Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Taking baby steps in overcoming racism

Commentary by Jim Banholzer


Jim Banholzer

Did you ever order a pizza and when the delivery person showed up their apparent cultural background somehow displeased you, causing you to leave a smaller tip than originally intended? It was only several pies ago that I caught myself almost doing this, but ended up leaving more money, rather than less, out of sheer guilt.

Racism and hidden personal prejudices are among the worst weapons of mass destruction in the world. There could be cases in which you think you're merely poking playful fun, but you're actually tearing at somebody's emotional wounds and inflicting "Mad Human Disease." Complicating matters, harsh disagreements often break out over what exactly is insulting. Some people don't find the "Washington Redskins" and "Salmon Savages" offensive, for instance.

However, most Native Americans and many other people find these names quite demeaning. For them these names won't be spoken or written, except as "R______s." Changing human beings into mascots makes wholesale slaughters seem okay, such as the massacre of Shoshone Indians in the Bear River, Idaho, Civil War battle 142 years ago next week.

If dehumanizing people eventually becomes less imbedded in our culture, perhaps someday this kind of history will stop repeating itself.

Wondering what personal struggles the greatest of leaders encountered on their way towards treating all men equally, I was reminded how Abe Lincoln wrestled with this. Originally, Abe was pro-slavery. Only after some life-shaking experiences and a changing of public sentiment did he evolve into the mega-heroic Emancipator.

An improvement for Idaho could come in the form of portraying more non-white people in various statewide publications. Recent census indicates both the State of Idaho and Blaine County hold almost a 10 percent non-white population. But after poring over dozens of magazines and travel brochures from Idaho, I've determined most are featuring non-white people at just a 1- percent rate. (I've assumed the skiers bundled up are mostly white also)

The Chamber of Commerce is spending vast sums of money in attempts to attract visitors from Los Angeles and Oakland. When the large non-white populace from those areas read Idaho Web sites and magazines, they easily see there are virtually no photographs of Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, or other people of wonderful diverse backgrounds. The few featured seem to be performers, dancers and musicians. Some potential visitors interpret this message as, come here and visit—but only if you want to entertain for us.

There has been some success at bettering racial harmony in Idaho—"The State Too Great To Hate." Sociologists point out that now more Native Americans have been accurately checking the census box to identify their actual ethnic backgrounds than they did 30 years ago. This can be attributed to Native Americans, in general, gaining a larger sense of pride than before. With more accurate portrayals in mainstream Americana, there is now a greater awareness about what Native Americans have given this country, both in richness and sadness.

Some sports teams have changed their offensive names. You can help influence Idaho school principals to consider changing the remaining 20 mascot names by contacting them through the Web site.

When the white supremacist Richard Butler (now deceased) ran for mayor of Hayden, Idaho, three years ago, a record voter turnout garnered him less than 5 percent of the vote. Around that time the Philanthropist Greg Carr bought some of Butler's former land. Soon the site where hate rallies had been held was cultivated into a "Peace Park." This news gave me something I could finally send back east and show friends that we're not that bad out here after all.

Back to the pizza before it gets cold. Are my baby steps in trying to "patch things up" by handing out more money for tips in these situations going to change anything? I like to think that the smallest of attitude improvements makes a difference in every corner of the world. So when that raise comes through, I'll be even more eager to spread some healing around in the form of five dollar bills with the photo on the front celebrating that reformed racist—Abe Lincoln.

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