Mountain towns still don’t know how to talk about racism
As a black woman with a complicated upbringing, the mountains of northwest Wyoming were not an obvious place for me to find a home. My childhood was short-lived – I moved about 13 times before I was 13, and what I experienced during those years is an example of the disproportionate rates of abuse and risk that black and brown children support in this country and around the world. . However, I was lucky. The hand that was dealt to me held an exit in the form of wealthy grandparents who were willing to raise a troubled teenager. They lived in Jackson, Wyoming, and introduced me to my first mountains, the Teton Range. It was safe and beautiful there; I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Like the moon entwined with the tide, the pull of mountain life has drawn me ever since – I drift and return to the high country, no matter the days or the distance. The mountains and the iconic communities that rest among them are restorative for me.
Trust me when I say I know we have it here, really well.
Yet I’ve noticed that the beauty and glory that surrounds us is about all we’re allowed to discuss in mountain towns. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a guide or passerby say something like “Just another day in paradise!” This attitude shows up on bumper stickers and in social media hashtags with phrases like “Good Vibes Only” or “No Bad Days.” One gets the feeling that someone must be suffering from a character flaw if he draws attention to the cracks in these bastions of pleasure. We have it so well in these idyllic landscapes that we shouldn’t take it away by evoking “unsavory” subjects, right?
This attitude blinds us to the real problems that plague mountain towns and their surroundings just as much as anywhere else. Like, say, racism – if you’re a person of color living in the Mountain West, you encounter signals on a daily basis that you don’t belong. In the rural areas surrounding Jackson, I’ll regularly pass Confederate flags and dog whistles in the form of heavily packed militia trucks and bumper stickers. Occasionally a friend will be in the car and we will laugh about it. But I feel incredibly vulnerable, like a snowshoe hare wearing the wrong seasonal camouflage. It’s especially lonely to confront these racist symbols in communities that supposedly want to be allies but seem too uncomfortable to acknowledge that this type of racism exists all around us.
We in the outdoor community are so good at seeking physical discomfort in the mountains, but we struggle with the emotional discomfort required for essential conversations about difficult topics.
Years ago, I found myself in a casual conversation with the mayor of a nearby town. He asked me, in front of a group of colleagues: “How did you do your hair like that?” Do you stick your head out of a window like a dog? Immediately my cheeks flushed, as laughter from my colleagues filled the awkward silence. They must have known how inappropriate that comment was, but they clearly felt too uncomfortable to speak out against it and embarrass an official. Often my reaction at times like these is pure surprise. And then I don’t know what to do. If I react with rage, I am irrationally angry. If I let it pass, I am complicit in the subtle “otherness” that perpetuates the roots of racism. But here’s the thing: These are unfair expectations to place on myself. I am not alone here. What if my colleagues didn’t laugh with the mayor? What if the next time someone said something like that, it wasn’t up to me to say it? What if, as unpleasant as it may be, we didn’t pretend that everything was fine, and that someone hadn’t just said something extremely harmful?
We in the outdoor community are so good at seeking physical discomfort in the mountains, but we struggle with the emotional discomfort required for essential conversations about difficult topics. When everything is so happy, we become less civically engaged, oblivious even, to solving issues like racism.
It is no coincidence that mountain towns reflect a particular demographic – red zones, sunset towns and predatory and exclusive lending practices have prevented land, property and generational wealth from solidifying between the hands of blacks and browns. Not only are mountain towns very white—my own community of Jackson is 88.9% white—but they tend to have an incredible amount of economic inequality. When you benefit from these systems, it is easy not to think about it.
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about “white freedom” in a 2018 essay published in Atlantic which eerily mirrors the attitude of many who live in white mountain towns: “Freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism…a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without accountability, without hard memory…a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, who calls you to risk yours. When you hear something offensive and walk the other way instead of calling it out, it’s worth asking if that choice is made possible by some unhealthy form of freedom.
Many people in mountain towns might say they are against racism but want to believe it is not something that exists where they live. I have lived in Mountain West for almost 20 years now, and I tell you that I have never felt more unsafe in my life than I do now. It’s all around our mountain liberal strongholds. In the kitchen of a remote Utah stopover restaurant, I see a young white man wearing a Trump hat and a shirt glorifying assault weapons. In Dillon, Montana, a place I’ve been through many times over the years, there’s a motel called the Sun Downer. Yet signals of rising extremism across the West are often met with silence – it’s much easier to focus on the positives.
Stop obsessing over getting it right. Lean into those messy conversations.
And while this inability to talk about difficult topics disproportionately hurts black, brown, and Indigenous people, it can also hurt people struggling with other struggles that are hard to talk about, like mental illness. Mountain municipalities are experiencing a public health crisis in terms of mental health. According to the CDC, eight of the top ten states for suicide are in the West. Wyoming is currently ranked number one. When we don’t discuss things like depression or anxiety, the crisis gets worse and people who are suffering are even more isolated.
What is the solution? We need to start having real conversations that lead to real action. Call out to your community and speak up when you meet someone who says something insensitive, even if you just deem them deaf. When you ignore such comments, you are signaling to that person and others that such behavior is acceptable. And for the love of all things sacred, stop obsessing over getting it right. Lean into those messy conversations.
Over the summer of 2020, as protests and outrage erupted across the country, it felt like the first time people in my community began to acknowledge my blackness and what that could be. involve on my lived experience. Texts, Instagram messages and phone calls poured into my channels apologizing for ancestral and current traumas and asking me to better understand the current state of racism in Jackson. But that was two years ago now, and hundreds of black and brown bodies continue to face violence from officials. In the summer of 2020, almost every organization was spreading anti-racism messages and promoting the importance of inclusion; in the summer of 2022, hysteria around critical race theory has spooked organizations into a vacuum of silence. We are back to living in a sea of unsaid.
This moment of “awakening” cannot be brief or temporary. Yes, let’s remove the old monuments and erect new murals. But these murals are no substitute for the real work that needs to be done. Just as it takes time for the body to adapt to the physical condition and stress of mountain travel, these times also require consistency and determination to overcome the aftermath of implicit and systemic injustice. . Each of us must actively get out of life paradigms that leave us indifferent, apathetic and complicit.