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(Illustration: Alexandra Bowman)

Mountain Towns Still Don’t Know How to Talk About Racism

For many of us, a visit to these communities is an idyllic escape, but racism exists there, too, and it’s important that we continue to address it

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As a Black woman with a complicated upbringing, the mountains of northwest Wyoming weren’t an obvious place for me to find a home. My childhood was a short-lived one—I moved roughly 13 times before I was 13, and what I experienced during those years is an example of the disproportionate rates of abuse and risk that Black and brown children bear in this country and around the world. Still, I was lucky. The hand I was dealt held an exit in the form of well-off grandparents who were willing to raise a troubled teenager. They lived in Jackson, Wyoming, and introduced me to my first mountains, the Teton Range. It was safe and beautiful there; I didn’t want to be anywhere else. Like the moon interlocked with the tide, the pull of mountain living has drawn me in ever since—I drift off and to the high country I return, no matter the days or distance. The mountains and the iconic communities that rest among them are restorative for me.

Trust me when I say I know we have it good here, like really good.

Yet, I’ve noticed that the beauty and glory around us is about all that we are allowed to discuss in mountain towns. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a guide or passerby say something along the lines of, “Just another day in paradise!” This attitude shows up on bumper stickers and in hashtags on social media with phrases like “Good Vibes Only” or “No Bad Days.” There is a sense that someone must suffer from a character flaw if they draw attention to the cracks in these bastions of pleasure. We have it so good in these idyllic landscapes that we shouldn’t take away from it by bringing up “unsavory” topics, right?

This attitude leaves us blind to real issues that plague mountain towns and the areas surrounding them, just as much as anywhere else. Like, for example, racism—if you are a person of color living in the Mountain West, you encounter signals daily that you don’t belong. In the rural areas surrounding Jackson, I’ll regularly pass confederate flags and dog whistles in the form of heavily wrapped militia trucks and bumper stickers. On occasion a friend will be in the car and we’ll laugh it off. But I feel incredibly vulnerable, like a snowshoe hare donning the wrong seasonal camouflage. It’s especially lonely to confront these racially charged symbols in communities that supposedly want to be allies but seem too uncomfortable to acknowledge this kind of racism exists all around us.

We in the outdoor community are so good at pursuing physical discomfort in the mountains but struggle with the emotional discomfort required for essential conversations about hard topics.

Years ago, I found myself in an informal conversation with the mayor of a nearby town. He asked me, in front of a group of colleagues, “How’d you get your hair like that? You stick your head outside of a window like a dog?” Immediately my cheeks flushed, while the chuckles of my colleagues filled the awkward silence. They must have known how inappropriate that comment was, but they clearly felt too uncomfortable to call it out and embarrass a public official. Often my reaction in moments like these is sheer blank surprise. And then I’m not sure what to do. If I react with rage, I’m irrationally angry. If I let it slide, I’m complicit in the subtle “othering” that perpetuates the roots of racism. But here’s the thing: these are unfair expectations to place on myself. I’m not alone here. What if my colleagues didn’t laugh along with the mayor? What if the next time someone says something like this, it wasn’t up to me to call it out? What if, as unpleasant as it might be, we didn’t pretend that it was fine, and that someone didn’t just say something wildly harmful?

We in the outdoor community are so good at pursuing physical discomfort in the mountains but struggle with the emotional discomfort required for essential conversations about hard topics. When everything is so blissful, we become less civically engaged, oblivious even, to addressing issues like racism.

It is not an accident that mountain towns reflect particular demographics—redlining, sundown towns, and predatory and exclusionary lending practices have kept land, property, and generational wealth from solidifying in Black and brown hands. Not only are mountain towns very white—my own community of Jackson is 88.9 percent white—but they tend to have an incredible amount of economic inequality. When you benefit from these systems it’s easy to not think about them.

Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about “white freedom” in a 2018 essay published in The Atlantic that eerily reflects the attitude of many who live in white mountain towns: “Freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism…a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory…a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own.” When you hear something offensive and walk the other way instead of calling it out, it is worth questioning whether that choice is enabled by an unhealthy kind of freedom.

Many people in mountain towns might say they stand against racism but want to believe it’s not something that exists where they live. I’ve lived in the Mountain West for close to 20 years now, and I’m telling you I’ve never felt more unsafe in my lifetime than I do now. It’s all around our liberal mountain bastions. In the kitchen of a diner in a remote stop in Utah, I see a young white man wearing a Trump hat and a shirt glorifying assault weapons. In Dillon, Montana, a place I’ve passed through many times through the years, there is a motel called the Sun Downer. Still, signals of rising extremism across the West are often met with silence—it’s much easier to focus on the positives.

Stop obsessing about getting it right. Lean into these messy conversations.

And while this inability to talk about challenging topics disproportionately harms Black, brown, and Indigenous people, it can also be harmful to people experiencing other difficult-to-talk-about struggles, like mental illness. Mountain towns are experiencing a public health crisis when it comes to mental health. According to the CDC, eight out of the ten states that rank highest for suicide are in the West. Wyoming is currently ranked number one. When we don’t discuss topics like depression or anxiety, it make the crisis worse and those suffering even more isolated.

What is the solution? We need to start by having real conversations that lead to real action. Call in your community and speak up when you encounter someone saying something insensitive even if you would deem it merely tone-deaf. When you ignore such comments, you signal to that person and others that such behavior is acceptable. And for the love of all things sacred, stop obsessing about getting it right. Lean into these messy conversations.

During the summer of 2020, as protests and indignation erupted across the country, it seemed to me the first time that people in my community began to acknowledge my Blackness, and what that may imply about my lived experience. Texts, Instagram messages, and phone calls poured into my channels apologizing for ancestral and present trauma and seeking my insight into the current state of racism in Jackson. But that was two years ago now, and hundreds of Black and brown bodies continue to experience violence at the hands of public servants. In the summer of 2020, nearly every organization was putting out anti-racism messages and promoting the importance of inclusion; in the summer of 2022, the hysterics around Critical Race Theory have scared organizations into a void of silence. We are back to living in a sea of what goes unsaid.

That moment of “awakening” can be neither brief nor temporary. Yes, let us remove old monuments and erect new murals. But these murals are no stand-in for the real work that must be done. Just as it takes the body some time to adapt to the physicality and stress that moving in the mountains demands, so too do these times require consistency and determination to overcome the legacies of implicit and systemic injustice. Each of us needs to actively shake ourselves out of the paradigms of living that leave us indifferent, apathetic, and complicit.

Lead Illustration: Alexandra Bowman

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