by Lex Valtenbergs
Growing up as a Black person who attended a predominately white school in his hometown of Palmdale, California, Doug Smith learned early on how to code-switch, or alter his behavior to fit white societal norms. Still, his peers expected him to act a certain way because he was Black.
“People had perceptions of what it was like to be Black; they have their own ideas,” Smith said. “I remember one time a new Eminem song had come out and some white dudes in my P.E. class knew the lyrics and I didn’t know the lyrics, and they’re like, ‘Oh, so we’re Blacker than you are.'”
Smith’s formative lived experiences with code-switching and microaggressions – subtle statements or actions that are discriminatory against members of marginalized groups – made him very cognizant of other peoples’ perceptions of him early on.
“That was really my first understanding of code-switching,” Smith said. “I would totally present differently because I was really conscious of how people were perceiving me.”
As a Cal Poly Humboldt international studies alumnus, staff member and graduate student majoring in English, Smith has been involved in the campus community since 2013. Today, he is the coordinator at the Umoja Center for Pan African Student Excellence at Cal Poly Humboldt, a position that he has held since July 2019.
“It’s such a rare opportunity for Blackness to be centered,” Smith said. “So I really want Black students to be able to make it theirs.”
Smith’s vision for the Umoja Center going forward is to foster Black student development, including but not limited to publishing their writing, and foster Black liberation by curating spaces that are made for and by Black people. Amplifying Black voices that often get silenced or ignored is key.
“[I’m] always visible because I’m a Black person, because you stand out,” Smith said. “But then at the same time, I think that oftentimes my voice isn’t always audible or isn’t always heard.”
Although the Umoja Center is first and foremost a space for Black students, faculty and staff, it’s open to everyone on campus.
“I think it’s so cool that we have an educational, Black-centric space [at] a university that really has an opportunity to educate our campus and local community,” Smith said.
To learn more, visit the Umoja Center in Room 206 at Nelson Hall East, follow @umojahumboldt on Instagram, or go to umoja.humboldt.edu. To get involved, attend an event listed on the website or volunteer with the Umoja Center on Fridays from 11 p.m. to 3 p.m. at Bayside Park Farm on Old Arcata Road.