Taking a Stand in the Sand

By Mimi Degruy   |   August 6, 2020
In sharing my story, what I am hoping is to create some awareness and understanding that Montecito isn’t an exception to racism, says Parker Matthews

Listen, listen, listen. Learn, Learn, Learn. During these past few tumultuous months, that has been my mantra. As a privileged white woman, I feel it is best to stay quiet and listen deeply. I have much to learn from the BLM and BIPOC movements. And yet there are times when darkness surfaces and it feels complicit to stay quiet.

For 21 years I lived just off Miramar Beach, a stretch of earth I walked at least once a day. If I didn’t know everyone’s name, I at least recognized the faces I saw: people who shared a love for the ocean and the landscape of rocks and sand that, like life, could change radically overnight. We would wave as we walked quietly along, looking out over the waves. That beach was my kids’ sandbox. As always, the ocean served as a reminder there are forces larger than we are. There is a rhythm to the moons and tides, and the ocean is the engine fueling our existence. And yet, even here in paradise, on a stretch of beach we call home, there is sometimes a disturbing underbelly.

By no means is Montecito the most ethnically or socio-economically diverse part of California – it is almost laughable to suggest such an idea – but I did believe our little beach community was more open-minded than most. Unfortunately, over the years there have been hints that it wasn’t as accepting as I’d thought. One Sunday morning about five years ago, a Black family friend who’d been visiting went out our front door to meet someone giving him a ride. Soon thereafter a neighbor rang my doorbell and asked if we were OK. When I assured her we were fine and asked why she’d asked, she said she’d seen a guy leaving the house and wanted to be sure all was well. It was unsaid but understood she had been worried because of the visitor’s skin color. That is how it starts and it is a cycle that has to end. There on my street, I was reminded that while we do indeed live in a beautiful bubble here in Montecito, suspicion and racism often lurk just beneath the surface.

One of the most rewarding things about raising kids here is the sense of community in which we share each other’s joys, triumphs, heartbreaks, and sadness. So when our dear family friend, Parker Matthews, experienced racism on Miramar Beach, I needed to know more. Parker was featured not long ago in the Montecito Journal as someone our community has raised and can be proud of, and he talked about the benefits of living in Montecito.

Parker is a vibrant, huge-hearted, smart, handsome young man whose skin is an enviable shade of brown. Parker is the guy out there rooting for the underdog, so when he was the target of racial profiling and name calling, I wanted to know more. I sat down to talk with him about what happened recently while walking by the Rosewood Miramar private club.

Q. How do you identify?

A. I am a person of color and am mixed race; if you want to be specific, my dad is white, and mom is Hispanic. I grew up in Montecito and have lived here for the last fourteen years.

Could you describe what happened and when it was?

After spending a great afternoon at the beach with friends, I walked between the Miramar Club and the Miramar Hotel to get back to my car parked near the freeway. I had two LaCroix cans, and made my way over to the recycle bin between the hotel and the Miramar Club. At that time, a couple was getting up from the beach chairs in front of the club. While I was recycling my cans, the couple began to walk up the ramp behind me. I was facing two Miramar employees, not noticeably of color, in their pressed white uniforms and blue masks, and I heard – behind me – a man say, with a laughing tone, “you look like a looter!” As I turned around, there was a Miramar employee – Hispanic, about my age, and in his full Miramar apparel – to which this man directed his comment.

I registered that comment and thought it was bizarre and watched as the younger Miramar employee uncomfortably laughed it off. As I was processing this interaction, the club member then went on to tell me that I looked like a looter.

When I didn’t respond, he repeated his statement a second time, telling me I looked like a looter, too. For a moment I thought I heard him incorrectly, but he said it twice. His tone noticeably shifted to ensure that I heard him correctly, and his second comment was directed at my back, but I kept walking.

As I am walking, so many thoughts were going through my head. I’m thinking, did he really just say that? I’m wondering why he would say that. Was it a coincidence that he is only telling the young people of color on the beach that they look like looters and not the multiple white masked young people in the area? I was uncomfortable and offended, but I didn’t want to make a big deal of the situation, and I honestly just wanted to get out of there. But I kept thinking about the Miramar employee because he probably had to keep serving this person the next day, knowing that the man probably will not remember what he said. All I remember afterwards was my brain rapid-firing hypothetical responses, and yet nothing came out of my mouth in the moment.

I ignored him, walked to my car, dusted the sand off my feet, but couldn’t leave behind those man’s words.

Why didn’t you respond?

That’s a tough question, and looking back on this experience, I wish I had said something. I’m pretty witty, as most of my friends and family would describe me, and I’ve thought of some creative responses to this man’s ‘joke.’ On my way home, I called a friend and shared what had happened, and he asked me why I hadn’t said anything. Honestly, I made up a lot of excuses as to why I didn’t respond: I didn’t want to start something, this man wasn’t worth my time and energy, and it wasn’t my responsibility to educate someone on why calling the only two visible people of color ‘looters’ is wrong.

But while some of these justifications are true and others are probably excuses for not saying anything, deep down, I know that I didn’t respond because I was just scared. I wasn’t scared that this man was going to hurt me physically, but instead I feared what might happen next. We have all seen far too many videos of people of color doing everyday activities, only to be placed in dangerous, life-threatening situations simply because of their skin color.

In that moment did I fear for my life? Probably not, but I knew what could happen. If I had verbally confronted him and came off too aggressive, our encounter could have become a dangerous situation.

So what happened when you got home?

I didn’t want to tell my parents because I wanted to leave this encounter behind, but they know me too well and recognized I wasn’t myself. My mom said something along the lines of, “all the light had left my eyes.” When I shared the incident with my parents, they seemed more upset than I was. My parents wanted to go back to the Miramar Hotel and confront this man themselves, and I wanted nothing to do with that. I didn’t want to relive that moment any more than I had to, but my parents encouraged me to go back to the Miramar because I have the privilege of not relying on the hotel for a paycheck. My parents reminded me that the Miramar employee was most likely afraid of losing his job so he probably wouldn’t feel like he could speak up.

I should say at this point that I have lived in Montecito since I was six, and I grew up on Miramar Beach. We can all agree that Miramar Beach is a safe place, with friends- and family-filled memories, and my parents made it clear that they didn’t want this man to take that away from me. They also felt pretty strongly that even if this guy was “joking,” the joke wasn’t funny.

I am definitely grateful I did go back because it gave me a resolve to steady my emotions. The two Miramar bystanders remembered the interaction exactly how I remembered it, which validated the experience. They helped us figure things out and my parents were very clear that the Miramar needed to get to the bottom of this.

Do you want to talk about how they reached the guy and what happened?

I have stayed out of the nitty-gritty of how the Miramar handled the situation, but I know the Miramar Club member had his membership privileges revoked until the end of the summer. Which is not insignificant, because as I understand it, he was going to the Miramar nearly every day. He apologized in-person to the Miramar employee and wrote me a letter apologizing for commenting on my attire, just my attire. The apology explained his remorse but lacked acknowledgement of any bigger issue.

I think the temporary loss of membership privileges seems fair, and I am accepting his perfunctory letter of apology. Maybe he will read this article and understand this incident isn’t about merely commenting on someone’s clothing. It is about categorizing people in dangerous ways based on their skin color. It is about conscious and unconscious racism. And hopefully, given everything that is happening in our country, creating awareness of how seemingly harmless words can lead to dangerous and even fatal outcomes for people of color.

It is also important to add that the Miramar is stepping up communication to all of their employees about the existence of a hotline that employees can call anonymously to report these kinds of incidences.

I think your response to his response is generous, and that type of generosity helps encourage more community discussion. These are conversations we need to be having because no matter how culturally aware we think we are, we have a lot to learn. I know for myself, at least, I worry about saying the wrong thing but that’s no reason not to talk. If you say something uncomfortable, you feel bad, you own it and you learn. But if we avoid these conversations altogether, we don’t move at all.

That was one of the reasons it felt so good to go back to the Miramar. Had I not gone back, this man would have been able to move forward without ever considering the impact of his words. He would have moved forward truly unaware, while I would have moved forward weighed down by his words. I would have had to live with my silence. A silence that impacted not only me but others who might not feel like they have a voice.

I think people say these things and have these biases and don’t realize the implication of their words. They don’t realize their words have immense power over others.

Unfortunately, racism exists in our community, if or when this happens again to you or someone you are with – how would you respond next time and what would you do?

That is a good question, and before I answer it, I want to say that the point of me sharing my personal experience isn’t to get sympathy. I am fine and will be fine. If anything, I am grateful for this experience because of the reflection it has forced; my reflection of this incident makes me a stronger and, I think, better person. At the same time, the point of this is not to vilify an individual. It has been a couple of weeks since this incident happened and putting it out there is kind of uncomfortable.

In sharing my story, what I am hoping is to create some awareness and understanding that Montecito isn’t an exception to racism. It exists here as it does everywhere else. It manifests in so many ways. Many times, I think we are not even aware of it.

Now to answer your question, if I were placed in this situation again, I truly hope I would speak up and engage with the person showing intended or unintended racist behaviors. My goal wouldn’t be to get in a verbal argument, but simply ask “why?” I would call him out and question the motives behind his racist remark.

While this seems absurd, and I genuinely wish it was an absurd concept, we have sadly seen some version of this scenario in video footage on social media and the news too many times. Words are casually tossed out, police are called because someone sees a person of color and identifies him or her as a looter, police arrive and the innocent person objects to being detained, the objections are interpreted as resistance, that perceived resistance results in handcuffing, handcuffing results in being unable to breathe, being unable to breathe results in not breathing.

I realize being in the familiar setting of so many childhood memories helped quiet the crazy fears that entered my mind in this moment. I’ve grown up on this beach, lived in this community for fourteen years, and know a sizeable number of the people who live here. I recognize I’m fortunate in this way, many people of color are not accosted and belittled in a “safe place.” For other people, the outcome could be humiliation – or more severely – detention, incarceration, or fatality. I feel really lucky that this incident happened at the Miramar, a place where I’d hope people would know my face; if the police were called, hopefully someone in the club or on the beach would vouch for me.

Is there anything else you want to say?

I think that we can all do better, myself included. We can stop being bystanders and instead stand up and become vocal advocates against racism. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me when I was fourteen and re-read the book the night of this encounter. I highly recommend Coates’s book, which he writes as an open letter to his son, a black man growing up in America. He writes, “Destroyers will rarely be held accountable.” Because my family, our community and I held the Miramar management accountable they were pushed to do the right thing. If we enable people to be exempt from behaving a certain way, we create a culture of impunity. If the people who make these comments go unchecked, it allows people to live their lives unaware of their discriminatory actions. It really gives people free rein to continue to speak with the same harmful language. As a community, I hope we can all hold each other accountable and work every day to hold ourselves accountable.

I hope it is okay if I give a commercial plug. If you’re interested in reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, please stop by our local bookstore, Tecolote, to find a copy. If they don’t have one in stock, I’m sure Mary and the Tecolote team would be happy to order it for you.

 

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