Years ago, I dated a Sicilian who I’ll call Sal.

Sal lived in San Francisco. I lived in Oakland.

Sal loved to spend money, so we spent a lot of time shopping. We spent every weekend shopping in lily white Marin County. It was a beautiful place to shop, teeming with the privileges of affluence. However, I was generally the only African American I saw. The salespeople always addressed him first, but they were pleasant towards me. I didn’t give it much thought since he was spending his money and I clearly didn’t like shopping. I expected them to focus on him.

One day on our way back to San Francisco, we drove past a little shop outside of Sausalito. Sal decided to go in.

Tired of shopping, his son and I initially waited outside. After a few minutes, I decided to go inside the shop to get him.

It was a small, one-room store, and there were several white people in the shop. As I stood in the doorway, looking around for Sal, they all stopped shopping and stared at me, their mouths agape.

I assumed they didn’t realize they were staring so I looked back at them. I expected them to catch themselves staring, be embarrassed by their rudeness and politely go about their shopping. But they didn’t.

Meanwhile, Sal’s son ran past me into the shop. The white people didn’t look at him.

I was pissed.

I saw Sal and walked over to him. He was busy shopping.

I vented as we drove back to San Francisco.

“I don’t want to hear about it,” he told me. “It’s boring.”

That made me even angrier and I told him so.

“What do you expect me to do about it?” he asked, “I’m one of them.”

Then it hit me, maybe he was.

That meant I was sleeping with my enemy.

In the past, he and I had often debated whether or not Sicilians were white. I thought not. He thought so.

Sal was not an American citizen. On the other hand, I, like generations of my ancestors, was born and raised in America. But those white people’s stares questioned my place without him.

I stopped being pissed at the people in the shop. Instead, that night I had Sal come with me to an African-American nightclub in Oakland. I had gone there for years. However, when we got to the club, he didn’t go inside. He just sat in the car.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“I don’t want to go in there,” Sal said.

“Why not?” I asked.

“I’ll be the only white person in there,” he answered.

He was right, but I thought about all those weekends I spent shopping in Marin and being the only African American there. Marin was beautiful, but Oakland was my community. I had history in Oakland. I could walk into that club and fit in. I would not be “the only one.” I would know people and people would know me. Oakland had a well-deserved reputation for its beautiful African-American men. And I loved going into a space filled with some of those beautiful African-American men.

I didn’t make Sal go inside the club with me. I didn’t need to. I was back home in Oakland. I went by in myself.

Sadly, that club is no longer with us. It has become a casualty of gentrification.

There is no longer a place to meet African American men. I feel the loss of a place where we fit in with each other. Old friends cannot meet to share memories and support each other like we did when so many were dying of AIDS. Our stories have vanished. We have vanished. The neighborhood is filling up with faddish bars and coffee shops.

I fear one day, I’ll walk into one of them and white people will stare at me with their mouths agape.

 

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.
For guidelines, see: http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines/
For more information on posting to community voices, see The word on Oakland Local’s Community Voices posts, http://bit.ly/1nsD19L

 

17 Responses

  1. Matt in Uptown

    I think your fears are just that. A white person like myself lives in Oakland because it’s not lily white or… better put… not a monoculture. The businesses on Telegraph Ave are owned by people of all backgrounds. Oakland is getting more popular, but I don’t see it getting more popular with people in Sausalito or Mill Valley. It’s becoming a destination for people who want to experience all that humanity has to offer. Look at our more affluent immediate neighbors… Berekeley and San Leandro… they’re not hot beds of racism or monoculture even though they have 95% less crime and higher rent.

    Reply
  2. Dannette

    What a great piece! We all have these experiences–people we thought were our friends, allies, or lovers who we later realized could only play that role as long as we stick to the dutiful, non-complaining token people of color that they so desparately want us to be.

    Most people don’t understand that every POC in this country has a million of these stories and we just keep them to ourselves. We’re having one conversation amongst POC folks we can trust and another one amongst the general public. Get 3 or more POC in the room and the stories and heartbreak come out.

    Bravo to the author for speaking his truth. This system is predicated on our silence and it’s time for people to speak out about how the racial oppression in this society affects us on a day to day basis.

    In reply to the comment by “Matt” above, actually Berkeley and San Leandro are hot beds of racism. The Bay Area is one of the most racist places I’ve ever lived in. Two of my friends were called the N-word in Berkeley on separate occasions. While I was there, an economics professor called undocumented Mexican immigrants wetbacks in class and then refused to concede he had done anything wrong when confronted.

    The racism in the Bay Area is the worst, because it is the racism that fails to see itself. People do or say the most racist things here and then pat themselves on the back for being such great Bay Area liberals. Meanwhile, economic disparity grows and low-income brown people start to disappear from the picture, whilst articles about gentrification’s merits get pushed out on a regular basis. Sounds like a hotbed of racism to me. But I know a lot of people will disagree with me. I suspect a lot of brown people will agree.

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  3. R2D2II

    “The Bay Area is one of the most racist places I’ve ever lived in.”

    You just haven’t been around. Ever heard of Arizona? Texas?

    “The racism in the Bay Area is the worst, because it is the racism that fails to see itself.”

    Often it’s thought that it’s privilege that can’t see itself rather than racism. When we live in glass houses we need to throw our stones very carefully.

    “People do or say the most racist things here and then pat themselves on the back for being such great Bay Area liberals.”

    The Bay Area, and the US generally, is much more neoliberal and neoconservative than truly liberal. Chris Hedges writes well about this. It’s all about corporate rule rather than than democratic. Remember a guy called Ralph Nader?

    The racism that affects us here is largely institutional in nature rather than personal. There’s a big difference between the two types and each requires very different public policy remedies. When you fail to identify the real problem you cannot possibly find a solution.

    “Meanwhile, economic disparity grows and low-income brown people start to disappear from the picture, whilst articles about gentrification’s merits get pushed out on a regular basis.”

    Every low-income person suffers from economic disparity.

    “I suspect a lot of brown people will agree.”

    You need to be very careful when you start thinking that a person’s skin color starts telling you how he or she thinks.

    Reply
  4. Here we go again...

    Assuming this is the same Danette who wrote the article about gentrifiers and commented on Steve Kopff’s article:

    You seem doggedly determined to divide, incite and inflame. The article itself was ok – lots of stuff I could nitpick about. But there you go again, being harsh, shrill, and making generalized statements that cannot withstand a moment of intellectual scrutiny.

    Needless to say: I’m black and I couldn’t disagree with you more.

    Reply
  5. Peixegato

    I hope you and Sal didn’t date much longer after those instances.

    When I lived in Sonoma, a friend of mine (who is white) made an offhand comment that he didn’t want his daughter to go to the public school for which they were zoned because “she’d be the only white kid in the class (full of Latinos). I don’t want her to be in a place where she is the only one. It would be too hard for her.”

    I am African American what hit me was that he saw nothing strange about me being the only black man in just about every setting in which we found ourselves in Sonoma. In fact, I’m sure he would’ve been surprised, confused, and probably offended if I had replied “yeah, that’s the same reason we plan to leave Sonoma before my son is school age. I don’t want him to be the only child of African American decent in his class (or school, for that matter).”

    I could point to numerous examples just like this. I think the bottom line is it is human nature to gravitate toward communities or settings in which everyone will be just like them (however that is defined) but then at the same time not want to acknowledge that someone who is different in some way may not feel as comfortable as you in that same setting. I mean after all, we all want to believe that our “communities” are “open and welcoming” of everybody equally, right?

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  6. Tonya

    Here is my story which I think is more demonstrative of what is happening.

    I went to a restaurant in Uptown (I won’t name it). I arrived and it wasn’t all white, but I was the only Black person there. I would probably classify it as having a hipster vibe about it.

    When I arrived, no one talked to me. No waiter came out to ask me if I needed anything. (I saw there was a place to order food inside and then seating outside, but I also saw waiters etc attending to other people’s needs.)

    Lots of smoking, even though there was a clear no smoking sign outside.
    -__-

    In any case, I didn’t feel the most welcome. It was uncomfortable for me. Luckily I had a specific purpose for being there, so my uneasy feelings didn’t last too long. However after my business was concluded I beat a hasty retreat.

    I can imagine Sal probably would have felt the same way had he went to the club with is boo..er girlfriend. Maybe the workers would have greeted him more cordially, maybe not. He didn’t want to risk it.

    I’d like to offer that YES, there are some establishments in Oakland with mainly Black clientele, even in the trendy Uptown. But there are also places where more Whites go too. I think we all kind of self-segregate. On the otherhand.. there is also spaces where it is a mix. I think Oakland is becoming a mix of it all. I don’t think we should be afraid to visit any of those spaces. Heck it’s a free country!

    But if you get folks giving you the side-eye like home girl did in stuck up Marin..feel free to take your money else where. It’s their loss.

    As far as Dannette’s post… Bay Area’s racism isn’t something sneeze at, my neighborhood group on Next Door just dealt with personal racism where someone felt the need to warn neighbors of the middle aged AA man who had the gall to walk around at 5:30 am with a bike that had a child attachment and no child in it. Blacks in the Bay may not be living that Jim Crow life, but it doesn’t mean that what does happen here isn’t just as demoralizing or insidious. If the warning was taken seriously, random middle aged AA’s could have had to deal with uncomfortable profiling, because police pay attention to that sort of thing. Luckily there were people of color on that list..and yes some Whites who were willing to tell the poster of the error in his ways. But imagine if he actually went to a cop?

    We have a long way to go. Even in this city. No denying it.

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  7. Mojojo81

    I was with you right till the end! where you blame gentrification as if YOU lost a place. People who used to go to your black only bar are now going to places like Lukas and other bars filled with mixed race/aged people

    Many new spots have poped up along Broadway and Telegraph and the population attending those events is VERY mixed. I am a person of color and LOVE the diversity of these new bars.

    The world is not black and white, it is full of shades… if you lament the loss of your segregated bar… then I feel NOTHING for you.

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  8. Kathy Ferreira

    Thank you for sharing your experience. Cities like Oakland are dynamic and always changing, and loving a city means sometimes grieving when there is a loss. It’s healthy to communicate about these changes and what these changes represent demographically.

    It may seem silly to people who don’t understand. But anyone who loves Oakland has grieved the loss of a bar or club, maybe more than once. It’s like an Oaklander’s acute version of saudade.

    Just reading this piece I was reminded of so many lost places. Sweet Jimmie’s, Cabel’s Reef, the Serenader. A friend who moved away 10+ years ago cried when I told her Eli’s wasn’t a blues club anymore. Another friend still can’t accept the loss of the Serenader.

    In 1999, for one hot minute, I got a side job cocktailing at the sparkly new Kingman’s Lucky Lounge. It was, at that time, the flashiest place in town, serving pricey novel Lemon Drops and Cosmos. But before the grand opening, I remember feeling a deep sadness during the renovation, as the old Manhattan’s storied leather booths were being ripped out to make way for the new Kingman’s chic vintage couches. The emotion wasn’t about the actual furniture but what the furniture represented.

    I’m not saying that Kingman’s isn’t a great place (love you, Kingman!). And just because Sweet Jimmie’s and The Serenader are gone, doesn’t mean The New Parish or Heart & Dagger Saloon are inherently bad. But it is healthy to grieve the loss of what these new establishments replaced. It is healthy to acknowledge the demographic implications of these changes.

    Back in 1999, we were talking about gentrification, but there was so much we never could have predicted. Foodies, for example. The term foodie had not even entered the lexicon yet. Now when I walk down Grand Avenue where Deep Sole for Men used to be, I’m struck that the storefront now hosts the foodie Oaktown Spice Shop. Both great establishments. Both a beautiful reflection of Oakland’s diversity. It’s not that spices and those who buy them are necessarily a bad thing. But I can acknowledge it is not a shop for me. Instead it’s like a sad reminder of old friends and neighbors long gone, not likely to return. The definition of saudade.

    The 2010 U.S. Census found that Oakland lost 25% of its African American population to the suburbs since 2000. This was a national migratory trend impacting other U.S. cities as well. As our urban communities continue to transition, it is healthy for us to express the range of emotions that accompany these changes.

    Thankfully, we have forums like Oakland Local’s Community Voices to host these discussions.

    Reply
  9. Kathy Ferreira

    Sorry my saudade is still coming in waves…Pat’s (the place where friends meet), Bluesville, Ms. Ivy’s….!

    I used to live a few blocks from Ms. Ivy’s in the early 00s. Last year, I walked into what used to be Ms. Ivy’s and could not believe my eyes. Seriously. It felt like I had walked into a Portlandia skit.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love Portland. But these changes are still jarring, even without the added dimensions of race, socioeconomic status, etc.

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  10. Borges Godinho

    It’s always a sad affair when previously vibrant communities start falling apart. In my life I’ve seen the break up of the Portuguese community in East Oakland and San Leandro (I’m guessing Miss Kathy Ferreira has seen it, too).

    Looking back on it, I’m not sure how we could have kept that community together. The younger generations moved out and started new lives elsewhere while the older generation passed away.

    I’m afraid that the AA will disappear in the same way and only be relegated to the Oakland history books. But at the same time I’m not sure how we can encourage more African American families to stay in this city.

    I don’t want my native city to become white-washed with only Steve Kopff-types.

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  11. RJ

    How about the flip side of this argument? I wonder how white person would feel going into Apt C, or the air lounge? It might be worthwhile to take a look at how racism effects all people in this city.

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  12. Joe Adams

    After the incident in Marin, you decided to go to the Oakland nightclub JUST to pick a fight with Sal.

    Reply
  13. EastbayGuy

    Places change, get over it. Affrican Americans move to the suburbs to get away from shtty schools and crazy crime. A 25% drop in the population of African Americans, mean that those people wanted to live safer areas with better opportunities for upward mobility. That same 25% drop was replaced by other people who also wanted to search for a better life. Nostalgia is fine and all, but lets not forget how terrible this place was in the 1990s-2000s.

    Reply
  14. Kathy Ferreira

    I just want to second Tonya’s sentiments about displays of subconscious internalized racism in our diverse city.

    Similar instances have occurred on my neighborhood’s email list as well. For example, last year, one neighbor posted a warning about a “suspicious” couple possibly “casing the neighborhood.” This poster used coded language about the Black couple sitting in a suspiciously fancy car, implying the car was so nice it must have been stolen. The poster also used loaded language to describe the woman in the car having “colorful do-dads in her hair braids.”

    My African American neighbor responded with a reasonable amount of indignation, replying with something like, “Hey did you know Black folks can own nice cars and park on streets?” Later, the original poster apologized for their error in posting. But about every 4-6 months there is a similarly loaded post by someone else in our neighborhood. Like Tonya says, we have a long way to go.

    Also I need to second Tonya’s comments about the subtleties between nightlife establishments and to bear witness to what she recently experienced at the unnamed Uptown restaurant.

    I have a similar story from about 10+ years ago, albeit it is a more overt example. It happened at an uptown destination (that I won’t name). During its humble beginnings the pace used to tolerate large after-work groups at happy hour bringing in some outside food into the side room.

    Since the place was very new at the time, the side room service was spotty at best (e.g. we waited 45 minutes for our first round of drinks and one order of fries). Our server was more eye candy ornamentation to advertise her favorite tattoo parlor and her pin-up on Suicide Girls than a functional member of the waitstaff. At one point, after waiting 20+ minutes, some members of our group went to inquire out about their drink order, only to find her leaning against the bar, flirting with the bartender, while holding their drinks in her hand.

    Anyway, a few members of one group of people next to us, about twice the size of our group, had brought in Chinese food for their company’s happy hour outing. Their group was a mix of mostly White and Asian folks. So my White boyfriend and I went to pick up something similar for our starving coworkers. It happened to be fried chicken and fries from a nearby place (long since gone btw).

    Imagine our group’s shock when the server suddenly took an interest in our table — only to approach our African American coworkers directly — and scold them for bringing in the outside fried chicken. She added that the sight of our fries in their traditional red-and-white cardstock basket was “too ghetto” for the place.

    Naturally, our mostly White group erupted in outrage, called her a racist and pointed out that we had been trying to spend $$$ on a 2nd round of drinks for 45+ minutes. And one member of our group added that they placed an order she never even delivered. We told her we would spend hundreds of dollars on booze if she would just take our group’s order already and let us eat. She denied being racist, even when confronted with the fact that White patrons in the restaurant had brought in the food and that neighboring groups had brought in Chinese food without consequence.

    Instead of acknowledging her racist assumptions and poor service, the server brought out the bartender who timidly told us to leave for “causing trouble.” One African American coworker was more embarrassed than anything, and rather than her tolerate the indignity further, we all agreed to leave.

    One of our most meaningful takeaways from this experience is that today, the establishment is in fact one of the Oakland’s more mixed nightlife destinations, the clientele — and the waitstaff — is often a fairly accurate representation of Oakland’s diversity.

    As Tonya points out, some places self-segregate, and at the time my coworkers and I were kicked out of this establishment it was still new, experiencing a transition. It was on the cusp of a tipping point that might have resulted in the kind of self-segregation Tonya describes.

    It’s heartening that the end, 10 years later, the place I’m referring to was able to maintain and welcome a diverse customer base reflective of Oakland. Because losing our town’s representative nightlife destinations speaks to the fears of this post’s author. I appreciate the article because our town is transitioning on a much larger faster scale than it was 10 years ago. It’s important that we respectfully allow a forum to discuss the implications of these changes.

    Reply
  15. EverybodysRacist

    Having been born in Oakland in the early 70s and raised in Berkeley through the 80s then working and making friends all over the bay till now “2014” I can tell you this “most people are in denial that EVERYONE is racist!” more or less then others.
    People of color are the worst by far, as a white male that had to go to public schools in late 70s then 80s, I had been stabbed, robbed, beaten, friends raped and murdered all by “people of color” some of these cases made the newspaper.
    I have friends of all races and none of them has encountered nowhere near the amount of racism I have encountered sure they have had “bad words spoken to them” big deal and usually done to them by there own race, getting called an “Oreo” etc.
    I am sorry about the lady’s experience in Marin county as I can feel her pain, I once got pulled over in Tiburon “had a lite out over my license plate” had my car illegally searched for over an hour while standing in the freezing rain only to have the cops look at my address on my license “Emeryville” and ask what I was doing over here? and I am a clean cut white male that just happened to have a old Nissan Sentra and I doubt that would have happened to a “person of color” in a new BMW with a Marin county address.
    People of color need to stop the whining and grow a pair, I have traveled the country and the world and everybody has some crap to say about someone else and its been old and don’t start the “white privilege ” B.S. its just another form of racism against white people “think about it” look up the # 1 response to it on urban dictionary its 100% correct.
    White people returning to Oakland is the best thing that could be happening to this town! my great grandparents came from Ireland to Oakland in 1905 when it was all white and made it great only to see people of color ruin the city after world war 2 “race is real people” That’s why you look around the world and the worst hellholes have no white people to blame for there problems.
    I predict crime will drop, property values will rise in Oakland in the near future, people of color move to Marin county believe me I would love to see those creepy liberals over there freak out with the wonders of diversity.

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  16. Stevo

    I fear one day that I will walk into my favorite coffee shop and it will be filled with only African Americans staring at me with their mouths agape.

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  17. Seamus

    I think Oakland whites are sympathetic the African American community in the abstract, voting, conversation, etc. But they don’t want to be shot, beaten, or robbed, so they avoid wild looking African Americans, especially at night when the muggings and other crazy stuff increases.

    Reply

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