The Lesson of Lauren Pefferle

Even after three years of direct experience with it, I struggle to clearly communicate what I mean by white racial innocence. I have not crafted a precise definition, mainly because white racial innocence, being a byproduct of racism, resists clear definition, just like racism itself resists a clear definition.

As a Black man who facilitates racial explorations for white bodied persons (a Resmaa Menakem construction,) I find the social landscape in Oregon to be a perfect environment to explore solutions.

Currently, there are five racial fires burning. This communication only has enough space to explore one racial incident. Therefore, it will focus on the personality of a simple, ordinary white woman living in the Pacific Northwest. Her name is Lauren. Hopefully, you will be able to relate to her and her predicament.

At 41 years old, this (now former) special education teacher's aide named, Lauren Pefferle found herself in a moral dilemma. The Newberg school board mandated all staff members be vaccinated by October 18, 2021. Pefferle told the Mabel Rush Elementary school's administration she did not feel comfortable accepting the vaccine. On Thursday September 16, at lunch, Mabel Rush staff approached Pefferle and gave her their reaction to her choice. Effective immediately, Pefferle needed to maintain a six foot distance between herself and the children she served.

In that moment, Pefferle managed her emotions, accepted the directive and followed through with it for the remainder of the day. Her skill is such, she did not imagine the children noticed much of a difference in how they were treated.

Pefferle noticed how much of a difference the directive made her feel once she got home. She did not like how submitting made her feel. She did not feel like she had much choice in the matter. She was not being inspired to comply, she was being forced. We can come to this conclusion because Pefferle went on the Lars Larson radio show to share the details of her thought process as a way to defend herself. (More on that later.)

Lauren Pefferle said into a nationally syndicated white man's microphone, "I feel segregated because I am unvaccinated [. . .] Something is wrong here. The next day, (Friday, September 17) I went to work and did put on some darker color on my skin part that showed. I was going about my morning duties and as there was opportunity to talk to staff … I would say I am representing Rosa Parks today regarding segregation. When I was briefly talking with a certain employee … she was very comfortable not letting me be fully heard and marched over to the principal's office."

These words were reprinted in a local news organization The Newberg Graphic. I believe their reporting and do not see any evidence they are manipulating their community in their coverage of race-based stories by reporting them as race-based stories.

Principal Tim Lauer did the only thing Pefferle's choice of protest gave him. He ordered her to immediately report to the human resource office. It was there that Pefferle learned her protest landed in the Mabel Rush Elementary school community as racism, and not as an individual protest, like she repeatedly asserted was her intention.

It is not public record how Pefferle managed her emotions over the weekend. On Monday, September 20, it is imagined, her mental health took a few hits, as the Friday incident became public record.

From the administration's perceptive, the Newberg school district did not need Pefferle's protest. Two other racial fires were already burning. One lay inside the Newberg High School. An investigation resulted in the participation of white bodied students in a Snapchat group called Slave Trade. Black classmates were auctioned off inside of the game. The principal, Tami Erion, issued an email affirming community standards of inclusion and denouncing the ideation of recreating the Slave Trade.

The second racial fire lay inside the school board itself. Black Lives Matter t-shirts and Pride merchandise are now forbidden after the election of those leaning conservative.

So, a tired and frustrated Superintendent named Dr. Joe Morelock distanced the district as far as he could from Pefferle in a stinging statement.

"Other officials for the Newberg School District understood the racism that blackface represents.

'It is important to remember the terrible historical context of Blackface: how it has been used to misrepresent and demean Black communities, and how much harm and pain it continues to cause,' Newberg Superintendent Dr. Joe Morelock said in a statement. 'This behavior represents violence and evokes trauma; it is beyond unacceptable.'”

Those words were reposted from the press conference by The Willamette Weekly. It is another trusted Oregonian news source.

Her actions framed as intentionally racist, thanks to social media, Pefferle found herself defending a public backlash which grew with each passing hour. Her side of the story and personal intention was getting buried by the emotional reaction.

On Thursday, September 23, Pefferle went on the Lars Larson radio show. It is a big microphone here in the Pacific Northwest, being broadcast by at least 20 affiliates, since Larson, himself, lives in the Portland area. He is as certified conservative Republican as it comes, complete with all the CPAC press awards. It makes sense she chose this avenue of expression.

The Newberg Graphic's Ryan Clarke reported the following, "Larson asked Pefferle if she would characterize what she did as blackface.

'I did have darker skin makeup on my face and my hands, and the parts of my body that were showing my skin,' Pefferle said. 'I never once thought of the word Blackface because I honestly don't even know that term. I don't know what people mean by that and I don't use that language.'

Larson also asked Pefferle if she felt there was anything wrong with what she did.

'I don't," she said.'"

Partially, because of the unrepentant nature of her statement, on Friday, September 24, Pefferle was predictably fired. She doubled down on her publicly stated confusion, making a statement to channel 3, WHSV:

"The employee [Pefferle] said she doesn’t understand why her actions are causing offense and accusations of racism.

'On Friday, September 17, I showed up to school, and I put on some dark makeup on the parts that were showing my skin, including my hands,' she said. 'And I came in hopes to represent Rosa Parks, who I admire for standing up during her time when segregation was taking place. I felt like I and others who are unvaccinated, we’re starting to experience segregation.'"

It is here that the slipperiness of white racial innocence comes into play. I have observed in Oregon a lot of Pefferles. It is the endless refusal to work with the feedback they receive which causes me to marvel. At no time does Pefferle entertain the idea that anything about her cosplaying Rosa Parks was problematic.

How is that possible?

I reject the acceptable response of, "She is ignorant." I beg your pardon, she worked for the school district. She is not ignorant. In fact, I dare say, per her own admission, the school district is strict in its discipline. Pefferle was self aware enough to finish the work day after receiving a boundary.

I think the fight Pefferle is choosing to participate in is this rejection that white people can access the heroic Black bodies of the Civil Rights movement. Jim Crow comparisons are being used within white conservative elements. Clackamas County Commission Mark Shull is facing a recall effort, less than a year after assuming office, for adopting the same position.

I think Pefferle is being perceived in a manner she cannot control. She is "white," and this label doesn't feel comfortable. She is feeling the pressure from having created a racial moment, yet, cannot process what is happening to her outside of the socialization of white supremacy. So, yes, from her worldview she is being misunderstood; oppressed even. Why? Because, her side is not being publicly "accepted." And, she is correct, her personal intention steeped in white racial innocence is not being accepted; it is being actively rejected.

Acting as if Newberg is not on racial fire, Pefferle decided to put on something she does not have - race. She literally did it. She equated the second half of her work day to how Negroes experienced segregation 60 years ago. To submit to the directive: to remain six feet from the children she has served all year long, made her feel "Black." (There is so much to unpack here.)

Juneteenth is the celebration of Black people gaining access their bodies. It is literally that. The idea that Pefferle - and by extension Larson's listening audience - share more in common with the whiteness of American history than they do with "feeling segregated," which has never happened for them or their grandparents, is what hurts. White conservatives have no effective public manner to communicate their internalized pain. The white popular mind does not give them a historic white equivalent for how being forced to take a vaccine makes them feel. (So much material for them to unpack.)

Once Pefferle was labeled a racist, her feelings ceased to matter. For most of the white Oregonians that I observe, this is a real fear. Once labeled racist, you are labeled by other white people as worthy of mistreatment. The exposed white racist fears being cut off from social capital. The exposed white racist fears being physically hurt.

Nationally recognized white nationalist, Richard Spencer, who is currently experiencing the harvest of what he has sowed - and being amazed at the level of pain public rebuke brings- is peak white racial innocence. Pefferle is no different. In her personal self, she feels this is not supposed to be happening. This is racism, in the white conservative mind, towards her, a white person. She had an intention. Why is her intention not being received?

It is because of connection. The rest of the community is experiencing connection. The white Newberg citizens who responded affirming a community standard of inclusion can experience themselves in racial terms without a lowering of their self-esteem. For them, history and culture are not a Halloween costume.

Unfortunately, for the immature white Neeberg citizens, social ideas have a "connection" to human activity. Events like Pefferle's protest are not experienced in the vacuum of inidvidualis. The local media did not fan any flames of racial division. The fire of racism was already there.

In this racial moment, the culture of individualism is failing Pefferle and her only defense is white racial innocence. She has to use it to cope with being perceived as already having race. She has to use it to assert her innate humanity.

If you, dear Reader, are struggling with seeing what I am expressing here, I have classes and books to assist you. You do not have to remain in the fog of white racial innocence or the shame spiral of perceiving yourself through a racial lens. There is a pathway towards the next horizon of our collective humanity. It does require some experience of discomfort and no, it does not require a public display.

I hope Lauren Pefferle receives the therapy and positive community support she needs. I hope Newberg is able to take this racial moment and internalize the lesson.

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Kokayi Nosakhere

Kokayi Nosakhere

Black man living in Oregon's Rogue Valley, teaching pathways to greater humanity. Community organizer! Author. Speaker. Workshop facilitator. Royalstar907@gmail