To say we are living in unprecedented times feels like a hollow declaration that does not reflect the gravity of the last several months. Living in the Tahoe/Truckee area provides privileged insulation from much of the pain that is occurring throughout our world. This insulation does not justify complacency, and we must take action and rebuild our communities.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis is the focal point of pain, but his killing is not an isolated circumstance and we cannot see it as such. We could fill pages with names of black Americans killed or victimized because they are black. To truly make progress, we must recognize this statement as fact, and release the false assumption that our progress as a nation has reduced racism. We must also accept that our society is built on a foundation of structural racism and oppression toward people of color. What does structural racism actually mean? Well, what is a foundation? A foundation sets the base for building a structure. If that foundation is built poorly, the structure will inevitably fail. Structural racism, to me, means that the foundation of our country was not built well, and we are beginning to see cracks in the walls. Beginning with the degradation of indigenous native communities, continuing with slavery, and furthered with civil rights infringements and countless other racial disparities, the cement used for our foundation is riddled with hate and oppression. We have undeniably experienced progress, but this progress is layered on a flawed structure. The layers appear strong, and for some time, particularly for privileged people such as myself, it seemed we had built an equitable country. During this time, however, racism was alive and well. Perhaps it was slightly less obvious to those of us not from marginalized communities, but racism never stopped. The escalation of white nationalism and hate crimes in the past several years is a manifestation of violence being perpetuated and supported by the highest levels of government.
Now enter COVID-19, a pandemic that has devastated our country. Each life lost during the pandemic should be grieved, but we cannot ignore the disproportionate amount of cases and deaths in marginalized communities. According to The Washington Post and The New York Times, communities that have a majority of black residents have three times the rate of infections and six times the rate of death as communities with a majority of white residents.
We cannot separate structural racism, continued oppression hidden by small steps of progress, and the massive loss of life during the most devastating pandemic of our time. This growing pain culminated in the death of George Floyd and the many others who were killed, because we are operating in a structure that does not value black lives.
As privileged people, what can we do? My hope is that we can begin by recognizing that not being racist is not enough. Understanding that perpetuating and furthering racism occurs, often, without intent, and is furthered by the most progressive of us. We must name this. We are well intended layers on a flawed structure, and we cannot deny that the oppression endemic to our system influences the actions we take on a daily basis. I can say with full confidence that I am not a racist. I can also say with equal confidence that I have perpetuated racism. I have occupied more space and time at meetings and silenced other voices, I have undervalued others contributions because of an underlying belief that I am better, I have been in conversations with fellow privileged people and not spoken up against a racist joke or comment, I have turned the radio off when the news was just too sad and I could not handle it. I am calling on myself just as I am calling on others to recognize that we are a product of our culture.
Living in this region my entire life has allowed me to become complacent due to my undeniable privilege. We must stop relying on marginalized communities to stand up for themselves and address inequity. That work is on us. Will you stand with me? Will you join me in starting a community dialogue about breaking down the structural racism in our own community? The violence and protests we have seen over the past week demonstrate that the breaking point has arrived. Now is the time for tangible change, and we must rebuild.
~ Kristy Oriol was born and raised on the West Shore of Tahoe and now resides with her family in Truckee. She is the grants manager for a local nonprofit and loves her community.