With all the recent talk about the awesome diversity in Anchorage and Alaska, "celebrating diversity" and making it seem like there are no "racial issues" here -- shoot, even CNN got in on the story -- I feel like we need a more nuanced counter narrative in case we get too happy, content and disillusioned by the seemingly dominant "all is peachy and there is no racism in Alaska" narrative that is being propagated.
Let me start with an excerpt from an interview I did for an episode of "Alaska Edition" on KAKM Alaska Public Television last March (between the 15 and 24 minute marks):
"… Here in Anchorage, we always talk about how diverse we are… and it's great. But if you look at the city of Anchorage (for example) – as diverse as it is – who are the people in power? ... If you line them up, side by side and you look at them, they do not reflect this awesome diversity that we are talking about right now. So who has all the power here? So it's not about diversity just because it's cool to look at – because it's "colorful." We also need to think about diversity in terms of equality among all of these different diverse groups, in terms of power, in terms of voice, in terms of opportunities and resources, and those things need to happen on the systemic level ..."
So to add to that, just look at all of the 12-plus Anchorage mayoral candidates we had this past election -- all white and only one female. We also only celebrated our first Alaska Native lieutenant governor a few months ago, and we have never had a non-white governor in our history! And, back to Anchorage, we've never had a non-white mayor either. Even our modern-day "most diverse city" leadership, as can be gleaned through our city Assembly members, do not even come close to mirroring the diverse cultures and faces of our community. So the huge discrepancy between the awesome diversity of our community and the lack of diversity among our leaders or those in power tells us that racial inequality is a big problem in Anchorage and Alaska.
Nobody seems to understand that a big part of racism is power, and no one seems to notice that the people in power – the decision makers and those who have resources to make things happen – do not reflect this diversity that we are celebrating.
In addition to the power imbalance, there are also other types of racial disparities such as in education (e.g., grades, graduation rates, dropout rates, highest degree completed), health (e.g., suicide, alcoholism, diabetes, hypertension), the justice system (e.g., incarceration rates), socioeconomic status (e.g., income, types of jobs) and other areas.
As an example, in addition to the highly publicized and often stereotype-inducing high rates of alcohol use, suicide and incarceration among our Native brothers and sisters, recent research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders living in various places in Alaska (Anchorage, Barrow, Kodiak) shows that 60 percent felt depressed, 59 percent were overweight/obese and 31 percent had hypertension, all of which are rates that are higher than the rates for the general American population.
Even further, research shows that racism (interpersonal, institutional, and internalized) is related to such racial disparities, and there are many existing examples and research showing that racism is very commonly experienced by many of our brothers and sisters in modern-day Alaska (for some examples, click here). For instance, there are many documented historical, recent and current incidences of racism against Native peoples, and the folks at First Alaskans Institute and their Alaska Native Dialogues on Racial Equity (ANDORE) project are great to talk to about this.
Also, there is recent research showing that many people who are members of racial minority groups (e.g., Filipinos, Pacific Islanders, Asians) experience racism at a high frequency in Alaska. Finally, research conducted on various racial groups such as Native Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos/as, Pacific Islanders and African Americans also shows that racism is related to lower self-esteem, which in turn is related to various other concerns that are commonly faced by these communities such as depression, suicide, alcohol/drug use, poor school performance, gang involvement, engagement in high-risk behaviors and others.
So, no, not all is well and peachy when it comes to the lived experiences of racial/ethnic minority communities in Anchorage and Alaska. Therefore, what will our leaders do to move our communities toward achieving equality for all groups? What can people of color do to get into positions of power? How can we make our leadership reflective of the diversity of our communities? And by "diversity" I don't mean simply in terms of the diversity of our leaders' skin colors but, more important, in terms of the diversity of our leaders' lived experiences and perspectives.
What will our leaders -- those who have been around and those who are newly elected -- do beyond surface-level "celebrations" and "galas" and "banquets" to address the power inequality between ethnic/cultural groups and the other disparities (e.g., health, education, socioeconomic status, etc.) that exist?
We can't have more of the same; we need newer, fresher ideas. We need different perspectives. And as diverse as our community is, I believe these fresh, new ideas are out there. We just need to move beyond surface-level "inclusion" and "tolerance" and "appreciation" of diversity, and move toward genuinely listening and utilizing the wisdoms of various groups of peoples. I hope our leaders are open to hearing them and to being guided by them. With all sincerity, I hope.
E.J.R. David is an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage and the director of the Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology (ANCAP) Program. He has produced two books that focus on the psychological experiences of ethnic minority groups, "Brown Skin, White Minds" and "Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups." He is also a contributor to Psychology Today on the psychology of race, ethnicity and culture.
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.