By Sarah CR Clark
Editor’s note: The following conversation between Toya Dragseth and Bugle freelance writer Sarah CR Clark is the first in an occasional series we are calling “Diverse Voices,” a feature that will highlight the thoughts and views of local people of color.
Q: Toya, how do you racially identify?
A: I am African American.
Q: What sort of work do you do?
A: I am an application analyst in IT for M Health Fairview.
Q: What does your family/household look like?
A: We are a family of five (was six, but the oldest is out on his own). Caucasian husband and three adorable, biracial kids.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in St. Paul in a housing project right off of Jackson and Wheelock. I attended Central for all of high school.
Q: Can you tell a story of a time when you experienced injustice or discomfort because of your skin color?
A: I have not personally experienced injustice, but my family has with the death of my nephew Philando Castile. That was very hard on my family and to this day justice has not been served.
I do remember a time when I felt discomfort.
Years ago, my family lived in California in a predominantly white area. I had registered my oldest son for junior high. I was very intentional since he was born, always making sure to mark that he was both white and black in any forms I ever had to fill out. When I turned in his paperwork at the school, the admin started inputting his information into the system and stated that she could only enter one option in the race/ethnicity field. White or black, not both. My son was present during this exchange. I was so embarrassed. For the first time in his life, I had to choose how he would be identified by people in his school. I knew if I picked white as his race, someone would assume that was a mistake and change it to black. So, I told her to type in black.
Q: Did your parents give you “The Talk” about what to do if/when confronted by police?
A: My parents never gave me the talk. Police brutality was not a thing here in Minnesota when I was a kid. As a parent, I had to give my oldest son the talk when he was a high schooler at Como.
After Trayvon Martin’s death I had to explain to him not to run, stay where he was, if questioned, be polite and answer the questions and if things went sideways call your parents ASAP. I had to tell him how to dress, how he could be perceived in public. It was heartbreaking because I felt like I was telling him not to be who he was in order to keep him safe.
Q: How is this current moment of social justice and protests feeling for you?
A: I am conflicted, really. I am not an optimistic person by nature, so I don’t feel that any change will happen anytime soon. In my heart I hope it does.
Q: What are your hopes for your kids?
A: My hope is that the positive and widely shared demand for structural change continues. I hope that those changes or some of those changes will occur in their lifetime so that our country can move forward.
Q: What else might you like our neighbors to know about your experience as a person of color?
A: My mother taught me at a young age to love my neighbor no matter what color they were, until they give you a reason to do otherwise. I grew up poor and my neighbors and my family were all in the same boat. We had no reason to not like each other. I tend to be more forgiving and understanding with small slights. But as I get older, I realize, there are no longer any excuses. As a person of color, I want to be respected for the person I am, not judged or treated any differently. I don’t want people to feel sorry for me because I am an African American woman. The country we live in seems to be moving backwards and sympathy rather than empathy in conversations seems easier. I have feelings, I love coffee and I love to talk.