Reflections on the Montana Race Project: Everyone Has a Story

“…as stories similar to these started piling up, I realized that Montana had a race problem rooted in denial.”

For most of my DiverseU “presentation” I was working unscripted, saying things as they came to mind and trying to speak as candidly as possible. After all, that’s how these sort of things should be discussed Abstract and nebulous topics like race seemingly have little to no place within the rigid context of school, and yet here we are. How does one teach oppression? How do you approach the struggles of these marginalized groups? At the root of it, how does one teach understanding? These rhetorical questions all have one pretty simple answer; context.

Over the course of the past four weeks, our class of six reached out for stories from every inch Montana, but there was a catch. Submitters had a six word limit, and when talking about one’s oppression and struggles it seemed like there just wouldn’t be enough room. As it turns out, that was plenty.

While brevity might be the soul of wit, I learned that brevity also provides the clearest and most direct avenue in dealing with one’s personal issues, especially those as sensitive as racism. I was moved after reading a collection of stories compiled by the national Race Card Project efforts, and looked forward to hearing what this state, white majority in mind, had to say. Within days, stories came pouring in through the UM Journalism School’s website as well as our Facebook page, and brought with it my first look at racism through the eyes of Montana residents.

“Driving while brown is dangerous,” “Better stick to your own kind,” and “Bleaching my skin to look beautiful” were all examples of things that as a Mexican-American, I had grown up hearing about, yet despite this innate connection, there were some other stories that hit me harder.

“This is not an issue here,” writes an anonymous user from Bozeman who adds “There’s your six words. Why make it one?” One Whitefish resident, Jane, shares a similar sentiment in hers, writing that she’s “Thankful Montana has no race problem.” These two weren’t alone, and as stories similar to these started piling up, I realized that Montana had a race problem rooted in denial.

I’ve lived in Missoula for a little over a year now, and I’ve never seen or felt oppressed because of my race, and other friends of mine felt similarly. Missoula is progressive, liberal, and radical in its attempts at acceptance, yet in the fanfare and excessiveness that accompanies this, another issue rears its head: the concept of racial “colorblindness.”

To most, colorblindness embodies what we need in this world; a world where nobody sees the races around them, instead viewing everyone as the people they are. It’s great, right? Wrong. While in the early days of the #BlackLivesMatter movement I might’ve sympathized with this practice, I now know that it is faulty, wrong, and another example of the “white apology” epidemic that’s sweeping across the nation.

“We’re all one race, the human race!” “I don’t see race, everyone is the same to me!” “We’re just human!” crow these people, and while this seems nice in its intentions, I liken colorblindness to a sort of social nihilism, a type of apathy fueled in part by the scores of entry level “social justice warriors” who feel that instead of recognizing one’s individual heritage, it’s easier to coexist once that part is gone. Poof. Adios.

It’s an idea that I’ve only just recently realized how harmful it is, especially in its attempts to unify everyone under the single term “human.” I mean, yes. We’re human, we live on earth, and biologically speaking, we’re the same. The problem here is when people speak of colorblindness, they really mean social whitewashing. What? Social Whitewashing? Well, to put it simply, people who generally use colorblindness as their preferred method of facing the issues of race are often bringing these minorities to the white standard, and expecting them to live by it. Minorities cannot “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” like you did, they cannot “just get a job,” and they don’t want to be seen as a white counterpart. Minorities are people with history rich with culture and experiences, and yet this serves as the basis for their oppression. Why?

Colorblindness is also a type of fear, and while I’m writing this as an outsider looking in and don’t necessarily have the inside on what it means to be an adamant monochromatic, I know that this isn’t the approach any of us want. I appreciate the sentiment, but no thanks. The Montana Race Project: Everyone Has a Story, showed us that people across this state care, love, and want to protect their heritage. Why take these stories from people? Why act like they don’t exist? Why?

If there’s anything I learned from the past couple of weeks it’s that in order to help the people who need it most, you need to stop and let them talk. One’s stories of oppression, struggle, and triumph is what makes them human.

After all, aren’t we all “just human”?

-Mia Soza , who participated in “The Montana Race Project: Everyone Has a Story” for DiverseU 2015. The project is led by faculty advisor, Kathy Weber-Bates who teaches Diversity in Media in the UM School of Journalism.

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