Growing up Black in Reno

Racism, overt and casual, remains a part of everyday life

PHOTO/DREAMSTIME: A "word cloud" written in chalk, with the theme of racism and the Black Lives Matter movement.

I grew up in Reno, Nevada.

In third grade a boy confidently tells me and my brother that his mom said Black people cannot swim because our muscles are different than those of white people.

In middle school, standing among a group of white classmates talking video games, I am the only Black child. One classmate expresses surprise that my family has enough money to afford a PlayStation.

In high school, I am the only Black kid among a group of friends. When sharing drinks in my presence they frequently tell each other not to “n—– lip” the bottles. Even though I object, they continue to use the phrase.

David Gamble Jr.

In high school, my brother is at a teen house party that gets broken up by police, a common occurrence. The kids at the party scatter, also a common occurrence. My brother, the only Black child in attendance, is the only one on whom a police officer draws a firearm to get him to stop running away. He is 14.

In high school, a group of my white friends frequently sneak on to the outdoor basketball courts at an athletic club to play. They can usually play for hours, including with club members. On the two occasions I attend, club members complain, and we are ejected from the club within minutes.

In high school, I am excited about Black History Month and am talking to a friend about Black inventors. My friend snorts and says, “Black people have never invented anything.”

In high school, as graduation approaches, many of my white friends tell me that I am lucky. They tell me that due to my skin color, I will get into any college I want.

I remain in Reno for college.

Casual remarks and discrimination

During college an employer keeps food for employees in the break room refrigerator. One morning I decided to have microwaveable chicken wings for breakfast. The employer tells me I might not want to eat that for breakfast with my skin color. The employer immediately apologizes.

In college I am standing in a group of white friends on campus. A white acquaintance of one of my friends approaches to chat. The acquaintance tells a story about something that frustrated him and then reels off a series of expletives ending with the word “n—–.” None of my friends correct him.

In college I visit an antique shop in Auburn, California with my girlfriend, who is white, and her parents. The shopkeeper follows me around the store whistling loudly as I browse, until we leave.

I move to San Diego, California for law school.

In law school, during a discussion in my criminal law class, a white classmate suggests that police officers should take a suspect’s race into account when determining whether there is reasonable suspicion to believe that an individual is committing a crime.

The weekend of my law school graduation my family comes to San Diego. I go to the mall with my brother and sister and visit the Burberry store. Two different employees follow us around the store — never speaking to us — until we leave.

The blindness of privilege

After law school, I return to Reno.

A co-worker jokingly calls me “King David” upon seeing me each day. I joke that I’m not treated like a king. The co-worker then begins to call me “Slave David” each time we encounter one another. When I ask the co-worker to stop because it is hurtful, I am told by my co-worker that this is a problem that I have in my head.

I attend a pub crawl with friends. We end up at a party in a hotel suite in downtown Reno. I am greeted by a white man at the door who loudly expresses surprise that I am an “educated negro” upon hearing me speak.

I walk a friend who is a white woman from a restaurant to her car because it is nighttime. As we stand by the car chatting, a police officer pulls up and shines a light on us, asking if everything is OK. Once my friend confirms, the officer drives away. I tell her that he was worried about her, she teasingly says, “Oh yeah, because you’re so scary.” Later, I tell another white friend I felt racially profiled by the officer. My friend shrugs and says, “I don’t know man, that’s a stretch.”

A white friend tells me that white voters have become upset at Black people because of Black people’s liberal use of food welfare benefits. When I point out that more whites than Blacks receive welfare benefits in the U.S., my friend expresses confusion at how that could be the case.

Overt racism and denial  

I leave a downtown restaurant with my wife. As we walk along the river a homeless man appears to be having a schizophrenic episode, engaging auditory hallucinations. Upon seeing me, he becomes lucid and begins to shout the word “n—–” over and over.

I discover that one of my clients does not want me to represent him as his public defender because he does not want a Black attorney. I am given the option to withdraw as counsel. I do not.

Last year, I am at a barbecue chatting with a white acquaintance who asks if I have ever experienced racism. When I say it is a nearly daily occurrence, the acquaintance retorts, without missing a beat, “Bulls—.”

Two months ago. I am driving to lunch with the Black teen I mentor. At a red light a white woman crosses the street. As I begin to drive, she turns around and screams at us, “F— you, f—ing n—–!”

Before any of these instances, my family of origin moved to Reno, Nevada from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1984.

The past is prologue

My mother recently told me that when I was a very young child my parents hired a company to remove a tree from our front lawn. Two white men showed up and removed the tree. One of them carved a swastika into the stump. My father had to confront him and ask him to remove it.

Before that, my now 93-year-old grandfather served in the Army National Guard and was stationed in the U.S. south. Despite being active duty, he was not allowed to eat in restaurants due to “whites only” signage. He had to wait for fellow Guardsmen to bring him food outside.

Not long before that, my family were slaves, owned by Americans of English and Irish descent, which is why — despite being primarily of African descent — I have an English last name.

PHOTO/BRIAN BAHOUTH/SIERRA NEVADA ALLY: A Black Lives Matter protest in Reno on June 7, 2020. The protestors hold cardboard “gravestones” with the names of Black people killed in encounters with police. The names include George Floyd, who was killed by police officers in Minneapolis, MN, on May 25, 2020. The movement also puts a spotlight on systemic racism that people of color routinely experience.

This is my experience of being Black in America. To be Black in America is to be told over and over that you are not good enough, that you do not belong, that you are genetically unfit, that your physical presence is undesirable, and that everything about you — right down to your lips — is wrong. It is absolutely true that everyone experiences hardships in life, but the psychological weight of being told both explicitly and implicitly, on a daily basis, that your very existence is objectionable can at times feel unbearable.

And despite this experience, I still love my country, my state, and my city. Despite my experience, I would not choose to be anything other than a Black American.

“The history of Black people in this country is one of struggle and triumph. Our people were brought to this country as slaves and against all odds, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, have made our mark. Through slaverypoll taxesliteracy testsredlining and Black codes, we have persevered. Through the unspeakable horrors of mass lynchings; the Tuskegee syphilis experiments; and the massacres at Tulsa and Rosewood, we have persevered.”

— David Gambel, Jr., Reno attorney

Our history, not Black history

Bass ReevesDovey Johnson RoundtreeSarah BooneOscar MicheauxShirley ChisholmDorie MillerSusie King TaylorGeorgia GilmoreOctavius CattoJack JohnsonGarrett MorganJames W.C. Pennington — these are just a handful of extraordinary and oft-forgotten Black Americans who helped to mold and preserve the American dream. These individuals and their accomplishments should not be regarded as “Black history,” but rather as American history.

I am an American of privilege, which makes me an African American of great privilege. I am an attorney. I live in a safe neighborhood. My children do not worry about their next meal. I can afford child care. My family can afford personal vehicles. If my children become sick, I can take them to the doctor. If I am this privileged — and these have been my experiences, primarily in my own hometown, often with friends and acquaintances who are fond of me, and of whom I remain fond even now — just imagine what daily life must be like for a Black person in this country who does not enjoy my level of privilege.

The protests in the streets of America are certainly about the killing of George Floyd, but not just about George Floyd. They are about countless Black men, women and children for whom the punishment did not fit the crime — if indeed there was a crime at all. We live in a country where, in order to recall what life under Jim Crow felt like, many white Americans must pick up a history book. Meanwhile, many Black Americans need only pick up a telephone and call their parents.

It’s everyone’s problem

When we as people of color share our experiences, we are not doing so to score political points, “play the race card,” get sympathy, assign blame or to make you feel bad about yourself. We are asking you for help. We are asking you to join us in the ongoing fight against racism in our country, because we cannot do it alone. It will take Americans of every stripe to eradicate racism from American society.

I am now asking for your help. Please seek truth and knowledge. When sharing information, please check your sources and make sure that they are reliable. Try to place what is happening today into a historical context. Read about systemic racism and anti-racism. When your friends of color tell you that racism is real and affecting their lives, believe them — and then, if you can, do something about it.

My children are likely to attend the same middle school and high school that I did. It is my great hope for them that those around them have the knowledge, compassion and guidance to know better than to deluge them daily with words that make them doubt their intelligence, their beauty and their worth as human beings based only on the color of their skin; and instead judge them by the content of their character.

It is for all of the above reasons, and so many more that we proudly say #blacklivesmatter.

David Gamble Jr. is an attorney, stand-up comedian, and Nevada Native.

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2 Comments

  1. A very thoughtful and moving essay. It’s my hope that people, particularly us white people, heed the request for help and do something to help put racism in the dustbin of history, where it belongs. We will be a much healthier, prosperous, and respected country when we finally live up to our ideals of liberty and justice for all.

  2. This kind of pain is hopefully soon to be in the rear view mirror. America‘s citizens need to embrace all and respect the notion of equal protection of the law, and fundamental fairness as exalted principles.

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