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State Senator criticized for making racially insensitive comments

Posted at 10:45 PM, Feb 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-10 08:15:59-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A state senator is facing criticism after comments made during a legislative committee hearing.

The Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee was listening to arguments in support of a bill that would make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on a hairstyle that is associated with race.

After several Black women shared their thoughts on how the legislation would benefit people of color, State Senator Derrin Owens made these remarks:

“Let me make a comment, you people are beautiful.”

“I was in the store the other day and you won’t be able to see this picture -- a gentleman in front of me -- a black man had 2 young children and they were just having fun up and down the aisle. He was trying to check out and I got to be friends with him. And I don’t normally take pictures of children. They were two adorable black children. Just the cutest kids in the world. One has corn rows and one has dreadlocks.”

The comments drew pushback from a 16-year-old who spoke at the hearing.

“It felt backhanded and performative because he said, ‘they are beautiful and I love them. I think they are special,’ but then he doesn’t want to go through with this bill,” said Tereza Richardson.

“Nobody wants to see themselves as a racist. Nobody calls themselves racist, but we don’t acknowledge our white privilege,” said Tereza’s adoptive mother Holly Richardson. “Well, it’s never happened to us before so it must not have ever happened.”

Alliance for a Better Utah, a group supporting progressive policies, also pushed back against the comments made by the senator.

“The purpose is to call people in and say here is why what you said is offensive and here is how we can do better next time,” said Katie Matheson with Alliance for a Better Utah.

The legislation was deadlocked in committee by a 2-2 vote.

It will be held in committee and will likely be presented again.

Late Tuesday evening, Sen. Owens released this statement:

“Individuals are taking the comments made during the committee entirely out of context.

My intent was to encourage and praise the 16-year-old for having the courage to testify during the committee meeting. I did not mean to offend her or anyone. I apologize if my choice of words during the live committee came off as offensive.

My story about the picture on my phone was about showing kindness to one another. I was helping a dad who had two beautiful rambunctious young children playing at the grocery store while he was checking out. I showed the kids a picture of my cows to hold their interest. Then they wanted to see themselves on my phone, so I took a picture of them posing. The dad thanked me for helping, and the clerk mentioned how nice it was to help this father.

I encourage individuals to listen and consider the context of the story instead of attacking.”