By Lucia Bowers
I once read somewhere that most American adults live within 18 miles from their mothers. And although I have no clear idea of where I read that tidbit, I do know roughly when I read it: sometime 2015, when I was in my 10th year of teaching in my hometown, about five blocks away from my parents and my family home.
In fact, I’ve lived in the same city for most of my life. My parents still live in my childhood home. I met my husband in one of the ninth grade classrooms my older children pass on the way to their classes. I teach alongside my teachers. I’ve taught the children of my childhood classmates, their little smooth faces more closely resembling the memory of their parents than the 40-year-old faces that I see during school events. It’s familiar.
When I tell people this, they don’t think it’s too strange until they discover that my hometown isn’t exactly a small town. It isn’t Mayberry, even though for a long time, it had that reputation. Instead, it’s just a few miles away from Downtown Los Angeles, is the Media Capital of the World, and is the set of major motion pictures, not just my childhood videos.
It also was a sundown town.
Of course, I didn’t know what that meant as a child. Or as a teenager. Or even as a young adult. 2020, my 40th year on this planet and my 35th year in this city, is when I started really understanding some of the history of this city I’ve always known but haven’t. And in the last few years, I feel like I’ve lived here my whole life and I haven’t seen it. I was made aware of some of the hard history and suddenly, it’s everywhere, even sprinkled in my memories.
How does a person of color live in a sundown town for so long and not know it? The best way I can describe it is this: it’s like walking in the rain. In sunny Southern California, rain is rare and fleeting and maybe even unfamiliar. There is a moment before a downpour where you can’t tell if it’s raining. But you feel it in the air. You can feel the moisture all around you. You get that chill down your spine. And yet, you wonder if this is it, if it really is raining. Even when a drop falls on your face, you look up in disbelief, stick out your hand to try to catch something, check the ground for evidence.
“Is it raining?” you ask the person next to you. You don’t want to look silly, so you ask before you put up your umbrella, looking for reassurance. It doesn’t take much from them to convince you that you’re imagining it. “I didn’t feel anything,” they shrug and you shrug too, and you keep on walking, ignoring what you felt, ignoring what you continue to feel, because no one else seems to notice it all.
That is what being surrounded by microaggressions feels like. Throughout my life here, I’ve lived in a privileged space, even as a minority, first generation American. I am sure now that there were people out in my hometown who undoubtedly felt the torrents of racism. I count myself as lucky to have only felt some drops. But still, those drops have stuck with me.
The lovely principal who never pronounced my name correctly and embarrassed me in front of all my peers every year, even on my promotion from elementary school.
The times other students touched my hair and they didn’t stop when I asked and the teacher didn’t stop them.
The teacher who always asked “comprende?” in a condescending tone after an instruction and consistently called me by another classmate’s name.
The times a classmate called me the n-word, “beaner,” or “wetback.”
The times in school when strangers asked me where I was from. But where was I really from? Like, where was I originally from? Where was my family from? Like, where was my background from? The answer “here” was never enough.
All those little signs of the rain. But when I asked anyone if they noticed, they shrugged it off. I was being too sensitive. I misunderstood. We’re colorblind here. They didn’t mean it that way.
My principal truly was a kind woman and my name was hard to pronounce. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t say it after five years.
And touching my hair? I mean, we had just read a Ramona book where she does the same thing to the girl with the curly hair, so they were just copying that. They were just being curious.
As for the comprende. I mean, Spanish was my first language in kindergarten and even though I was now in middle school with an A+ in her class, the teacher was just making sure I understood. And she made an honest mistake by calling me Joanna the whole year because we look exactly alike! Joanna, who was about a foot shorter with straight hair was indistinguishable from me with my head full of long curls.
Oh, and the name calling wasn’t name calling. I mean, they weren’t calling me that, they were asking me if I was one. Again, they were just curious.
When they asked me where I was from, it was nothing personal. I don’t look like most of the people here. I am a first-generation American, so maybe I really am not from here in the same way. They can tell I didn’t grow up here is all. Even though I did, I didn’t grow up here the same way they grew up here.
Even though I felt racism and microaggressions growing up here and I knew I felt it, I also didn’t know if it was real. I had read about the terrors of racism and what I experienced wasn’t anything like that. And I was constantly told that no one was racist here, that the sundown town thing wasn’t racism but was just something they did to keep the city safe and property value up. I learned that none of these things that were racism were racism at all. They were me, constantly misunderstanding things and being too sensitive. I was the weirdo sticking up my umbrella on a perfectly sunny day.
It wasn’t until embarrassingly recently that I’ve started to understand, acknowledge, and assert that what I felt growing up was in fact me walking in the rain.
The events of the last two years have been like shaking the clouds themselves and letting it all fall out for all to see. And now, I can’t put it out of my thoughts again, can’t pretend I don’t see it. It’s time to take out the umbrellas to protect ourselves and our students from the downpour. Time to put on some boots so we can march forward through it. Better yet, time to be the bright, loud sun that drives the rain away. Time to talk about it, time to acknowledge it, time to do something about it. But even with the huge downpour, I still hear the voices saying that this rain is not rain, racism is not racism, injustice is not injustice. And in some ways, those voices are even more hurtful than the voices who say rain is natural, racism is good, and injustice is in fact justice.
The difference between me as a child and me as an adult is that as an adult, I don’t listen to other voices to validate my own experiences anymore. As a child, I needed that support. Listening, acknowledging, and acting is the very least educators could be doing to help our students of color thrive in our classrooms. So many times, students have shared how dismissive teachers are of their experiences. It takes me right back to my own childhood being told that what I know I experienced was an overreaction, a misunderstanding, or oversensitivity. There are things each of us can do to help our students of color thrive, but it all starts with listening, acknowledging, and acting.
My city has started doing that. We have made some strides forward in the last few years. Our school, which was previously named after a eugenists, was recently renamed, becoming the first school in our city to be named after a female or person of color. My alma mater recently changed its mascot from the Indian to the Bears. Our district created an anti-racism statement and is reevaluating the way it chooses it’s curriculum to ensure it is both reflective of the IBPOC experience while also not traumatizing its IBPOC students with only slavery, abuse, and explotation narratives. There’s talk of looking into hiring practices to bring more IBPOC educators and staff into our school system. So in a lot of ways, we’re moving forward.
However, it’s still raining out there. Has been for a while and probably will be for a while. Even though there are still so many people in our city who loudly deny it, at least now I have the ability to see through that and see the rain for what it is. In my hometown, where I am still just a few miles away from my childhood home and where I bump into someone I know almost everywhere I go, I can see that I’m not the only person here who feels this. There are many others that are here walking through the rain with me. Some are in a downpour. Some are in a drizzle. But no matter the struggle, we are stronger together. We can make sure we have an umbrella if we need it. We can help each other put on our boots to march forward. Most of all, we can help each other to be the sunshine – the loud, passionate, unrelenting sunshine – so we can make brighter skies in this city together.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read the previous blog post by Nawal Q Casiano (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).