Not long after I moved to Bakersfield in 1990, an older white woman stopped me in a shopping center parking lot and said harshly, “You need to go back where you came from.”
I was wearing an outfit with baggy pants and a cropped top in an ethnic fabric that could have been African or Indian.
Did she think I was African, Indian, Mexican? Did she mean for me to return to Los Angeles? I wasn’t sure whom she hated nor why she felt so emboldened to tell me that I wasn’t welcome.
I can be described as having a racially ambiguous outer appearance.
People have asked me if I were “mixed.” That has always meant bi-racial to me. So since both of my parents are African American, I always reply no. To further astonish, I add that I have four grandparents who look like me.
I grew up with my parents and grandparents telling me stories of riding in the back of the bus, not being allowed to try on clothes in department stores, attending substandard schools with academic and athletic supplies that were discarded by white schools, having limited opportunities for employment and promotion, and only being able to live in certain parts of town.
Being light skinned hasn’t spared me from racist people. The most upsetting incident was when I arranged a place to live across the country by phone, but when I flew in and the landlord saw me, she said I couldn’t rent the room in her home. I just stood there and cried because I couldn’t believe what had happened, and I didn’t know where I was going to sleep.
I am in anguish from recent events which is additional trauma on top of generations of such abuse my ancestors suffered. I am concerned about the physical safety and mental health of my husband, sons and daughter, and my Bakersfield College students.
About five years ago, I started a program for African-American students at BC called Umoja (which means unity in Kiswahili) https://www.bakersfieldcollege.edu/student/aai/umoja. The program includes courses, mentorship, academic and cultural trips, and counseling support to stay on track to graduate. The college has been honored for increased success and graduation rates for African American students.
The Umoja program statewide (https://umojacommunity.org/) was born from the needs of students whose histories and experiences have been ignored or misrepresented and who suffer from distressing disparities in access and completion.
While the program helps, it doesn’t solve all the challenges faced by black students when they are on campus nor when they are in the community.
I’ve had students tell me that my Umoja English class is the first one where they’ve learned about the richness of African culture and accomplishments of African American people. In addition, they say my class feels more comfortable than any other class they’ve taken at BC because the vast majority of classes do not offer a culturally responsive curriculum nor are taught by a person of color. Students express feelings of isolation and disengagement when they are the only Black person in the room.
My Umoja students also tell me about being followed around stores while they shop. More than one student has been late to class or absent because he/she was hassled by police. One student told of working outside a large store, being paid to collect survey results. A white woman accused him of hitting her. Police were called, and my student was cuffed and made to sit on the curb while they fetched the security camera footage that showed that he didn’t touch her. That incident left my student too upset and traumatized to go to BC that day.
The next class session, he shared his painful ordeal and other students shared similar experiences with police. They felt comfortable in a community of understanding and love – first steps to healing.
BC is hosting a series of events over the next two weeks called #LightACandle: A Juneteenth Conversation. The goal is listening, understanding and considering suggestions on some ways forward. I hope you’ll join in.
Paula L. Parks is an English professor and Umoja Community Coordinator at Bakersfield College.