Navigating white spaces in Humboldt County as a person of color

By Alyssa Anaya
Flapjack staff

During her first semester at HSU, Vanessa Cota, a 20-year-old political science major, had a frightening encounter at Don’s Donuts in downtown Arcata.

“A guy approached me and asked where I was from and said SoCal and kept telling me to go back where I came from,” she said. “I lost sense of what I was going to do. He threw a glass bottle at my feet.”

Cota’s story is not an isolated incident. Racism is alive and well in Humboldt County, where 77.1% of the population are white, 17.6% are Latinx, and 13.3% are black or African American. This leaves people of color to navigate white spaces, and that is a space that feels not always safe for minorities.

At last week’s Arcata City Council meeting, only a few days after the fatal stabbing of Josiah Lawson, a 19-year-old HSU student and leader of Brothers United, racism in the county was brought up for discussion.

“We cannot continue to ignore the systemic and cultural racism that exists in our community,” said Arcata’s vice-mayor Sofia Pereira. “While we can say we’ve been working on issues of equity in our community, we as a community failed [murder victim] Josiah [Lawson] and other students of color, who have stated over and over that they do not feel safe and welcomed here.”

HSU sociology lecturer Lora Bristow defines racism as simply the systematic oppression of a group based on “what we call” race.

“[This] advantages the dominant group (white folks in the U.S.) and disadvantages and harms other groups,” Bristow said. “ It has multiple levels–individual, ideological and cultural, and institutional, and can be overt/explicit or covert/subtle/even unconscious.”

In Arcata, a college town, racism here isn’t so avert, said 23-year-old Sociology major Danielle Dickerson.

“Arcata is a small town that is becoming more diverse and that makes some white folks uncomfortable,” Dickerson said. “It’s whether or not they are willing to accept that.”

Dickerson also brought attention to HSU’s graduation pledge and how it addresses a so called social and environmental justice.

“For who? Where do people of color lie in the discussion?” she said. “It’s bleaching. Watered down. Paradoxical.”

Dickerson said that language is very problematic.

“There needs to be a change of behavior,” she said. “White people need to be held responsible.”

As Bristow explained, racism can be both subtle and even unconscious. Cota said that she sometimes feels that her professors and colleagues come off as microaggressive.

“Sometimes I will say something and it’s kind of brushed off,” Cota said. “But when a white student says almost the same thing, everyone praises it.”

Racism is not just about minorities, it also calls attention to white folks.

“Racism is immense in its effect, in all layers of our lives.  For people of color, it creates diminished life chances, while it simultaneously increases the life chances of white folks.  Although as a system of power it seeks to dehumanize folks of color, I think it dehumanizes white folks.” said Bristow. “ How can we be good in our souls if we hate others, if we benefit from harm that is done to others and do not work to end that harm?”

Of course, there is no all ending, over night, happy ending when it comes to something as heavy as racism. However, there are ways that it can be combatted.

“There needs to be more accountability, safer spaces, and actually acknowledging gender, and race. Not leaving anyone out of decision making,” Dickerson said. “We need to redefine ally. You can’t just simply agree with the ideologies, you need to be action oriented. People are allies in theory, but they need to put that into praxis,” said Dickerson. “When you have a platform you need to use it.”

“We just had that march for science and it was full of white people. After the recent passing of Josiah [Lawson] we did not see many of these “allies.” They came to the vigils but didn’t show up to the courthouse to show support. Where are the allies?”

Cota agreed and added, “White folks need to not be so defensive. It happened, accept it. Ask what you can do to fix it. Check other white people. It is exhausting being a person of color and trying to educate white people who don’t want to listen to me.”

“At the individual level, we need to have conversations with each other–and white folks need to really listen to people of color.  White folks need to talk with other white folks, to work towards a collective anti-racist white identity,” said Bristow. “At the ideological/cultural level, we need to really examine ideas, images, beliefs–everything–and question where they come from, how they are connected with racism as a system of power.”

Racism has been a system structured at the roots of this nation and it shows at the institutional level.

“We need to see how racism may be operating in our schools, political groups, churches, workplaces, all the social institutions we interact with in our lives,” said Bristow.  “And then work for policies and practices that support racial justice. We need to do the same at the national and global level.”