A few weeks ago a young man was detained at the Black Lives Matter protest in Missoula by a group of self-appointed vigilantes. Our family was shocked that this happened in Missoula and outraged that the police took the initial accusations against the teen so seriously. We were also saddened that this young citizen felt he had to cover his face and hands to disguise the fact he is Black.
When our son was growing up in this town, he could go where he chose. He could ride this town on his bicycle and literally forget he was Black.
This burden, of being seen only for the color of one’s skin, first manifested for me when the head of the Black Studies department at the University of Montana told me a story about purchasing a flashy new ski outfit before a trip to Discovery Basin Ski Area. As he rode the lift and skied the trails that day, he said people would look at him as if they had never seen ski clothing like his before. It was only on the drive home that he realized the reason other skiers were looking at him had nothing to do with his clothes: “All day when I was skiing I’d forgotten I was Black, but what they were staring at was the unusual sight of a Black man skiing in Montana.”
During this summer of nationwide racial incidents, we sat down with our son, who is now in his forties, and asked him, “How did you experience Missoula as a child?”
He said, “First of all, you have to remember that I experienced it as a child of privilege, even though I’m racially mixed. My dad was pastor of one the largest churches in the city, my mom was a highly regarded kindergarten teacher, my two sisters and my brother were outstanding students, musicians, dramatists and athletes at Sentinel High School. People knew who I was and I had a secure place. I really did not know what it was like to be Black in Missoula, I really only knew what it was like to be a ‘Wahlin kid’ in the city of Missoula who happened to be a child of color.”
It may well be that the city we remember from our time in Missoula never existed. We may have just wished it into existence as a place where we could raise a child of color and let him roam without reminding him always that he was a person of color. I wonder now if we just wished into existence a city where our son could “forget” he is Black.
Yes, our cities, our towns and our homes are riddled with racism and bigotry. I have benefited mightily by the accident of my birth that made me white and male. I have lived with what is now called “white privilege.”
Now that I approach the end of my 85th year, I wish I could live to see the day when racial divisions will end. I still believe they will end or I would have to die in despair. I too have a dream of a day when children like our son will walk out the door to a world where they can forget for days at a time that they are a person of color because white power is no longer a force.
Missoula, you still have a long way to go. Missoula, I have such a long way to go. However, a good place to start is to repeat after me: Black lives matter and Native lives matter.
F. Joseph Wahlin served as senior pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church from 1971-1986. He and his wife live in retirement near Superior.
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