Growing up in the Bay Area, I was not viscerally aware of my experience as a minority. My parents, like many other Black folks, made sure of this. When I was growing up there were Black people everywhere from what I could tell. My parents patronized Black-owned businesses throughout Oakland and Berkeley. I had Black teachers and Black doctors; my parents had a Black accountant; our grocery clerks, bus drivers, bank tellers, and local artists and performers–they were all Black, of African descent, and proud of it. It was the 1970s-80s. Perhaps I should have been paying more attention because the reality was that I was one of three Black girls in orchestra in 1985 (the other two have white mothers); one of two Black girls in college prep English in 1990 (go Yellow Jackets!); the only Black person in my Business Law course in 1995; and the first Black director in a Berkeley-based nonprofit in 2014.
Oakland used to be more than 60 percent Black; Berkeley had a stable Black population; and San Francisco was rich with Black culture. The last census informed us that nearly 40 percent of Berkeley’s Black residents left the Bay Area between 2000 and 2010. Like many other neighborhoods across the nation, the predominantly Black block I grew up on in Berkeley, where my mother has lived in our family home since she was fourteen, now has only five Black families remaining.
I am beginning to understand my experience as a minority in a different way – through the lens of someone without a cohesive community.
My parents educated me about African history. My high school had an African American Studies Department and one summer I took an intensive course about the Harlem Renaissance.
Through my family’s spiritual practice, I was taught that my identity as a Christian should come first, rather than my identity as a woman or a person of African descent. But I’ve learned that what impacts my day-today experience is how people perceive me, not how much fruit of the spirit I’ve been able to cultivate.
I wake up every day with clarity of my wholeness. It is through my daily encounters that I am reminded that I am Black and not white. I am not part of the dominant power class. It was critical for me to understand the historical context of this reality. Sometimes the strategy used against me is subtle and the impact is not immediately felt. Other times the strategies are intrusive, destructive, and intended to cause immediate harm.
Navigation skills are a critical part of the Black experience.
I had a boss who said, “I get up in the morning, come to work, and all I have to do is be white. I hire Black folks because they’re the smartest people you’ll meet. They‘ll work hard and deliver because they’ve had to – to survive.” Her statement is not a compliment. Her belief perpetuates and normalizes the expectation that Black people must work harder, and it makes clear to me that extra work is expected and the bar for excellence is higher. The added stress of coping with her expectations from day to day showed up in my stress level; national data on the impact of living with racial discrimination in the United States shows up in comparative health data, infant mortality, and life expectancy rates.