BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
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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…
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…
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 Aisian 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…
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…
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…
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…
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…
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.