The ‘Gander’s new series explores our differences, and the first time Michiganders were made to pay attention to them. 

TRAVERSE CITY, MI — Michigan’s largest cities are home to its largest Black populations: Detroit, Flint, and Grand Rapids are 79%, 54%, and 19% Black, respectively, according to the US Census Bureau

By comparison, just 14% of all Michiganders are Black.

Hatred can be a byproduct of a mostly-homogeneous community like those found in northern Michigan.

“Racism and ignorance go hand-in-hand oftentimes,” Breana Demaray, a Traverse City resident, told The ‘Gander, referring to the fear or dislike that results from a failure to understand people outside our own tribes. 

In northern Michigan where populations have larger concentrations of white residents, finding a sense of belonging as a person of color can take some time, particularly when you are treated as “other” from a very young age

We spoke with three Black Michigan women about the first time they were treated as an outsider and what that experience was like for them. These are everyday Michiganders: mothers, daughters, sisters — your friends from college, your neighbors.  

In today’s political climate where the demands for racial justice in recent months are at the forefront, it’s important to shed light on common experiences contributing to ongoing tensions between people from different backgrounds that exist at every level in our communities. After a lifetime dotted with such microaggressions and other blatant acts of racism, these three women decided they, understandably, had enough and came together to help lead a movement for equality. Pull up a chair and listen in.

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Breana’s Story

Demaray, 29, has lived all over the country and beyond, but she says Traverse City—which has a Black population of less than 2%—will always be home. 

“I’ve lived farther South and experienced what it looks like for [racism] to be in your face,” she told The ‘Gander. “For Northern Michigan and Traverse City, this is home. I find myself coming back because I know what to expect.”

Demaray recalls the first time she realized that some of her neighbors in the popular Michigan tourist destination would view and treat her differently because she didn’t look like them.

“I was made to apologize to a white man who called me and my sister the ‘n-word.’”

While taking a family trip to a local bookstore, Demaray had a confusing run-in with another family. Two girls close to her age accused Demaray and her sister of giving them the middle finger.

“At that time, we had no idea what that even was,” she said. “We were adamant that we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Demaray and her sister told their mother what happened, insisting that they were innocent.

“She caved and she insisted that we apologize,” she said of her adoptive mother who is white. “And it was then that I knew that there was a difference.”

She was 8 years old.

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Tyasha’s Story

Tyasha Harrison, 34, moved to the region eight years ago with her Michigander husband. 

“I’m originally from Georgia, part of the South,” the Benzie County resident said. “There is a lot more in-your-face [racism]. Usually they’re [white people] flying a Confederate flag, with cowboy boots, slurring racial slurs.”

Harrison remembers the first time a childhood friend used race as a put-down in her predominantly white Alpharetta, Georgia, neighborhood. At the time, the city was 95% white, according to the 1990 census. Just over 2% of the city’s residents were Black. Today, that’s grown to more than 12%.

“It was a mix of people, but it was predominantly white,” Harrison said, remembering racing a schoolmate to the bus stop at the end of their school day.

“When I got to the bus, I was like, ‘Ha, got to beat you!’ And she looked at me…and she just said the ‘n-word.’ I remember not knowing what it meant then,” she said.

At such a young age, Harrison’s parents had yet to have the typical conversation about racism and ignorance—and the dangers they can lead to—that many Black families have.

“I knew it was bad because the way she was saying it was to… degrade me or make me feel less than, all because I had beat her running to the bus stop.” 

Just 8 years old at the time, Harrison says she remembers boarding the school bus and sitting alone to think.

“That was my first time realizing that, not only am I different, the way certain people view me is in a negative, nasty way. And that’s how she spit it out to me.”

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Courtney’s Story

Courtney Wiggins grew up in a household where differences were normal and not discussed resentfully.

“I had a group of kids tell me that my mom wasn’t my mom because she was white and I wasn’t,” Wiggins, 38, told The ‘Gander. The Traverse City resident is multicultural and identifies as Black.

“It was really, really heavy to hear that from these children,” she continued, “Like there was something different about me and it was negative. They made it this negative thing.”

Wiggins was 5 when the incident occurred.

Sparking Change

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder by Minneoplis police officers in May, Michigan communities joined the cries for progress nationwide  and demanded more racial equality in America. 

Traverse City’s residents—just under 2% of whom are Black—came together to call for equal treatment and justice for everyone in their community. 

Harrison left the South, and Wiggins has begun to speak out against racism and mistreatment. The three have chosen to turn their painful interactions into opportunities for creating change. They have helped spark a movement in one of Michigan’s most beloved towns.

The ‘Gander’s coverage of this story continues next week.

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify Breana Demaray’s story.

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