The Ordinary Bravery of a Small Town Solution
There is a certain serenity which exists in Ashland, Oregon. It resonates off the Siskiyou mountains; it bubbles along the currents of Lithia Park and it shines from the smiles and warm laughter of the 22,000 residents.
A level of positive consciousness is celebrated here. If you listen carefully, there is also pride - pride in there being a community based co-op, where good food can be purchased. Pride in the Jackson Wellsprings and the healing the location promises is possible. Pride in the request for pronouns as a cultural sign of acceptance and gender fluidity. Pride in the idea that if you change your thinking, you can change your life.
Thus, the election of Julie Akins as the second woman mayor of Ashland was celebrated. It is a sign of change in the positive direction. Here, in Ashland, the divine feminine is celebrated, not crushed. Here, progress is happening.
As their first act, upon officially becoming Mayor, on January 5, 2021 Julie Akins did something so incredibly brave, I imagine many residents missed the significance of it. Mayor Akins did something new. They proposed a solution.
Like many solutions, the problem it addresses is laden with several emotional landmines. The solution Mayor Akins wrote out with their own hands comes from the result of Mayor Akins walking ahead, on a healing journey, with the solution being an invitation for others in the Ashland community to join her.
The invitation comes at a cost. For someone in the position of Mayor, it is imagined the cost is not as great as the cost for someone devoid political power. She is Mayor. The mayor is the most visible power position in Ashland.
Or, that is how the local newspapers frame the position of Mayor. Julie Akins has power the residents do not. Yet, the act Mayor Akins performed requires historic-level courage. It is the same level of bravery every biracial child attending elementary school in Ashland must draw out of themselves every morning. Please allow me to explain.
Specifically, in Ashland, and Oregon generally, there is a hyper-focus on individual growth and development. The benefits of Buddhist meditation, kirtan chanting and walking in nature are well-known. “Soothing the nervous system” so that one can show up as a person and “be present in this moment” to enjoy this life is a mantra tourists hear and love. It creates the magnetic attraction to the lower Rogue Valley.
So, when racial incidences occur, they don’t land well. It is a mystery to the average resident that racism is possible. Not here. This is Ashland.
For Black History Month this year, a coloring sheet was received by a biracial student and sent home. On it was the smiling face of America’s first president, George Washington. Behind him was a beautifully constructed building with the words: Washington’s Plantation.
Due to the level of sensitivity and compassion cultivated in Ashland, I can see how a white-bodied teacher looked at that coloring sheet, saw plainly how problematic it was, and tearfully included it inside the home-bound folders of their students. I imagine a feeling of utter helplessness washed over them. Problematic or not, the coloring sheet was approved by the school district, otherwise, it would not have been given to the teacher to share.
I can imagine how the teacher calculated in their head, logically, what it would take to bring their concerns to the principal, and how bringing up the coloring sheet would make the principal feel the same immobilizing helplessness the teacher felt.
The process for changing such a curriculum is just emotionally exhausting. So many people have to get involved. The same argument has to be made over and over again. In my imagination, I can see both the teacher and the principal saying to themselves, “Intellectually, I know this is wrong. Emotionally, I just do not have the energy to fight this and help those who see nothing wrong with the coloring sheet to see something wrong with it.”
So, the coloring sheet of a smiling President George Washington went home with a biracial child and their family absorbed the message the coloring sheet communicated. I imagine the white parent felt grief. I imagine the biracial child felt more emotional currents than a five or six year old child can articulate. I imagine the white parent and biracial child cried together.
The next day, the biracial child did something brave - more brave than the parent, teacher or principal can find the words to articulate. The biracial child went to school and acted like the messaging embedded in the coloring sheet did not affect them. They smiled and played and appeared to be none the worse for wear.
In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” In that letter, he wrote one of my favorite sentences concerning social justice. He wrote, “Peace is not the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
In an idyllic, well-versed hippie town, the lack of tension is celebrated. Emotionally charged subjects are avoided. The goal is to “enjoy life at the highest vibration.” The emotions around race are intensely felt inside white bodies, just like they are felt inside of Black, Indigenous and persons of color (BIPoC) bodies. Diversity training lands as a divisive effort by making everyone feel bad about “race” and how helpless they feel to create the change we all want to see in American society.
There is a strong desire to want change to happen without the emotional charge of feeling bad within one’s self - the problem exists and has to be addressed personally through your hand. So, when the biracial child bravely acknowledges the white racial innocence they are swimming in, and chooses to not bring any emotional charge to their interpersonal interactions with their white bodied parents, white bodied teachers, white bodied classmates or white bodied principal . . . well, such behavior lands as a (relief and) solution. Yet, it is not.
On November 23, 2020 the “peace” cultivated by racial avoidance was disturbed when a white bodied 47 year old man, named Robert Paul Keegan, murdered a biracial child named Aidan Ellison. Grief landed hard. Aidan Ellison lived four years of his biracial life in Ashland, graduating from Ashland High School. As peaceful as the experience was, he concluded to be successful in Ashland, an individual had to do two things: wear a big smile and be “white.”
His conclusion is most likely the emotional current the five year old version of him wanted to say upon receiving the George Washington coloring page, yet, could not articulate: “it is better to be ‘white’ in Ashland, than to be Black, or biracial.”
Reading the comments under the local newspaper articles following Ellison’s death most likely elicited the same level of helplessness the kindergarten teacher experienced. The comments were defensive and filled with so much emotional charge to be overwhelming. Those comments are not spoken in coffee houses or along walks in Lithia Park or at drum circles. The question arises, where is all of this vitriol coming from?
On January 5, 2021, when Julie Akins grew from councilor to Mayor, the solution she put forth was to propose a Racial and Social Justice Commission. She wrote the proposal from her own hand; from her own compassion; as the result of her own healing journey. Then, she decided to begin issuing indigenous land acknowledgements at the beginning of Ashland City Council meetings. Both actions brought tension and disturbed the carefully cultivated “peace” of white racial innocence.
Acknowledging the historical fact indigenous people lived in Ashland before the 22,000 white residents purchased homes and moved there landed in four Ashland City Council members the same way the comments under articles detailing Keegan’s murder of Ellison landed.
To counter the land acknowledgement, the four councilors demanded the Pledge of Allegiance also be said, per the City charter. Why? I cannot impugn the motive, however, from many conversations, I imagine, acknowledging indigenous people brings up the question, “Are you saying white people do not belong here, in North America?”
Again, I cannot impugn the motive. There is no overt confession, shining light on the inner dialogue. I do not have a direct quote from any of the councilors to present as evidence this is how the indigenous land acknowledgement was internalized. What I have is the arguments/insistence on the Pledge of Allegiance.
I can say the same about the resistance to the Racial and Social Equity Commission. It lies somewhere around the tension of Ellison’s conclusion. It is the uneasy feeling that perhaps, Ellison is right. Perhaps there is some intrinsic benefit to being born in a white body.
Letting that idea in doesn’t feel good. It disturbs the inner “peace” by causing “tension.” It inspires a series of questions to those in white bodies:
“Are the BIPoC around me treating me like the human being I experience myself to be - like the warm, loving person I know myself to be - or are they acting like the biracial kindergartener? Are they feeding my desire to not experience any emotional charge around seeing myself in racial terms, even as I commit one microaggression after another against them? Do they choose to smile and act like nothing happened? Are they so scared of me, because I am ‘white,’ they will not tell me they are offended and give me a boundary? Do they imagine I cannot grow, just like I imagine those who made defensive comments under the Ellison articles cannot grow? Are they so emotionally exhausted, they just choose to let me emotionally and psychologically abuse them in order to keep the peace between us? Are they scared I am going to get mad and kill them, like I think the white nationalists will get mad and kill me if I confront them?”
Grief. I imagine this emotional current of questions inspires profound grief. Yet, because grief is so disturbing, I see said grief being expressed as defensiveness. It is the four councilors seeking to affirm that they are safe individuals, despite being born into white bodies. It shows up by delaying the Commission over the course of four months.
The unanimous vote on the first reading of the Racial and Social Equity Commission this past Tuesday, April 20, 2021, came at a great cost. It took hundreds of letters supporting the Commission, a weekend rally and a national warm current from Officer Derek Chauvin being convicted of murdering George Floyd, to get all six councilors united in this vote.
It also took the bravery of Julie Akins. Political position of power or no political position of power, Mayor Akins is walking through the insecurities of thousands. The confrontation is not intellectual. It is not “convincing” a teacher or principal a coloring sheet of George Washington smiling in front of his plantation is a microaggression.
Intellectually, any diversity trainer can inspire teachers and principals to acknowledge microaggressions. The issue lies in the emotional cost. It is the teacher feeling guilty they did not possess the courage and emotional stamina to say, “I will not harm the self-esteem of this beautiful biracial child by sharing this coloring sheet.”
It is the emotional cost of the principal feeling inner conflict over 1) relief the parent did not want to sue the school and 2) saying they operate as school which is a safe place for everyone, despite their skin color.
The same is true for Ashland residents. They do not wish to believe, like Mayor Akins is behaving, Aidan Ellison’s conclusion is correct: there is an intrinsic benefit to being in a white body here in Ashland and equality is not automatically happening.
A Racial and Social Equity Commission is needed. It hurts to face the fact that, a certain level of force - legally-backed force - is needed. Business owners and non-profit directors are not personally inspired enough to treat BIPoC persons the same way they treat white bodied persons. This is not a matter of education. They are not courageous enough to face their insecurities around living in white bodies and go on their healing journeys. The healing journey must be forced.
I can imagine the emotional exhaustion Mayor Akins is facing because I live in a Black male body, like Aidan Ellison once occupied. I face the risk daily of a white person killing me here in the Rogue Valley because I consciously choose to speak openly about race. I listen to the insecurities and choose to not be moved. I receive emails from City Council members, desperate to defend themselves as safe individuals and who claim that it is I making them feel bad about being ‘white,’ not the evidence that Ellison’s conclusion is right and exact.
There is a denial, out of necessity to maintain their own mental health and repeat over and over again, “I am a good person. Avoiding race and emotionally charged discussions doesn’t mean I am contributing to a hostile white environment like Kokayi makes me feel I am contributing to when talking about Ashland or the Rogue Valley. I feel helpless. I feel inadequate. I do not feel like I have any influence or power. Yet, he makes it seem like he rejects what I am saying as an excuse. It is not an excuse. This is legitimately how I feel. I just want the change to happen without me having to risk my life, like I see him risking his life.”
I see Mayor Akins risking her life, too. And, remember, dear Ashland resident, she feels helpless, inadequate and lacking in power, also. She feels the tension in white bodies when they vomit their racial insecurities towards her. She imagines they are going to rage and hurt her also.
That is why her living example of how to be “confrontational,” yet maintain the compassion the Buddhist meditation, kirtan chanting and walk in Nature cultivates, is so valuable. She is an ordinary person being brave in an ordinary way. The invitation to leave the insecurity of white supremacy and enter greater humanity lies before Ashland. A second reading of the Racial and Social Justice Commission is forthcoming and it is not a foregone conclusion. May you use this essay as a tool to discuss the tension that arises within your nervous system and process said tension with another white bodied person. It is that ordinary bravery, of sharing your truth around perceiving yourself in racial terms that is needed in Ashland (and America) right now.
You can do it. There is a biracial child being just that brave right now. If a five year old can do it, so can you.