Nestled between the Coast Range and the Pacific Ocean in Northern California is a small town — Westport. That is where I grew up back in the 1970’s. Westport was a historical town and the center of a lumber and logging town back in the early 1900’s. By the time I was born in 1967, the lumber industry was already in decline, but the small town — population 75 — was made up of working-class families most of which worked in the lumber industry or were since retired from the same. We were all white. The social structure was primarily working dads and stay-at-home moms. That is where I was raised and that is where social norms formed too.
Community — Building Blocks of Normalcy
Close knit communities build bonds. In a small community, trust is earned and it is earned by being consistent both in your actions and in the services that you provide. Consistency is a key element and as you grow up in this kind of environment you learn early that your reputation is important. How does this include racism? Racism at its core is about fear of differences. Those fears manifest themselves into suspicions that are fueled by change and then become something deeper and more sinister.
In my little community change was coming. Not only was this a community where people went to work everyday, it was also a community where people were self sufficient. You worked hard to earn your living and to support your family. When you were not working you were doing work that supported your family, such as cutting firewood. Many of us were hunters and fishermen. You supplemented your income by providing food from the land. We all had gardens. Men did the manly things and women did the womanly things. Day-in and day-out life progressed around the same circle. Children grew up and became their parents. That level of tradition is passed from father to son and mother to daughter. It was a bubble, and that bubble was about to pop.
Change — Can you Stop Progress?
I think that the world tries to balance itself and isolated communities, such as the one I grew up in, attract change. Is it progress? It depends on which vantage point your view change. In the mid-1970’s then governor Ronald Regan cut state funding to mental health facilities and inpatients were literally put out into the streets. This was also the height of the hippy movement. Some of those people all made their way to the wilds of Northern California and that migration began a conflict between two ideals. It was a negative encounter.
Hippy was a word I had never heard before. It was also one that was not polite. “Those people.” Those hippies. It was a line in the sand. A clearly marked boundary. They were different and that was bad. The problem was not just change. The hippies represented a different approach to life. The problem was that they were an unknown. Their differences made them untrustworthy — untried. Plus, some of them were what we would have called ‘crazy’ – having mental illnesses that they were not able to control on their own.
In such as closed society that meant they were all tainted. That grouping is where I define the basis of racism. It was an all or nothing scenario. It was also linked to how our culture defined acceptable. Without the knowledge of who was “okay” or trustworthy, they all became a liability — not trustable. They were in fact the enemy, though I do not remember any violence there was still the clash of cultures. Time though is a healer of sorts. As time passed the hippies became known. They became individuals. Their differences, on a basic level, were not so different. Like us, they just wanted to live life. They were different. Their ways were different. Their philosophies were different. The freedom by which they lived life was odd — foreign.
Much of what happened in that little town — the changes — were already taking place. The lumber industry was dying and it had been dying since 1925. All of these little towns that grew because of the demand for lumber following the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco were dying. These were single industry towns and that industry was shrinking. Life was going to change regardless.
For the children of my generation, many would not follow in the footsteps of their fathers. Some, like myself, left. I left when I was 25. There was nothing really there for me. The traditions were gone. People passed away and the balance between them and us shifted. By the time I left a new culture emerged. It was a blend of what was and what would come to be. It was when I left that I felt the strings of racism. My philosophies were at odds with the rest of the world. It was a cellular level of craziness. It was the first time I met a black person. It was the first time I questioned my own feelings. It was also the first time I really looked at someone as an individual and not as one of us or one of them. It was then that I understood how different the world is. I was a single species from a single culture. I was the odd man out in a world where the proverbial melting pot was already heating up to change.
Were we taught to hate one specific skin color or culture? No. Nobody sat us down and indoctrinated us to be racist and I am not entirely sure we really were racists. We certainly feared change. That was engrained into us by example. That fear led to distrust of people who were different. That bubble of culture had tainted us.
Even today, some 25 years later, my cells still bristle at differences. It is not as bad as when I first left. What I have learned is to recognize those feelings for what they are — fear. I now use curiosity and knowledge to overcome fear. People with darker skin than my own, people of Hispanic, European or Asian decent – they are all going to have elements of them that are different to me and my narrow scope of the world (as I have only lived one life), but they do not warrant fear.
They are for me an opportunity to learn and grow as a human. For am I not as different as they are? The lesson that I’d like to pass on is to embrace differences between peoples. We are not a group. We are individuals. If I judge people it is based on their individual actions, not on the color of their skin or where they were born. What I have discovered is that I like differences in people. The dynamic of cultures outshines the static of being them same. Be unique — because you are unique regardless. I am okay with that.
By Guest Blogger David Stillwell
David is a writer who uses life as an inspiration to be who he is, to grow as a person, and to learn to overcome differences. He is a well-rounded person who looks for the positive. His glass is half full and refillable.