“It’s the Boulder liberal attitude versus the KKK,” says Derrick Jones, a black professor at Naropa University living in Boulder. He’s trying to decide what’s worse.
“For me, I can respect to a degree someone who identifies as a member of the KKK and is out with their views. It’s a little easier to take in, digest and in some degree respect than to encounter racism denial, because I know what I’m getting. It’s a little harder to accept the racist activity or the perpetuation of a privilege structure from someone who claims to be colorblind, or not racist, or liberal.”
Jones is sitting at a table in a popular bar close to downtown Boulder. He likes to go to restaurants he’s been to before. Jones is tall and wearing a brown Henley. His dark hair is cut high and tight, and he has a brown freckle on his gums above his left incisor that pops out when he smiles, which he does frequently.
“One of the reasons I like coming here is because at this point I’m kind of known here, and I don’t have to necessarily worry about awkward feelings,” Jones says. “Usually when I go somewhere new I, not always, but usually will encounter someone who will strike up a conversation and usually the conversations will have to go to something about my blackness where it is about them having black friends or them not seeing too many black people around here. Rap music. ‘Whose your favorite rapper?’ I usually get asked if I play football. If I play for CU. One guy asked if I play for Denver.”
Jones’ story is typical of the experience many people of color have in Boulder every day. He calls these incidents “micro-infractions,” but these casual incidents just hint at what is a much deeper racial problem in Boulder. Through conversations with Boulder people of color, a picture is painted of a place that believes it is progressive, but whose views on race are not quite so.
‘This isn’t how you interact with someone in public.’
Ariel Amaru is in her first year of university in Washington, D.C. It is her first time living outside of Boulder since she was 2 years old. She is biracial. She was raised by her white mother, and has no relationship with her black father.
Amaru says it’s always been hard in Boulder to convince people that she was not adopted. She identifies confidently as biracial but often has a race defined to her by complete strangers. Sometimes strangers in town will play a guessing game.
“I had this guy once trying to guess where I’m from, he’s pointing with his finger,” Amaru says. “‘Ethiopian? Sudanese?’ I was like, ‘Norwegian? Swedish?’ This isn’t what you do. This isn’t how you interact with someone in public.”
Amaru says many people in Boulder possess a sense of “entitlement that because we’re really open and free that we can just say what we want to.” That includes guessing her race or applying an identity to her with which she is uncomfortable.
“This summer I was working at Under the Sun, and they have those big chalkboard drawings,” Amaru says. “One of the chalkboard drawings was of a black woman. He did a great job. She was pretty; didn’t look like me at all. It was up for the entire summer.
“I think I got asked if it was me three times a shift. And every other server or bartender had to deal with it, like, ‘Nope, that’s not her.’ But then by the end we’re like just like, ‘Yep that’s her.’ And I’ve had my picture taken in front of it. It was crazy. Like, the fact that because this girl had dark skin they immediately associated it with me. Whereas the other chalkboard was a white, blond girl. There’s tons of white, blond girls working in there, and they didn’t get asked once if it was them.”
Donald Wilson works in a government position in the county. He asked that his name be changed for this piece, in part, because he likes his job.
Wilson moved to Boulder a year ago from the East Coast. He echoes the claims Amaru makes of racism and stereotyping born out of plain ignorance, or at least thoughtlessness.
“There have been minor incidents, like when I play kickball with my friends and run, the umpire will be like, ‘Man, he’s fast. Does he play football here?’ Because, you know, the idea of an African American man being educated and having a graduate degree and working with finances can be unforeseen.”
These seemingly small incidents, including one time when Jones said he had a fellow bar patron start a conversation, saying, “I have this friend who is, no offense, black,” add up, especially when they happen every day. But these were the casual infractions. Boulder ignorance also breeds uglier incidents that suggest a much deeper problem that can’t be changed by simply thinking before speaking.
“I like to joke to people that Asheville, N.C., is probably some place I’ll still want to end up in,” Wilson says, noting a town he worked in briefly that’s of similar size and demographics to Boulder. “I joke off-hand what’s the difference between Asheville and Boulder? And I say Asheville has smaller mountains but greater interracial relationships.”
Wilson talks carefully, but always with a layer of conviviality beneath his words. He makes an effort to smile, which is why someone may have been prompted to tell him recently that “He’s one of the good ones.” Anyway:
“I was taking the bus down to Denver and as we were standing in line, a security guard asked me for my ID and nobody else. I was the only African American in line. He said, ‘We just got a complaint that somebody took something.’ And I didn’t feel comfortable asking him why I was the one singled out because it might escalate the issue. Just show him the license, and let it be. I’m pretty sure somebody could’ve called and said, ‘There’s a black guy wearing a blue shirt,’ and I just happened to fit that profile. A lot of times when we talk about profiling with the police officers we don’t talk about people making calls.”
It was a similar story of profiling to one Jones experienced in Lafayette.
“I was stopped by two different cars. They came up on me. I was walking somewhere and they wanted to know what I was up to because they had heard about some robberies in the area,” Jones says. “One officer … got out and was like, ‘Hey, how ya doing?’ and at this point I’m like, ‘What is it that you want from me?’ And so he’s trying to be all matter-of-fact about it. It was kind of like he was trying to shoot the breeze with me. They ran my ID and let me go.
“I talked to my friends about it once they got there and they were like, ‘Yeah there’s hardly any black people here. You kind of stand out.’”
But, as Wilson alluded to, these incidents of profiling don’t always happen with police in Boulder. Jones says the worst experience he’s had on the street came from an interaction with his son and a resident.
“My son was born with a condition that restricted his lung growth. At that time when you went out with him he had a ventilator and oxygen and supplies and a double stroller,” Jones says. “And this guy looks at him and he asks me, ‘Is he going to be a football player or a basketball player?’ And then he says, ‘You know, I think he’s going to be a football player. I can see the dollar signs dripping off him.’
“For me it was like doubly impactful because it was another situation where we were going through this kind of stuff, but it was the first time I experienced it with my son. I’m constantly thinking about the fact that as he gets older, he’s going to have to learn about this stuff. It was a reality of how this is poised to move into the next generation. I don’t feel as though that person was trying to be like, ‘You’re less than’ but that person had some perceptions about what it means to be black, what black males can amount to and again trying to connect with me somehow.”
Jones likes to go on walks, but some people tense up when they see him. Some cross the street, he says. Men and women. There is a lot of “silent action,” when they spot him walking. He says given recent national events, he feels some of those same apprehensions himself when he sees a white person because he doesn’t know what they’re thinking and what they might do out of fear.
“Boulder’s a really hard place to feel like you belong here. I know some good people. I’ve met some good people.” Jones says. “Overall my sense is that it’s very difficult to feel connected, even comfortable, to some degree. I guess there’s a thin line between awareness and paranoia. I’m definitely on edge here a lot more. And who knows how much of it I bring on myself. But I know that’s not because I’m a naturally paranoid person. It comes from experiences.”
‘Children of color are not expected to be smart.’
Judith Landsman has lived in Boulder since 1977, and when she married a dark-skinned man from the Virgin Islands, she blended the two biracial children she had with him with the four white children she had from a previous marriage. She has a unique viewpoint of race to say the least.
She says she’s had the police called on her husband when he went to pick up their children from a Boulder preschool; she’s had a circle of gun-drawn state troopers surround their car with small children in the back only to write no ticket; and she’s had an older woman slap the hand of her 3-year-old daughter in a Boulder grocery store when she went to grab something.
But Landsman says the really sinister racism in Boulder, in her experience, comes from the institutions, namely the education system.
“I would say that one of the biggest ways that [racism] is felt here is that children of color are not expected to be smart,” Landsman says. “They’re not expected to be intelligent. There is not that expectation. I found that at the doctor’s office. It’s minor but it shows a mentality. I had the nurse ask my daughter if she knew the alphabet. I have four other white children, I never recall them asking my school age child if they knew the alphabet.”
Landsman says her biracial children’s schooling has vacillated between public and private, Boulder and not Boulder, mostly because the public school system here failed them.
“My son went right into the private school system, and that was wonderful in a lot of ways,” Landsman says. “As soon as they went into the public school system, that all changed, and the expectations were not there. I could not get anyone to my son, who had been identified as gifted in second grade in private school. I could not get anyone in public school to take me seriously. And I didn’t know quite what that was about so I let it go.
“My daughter is now a senior at Boulder High, and we’ve talked about this. It wasn’t just my imagination. ‘People think you’re dumb,’ [she says]. She’s been in the same place with the same friends, but my son did not survive that transition [to public school]. I took him out of the Boulder Valley School District. And it’s too bad.”
In school, Ariel Amaru says she was actually given special treatment throughout her schooling, but that she did eventually grow skeptical of her schools’ intentions.
“The fact that I was a standout student and athlete in high school, they really tried to cash in on that a little bit,” Amaru says. “I went to Boulder High and I graduated with one other biracial girl. We were both the graduation speakers. I felt like the school was like, ‘Oh, Boulder High is the diverse school from Fairview. We have these diverse girls who are doing well.’ … The fact that I was an Advanced Placement student was seen as an accolade that a person of color could be that.”
Amaru says her treatment from students in schools was, understandably, slightly different.
“The biggest thing with me is that I truly identify as biracial … but blackness is thrust upon me because my skin shade is a few shades darker,” Amaru says. “So through my friends, the only identifying thing was that I was a tall, black girl. And that was like a little weird, you always have to be identified through your race. With my peers I was being exoticized in a big way. ‘Oh, but your skin tone looks so good with that. Oh, your hair, do you curl it every morning?’” Amaru says friendships had those dynamics but relationships were on a different level.
“There were definite levels of leeriness for white girls dating black guys in school, whereas a white guy dating one of the biracial girls was seen like an exotic — it sounds so gross — but I once went out with a guy, and he was like, ‘My friends were really impressed because I got to go out with the girl that was exotic.’ I was like what the f— . It was like jungle fever,” she says.
There’s also the institution of city government. Wilson, who works in local government, says the city’s diversity policy is outdated by four or five years. Wilson and Amaru both question why black people are not represented on City Council or in city government — Wilson says he can name just about every black person who works for the city.
But Wilson also recognizes the issue that there just may not be enough people of color to serve the city and that convincing people of color to move here isn’t easy.
“[My job in the county] has nice benefits, and it’s a good place to work,” Wilson says. “It’s one thing to get somebody to work for the city, it’s another thing to get somebody to come to the city, work for the city and feel a part of the city. You can give them all the jobs they want, and after a while they’ll say, ‘OK, time to move closer to Denver,’ which is exactly the message that I got when I met with another African American in the city.”
Jones, who has lived in predominantly white college towns his entire life, agrees with Wilson and says there isn’t much to attract black people to Boulder.
“Boulder does not represent itself as a place for people of color to just come to,” Wilson says. “That’s part of the race problem that there isn’t a sense of belonging here. Another part of the race problem is attitudes of people, and there is some of that. But the third part of the problem is the assumption that there is no race problem.”
To that end, Wilson posits that the assumption there is no race problem is born from various sources, including fear. He wonders what would happen if an influx of people of color came to Boulder and put the race issue in front of people.
“I don’t know how it would be if there was an influx of people of color here,” Wilson says, “but if it was anything like the reaction to the homeless population here, it would disturb me.”
And that’s how we get to why these people of color and many more in Boulder experience racism on a daily basis: willful ignorance of entitlement.
‘I think Boulder totally thinks they don’t have a race problem.’
On the flight back from Colorado to Washington, D.C., the other day Ariel Amaru was, on cue, asked if she played basketball or volleyball.
Starting her second semester away from home, she looks back at Boulder and says “for the most part it’s a good city,” but that living in a diverse city has given her the perspective of “how small Boulder is in terms of its political scope and ideas.”
“It’s an entitled city, and there’s no getting around that. And the fact is that because people think they’re liberal and open-minded, they have kind of like a knowing attitude toward race,” Amaru says. “But then you saw things where like a black kid gets called a nigger in a CU class and this town has no idea how to deal with that. So when issues of actual racism come up, they don’t know how to deal with it. But when it’s celebrating MLK Day or just trying to guess a girl’s background it’s totally fine. I find that to be a little strange.”
Landsman, the 40-year Boulder resident and mother of two biracial children, echoes Amaru’s sentiment.
“What’s weird about Boulder — and if you talk to other people of color they’ve said similar things, is that racism is endemic in America. Boulder is no different. But the Boulder population thinks that they’re different. They think that they’re beyond saying racist things,” she says.
Wilson, the county employee, says the value system in Boulder is skewed.
“Don’t get me wrong, a lot of things people value here are good things to value,” he says. “It’s great to value the outdoors. It’s great to value the environment. It’s great to value your dogs and alternative modes of transportation, but sometimes I feel like there isn’t a way of including it all together and realizing that all the struggles tie in together. And sometimes I feel like some of the things that are valued are done at the expense of other priorities. Like, we always get the back-burner.”
Jones, the professor, says a system that promotes racism is partly to blame but that people, particularly in Boulder, need to own the discussion and think critically about privilege.
“Color blindness is nice in theory; the idea that you don’t see someone’s color,” Jones says. “But it’s problematic in the sense that because you don’t see my color, you don’t see how my experience is shaped because of it.
“I think, generally speaking, people in Boulder pride themselves on being very liberal, very progressive. On top of that, they’re very well off overall. I think that idea of liberalism sometimes blinds to the notion of where people in this community contribute to the perpetuation of white privilege or white supremacy — even if they aren’t of mind or heart a person who thinks that these other people are less than.”
Jones brings up the recent tape that surfaced of University of Oklahoma fraternity members singing a racist chant.
“When someone in Boulder sees that, they say, ‘That’s disgusting, that’s so wrong. Look at what they did. That’s an example of people doing racist stuff.’ So once these types of things come out in the media, they become the situations people latch onto and people to some degree say, ‘I didn’t do that, I don’t have a race issue.’ Whereas what [the fraternity] did is part of a structure. And it is very difficult work to get privileged people to recognize privilege.”
‘If you get called out, don’t shut down.’
Unprompted, Wilson says, “I would not raise my kids here because I feel like I would be robbing them of an experience.”
But he hopes to leave Boulder better than when he came here, and he hopes to leave Boulder a better person. Wilson viewed coming to Boulder as a personal challenge. He offers some advice to those looking to eliminate the casual racism that he and others experience daily here.
“Just remember that this person is coming from a wealth of experience that you cannot relate to,” Wilson says. “You may not understand my experience, but understand that they are my experiences.”
“The first step in solving a problem is recognizing that there is one,” Jones agrees. “I think that we all have a right to our opinion, but I think that maybe whenever we list rights, we should also list responsibilities because that’s what makes the rights work. We have the right to our opinions, but we have the responsibility to make sure our opinions are informed.”
At the end of the conversation, Jones reaches into his bag and takes out the annual “Home & Hood” neighborhood guide to Boulder County from Yellow Scene. He flips through the pages front to back and points out that there are no black people in the entire magazine — no ads, no photos, nothing.
“I’m just like, you know what, where am I?” he says. “I see a black dog. Where am I in here? Where am in this neighborhood guide, even just visually?
“I don’t see myself here.”