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He never really felt he belonged, except on the team. And they called him a “Token.”

 

A few years ago I watched the movie, “McFarland, USA” about a cross country team in a largely agricultural, small town, in the San Joaquin Valley.

portrait of Danell teNyenhuis Black

Danell teNyenhuis Black

Opinion

The McFarland boys cross country team won the first State Cross Country Championship in 1987. I was excited to watch it because I was part of the Clovis High varsity cross country team from 1981 through 1984. We were four-year Valley champions and had also placed at the NorCal meet.

I had heard that Clovis was mentioned in the movie and I thought it would bring back great memories. I enjoyed the movie, but I was offended by the portrayal of the all-white Clovis High team acting racist toward the McFarland team. The team that I was part of was taught good sportsmanship and, although we were predominantly white, there were always teammates who were Hispanic and a smaller number who were African American.

At that time, I was years away from learning about white privilege, and I know I thought we were all treated equally. I later heard that the film had taken some artistic license and the McFarland coach confirmed that the Clovis High team was respectful. My reality was confirmed.

Photo from The Disney film "McFarland, USA" of cross country runners and their coach in an orchard

The Disney film “McFarland, USA” is a fictionalized story based on the real-life McFarland High School cross country team and their coach Jim White, played by Kevin Costner. (Disney)

Attending Clovis Schools, I Was Pretty Much Oblivious to Racism

I grew up in Clovis and attended Clovis schools from 1st through 12th grade. I’ve said before that I was pretty much oblivious to the realities of racism. I thought all of my classmates were treated equally and I felt safe and comfortable in all of my classes. I moved away for a few years after college and then lived in Fresno until 2003 when my husband Patrick and I bought a house in Clovis. I was excited to raise my kids here.

My brother also returned to Clovis and raised three biracial children here. He later had another daughter who is white. His son went to Clovis High and all of the other kids, including mine, went to Clovis East. I was happy that Mikel would graduate from the same high school as his aunts. I blindly thought that my nephew and nieces had the same childhood as my children. Sadly, their reality was different.

I blindly thought that my nephew and nieces had the same childhood as my children. Sadly, their reality was different.

My nephew Mikel is an excellent distance runner and I was very excited when he became a part of “my team.” I knew a lot of people in the program and it was like coming home when I went to watch him race. In his senior year, he won the Division 2 state cross country race and was invited to the nationals. I love that we are both alumni!

At Clovis High, My Biracial Nephew Was Nicknamed ‘Token’

I knew that Mikel faced racism in the community but I was completely shocked when my brother shared a story a few nights ago. When Mikel was on the team they apparently had a tradition of assigning nicknames and then having them added to team t-shirts. When Mikel was given his t-shirt he was stunned to hear that his chosen nickname was “Token.” How can teammates not realize that is racist? What about the coaches?

Mikel went home and fought back tears as he told his dad about it. And then he put up a brave front and wore that t-shirt for the rest of the season. My heart broke when I heard this. My brother is not afraid to stand up for his kids and would have said something, but that team was important to Mikel and he loved his teammates. I’m sure it still hurt.

I asked Mikel’s permission to share his story and told him how much it hurt me that this happened to him in the program that we both loved. Mikel also told me that during his first week of school in Clovis, someone drove by and yelled an offensive racial term out the window. He said that the rest of his time in school he didn’t deal with a lot of racism. He said he doesn’t think about his years in Clovis schools much but he did say this, “I didn’t feel super connected to the school outside of my love and appreciation for my coaches and my long-distance teammates.” So, in summary, he never really felt he belonged, except on the team. And they called him a “Token.”

Other Biracial Relatives Share Their Stories

After talking to Mikel I contacted my nieces. Here are their memories:

Alyssa  — “I don’t so much have examples of racist incidents as just a constant awareness of being different. Almost always being the only black person in every class, in every activity, and especially then having my peers act as if I’m somehow less black because of my interests. And being randomly called the n-word on a street.”

These kids are 23 to 30 years old now. I’ve known them their entire lives. How many more stories are out there? We need to ask and we need to listen. We need to be better.

Shayna — “For me, people throwing pencils and paper and stuff in my hair, being told that black people have a certain smell and that my family had it, anonymous people that I argued with on the internet calling me all kinds of horrific names that don’t need to be repeated, most of them racist.”

I also asked my cousin’s sons, who are biracial and split time between Clovis and Fresno, if they had any examples.

Josh responded: “Mine was actually at San Joaquin Memorial High School after a football game. We got the cops called on us because we were in my dad’s lifted truck and had two black friends with us. Some girl that went to school there said there’s no way they drive a truck like that, they must’ve stole it. Campus security/the cop that was there came up and questioned us and searched the truck.”

These kids are 23 to 30 years old now. I’ve known them their entire lives. How many more stories are out there? We need to ask and we need to listen. We need to be better.

About the Author

Danell teNyenhuis Black is a widow, mother, and wife dedicated to promoting an understanding of white privilege and the effects it has on our society. You can read more of her writing at this link.

9 Responses

  1. MGomez

    YOU need to do better, Danell.

    You don’t speak for me, and you are not in a position to judge Clovis schools.

    “Talk story” somewhere else.

    Reply
    • Sauls

      Dannell did an excellent job balancing input from multiple folks, and contrasting it with her viewpoint attending the school district.
      She said collectively we all need to do better. Do not feel personally attacked over this. She did not say “MGomez needs to do better, this is all MGomez’s fault.” This is an error that far to many people (myself too in the past!) fall into when discussing race. She is *not* attacking you. She is *not* judging you. She is *not* singling you out, or singling out any one person. She admits where she could have done better, and is using that experience to try to explain to other people how we *all* could do better.
      She was speaking from personal experience, and is therefore perfectly able to be in a position to share her story, and to contrast it with the experience of four other people who attended Clovis schools. If you pay attention to the experiences of her nieces and nephews, they
      I grew up in a town in Southern California very similar to Clovis – richer than other areas, very white, and attended school in many of the same decades. My high school of 800+ students never had more than 5 to 10 black students at any time. At the time I thought they were all treated roughly as equally as the other white students. Now, 20+ years later, I wonder how much I missed, and how my own view could have been ignoring things. I was never close fiends with any of the black students, so I didn’t get to know their experience.

      Just because someone is not being called the n-word by someone doesn’t mean they are not experiencing racism.

      If you feel that this article, and it’s very soft-spoken encouragement that “We need to ask and we need to listen. We need to be better.” is personal attack on you, then maybe ask yourself *why* you feel it is a personal attack.
      When you read those works, do you hear “we need to be better”, or do you hear some other message? Are you hearing “Clovis School District is Racist”, or are you hearing “MGomez is personally responsible for this”, or are you hearing “I, the author, made some mistakes, so everyone else needs to fix it to”? Too often when people with my background and experience (growing up white in a place of relative privilege or comfort) read or hear messages like this, they feel personally attacked. They think “well, I am not running around calling people the ‘n-word’, so I am not racist”, when that is not the message.

      Reply
    • Dee Barnes

      Wow MGomez – unfortunately your response is not unusual. My son was one of a few white boys to play on the Edison High football team from 1994-1998. There were only 2 places where they experienced open racism, Clovis and Porterville. Clovis wouldn’t even let their cheerleaders attend the Freshman football game held at Edison on a Thursday afternoon.

      Reply
  2. Danell Black

    Thank you Sauls for a thoughtful response. My goal is to get other white people to think and listen. I don’t think name calling or attacking solves anything. MGomez is entitled to their opinion but my story was not an attack on anyone and I only spoke for myself, my nieces, and my nephews. Thank you for taking the time to read my story!

    Reply
  3. April

    Danell,
    Thank you for sharing this story. My family moved from San Jose to Clovis in 2001. Coming from San Jose, I was very used to living in a melting pot of culture and race. When we moved to Clovis I was a Junior in high school. A combination childish ignorance and diverse upbringing did not prepare me for what my family was to face moving to Clovis. You see, my father is of Mexican decent and my mother is of Dutch/Indonesian decent (but took more of the Dutch genes). I remember when we first started looking at homes in Clovis, I walked into a model home with my father (my mother was gathering my siblings in the car) he was told by the sales lady that the prices of the homes were very high and that he may want to look elsewhere. My mother came in with my siblings and her tone of voice changed and immediately wanted to help and cater to my mother. Boy did her jaw drop when she realize that my parents were together.
    A few days after starting high school, my sister and I had been sent to the nurses office for vision screenings (we started late in the year so it was only her and I). The nurse asked my sister if she had her shots when she came from Mexico. We are second/third generation and American, so we were very confused as to what she was asking. She then said she needed to call home and asked if anyone at home spoke English (my sister and I only speak English and have no accent), again confused we replied that my father spoke Spanish and my mother spoke Dutch in addition to English.
    To this day, my father still gets asked how much he charges when he is out tending to his own front yard.
    I understand that Clovis has come a long way in the 19 years that my family has called it home, and has become far more diverse, but please be aware that tunnel vision doesn’t help anyone and That racism/ignorance/stereotyping absolutely still exists in the small town of Clovis and unfortunately all around our nation.

    Reply
  4. ALH

    I too share Denell’s sentiments. I am not from the Valley. I grew up a diverse northern California city. I think about my kids growing up in Clovis everyday. There are so many great things that I love, but under those great things lies a lot of inequity, history of favoritism toward the dominant race.

    Reply
  5. Marc

    I went to clovis west which was nicknamed clovis white while I was there from 2005 to 2009. Im a latino and there was a strong latino presence but there was also obvious white privilege being taught. I remember an incident where a boy told a girl to go back to Mexico and it pretty much started a race war between whites and latinos. It was talked about for years and the boy always stuck to his guns on why he said it. There was an attitude that latinos and the african Americans should be enemies so that was also taught. teachers were racist to other colored teachers. I witnessed it. I was called numerous names but always fought back so not many people tried, luckily. I also had a lot of friends so that helped but we faced it every day, saw it every day, battled it every day. Racism is strong in clovis schools. Its being taught by the parents, the teachers , the community and the kids themselves. We have good teachers, good parents and good kids but there were outliers. More than you would feel comfortable with. I hope things chang but I see it still to this day in Clovis where I work. Im treated different, like my presence offends. Like I should feel lucky to even be there. Not in my office but in the town around. Its alive. Dont be mistaken im thinking its not there. It very much is

    Reply
  6. Kevin

    Another offended cupcake, making something out of nothing.

    Why is it that the psychology majors are the ones that need the counseling?

    Reply

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