YAKIMA – Central Washington, like many communities across the country, has a history of racism. Despite those who may want to believe Yakima is the exception, the reality is it persists.
It’s not the same as when 50,000 people gathered for a Ku Klux Klan rally in 1924 at a Yakima farm, or when angry mobs drove Filipinos out of the Valley with threats of violence in 1927. But the fact is racism in the area still exists – often coming from people exhibiting the same willful ignorance.
And it happens everywhere – schools, grocery stores, medical offices, gas stations and elsewhere. It occurs in seemily nondescript, seeminly safe interactions that erode the sense of self-worth, confidence and place of our families, friends, and fellow community members of color.
And that hurts, said Central Washington University assistant professor of anthropology and museum studies Rodrigo Renteria-Valencia.
“Today, racism exists commonly through microagressions – subtle, indirect or unintended discrimination – throughout our community,” Renteria-Valencia said. “It comes in the form of sideways glances and hard stares at people of color while they are in public. Or, it comes in the assumption that Latinos, blacks and other people are typified by stereotypes rather than people getting to know each other.”
For Yakima banker Audel Ramirez, one of the most painful experiences with racism was years ago at his Walla Walla high school. After volunteering to be the treasurer for a club, a fellow student – a friend – responded, “You can’t be the treasurer. You’re Mexican. We can’t trust you with money.”
Other classmates were as appalled as Ramirez and immediately chastised the teen not only for making the comment but also for perpetuating the stereotype that Mexicans are thieves and can’t be trusted. But even with that support, the experience combined with other similar situations made Ramirez withdraw. He became anxious to get out of Walla Walla.
“Why should I try if people are just going to think of me that way?” said Ramirez of his thoughts at the time.
Felicity Farias, a recent high school graduate, related an experience that reinforced stereotypes about Latinos and domestic work. Farias was washing windows at her school one day after being sent to detention, which she explained to a classmate walking by.
“Are you sure it’s not because you’re Mexican?” the girl asked. The question, which Farias said implied she was only capable of manual labor, was infuriating.
“I’m fine now, but it took me a while to get over being mad about that,” the 18-year-old said.
Farias and friend Elsie De La Rosa also pointed to how students at their private high school assumed their Latino peers were the only students on scholarship. The assumption, the young women say, was rooted in the stereotype that Latinos are generally poor or lazy.
“We all know they’re not lazy,” Farias said. “I’m working out in the field right now to see what it’s like, and it’s hard work.”
Yakima resident Tony Williams, who is black, experienced racism early in life.
He remembers studying black history in second grade, when he first learned that blacks had been slaves. Other children started calling him a slave.
Up until then, Williams hadn’t realized his skin color made him different in the eyes of his classmates and teachers. After a conversation with his parents, Williams said he began to understand that being black meant people would see him differently.
“Up until that point you think those people, your friends or teachers, are there to fight with you,” said Williams, 50. “But when you realize they’re not, it’s heartbreaking. It’s devastating.”
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