"Even still, I see disbelief that I am black." - Gigi Jasper
Dr. Gigi Jasper is a retired English teacher living in Rock Springs, Wyoming.
In this episode, you'll hear about why Gigi moved to Wyoming, her career as a public school teacher, and her experience with discrimination as an African American woman living in rural Wyoming.
“In some ways, my welcome to Wyoming was having to file with the EEOC.” - Gigi Jasper
Emy diGrappa: Welcome to First, But Last?, brought to you the Wyoming Humanities. I am your host, Emy diGrappa. Wyoming is called the Equality State because we were the first to give women the right to vote. 150 years later, we wonder what Wyoming women think about the progress towards equality now. Let's find out and thank you for listening.
Emy diGrappa: Today we are talking to Dr. Gigi Jasper. She is a retired African American English teacher living in Rock Springs, Wyoming. Welcome Gigi.
Gigi Jasper: Well thank you.
Emy diGrappa: Where did you originally grow up before you moved to Rock Springs?
Gigi Jasper: I grew up in Wisconsin, I grew up in Milwaukee and we were, my husband and I, found our way to Wyoming in an odd way, we had both graduated and gone to South America where we were for six months. And an old roommate said, if you want to get a job fast and earn money fast, come live with us in Gillette, Wyoming. So we looked at an atlas to see where Gillette, Wyoming was, and we came, and she was right. We were hired, we, we had no trouble getting jobs, almost the same day, it was kind of astounding.
Gigi Jasper: I had never been in Wyoming and to tell you the truth had probably never given Wyoming any thought whatever except maybe for Yellowstone Park.
Emy diGrappa: So you'd never been here before? You came be, because a friend said, "If you want a job, come here." You got jobs and then what was the rest of the story? So how did you end up staying for, for all these years.
Gigi Jasper: (Laughs) all of these years. Well, like, like I said we, we had come from South America and we had started at [inaudible 00:01:57], went all the way to Tierra del Fuego and back overland, which by the way I would not recommend, and when I got to Gillette I was charmed, I have to admit. The streets were paved and there was a library. Now my husband was less enchanted than I was, but it looked like it was going to be a, a, a good place, and in, in many, many, many ways it was.
Gigi Jasper: I don't think, if you'd asked me then, I would have said we were going to stay. And sometimes I'm still a little surprised that we did, given my experiences, but more than anything I, I'm a little, I'm so conflicted, a little iffy, about my pros and cons of Wyoming. And at the end of the day, Wyoming has been very fortunate for me and for my husband and, and that's why we stay.
Emy diGrappa: So tell me about your husband, because you came together, you had different job opportunities, or were, was he an educator as well?
Gigi Jasper: We were both English majors. (Laughs) but when he came to Gillette, he got a job almost instantly in the oil field, of course at the very bottom of the rung and I always thought that was astoundingly inappropriate job for him, but as time went on he, he went all the way through the ranks and experienced pretty much everything an, an oil field worm to an oil field pool pusher does actually experience.
Gigi Jasper: Now I first got a job oddly enough, it was a short term job because school was, this was around April and school wasn't going to be in session for long, but I was offered a job to be the librarian at the grade school. And I did that. And then I got offered a job to be a dispatched at the police department. And I did that. And then I had an opportunity to apply for UPS, for Christmas help, and they were paying astoundingly well, I think it was six dollars an hour. (Laughs) and I did that.
Gigi Jasper: But prior to that, I had gotten a job at, at UPS because I had gone to Job Service and as I was sitting right there in the Job Service office, somebody called from a construction company called [A&Aa 00:04:23] Nelson, and said, "If you've got anybody who's breathing, send them over here." So I went. And I was told by whoever it was, "We don't hire women." And he was saying that while there was a woman worker not 25 feet behind him.
Gigi Jasper: Well it was pretty clear that my being female was not his objection. And so in some ways my welcome to Wyoming was having to file with the EEOC.
Emy diGrappa: Wow. And you hadn't been here that long.
Gigi Jasper: (Laughs) No, months, not even. Yeah months, it was a very, very little time. Well it got put off and extended and then put off and extended, and I was an English major, I wrote extensive notes. I had extensive documentation and the EEOC basically said, "Oh well we're overworked and underpaid so nothing happened."
Gigi Jasper: So from then on, now, now A&A Nelson was working on I-80, it was a federal project, I mean all of it was pretty clear cut. But they couldn't be bothered. So from them on my husband and I called the EEOC at least in Wyoming, and at least in my experience, a rubber bone organization. Because they were just exactly like giving a rubber bone to a starving dog.
Emy diGrappa: Now, I guess that brings me into the question about race and about being a woman.
Gigi Jasper: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Emy diGrappa: So, can you separate those in terms of what is it like to be a woman of color living in Wyoming?
Gigi Jasper: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Emy diGrappa: Versus what is it like to be a woman living in Wyoming.
Gigi Jasper: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Emy diGrappa: Or do they just meld together?
Gigi Jasper: Mm-hmm (affirmative). For me personally, they kind of meld. I wouldn't say one was more difficult than the other, but I know why. After we were kind of both transferred to Rock Springs, I believed I had never been any place, in fact, in fact, if it hadn't been for the unpleasantness with the A&A Nelson company, my feeling was I had never been any place where you were judged more by the quality of your work than by who you were. I have to admit, I was quite stunned that I had to even fight that battle to begin with.
Gigi Jasper: And now my, my being black, even still, after all these years, and we moved, we got to Wyoming in 1975, even still I see disbelief I think that I'm black. I think that it's kind of funny. Um, I, I understand that's grounded in, in total racism. They are mostly, the reaction I get when it is negative is, "How on earth is it possible for you to conjugate the verb to be?" And in fact that was one of the things that I wrote, many years later, that I called the Proust effect. And the Proust effect, and here's my English major-ism coming out big time, the Proust effect for me was that look some people give you, which exactly mirrors how you would look at your dog if she turned to you one day and said, "For a long time I used to get up early." Which is the first line in Proust's Swann's Way. And that's that look.
Emy diGrappa: So I guess explain that look to me, because yes, you, you were living in a very much all white rural community.
Gigi Jasper: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Emy diGrappa: And, and would you say it's still that way?
Gigi Jasper: Oh absolutely, absolutely. I do know, now, it has been modified because I am not the exception, you know, I'm, I'm the exception because oh well, I'm dangerously overeducated and I have had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of students who now know me and not just what they think they know when they see me for the first time. But it is a look of such stunned disbelief as if folks are looking at something they could not conceive of ever existing.
Gigi Jasper: (Laughs) years ago I was at, I was talking about something, and he said to me, "You don't have a southern accent." And I said, "I'm not from the south." And I watched him think about that. It was as if it had never occurred to him that anybody with a black face wouldn't have a southern accent.
Emy diGrappa: Well that's really interesting.
Gigi Jasper: (Laughs)
Emy diGrappa: But I, I guess, you know, is it that a lot of your students or, or I don't know, maybe it wasn't your students but people who live around you just have never experienced a black person.
Gigi Jasper: That is, that is absolutely true. That is absolutely true. And (laughs) when I was working for UPS, I was delivering in Cokeville and I drove to Cokeville every day and it was real early in UPS's tenure in Wyoming and I noticed that I must have been making kind of a difference, because I went to make a delivery at the school, and at that time, the high school and the grade school, they were all kind of connected, and in the kindergarten wing there was a picture and the, the poster said something like, "People you see every day." And there was a little brown woman in a little brown outfit carrying a little brown package and I thought, dog gone it, that's me.
Gigi Jasper: So yes. It is true that there were, well it's true now, virtually none of my students had ever had a black teacher before, and not only that, is they probably never will. But, and this is what always gave me joy and kept me teaching for 29 years, the amazement wasn't hostile [crosstalk 00:10:24].
Emy diGrappa: Okay.
Gigi Jasper: More often than not, not occasionally it was and that led to another ugly incident, but oftentimes it was just pure amazement. But sometimes it just wasn't. The notion that I, many, many teachers of color, have to prove that I'm worthy to teach them because it is inconceivable that I would know more than they, even if they're 15.
Emy diGrappa: Did you feel isolated because you weren't near other people of color that you could relate to?
Gigi Jasper: Less so than one might think, there are kind of notable Rock Springs black families. And when we first got here, many people kept trying to put me in one of those families. And maybe I was sort of acceptable if I had been from one of those families to begin with, because clearly I would have to be, because why else would I be there?
Gigi Jasper: But my isolation was sort of reduced by the good women friends I made early on, and again, they were friends that I made kind of by accident that turned out to be shakers and movers and women who were activists in women's rights and, and activists in rape counseling. So I was not as isolated as one might think. And when I became a teacher in Rock Springs, kind of by accident, there was never, never any question that I was equipped academically. And in fact probably better equipped than some teachers to do exactly what I was doing.
Gigi Jasper: So there was that grudging admiration from some, and from others, just plain old fashion acceptance from the get go. There may be a couple of reasons for that, but it may be that Rock Springs has a lot of really fine, fine people. It also may be that it's hard to be afraid and hate people you don't actually see. There really are not and were not that many people of color in Rock Springs, certainly not in the 70s and the 80s.
Emy diGrappa: Does that surprise you because of the oil boom and usually that brings in a, a number of different people from other cultures and other places?
Gigi Jasper: It may have done. But I lived in a different world. So I wouldn't have seen it, my husband would have been more likely to see it and he's told me that when he would go and pick up his crew, he said 90% of the time a new person would come in, get in the car, and the first thing they would do is tell a nigger joke.
Emy diGrappa: Oh!
Gigi Jasper: Now we know, he has a book about that, we know what that means. They were trying to find friend/foe. They were trying to find what group they were in and they wanted to know how to play it. He said it happened all the time.
Gigi Jasper: But we do, as individuals in society, look for our place. And that's a crude, stupid backward way of doing it, but it is also a very common way of doing it. It could have just as easily, or maybe not just as easily, but it could have also been a woman bashing joke, you know, I'm, I'm one of the gang. Because we're all men here, we can bash women.
Emy diGrappa: So you've experienced institutionalized racism being an African American and being African American woman.
Gigi Jasper: So sadly yes. Sadly yes. It blew up to the most dramatic time when I was teaching and a student, although he was not and never had been one of mine, came in and threw, threw a piece of furniture at me, and was falling me an f---ing nigger bitch and how I should go back and pick cotton. I didn't know this kid, I never, I never, I, I didn't know him, I didn't know him. He was just a rather rabid racist.
Gigi Jasper: Now it didn't turn out well for him because after being turned down by every single organization I was raised to believe was there to assist me, my husband and I hired an attorney and fortunately this kid was 18, so we sued the kid and the school district, because the school district virtually said nothing happened either. And after three years of an ugly fight, and countlessly having our house egged and having our windows shot, we won. We won. But here's the thing that is making me insane, I read an article day before yesterday about all of the teachers in this nation who are being kicked and punched and hurt and are suffering in silence.
Gigi Jasper: Now that makes me want to just scream. Because if one allows that kind of abuse, the it becomes acceptable. And that was the motivation when my husband and I decided that we were going to sue. If that is allowed to happen to one teacher, it will happen to any teacher.
Emy diGrappa: And was this a recent article?
Gigi Jasper: In fact, yes, very recent, a couple days ago.
Emy diGrappa: That is shocking.
Gigi Jasper: It is shocking and, and, and, and so, so demoralizing. Becoming a teacher is not something younger people now put on their list to do which is why there is a shortage of teacher's nationwide. So instead of lauding those people who do it, they are very often ignored, and underpaid. Now there are some twists in some of it. There are different laws evidently for what happens to a special education teacher inflicted by, by their student, which I believe needs to be changed.
Gigi Jasper: But in this article, these were not mostly special education teachers. And they were just, some of them were afraid to tell, and I can't even remember why because it was such a facetious argument. Some of them just weren't fired, and I don't understand that either, because if you won't fight for yourself, why would one expect anyone to fight for you. But it is a very big deal, and in my case life changed for a number of teachers I think when we won, because it was very public, it was very, it was pretty ugly. It should never have happened and would not have happened if I had gotten any satisfaction, IE an apology, but I didn't.
Gigi Jasper: But after that, teachers sort of felt like, some teachers sort of felt like, and it, well (laughs) one teacher said to me, somebody, somebody said something nasty to them. And they turned to her and said, "I'm gonna tell Gigi." (Laughs) and so that was kind of the end of that. (laughs)
Emy diGrappa: That's funny.
Gigi Jasper: It was said, you have no idea that some little crazy teacher could sue them and make them pay her. But once it's done, it sort of set a tone.
Emy diGrappa: Well I, I can see why reading an article like that just recently and, and especially in light of what happened to you but thank God you were victorious in that situation. But that, it's still going on. But is it racially motivated?
Gigi Jasper: No, it doesn't seem to be. It does not seem to be racially motivated, and that is another thing that makes me just scratch my head in disbelief. A lot of it is very, very bad behavior by poorly raised children. And then no support, not enough support, by the powers that be. Now the incidents this article talked about how, in this particular district, they were going to form a task force to look into it and investigate everything.
Gigi Jasper: My feeling is, well now that's a real good way to never have to deal with something again, form a committee to look into it.
Emy diGrappa: Yeah, that'll never happen, right? It'll just-
Gigi Jasper: No.
Emy diGrappa: Stay in the committee.
Gigi Jasper: Exactly.
Emy diGrappa: So what, what are the things that you are doing or have done that mentor other young women of color in the community. Or young people, young people.
Gigi Jasper: Sure, I, I rarely had, I rarely had a black student and I always loved it when I did, because it was so interesting, because I knew that he or she had probably not had a black teacher before, and I was kind of a character. But one of the advantages and this is again the dualism, I was oftentimes looked at as the sole representative of all black women in the world, the end. Which is ridiculous. On the other hand, I was the sole representative of all black women in the United States who'd never known one. So, it was my age and my experience that allowed me to say things I might not have said in a different setting.
Gigi Jasper: I think that if students were to say what they most remembered about me was that I tried to teach them to fight back, don't roll over and play dead, period. Because it is true, there are times when one has to stand up for what you believe, even if you're the only one on your feet, period, you've got to do it. And maybe that's, maybe that's what I'm, I'm most proud of. I was saying, this is a few years ago, I was talking about consciousness raising groups from the 1970s and 80s and what women did in Rock Springs and one of my students said, right in class, "Well, why don't you start it again?"
Gigi Jasper: And, and she caught me up short. Probably because I fought that fought once, and it's not their time, their turn [inaudible 00:21:17]. But they didn't even know the term CR group, they did never had heard it. And so I had students who believed absolutely that racism was something that Martin Luther King had taken care of, that sexism really didn't exist too much, that all women got paid the same amount as men for doing the same job. They really, really, really believed and I'm not sure I convinced too many, well I might have convinced some, that it wasn't true, when I was in high school, 19, well, many years ago. And, and I was in high school, I think the average wage for women versus men was something like 72 cents an hour, 72 cents as opposed to a dollar.
Gigi Jasper: And I said, "Excuse me for not being overwhelmed at those few pennies difference, because I graduated from high school in 1970."
Emy diGrappa: Wow, you have a great, great, you have so many great stories and I so appreciate your time and I love that you're still fighter, an overcomer, and, and you still have such a strong wise voice, thank you so much Gigi.
Gigi Jasper: Oh thank you so very much.
Emy diGrappa: Thank you for listening to First, but Last?, brought to you by the Wyoming Humanities, please join us again next week as we continue our conversations with women from around the state. You can also find us at thinkwy.org where we continue the conversation on our blog about the history, journey, and the challenges or Wyoming's intrepid women living in the equality state. And if you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe to the show and leave us a review on iTunes. Thank you for listening.
"I am the exception because I have had hundreds of students who now know me and not just what they think they know when they see me for the first time." - Gigi Jasper