Other Voices: Black in Los Altos

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Marie Godderis/Town Crier Editorial Intern
Protesters take to the streets of Los Altos June 5 to protest police brutality and systemic racism.

By Noah Tesfaye

I’ve been a resident of Los Altos for seven years. And as a black resident and part of a race that makes up less than 150 people in our city, I have never felt particularly seen or heard.

My perspective, and the perspective of people like me, is so insignificant in the grand scheme of discourse in Los Altos that I would push off bringing up issues about race. But two years ago, when I wrote about racial profiling in the community I see as home, I made a conscious effort to bring up racism and bigotry that I experience in hopes of making people more aware that it exists where we live.

Three weeks ago, I found out about the comment Los Altos City Councilwoman Jeannie Bruins made to fellow Councilwoman Neysa Fligor about her position that citizens should be required to wear masks during the pandemic: “You must be out of your cotton-picking mind.”

When I heard about this, I was nowhere near surprised – just disappointed. It was a racist comment directed at the first-ever black member of the Los Altos City Council, and that spoke volumes to me.

But what was particularly frustrating was the relaxed way it came off in the meeting – there was no immediate apology and no awareness whatsoever by Bruins. After two weeks without anything, I found the joint statement from the two councilwomen and apology by Bruins to be half-hearted. Bruins didn’t show any sort of remorse or awareness of why her words were racist.

Just because one black city council member accepted the apology, that doesn’t mean she speaks for all black people. I was not just offended at the racist words, but with the sense of comfort Bruins felt in being able to say something like this. A representative for the city should be there for all residents, and black people do live in Los Altos.

We should hold our council members to a higher standard of poise, but because we don’t, Bruins was able to feel comfortable saying “cotton-picking mind” to a black woman in our town. And after it all, I found it eerily accurate and symbolic of the way Los Altos deals with race.

And yet, weeks after the statement was made – with tensions across the nation at their highest levels due to Black Lives Matter protests, along with COVID-19 still raging – I see a shift. From a local BLM march led by black students to a campaign for a sincere apology by Councilwoman Bruins and her resignation, I’m seeing Los Altos attempt to become something I didn’t know we were ready to strive for: to be antiracist. As residents of this community, we have a chance to correct our behavior and prove through our actions that we want all people of all creeds to be treated equally.

No matter the true reasons for why people showed up to the protest last week, the fact that people came showed at least some willingness to learn more about how to make black lives matter.

That first step should be learning to be aware of and understanding both our conscious and unconscious antiblack beliefs. The predominant one in our community I’ve experienced and have been told by many is, “I don’t see color” or “I’m colorblind.” The problem isn’t and hasn’t ever been recognizing or being aware of someone’s race – it’s a problem when we let racist stereotypes and beliefs about other groups dictate our behavior and treatment toward others.

Telling your family member, your young child, that seeing color is bad sets a bad precedent and prevents important conversations on the implications of race in America. Question why you cross the street or avoid black people. Question why you never learned true black history in school. Taking part in this back-and-forth with yourself or with your loved ones can make you more aware of how you contribute, however minutely, to racism in America. I do this with myself; I don’t ever act as if I’ve never been racist before. But I choose to be conscious of my biases – and rather than treat colorblindness as the right way forward, I work toward unlearning those biases.

That translates directly into what we can do after being aware and conscious of our racist behavior: to learn about where our biases come from. Does the way black people are portrayed in movies or on TV contribute to you having a negative connotation of them? Does the way you perceive blackness comes from the lack of black people you know?

The most powerful step we all can take right now is to grow. We can acknowledge our past racist behavior and focus our energies on reading more about American history. Books like “How to Be an Antiracist,” “White Fragility,” “The New Jim Crow” and so many others are great ways to learn what black people in America have faced since 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans arrived in the future United States.

To strive to be an antiracist is a process that will not happen instantly. Not everyone, myself included, can be on the frontlines for many issues. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t do things in our community.
Taking action in being antiracist can take several forms. We’ve seen people come out in protest for black lives. We’ve seen a student-led initiative to demand Bruins’ resignation from the city council.

But those actions, while powerful, cannot be the end. We have to take steps forward every single day to become more antiracist. We can demand our students learn about racism in America in elementary school and eradicate colorblindness.

But it’s going to take everyone. There are are too few black people in this community to get anything substantial done on our own. To become more antiracist and make Los Altos a place where all residents feel welcome, we all need to come together. If not, we’ll continue to racially profile and pretend race isn’t real. I hope we can be better than that.

Noah Tesfaye is a former Town Crier intern who attends the University of Chicago.

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