Tahoe African-Americans: minority among minorities
As a black resident of South Lake Tahoe, 34-year-old Yvonne Cohns is a minority among the minorities.
“I’ve been trying to think of all the black people who I know and I can’t even come up with five,” she said.
Only 172 black people, a little more than 1 percent of the city’s population, call the lakeside town their home, according to the 1990 census.
Latino and Asian communities have a greater presence, making up about 25 and 15 percent of the city’s population, respectively.
Cohns said because of the population breakdown, blacks are often under-represented in the community.
She said local multicultural events are full of Filipino and Latino exhibits, cultural performances and ethnic food. Black culture is often overlooked.
“It would be nice if there were some African dancers,” she said. “But there aren’t that many of us up here.”
She admits she wasn’t looking for black culture when she came to Tahoe in 1985.
“I was just out of high school,” she said. “Tahoe was about getting away from the city atmosphere. I came up here and saw the trees and loved it – I love the winter.”
She can only recall a few instances where race became an issue.
“There were a couple of places that I worked where I thought there were some racially motivated events but not enough to make me leave. I can tell when people are feeling uncomfortable, there’s signs you look for – sometimes they just pull their purse closer or pull their things away, it’s in the body language.”
Sometimes, she said, the situation is humorous.
Cohns works as one of two customer service representatives at Insty-Prints. After she has helped a customer and they call looking for additional help, they always ask for the girl with the dark hair. She said both of the representatives have dark hair. Then they ask for the short lady or the one with the dark eyes or the one wearing a sweater.
“They say everything but the obvious,” she said, laughing. “It’s OK to say that I am black but somehow there is some fear there.”
Looking back at the last century, Cohns said change has only been for the better.
Her family is an example of how civil rights have progressed.
“My parents went to segregated schools in the ’50s.” she said. “They told me all the horror stories. They had a different life than I do.”
Cohns, whose father was in the Air Force, was born in London. As an infant her parents moved the family to the suburbs of Sacramento.
“We never lived in a predominantly black neighborhood, we always lived where it was mostly white,” she said. “I never had any really bad experiences. A couple of times in elementary school, I was called the ‘N’ word. At that age I didn’t understand why but my parents were very supportive and taught us to have a stiff upper lip.”
She said the situation has improved for her 12-year-old twin boys, Mario and Anthony.
“They’ve had a few (name-calling) experiences at school,” she said. “They have been taught to come home and tell me about it and it hasn’t been anything so bad that I’ve had to go down there and settle it.”
She thanks Martin Luther King Jr. for much of the advancement.
“I’m glad he spoke out – we needed a voice,” she said. “I wish we had a voice in Tahoe.
“Maybe that could be me but I feel like my voice is too small.”
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