Whether Austin Is A 'Progressive' City Could Depend On The Color Of Your Skin

Feb 13, 2019

Austin likes to think of itself as a progressive city. For many, the liberal label is a point of pride, but for others, it doesn't ring true.

In a Medium article published last month, Lakeya Omogun, a doctoral student at UT Austin’s College of Education, described what it’s like to live in Austin as a person of color. She asked readers to really think about what it means to call the city “progressive.”

KUT’s Nadia Hamdan talked with Omogun about what her life’s been like since she moved to Austin from Harlem in 2016.

This transcript has been edited for clarity. Warning: It contains a racist slur.

Lakeya Omogun: I think when you move to a new place, a huge part is getting settled in, finding your community, figuring out the city, and finding your places and your spaces. That transition for me was really difficult because I went to a PWI [predominantly white institution] for undergrad, so I know what it means to be in a predominantly white space. However, when I came to Austin, I tell people that I went my full first week without seeing a black person. I was like, what? Is this real?

Nadia Hamdan: You point out in the article that a few months after you arrived, the 2016 presidential election was in full swing. Tell us the significance of this event in connection with your move to Austin.

Omogun: The day that Donald Trump won, I decided to get out of the house and go grab something to eat. I was walking and there was a long line of cars. One guy in particular was in a pickup truck and he was chanting, things like that. I had to wait at the intersection of the street and when I crossed, he was like, "Move out of the way, nigger." I was like, what? Is this really happening right now?

Hamdan: Was this the first time that something like this happened to you?

Omogun: Yeah, that was actually the first event and it was also the first one that was just so in your face. Granted, every day I go through like subtle microaggressions and things like that, but that was the first. I was like – Oh, shoot, this is my home, and this is where I'm going to be doing my Ph.D. program for the next few years.

Hamdan: What were you feeling?

Omogun: In that moment, I didn't feel, and I was really intentional about not allowing myself to feel. I didn't begin to feel until probably a month later or so, maybe late November or December. I was just starting to wonder if I made the right decision. Could I have studied elsewhere? Is it worth it? Just thinking about the role your environment plays on your mental health – and if I'm going to be quite honest, your physical health – and what that means to exist and thrive. Being in a Ph.D. program has its own set of rigor and challenges, but when you couple racially motivated things, that's a whole other layer that you have to begin to grapple with, in addition to all the other things that you have to do.

Hamdan: That incident you say was the first of many racist experiences that you've endured while living in Austin. Even beyond these bigger events, you talk a lot about microaggressions. Can you give a better sense of some of the microaggressions that you deal with on a day to day basis that maybe you weren't experiencing when you were living back in Harlem?

Omogun: Sometimes when I walk into a place, obviously the clenching of the purse or the long gazes or when you come around, certain movements or shifts that occur, or the assumption that I don't have the background or the educational experiences that I have. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, and I had an experience with one woman who said, "Wait, but you're from Detroit? How did you end up going to college? How did you end up getting in a Ph.D. program?" Questions like that just baffled me. This is also a woman who works with low-income communities; she does charitable work. She has this "benevolent" character and she's doing the work, but she can't wrap her mind around like how I, a black woman who grew up in Detroit City, made it this far. For her, she was just trying to unlock and unsolve the mystery.

For me, there is no mystery. The fact that you're posing this question is problematic. You can feel it. It's not necessarily something that you can describe per se, but it's definitely something you know is there and that is what makes being in certain places feel unwelcoming.

Hamdan: Before you moved here, Austin was painted to you as a liberal, progressive city, and I think you're taking issue ... with the label. It's disingenuous given your experience and other people of color who have lived in this city. Can you elaborate what you mean when you say "disingenuous" [in the article]?

Omogun: I think we have to ask ourselves who describes the city as liberal. Who describes the city as progressive? Generally, I haven't heard that perspective too much from people like myself. When I say it's disingenuous, it's almost like a badge of honor that we're not like the rest of Texas. We are open to these progressive ideas and we have certain flags or Democratic signs or labels and we play this music.

I see that as very surface level. It's less about what you can see and more about the actions and what's embodied and how you treat people when they come into space. How do you welcome people? Because you can say one thing, you can profess one thing, but I don't believe that it's something that necessarily has to be professed. If that's who you are or if that's what the city is, there doesn't necessarily need to be a declaration or this profession of who we are because you would be able to feel it and you would be embraced by it.