Bronwyn Harris lives in Alameda.
In light of recent incidents in both Alameda and far too many other towns across the country, I wanted to share some thoughts and experiences related to race, privilege and really listening to others.
I grew up in Petaluma, which is a town much like Alameda in many ways, and I thought that racism was a thing of the past. I explained away any negative experiences people of color told me about, assuming that they’d just encountered someone who was having a bad day or said something that was misunderstood, rather than attributing the experience to racism.
Then, after college, I finally started listening to people of color. This wasn’t a conscious choice; I began teaching in an area in which I was frequently the only white person in the room, so I had no option other than to listen to my students, their parents and my colleagues. As a result, I finally began really hearing their experiences. And then I began noticing my own.
When I would escort classes that were 100 percent students of color (primarily Black) on field trips, empty buses wouldn’t stop for us. BART passengers would complain loudly, and sometimes BART operators wouldn’t allow my class on the near-empty trains, even though the kids were on their best behavior.
I started telling my white friends about it, and they made the same kind of excuses I used to make. They’d suggest that the driver might have been having an off day, or the kids must have been acting up. In the meantime, I would see classes of primarily white students on public transportation; they could be totally out of control, and no one seemed to mind.
I started seeing what my friends who were Black and Latino had been telling me, and what I had been ignoring for so long. They weren’t surprised at the way my class was treated, and they agreed that it was statistically unlikely that all of these public transit passengers and operators just happened to be having bad days every time my group of extremely well-behaved students was out. Once my eyes were opened, I saw this kind of systemic inequality everywhere and realized that racism wasn’t a thing of the past at all — it was, and continues to be, very much a thing of the present.
I urge all people who haven’t borne the brunt of racism themselves to listen to those who have. As white people, we can’t understand what it’s like to face this kind of discrimination day in and day out. It’s undoubtedly exhausting, and I imagine it would feel both heartbreaking and invalidating to have racist incidents excused away, whether it’s something as unsettling as the noose found on the Alameda High School fence or something as (unfortunately) everyday as seeing a person crossing the street to avoid a Black man or assuming that a Latino person doesn’t speak English.
So I’d like to ask all of my fellow white Alamedans to take some time to hear our friends and neighbors of color when they talk about their experiences and feelings — both in person and online — without making any excuses, being defensive or thinking they’re overreacting or too easily offended. It will be difficult. It will be uncomfortable. But I think we’ll be a better, stronger community if we can really listen to others’ experiences without negating them. And being better and stronger is something that we should all want for our town.
Bronwyn Harris lives in Alameda.