‘Right Fist in the Air, Strong and Confident’: Black Women in Sonoma County Speak Out

A new initiative, combining photos and personal stories, elevates the voices of Black women and connects them during a momentous, historic shift in the Black Lives Matter movement.

Seventeen Black women wearing vibrant, cheerful colors posed on the steps of the Museum of Sonoma County last Sunday, proud and unapologetic.

“Right fist in the air, strong and confident,” said Malia Anderson, a 43-year-old Santa Rosa wardrobe stylist, as a photographer clicked away. Cars drove by and honked in support, and the women cheered through facial masks.

Anderson had organized the photoshoot for the local Black women as a way to elevate their voices and connect them during a momentous, historic shift in the Black Lives Matter movement in Sonoma County and across the U.S.

“Obviously our world is kind of upside down and sideways right now and there are so many things going on, and I was trying to figure out what my place in the whole thing was,” said Anderson, CEO of Style by Malia. “I realized that part of the reason, as a Black woman, I couldn’t really figure out where my story fit was because nobody was telling my story.”

Malia Anderson. (Loren Hansen)

Anderson had been thinking recently about Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, Dominique Rem’mie Fells and Riah Milton — Black women and and trans women whose deaths, including at the hands of police in Taylor’s case, often have been overshadowed.

“Why are Black women not at the forefront of this movement?” Anderson said.

While the photoshoot was fun and uplifting for the participants, for many, it also was a political act to raise the visibility of Black women in public discussion and media representation. Several of them pointed to coverage of Taylor’s death compared with the more prominent coverage of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, which has sparked weeks of protests across the country.

Gayle Whitlock, a 62-year-old licensed marriage family therapist, called the photoshoot “a radical act of self-care.”

“I wanted to not only come out and support Malia’s mission but also have my voice heard as a Black woman in this town that’s not the most affirming place to live if you are a person of color,” said Whitlock, who specializes in helping women through racism, anxiety, depression and trauma at New Leaf Counseling Services in Santa Rosa.

“I felt hopeful and I felt empowered and I felt strong. I felt the strength of other Black women, other beautiful women who are deciding to be heard,” she said.

Gayle Whitlock. (Loren Hansen)
Letitia Hanke. (Loren Hansen)

Letitia Hanke, 44, has an autoimmune disease and couldn’t risk exposure to the novel coronavirus in large crowds of protestors, but she supports the Black Lives Matter movement. She credits this year’s wave of activism to young people and to the pandemic.

“This is my protest. This is my way of showing my strength in this community,” said Hanke, president and CEO of Alternative Roofing Solutions.

“I think COVID has actually helped this situation in many ways because people have the time to protest, to research, watch the videos, watch the documentaries. That’s what’s happening right now.”

Anderson chose the Museum of Sonoma County as the site for the photoshoot because the movement and the moment felt historic, and because it’s in downtown Santa Rosa, near the site of weeks of Black Lives Matter marches.

“Putting women together who look like each other, who live in one special world and who get it — you’re like, ‘Oh this is what power feels like,’” Anderson said. “It carries me through to know that I’m a part of something, and I hope it carries these women through.”

Whitlock said the deaths of Taylor, Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed Black man in Georgia fatally shot while on a run, propelled her to protest in the crowds while wearing a facial mask.

“I stepped back and felt the pandemic that has been affecting my life, my son, the people I care about and love, has been going on for 401 years, and I have to say something. I have to speak out. I have to be engaged,” she said.

Shawntel Reece with her two daughters, ages 15 and 11. (Loren Hansen)

Shawntel Reece, a 40-year-old Santa Rosa social worker, came to the photoshoot with her two daughters, ages 15 and 11. A member of the NAACP, Reece said she appreciates the momentum of the movement and seeing white people bring their kids to protests in recent weeks, but more systemic changes need to be made.

“I get pulled over for nothing,” said Reece, who estimated that she gets pulled over by the police once every three months.

Reece said she’s bolder with police now. She always asks, “Are you going to shoot me?” and mentions that her daughters are in the car.

At a recent rally, her daughters each held a sign indicating what they want for their futures: one wants to be a physical therapist, the other, an engineer. Reece’s sign read, “I want my kids to be alive.”

Blatant racism and racist microaggressions are a part of everyday existence as a Black woman in the U.S., including Sonoma County, said several women at the photoshoot.

“I’ve been called the N-word more times than I care to think about, and that hurts every time I hear it,” Anderson said. “I’ve been called the N-word just walking down the street minding my own business.”

Recently, Anderson was walking in downtown Petaluma with her white family members when a stranger in a passing car shouted, “All lives matter!”

Whitlock recalled being asked by a former coworker if she was going to bring fried chicken to a work potluck. Hanke recalled swastikas on her car.

Amber Lucas. (Loren Hansen)

When Amber Lucas was a preteen, girls at her school would exchange locks of each other’s hair tied in a bow as a friendship keepsake. She remembered being laughed at by a classmate when it was her turn to cut a lock of hair.

“Ew, what’s that? That looks like a bunch of pubes,” her classmate said.

Lucas went home that day and cried. She was so embarrassed, she said, that she wore her hair in a slick bun for the rest of the school year, so no curls would show. As a college student, she worked a parttime job to save money for an expensive hair straightener.

Today Lucas is a 34-year-old marketing manager in Santa Rosa and lifestyle blogger. She said for the Black Lives Matter movement to be effective, change needs to go beyond voting or sharing a black box on social media to bring attention to black victims of police violence.

“It has to be stepping into this really uncomfortable zone and calling these racist acts out,” she said. “This is something that must be addressed every single day. It has to be addressed in our homes. It has to be addressed amongst our friends. It has to be addressed at work.”

For Lucas, who is multiracial with a Haitian and Danish ancestry, being Black is something she said she’s still learning about every day.

Whitlock, the therapist, said for her Blackness is living in a way that honors her mother who died when she was six and lived through Jim Crow laws in Alabama. Her mother instilled in her a hopeful message to her to live a full life and pursue her goals.

“That message lives in me, and I feel it every day,” Whitlock said. “My unapologetic Blackness is all of the women who came before me, the Maya Angelous, the Ida B. Wells, the Harriet Tubmans. How in the world did they have the strength to do what they did?”

Seventeen Black women stand together on the steps of the Museum of Sonoma County in Santa Rosa. (Loren Hansen)

The group photos and individual portraits will be posted online on the women’s websites and social media accounts using three hashtags: #sonomablackwomen, #shareblackwomenstories and #winecountryblackwomen. Anderson will have her story posted on her website maliaanderson.com.

The posts will be shared on Juneteenth, the June 19 holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the U.S.

“These photos, for me, are an opportunity to see what Black women go through just to get to where we are now,” Anderson said.

Susan Minichiello is a freelance writer based in Santa Rosa. More at susanmini.com.


18 thoughts on “‘Right Fist in the Air, Strong and Confident’: Black Women in Sonoma County Speak Out

  1. Thank you for this story. It feels so awful that you have to deal with this type of continued racism. Honestly, it’s heartbreaking.
    It seems like there is some kind of shift happening. I can only hope it has substance and is sustainable.
    For anyone who thinks that Sonoma is some kind of bastion of acceptance and peace and love, think again. White Supremacy is alive and well all over our county, and at all ages – just look at the comments in this thread.

  2. Thank you for sharing the stories of these strong women who are great role models for our community.

  3. To say that there is systemic racism in So Co is a very big stretch. To say it doesn’t exist, is a lie. It is however minimal and completely blown out of proportion as we have seen in Healdsburg where the Mayor stepped down because she is fed up with the whiney lying left every day finding something to be offended by. And to these ladies, you are very colorful, pun intended. Remember, BLUE LIVES MATTER too, as All Lives Matter!

    1. Imagine how tiresome it is to try and live in a world where your skin color gets you targeted. If you can.
      Signed: White Person Who Is Willing To Get Over Being Tired of the “Tiresome”

    2. I’m guessing you don’t have to encounter people calling you the N-word as you’re going about your life, or having to be concerned about being assaulted based because of your race. As a white person, it’s easy for me not to see these realities that are part of many other people’s everyday life. Visibility is essential for daylighting racism so it can be dismantled.

      1. So by “dismantling ” racism are you saying it has to be ended
        in this country 100% before you will declare the USA as not
        a racist country? News flash !! Never will happen! Your always
        going to have hate in one form or another ! You’ll have about as
        much luck completely ending White racism as you will Louis
        Farakan and the Nation of Islam stopping it’s hatred of Jews.

  4. @ Wake Up America–while not all police officers are racist this woman’s experiences are unfortunately not unique. I have friends, colleagues from MD’s, judges, lawyers, university professors, editors, pastors, Chaplains to Generals in our military, CEO’s of large university medical centers, and many other professionals who have all more than once been stopped by police, TSA etc for no known reason other than the color of their skin. While I do not know the stories of most of these women, I can take an educated guess that they are just the tip of the iceberg of the stories of racism of so many other Black people in our country. I hope these stories to come by Sonoma Magazine will begin to raise our collective awareness and can become a launching point for societal change.

    1. We’re talking Sonoma County, where racial profiling by police is at a minimum. To be pulled over “once every three months” would only happen if you are a very bad driver or you’re driving with expired plates.

      1. Hiding behind a fake name is so…small. This is my mother whom you’re speaking to. Your being stuck on a statement made about being pulled over has really stuck with you, because it’s the only thing you can grasp on to, and you’re grasping at straws. Reece shared her experience; who are you to question it? Were you there? Were you with her in the car? Listen to these women’s voices instead of trying to police them.

  5. I am so proud of these women and for Sonoma Mag. for standing up and speaking out. Systemic racism against Black people still exists in our country. Much of it is founded on ignorance where the people perpetuating it do not even realize how racist they are in either their behavior or their words–and much of what drives this is the truly racist people who indoctrinate the conversations and stereotypes about Black people into our culture.
    Intentional or not it is hurtful, and lessens the worth of another human being. By opening up conversations and listening to these women’s stories we can step into their shoes for the moment and see how the world we live in treats them. And it can start those important conversations that we can learn from and that we can teach our children by. When we do not have these conversations with open hearts to learn is when the lowest stereotypes can take up residence in our minds without challenge or by being filtered by a conscious evaluation of truth.
    In my experience most people, most police officers, and others in authority truly do not want to be racist, but until systemic racism is challenged, and the truly racist are penalized it will continue. Step beyond the statistics of Black on Black crime that some throw out there and truly listen to the stories of these women, their parents, their children and their friends. Its hard to understand unless you walk in their shoes and listen to their stories. I can verify with countless stories of others that I have been eye witness to of the racial epitaphs, uncalled for police stops, questioning of competencies of Black professionals, the projection of stereotypes onto a person, threats of violence against a person for no other reason than the color of their skin. Redlining in real estate, discrimination throughout the education system of not being as smart or as competent as their classroom performance shows.
    In this age of multiculturalism and political correctness the persistent systemic racism against Blacks is not challenged and addressed as if it does not exist. To dismantle something systemic it takes each good person to take up our part to challenge it and to dismantle it. I welcome the stories of these women–many professionals, business owners, mothers willing to be vulnerable so we can all learn from them and hopefully support them and support change for the betterment of all.

  6. This is a celebration of amazing women in Sonoma County. Thank you for giving us a chance to get to know them a little. I love where I live, but things here need to change and it needs the people who live here to stand up and say “No, we will not accept your racism. It will end now.” Thank you, Ladies, for your strength and contributions to our county. I appreciate you.

  7. Thank you so much to both Malia and Susan for making this happen. It was such an honor to participate in this; it is so much more than a photoshoot, but instead an opportunity to share our stories, while also giving support to one another. I am blessed.

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