For those for whom the runoff battle for Denver’s next mayor has become a proxy discussion of race, power and privilege, a short exchange during Tuesday night’s debate stood out.
Challenger Jamie Giellis, a white woman who has acknowledged “blind spots” when it comes to communities of color, took a moment to say that she comes from “a place of white privilege.”
“I understand that there are stumbles to be made,” she said, “and I fully respect that I have a lot to learn in this process, and that’s why I’m in it to listen and learn.”
But just moments later, she turned the conversation to her opponent, the two-term incumbent Mayor Michael Hancock, and said he has to answer for some of his own behavior, including his alleged use of the N-word in a gif texted in 2012 to Denver Police Detective Leslie Branch-Wise. The detective was at the time on his security detail and also has accused the mayor of sexual harassment.
“I just want to acknowledge the story in Westword that came out on Friday about the text that you sent to members of your staff that had the N-word in it and was very offensive,” Giellis said.
Kamau Allen, an organizer with Together Colorado who worked on the Abolish Slavery Colorado campaign in 2018, said he found the exchange “disturbing.”
“It was not just a display of white privilege, but it was also a display of racism,” said Allen, who says he is reluctantly supporting Hancock.
“Black people should be the arbiter over when to — or not — use the word,” Allen said, adding that “an honest conversation about power and privilege would be her actually naming what those (white privileges) are. That would show a different level of awareness about power.
“But she just turned around, right in the next breath, and points her finger at a black person. It’s messed up.”
The question of whether it’s ever OK to use the N-word long has been up for debate within the black community. Allen believes that debate is not open to those who are not black.
Hancock, who said Tuesday he has no memory of ever including the word in a text to Branch-Wise, said he doesn’t use the word. Branch-Wise told Westword the word evokes fear and is never appropriate to use because of its inextricable connection with racist oppression.
“The N-word has a long and painful racist history rooted in slavery, and is still used by some to denigrate African Americans,” Giellis wrote in response to follow-up questions from The Independent Wednesday. “Further, there is historical trauma associated with the use of the word regardless of who uses it. It should never be used even in a joking or cavalier way. We should all be offended by such language, particularly by a person of authority who should be setting the standard of ethical conduct.”
Giellis allied herself earlier this month with Lisa Calderón and Penfield Tate — both people of color — who placed third and fourth, respectively, in the initial mayoral election May 7. Because no candidate secured a majority of votes, the top two vote-getters are now in a run-off through June 4.
This alliance has, among other things, lent significant racial and cultural fluency to the campaign for Giellis.
Tate and Calderón defended Giellis when, in the span of 24 hours, she stumbled through answering an interviewer’s question about the name and function of the NAACP; advertised a Latino outreach event with promises of tacos, nachos and lowriders; and was forced to answer for a 2009 tweet of hers questioning the necessity of Chinatowns.
They and many others argue that anyone criticizing Giellis for racial insensitivity should apply the same critical eye to Hancock. His time in office has coincided with record displacement of Denver’s communities of color and an economically inequitable city, they note.
Tate, who is black and a former civil rights attorney, said he was not troubled by Tuesday’s exchange about the N-word.
“I don’t think she was trying to be the arbiter,” he said of Giellis. “Only black people can say it’s offensive to use the N-word? No, no, no.”
He added, “She was expressing her point of view. She thought it was offensive. I thought it was offensive.”
The Giellis camp has argued one reason the alleged N-word text was wrong is that it showed Hancock treating a subordinate with a lack of professionalism. Allen agrees.
“I feel if any apology was owed from Hancock for the text, it was for him being in a position of a boss and using simply inappropriate work language,” Allen said.
But, he added, “For Jamie Giellis to point out the N-word is to kind of say, ‘We’re on equal footing here.’”