BENICIA BLACK LIVES MATTER
“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.