Enduring racism growing up in Hays County

During Rashaad O’Neal’s was junior year, he was going into the locker room for football period and that is when he saw the black doll hanging by a noose.  When he started to look around, everyone was laughing, not a single person took O’Neal’s side. No, this did not occur in the 1960s, this happened around 2005.

“That’s when I realized no one on my team had my back,” O’Neal said, vexed by his story. “I was a walking joke to them. All I heard was ‘Rashaad, you cannot take a joke.’ A joke is when both parties are laughing, and they were the only ones laughing.”

O’Neal’s was not an isolated case of racism at Jack C. Hays High School, which has a two percent black-student population. Living in Kyle between 1997 to 2006, O’Neal often found himself left out; his family was the only black family on his street, and he recalled that there might have been a couple of other black families in his neighborhood.

O’Neal’s bouts with racism did not end at people egging and paintballing his home, constantly being on the receiving end of racial slurs, hearing insults about his nose-size and the n-word. He was patted down by his 8th grade French teacher in front of the class before an exam in fear that he would cheat. After years of students and sometimes teachers separating O’Neal from the bunch and shaming his blackness, O’Neal had to become a chameleon by assimilating with his white counterparts.

This journey that O’Neal did not want to take shaped him as an adolescent and college student, and a few years ago, he decided to untangle the years of trauma and use it to help those in a similar situation. O’Neal eventually moved out of the sports journalism field and became the Leadership Development Coordinator for Washington State School Directors Association. His end goal is to be a communication director for a school district to help with student inequity issues.

Before he was able to feel comfortable in his skin, though, O’Neal’s reaction was to alter his identity during his youth and young adult years.

“There were days where I felt not proud to be black because of what I went through,” O’Neal said. “Everyone that put me through that stuff made me feel like it was bad to be black. I had to talk, look and act like white people.”

Black college students questioned why he dressed in confederate flag attire, but did not question why he acted white.  In a way, O’Neal’s identity has been split between two cultures without knowing where exactly he fit in.

As an adult, O’Neal said he does not hear a lot of racism, but he knows a lot of black kids and teens living in majority-white communities receive this treatment. School districts in predominantly white communities, like Hays County, do not have a lot of equity, O’Neal said. In turn, when these students see black people, they are generally in the media in rap songs and videos, where they develop a sense of what black people are supposed to act like. 

But the representation issue is far beyond the current media industry; O’Neal spoke out about the way history is being taught to grade-school students and how it is a white-washed narrative.

For example, when white people are asked to think of a revolutionary representative for the black community, they envision Martin Luther King Jr. Rosa Parks gets a mention in a page, maybe two, but it always goes back to the peaceful protests, making it seem like Martin Luther King Jr. did not endure hate and racism. In fact, he was one of the most hated people in America, O’Neal explained.

And during the protests that began last week, many people are sharing Martin Luther King Jr.’s quotes on peace, but that is cherry-picking. Not all of his quotes allude to standing peacefully in the face of injustice, it is only plan A.

“And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard,” a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. “And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Seeing the whitewashing of history strengthens O’Neal’s belief that history is repeating itself. He gave an example about his grandmother, born in 1948, who said during the 1960s people would tell her that at least slavery is abolished, as if that change was enough to accept this as a bar for the bare minimum.

“A lot of people think when things started to desegregate in the 70s, a lot of white people in my age range and a little older think racism just went away,” O’Neal said. “That goes back to the bare minimum. We need to be taught that white people had a huge advantage and it was very imbalanced racially at the time and not a lot has been addressed to fix it. When you think about it, we have barely moved the needle since Martin Luther King Jr. died.”

These realizations take time to absorb, and it took O’Neal a long time to speak up about his experiences. A couple of years ago, O’Neal went to a therapist to unravel his trauma; he suggests that students of color going through these issues speak up and see a therapist early on in their lives.

Then after seeing the protests, O’Neal, with his hand on his heart, afraid of people’s reactions, posted a snippet of his experience in Hays County on the Hays CISD Community Facebook page.

People’s reactions were welcoming and supportive, which shocked O’Neal, but Hays County has grown in the last 14 years. Many who commented are people he has never seen before.

Therapy can help those affected by racism, but another part of the solution is letting people know where their community is faltering, having the uncomfortable conversations that pop the bubble, O’Neal said.

He also highlights the importance of representation – from fourth grade until graduation, O’Neal occasionally saw black teachers but never had one, and this is one example where Hays County lacks in representation. Fixing representation in the school system would ultimately begin with recruiting more teachers and administrators of color which will make a huge difference in the district’s equity, he added.

O’Neal wants the community to know where the disadvantages lie because he loves Hays County and has not ruled out coming back if his dream position opens up.

“I will always consider Kyle my home,” O’Neal said, “even though I was born in Georgia. I want what is best; I want Hays County to stop living in the 50s and 60s. They are still light years behind of where they need to be. I want the community I grew up in to get with the times.”

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Sahar Chmais holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin. She has been covering cities in Hays County for one year, touching on residents' struggles and successes, city issues, COVID-19 and more. Prior to reporting on the local spectrum, Sahar reported for a national news organization, covering gun violence. Sahar enjoys working as a local reporter because she gets to work with real people and their stories.

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