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.