A Real Dialogue about Racial Equity in Alaska

A few weeks ago, I was waiting in my car for my sister to come out of a grocery store, window down, and two young men, both white, were having a loud discussion about race. I tried (not very hard) to not listen, but as I was in the middle of the unnerving project I’ll describe in a bit, bad manners took over.

They discussed different racial problems, whether minorities should be “blaming” everything on race, whether affirmative action was right, and one was vehement that the “Native Pride” hats were racist in nature. What struck me was – they probably would be talking a bit differently if I was part of the discussion. Or even if they knew I was listening.

I don’t mean to say they were racist for discussing this, or that they would for sure even curb away from what they were saying. But the nature of racial dialogue in Anchorage is such that the entrance of a (somewhat opinionated) Native woman into the conversation, I’m pretty sure there would be either a) holding back from all true opinions out of not wanting to stir something up that can’t be taken back, or b) a blood bath.

Okay, I’m SURE we could remain civil. But experience tells me when people of different races radically disagree about race relations in Anchorage, the conversations don’t generally go all rainbows and bunnies.

I began my blog over three years ago, and one of my first posts was about an incident that happened downtown. A group of us, all Native, were downtown for an event, and were suddenly, and without provocation, verbally abused by a loud, angry man. The comments were ugly, and racist. But my concern was not as much the man, but the reaction of our group:

(We were) A group of young, professional Native people, mostly women, who have every right to be proud of themselves and their accomplishments. Our reaction? We lowered our heads, we didn’t meet each other in the eye, we dare not look at another person in the crowd, for the shame of it… We didn’t yell back, we didn’t argue, we didn’t console or comfort each other, we didn’t talk about.

Aside from the fact that I just annoyingly quoted myself, in three years, I realize I still haven’t answered for myself the questions I was pondering in the post. Why was this our reaction? What can be done?

But a recent experience has made me look at this in a new way. I was invited to participate in project hosted by First Alaskans Institute – a project to start a dialogue about racial equity. To start many dialogues, actually, in many different communities around Alaska. I went in to be trained as a host of some of these dialogues, with a large group of supporters.

Here’s where my heart rate starts to rise.

It wasn’t actually the group itself that made me nervous. I think partly from posting on my blog over the years, and partly because I just talk about race a lot with friends as I try to answer my own question, I was pretty comfortable the first day we got together. It was a day to share our own stories, our own ideas about race in Alaska.

As we went around the large circle for several hours, each person taking a turn, it was at times heartbreaking, at times infuriating, at times inspiring. There were many occasions I could relate to the speaker, and many more that sparked ever more questions.

It was the two days after the initial meeting where I started to wonder what I’d gotten myself into.

In a much smaller group, it started getting a little more real about us hosting these discussions, and here’s where I start to have imaginary dialogues, hosted by me, in which I get run out of town or alternately start a proverbial fire in a community that leads to paintballing and race riots (it’s part of my process.)

While we were being trained, I discovered several people had similar fears.

“How do I walk by these people in the store if this goes wrong?”

“My community is not going to like this kind of talk.”

Yet, we’ve seen that positive outcomes CAN come from racial dialogue. A year ago to the week, I posted about First Alaskans’ effort in a pretty public racial dialogue. ADN Columnist Julie O’Malley said it best, but in short, there was some ugly racial comments said about Native women over three years ago by two local radio DJs. The reaction was swift, angry, accusatory, and I don’t know that anyone was happy with the outcome.

But an effort when different racial comments were made by different local DJs was… well, markedly different. Instead of anger, education. Instead of calls to pull ads, a call to talk. The outcome? Much, much better for everyone.

Said O’Malley, “And I left the press conference wishing that more conversations about race in Anchorage could end that way. Because we’d all be better for it.”

So, my neurosis about being run out of town pitchfork-style aside, after meeting these empowering, strong, open people, after some truly thought-provoking dialogue led by First Alaskans, after voicing my own fears and hopes (and more fears,) I can’t answer a single question I posed over three years ago with any authority. But I have a little more hope that, with talking, with compassion, with incredible patience, we can turn the direction of racial equity in the state.

Though the two gentlemen outside the grocery store already had it said pretty succinctly:

“But don’t you think some people just really hate people from different races?”

“Yeah… if you’re a total tool.”

He probably won’t be hosting a dialogue, but I really want to hear more of what he has to say.

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Vera Starbard is a Tlingit/Dena'ina Athabascan woman, lifelong Alaskan and blogger. Of her work, Vera says:

"I often see stories, whether sports, hard news, opinion or hot topics, done from exclusively non-Native persceptives. While Native people are many times included in the story itself, it is generally from the view of "person interviewing Native person" versus just "here's MY view (and I happen to be Native.")"


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