THE BUZZ 2: Us vs. Them

By on December 13, 2016

How some Wyomingites are working to break cultural stigmas and setting an example for other towns in the Cowboy State.

161214buzz2_origJACKSON HOLE, WY – What do people lose when they immigrate to new places?

Leah Vader has lived in Gillette for 20 years, where she’s worked as a wildlife biologist, environmental educator, and interpretive guide. Vader’s maternal lineage is German, but besides “some German words and recipes,” few remnants of this history remain.

Last week Vader participated in the Gillette event, “Welcoming the Neighbor: The Stories We Share,” focused on part of the Wyoming populace often underrepresented: “the other.”

In the only state in the nation that does not have a refugee resettlement program, events like these hold special weight. Gillette also happens to be the Wyoming town where an anti-Muslim group formed in response to the construction of a mosque. The group held a Quran burning in August.

Legacy of ‘other’

Before talking about “the other,” the two dozen or so attendees were asked to reflect on their own histories.

Each person was given identity cards and prejudice cards. “The prejudice card might say something like ‘your kid is being harassed in school for speaking Yiddish.’ And the identity card might have something about a family tradition,” explained co-organizer AJ Bush, a pastor at First United Methodist Church of Gillette.

At different checkpoints, participants had to give up an identity card in order to lose a prejudice card. “This is the process of becoming white,” Bush said. “European Americans had to lose an individual sense of identity to become a white group. There is a sense of loss of cultural identity in that assimilation.”

At the event, Vader reported that one person said she’d heard that “immigration without assimilation is invasion.”

Vader said it is those beliefs that demonstrate the need for these conversations. “We need to look in the mirror and understand how this language demonizes new arrivals to the country just as each wave has been demonized before.”

Wyoming’s past and present fears

For German immigrants in the U.S., such as Vader’s family, assimilation—which allows for the possibility to forget history—did not always happen. In 1755, Benjamin Franklin lamented the Germanization of Pennsylvania. The “aliens” refused to learn English, and unlike the proper white “complexion of the English,” Russians, Swedes, and Germans were “of a swarthy complexion.”

An anti-German sentiment was renewed during the First World War. According to Frank Van Nuys, a professor who has taught at University of Wyoming, those with German heritage in Wyoming were harassed and arrested by “vigilance communities” supposedly curbing anti-American activity.

Grace Raymond Hebard, an expert in the “Americanization” of immigrants, taught dozens of transplants the language, customs, and history of their new home. However, her work often tipped into xenophobia.

“There is no such thing as an American-German,” she said in 1921 to a group in Cheyenne. “Either they are for us or against us and they cannot be both.”

She also deemed those from southwest Europe “less educated, not skilled in industry, impoverished and lacking in ambition.”

Today, fear of difference is reflected in the language used by Wyoming politicos. After last year’s Paris terrorist attacks, Governor Matt Mead called on President Obama not to accept refugees. His press release stated that no one “should have to endure the threat of terrorists entering our borders.”

Equating refugees with terrorists is a dangerous and inaccurate conflation, warned Suzan Pritchett, an attorney and professor at University of Wyoming.

Of the 859,629 refugees resettled in the U.S. since 2001, three have been convicted of planning terrorist attacks on targets outside of the United States and none were successful. Pritchett writes that the fear of difference can be used to justify human rights abuses.

History demonstrates this.

In 1939, the U.S. turned away a ship filled with Jewish refugees, and in 1942, 100,000 Japanese Americans were detained in internment camps. Fourteen thousand of those were at Heart Mountain in Wyoming.

Fear of difference incited the 1885 Rock Springs Massacre of 28 Chinese miners. As reported by the Wyoming State Historical Society, 150 white miners surrounded Rock Springs’ Chinatown, burning down 79 buildings and injuring 15. Though they were immigrants from Ireland, the Netherlands, and England, they felt Chinese immigrants were taking their jobs. When the governor met with the white miners, they demanded that no Chinese workers be allowed in Rock Springs again, and that no white miner be arrested. Chinese workers were blocked from entering the mines, unable to buy food at stores, and not given back wages. Most were forced out of town. No charges were filed against the killers.

Prejudice still takes form in Wyoming. Vader’s wife works in the coal mines around Gillette, and has heard “the n-word and racist jokes on a persistent basis,” and has seen “KKK” scratched into the walls of a portapotty at work.

Fear of the other may be preventing Wyoming from responding to a current day humanitarian crisis as a new wave of terror hits Aleppo, Syria. In the last few days, President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces have nearly reclaimed the entire city, leaving ruin in their wake. Mohammad Abu Rajab, a doctor in Aleppo, said in a voice message to The Guardian, “Aleppo is being destroyed and burned completely. This is a final distress call to the world. Save the lives of the children and women and old men. Save them. Nobody is left. You might not hear our voice after this. It is the last call, the last call to every free person in this world.”

‘We are afraid of what looks different’

Bertine Bahige, a math teacher in Gillette, was a Congolese child soldier for two years before escaping to a refugee camp. Arriving to Wyoming more than a decade ago, he’s asked government officials why there isn’t a refugee resettlement program and advocated for creating a center for refugees. His activism has been met with resistance.

“It’s been a rough few years,” Bahige said during a refugee and immigration policy panel held earlier this year at Heart Mountain.

Bahige says he is scared to open his email. “The conversation has soured into intimidation and death threats.”

His supervisor has received calls from people advocating for his departure. “I’m not trying to change Wyoming, it gave me home, it gave me hope for my kids,” he said, but “I want my daughter to grow up in a community that says it’s OK to be different.”

Bahige says the conversation about refugees has unearthed something in Wyoming’s culture. “We are afraid of what looks different. What about us makes it hard to look at what is different and uncomfortable?”

Tom Reeder, a state representative from Casper, co-sponsored legislation that would have approved a refugee resettlement plan. It passed in the Wyoming House but failed in the Senate.
He says he continues to receive 300 to 600 emails a day from people who oppose the program.

At “Welcoming the Neighbor,” the conversation was around embracing difference through self-knowledge. “People may not have day-to-day experiences with those who are different, but if I can look back and see that in some point in my history, my family was ‘other,’ that becomes a bridge of empathy for those around me who are different,” explained co-organizer Samantha Gupta, a Unitarian Universalist chaplain and scholar of community psychology.

Part of this self-knowledge can be painful for some. It can bring up feelings of guilt and anger. “If you are curious,” Bush said, “you’re going to find things out, and the things we find aren’t always happy, and then we retreat.”

It is in community that we are harmed, and in community that we will heal, Gupta said.

Bahige might agree. “The most important thing we can do is have honest conversations, we need to break the barriers” and end the rhetoric of “those people over there,” he said.

Language that dehumanizes the other, that labels all refugees or immigrants as criminal or dangerous, justifies their harm.

There are times Bahige says he wonders why he opened his mouth. “I could have been a great math teacher and no one would know about my past. At the same time, that’s not truly who I am,” he said. “My past made me who I am today. It helped me be a great teacher; it makes me say I came from the worst place and if I can do it you can. So let’s have that honest conversation.”

Participants in “Welcoming the Neighbor” had conversations that parallel Bahige’s call. By exploring their own histories, they learned more about how they became who they are, and how they can move forward.

“It was such a relief,” Vader said, to have rare space for sharing, going out of comfort zones. “Everyone had some sort of experience with hate or harm.”

Gupta hopes events like these can continue in Gillette and across the state, helping people build compassion for themselves and others to move into action.

It’s not about guilt, fear, or anger, she said. It’s “how can you become more fully human? How can you enter into more authentic relationship with yourself, your history, your family, and your community?” PJH

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