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.