As a young woman, I was a first-hand witness to racial profiling and police injustice. It irrevocably changed my perspective about law enforcement...
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.
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...
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 of 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, alieninating 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.
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 frequently rushed 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 indentities, 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.
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 myself by breaking down and crying. This is an example of how to bridge the gap dispite ethnic and cultural barriers.
“My son loved school and learning. That is until he felt racially targeted and unprotected by the staff and administration.”
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 derrogatives. 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 harrassment.” 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 harrassing 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 harrassment 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…”
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 and eventually 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."
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.
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.
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.