BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
“One of our early Black residents was a local barber named Joseph McAfee – a contributing citizen, a soldier, and an underground activist. It is likely McAfee arrived in California in the early to mid-1840s…”
October 14, 2022
By Sheri Leigh, a member of Benicia Black Lives Matter
When you look around the streets of Benicia, it is obvious that there are fewer Black faces than white. The 2020 population data from the US Census reports that there are only 3.22% African Americans and 9.51% People of Mixed Race living here. However, this data is only reflective of numbers, not of the remarkable history of Blacks living in Benicia. Here is one Benicia man’s story, steeped in California and American history.
In September of 1850, when the State of California was admitted into the Union, there were 21 Black residents within Solano County. Six of them resided in Benicia, which at that time, had a total population of 480 people. One of our early Black residents was a local barber named Joseph McAfee – a contributing citizen, a soldier, and an underground activist.
It is likely McAfee arrived in California in the early to mid-1840s, during the great Western migration, when California was still a Mexican territory. At that time, slavery was legal in this territory, and most Blacks arrived here with their subjugators. Fourteen of the 21 original Black Solano County residents were bound for Vacaville as “indentured” slaves. Although it is not clear whether McAfee was a former slave or not, he allegedly arrived in California as a free man.
In June of 1846, Joseph McAfee joined many other California settlers in Sonoma for the rebellion known as the Bear Flag Incident, a revolt instigated by John C. Fremont against Mexican government rule. With McAfee’s and other Black participants’ help, the rebellion prevailed. Mexican general Mariano Vallejo was temporarily imprisoned, and the territory was declared the “Bear Flag Republic,” which paved the way for eventual California statehood.
In 1849, McAfee, along with hundreds of other African Americans, joined the George Wyatt gold mining expedition. They mined at Murphy’s Diggings in Calaveras County. A year later, many of the enslaved Blacks who joined the party were able to purchase their freedom with their earnings from the prosperous mine.
Meanwhile, as California prepared to become a State, the status of People of Color did not improve. In 1849, during the California Constitutional Convention held in Monterey, lawmakers enacted several discriminatory pieces of legislation which further disenfranchised Africans, descendants of Africans, and Native American people. The new laws interfered with daily freedoms, rights to land ownership, citizenship, and other oppressive codes similar to those enacted in other parts of the country during that time.
In 1850, as California was granted statehood, Joseph McAfee settled in Benicia and opened up a community barbershop with his earnings from the gold mines. Although California was declared a “Free State,” within a year the new State of California passed its own version of the Fugitive Slave Act, requiring the return of runaway slaves to their owners. McAfee took action and joined the other local abolitionists in the establishment and operation of the Western Underground Railroad in Solano County, creating a safe haven for those seeking freedom from slavery during pre-Civil War California.
McAfee remained in Benicia until the mid-1860s before moving to Santa Cruz, shortly after the promulgation of the Emancipation Proclamation abolishing slavery in all States. His efforts in the Underground Railroad helped to empower those who were wrongfully enslaved and secured a path towards a more equitable society. And his contributions helped bring a special part of history to Benicia.
Now, nearly 160 years later, there is still work to be done. Although legally all citizens have the right to freedom, land and business ownership, voting, etc. there is still racial discrimination, both systemically and individually, directed towards People of Color. It continues to be the goal of Benicia Black Lives Matter and other organizations directed towards positive change to help usher in a new, more equitable era free from racism and discrimination. If you would like to join us in this effort, please contact us at www.benicia blacklivesmatter.com.
*The information in this article is based on information from the “North Bay Area African American TimeLine 1850-1925” and a 2012 article from the Daily Republic, entitled, “Exhibit Highlights Benicia’s African American Heritage,” written by Ian Thompson.
“With the right approach to learning, I know our schools can provide a more holistic, respectful, and equitable educational experience for all of our young people in the future. “
August 29, 2022
Branden Ducharme, White male, age 20
Lifetime Benicia resident
As a person who spent all of their elementary and secondary education in Benicia schools, I can vouch for the consistent underlying tones of racism that run through the school system and much of the student body. I witnessed it regularly. Sometimes I was a part of it – not to be deliberately demeaning, but because I wasn’t aware.
There were passing comments among the students that denigrated students of color, and of course, racially biased jokes. There was self segregation of the various races during lunch and breaks, which I believe is because kids do not feel welcomed or comfortable with students who are unlike themselves. There were incidences of students using racial slurs towards other students to deliberately insult them, particularly when tempers flared.
To my shame and embarrassment, I can recall repeating a racially insulting joke about police shootings when I was in the fourth grade. I had heard the joke from older friends, one of whom was an adult and staff member at an afterschool center I attended. They were all laughing at the punchline, so I thought it was cool. I shared this “joke” with my friends at school, a few of whom were Black. To their credit, my Black friends called me on it. They complained to the administration. I was called into the principal’s office to be reprimanded, rightfully so. Rather than have a proper discussion about the reality of racism in America and the interpersonal and societal impacts of racist jokes, racial bias, and exploiting Black trauma, I was merely told that my joke was offensive and racist. There was no in-depth analysis of what “racist” truly means. I was made to reflect on my racist comment and write a letter of apology to my peers. However, how can one reflect without proper guidance at such a young age? How can one genuinely apologize for what they do not fully understand? Sadly and understandably, the friends who reported me chose to no longer remain friends with me. Their actions said way more than the principal (who evidently is now a prominent figure in the district and a roadblock to anti-racist initiatives) had, and losing their friendship was the bigger part of this life lesson for me. I could see their pain and disgust but I did not understand the roots of it, which was a failure on the part of Benicia schools.
Racism is prevalent systemically as well. For example, in my thirteen years in the District I can only recall three Black teachers and one Black administrator. As an aside, the Black high school administrator was the friendliest and most positive vice principal I have yet to encounter, yet he was dismissed mid-year and replaced by a more conservative and traditional white woman who was not able to make the connections with the students that her predecessor forged. Discipline, when involving white students and students of Color, typically favored the white students. And if highly charged and insulting racial slurs were the provocation of an escalated situation, the impact of those remarks were not validated or treated as very significant when directed at a student of Color.
One of my biggest concerns about the perpetuation of racism in the schools is the curriculum. Most of the history and literary texts used in Benicia schools are very white-centric. They approach history primarily from the experiences and perspective of the white settlers and their progeny, while largely ignoring the violence, betrayal and subjugation that whites frequently committed upon others from that point forward. History curriculum is rarely, if ever, presented from the perspective of Black, Asian, Indigenous, or Latin people, nor the many other populations and cultures that make up this country. We did discuss slavery and civil rights but only minimally and, for the most part, only during Black history month. The literature introduced in school was nearly always written by whites, and most commonly about whites, rather than reading books from the wealth of important and excellent literature written by marginalized voices. I can only imagine how minimized students of Color feel when their history and culture is largely ignored by the very school from which they are getting their basic education.
As I got older, I became more aware of prevailing racism, both at school and in the community. Around age 15, I was walking around First Street with two Black male friends. It was a weekend evening around 9pm, and we were laughing at something funny one of us said. As we passed by Sailor Jacks, a middle-aged white woman exited the restaurant, and came towards us, clearly angry at something. She was obviously inebriated and immediately directed her anger at my friends for laughing too loudly. She did not address me, even though I was participating in the hilarity. My friends were harassed and berated for disturbing a supposedly quiet night when her own behavior, in my opinion, was out of line. She was loud, she was publicly intoxicated, and she was racially biased in her actions. Most importantly, we were doing nothing wrong, yet for some reason, this woman’s bias guided her self-proclaimed right to treat those she thought socially beneath her with inappropriate contempt.
I have found that it is easy to be racist and not even know it. People, those who are white in particular, develop bad patterns because they are not taught early enough to be more open, accepting, and equitable in their minds and actions. Social and interpersonal conditioning make bad behaviors even more difficult to unlearn. Our experiences in elementary and secondary school have a huge impact on who we become as people. As I prepare to attend UCLA this fall to study sociology, I am making it my goal to generate change within this inherently racist country. With the right approach to learning, I know our schools can provide a more holistic, respectful, and equitable educational experience for all of our young people in the future. Schools are a vessel for change, insofar as what is taught in them reflects a desire to confront inequality, racism, sexism, patriarchy, and all other forms of bigotry or flawed ideology.
“As a young woman, I was a first-hand witness to racial profiling and police injustice. It irrevocably changed my perspective about law enforcement…”
November 8, 2021
74 year old white woman
Benicia resident for 6 years
I was born and raised in the Bay Area. When I was a young woman, it was an exciting time. It was a time of activism. Anti-war protests and the Civil and Women’s Rights movements were powerful and seemed to be changing the shape of the future as I watched with fascination and anticipation. The world was becoming a better place for the young and the historically disenfranchised. I was looking forward to a more equitable world, and I considered myself to be part of this change. I was optimistic, energetic, educated, and ready to roll up my sleeves.
In 1972, I was an art teacher at Lincoln High School, which is in a very integrated part of San Jose. The school saw their multi-ethnic student and family population as an opportunity to build a mutually respectful and open community, and racial problems were rare if present at all. That year, the YMCA leased an old three story mansion right behind my school and opened up a Youth Center. I was offered the directorship, and I enthusiastically accepted. It didn’t matter to me that I was working two full time jobs. I was in my early 20’s with lots of energy. It was meaningful work, and I was ready to take on the world.
The Teen Center was a fun place for kids to hang out after school. The old building had lots of passageways and interesting spaces to explore. We put a pool table in the old formal dining room. Kids and adults worked together to fix up the old place with donated paint, hammers and gardening tools. After school was out, the music came on, and the Center became a place of youthful activity. My job was wonderful. I walked around making sure things were flowing and that the staff and students were engaged in healthy activities. When adolescent tempers flared, I was on hand to redirect and facilitate a peaceful conclusion.
And then one afternoon, my ideals were shattered. It was around 4pm when a group of 8-10 of my teenage boys got into an argument on the front lawn that escalated quickly. By the time I got to the scene, it had turned into a fist fight. It was very public and very loud. The boys were all around 16 and 17 years old and were nearly adult sized. They were of mixed ethnicities, and, although I don’t remember the precipitating cause, it was not about race. Of that I am certain.
I had been ineffectively trying to de-escalate the energy for about 15 minutes when the police showed up. Apparently, a concerned neighbor had called upon hearing or witnessing the scene. The two police officers who pulled up were white. They didn’t ask any questions. They pushed me aside and ignored my protestations. They simply pulled their guns and ordered the Black kids – not the white kids – to back down. When that didn’t happen immediately, they threatened to shoot. The boys, still wrapped up in their argument, kept fighting even after the guns were drawn and they were being threatened. I don’t even think they noticed. Then a shot was fired, and one of my kids went down. He was one of the Black students. The fighting abruptly stopped.
I was in shock. I watched in disbelief as the officers took a report, primarily calling out the Black youths who were part of the fight. An ambulance was called, and my injured student was taken away. He died later that day.
This was a fight that I am certain I could have eventually stopped. It was a fist fight, one without weapons. This was the kind of fight that hormonally charged teenage boys typically engage in and then it’s over. No one was going to be seriously hurt. No property was being damaged. No outside parties were involved. No one’s life was in danger. Not until the police showed up.
This was the first time I witnessed abject racial targeting by law enforcement. Although it was and tragically is still a common experience, as white woman I had not been privy to the blatant imbalance of justice until that moment. All of the boys in the fight were equally involved. Less than half of them were of Color, and yet, it was Black ones who were in the sights of the officers’ guns. It was the Black boys who were blamed. And it was the Black kids who suffered the consequences. No charges were levied at these officers. The family of the boy who was killed suffered their pain quietly and without protest. I sat with the family and did an announcement and an article for the school, but no more came of it. The community mourned, and then it was over. I lost my enthusiasm for the job and moved on when my contract was up. Teen Center eventually closed and the building was razed.
Today, we recognize and challenge the prejudices of law enforcement, the injustices of the racial profiling, and the “shoot first, ask questions later” attitude of some of our law enforcement agents. I’m glad to see a movement towards better police training, integration of social services, more conscientious use of weapons, and oversight over law enforcement agencies, but we have a long way to go. My fifty year old memory of watching helplessly as a young man, for whom I was responsible, was killed just because he was involved in a teenage scuffle and his skin happened to be Black. It has left an indelible imprint upon my soul.
“I was horrified to witness such abject racism in my own city…”
July 13, 2021
70 year old white man
6 year Benicia resident
I consider myself a good person. I try to treat everyone with respect and compassion. I have friends of different cultures, different races, different socio-economic levels, and different age groups. I generally greet everyone in my path with the same friendliness and warmth. I know that racism exists everywhere, but I never expected to witness such viciousness in my own quiet community.
During the Covid months, like many people, I took at least one brisk walk every day to get my blood flowing and maintain some sense of normalcy. On this particular October 2020 day, I was walking through the Ninth Street Park from the north end around 3pm. As I approached the boat launch I saw a Black gentleman, possibly in his mid-40s, seemingly also out for a walk, heading in my direction. When he was about 20 feet from me and before I was able to greet him, I began to hear a low chanting of what sounded like the word “N****r” coming from the parking lot. I looked around. The parking lot had several cars in it, but from where I was, I couldn’t see any people in the cars. Then the chanting stopped.
At first I thought I was mistaken. That didn’t seem possible, particularly since I couldn’t see the source. We both circled around, going opposite directions, and neared the parking lot a second time. As we again approached each other, I heard it – the same chant, only louder. This time there was no mistaking the content or intent. The voices were men, and there was more than one. I met the eyes of the Black man and mouthed, “I’m sorry!” which, of course, he could not see through my mask. He sent me a furtive glance, but I couldn’t interpret what he was communicating either – Fear? Anger? Suspicion? I only know that I felt a terrible sense of anger and disappointment. And above all, I was shocked. The targeted man picked up his pace and headed towards the downtown area.
In the meantime, I doubled back through the parking lot one more time to see if I could identify the perpetrators. There were several people milling about and about a dozen cars in the lot, so it was hard to tell. A moment later, a vehicle with at least two people in it pulled out of a parking space and headed downtown. The driver exercised the appropriate caution and speed for exiting a parking lot, raising no particular suspicion other than his/her timing. Still, I thought it was likely they were the chanters. By the time they were clear of other cars, they were too far away for me to read the license plate, and even if I could, I knew that I had no evidence that the people in the car were involved in any way. My opportunity to identify anyone was lost.
And so I did the only thing I could. I retold the story of this horrifying event to my family and friends, not only as a witness, but in hopes that other Benicia residents acknowledge that racism does exist here and that we must be proactive in opposing it.
In hindsight, I would have liked to have been more of an active ally. I could have turned around and caught up with the man and asked if he needed any help and/or walked with him. I could have run through the parking lot looking for the sources of the ugliness and excoriated them, or at least obtained a description to call the police. I could have done a lot of things. I just hope for two things by making my story public: the man who was accosted will realize that he was not alone in his pain; and that the people of Benicia will wake up to the fact that these horrible injustices do indeed happen in our community and should NEVER be tolerated.
“In an ideal world, public schools should inspire a love of learning in all young people, regardless of what they look like, where they are from, or what their family or cultural beliefs are. Educational staff should be inclusive, sensitive, and warm in order to promote a healthy learning environment. That is not what I witnessed at the Benicia schools…”
June 11, 2021
Employed in Benicia for 4 years
As a member of the working community of Benicia, I had the opportunity to do business with with the Benicia School District. Over the last five years, I observed and got to know many staff members from several of the schools. My first impression of the Benicia Schools was they are comfortable, communal environments. However, within a short time I noticed a pervasive undercurrent of racism. I witnessed several staff members, particularly among the support staff, make casual comments to each other and sometimes to parents about students and families of color that were both derogatory and clearly based in biased beliefs. Although I am not white, my ethnic background was not visually obvious, so I was considered part of the “privileged” group and overheard their conversations without any filters being applied. After noticing the first few comments, I began to listen for it, and was shocked at how frequently demeaning things were said or done.
Although I have been witness to occasional racist comments or acts being said or done at other venues, what I saw and heard at the schools was far more offensive. It was blatant. And there was an assumption that this behavior is appropriate and normal. The engaged staff did not mask or hide their comments. They did not lower their voices. The principal’s offices, which are typically right in the midst of the main office where much of this was taking place, were sometimes wide open and the administration easily within earshot. Staff and people of the community were regularly walking in and out of the area, all within hearing range of the comments being said. And yet it continued uninterrupted. I found myself feeling increasingly uncomfortable and afraid for the students and families of color.
These are some of the things I witnessed:
The Benicia School District accepts and encourages the attendance of transfer students (students who live outside of the District) in order to keep the schools open and maintain attendance numbers to increase State funding, yet they are not readily accepted at the school sites. Some of the administrative staff handling these transfers assume that non-white transfers, particularly Black or Brown ones, come from Vallejo. In fact, “Vallejo” seemed to be used as a code word for non-white or poor. On the other hand, white transfer students are never presumed to be from Vallejo, even when that is their hometown. Regardless of where the families live, rather than being welcomed, transfer students are seen as “sucking up resources” and getting an education at the “expense of Benicia tax payers. There seems to be a firm belief that transfer families should be grateful, rather than we should be grateful that the transfer students are bringing additional revenues to our district, or more importantly, these are individual children with individual circumstances, all of whom should be welcomed and embraced.
Non-white students and their families are frequently referred to as “ghetto.”
White parents seemed to disproportionately report the behavior of non-white parents at student drop off. Sometimes I saw them threaten to call the police for common traffic grievances such as driving too fast, arriving late, or blocking traffic, all of which are experienced and/or committed by nearly everyone sometime during the school year. I rarely, if ever, witnessed a parent of color complaining about the same things.
Christian-based holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, are often celebrated in the classrooms, alienating non-Christian students. When the principal at one school made an effort to be culturally sensitive and teachers were asked not to put up Christmas trees and similar decorations in classrooms, the mandate was largely disregarded.
Similarly, traditional curriculum that includes stereotyped versions of certain ethnic groups are still widely used. A few years ago, the District made an effort to remove books, references and curriculum that are inaccurate or offensive, much of which was ignored in favor of the historical curriculum, such as the 4th grade Mission Project or assigning “tribe” names to desk groups.
Black students (particularly boys) are frequently singled out by teachers and are far more likely to be sent out of class to work alone than their white counterparts. Also, African American boys were more likely to be treated as older than their peers. I even heard that a white female teacher in her 50s told many coworkers that she was being sexually harassed by a ten year old boy because he commented that he liked her outfits. She said he must have learned it from his father, an African American man she also perceived to be “aggressive.”
These are just a few of the many examples of prejudiced and intolerant behavior I noted. It saddens me to know that there is a dark underbelly of racism that runs through the schools in this beautiful community. This is where our youth are learning lifelong lessons – both academically and socially. I only hope that the school district wakes up from its complacency and implements some serious equity training and consequences for the staff members who continue to cultivate an imaginary and dangerous hierarchy amongst the staff, families and students.
“A friendship based on hard work and personal truth is worth the effort.” This story is not about racism, but about overcoming racial bias.
May 21, 2021
Benicia resident for 8 years
Like most white people, in my age group, racism was an integral part of my childhood. I lived in the Midwest with my grandparents. My grandmother who, although never used disparaging language in front of me, clearly felt superior to people of other races and cultures. Grandma occasionally made negative comments about the Black family across the street or the Catholic family on the corner but only very quietly so she couldn’t be overheard. Our Black housekeeper, whom I adored, was “good enough” to watch over me when they went out of town, but not good enough to invite to dinner or a party. And when I asked my grandmother why our housekeeper was never included in family events when she was definitely part of our family, she dismissed my question with, “It’s just not done that way.”
When I moved in with my mother at age 7, everything changed. We lived in an integrated apartment complex far away from my grandparents’ community– and it was great! There were lots of children from all backgrounds, and we all played together. The families watched out for one another. In hindsight, my social life suddenly became uncomplicated and unhindered. I didn’t have to worry about what Grandma or anyone else thought about my friends. My best friend was a Black girl, and she and I did everything together for the three years I lived there – sleepovers, family dinners, trips to the zoo, etc. My mother socialized with wide variety of people and never discouraged me from making friends with whomever I chose. It was a very different experience than my earlier years. I felt culturally liberated.
I tried to live my life using the model I had learned from my mother. Then, in 2002 while attending graduate school, I had a life changing experience involving racial relations. I was in an educational psychology program and part of a cohort of about 60 individuals. We were carefully screened for our potential to be change agents within a school system. The program was very racially and socially integrated. Much of the curriculum was focused on racial justice, cultural awareness and sensitivity, and appropriate interpersonal interaction. The class was divided into two groups, and I took most or all of my classes with the same 30 people. We were further divided into two groups for our counseling internship. This smaller group of fifteen grad students met twice a week to discuss personal challenges in our fieldwork and our lives.
One of the Black women in my group fascinated me. She was frequently rushing into class at the last moment or shortly after class began. She seemed scattered and harried. But no sooner did the professor ask the class a question, she offer a response with a calmness and a wisdom that was completely different than the manner in which she had arrived to class. Clearly, this woman was possessed with a deep intelligence and the ability to focus her intent without pausing for breath. She was also one of the fifteen in my internship class. Unlike in the others in the classes, she didn’t share much. She seemed uncomfortable talking about her personal life. Instead, she would sit quietly, curled up in one of the armchairs, only speaking when prompted, and then as little as possible. I couldn’t wait to get to know her.
I finally had my chance when we were alone in an elevator on our way to class one day. It happened to be my birthday and someone had given me flowers. She commented on them, and I shared the reason I had them. “Oh – It’s my son’s birthday, too.” Okay, I thought, she’s a mother. We have that in common. “How old is he?” I asked. She told me, and I asked if she had other children. She told me she had two boys, the other one younger. I told her I had a son, too, and gave his age. And then I asked her if she was a single mom. The tentative friendliness she had extended at my encouragement immediately evaporated. I didn’t quite understand why, but I was sensitive enough to realize she had a lot of feelings around her marital status. I didn’t want to pry, so we finished our ride in silence.
About two weeks later, the students in my internship class were discussing racially based micro-aggressions, when the woman I was wanting to meet uncharacteristically spoke up. She said that someone in the cohort had used a micro-aggression against her. Without revealing any identities, she shared the story of being in the elevator with a white woman, ending with the white woman’s “assumption” that all Black mothers are unmarried. There was a long, shocked silence in the room. I took a deep breath and drummed up my courage. “That was me. And I’m sorry you feel upset. Help me understand what happened.”
She was angry – really angry. She saw this as a typical attack against the integrity of Black women from a white person who was coming from a place of superiority. She passionately argued her point while I tried to explain where I was coming from. The class sat there witnessing this exchange in silence. I felt the discomfort growing as the conversation continued for the better part of 10 to 15 minutes. I finally blurted out, “Any woman can be a single mother. I have been a single mother. And I’m now going through a rough patch in my second marriage which may well put me there again.” I have to add that this was very hard for me to admit at that point in time. I continued, “I noticed that you regularly arrive to class like you have way too much on your plate. It just struck me that you being single was a possibility, once I learned that you are a mother, too.” I paused, “I just wanted to get to know you!” The other woman looked stunned, and a silence fell between us.
The professor took this momentary break as a good time to end the discussion. “We can talk more about this next time,” he said as he dismissed the class. Meanwhile, I was trying to maintain my equanimity. I fervently hope the discussion wouldn’t have to be continued at all. I felt depleted, troubled, and embarrassed all at once. I concentrated on gathering my things in preparation to go home. As I turned around, my contender was standing there. “I’m so sorry…” I started to say, but was cut short as she gathered me into one of the biggest hugs I have ever experienced.
Nearly 20 years later, this woman and I are still close friends. We’ve travelled together, celebrated together, laughed till we peed our pants, and held each other while we cried. She was there for me when I did eventually go through a second divorce. My son took her boys under his wing. We now live several states apart, and I miss her. And now that pandemic related travel warnings have been lifted, I need to visit her – or her me.
I wanted to share this story because it contains some very valuable points about getting to know others outside of your regular social group.
● My white perspective may not be the same as someone from another culture or ethnic group.
● Although I didn’t intend my question to be a micro or any kind of aggression, it was perceived that way.
● The other woman’s experiences of racism deeply colored her ability to accept me until we had the opportunity to hash it out.
● One is never finished learning, no matter how much they think they know about other groups of people.
And although my experience (and probably my friend’s as well) was uncomfortable and challenging, we got through it, and it was worth it. I am profoundly grateful that my friend had the courage to express what she felt. And even though her anger frightened me, I stayed with it, and I learned from her side of the story. So did the rest of the class. I am proud of myself that I had the strength and the tenacity to really listen without judgment, without letting emotion get in the way; to be authentic; and not to shift the compassion of our witnesses to me by breaking down and crying. This is an example of how to bridge the gap despite ethnic and cultural barriers.
“My son loved school and learning. That is until he felt racially targeted and unprotected by the staff and administration.”
April 11, 2021
Age – late 30s
Benicia resident for 10 years
My husband and I moved to Benicia from Vallejo because of the schools. It wasn’t about safety. We lived in a decent Vallejo neighborhood, and we were locals. I had attended school there myself, and had a reasonably good education and experience. The schools in Vallejo are integrated, and I always felt safe and connected. However, the schools in Benicia offered more resources for the classrooms, and more co-curricular and extra curricular activities. There were field trips and enrichment opportunities available in the Benicia schools that Vallejo couldn’t offer. And so we moved here.
My son started his school career in Benicia. He would come home every day practically bursting with the new things he learned. He loved to read, explore, calculate, analyze and memorize. He brought his joy of learning into everything we did. He woke up excited every morning, eager to go to school and ready to learn. It was a dream come true for any parent, and I was especially proud.
Then when he got to middle school something changed. It started with a juvenile verbal challenge between my son and another boy, who happened to be white. At first the argument was typical of 7th grade boys trying to show off. As it got more heated, the other boy pulled out the racial derogatives. He called my son the “N” word and a “black gorilla.” My son reciprocated with some angry words of his own, but did not resort to racially based insults. The verbal bashing was eventually interrupted by staff, and the boys were brought to the Vice Principal’s office.
The other boy’s mother and I were summoned to the office for a “chat.” I sat there with the woman, the counselor and the vice principal, listening to the boys retell their story. When it became clear that the other child had used racial slurs, his mother became indignant. She vehemently argued that her son couldn’t help himself. She claimed he had socialization issues that were the underlying cause of his behavior. Her argument became so passionate and her demeanor so aggressive that the staff members backed down. She eventually left the room in a huff with her son. My son received detention. Hers did not. It was the first time that my son did not feel protected or valued by the administration.
After that, things started to cascade. My son earned the reputation of being a goofball, and small things began to appear on his disciplinary record, things like, “throwing Cheetos,” “horseplay,” and “kicking someone’s backpack.” Although individually, these things are relatively insignificant, especially since they were done while joking around with his friends, each incident added demerits to my son’s record and his reputation grew. His attitude towards school began to change. He no longer looked forward to going, and his academics began to be affected.
There were more meetings with school officials. Sometimes, the school resource officer was asked to attend. Each time, my son was treated with a dismissive attitude by school authorities. Eventually, he was required to attend a SARB (School Attendance Review Board) meeting for his disciplinary issues. This was presided over by a judge. The judge looked over my son’s school record and kicked it out with a reprimand to the school for wasting his time. It was a small reprieve.
The final blow came when my son was overheard by a substitute teacher teasing his friend (a Black girl) about her weave, which is a hairstyle used frequently in Black culture. The middle aged white woman, misunderstanding his intent, sent my son to the office for “sexual harassment.” To add to the insult, the substitute confided her version of what happened to a white male teacher in his 30s, who, knowing about my son’s growing reputation, took it upon himself to run an informal investigation. He asked several girls whether they had experienced sexually charged or harassing comments from my son. I learned this from the teacher in question, and it added to my son’s feelings of betrayal and marginalization. Although the sexual harassment accusation was unfounded, it still ended up on his disciplinary record without our knowledge.
It was at this point that my husband and I made the difficult decision to pull our son out of Benicia Middle School. We settled on a local private school, but my son’s discipline record was called into question before he was admitted, particularly the part about his involvement in sexual harassment. I had to go back to Benicia Middle School to question the reason this unfounded incident was on his record and request a correction. I also needed a letter, clearing my son of this accusation so that he could move on. The Vice principal apologized, made the correction on the school records, and wrote a letter for me; but the damage was already done.
When my son started high school, we decided to give the Benicia schools another try. For a while, everything went smoothly. And then an incident occurred with another white woman substitute in English class. The class was reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” which you may know contains some racially disparaging scenes. The teacher was having the students read passages aloud in preparation for discussion. When it came to reading the “N” word, several students, both white and Black, voiced that they were uncomfortable verbalizing this word when the use was clearly meant to dehumanize a Black character. At first the substitute insisted, but when met with continued student resistance, she relented, saying they could replace the unpalatable word with another word, such as “dog.” This upset my son and he spoke up – very passionately, I might add. When he discovered it useless to argue his point more, he took a walk so he could cool off. Meanwhile, the teacher called the office and claimed my son took an aggressive stance with her, and she felt uncomfortable with him being there. Upon returning to class my son was quickly sent to the office. When the administration looked into the incident, they concluded that he was not threatening in any way, but thought it would be best for him to remain in the office for the days she continued to substitute. Even though her claims were unsubstantiated, she refused to admit that she had offered the word “dog” as a replacement for the “N” word, despite the testimonies of several students. My thoughts were, “Here we are again.”
The pandemic called an end to the situation. My son did not have to attend school in person for the rest of his freshman or his sophomore year to date. And he has opted not to return for the remainder of this year. We support him. My son’s decision is based, not on the health threat of Covid 19, but on the lack of support he feels from the school administration.
These are only a few of the racial and traumatic incidents that have occurred at the schools over the years. Most have been undocumented without any repercussion to the offending parties. My child, like many others, has been left to filter, process, and internalize his pain and emotional distress, with little to no help from the schools.
I am saddened by and disappointed in the Benicia School District. What started as a wonderful opportunity to inspire and maximize my son’s academic potential was overshadowed by a continued lack of support and belief in my son’s capabilities. He is now another disillusioned student. I know my son is a passionate and intelligent young man, but instead of inspiring and guiding him towards leadership, the system has demonstrated time and again that his Black male passion must be extinguished. I feel like I have sent my child into a hostile environment for the sake of his education. I wanted to send him into a place that would give him the same nurturing guidance as we give in our home but I have been proven wrong time and again. His emotional and psychological distress breaks my heart. And I know I am not alone in these concerns. Many Benicia families of color have similar experiences.
I have noticed the Benicia District and schools taking steps to address the racial inequity and it gives me hope. Children should leave the educational system full of knowledge and eagerness to learn more. They should not leave needing to heal from psychological scars caused by race-based traumatic stress.
Just because my child is Black does not mean she needs a special reading group for the “culturally deprived…”
February 19, 2021
78 year old Black Woman, 50 year Benicia resident
I live on Carolina Drive, which was once an all-African American community. The homes were built in 1954. I understand that it became a Black neighborhood because the original developer fell into financial trouble and needed to sell the homes quickly. He sold his first home to a Black family. After that, he couldn’t sell to anyone but African Americans. It was a time when it was difficult for a Black family to qualify for a home loan. A significant down payment had to be secured. The applicant had to be gainfully employed at a stable job, have stellar credit, and sometimes references from a respected White person in the local community.
My mother purchased a home there in the mid-1960s. My husband and I bought the house from her in 1971. It was still an all-Black community at the time and a very close-knit neighborhood. I knew all of the families there. We were hard-working with aspirations for ourselves and our children. Carolina Drive was a Black neighborhood that flourished as a community within a community. While in the broader sense, our children had the advantage of small-town life and a good school system. Yes, there was bias and prejudice, some of it blatant and hurtful, but we held our heads high. Most of the properties were well cared for and maintained. There was no violence or significant criminal activity in the neighborhood. Many of us were churchgoers, and many were volunteers within the church, schools, and community. The community gave rise to generations of gainfully employed, upstanding, contributing citizens. Some became police officers, firefighters, civil servants, court officers, engineers, doctors, nurses, pastors, entrepreneurs, coaches, and teachers.
This story is about one of my daughter’s many experiences of racism in the Benicia school system. In the mid-1970s, when she was in the 3rd grade at Mary Farmar Elementary School, she came home one day and announced that she was in a “special” reading group. As a former sixth-grade teacher at Robert Semple School, I understood immediately what that meant. This special group was a remedial reading group. I was stunned and curious about why my daughter, who loved to read more than almost anything, would be put in a pull-out group for students who needed additional support. On Friday evenings once or twice a month, her treat was to spend the evening at the Vallejo library with me. She checked out a bag full of books at a time and devoured them all long before our next visit. She was an excellent reader.
The next day, I went to see the principal, a White woman in her 40s or 50s. I asked her about the program and what assessment measure they had used to determine who should be in the group. She said she didn’t know but that she was sure the teacher used some benchmark standard. She offered to invite the teacher into the meeting. I agreed, but when she stood up to get the teacher, thinking I would wait in her office, I said I would walk with her. I didn’t want to allow them time to strategize on what to say to “make me comfortable” before I had a chance to know the truth of what I already suspected, which was that there was no assessment used.
The principal ultimately agreed that I could approach the teacher on my own. I walked to her classroom directly. The teacher was another White woman of a similar age as the principal. I learned that this special reading group that my daughter was in was structured no differently than other groups designed to help students who she determined needed it – except this one consisted entirely of the 4 or 5 Black students in her class. I knew them because they lived in our neighborhood. I knew one of the boys in the group was exceptionally bright and certainly wouldn’t have been identified as needing a remedial reading group any more than my daughter did. (He later became a city administrator in a major California city, and she earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering and a doctorate in metaphysics.)
I asked her why these children qualified for this special group. She proudly told me she had created this group for the culturally deprived students who didn’t have books in their homes. I was stunned. Our house was full of books, art, music, and information. I asked her if there had been an assessment tool used. The answer was no. I asked her if she had ever visited the homes of these children. Again the answer was no. At this point, I requested that the children be assessed if they were to remain in the group. She was resistant, but I was steadfast. Eventually I offered to take my request to the school board. She agreed to assess the children. Less than two weeks later, my daughter’s “special” reading group no longer existed.
Racist stereotypes and misinformation guided this teacher’s education strategy for African American third graders. Her racial socialization supposed that everyone must aspire to the European-based standard of culture and that anything different was cultural deprivation. She assumed that because of their color, these children were inferior. She was ignorant of the rich culture that exists in the homes of African American families. Her assumption that the families of these children lacked culture was profoundly egregious. In recent conversations with other former students, I learned that my daughter’s experience was standard behavior for this teacher and not an isolated incident.
History surrounds us. African American history is American history, and that includes the history of African Americans in Benicia. To alleviate structural and institutional racism and promote racial healing, we must first acknowledge the past. In the words of Carter G Woodson, the Black History celebration founder, “You must give your own story to the world.
In my experience, it is easy to live in Benicia – if you are White…
February 3, 2021
Jen Burns, 35 year old White Woman
3.5 year Benicia resident
When my husband and I first thought about Benicia as a possible place to live, we were enchanted. Our impression of California was that the people who live here are in harmony with their neighbors of other races and cultures. And at first, it did seem that way. We had moved here from Daytona Beach, Florida, where although warm, sunny, and beautiful, many of the people who live there harbor obvious racist tendencies. And if they don’t, White privilege is expected and tolerated. Hearing an angry White customer loudly blurt out, “I don’t want to talk with a ‘N…r’!” when an African American manager tries to help resolve a problem, was a relatively common experience. I never witnessed anyone publicly challenge the offensive behavior. And I am ashamed to admit that, although I inwardly cringed when around that kind of outburst, I didn’t speak up either. Gratefully, I haven’t seen that kind of conduct here, but I have noticed other, less obvious reactions of White people around Black people that are hauntingly disturbing.
I work as a server in a restaurant on First Street. I was grateful to land the job shortly after moving here, and even more so to have kept it through the pandemic. One of my first co-workers was a Black woman. She and I often had the same shift. Working side by side, we got to know one another a little and enjoyed each other’s companionship. She was a bit younger than me, but had been there longer. I learned the ropes of the job through her.
One afternoon we were working the counter together when I noticed a White woman in her 50s or 60s obviously wanting to order something, but oddly hovering off to the side, rather than walking up to the counter. The restaurant was relatively quiet at the time, and there was no line, which made her behavior even more strange. After what seemed like several minutes, I said quietly to my co-worker, “Dude, what is up with her?!” My co-worker looked at me with raised eyebrows and said, “It’s…never mind. I’ll tell you later.” Then she shrugged and walked back towards the kitchen, leaving me at the counter alone. The moment she was gone, the hovering customer approached the counter to place her order. It suddenly occurred to me that she was either afraid of or didn’t want to be served by a Black person. My co-worker had obviously seen it before.
I began to notice other customers with a similar aversion to my co-worker. Many seemed to go out of their way to be served by me, rather than my Black partner. When lines got long, some people gave up their turn for no obvious reason if my co-worker was available and I was busy, walking right up to the counter when I was free to serve them.
The sad part is that my co-worker was used to being avoided. I hadn’t noticed anything in her service manners that was anything less than cordial and professional, yet, it seemed that because of her dark skin, her assistance was less desirable than from a person of light skin. And beyond that, what was clearly happening around us was not blatant enough to report or call anyone out. It is so subtle that one might not even recognize it as racism, but it is. These micro-aggressions still have the powerful impact of ostracizing the Person of Color.
By the simple virtue of the color of my skin, I have never had to experience regular social avoidance from strangers in this community, or in the South. The ignorance saddens me. If people would only open their minds and work through their fear and/or bias, Benicia would feel more inclusive and be accepting to everyone – not just to those of us who are White.
I saw signs of covert racism from one of my close friends, but when she shared a blatant text with me, I couldn’t in good conscience continue my friendship…
February 3, 2021
White female, Age 61
Benicia resident for 23 years
I grew up in the South during a time where racism was the norm. I lived with my mother, who considered herself a liberal, and my grandmother, who although was not openly anti-Black, but in our household fell more in line with Southern social norms.
Up until age 9, I was innocently ignorant of the Southern expectations of social differences and racism. I had few friends at that age, but one I did have was Black. Most days, she and I would sit in the back of the school bus on the way home from school, sharing secrets and giggles, as all girls that age do. One day, I asked my grandmother if she could come over to play. My innocence was instantly shattered with my grandmother’s emphatic response, “She can’t come over here! She’s Black. You can only play with her at school.” That was my first indoctrination into socially enforced segregation. Looking back, I now realize that we always sat in the back of the bus, not because that was what we chose, but because that was what was expected of a Black child.
I began to pay attention to the inequities created by history and continued by both habit and intent. I listened to the nuances adults and children used to refer to people of other races, particularly regarding African Americans, and learned to tell when someone was deliberately disguising their racist feelings that others would find offensive. I took it all in!
When we moved to Benicia, I enrolled my children at Mary Farmer School. I became fast friends with four other women who had children in the same class as my daughter. One was Black, one was Asian and two were White. Our friendships grew. We shared birthdays and family events together. Our children grew up as friends. We supported and celebrated with each other.
I slowly began to notice a racially biased edge to one in our group – one of the White women. She made subtle but questionable comments about people of color. One day I overheard her teenage son comment to my daughter that he would date Halle Berry if she would change her color. I can not describe how angry and uncomfortable that made me feel. I began to pay closer attention to my friend and what she said.
On the day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King in 2016 the final bomb dropped. My friend traditionally would send a text to all of us to commemorate various holidays. That morning I did received a text from my friend. To my horror, this one read, “Happy Darkie Day!” complete with an offensive caricature of a Black man. I checked to see if it was a group text but it was only sent to me. I could only think that because she knew of my Southern heritage she thought I would find this amusing, which was certainly not the case.
I responded to her text and said this is extremely inappropriate and not funny at all. When I returned home I wrote her a letter strongly expressing my outrage and disappointment regarding this racist text. I concluded in my note that I could no longer be friends with her. She responded with an immediate apology, but it was too late. How could she assume her message to me was acceptable?
She continued to try to make amends. She tried to justify herself by saying that was how she was raised and that was how Blacks were referred to where she grew up. She then intimated that this was what teachers say at school. I was even more horrified. This woman was a teacher’s aide at Mary Farmer! Though I sincerely doubted this was a common expression among the staff, apparently she had at least one ally – at a public elementary school in Benicia!
I did not go to the school administration, which I regret. My concern for my former friend’s feelings were still strong. After all, we had been close for years, and she was clearly upset over the loss of our friendship. I didn’t want to make it harder on her by impacting her very livelihood. Perhaps I should have. Maybe it would have fostered much needed equity training sooner. But I did keep the text. It is a reminder to me that racism in Benicia, and in this country, still exists.
Being Black does not have to be a limitation, but can be a liability…
Brandon Greene, 38 year old Black male
Benicia resident for 6 years
My earliest memories of anti-Blackness were from preschool. While I did not fully understand my feelings, it became much clearer when my former preschool teacher recently ran into my mother and told her how she had been afraid of me, the four-year-old Black boy in her class. That was the beginning. Throughout my academic career I was frequently removed from class and my mother called in for a parent teacher conference, in spite of the fact that I excelled academically. In middle school, I, like other kids my age who were consumed with hiphop, wanted a starter jacket. When my mother told me that she could not afford one, I – never one to accept limitations – decided to save my lunch money toward the purchase. That Christmas, my mother and grandmother combined their money with the money I had saved and purchased me a Charlotte Hornets jacket. Not two months later, I found myself in the principal’s office accused of stealing the jacket. This wouldn’t be the last time I was falsely accused of wrongdoing. By the time I exited high school, I was convinced that I was cursed. As a teen and young adult, I experienced several close calls with the law not based on my wrongdoings, but the color of my skin. I thought that maybe college degrees would insulate me, so I became a lawyer. However, more education, money and social access still did not provide me the comfort of feeling safe.
My wife, who is also a lawyer, is White. She sees how the world reacts to me and our children. Her fear of the dangers of driving while Black has led her to take a proactive approach to my safety by not allowing me to drive on long trips. She is under the assumption that if we are pulled over, I may face less danger with her behind the wheel – or perhaps we would not be pulled over at all. Time will tell if this strategy works. She sees and feels anti-Blackness in a deep way in her day-to-day life by watching the way it circles around her husband and children.
This brings me to my journey to Benicia . My wife and I met in law school in Boston. During our first jobs out of law school, we found ourselves expecting the birth of our first child. As new parents, my wife’s and my first consideration of a place to live was safety and the second was schools. Berkeley, the Oakland Hills, and what seemed like the entirety of the East Bay area seemed too expensive. We cast our eyes on Benicia as an affordable option. It offered the added benefit of good schools.
From all of my experiences growing up and being singled out for being Black, not usually in a good way, I had deep concerns about moving to a small, suburban community, where being Black is an anomaly. Even now, six years in, I am hyper conscious of my existence in Benicia.
I was pleasantly surprised by the treatment I received here. The realtor worked fervently with us to find the right home in a good neighborhood. We quickly adapted to the rhythm here, enjoying the downtown, the proximity of the water, the hiking trails and the facility of travel to Napa, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco. Despite my striking physical differences from the majority here, I feel welcomed in Raleys, the bank, and the library, where they greet us by name. I took advantage of the need for community involvement in local government, and became a member of the Open Government Commission, where I served for three years. But Benicia is sleepy and slow to progress. Postings on Nextdoor often show in stark ways the reality that exists just under the quaint, suburban politeness – someone who looks like me or my children can be deemed inherently suspicious. So do the stories of the disparities that exist within the school system and elsewhere.
I’m happy here, but it could be better. Benicia could become a model city for social equity and justice. All it takes is courage and the right leadership. It says something that the third capital of California has not yet crossed the threshold to elect a single Black elected official to local office. That the governance from 1853 to present has not included a single Black voice. In that way Benicia is both in lock step with and behind our national politics.
I know where I have come from, but it’s where I am going that is so important…
January 27, 2021
50 year old White woman
12 year Benicia resident
Growing up in Marin wasn’t exactly the place for me to get to know people outside of my racial group. My parents, who had immigrated here from England, didn’t have a lot of experience either, so I had little to no exposure to other cultures. I grew up learning about People of Color from the media and from what was commonly considered among my friends, family, and culture. I thought most Black people were poor, and that’s why they didn’t live in my community. It really wasn’t until high school that I even had any contact with any other Black people.
It was the first time that I can remember having a group of Black students at my school. My original reaction was one of mild curiosity – these students seemed really different from me. They talked differently, dressed differently, and acted differently. We didn’t seem to have much in common, and I didn’t know how to bridge that gap so I did the easy thing and kept to my own group. There was one Black girl on the periphery of my circle of friends. She managed to divide her social time with my group and hers, and although we weren’t close, it was a start.
Then in my 20’s I dated my first Black man. It was a brief episode, but eye opening, nonetheless. We were at a club one night when some shouted something at us. Although I couldn’t hear the words over the noise, I could tell it was insulting. It puzzled me that someone whom neither of us knew would want to bother us, but my date didn’t appear surprised at all. Nearly a decade later, I had a short relationship with a different Black man. He didn’t like going out in public together unless it was late at night. I was a bit hurt and asked him about it. I thought he didn’t want to be seen with me, but after our conversation, I realized that it wasn’t about me at all. He simply didn’t feel comfortable or safe being seen with a White woman. That was the moment my journey into awareness began.
I began to notice that People of Color were frequently treated differently than White people, especially as the political climate became more polarized. The country was hurting, especially African Americans. I made it a point to open my world and my heart. I read a book entitled, “A Real American,” and it showed me the perspective of people who have been marginalized in this culture for decades, even though they are Americans just as much as any White person. I attended a training on Social Equity at work, and my eyes opened wider.
I watched helplessly as a Black woman co-worker was ostracized at work and eventually driven out for having a different perspective. I told her I was sorry to see her go, but she said she was used to it, and that she didn’t have the energy to fight this particular battle when she didn’t feel welcomed. My heart was heavy. I confided my concerns to another Black co-worker, one whom I considered my friend. When she indicated she didn’t want to talk about it any further, I felt compelled to add that my Whiteness affords me the privilege not to have to think about how I come across to others. Now I wish I could take back those words. I could have just sat with that and provided my silent support. I have come to realize that my statement was driving an already obvious and painful point further. My intent was to share that I understood, but in reality I was unaware of the power of my own impact and the pain it causes.
Looking back, I realize how far I have come in my awareness. But evolution takes time and experience, and I still have a long way to go. I am lucky, I am not a victim of racism. But I understand now that my experience is one from a privileged position. My work towards social justice has become very important to me. I am grateful for my growing friendship with my Black coworker and look forward to having more open discussions when she is ready. But mostly, I look forward to listening, to really hearing what she, and others, have to say.
IT WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A GLORIOUS DAY, ONE WHERE I COULD EXPRESS MY PASSIONS FREELY AND PUBLICALLY. BUT CLEARLY NOT EVERYONE WAS WITH ME ON THIS…
January 27, 2021
15 year old Black male
10 year Benicia resident
I am proud to be a Black student at Benicia High School. I love my community and my culture. And I want to live in this City without the experience of bias or racism.
When my mom told me about a public rally to protest racism that was happening in Benicia after the killing of George Floyd, I was excited to go. The need for change was growing, and many of my friends from school would be there. My mom brought my brother, his friend and me downtown to gather at the park. My enthusiasm was growing and the energy felt good as we approached the gazebo.
Most of the bystanders were with us. They were encouraging. Then one shabbily dressed White man, probably in his 40s yelled out, “F*** You! You’re making us look bad!” I felt a surge of anger and started toward him. My brother pulled me back. “This is not the time…” he said. I heard my brother’s words and shook it off. There were other things to do besides mess with this man.
When our group started down First Street, it was exhilarating. Our energy grew with every chant. Black people, White people, young people, and old people. We were together in this. When another White man yelled out “Make America Great Again,” to counter our efforts at the bottom of First Street, our chants of “No Justice, No Peace” drowned him out.
We rounded the corner and headed past the police station, making our way back to the gazebo. And when we got there, we didn’t feel complete, so we decided to do a second pass. This time, as we approached the police station, the police were with us, too. They all knelt – some of them hesitating – but they all knelt! I felt empowered and had a new respect for the Benicia police. Our movement was supported by them! When we got back to the park after the second round, I was pumped. This was how it should be! Our voices were heard!
But then everything changed. A black truck, coming down Military from East Second, headed towards the park. The driver, a White man in his 30s, called out something that I didn’t hear. A young White male protestor approached his truck. I don’t know what was said, but it didn’t go well. After the exchange, the young man walked away in anger, and the driver turned his attention to the rest of our group, “You all are making Benicia look bad. Get out of this country!” As a group we started chanting, “Say his name – George Floyd!” and started towards the truck. “Oh, you want me to say his name?” the man called out. “I’ve killed N***s before,” and he picked up a handgun and pointed it in our direction.
I didn’t know what to do. No one had ever threatened me with a gun before. Our group, which was mostly young people, scattered. The man drove off, but the mood changed. We went from feeling powerful and strong to feeling frightened, overwhelmed and angry in a matter of seconds. It was proof of how racism still exists and the power it has even when expressed by one individual.
Luckily someone had the good sense to film the incident with their phone, The police responded quickly, and charges were eventually brought against the man. But although the video was visually clear, it was not able to capture his words, and so they were unable to charge him with a hate crime. Instead, he has been charged with unlawfully brandishing a weapon at a peaceful protest. I only hope that this man and others who hear my story know that racism will no longer be tolerated.
AT FIRST IT WAS INSULTING, BUT IT BECAME AN ONGOING ISSUE AND SOME OF IT VERY HARMFUL. NOW I WANT TO MOVE AWAY FROM THIS COMMUNITY THAT I HAVE PUT SO MUCH INTO…
January 27, 2021
Asian and Polynesian American woman, Age 35
9 years Benicia resident
When my husband, who is Black, and I first moved here, we were expecting our second child. We were excited to be in Benicia. It was a good town with good schools, and our children would grow up safely and with fair opportunity. So we thought.
Our early racial experiences were merely insulting and disrespectful. For example, my husband and I stopped in Safeway to pick up some groceries. We didn’t exactly get dressed up to go shopping. We had been busy with the move, and we were wearing old clothes splattered from the day’s painting. As we walked from aisle to aisle, we noticed a White clerk in her 30s following us around. After it became clear she had her eyes on us, we looked directly at her. “Can I help you find anything?” she stammered. It seemed odd. One afternoon a few weeks later, my husband was working on our car in front of our home when he was questioned about whether he belongs in the neighborhood by a White male police officer. I was concerned, but my husband laughed it off and said it happens all the time. A couple of weeks after that, he was pulled over on East 5th Street and Military for a tail light issue. The White woman officer was clearly on high alert as she approached the car as though my husband was going to attack her. I had never experienced this kind of response in an officer for a fix-it concern. Was it because my husband is male and Black?
I began to notice our neighbors eyed us cautiously when I walked our dog with my husband, but were friendly when it was just me. One couple regularly locked their car with the remote while watching from their front window as we walked by their house, but this only happened when my husband was present.
I want to share that both of us are very involved in our community. We pour our hearts and energy into caring for those in need. We deliver food to the homebound, including the couple with the car remote. My family started a non-profit organization and is the fiscal sponsor for the beloved local program, Food Is Free Benicia (now Food is Free Solano). We helped make it possible for the program to expand during the COVID crisis, feeding thousands more people in need. I also work for SafeQuest, helping any Benicia and Solano County survivors of rape, domestic violence, and human trafficking. I am dedicated to the local Soroptimists, a community service organization. My husband helps with all of these endeavors, and personally works to uplift anyone he meets.
Over time things got uglier, not better. About five years ago, while we lived at Burgess Point, the tires of each of the 32 cars parked in the designated residents’ parking were slashed during the night. Our complex was primarily occupied by People of Color, some of whom were recipients of Affordable Housing. Although the police did open up an investigation, there was no follow up or compensation for victims. And there were no rent leniency offered by the property management company or safety precautions installed, such motion sensor lights, alarms, or cameras, even though we asked. While sharing this tragic story with a friend who is a lifelong Benician, she mentioned that she had heard our complex commonly referred to as “Nigger” Hill. I was shocked.
The final heartbreak came when my daughters were affected. Last May, my two girls were outside of our house training for their gymnastics competitions in hopes to be ready when sports events resume after the pandemic. Someone called the police on them. My husband and I were literally a few feet beside them, making sure they were safe.. When questioned by the officer, we explained what they were doing, but the police department publicly listed the call on its online report blotter as a citation for truancy. This was at 4pm in the afternoon while it was still daylight. It was only because of my community work and connections that I was able to reach the Police Chief and the unfounded truancy listing was eventually removed. My beautiful girls, ages 9 and 10, who are also heavily involved in community service, still don’t understand what they were doing “wrong” and why the police officer would report them.
And then, as my nine-year old daughter and I walked past the shops at the corner of East Second and Military on our way to the sanctioned Benicia Youth justice rally, a White Man in his 30’s came out of a shop and threatened us. We were walking near an older Black woman and her grandchild, when he started shouting, “I’m going to Kill You “N****s!” It was terrifying. I called the police, and waited near Starbucks for 20 minutes, but no one came. It took a FaceBook message to the police from a White friend to get them to respond. That was two hours later.
I want to love it here. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of heart. My husband and I care about our home, our neighborhood, and our community, and we put a lot of time and energy into cultivating relationships and providing resources for those in need. I have some wonderful friends here of all backgrounds, and I’m so grateful for their love and support. Through our work, we have developed connections and resources, and yet, because of the color of our skins, we continue to be treated with disrespect, disdain, and even hatred. Every person in our town, whether or not they are involved with charity work or not, deserves to be treated with dignity and humanity. I hope my story helps others to realize how hurtful racist behavior is, and how much it mars our beautiful community.
Nothing in my life as a White woman had prepared me for what it actually felt like to be the object of racism…
January 27, 2021
48 year old White woman
11 year Benicia resident
Almost ten years ago a little boy who would expand my heart exponentially entered my life. After several years of researching and contemplating adoption, my husband and I found ourselves in a central African country meeting our two year old son for the first time. Holding his little body close that night as I rocked him to sleep, my only feeling was an overwhelming love. But my head also knew that there would be significant challenges for our son growing up in the U.S. as a Black boy, particularly with White parents.
Back home we dove into all those fun things you do with curious and fun loving preschoolers. Our son had big brown sparkling eyes and an infectious laugh that literally made people stop in their tracks to listen. On a warm, sunny day I took him, our 9 year old bio son and a 9 year old Black friend to a lake for some summer kayaking. The kids were chatting excitedly as I got everything ready off to the side of a wide boat ramp. Suddenly, there was a man yelling at me from a truck and before I could comprehend what was happening, he was backing his boat directly toward the children despite a huge open area on the ramp. I grabbed the kids and we moved out of the way, but I was shaken and, quite frankly, confused as to why this man would act with what can only be described as hatred. The look on his face was unmistakable.
The thing was that, as much as I had sought to educate myself on the issues that Black Americans face every day, nothing in my life as a White woman had prepared me for what it actually felt like to be the object of racism. It was a defining moment of my life and I realized that day that, as much as I want to empathize with Black Americans, even my own son, I will never be able to fully understand.
That was the first incident, but there have been others. That same summer I sat at the edge of the community pool watching my little one frolic in the kiddie fountains with some other children. To this day playing in the water is his favorite thing to do and I was content to just sit and watch my happy 2 year old discover a new joy with the sun on my face. I was shocked when suddenly a White female lifeguard grabbed him roughly by the collar of his life jacket and nearly lifted him from the fountains. I was immediately on my feet, telling her to put my son down. A surprised and embarrassed look came over her. She had just targeted the one Black child in the pool for doing something that drew the natural curiosity of all of the children there. And she didn’t realize that his mother was right there supervising. Of course not. Our skin colors don’t match. That lifeguard was just one of many people who have made assumptions based on the colors of our skin over the years.
Although these two specific incidents didn’t happen in Benicia they taught me that, even at the tender age of an innocent preschooler, having Black skin makes a real difference in how people see and treat my child. I fear for my now 11 year old who is beginning to look like a teen. The other day, I watched him walking down the sidewalk with his hoodie up to counteract the stiff Benicia breeze. He was walking back from playing with his remote control boat in the water and my heart sank when I realized the large, gray controller in his hands could look like a gun. That thought would have never crossed my mind about my White son, but when you are the parent of a Black child there are realities that you can’t hide from.
I’ve shared my personal stories with friends and other parents throughout the years because I think it’s important to talk about the racism that’s a part of our social fabric. I fervently want my son to be able to feel nothing but pride in his beautiful Black body.
All mothers want to protect their children from harm, but as a Black mother in a White dominant society, protection against deliberate racist behavior is at the top of the list…
January 27, 2021
By Nimat Shakoor Grantham, Age 58
Benicia resident since 2003
We moved to Benicia just as my son was entering 7th grade. I knew that moving into a White dominant community in 2003 was likely to have special challenges. And although Benicia is a small town full of open and caring people, most White folks living in a relatively homogenous neighborhood aren’t used to being around Black people. There was bound to be some suspicion, fear and even animosity. That’s how many respond to unfamiliar populations of people, particularly when their primary experience with that group comes from television, learned behavior from childhood, or old racist carryovers. I prepared my son as best I could.
It came only a few weeks after he began attending Benicia Middle School. A boy called him a “Nigger.” This was not done in a friendly, joking way. It was deliberately intended to to provoke a reaction. The boy, who was White, called my son this name, while several of his friends stood by and laughed. My son didn’t even know this boy, so it wasn’t really personal, but it hurt – a lot. As I had taught him, my son responded with, “That word – it’s inappropriate and mean.” It happened again a few weeks later. This time, my son firmly told him, “This needs to stop – now!” When it happened a third time, my son went to the teacher, a middle-aged White woman. She acted concerned and said she would report it. For a few weeks after that, the boy left him alone. And then it happened again. The same boy and his crowd. The same word. Again, my son went to the teacher and one of the administrators, a White man, who was around 40 years old. This time there he was asked questions and his responses were written down. It seemed more official.
Each time this boy had approached him, my son told me about it. We were close, and at age 12, he still took my advice seriously. He asked me what to do if it happened again. I thought about it. He had done everything right, as far as I could tell. He did not respond with emotion. He tried to correct the boy. He went to the teacher and the vice-principal when he couldn’t stop it on his own. I am a firm believer in teaching appropriate, non-violent behavior, respect for authority, and building bridges between cultural divides. And I know that middle school kids can be mean. Sometimes, they experiment with bullying behavior to see what they can get away, to feel powerful, or to gain popularity. I didn’t blame the child for learned or experimental behavior, but he needed to learn more appropriate behavior before it became an uglier problem. “If it happens again, hit him,” I said. “Then the administration will have to deal with me.” A few weeks later, the boy threw the “N” word at my son for the last time, and my boy went at him. The two boys tussled until stopped by a staff member.
That afternoon, I got a call from the principal’s office. “We have a problem,” the man who was representing the principal said. “Your son initiated a fight, and I have to suspend him. We don’t tolerate any physical violence. And he told me that you told him to do it. Is that accurate?” Holding back on my response until I had more information, I asked what had happened. The man told me another student had called him a name, and that my son had thrown the first punch. Luckily, neither boy was seriously hurt. I asked what name the other boy used. He said that wasn’t important. I disagreed. “It’s very important. Was it a racist term?” The administrator admitted that it was racist and derogatory. I asked directly, “Did he use the word, ‘Nigger’?” Although the man didn’t actually admit that was the term used, he did act uncomfortable. “Is the other boy getting suspended, too?” I asked. He countered with, “It doesn’t matter what word the other boy used, calling someone a name is not the same as hitting someone.” I drew a deep breath. With all the patience I could muster, I said, “That word, used as it was, is the SAME as being hit.” I continued, “My boy has come to staff twice already complaining of being called a racist term – one so deep and hurtful that he felt it important to tell you. He showed respect and restraint, and nothing was done about it. Now you’re telling me that my son is getting suspended for defending himself and the other student is not?” I was furious. “Do I have to take this to the School Board?” There was a moment of silence before he said, “Let me get back to you.”
I didn’t hear anything from the school that evening. The next morning I called to verify whether or not my son was on suspension. “We’re expecting him at school this morning” was my answer. I never received an explanation or an apology. I had requested a meeting with the other boy’s parents, as I saw this as an opportunity to build relationships and learn from mistakes, but that wasn’t granted. Nor was there any further discussion on it. The taunting stopped, and my son’s discipline record remained unstained. Problem gone, but not resolved.
It still pains me to think about the humiliation and frustration my son had to endure as one of the only Black 7th graders in a new community, one that, at that time, still carried vestiges of systemic racism. My work today is cut out for me. As a leader in equity building, I do my best to understand the history and psychology of racism. It’s what motivates me to be part of the solution, rather than contributing further to the problem.
I was coaching my girls’ basketball team when two young men in suits busted into the gym, grabbed the ball from one of the girl’s hands and took over the court. I had to act quickly, effectively, and responsibly, but when they referred to me as a
Ryan Stewart, Age 23,
Benicia resident since 1999
Before the pandemic hit, my 8th grade girls’ basketball travel team regularly practiced at the Benicia Community Rec Center on Friday evenings from 7 to 9pm. We rented the entire space. There are three of us coaches and ten or eleven 13-14 year old girls. I am the only Black coach. The other two are Filipino. The girls are an integrated group.
The incident took place in February. The door was open to allow a breeze and so that parents, friends and family members could freely come in to watch the girls practicing. There were 25-30 people in the gym when suddenly two White men in their mid 20s, one of whom I recognized from high school, rushed onto the court. They grabbed the ball out of one of the girl’s hands, and began to monopolize the space. They were not connected to our team in any way. They were dressed as though they had just attended a formal function. And they smelled of alcohol.
There were a few moments of confusion before we all realized what was going on and started to mobilize. I watched as one of the other coaches tried to get them to leave, but they ignored him. Then I walked over to where the men were starting a game of one-on-one and asked for the ball back. I calmly told them we have the court reserved for practice every week at this time, and that they couldn’t be here. They laughed and asked why I had to be that way. They were clearly drunk. I told them they had to leave. Then they tried a different tactic. “Come on – We’ll play you for the court space. We win, and you give us the court. You win and we leave.” I wasn’t interested in bargaining. We had paid for the court, and it was our right to use it. Again, I asked them to leave. This time they told me to get my “fat ass” away from them.
I’m a big guy. I am 6’10” and weigh close to 300 pounds. Most people don’t mess with me. I don’t let insults like “fat ass” bother me. I let that comment slide, and since they insisted on continuing to interfere with our practice, I used my bulk to nudge them towards the door. It wasn’t until one of them said, “Why do you “N’s” always have to be like this?” that I lost my composure. That got me. The “N” word is so repulsive to me and so insulting, I had to check myself. I asked the man to repeat what he had just said, just to be sure I heard him right. He fired the same words back at me.
I hate hearing that word from anyone who isn’t Black themselves, especially when it’s being used as a deliberate racially-based insult. It brings back the collective demoralizing history of my people. I was furious.
For a moment, I felt conflicted about what to do next. I was ready to punch the man who provoked me with that word, but I had to back down. First and most importantly, I was in charge of a group of young, impressionable girls. They saw me as a role model, and me punching someone for something he said wasn’t what they needed to witness. Secondly, I was twice as big as these guys, and I’m a trained athlete and martial artist. I could really hurt them. Lastly, and just as important, I knew they could press charges if I physically assaulted them. As a Black man, I am always concerned that I might be considered guilty by the police, the courts, and the community without much consideration to my side of the story. That could affect my job, my standing in the community, and my future. With great reluctance, I knew I had to let it go.
With the help of the other coach and two of the girls’ family members who jumped in, we were finally able to get the disrespectful intruders out of the gym and onto the street. They continued to argue and hurl insults while standing in front of the Benicia police station. Finally they gave up and walked away, taunting us as they moved down L Street towards the east side. The entire incident lasted about 10 minutes. It took me as long to calm down and report to the police station.
My initial experience in the station did not go well. There was a woman at the front desk who had witnessed much of the scene through the window. The automatic camera had filmed it. Yet, she claimed she thought we were friends messing around with each other. She also said I should have reported it in the moment, rather than waiting until it was over, but I had been busy dealing directly with the problem. Her reaction felt very dismissive. It didn’t help that I just was verbally insulted with serious racial slurs, and that she was White. She refused to call someone to go after the two men, even though we could positively identify both of them. Plus they were on foot, not far from the station. They would have been easily detained, and there were about 30 witnesses to support my story. I left the station frustrated and still angry.
The incident has a just ending. As I was driving home, I called my dad. It helped to have his support and perspective. The next day, we contacted the police chief, who took the matter seriously and responded with compassion and professionalism. He took my report, apprehended the two men, fined them for trespassing, and banned them from the City Rec Center. A personal apology would be welcomed, but overall I’m pleased with the response.
In hindsight, I’m proud of the way I handled that. No one should be subjected to deliberate and disrespectful harassment. And no one should have to harness their rage over a word. But that’s the reality. Someday I hope we can all put it to rest and never have to relive the anger and shame that the single word “N” conjures.
I thought they were my friends…but when I joined the conversation, they stunned me into silence with their outrageous and hurtful statements.
21 year old black woman
A Benicia resident for 18 years
I’ve been lucky. I haven’t had too many memorable experiences with racism, but there is one that stands out to me.
When I was about 15 years old, I was part of a group of girlfriends. I was the only Black member of the group, but some of the girls were members of other minorities. Four of them were already on FaceTime when I joined one night. I didn’t get a chance to say much before the conversation went in a shocking direction. Three of the others began to talk about Black people. They didn’t quite make it personal, but it was obvious that it was designed to hurt me. They said that Black fathers don’t stick around; that Black people are always on welfare; that Black people are drug addicts; that Black people habitually steal; that Black people are Gangbangers. They said other things, too, but I was too stunned to remember much more detail. I made up an excuse and got offline.
As soon as I left, the one girl who didn’t contribute to the conversation texted me and asked if I was okay. She told me that the conversation had been friendly and normal before I came on, and that she didn’t understand why things changed so suddenly. I didn’t know what to say, I was so hurt and shocked.
The three girls never apologized or reached out to me. Shortly after this, I drifted away from this group and found other, more genuine friends. I never confronted the girls, or told any adult what had happened. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. At the time, I thought it best to just remove myself from the situation.
Today I would handle this differently. I have the confidence to stand up for myself and my culture. I am grateful for the one girl who reached out to me back then with kindness. She and I are still friends today, but the others…that was the last time I considered them my “friends.” It was painful to me personally, but it goes deeper than that. It was a gut-wrenching revelation for me to learn that others might think so lowly about my people in general, regardless of how friendly they might behave towards me.