Woman wants to foster discussions about racial injustice

| June 30, 2020 1:30 PM

Samantha “Sami” Francine is ready to have some hard conversations.

She wants to talk about white privilege, about the issues that have plagued black individuals for centuries, about ways both white people and people of color can speak out against racial injustices and discrimination.

But what she doesn’t want to do is debate whether racism exists today, and to what degree.

“Pineapple on pizza. That’s something we can go back and forth on and debate about all day and it’s something you’re more than welcome to have an opinion on,” Francine said. “But what I’m not going to do is sit down and go back-and-forth about whether racism still exists in this country. It does. And the sooner we acknowledge that and have some tough talks about that, the sooner we can move forward.”

Francine is a 27-year-old bi-racial woman who was raised in Whitefish.

She was in kindergarten the first time someone called her the n-word and it was the first time her white father sat her down to talk at-length about racial discrimination and derogatory language. He said it most likely wouldn’t be the last time she heard the word.

Francine, the middle child between two bi-racial brothers, said from that moment on a large part of her childhood would focus on how she could “make others feel more comfortable” around her. She would actively avoid sunny gatherings so her brown skin wouldn’t darken. She would rarely wear her curly dark hair down. And she said she wouldn’t talk much about her experience as a bi-racial woman in Montana outside of the confines of her family’s home.

“I felt pressured to sort of sway what I did and how I looked so other people would accept me,” Francine said. “Race and racial issues wasn’t something I talked about much.”

She would eventually leave her hometown for several years, moving first to Hawaii and then to California. She said leaving Montana and living in areas where she was able to build relationships with other people of color prompted her to be more outspoken about her own experiences growing up in a small, predominately white town.

“I felt like my message and my life was more understood,” Francine said. “For the first time I was surrounded by other people of color, in Hawaii especially.”

But when she made the difficult decision to move back to Whitefish a few years ago, she said she felt herself recoil.

“I kind of went back into my shell. My brothers and I have experienced racism off-and-on our whole lives and unfortunately, a lot of it happened here in my hometown,” Francine said. “I felt like I was coming home to a place I love, but at the same time, it’s a place where all of these incidents have occurred.”

Francine, who refers to herself as an introvert at heart but said she is “occasionally extroverted,” has pushed herself to make conversations about race more commonplace in her Whitefish friend group and occasionally in public.

And in recent weeks, Francine has been pushed out of her comfort zone like never before.

In early June, she attended a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Whitefish, but the crowd’s peaceful gathering was eventually disrupted by a white, middle-aged man named Jay Snowden, who was captured on video walking into the group of protesters, yelling profanities and then pausing for a brief moment in front of Francine. As he screamed at Francine and the crowd behind her, she removed her dark sunglasses so Snowden’s eyes could meet hers.

“We were inches apart when he was yelling, but I could tell he couldn’t actually see me,” Francine said. “He didn’t care what I would have had to say at that moment. He was angry. But I knew he had to see me and realize he was saying those things to a real person.”

The video and an image of Snowden yelling at Francine went viral and took off on social media. Within 48 hours, Francine had been contacted by national news outlets and had received dozens of encouraging messages from strangers in far-away countries. She has interviewed with numerous national, state and local news outlets about the incident.

“My life sort of changed over night. I was all of a sudden handed this incredible platform to talk about these important issues,” Francine said. “It forced me to be bold.”

NATIONAL MEDIA attention aside, Francine said more importantly, the incident has prompted her to take more action in her local community.

She has stood with a small group of steadfast protesters most evenings since the initial event and has plans to continue protesting. She’s having conversations with others about forming support groups for people of color in the area. She wants to run for Whitefish City Council when the opportunity arises. She wants everyone to vote this November.

“I’m trying to have a more open dialogue with my community about why Black Lives Matter is important and why this isn’t just a movement for big cities and other countries, but for Montana too. People of color need to have a place in this community,” Francine said. “Everyone wants to pretend like we are progressive but most of us are so far behind.”

Francine said aside from current protest efforts, she and a handful of other community members are brainstorming ways they can continue to educate the Flathead Valley on how to confront and combat racism. As she knows all too well, those conversations can sometimes be uncomfortable — as can growth in general — but she said the people she’s met through the movement give her hope and make her proud to call Whitefish home.

“All these young people have been especially inspiring. I know when I was their age I most likely wouldn’t have been out on that corner fighting for the same things they are fighting for,” Francine said.

She added that one day she would like to sit down with Snowden, but she doesn’t necessarily want an apology as much as she would like a discussion.

“When it comes time to talk, I don’t want some weightless apology,” Francine said. “I want to know what he is so angry about. I want us to understand one another.”

Snowden was charged with one count of disorderly conduct the day after he yelled at the protesters. He pleaded not guilty to the charge in Whitefish Municipal Court.