Brian Copeland, a San Leandro-based comedian and author, took the stage at Amador Valley High on Thursday to discuss race, inequality and how to deal with being different.
In a talk held at the school's multipurpose room, Copeland recounted his childhood years in a community that was nearly all white in the 1970s due to "white flight" from San Francisco. He urged students in Pleasanton to take a lesson from the mistakes of the Bay Area's past and remember that "no one has the right to define you but you."
About 200 students from classes and clubs related to social justice, equal rights and ethics attended the talk, which was a mix of deep, personal stories and light humor.
"At some point in your life," Copeland told Amador Valley students, "you will be the only one. The only man, the only woman. The only Christian. The only Jew."
How you navigate that challenge, he said, will be a testament to your character and your strength. He challenged students to determine their own identity -- and to allow other students the same right.
"My biggest take away point from Mr. Copeland's speech is that only you can define yourself," sophomore Nicole Zhang said. "Mr. Copeland emphasized several times that at some point in our lives, we will be the only one: the only boy in the room, the only girl, the only Christian, the only Muslim, the only Asian, the only Latino, the only one who likes country music, etc. When we navigate those waters, we need to remember that only we can define ourselves. Others may try to label you, but they cannot define who you are."
While Pleasanton is significantly more diverse than the 1970s version of San Leandro, Copeland pointed out some people settled in Pleasanton over the past decades after moving away from communities such as San Leandro when the racial and socioeconomic makeup of those communities changed.
Pleasanton is 66% white, 25% Asian, 11% Hispanic and 2% black, according to the 2013 U.S. Census report supplement. California as a whole is 62% white, 13% Asian, 37% Hispanic and 6% black.
Copeland recounted his years encountering racism in San Leandro, where he was frequently called racial epithets and told "you don't belong here" by residents, police and playmates alike. He said that environment inspired his first book, "Not a Genuine Black Man," which discusses concepts of race, culture and self-determination.
"I believe you have the right to live anywhere you want to live if you can afford it and if you're going to be a good citizen," he said.
Copeland told of his mother's determination to stay in their community, even though residents tried to force them out. He said he remembers adults would scream "the N word" at him, even as an 8-year-old.
When asked by a student whether Muslims in America are being treated like blacks were half a century ago, Copeland said his heart goes out to residents and students who have been made to feel like outsiders.
"It is definitely the most trying time to be a follower of Islam in the history of America," he said.
Copeland is the author of two books, "Not a Genuine Black Man" and "The Jewelry Box: A Memoir of Christmas," a radio host of "The Brian Copeland Show" on KGO and a stand-up comedian.
Copeland waived his speaking fee for the school, according to Zhang, who assisted with event organization.