I’d never had much interaction with people from the Hills—which is to say, other white people.
Image from Flickr via Kerri Lee Smith
By Lauren Quinn
The girls huddled beneath the showerhead opposite mine, chipped tile and dingy grout, one of those cheap public locker room showers where the water is scalding and cuts out every ten seconds. The girls’ bodies were thin like mine, torsos flat like mine, braids that zigzagged and crisscrossed across their scalps. Their swimsuits were purple—a different team from mine.
I slammed the metal button with my fist to make the water spurt back on.
I’d seen the girls that morning, when all six of Oakland’s summer swim teams had filed into the cement-wall pool facility for the annual citywide championships. We’d all been wearing sweat suits and pajamas, so no one could tell who was on which team. Which was why, I’d assumed, the girls had sucked their breath as they passed me and banged their shoulders against mine so hard that I’d staggered into the wall.
Now standing across from me, I could see them eyeing me through the steam. They looked at my swimsuit’s colors, then leaned toward one another and whispered. “You on Live Oak?” one girl asked.
I nodded. The water ran over my lips and eyes and nose.
“Oh.” A pause, then almost apologetic, “When we first saw you, we thought you was on OHTC.”
They didn’t say why they’d assumed I was on the Oakland Hills Tennis Club team. They didn’t have to. I knew why, and they knew I knew: I was white.
The girls smiled at me, friendly, conciliatory. “Any team is better than them.”
I nodded again.
“I heard y’all might win today,” one girl offered.
“I hope you do,” the other said.
“Yeah, me too,” I answered.
Outside, the start gun popped and the crowd cried. In the walls, the pipes chugged and shook.
We didn’t say anything else, just stood under our separate streams, letting the steam billow and the water wash over our bodies—a thin hot trickle that kept cutting out.
Before Oakland Hills Tennis Club descended from their snaking tree-lined streets to compete against my neighborhood swim team, I’d never had much interaction with people from the Hills—which is to say, other white people.
In these images, there were no hollering neighbors, no mattresses dumped on the corner, no beat of the police helicopter’s wings. Even The Simpsons lived in a two-story house.
By the 1990s, white flight and urban blight had left Oakland racially and socioeconomically segregated, the cement gash of the 580 Freeway acting as a demarcation. Above the 580, where the land rose and foothills knitted like knuckles, the majority of the city’s middle-class white population holed up along skinny streets lined with Neighborhood Watch signs.
I was growing up in the Flatlands, a long, low stretch of bus routes and corner stores and telephone wires strung with jumped kids’ shoes. My parents were Marxist-Leninists who had ended up in the Flatlands after failing to produce a socialist revolution. Because where else was there to bring a dying dream other than Oakland?—the birthplace of the Panthers, the hometown of the motorcycle club that ended the ’60s, the city where Bruce Lee won an infamous street battle for the right to teach kung-fu to non-Chinese. Founded where the Transcontinental Railroad ended, its redwoods logged to build gold-money mansions, Oakland had always been the underdog, industrial backbone of the Bay Area, a place for the weirdos and radicals who couldn’t hack it in San Francisco. After their revolutionary dream failed, my parents became a firefighter and a public school teacher, and my family settled in a little bungalow wedged between apartment buildings in the Lake Merritt neighborhood, one of the more functional and desirable Flatlands areas. While the worst of the city’s crack epidemic was concentrated in East and West Oakland, its effects still tentacled out into my neighborhood: home invasions, sidewalks littered with bits of windshield, an echo of gunshots my mom would tell us were Chinese firecrackers.
Relics of my parents’ radicalism littered our house—a framed photo from my mom’s 1972 trip to China, dinnertime bouts of “The Internationale,” a line of blue Lenin volumes fading on the bookshelf. I grew up in the shadow of their workers-of-the-world dream, but I didn’t have a context for what that dream meant. I didn’t know any rich people, had never glimpsed the other side. Middle-class white culture was something that existed in movies, on television; I didn’t have any interaction with it. I’d giggled hysterically one of the times we’d driven through the Hills, pointing at the trees and quaint streets through window, “Mom, this is Oakland.”
I wanted in. And I had an in. I sensed that I was in possession of something prized—a white girlhood—and that a coveted place in the TV-perfect world was being held for me.
Meanwhile, my brother and I occupied our place in the family lineage of misfithood. Our neighborhood school was half Cantonese-speaking Chinese, the rest a working-class hodgepodge of native-born Americans, with no single racial group in the majority. Most of our friends were biracial—black and Mexican, Mexican and Chinese, Filipino and black—kids whose parents had also ended up in Oakland for its radicalism and tolerance. “A little Rainbow Coalition,” a homeless man had drunkenly gushed at us one Saturday, on our way to The Cheesesteak Shop. He’d staggered; we’d laughed; we’d gone home and told our parents.
With my day-to-day life divorced from middle-class white culture, my only interaction with it was through mainstream media. Its images were everywhere: Babysitters Club and American Girl books, YM and Big Bopper magazines, Sixteen Candles and Saved by the Bell. In these images, there were no hollering neighbors, no mattresses dumped on the corner, no beat of the police helicopter’s wings. There was nothing that resembled the Flatlands. There were big houses surrounded by wide lawns, and immaculately clean schools with playground equipment and science labs. Even The Simpsons lived in a two-story house.
From these images I constructed an idealized idea of whiteness: wholesome, good-hearted people who acted out easy, sitcom lives before an unseen audience of endless chuckles and applause. I couldn’t figure out what my parents had been so fussed about—these people didn’t seem so bad. Their world seemed a lot nicer than my own. I wanted in. And I had an in. Because in all of these narratives, the thing most precious, protected, and universally adored was the little white girl—little white girls who looked just like me. I had the blue eyes, the button nose, the Shirley Temple curls. Old women at the grocery store stopped to tell me how beautiful I was. The counter staff at the Merritt Bakery winked and gave me free cookies. I sensed that I was in possession of something prized—a white girlhood—and that a coveted place in the TV-perfect world was being held for me.
But as much as the grown-ups tried to rationalize it, no one could deny how it looked: like the rich kids come to pillage.
Meanwhile, Oakland’s endemic crime and corruption dragged on. Even in my comparatively stable neighborhood, there wasn’t enough money to fill potholes or have the cops come when you called, let alone provide more than lane lines and kickboards for a two-bit summer swim league.
So you couldn’t blame the Parks and Recs Department when one of the city’s only country clubs—a lonely little swim team with no other country club teams to compete against—asked if they could pay a fee to compete in our public league. The City said yes. It didn’t matter that OHTC practiced year-around while the Parks and Recs teams were seasonal, and it didn’t matter that OHTC wasn’t open to the public. They paid so they played. Year after year, OHTC smoked every Parks and Recs team they competed against, and at the end of every summer, they took that the big fake-gold championships trophy back up to the Hills with them.
On my team, we were given lectures on sportsmanship and being good hosts. I joined the Live Oak Swim Team at nine years old and competed for seven summers. With the exception of OHTC, the Aquatics Program was a vision of Oakland at its best: constructive, low-cost recreational activities at accessible facilities staffed by community members. If you didn’t have the dollar entrance fee for public swim, lifeguards would let you pay your entrance with ten pieces of collected trash.
The team would pour into the pool in a mob of matching swim caps, goggles, and quick-dry shammies. Their parents brought lawn chairs and tents and crates of those monster-sized Costco muffins.
But the inclusion of OHTC also provided youth with a crash course in American class and race dynamics. We should try to make the best of it, our coaches told us—it raised the stakes of the competition. But as much as the grown-ups tried to rationalize it, no one could deny how it looked: like the rich kids come to pillage.
Saturday mornings, OHTC would drive down to the Flatlands in a fleet of minivans that took up all of the street parking. One of the lifeguards would be stationed outside to make sure no one broke any of their gleaming windshields. The team would pour into the pool in a mob of matching swim caps, goggles, and quick-dry shammies. Their parents brought lawn chairs and tents and crates of those monster-sized Costco muffins. There were tons of them—parents, grandparents, uncles, supportive family members of all varieties, in sun hats and khakis. And with the exception of a couple Asians and a stray Indian, the team was all white.
On our side of the pool, there was a mishmash of latchkey kids and a few tired-looking parents in sweatpants. Kids sat on the pool deck with towels over their heads, either to block the sun or stay warm in the morning fog, depending on the day. We swapped goggles when it was our turn to race. We didn’t have matching swimsuits. Instead of muffins and protein bars, my best friend’s mom would make a tray of spring rolls that we’d devour by 10 a.m. And with the exception of my brother, myself, and two other girls, the team was composed entirely of kids of color.
Those meets were my closest encounters with other white kids, the thing I was and wanted to be. Over the course of my summers on the team, I sat on my side of the pool and looked at their glowy skin and straight teeth, the giggly way the girls leaned together and whispered. I wondered if I looked like them. I thought I probably did. Swap the swimsuit, add a muffin and a coifed mother, and I could have been on the other side of the swimming pool. I could have been sweeping down from the Hills with them, from my life of summer camps and ski weeks, and administering a punishing defeat to a group of sorry-looking Flatlands kids in swim trunks and hair ties.
A tension grew in me, a division, a fault line just like the one that drove beneath the earth and had caused those hills to rise up in the first place. There was a space, I discovered, between what I looked like and what I was, between what I’d wanted to be and what being that thing actually meant. OHTC disrupted the idea of whiteness I’d developed as innocuous, inoffensive, and existing in laugh-track isolation. OHTC did not exist in isolation. Their smiling success was propped up by something—us.
“Don’t they have anyone else to compete against?”
“Shouldn’t they be paying us directly, for giving them someone to beat?”
“Can’t we boycott?”
I knew the answers to these questions, but couldn’t stop asking them. Everyone would just sigh. Even my parents, for all their weathered radicalism, wouldn’t say much. Hadn’t this kind of blatant class exploitation been what they’d spent their youth fighting against, I wondered. But they just seemed tired.
Even the other kids seemed tired. OHTC provided a common enemy for all six of the Flatlands Parks and Recs swim teams, but on the swim meet days, that hatred morphed into something else. I watched as kids who were normally boisterous and shit-talky shrank in OHTC’s presence. They’d grumble, roll their eyes, mutter sly comments, but mostly they’d sit on the side of the pool and stare into the water. There was an underlying resignation in their voices, in the way they shrugged when OHTC won.
Of course OHTC won. This was how it worked.
It was my first glimpse into “how it worked,” into the thing my parents had fought against, into the props and stage lighting behind all those sanitized sitcoms. I’d wanted a romanticized white girlhood, but I hadn’t realized that it came with a cost. Watching OHTC beat my Flatlands swim team was the first time I began to understand what that cost was. But it didn’t make me stop wanting a middle-class white life. It just made me hate that I wanted it, and hate them.
The OHTC kids tried to be good sports—overly polite and shaking our hands after every race—but it only made things worse. We could see how soft they were, how sheltered and well nurtured. We could see how uncomfortable they were around us, and hear the cheerful pity in their parents’ voices when they talked to us.
Then they’d pack up and drive back into the Hills.
It didn’t take a private school education to see through any of it.
“How come they never host meets at their country club?”
“How would we get there?” my coach asked back. “Buses don’t run there.”
He was right, but I secretly fantasized about it: the whole citywide league tromping up there, eating their muffins, drinking their cocoa, sitting in their Jacuzzis, playing tennis in those little funny shorts. If they could come down into our world, I reasoned, we should be given access into theirs, if only for a day.
After months of asking, my parents finally caved and agreed to drive me up there, all the way to the Hills. I wanted to see it: the other side. The steep incline made the car sputter and everything I knew stretch out flat beneath us.
Oakland Hills Tennis Club sat behind a fence, a squat white building surrounded by a small parking lot. The club was located in the burn area of the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire, the one my father’s crew had spent three days fighting. They’d lost a couple men. But a few years had passed and in the brown earth, you could see specks of green struggling to regrow.
I got out of the car and stood on the curb. It didn’t look that fancy, more like a ’70s office building with a really nice view. Shrubs obscured my view. My only glimpse of the pool was a quick flash of blue.
With the earth stripped clean, everything was laid bare. You could see it all so clearly up there: the skyline of downtown, the freeways and bridges, the bubble of San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge, and beyond it, a pale blue line that marked the end of the world. A panoramic view of the whole goddamn Bay Area, splayed out and glittering like a cheap jewelry box.
There was no place for me there.
The summer I was twelve, I hit a growth spurt and shot up to 5’6”. Though I’d never been a particularly strong swimmer, my newly elongated limbs were perfect for the reaching and pulling of backstroke. I was leaving my girlhood, the precious thing I’d never had, and entering into something else.
That summer my swim team also mushroomed in size. A bunch of the Chinese teenagers at Oakland High found out that swimming scholarships were a good way to get into college. The chance at a scholarship trumped their parents’ aversion to tanned skin and suddenly we had swimmers in the ever-sparse 15-17-year-old races.
Live Oak Swim Team also got discovered by the group of parents nicknamed the Village People, members of Oakland’s black bourgeoisie who rigorously enacted the it-takes-a-village adage. They pretty much did everything together. When ex-Raider Jack Tatum’s children joined Live Oak—“We’d never join a country club”—thirty-some of their friends followed. The Village parents were motivated, involved, held fundraisers and camp-outs and cook-offs. Live Oak suddenly had matching caps and swimsuits, goggles for all the team members, and enough funds to pay coaches for extra practice times.
Every meet we had that summer, we defeated the other team by a landslide. We came close to beating OHTC on one of the Saturday morning dual meets. Even the kids on the other public teams noticed Live Oak. We were big, we were organized, we had swimmers in every age group for every stroke. No one seemed too bummed out to lose to us. In fact, they seemed excited for us—we were on different swim teams, but it felt like we were on the same side of some other battle.
When the championships came that August, there was barely enough room on the pool deck to fit everybody. Everywhere you looked, you saw blue-and-gold Live Oak swimsuits. There was a buzz in the air. Kids from the other public swim teams pounded our backs when we won races. The OHTC parents seemed a little less smiley. After the girls in the locker room confessed to mistaking me for an OHTC swimmer, I made sure never to be without some emblem of my team—to mark which side I was on.
When it came time for 11-12 girls backstroke, I dunked in the water, clutched the metal bars and locked my jaw. The swimmer from OHTC was on my left, blonde and freckly with a perky upturned nose. Fuck her, I thought.
When the gun shot off, I arched backwards. There was only one thing going through my mind while I swam, while I looked up at the sky, while my arms flicked overhead and my legs fluttered fiercely: win.
I did. Only by an arm-length, but I still won.
The girl from OHTC came in second. As we sat gasping on the wall, she reached her hand out to me in the sportsmanly way we’d both trained.
I knew it was shitty, I knew it was against everything my mom and my coaches had taught me, but in that moment I didn’t care. I snorted at her and I pulled myself out of the pool, her hand left outstretched and dripping pool water.
The races finished, the sun stretched lazy shadows, and the rats began to scurry through the bushes. But the judges didn’t release the results. They kept counting and recounting, hunching over the printout of scores, running between the scoring table and the office.
By 6 p.m., we gave up and went back to Live Oak, where the Village parents started a BBQ. We were all sitting around with plastic cups of soda, our fingers sticky with BBQ sauce and KISS FM playing old-school jams, when the head coach cut out the sound and grabbed the megaphone.
“Well, they only made us recount the scores seven times.”
We chuckled. Then the deck fell silent as he began calling out the ranking order of the teams: In last place, Fremont. In sixth, DeFremery.
He kept reading.
In third place, Lions.
We held our breath. Nothing, not even a bird moved.
In second place:
There was a kind of cry that erupted then. It sounded as though it’d been issued straight from everyone’s gut, from the place beneath all that resignation and tiredness and good sportsmanship. I realized that I hadn’t been alone in my anger at all, that my parents’ dream wasn’t dead, that it’d all just been buried, obscured, beaten down. It rose up in that moment, came out in that moment, and we were together—one cohesive unit that came from the same place and hated the same thing and had beaten it, beaten it.
It was the only time during my childhood that anyone other than OHTC won, and it was the only time that the divide between sides was that stark and simple—when I knew that clearly which one I was on.
Fists pumped in the air, bodies jumped on top of other bodies, spontaneous dances erupted. Kids did backflips off the guard chairs. All the coaches were thrown in the pool and even some of the parents—inner tubes flailing, water splashing, people embracing.
We were mini-celebrities for the rest of the year. We wore our Live Oak sweatshirts everywhere: to the movies, to the park, to the corner store. Sometimes you’d be walking down the street and some kid would hang out of the bus window and call out, “Live Oak!” And you wouldn’t even see them, wouldn’t even see their face, just a flash of limbs and a bobbing hand, and you’d feel that camaraderie—that it didn’t matter which part of the city you were from or what team you were on. All that mattered was that we had beaten them.
It was the only time we won. It was the only time during my childhood that anyone other than OHTC won, and it was the only time that the divide between sides was that stark and simple—when I knew that clearly which one I was on.
“Yeah but you only beat us by twelve points,” a girl from OHTC quipped the next school year. I’d transferred across the fault line, to an arts-magnet public school in the Hills, the first in a succession of schools that involved navigating long commutes and the complex social webs of middle-class white girls.
I’d like to say I didn’t try to fit in with them. I’d like to say that I no longer pined for a Babysitters Club life. I’d like to say I didn’t spend the rest of my adolescence trying to be accepted into the world of middle-class whiteness and failing, shoplifting from teenybopper stores in suburban malls, smoking speed outside punk shows. I’d like to say I didn’t turn my back on my old friends as I kept looking, emulating, faltering, riding the long lonely bus line back to my neighborhood.
What I can say is that while I did these things, I wore my Live Oak Swim Team sweatshirt.
Lauren Quinn is a writer, teacher, and contributing editor for Vela. Her work has appeared in The Believer, The Rumpus, The Billfold, and Best Women’s Travel Writing. She tweets at lowlowquinn. She is currently poised to move back to California after three years in Asia. She will always be an Oakland girl at heart.