I have been thinking for the last few weeks about the “right” things to do to show my support for the Black Lives Matter movement. I have shed many tears, as many of us have, over the tragic and continued senseless loss of black lives, which of course has actually been going on for centuries. As we once again have solid and greatly disturbing visual proof, almost daily and from many angles and perspectives of these atrocities, the majority of us have finally said enough is enough. With a clear tone set by our current leader of denial, dismissal and tolerance for hate, the U.S. has never been more divided. But hey, I live in the liberal, educated, welcoming hamlet of Boulder, CO, where I have rarely seen blatant bigotry or racial injustice. Of course, it’s really been here all this time, but as a privileged white person, it’s not directed at me, so I don’t know it’s there. Until now.
On June 15, and incident happened to an upstanding black citizen of our fair (in all ways) town. The post somehow made it into my feed from a Facebook friend of a friend, and I shared it on my page. Here is the original post:
SAD!!!!! Finally get my ass up for a run, still mourning my Mother and that will never end, but to run into a women yelling at me to take my Black ass back to Africa and I am a distraction to this country!
You black motherfuckers starting all of these riots destroying our country. You are know different then the KKK!!! You are shit!!!! I am sick of your black power shit!!!
I put my hand over my chest and held it her way and she said fuck you black power bullshit! I said to her I am giving you my heart, and I love you! And she said fuck you and I said love you and I wish I could hug you!!
Yes, this just happened less then 1/2 hour ago!!!
I got to the corner of Baseline and Foothills and fell to my knees and cried! Unfortunately people thought I was having a stroke or something and started getting out of there cars to help me which I reAlly appreciated, but man that really hurt me and the only thing I can think about is my mom telling you hug people like that. Fuck!!! This sucks!!! Guess what, I am not going anywhere. Human power!!!
The post was met with outrage among many of my friends who made comments such as “What?!!! In Boulder??” “I would like to slap the s____ out of that person on behalf of everyone in Boulder.” “It’s embarrassing because I’m sure I’m not alone, but my jaw dropped that it was in Boulder.” And many more comments along the same line.
It’s one thing to hear about racially charged hate, as well as the police killing black people when it’s in a big city. Living in Boulder we feel sheltered from those “big city issues” because of course, it can’t possibly happen here. But it did. And even worse, I somehow let a female white supremacist friend me on Facebook, and she started to chime in on the thread about how she was on board with what the woman said and was in complete agreement with her sentiments. Her comments were so vile and shocking that I deleted them immediately, mortified that someone might think that person was actually a friend of mine. I went briefly to her profile page to push the defriend button and stayed long enough to see that her cover photo was a machine gun, and every post was filled with hate toward anyone of any color and everything else that didn’t agree with her far-right mentality. I didn’t even stop long enough to see in what state she resides, but really it makes no difference. I regret erasing the comments now as I think people should be able to see just how much vitriol is out there.
Hateful race discrimination is here, in beautiful Boulder, as it is EVERYWHERE else across the country, and from the looks of the international protests, seemingly around the world. So why did I believe that this is a city where such atrocities could never happen? Because I’m not black, or any other ethnicity. According to the most recent 2019 statistics, African Americans make up less than 1% of Boulder’s current population of 107,353. That’s down from 1.2% in 2000. Colorado itself has only a 4% black population. I dare say that hasn’t changed since growing up here in the 70s-80s.
Black students at the University of Colorado have faced racial discrimination for a very long time. Just last October, a white woman harassed a black student in a university building and called him racial slurs. That incident prompted CU to look at policy changes around intolerance. But it’s not new. In a 2006 Denver Post article a black student said:
“living in Boulder felt like living in a foreign country. It’s not just the vile hate e-mails that several black and Latino students received last year, or the N-word that was spray- painted on dorm walls, or the black student who was attacked last year by a man shouting racial epithets.
Black students and other minorities say they can’t stand the day-to-day grind of people on campus and in the city staring at them, asking them odd questions about their hair, making assumptions about them, treating them as if they were exotic beings or people to fear.
The feeling of isolation is exacerbated by a “pseudo-liberal culture” that gives students of color the expectation they will be accepted only to find that the people living in Boulder are so isolated they don’t know how.”
I’d like to reiterate that last sentiment: Many of us are so isolated here in this bubble of Boulder that we don’t know how to be accepting.
A few years ago I visited India by myself-a very white, blond-haired woman in a country where I clearly did not fit in. I learned on that trip what it was like to be “exotic,” and all that came with it: an excuse for random women to reach out and touch me and my hair, grab me by the elbow and take selfies, and much more appalling behavior from some of the more egregious and audacious men who I falsely assumed would be safe to be with as they were my hired guides. I stuck out like a sore thumb and was eyed with great curiosity for the first time in my life, and I can only imagine what it must feel like to have that experience on a daily basis, especially when it’s more subtle and implied rather than overt. But of course, racism is so much deeper than feeling out of place. I truly can’t imagine all of that combined with the pure hate of the incident above. Nor can I imagine just what would cause someone to harbor such hate and bigotry.
Growing up in beautiful Boulder I led an extremely sheltered life. After a disastrous authoritarian attempt at raising of my “wild” sister who was ten years older than me, I was promptly placed in a very small private school where I stayed from kindergarten through 8th grade. I found out just a few years ago that my parents told the teachers to “please make sure she’s happy.” And I was, at school anyway. There my fellow students and friends were of all race, creed and color. I didn’t know anything about bias, or bigotry-they were just my friends.
Fast forward to my years at Fairview High School where the student population consisted of probably 95% Caucasian, with maybe four African American students and a handful of Hispanics at any given time. Once again, it never occurred to me to treat anyone differently based on the color of their skin. I don’t recall any instances when my parents said anything derogatory about any of the friends I brought home, or dates I went on, regardless of their color.
Fairview was then and is now, a brilliant school for fine arts, and I thrived there for the first time as I found my voice and my community within music and theater. That’s where I first met my now dearest BFF and musical compatriot Lisa Simmons. In high school, Lisa and I were both in an obscure musical called Lady in the Dark.
While I remember talking with her once or twice during the show, she was a junior that year and I was a senior, and our paths didn’t really cross before or after that. Until one night in 2008.
Today I am, among many other things, a professional singer-songwriter, a skill I started honing way back at Fairview. In 2008 I was finishing my 3rd album and happened to receive a Facebook friend request from Lisa. In her profile picture, she was wearing studio headphones, and she listed Italy as her location. I was immediately intrigued as I was determined to perform overseas, and Italy was on the top of my list. We began a conversation and realized we had far more than our first name in common. Lisa was finishing an album as well and wanted to tour the U.S. with her band Hippie Tendencies. She hadn’t been home in more than 20 years, and we immediately formed a “gig swap” plan where I would help her formulate a Colorado tour, and she would help me in Italy.
We became fast friends during her first tour here in 2010, and we have continued to host each other in both countries numerous times over the past 10 years. We even wrote my 4th album together, aptly called the Italian Project, via Skype.
But even more than a musical partnership, we’ve developed a very special and close friendship.
It took me longer than it should have to talk to Lisa about the current state of affairs, but we finally had a very candid conversation. While I’m not so naïve as to believe that racism doesn’t exist in Boulder, I just couldn’t believe there was that level of hate. You see I didn’t really even understand the word racism, until I went to college in Kansas City where I saw blatant bigotry for the first time. There I came to understand that not everyone can see a person beyond their skin color.
It was during that time that some of my own biases were revealed, ingrained in my head from my seemingly liberal upbringing in the Boulder bubble. We all have thoughts that we’re not proud of, often trapped in our brains but what often seems like an old, old tape recorder. Sometimes words that indicate a bias come out of my mouth before I even have time to process what I’m saying. Things I don’t even believe to be true, but something I’m certain that I once heard a family member say. I know my job is to squash those thoughts, to erase the tape, to move through life with love, acceptance, and an open mind.
Lisa and I began to talk frankly about the current state of racial tension in the world, we both agreed that it is about time that the truth is finally being magnified, amplified and addressed by everyone in the world from here in the US to her hometown in Italy.
As I told her the story of the man jogging and expressed my level of disbelief that Boulder could be the home of anyone with such hate, I realized that my experiences growing up in this city were vastly different than those of my now best friend. I didn’t know the extent of the bias and bigotry that has always lurked beneath the crisp blue sky and beautiful Flatirons. While my friends were diverse in color, sexual orientation, and religious beliefs, I can’t really remember a time when any of us discussed discrimination. It’s time to talk now, and with that, I turn this essay over to Lisa Simmons.
Lisa Marie Simmons
I welcome the opportunity to have a conversation with my BFF Lisa and my fellow Boulderites about the Boulder Bubble. There is merit to the idea many are espousing today that it should not be people of color’s responsibility to explain racism and its effects to whites as there is so much information available and it’s exhausting to have the discussion daily when experiencing the microaggressions and covert racism prevalent in the world today. Explaining over and over again why it’s so hurtful and why it’s so wrong can be disheartening. I hold the opinion, however, that the human family can fruitfully evolve if we can just learn to really listen to each other. In these unprecedented times, it’s essential to not lose the momentum we’ve gained with the white self-reflection and reckoning which has been spurred by George Floyd’s murder.
I am a transracial adoptee; my adoptive mother is white and though I was born in Colorado Springs I grew up in Boulder in the 70s. As a young girl, I didn’t quite get that I was black. When we learned about hereditary traits in elementary school - at our dinner table one evening, among friends of the family, it was announced that I needed glasses and I said, “Ah yes, my bad eyes I’ve inherited from my mother.” I couldn’t understand why there was this huge guffaw around the room. I hadn’t yet had the n-word hurled at me, that was a few months away, but it was then that I began to get the fact that there was something that set me apart from every other face I could see. All I wanted was to fit in and I realized that I looked like none of the girls in my class, or on television, or in magazines.
My hair was still in a natural style when I was first adopted at the age of 8 and as time passed my adoptive mother and I would special order straightener from the local beauty salon. I was desperate to tame my kinky hair into something silky and straight resembling my classmates; especially since I kept being mistaken for a boy. The hairdressers who would try to do something with my hair pretended they knew what they were doing, and I’d go in optimistically every time only to come out with my hair looking nothing like the silky sheet I was trying so hard to obtain. The Boulder that Lisa B. and my other white friends grew up in was different than mine. I didn’t have the language to deal with the pain of being “othered” by my classmates, so I mostly kept silent about race. Countless conversations about my hair; if I washed it, how I washed it, can I touch it, it looks like a Brillo pad or something you’d clean the floor with. My eyelashes, so tiny so curly. My hands - why are your palms white? The color of my lips. My body was an endless source of curiosity.
I was lucky to not have experienced overt racism very often. There were a few instances of being called that dreadful, debilitating, degrading n-word. In elementary and junior high kids would tell racist jokes, sometimes forgetting that I was there and then saying, “oh not YOU. It’s just a joke,” and I found that if I allowed them to see my hurt, I would be accused of having no sense of humor or of carrying a chip on my shoulder. The kids heard these jokes somewhere, so though there is this idea that Boulder is above that, clearly it was not at the time and I doubt that it is now.
My maternal grandfather, who lived in Boulder, was rumored to be a Klan member. While he mellowed with age and forgave his rebellious daughter for marrying a black man and adopting black kids, his wife did not. He was kind to us in the memories of him I have for those few years I knew him before he died, but from the stories we were told he wasn’t always that way. Perhaps, like so many, he made an exception for us. Thought of us as somehow not like those other black people.
More frequent, more pervasive, and just as hurtful was the constant passive or covert racism. I am gregarious by nature and did not lack for friends, but you know the way that often each member of a family is cast in a role they’re forced to play? Among my fellow students and teachers, mine often seemed to be modeled after stereotypes. It was assumed that I was a great singer and dancer and I was pushed by adults and classmates alike towards these endeavors. Luckily music is and has always been a passion, but there was definitely the idea that I would naturally be gifted in these areas and didn’t need training. As a dancer, however, er, not so much. No natural rhythm here! Playing the clown made me socially acceptable, making people laugh was a role that I embraced but again felt thrust on me at times.
There was one black guy in junior high school and when kids started experimenting with sexuality, everyone tried to put the two of us together. I was best friends with a blond boy, John, who I loved. My first huge crush. We’d hang out at his house where he gave me my first kiss. He was from a wealthy family- a country club, entitled child, and when I asked him why he wouldn’t hold hands with me at school or acknowledge our connection he said, “You are the best friend and the prettiest girl I know, but it would, uh… ruin my reputation…” It broke my heart.
I could go on for pages and pages with incidents like those I’ve listed so far. How unworthy, unattractive, and unwanted I felt despite my constant smile. How quickly I went to NYC as soon as I graduated from Fairview… there will always be some who can find an explanation beyond racism for each of these encounters. I’m so tired of white people telling me I’ve misunderstood when the reality is, I’ve been navigating often being the only person of color in the room all of my life – what can you teach me about that?! Well, they didn’t mean any harm, I hear that so often, as if not meaning any harm negates the fact that they are indeed inflicting harm. Those stares were because you’re beautiful. You are thin-skinned. You are so angry. Racism doesn’t exist here. We don’t see color.
The last few times I was in Boulder, as a speaker and performer for the Conference on World Affairs, despite being among enlightened, creative, talented people there were still moments of microaggression. “You’re so articulate!” people exclaimed often. I want to take that as a compliment but when it’s spoken with surprise that gives me the feeling that it is unexpected. Author Ty Tashiro on the "FOMO & Growing Up With Your Life on Display".panel with Bonnie Burton and I - Loved that moderator too- Matt Duncan is knowledgeable and perceptive.
I am often subject to stares when I walk into a room as if I’m an exotic animal. I had someone ask the last time I was in Boulder where I was from AFTER I had said that I was a Boulder native, as in where are you really from… People assuming I work in the restaurant, bank, bar, or clothing store in which I am currently a customer. All these tiny moments add up. Now don’t get me wrong there are so many, many, many great things about Boulder as well as Boulderites. This was not my only experience. I also met my mentor Rita Kotter at Fairview high who wrote parts into our plays so I would have a role that made sense and so that I wasn’t just performing a white character. My music teachers did not make any assumptions about my talent and pushed me to work harder at what would become my craft. I made dear friends who I hold in my heart to this day. I am not just trying to spit on the town, rather just talking truth about what it feels to walk through our magnificent town with black skin.
Thank you for reading.
"You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim or diminish your light … Release the need to hate, to harbor division, and the enticement of revenge. Release all bitterness. Hold only love, only peace in your heart, knowing that the battle of good to overcome evil is already won." John Lewis in Across That Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Future of America
Lisa Bell and I invite you to join our Facebook group, Constructive Conversations, and participate in a dialogue pertaining to your experiences either as a POC or, from our white friends, about your grappling with these questions regarding privileged bias and blinders.