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Paul Andersen: ‘Between the World and …’ Aspen

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

One of the planning guidelines for Aspen and Pitkin County has been “messy vitality,” a spontaneous mix of social diversity that enlivens local culture. In Aspen, that mix obviously lacks racial diversity.

That’s why the Aspen Skiing Co. has stepped up on the issue of race, evincing on its website “the horrific murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and George Floyd.”

That list of killings could be extended, perhaps indefinitely, as Skico acknowledges “the deep injustices and systemic racism embedded in everyday life in America. This inequity appears everywhere: in employment and economic opportunity, in health care, in education and in our criminal justice system.”

Skico has been a leader in climate change awareness, but tackling race is a step into a far more personal, provocative and poignant view of social justice.

Not only is Skico poking at the Aspen bubble on racial issues, Skico is looking inward by noting that Aspen has a long way to go with pioneering equal access on the American racial frontier.

“We are not naïve as to why skiing and ski towns are seen as the epitome of white privilege: a lack of economic opportunity keeps many visitors from joining us; our community does not provide the range of employment needed to develop a truly diverse community; finally, though our residents are extremely open for those who actually make it here, there is a widespread perception that our lack of diversity means we will not welcome difference. This must change.”

Can racial justice be achieved on ski slopes, mountain trails and in pricey cultural offerings? Can Aspen shape a legitimate conversation on racial diversity that honestly explores white privilege? Aspen’s elite economic sphere — the bubble — forms a barrier to Skico’s goal.

“We don’t have all the answers,” Skico acknowledges, “and we honestly need to better understand how we can be most impactful. Looking through the lens of our guiding principles helps us sort out where we go from here.”

Those principles include education on social issues and awareness of racial prejudice. “Over the past year,” Skico states, “our Humanity Board has been working to see, reveal, and address unconscious bias at Aspen Skiing Company.”

Skico’s racial stance is underscored by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ breakthrough book, “Between the World and Me.” This unsettling expose, named by Skico as a “community-wide read,” is framed as a letter Coates is writing to his young African-American son, warning him to guard against the deep injuries of racial injustice he will likely have to face.

Unconscious bias is a message of Coate’s book as he identifies white privilege as “The Dream.” He writes: “I am convinced that the Dreamers of today would rather live white than free. … They have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched them in slavery … and the segregationist policy that gave them their suburbs.”

Aspen is a global suburb of private jets, vacation palaces, high-priced real estate and elite stature. Aspen, by its history and tradition, inhibits racial diversity. “The Dream,” a la Aspen, is at odds with the egalitarian virtue championed by Skico when it vows: “We stand in solidarity with our fellow Black and Brown citizens, and all others, in fighting for a more just and equitable society.”

This well-intentioned recognition of racial injustice belies the entrenched economic hierarchy and the evolution of injustice extant in America, not always by design, but by the complacent failure to break a destructive and demeaning social pattern.

Coates goes beyond race to impugn Western culture when he brings in environment, one of Skico’s most pressing causes.

“Plunder has matured into habit and addiction,” observes Coates. “The people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself.”

Skico, in partnership with Aspen Words, is spreading the gospel of Coates and others by advocating for social justice with free book boxes scattered around Aspen. That’s a positive step, but real change will require serious upheavals in unseating Aspen’s white privilege.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at: andersen@rof.net


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