What It's Like To Be Black In Humboldt

Nov 10, 2017

KHSU is committed to sharing the voices of diversity in Humboldt County.  Recently, a seasoned local newspaper writer submitted the following article to a number of local print publications. 

It was never published. 

Local editors and publishers gave a variety of reasons. The article - and discussion about it not being published - has gained traction in social media and among local groups, but the article itself remains unpublished by a traditional media outlet. KHSU believes it is squarely within our community mission to make Ms. Starchild's perspective available for you to read and ponder without us commenting or editing it. 

Because we are primarily a radio medium, we also have invited Ms. Starchild to join us on the air to discuss her perspectives on being black in Humboldt County.  Meanwhile, we share her hope that our community can engage in a serious discussion of racial issues along the North Coast.  

-Peter Fretwell

KHSU General Manager 



What it’s like to be black in Humboldt

by Paul Mann



ARCATA— African-American Zera Starchild, 52, has lived in Humboldt County since she and her husband bought a house in Fortuna in 1998.

 Mother of two teenage daughters, she landed in Arcata about 18 months ago after living in Eureka for several years and at length before that in Fortuna. A one-time author, small business owner and TV news broadcaster in Pittsburgh and Boston, Starchild is employed in administration at Changing Tides Family Services in Myrtletown, which bills itself as the county’s largest non-profit provider of child care and family social services. 

The violent homicide death in April of Humboldt State University student David Josiah Lawson led Starchild to become a public speaker for the first time about race in her nearly 20 years on the North Coast.

 Like others, she has taken to the airwaves (KHSU) and social media and attends Arcata town halls about the Lawson case and racial healing. Last month, she shared her experiences living on the North Coast with a congregation at the Humboldt Unitarian-Universalist Church in Bayside. She gave the presentation, “Heart of the Matter: Authentic Conversation on Racism,” with a white colleague, Jill Larrabee. They offer a message of hope that “love can surmount racism.” 

Humboldt’s newfound willingness to talk openly about race in the wake of Lawson’s death is a first in Starchild’s residence here. “The free and open discussion is the best possible outcome” of that unsolved tragedy, she observes.


Lawson’s death and the surfacing of the North Coast’s long-hidden racial tensions are a local epiphenomenon of President Trump’s nationalist zeal to reassert white identity and the Alt-right’s anti-intellectual, counter-Enlightenment revolt against reason, rationality and modernity. 

Of the impact on her African-American identity of growing up in a majority white nation, Starchild recalls her youth in white neighborhoods in Sacramento and Provo, Utah, where she spent two summers when she was 6 and 7.

 In a recent early evening interview on the porch at Wildberries, Starchild explained why a minority leads a constrained existence, one that deterred her speaking publicly about race until the Lawson homicide. Heretofore self-preservation had been uppermost.


“Racism is something that had always been easier to be quiet about. The way you survive in a culture where you are not in the dominant group is you don’t make waves. You don’t want to make the dominant group feel uncomfortable. You try to find white allies, white friendly people. But even with them you’re careful what you talk about. You find out their politics before you share your own. That’s how you learn to survive when you so clearly stand out, like with my dark skin. I stood out like a sore thumb. 

“To fit into a society where you know you are not totally welcome, even if people don’t say it, is difficult. I know there are people who don’t want me here just because of my skin. And I boldly choose to live here anyway. But it’s a vulnerable thing to go to city hall to share that and I can see why a lot of minorities don’t.”

Her experience of the racial divide has a special intimacy. “I grew up around white people, including for a time in Provo, Utah. We were the second black family in a white Sacramento neighborhood. My father was the first black dean at Sacramento City College. I know how to read a room. I know how to walk into that room and feel whether I’m welcome or not.


“I lived in Fortuna for years, where there were some trucks with Confederate flags. They [the drivers] weren’t even aware that it was offensive” as a detestable and romanticized emblem of slavery. The Mississippi Declaration of Secession, January 1861, stated: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery— the greatest material interest of the world.” States Rights was an ex-post facto fiction to salve and justify Confederate consciences. 

“Having lived among whites, I don’t know, maybe I have a little more understanding sometimes of white ignorance, that some of them don’t realize what’s offensive. But I also know how to read the room and tell when I’m not wanted and to get out of there quickly.” >Starchild is outspoken about racism, but philosophical as well, in keeping with the human condition.

“In my experience, there are good people and mean people wherever you go and I’ve always had a knack for meeting wonderful people. I met people in Fortuna [in 1998] who went out of their way to welcome us. They knew more than we knew at the time (laughs) about what it meant for us to move there. We bought a house, an interracial couple [her husband was white] not knowing what we were in for. People sort of implied that ‘You may feel more comfortable in Arcata,’” without saying why out loud. She found a house with ease in Fortuna because her husband was Caucasian. Years later, she points out, some Humboldt State students of color are not so lucky, confronted as they often are with covert housing discrimination, which Arcata officials privately acknowledge is widespread, easily disguised and nigh-on impossible to stamp out.

 For years HSU students and other residents of color have been the targets of racist epithets howled by passing motorists or the objects of unmistakable if furtive surveillance in shops and malls. 

Starchild made a purchase recently for Changing Tides on its longstanding account at Costco. Unlike her white colleagues, she was asked for proof of affiliation and identification. It is a common, everyday African-American experience: being made to feel you’re a suspect on no grounds but color.

 Upbeat that the Redwood Coast, with its genocidal past, is finally talking freely and openly about racism, Starchild is forthright and unsparing about what must be changed and healed. She has adopted the canon of Frederick Douglass, who admonished,  Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. 

“I agree 100 percent with the proposition that the way race is discussed here is far too safe for white people,” Starchild declares.She laments the new fetish for “implicit bias” at Humboldt State and Arcata city hall. To her the phase is an ersatz palliative devised by whites to avoid calling racism by its name. She says retraining city officials and police officers to be cognizant of implicit bias is “a sad joke,” adding, “If you’re still OK with either an all-white or nearly all-white police department and you don’t even see any issue with that, and you think the only issue is training and you’re using the phrase ‘implicit bias’–I hear it as a whitewashing of a different word, racism. I shared this with [Arcata City Manager] Karen Diemer. She said, ‘Don’t worry, all of us are going to be taking these classes on implicit bias.’

 “I tried to say to her, this is like telling a rape victim, ‘Don’t worry, your perpetrator is going to get some classes on inappropriate touching.’“It is offensive not to acknowledge the emotional harm and sometimes physical pain that is inflicted as a result of racism. Calling it ‘implicit bias’ is white people trying to handle the issue of racism without upsetting other white people, who don’t even think race is an issue. Can’t you at least say the word racism?” To her, it’s the same as the refusal to call out Trump’s manifest race baiting.Starchild is sympathetic to the Arcata City Council’s political and moral dilemma over the Lawson case, but detects a jittery circumspection.

“I really do appreciate what the city council is trying to do. My feeling from watching some of the city council meetings is they seem a little bit lost. I almost got the feeling that there was a hope that this [the Lawson controversy] would die down this summer.“The slowness of information that would move the case forward is painful to watch. I know that, for people of color, it sounds like, ‘Wait, just wait, wait for justice.’ My people have been waiting since the end of slavery. We hear ‘wait’ as meaning ‘never.’ It usually means there won’t be any justice. I think the city council members are well meaning but they’re relying on some so-called experts who keep telling them that implicit bias training is going to be enough and I know that it’s not. I’ve been in some of those trainings because Changing Tides participated in a program like that.” 

Starchild believes the sub rosa issue is the profound fear of the black male tucked away in the recesses of the American subconscious. She points to the blatantly racist1920 film “Birth of a Nation.” The infamous three-hour epic portrayed African-American men as unintelligent, sexual predators of white women and depicted the Ku Klux Klan as a valiant force protecting white identity and white female chastity. “Popular culture like that is so deeply embedded in the American psyche that it affects all of us, even some black men, who come to think they should be rappers, basketball players or gangsters; they think that’s what their role is. They live in a society that is constantly perpetuating that notion of that role. Those are the only three categories you can imagine a black man to be in and black men will be swayed toward that because of those expectations.”

 Those corrosive stereotypes underscore Starchild’s objection to all-white or mostly white police departments, which she considers detrimental not only to blacks but to all people of color. She reasons that too many police academy students grow up with no experience of interacting with people of color, yet they are assigned to protect an entire community that includes minorities.

By cultural osmosis and social conditioning, candidate police may harbor preconceived notions that people of color are, in Starchild’s phrase, “dangerously different. If they grow up with ideas that black men in particular are somehow threatening, putting on a badge doesn’t mean they lose those ideas. And if all of their peers and fellow officers are the same color, how can they lose those ideas?”