Growing Up Black In OC

OC Weekly music editor Nate Jackson on the fights, the questions—and the witty comebacks

The first fight—the first of many—came in seventh grade, during a Total Chaos show at Chain Reaction. Two tall, camo-wearing teen idiots with shaved heads charged me while shouting, "Nigger in the pit!" They started swinging. Luckily, I side-stepped and socked one of them in the nose before a couple of other anti-fascist punks helped me to stomp their asses and get them tossed out.

People often ask how I handle it, living in a place as utterly un-black as Orange County. How, of all the places my parents could've settled as a progressive, interracial couple, did they pick OC, particularly Yorba Linda, to raise a family? Sure there's the peace and quiet, the schools, the ample parking. But life gets complicated when you're a flake of pepper wandering in a desert of salt.

The way I talk, the music in my iPod and the friends I've made don't easily mark me as "black," whatever the hell that means, to most county residents. I have dark olive skin, my hair didn't even curl until puberty, and I've been mistakenly spoken to in Spanish, Hindi and Farsi more times than I care to count. Even in my career, some of my colleagues have said, "Oh, I forget you're black!" as if that were a compliment. I only bring this up because my take on growing up black in OC carries that extra sting of isolation that comes from the initial question of "So what are you?"

It's the moment when I get asked that question that I wish my 27 years here could come spewing out of my mouth and directly onto the shirt of whoever inquired. What am I? Well, the first identifiable thing I can remember being is Catholic. That's not because I consider myself especially religious, but because I spent most of my life in a white Catholic church, St. Martin de Porres Church in Yorba Linda (how cosmic, right? He's a black saint). I'm a product of Servite High School and know white, upper-middle-class people better than they know themselves. I've learned to speak their language. And I know when they're speaking down to me—which, when I was younger, was almost always. Passive-aggressiveness might as well be my second language.

The second thing I can remember being is a historian—a black historian—and not necessarily by choice. But when your father is a black history professor who spends his entire day lecturing on Plessy vs. Ferguson and names such as Zora Neale Hurston, Frederick Douglass and Marcus Garvey at the local university, you better believe I was getting handed some coursework as soon as I could read. Though slogging through books on black history in addition to social studies homework about pilgrims could've felt like a chore to most kids, such things offered an academic window into black culture that taught me about my roots in a way nothing else around me ever could. In a lot of ways, this extracurricular education was a good lesson on living in Orange County—whether it's good people, good music or good weed, if you want to find authentic shit around here, you have to dig for it.

Third, I'm a musician. While my tastes are eclectic, it was Bad Brains who got me to pick up the bass. It was Bootsy Collins who kept me on it. And growing up darting to warehouse shows between Anaheim and Fullerton as a teen offered me my first taste in tokenism, as I was usually the blackest thing in the room. And depending on the griminess of the gig, that could be a problem (see the Chain Reaction experience above).

I could fill this essay with all the fights I've gotten into in OC because of my blackness. Of course, most of my confrontations with race have been far subtler; due to societal mores, I am often forced to use words instead of fists. That's also why I'm a comedian—or maybe just a smartass. I studied all the greats: Pryor, Fox, Rock, Chappelle. My fascination with comedy was and still is an attempt to expand my vocabulary and wit to harden it so it hurts worse than a punch. I throw it often—at clubs, bars, generally places where a suburban male might go to get sauced in public and spout a racist joke within earshot of me. I've learned that inflicting public embarrassment on someone is the way to deal with 90 percent of the problems I encounter in regard to race.

A few weeks ago, I was at a sports bar in Tustin, drinking and watching basketball with a friend. At one point, a group of guys noticed that black athletes were on all the screens playing every sport—baseball, basketball. Hell, even Tiger was on.

"Damn, man, the only black guys in Orange County are on the TV screens," one of the guys said. Then he shouted to the bartender: "Is there anything they can't do with a bat and a ball?"

I looked up from my Newcastle. "Your mom didn't seem to think so last night."

The bar erupted in laughter.

Yeah, easy line. But when it comes to how my blackness commingles with my OC-ness, the one thing I'm most proud of being is an optimist. I'm not a bitter black guy. Despite memories of being harassed, looked down upon and isolated, I also don't forget the times I've been embraced and accepted because of my differences from the people around me. I'm still pretty much willing to give anyone the benefit of the doubt when they step up to shake my hand. If I expect that for myself, I know I have to be willing to give it. Regardless of color, that's what a man does. And that is what I am.

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I not only grew up in the OC, I'm third generation. I don't have one bad memory of growing up in Orange County and neither did my mother and her siblings. (Can't speak for my grandmother, she passed away long before I was born.) 

Maybe we were lucky. Maybe it was because we were Spanish speaking Black Hispanics who grew up in a predominately Hispanic area. I honestly don't know. What I do know is that I've never hesitated to go *anywhere* in Orange County. Not a city, not a restuarant, not one single solitary place. I've never felt uncomfortable or as if I was being watched and or singled out. 

I love Orange County and it will always be my home. I think maybe it's easier for a female of African descent? Who knows? Who cares? I, like the rest of my family, live my life and have absolutely no time or inclination to worry about who may or may not be noticing that I am of African descent. 

Besides, as my grandfather used to say, "The only color a wise man sees is green."


Growing up BLACK in Orange County California's, OC is southeast of Los Angeles. I also lived in OC way back when we were proud NEGROS. I married my wife in a Black Church in OC a week before I arrived in Vietnam; she was also raised in the OC in the 1950's. Our two children were raised in OC. My granddaughter also raised in OC is a second year student at CSUF and a graduate of an OC High School as were her mom and uncle.  Only problem we encountered were racial profiling by various police departments.

Black people buy in OC for the same reason other races security, great school, close to employment and to protect our real estate investment. There are black churches in OC, Civil Rights organizations, business, restaurants, social organizations, and a Black Weekly Newspaper ''The Tri County Bulletin'' that has reported on social, educational, religious and news of importance to OC's African American readers.Thanks to civil rights advances, educational and employment opportunities there are many black folk living in the OC. 

There is not a large populations of US in the San Fernando Valley, South Bay, Westside Venice and Santa Monica, San Gabriel Valley, Inland Empire, Valencia area, Palmdale Lancaster, Pasadena Altadena Monrovia. In ten years we will be a small population in Watts, Willowbrook, Compton and South Central LA .Bottom line is what difference does it make? 


Ian Thomas
Ian Thomas

Being Black in OC would be ALOT safer than being white in South Central LA. Just sayin


I'm a lot like this guy. It's rare to hear any offense from white people in orange county really. You either become the token black guy, or you're around people who are somewhat mindful of what they say around you. Most well to do white people in orange county are sensitive enough not to do shit around you if at all. There is plenty of racism but its veiled enough not to be an everyday issue. If OC had a comparable number of blacks to  Long Beach, then yes, I think you would see a ton more racism. Its a weird balancing act that isn't really right, but it isn't exactly harmful either.


OC Weekly and it's white hating, OC loathing readers, ought to take a good look at that last paragraph.

Brainwashed_in_church topcommenter

For every one black guy in OC that feels uncomfortable, there are 69 who are doing just fine and have no problems.

Mitchell_Young topcommenter

@theburningdown Maybe, just maybe, OC is nicer than Long Beach because we don't have a 'comparable number' of that population group. 


U should take a good look inside ur moms ass. Did u even read the article take ur douchey sunglasses off and read again. Its not white hating its a persons life experience. If it sounds like white hating then u should reflect on how u act as a white person

18usc241 topcommenter

@GustavoArellano @City_Data_Forum Because he pulled that "factoid" straight out of his rear-end. Otherwise known as:

Step one in OC law enforcement investigatory procedure.