actively participated in anti-racism discussions recently, he hadn’t heard much from white men. He asked white men to join in the fight against racism.
“White men: Do your job, step up, be human,” LeGrand said. “You’re quiet right now, and I’m sick of the quiet.”
Miller-Jones brought up the three youth-focused town halls held by the social justice group he’s a member of, Restorative Justice and Equity. He said more than 60% of students of color at these town halls had received negative comments about their appearance or ethnicity in local schools.
“This probably would shock people who are not as aware of the assault that these young people have been dealing with for most of their time here, in good, progressive Central Oregon,” Miller-Jones said. “‘We don’t have any problems here,’ we say, but we do.”
Before the forum began, the online livestream showed a slideshow of slain Black people, many killed by police, such as Treyvon Martin and Elijah McClain, as Marvin Gaye’s classic “What’s Going On” played on a loop. The slide show lasted eight minutes and 47 seconds — one second longer than a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on Floyd’s neck May 25.
“That song was written quite a while ago, but the lyrics still apply today,” McCalpine said.
The panelists and McCalpine recommended a number of books on racism to listeners. However, McCalpine emphasized that reading those books doesn’t mean one has lived that experience.
“Please don’t ever think that because you’ve read all the books, that you know what it’s like to be Black, Indigenous, or another person of color,” she said. “Please don’t talk to us like you are us, because we have a different experience.”
All five speakers encouraged people to have conversations about race with their colleagues, and for non-Black people to consistently fight racism with their actions and resources.
“If this were a problem we could solve … it would’ve been solved years ago,” Garrott said. “We need your help.”
“It’s my hope that you’ve heard something that helps you understand that Black lives do indeed matter,” McCalpine added. “And Black Lives Matter is the bare minimum.”