By Allison Smith
On Saturday this week, I stood on the sidewalk in downtown Loyalton for several hours, holding a sign that said “Black Lives Matter in Sierra County”. I smiled and waved at people driving by. I think many people were wondering why I would do this, here in this tiny, quiet town. I went out again on Sunday with my friend and we stood out there together, with our signs. That day, a man drove his truck near us at the curb, then gunned his engine and peeled out, leaving a big cloud of diesel smoke behind, then he u-turned and yelled at us to “Go home!” I walked up to his truck and we started talking. I had a conversation with him for the next half hour. I asked why he felt angry about my sign and he began to understand why I was out there. He eventually apologized for his driving, and we found some common ground and exchanged names before he left. I think maybe his thoughts reflect the questions of others as well, so I decided to write this and share a bit of the conversation we had:
“We don’t have this in our community! I never thought I’d see this here. Why are you bringing this here??”
No, in Sierra County we don’t have a black community that is being constantly challenged with police brutality. We don’t have that. Here’s what we DO have. We DO have a diversity of people in Sierra County, with a variety of skin colors and ethnicities—some black, some Latino, some Asian, some Native American, many white and many mixed. We’re all human. But racism exists. Both in this country and in this community.
By holding this sign, I am not bringing racism, it’s already here. It is a thing that is deeply embedded in the American psyche. I am pointing it out. By holding a sign that is speaking to the importance of treating all black people with equality and justice, what I am bringing is my own voice, in a public way, to say that I am working against racism, whether it’s racism here or anywhere across the country.
We talked about how he felt angry because he was connecting my sign with bringing the chaos and looting that he has seen on TV. I let him know that I am here to stand up and speak out, peacefully, AGAINST violence, the violence that is happening to black people in this country, the violence that has a hundreds of years old history. I pointed out to him, that in fact, in this instance, his driving move in front of us was actually HIM bringing the violence, to which he eventually agreed, and then apologized for.
“I know everyone and everyone likes everyone and gets along fine here in this community!”, he said.
I told him that I respectfully challenge that idea, that he cannot know or speak for anyone else’s experiences here but his own. I suggested it may appear to him that all is well in the community because he does not have the same experiences as others with darker skin or different cultures. So how would he really know? Racism exists on many levels and can be experienced in big ways and in small moments. In America we have a culture of silence around racism. But that silence only allows racism to continue.
Me standing out there on the street with a sign saying Black Lives Matter is about breaking my own silence. Standing up to show others that they are not alone, that the beautiful diversity that is our humanness will be supported. I put a heart on my sign to show that my message is about love.
“Well, I stand for All Lives Matter” another person told me. Yes, I stand for all lives too. But all lives are NOT equally endangered right now, black ones are. The point is to bring attention to the difference. Black people continue to suffer the worst effects of systemic racism, in policing, housing, employment, incarceration, and now even with Covid-19, they are dying at a higher rate than others. Black lives are more difficult, on so many levels, than my white one, because of the color of their skin. THAT is why I stood with a sign that says Black Lives Matter. If everyone was doing fine, I wouldn’t be writing this.
I could go on here to talk about the experiences that I have had, that have helped me, as a white person, to see and feel the depths of how important undoing racism is in our culture—the experiences that led me to standing out there holding a sign, in this small, quiet town. But I still have so much to learn about how to undo racism, so I’ll be busy doing that. And, I am always open to talking.