What it’s like to be Black in a predominantly white state

SALT LAKE CITY — Walking through a local mall with his daughter, Dash Cox kept nodding at people his daughter didn’t recognize. After a while, she asked, “Do you know all the Black people in Utah? He laughed and replied, “Sweetheart, I hardly know any, but we all feel the same.”

Cox, the owner of Title Boxing Club in Cottonwood Heights, said that the “unanimous nodding of the head” is one way of coping with being a Black person in an overwhelmingly white state. “You tip your hat to each other, you say, ‘I feel you.’”

Utah is among seven states where the Black population is less than 2%; the others include Vermont, Maine, Wyoming and New Hampshire. And in two states — Idaho and Montana — fewer than 1% of the population is Black.

In comparison, the Black population nationwide is 13.4%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and it’s about 20% in the South.

Here, as told to the Deseret News, are some experiences of Black Americans living in Utah and other overwhelmingly white states. They shared painful stories and talked of living in a “fishbowl” where their lives and actions are magnified by the color of their skin.

The conversations have been edited for clarity and length.

Dash Cox, owner of Title Boxing Club Cottonwood Heights, conducts a class on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Dash Cox, owner of Title Boxing Club Cottonwood Heights, conducts a class on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Dash Cox, 48, Cottonwood Heights, Utah: ‘I had to learn how to deal with being offended’

People will come to my business and look me dead in the face and ask if they can speak to the owner. I got pulled over once, and I actually had a cop ask me if this was my car, and what did I do to be able to afford it.

I grew up in Virginia. When I moved to Utah as an adult, it was a struggle to maneuver through the business world, find true friends and some cultural diversity. Also, I had to learn how to deal with being offended constantly. Most people are just comfortable. In my case, I have to be comfortable in my discomforts.

People will say, for example, “Your wife is white; how did her family accept you?” And I have to explain, “We had to accept each other.” Her mom invited me to dinner every Sunday for 6 months, and I said, “Nah, they’re probably racists and I’m not in the space to deal with that due to past experiences.” And then I met her family — me and her father talked for three hours straight; he is one of the best human beings I’ve met.

My kids range in age from 5 to 22. They’re not as readily exposed to some things they would be exposed to if we lived in Virginia. They’re somewhat sheltered, and I like it.

But in 2020, I’m still having discussions with my kids that my mother had with me: about police officers, about racism and violence against Black people. I still have to talk with my sons about how to act when they see police officers, and how they should act in certain neighborhoods.

I’m not saying that all police officers are bad people or all white people are racist. I’ve seen both sides.

So how do we move forward from here? Let’s start with respect. Respect for one another’s humanity, ethnicity, hue. Please do not tell me you don’t see color. We all do. Let’s embrace it and encourage others to do so. Maybe now after all this darkness, the arrival of dawn is upon us.

Greg Zullo of Rutland, Vermont, says he stays there in part because he enjoys hiking and kayaking in the region.
Maria Zullo, for the Deseret News

Greg Zullo, 28, Rutland, Vermont: ‘I’ve got 26 tickets on my wall’

The first time I realized I was different was when I was 3 years old. A kid in day care came up and asked me, “Why are you Black?” I was like, I don’t know. His mom looked at me, mortified. I got used to standing out, obviously. If you ever watched TV in the ’90s, there was always that one Black kid, and that was totally me.

I was born in Orlando, Florida, to a mother who was 13. I was adopted by a white couple in Vermont when I was 3 or 4 months old. I’ve been here all my life.

The public schools were ruthless. There was a lot of name-calling. From fifth grade on, I was picked on every single day. It wasn’t just the kids. On one writing assignment, I used words that the teacher didn’t think I was capable of knowing. She claimed my mom had helped me out and said I needed to start doing my own work.

Once, my friend was talking to someone in a truck, and I put my hand on it, and he said, “Oh, please, don’t touch my truck. I don’t like Black people.”

This place has been ultimately disappointing, but also rewarding. If I hadn’t gone through being called (the n-word) half the time, I’d be angry hearing it all the time. There’s no way to stay that angry for so long. You get used to it. When people call me a name, I laugh, “You think that hurts me anymore?”

I’ve got a degree from Castleton State College in Vermont; I just graduated with a degree in business administration with a focus in marketing and communications. I’ve got 26 tickets on my wall. I’ve actually had more than that since I started keeping track. I was getting pulled over frequently, and I’d get a ticket every time.

One time, the ACLU represented me. An officer followed me and pulled me over, asked where I’m going, what I’m doing. He said my car smelled like marijuana. It shouldn’t have; I didn’t smoke. He talked for 20 minutes, asking for permission to search the car, but I know that I’m not obligated to let anyone search me. Eventually another officer showed up, and they had my car towed. They said I’d been stopped because my car’s registration sticker was obscured by snow, which was not illegal at the time. The case went to the state Supreme Court, and eventually we settled out of court. Now the smell of burnt marijuana can’t be used as a pretext to seize your car in Vermont. And people can sue the state for monetary damages when their civil rights are violated. So those are two great things that came out of this.

It’s all good walking down a street with a sign telling everyone what you think, but if you really want to help, you have to be the change; you have to join organizations, you have to run for office, you have to get out there and help other people change their minds.

I don’t want to move from Vermont. I love Vermont; I love kayaking and hiking. Why should I have to give that up because some people are uncomfortable with me? I’m just as American as most of the people who would love it if I left, if not more.

Tyana Williams poses for a portrait at The Point Church, where she found a community and has been attending church for 17 years, in Kearns on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.

Tyana Williams poses for a portrait at The Point Church, where she found a community and has been attending church for 17 years, in Kearns on Wednesday, June 10, 2020.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Tyana Williams, 27, West Jordan, Utah: ‘There is no room for failure’

In 2017, I got pulled over by a police officer when I was coming home from a friend’s house in Murray. I was just about to turn into my neighborhood. He asked where I had been, and where I was going, and when I said, “I live in this neighborhood,” he said, “Likely story.”

Living in Utah, it’s like being in a fishbowl. I feel like I’m on display because there aren’t many African-American people here. I may be one of the few interactions people have with an African-American, so I feel like I always have to be tip-top; there is no room for failure; there’s no room for me to be human.

There have been a few blatantly racist things that have happened to me. In second grade, I had a friend who invited everyone else in our class to her birthday party except for me. After that, I felt like an outsider. I would hear things on the playground, kids saying my hair was ugly, or that I was fat. One kid told me not to stay out in the sun because I would get too black.

In ninth grade English class, we were reading “Huckleberry Finn,” which has the n-word in it, and the teacher said if the kids wanted to say it out loud, they could. I was the only African-American girl in the class. Surprisingly, none of the kids said it, but the teacher said it, multiple times. It triggered me. I got up and left the class.

I had a lot of friends, I was in student government, and was on the yearbook staff and the cheer team. But racism was always there. They say “sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you.” But no, words hurt. And they stay with you.

Having a church community really helped. And once I got to the University of Utah, they had a Black student union and a college chapter of the NAACP and that helped me form a community.

But when I got pulled over, my heart dropped; this was not a good situation. My dad had always told us not to drive with a hoodie on, not to give police any reason to stop you. If you do get stopped, put your keys on the dash and explain all your movements. This was rehearsed; we knew what to do. Twenty minutes in, the officer still hadn’t told me why he had pulled me over. Another one showed up. Eventually, they said I had made a rolling stop two blocks back. When I questioned that, he said I could sign the ticket or he would arrest me. I signed the ticket. Later, the charges were dropped.

It was very eye-opening. It put a fear in me that I haven’t felt before. After that, every time I see a police officer, I go in a different direction.

Jacob Elder, a law student in Montana, was happy to come back to his home state visiting other parts of the country.
Jacob Elder

Jacob Elder, 27, Missoula, Montana: ‘This is where my heart belongs’

Last year, I had a strange experience. I was walking with some friends and a passing truck slowed down and someone hollered the n-word at me and then sped off. It was surreal. I felt a fit of immense anger and sadness. Afterward, I felt like my personhood was damaged. I didn’t tell anybody, not even my family, until recently.

I was born in Liberia in the middle of a bitter civil war, and my mother wanted a better life for me and my twin brother, so she sent us to live in America, with a family that offered to adopt us. We moved to Helena, Montana, a community with only a few faces that looked like ours.

The life of a child refugee can be challenging. Life was slower here, more prosperous and a bit colder. But I quickly learned to love my adopted country and community. It was filled with hope and a lot of opportunity. My folks were white, and members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They adopted kids from Liberia, China, Jamaica; we have 17 kids in the family. I think of my house as the United Nations; my folks are rock stars.

I went to the University of Montana to play football, but after two years, I felt the call to serve and signed up for the Marines. I started meeting Black people, and I would try to hang out with them, but they made it known to me that I wasn’t “Black enough.” I feel like there’s the Black world, and the white world, and here I am in the middle.

After four years of that, I decided I needed to learn about different cultures, which is something I didn’t get in Montana. I moved to a suburb of New York City and spent time exploring the Bronx and different boroughs and meeting new people. Then I came back, finished up my undergrad and started law school.

When I first moved to Missoula as a freshman, I rarely saw Black people unless they were athletes, but now, every so often, I see more people of color moving in. Montana isn’t a perfect state. I don’t think any state is. But I was ecstatic to get back. This is home. This is where my heart belongs.

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