Fighting racism in Petaluma

In order to be racially sensitive, while people need to acknowledge their privilege and implicit biases|

“It’s important to recognize that we all have biases and it’s our responsibility to figure out what they are to become better human beings.”

--Elece Hempel, executive director, Petaluma People Services Center

If you’re reading this newspaper, you’re probably white and relatively affluent, a description that fits the majority of Petaluma residents.

Being white and affluent also describes Santa Rosa architect Doug Hilberman who, until Monday, was president of the Sonoma County Alliance, the county’s most influential business group.

Hilberman resigned his position after posting a letter about race and protest which began with the words, “ALL lives matter,” an implicit dismissal of the wholly legitimate public concern over systemic racism expressed in the ongoing Black Lives Matter demonstrations. The overwhelming public response was swift and righteous. County Supervisor Shirley Zane characterized Hilberman’s letter as “anecdotal proof of what white privilege looks like.”

She’s right.

But it’s certainly not only architect Hilberman who doesn’t understand his white privilege or is unable to recognize his implicit bias towards people of color.

White privilege looms large right here in Petaluma, especially among us white baby boomers who had the luxury of growing up never having to worry about being discriminated against when applying for a job due to the color of our skin. We never had to fear being pulled over by a white police officer looking to harass people with brown or black skin. White privilege is knowing you will never have to work picking fruits or vegetables in the Central Valley.

According to Faith Ross, president of Petaluma Blacks for Community Development, the recent police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis has prompted many whites she knows to ask what they can do to help.

“I tell them to get to know a black person and to listen to them talk about what things have affected their lives,” says Ross. “People need to educate themselves by listening and not say, ‘I’m not prejudiced,’ because the prejudice is often unconscious.”

Ross was referring to implicit bias which, according to the Perception Institute, are thoughts or feelings that describe “when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge.” A common example is seen in studies showing that white people will frequently associate criminality with black people without even realizing they are doing it.

Helping people to identify and eventually overcome implicit biases, as well as overt racism, is one reason Ross serves on the board for Petaluma’s Team for Inclusivity, Diversity and Equity (TIDE). Formed last year in response to increasing parental concerns regarding the unfair treatment of Latino children in Petaluma schools, TIDE has since established equity teams at multiple local elementary schools and hosted seminars for teachers and administrators to increase inclusivity while reducing institutional racism.

Maytee Bustillos, a Latina whose daughter attends a Petaluma elementary school, is a TIDE leader and SSU professor with a master’s degree in multi-cultural education. She told me last week that she’s been asked many times by white people if she speaks English, despite the fact that she’s professionally qualified to teach the language. Once, while volunteering at a local elementary school, a fellow Petaluma parent, who was white, questioned if she needed to leave “to go clean houses or something.”

This type of racist behavior is far more prevalent in Petaluma schools than most of us would like to believe. In an effort to prevent it from infecting future generations of Petalumans, the local school board last year created an equity goal which, according to Superintendent Gary Callahan, will include training for all staff in diversity, equity and inclusion.

Postponed from the Spring to the Fall semester due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the training will be performed by CircleUp Education, an Oakland-based firm specializing in ending implicit and explicit racism and discrimination in institutions from local governments to schools and colleges.

To learn more, I called CircleUp’s CEO, Tyrone Botelho, who told me that many well-meaning people “who would never intend to be racist” are completely unconscious regarding their biases, but regularly “cause harm” with their words and deeds.

Noting that it’s frequently “hard for people to acknowledge implicit bias,” Botelho explained that, “Even in the most progressive communities, it’s there.”

Elece Hempel, executive director of the Petaluma People Services Center, concurs with Botelho and recalled a recent incident when she was speaking to a group of day laborers nearby the Shell gas station on East Washington Street. A female acquaintance pulled up in her car and asked Hempel if she was all right or needed help. The woman’s erroneous assumption that Hempel might be attacked by the undocumented Latinos she was helping was a case of implicit bias.

“If you are going to tamp down discrimination,” says Hempel, “you have to make people aware of their biases. We all have them.”

In her work with city government to enforce fair housing laws, Hempel works closely with local “mom and pop” landlords seeking to avoid discrimination lawsuits. The most common violation: refusal to rent homes to large families. Because Latino culture values large, close-knit families, and because multiple family members are often needed to work low-paying jobs to meet the high rental costs in Petaluma, it’s a common problem.

Hempel joins Ross and Bustillos in expressing optimism that the ongoing public outrage over systemic racism in our society will bring about positive change.

“I feel more hopeful,” said Ross. “I’m seeing people of all races and cultures agreeing on the value of all people being treated equitably.”

Even architect Hilberman appears to have seen the light. In his resignation letter Monday to the Sonoma Alliance membership, he wrote, “I have a lot to learn about the Black Lives Matter movement and the challenges faced by people of color … I am starting my educational journey with a commitment to listen, seen out input and invest the time needed to have a much deeper understanding.”

Let’s hope all white Petalumans make a similar commitment. Reading “How to Be An Antiracist,” the best-seller on the New York Times Nonfiction list, would be a good start.

(John Burns is former publisher of the Petaluma Argus-Courier. He can be reached at

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