Saturday, May 10, 2008

Discussing Diversity in the Rockies

Photo: Sergeant Michael Esters, Larimer County Sheriff’s office

Facing Obama
and the Issues

in Colorado

[Taking a road break in a small mountain town high above Denver this week, I'm sitting on a sidewalk bench wondering how the 2008 campaign is having an impact on this remote area. Then I spot the headline in the local weekly, 'Facing Race' with a cutout mask of Obama, on how to talk about the issue. There are three articles, including this one. --Carl Davidson ]

By Marissa Gavel
Rocky Mountain Chronicle

The discussion starts with instant rice for Sergeant Michael Esters.

"I was in a grocery store here, and I found this product that I really liked. I’ve been a bachelor for most of my life, and I really like this [brand of rice]," says the soon-to-be-married Esters.

Except Esters’ product of choice became unavailable, and his only option was a bright orange box with a grinning black man on the front, wearing the kind of smile his black ancestors were made to wear in an effort to hide the truth. Esters has a serious problem with Uncle Ben.

"I have always felt that products like that are really a poor representation of African Americans, and date back to the servant or slave culture, and I do not want to support those images. So I am not going to buy products with those images on the front," he says, in a calm tone that belies his Hulk-sized biceps, dark blue combat shirt and close-cut hair.

"It was really difficult for [the store manager] to understand why I wanted to buy that other product, why it was important," Esters explains. "I don’t want to special order a product. I want you to understand that many people, not just African Americans, but white Americans as well, find that offensive."

(Mars, Inc., which owns the Uncle Ben’s brand, promoted the character to the "chairman of the board" in 2007 to try to dispel such associations.)

Esters has lived in Fort Collins for fourteen years. His monologue has yet to turn into a dialogue with shop owners who just don’t seem to understand what he thinks would be an obvious point to make in a discussion about product labels and consumer choice. But the lack of conversation about ethnic and racial issues is nothing new for 47-year-old Esters, who was raised in a family of four in Germany and then Nebraska. He’s used to being the only black man in a sea of white people, and he has come to recognize that beginning a conversation about rice is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ethnic differences in predominantly white communities.

"I don’t think there is a conversation," he says. "I think a few people in Larimer County are concerned with diversity and issues of racism, but for the most part I think that the dominant culture feels that it’s not something that affects them, or is not an important issue at this time. So I don’t think that we are having those types of conversations."

As the only black person in the sheriff’s office, he has had conversations with himself about what it means to climb the ranks to train and enforce laws his military father raised him to believe in. And yet he admits that he wouldn’t ask another African-American man to try to help him fulfill these very opportunities.

"I’ve just found that if I want to find a job, I’m not going to go to a person of color to find a job, because they’re not in charge," he says, matter-of-factly. "I’m going to have to go someplace where, chances are, I’m going to have to deal with somebody who’s white. They’re who I’m going to be asking for a job, and they are who I am going to be competing against for a job. If you grow up outside of your community — for example, here, where you’re the only African American — stereotypes and cultural division become the forefront. "I’m dealing with no one who looks like me, no one at all. The odds are that somebody in there will have a problem with me. Somebody across the table looking at me while I’m applying for that job is going to have some kind of issue with my ethnicity. Odds are pretty good."

The odds are also favorable that Esters’ opinions are taken as those of the token black man, a spokesman for his entire race in conversations from music to sports. "They want you to respond and act in a way that will kind of confirm whatever their stereotypes are, so you find yourself in that position of speaking out for an entire group of people," he says.

"What I find curious is that there are people who say, ‘I’m colorblind. I don’t see a difference. Everybody’s the same.’ But in the next sentence, they’re asking you for your opinion, in your ethnicity, as it relates to sports, or your opinion on Obama, or whatever. How do you answer that? I guess tongue in cheek. What sport? Are we talking about luge? Are we talking about tennis? Swimming?"

Tongue in cheek isn’t Esters’ style. He is too focused. Even when telling a joke, he maintains his composure and steady eye on the person he is telling it to, not necessarily to gauge their approval — he doesn’t seem to need it — but just to keep them in his sights.
In the end, Esters believes that promoting diversity and quelling racism calls for a family meeting.

"Understanding that diversity and racism are issues that have to be addressed by not only people of color, but by everybody. Understanding that we are a community, and a community is another name for a family," he says. "We are as strong as we want to be. If you are successful in the community, I’m successful. I have to invest in you. Your problems have to be my problems. They can’t be your problems that I’m helping you with. They have to be our problems.

"One of the things that Obama said in his speech — and I’ll tell ya, I think he stole it from me — is that if this problem of racism and bigotry is something that we can’t solve, we can’t solve anything else. We’re sunk. Imagine what we could do if we could solve this problem. We’re moving at a snail’s pace as far as everything that’s important is concerned. If we could beat this one issue, everything else would pale in comparison."

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