Quentin Robinson: What white people should know about being black in Missoula

Simply acknowledging America, and Missoula, have a racial inequity problem is easy, particularly among friends. It’s a box to check. But to actually create a Missoula rich with diversity, equity and inclusion, particularly for Black people, requires real, sustained effort.

When I see the Black Lives Matter sign popping up in windows of homes and cars, I sometimes wonder how many actual Black people the inevitably white resident or driver has in their life. A more meaningful way aspiring anti-racists can level the playing field is to hire us and loan us money. One need only look at the racist distribution of PPP loans since the pandemic to see how economic discrimination is systemic. The status quo of institutional racism is rigged against Black people’s success. Blacks are more than twice as likely to live in poverty as whites, according to Pew data.

When I think back to my TEDx Talk or performances I’ve done with musicians like Victor Wooten or being a special guest at Vidcon three years running, I’m confident these opportunities never would have happened without a white friend opening the door or making the phone call on my behalf. Most companies lack representation from diverse communities and overlook or claim they can never “find” Black people to hire. I wish it was understood that any Black person who “makes it” has worked ten times harder than a middle class white person. If you are an aspiring anti-racist, open doors for Black people. Hire us. Loan us money.

If you have to find a black person to solve your diversity problem, you need to look at the organization’s culture, and not simply hire a diversity officer. If you need a diversity officer, then that means you don’t currently have diversity. Hire for leadership in your company throughout your organization. What is your company’s or nonprofit’s goal? Your lived values need to be in alignment with your mission. What is the demographic of your company? Have you ever done an equity study? Figure out if you are just aware of racism or if you are awake to it. Advocate, hire, and open doors. Educate yourself.

This isn’t just economics; it’s personal. My son is 8, and my daughter is 10. I’ve already had “the talk” with both of them – that the police are not always your friends and not necessarily to be trusted when you are Black. I had to, in part because my daughter is already 5’6”. My kids don’t always have the luxury of being perceived as children. I must tell them that toy guns, Skittles, and jogging are all risky behaviors. I tell them that they’ll be punished more harshly at school for the same behavior as white peers. That because of the color of their skin, some people will fear them, and their presence can escalate white fear and lead to their murder, like it has for so many other Black kids in this country.

I bump into racism fairly often in Missoula, and in other cities in America. Rather than let it harden me, I try to use the experiences to build connections and it makes me work harder to create an anti-racist next generation.

Being a Black man in Montana wasn’t all that different from serving in the Marines overseas, where Americans are the minority. I saw it as a privilege to teach dance to 70 white kids in Missoula, or an entire school, because I knew I was often the first or only Black person these kids had ever met or really gotten to know. It was my chance to break down negative stereotypes about Black people among white youth, which I felt was a sort of win.

Quentin Robinson

I’ve been told I give off a vibe that I’m not one to be messed with. But I’ve been called the n-word a few times in Missoula, usually from a moving vehicle, and not by someone willing to say it to my face. More common in Missoula is the well-meaning white person who approaches me in public, saying: “I hate that your people are going through this right now. I just want you to know that I hate racists.”

That is its own kind of emotional labor, when I just want to buy a gallon of milk at the Food Farm and go home.

Then there’s the Missoulians who have asked me where he might find collard greens or chitlins. I get looks on trails, bike paths, or while driving. Scared, uneasy, or shocked, like the little girl whose jaw drops because she has never seen a Black person other than on TV. Dogs bark at me sometimes because they’ve never seen a Black person.

Almost every time I return to Missoula, I get pulled over by the police for no reason. It’s happened at least six or seven times, starting in college when I used my military savings to buy a nice, new, shiny red F-150. The cop asked for my registration, but it was still in the mail because it was a new purchase. He ran my ID, and let me go.

Then, less than a mile down the road, a second cop pulled me over. This cop asked the same question about my registration. I told the officer that I had just been pulled over by his colleague. The cop insisted that my license was suspended, even though the previous officer checked it and it was clear. This cop said I needed to get out of the car and walk to my destination. I remember because I was late for a test, and I had to walk to where I lived way out Mullan Road, grab my bike, and get back to campus. I was afraid my truck would get broken into overnight.

After my test, I went to court and asked the judge about any issues with my driver’s license. The judge told me no, my license was not suspended, but that I still had to pay court fees of $100. As far as I know, nothing ever happened to that officer.

Because I prefer to express myself through movement, I hope you’ll watch my video about what it’s like to be Black and interact with the police, even in well-meaning communities like Missoula.