Wrestling with an Iceberg, or, Why Black Lives Matter in Montana

About 30 of us gathered on October 22nd,  at the Glacier Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, for an eye-opening presentation by Dr. Tobin Miller Shearer, Author and Professor of African American Studies at the University of Montana.  A short report aired on Montana Public Radio at this link and the full recording here .

We were reminded of just how new it is for us, culturally, to be living in a world without slavery, much less a world where equality among people of all kinds is supposedly the norm.  Needless to say, the generations-old practices of inequality have not died out.  Dr. Shearer reminded us that schools were segregated until 1954, which public accommodations were segregated until 1964, and that housing continues to be informally segregated despite efforts to make that illegal in the 1970s.  It is much in the news that the criminal justice system treats black and white differently.

Here in Montana, our whiteness allows us to believe that all this talk need not concern us.

But consider:

*Once, Montana had a significant population of African Americans.

*There were African American newspapers in the main Montana cities.

*There were Black soldiers stationed at Fort Missoula.

*Black families lived alongside whites and Native Americans and had similar     occupations.

But something happened.  Starting in about 1890, there was a nationwide wave of repression against African Americans, as “Sundown Towns” and other formal structures of racial separation were established.  Towns in Montana began to put up signs at their town limits advertising “No Negroes Allowed After Dark.” Bars and restaurants began to refuse service to Blacks.  And after generations, we have come to be a very White place.

Dr. Shearer compared the structure of oppression of African Americans to an iceberg.  We can see oppressive actions on the surface, while most of the mass is underneath. One layer of what’s underneath is the culture of “white privilege,” and underneath that is a layer that could be called “identity.”  Oppressive actions are hard to get rid of because of the invisible part of the iceberg, the white privilege and the identities that have evolved for living in an oppressive culture.  In a white community, white privilege and white identity are things we just don’t have to think about, but they are present. People of color think about them every day.

Shearer, who is white himself, is a member of the Mennonite Church, a mostly white denomination that has been trying to become more welcoming to people of color. He followed our Saturday night talk with a Sunday morning presentation at the Mountain View Mennonite Church pursuing these efforts.

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