California Burning

Amy Susanne Robinson
Human Parts
Published in
17 min readJun 9, 2015


In California, something is always burning. During the autumn of Y2K, scheduled electricity blackouts rolled through my freshman year dorm, and we huddled under dim, generator-powered fluorescence in the halls because our rooms were too dark and too hot. Enron execs manipulated the lines and raked in Death Star money. Governor Gray Davis floundered. He couldn’t get our lights back on. We tried hard to study, or we didn’t try at all. We played a game called Mafia that I could always win. In Mafia, it’s mafia versus police and town. As mafia, I lied so energetically that I nearly lost friends, even though it was just a game.

This all happened at Pomona College, part of the “5-C” Claremont consortium of five adjacent undergraduate campuses. The ease of taking classes at the other colleges was one of Pomona’s selling points, but access to the other dining halls was the real perk. We ate sushi at Scripps on Fridays, bagels with smoked salmon at Claremont McKenna (CMC) on weekends, and, at Pomona, we looked forward to Taco Thursday. And every night, from 10:30pm to midnight, our dining hall served, free of charge, a hot snack, along with cereal, bagels, PBJs, coffee, and cocoa.

The region where Pomona is located is known, aptly and ominously, as the Inland Empire. Where there’s money, like on campus and in the surrounding retirement community of Claremont, there are lush orange groves, cascades of tropical flowers, and grass so thoroughly watered that my shoes were always wet after I walked across the quad. Where there isn’t money, there are strip malls, asphalt, scrubby desert, and not much else.

It isn’t really what I’d pictured when I decided to go to college in California. About half of Pomona students come from the west coast, and as a native of Atlanta, I had to explain a lot about where I came from. I didn’t feel out of place exactly, but I got teased for saying y’all and I lost most of my accent. People from the Bay Area and the Pacific Northwest asked if Atlanta was scary and racist, to which I retorted — though not out loud — that my city was majority black, that there hadn’t been a white mayor in my lifetime, that my high-school boyfriend was black, and that he was also the class president.

The college provided beer to students five nights a week, and wine on Thursdays at a fancier gathering called Symposium. You could only get served if you had an ID that said you were twenty-one, but the wisdom held that you wouldn’t get busted for alcohol consumption or distribution, no matter your age, as long as you were in a dorm room, in transit, or drinking from a red cup. Nobody I knew ever got in trouble unless they stole a golf cart, broke a window, or sprayed the fire extinguisher all over the dorm. Those offenders got a slap on the wrist.

Sophomore year, I lived in a “theme group,” which meant my friends and I got a suite and a patio in exchange for hosting the occasional event. Our theme was “Creation” (arts and crafts, not Adam and Eve). All I remember is our tie-dye party and a lot of Krispy Kreme donuts, all funded by Pomona. Because I was the only white person in my theme group suite, those same Bay Area/Pacific Northwesterners said to me, “You really like black people, huh?” and “I don’t really know how to act around black people.” To which I had no retort, out loud or in my head.

At that time, I felt with increasing poignancy that I’d been born in the wrong era. I wanted to march for civil rights. Protest, at Pomona, often took the form of veganism and hunger strikes, and my ungenerous view was that the demonstrators were really just finding radical new ways to be anorexic. The fight against racial oppression, meanwhile, was mostly anodyne, and thick with theory. In class, we did close readings of Mos Def and Talib Kweli lyrics, where we found resistance to hegemony, and articles in The New York Times, where we found encoded liberal racism. Direct action didn’t seem possible.

My suitemates and I joined a group called SMAC that trained students to facilitate conversations about race among our peers during a six-hour “Day of Dialogue.” White students would lead conversations among white students about how we’d profited from racism, and students of color would lead conversations among students of color about the impact of racism on their lives. The groups would then join up to hash it all out. At training, we talked about whiteness and white guilt, affirmative action, diversity quotas, reparations, and implicit bias. We learned that racism equals prejudice plus power, and that reverse racism doesn’t exist. We learned that white people should stop whining about not having a culture because American culture equals white culture plus appropriation of other cultures. By then I’d read bell hooks, so during training I stood up and announced, “We are all consumers of a racist economy!” Afterwards, my suitemates told me I was the right kind of white girl. I believed them.

September 11 brought a different kind of burning, faraway and within. Classes weren’t cancelled, but we weren’t expected to attend, and we didn’t. We watched the news on TV and organized Quaker meetings. A student painted “Nuke ‘em” on Walker Wall, where anyone is allowed to paint anything. We painted over it, or someone did, and we shunned the offending painter. We read the Bible for the first time in months. That morning, I opened right to Matthew 5:44. “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” We argued with our families about the decision to go to war with Afghanistan. My best friend from freshman year, Lauren, was back home in the Bronx getting cancer treatment, so she called and wrote letters to me and my roommate, also from the Bronx. Lauren told us how things were there, what organizing meetings she went to in between chemo sessions, and how the skies hadn’t cleared yet.

In Claremont, the skies were almost never clear. Smog hid Mount Baldy, just five miles away, and at night the sky was the purplish greenish gray color of Spanish moss. Fall of my junior and senior years, ash fell like snow as wildfires near campus swept across tens of thousands of acres. We couldn’t see the mountains, but we saw plenty of smoke, and we covered our faces with masks. Our friends who lived in the mountains came down from the mountains. Back then, we called the winds the Chino winds because they carried the smell of cow manure from the farms two towns over, but I know better now. It was the storied Santa Ana winds that blew the fire so fast across the San Bernardino foothills.

My Creation suitemates studied abroad in the fall of our junior year, so I mostly hung out with people who worked on the student paper with me. We didn’t do anything serious, and we made private fun of the earnest people who did. By that time, Lauren had died, and I had lost faith of all kinds.

The next October, Gray Davis was recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger became governor. Three and a half weeks later: Old Fire, Padua, Grand Prix. I didn’t know the names of the fires until much later. I didn’t know the guy who threw the flare that lit Old Fire would be sentenced to death because five people died of heart attacks as they tried to escape their homes. I didn’t know California had the death penalty. I didn’t know fires had names.

A closer fire: during winter break, students from three of the other Claremont colleges, on campus early for swim practice, stole an art project made by a Pomona student, and burned it.

The art project was an 11-foot metal cross with a plaid cover. They burned a cross.

The flames were contained at first. We heard the news belatedly. The previous April, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold state bans on cross burnings in cases where the arsonist intends to terrorize or intimidate someone. In this case, school officials didn’t feel that it was a hate crime, so they didn’t notify the police. The arsonists denied any knowledge of the Ku Klux Klan’s history of cross-burning. They said it was a prank. They said they were sorry. They said they were not racists.

I knew one of them slightly, and I knew he’d graduated from a prestigious high school in Atlanta. It seemed impossible to me that students at a private school in Martin Luther King’s hometown would not have learned what it meant to burn a cross.

We marched. The schools hadn’t responded swiftly enough, and the perpetrators were still on campus. A newly formed organization called the Student Liberation and Action Movement (SLAM) led the way.

Honestly, I can’t remember whether I marched. I suspect that I did not. SMAC no longer existed, and SLAM members were students of color only, including my sophomore year roommate, Jacque. SLAM was not about facilitating dialogue. SLAM was about institutional change. They made a list of ten specific demands to the Pomona administration, ranging from the expulsion of the students who burned the cross to the creation of a Native American Studies department.

Now that direct action was really happening, I felt like a marauder. There no longer seemed to be a right kind of white girl. Instead of marching, I probably worked hard on my thesis project, a history of the (white) women’s movement in New Orleans after the Civil War, a movement motivated largely by the racist desire to counteract the black vote and to preserve the ideal of the Southern white woman — recast, post-bellum, as civically engaged for the sake of her family. Instead of marching, I found a politically apathetic, atheist boyfriend, the kind who thinks he has an interesting argument against voting. I made a previous boyfriend watch a Spike Lee satire about blackface and discuss it with me at length, but not this one. I was probably afraid of what he would say. Jacque thought he was really nice, but wouldn’t have if she really knew him. He was fireless. I don’t know what he was doing in California.

He taught me to play bridge. I wasn’t very good, but it was a game I could sometimes win.

The next fire wasn’t a fire, but it engulfed us. The evening of March 9, we were playing bridge. Jacque called my boyfriend’s room to alert me. She said to come outside and see what happened. I left the bridge game and stood in a crowd that had gathered in a parking lot.

There is a single-spaced, 71-page, exhaustively detailed and comprehensive report called “Revisiting A Call to Action” that Pomona student activist leaders, including SLAM, wrote in response to the cross-burning and related incidents. It’s still accessible online in full. In the “General Timeline: A legacy of hate incidents and community response,” the following is reported of the incidents of March 9 and March 10:

March 9th: Visiting CMC professor Kerri Dunn’s car is discovered in a CMC parking lot defaced with the windows smashed, tires slashed and various words written on the car, including “nigger lover,” “shut up bitch” and “kike.” A swastika is partially drawn on the car.

March 10th: Classes are canceled at the 5Cs to encourage community reflection on the previous night’s incident and participation in specially planned events. A large 5C rally takes place that night. Students speak from all five colleges, news reporters come from many L.A. t.v./radio stations, and hundreds of participants arrive in support.

On March 10, we all marched. Well, my boyfriend probably didn’t, but everyone else I knew marched.

We marched from one campus to the next. Anticipation mounted — there was something climactic about the whole day. We ended up at Pomona, in front of an auditorium unofficially called Big Bridges, where I’d attended concerts and speeches by the Flaming Lips and Beck, the Black Eyed Peas, De La Soul, and Wyclef Jean, Michael Moore, and Desmond Tutu.

That night, the speeches were outdoors, in front of the thousands of marching students, many holding placards. I remember two of the speeches. The first was given by one of my beloved history professors, Dr. Samuel Yamashita. He talked about a time early in his career when his own car was vandalized. It was a hate crime, and it really shook him.

Hearing his speech shook me, too. Dr. Yamashita was the most exacting and the most mirthful professor I had at Pomona. He was pompous, but his brand of professorial swagger was winsome and pretty much justified, and he was also very kind, and spoke tenderly of his wife, who worked in academic publishing. He once told me about a health problem she’d had that resembled a health problem I was having. I remember him saying that she was doubled over on the bathroom floor. He looked pained to recall her pain, which honestly sounded a lot worse than my pain.

Still, I was taken aback by the intimacy of his Big Bridges speech. In those earlier years, Dr. Yamashita said, he and his then-new bride made a habit of reading to each other in the bathtub. They were reading Them by Joyce Carol Oates around the time his car was vandalized.

The selection of this simple, oblique, private detail shook me the hardest. Conversations about racism are so often about the perpetrators, and their ignorance and intolerance, and the ways inequality is codified by our legal systems and institutions. Consumers of a racist economy. And those are important conversations, but we have also to listen for the violence of racism as it is experienced and withstood and absorbed in a life. At one’s first teaching job, amid the early flush of academic success, in the bathtub with a book and in love. That crime against Dr. Yamashita was at once so acute that he remembered what book he was reading when it happened, and so uncontained that it slopped around and slammed into everything else around it: the book he and his wife were reading in the bathtub, his memory of an important period of his life.

The second speech I remember was given by Kerry Dunn herself. I remember the style, but not its content. Then again, I have a photograph to aid my recollection, but no transcript. In a widely reprinted image, Kerri Dunn appears blue-eyed with auburn hair to her waist (that’s how The New York Times would clue you in that Kerri Dunn, the victim of the previous night’s hate crime, is white). She wears what appears to be a dashiki and clasps her hands as her wide eyes plead with the giant crowd. Jacque stands just behind Kerri Dunn. Two students flanking Jacque have their eyes closed softly and their hands clasped in front of them, their faces serene. But Jacque’s eyes are open and trained in a different direction. Her face is not serene. She appears to be thinking ahead.

That all matches what I think I remember about Kerri Dunn’s speech. I know that she emoted a lot. She cried in a loud rhetorical way. I know that she spoke for a long time at the end of a very long day. In March, the desert gets cold at night. I don’t remember eating lunch or dinner that day, but I must have. I don’t remember closing my eyes or clasping my hands, but it’s possible that I did. Dunn’s speech did not include the kind of detail that made Dr. Yamashita’s speech so memorable. That seems understandable, given that Kerri Dunn hadn’t had twenty or more years to shape a rich narrative from a messy experience. The basic outline was that in class, she’d brought up difficult questions about the cross-burning and other racist incidents on campus, and she indicted her students for their inaction and political indifference. Her students were upset by her truth-telling. And so she was punished.

Before that night, I wished sometimes for a role model. I wanted to become acquainted with a living or historical example of a white woman who contributed in real and responsible ways to combatting racism, who didn’t waste her time on her own white guilt, who recognized her complicity and understood why and how white-led anti-racist projects fail. This role model would not be a leader, or a visionary, but would be a conscientious follower and steadfast participant.

While I don’t remember exactly what I thought and felt that night, I know that I didn’t consider for a second that Kerri Dunn would be that role model. I remember thinking that Kerri Dunn milked it a little too much. She, a white woman, was the main victim here.

Hindsight has almost certainly interfered with this memory. Besides, Kerri Dunn’s speech, whatever I made of it, was not, right then, my primary concern. What’s funny is that Jacque, and her spiritual opposition to everything my bridge-playing ex-boyfriend represented (which, as a nihilist, was nothing), was my primary concern, and yet I can’t remember for the life of me whether Jacque gave a speech that night. I feel intuitively that she must have, but it’s as if my hyper-vigilance toward her, and what I perceived as my failure, subsumed everything, and burned right through whatever impressions would have imprinted themselves onto my memory.

Either that, or, after we’d lived together a year and lost someone we both loved, I knew the depth and texture of Jacque’s anger and insecurity and sensitivity and intensity so thoroughly that nothing she could have said in a speech that night would have possibly surprised me. Her speech, if she gave one, may have been extraordinary or hasty or both, and to me it would have still been quintessentially Jacque, and who can remember something so familiar?

Speech or not, my primary concern, or conflict, was this: I wondered what she thought of me and what I could do, while, at the same time, I wanted to return to my game of bridge and my cozy unbelief. There, with my fireless white boyfriend, I didn’t have to think about loss or anger, or what kind of white girl I was being.

The next week, I let my boyfriend come on a Spring Break trip to Mexico that was supposed to be just with my women friends. Without permission, he took photos of my friends and me skinny dipping in the ocean. He pretended to delete them, but I found out two years later that he didn’t. He made me anxious all the time, and I thought of nothing and nobody but him. Just after Spring Break, I moderated a panel of fellow senior history majors, in which we talked about how our thesis research dealt with issues of racism and inequality. My boyfriend did not attend, and he broke up with me, temporarily, when I confronted him about it later that day.

We had organized the panel right after the Kerri Dunn rally. We felt ourselves to be part of a groundswell of activity. The panel was a responsible thing I could do, something in my wheelhouse. We held the panel even though, by that time, everything had become confused.

Because by then we’d found out that Kerri Dunn vandalized her own car. She spray-painted her car with vicious racial slurs and cried about it in front of thousands of people. People saw her do it, and they came forward. Her story fell apart. The Jewish slur, in particular: her students had no way of knowing she was thinking of converting from Catholicism to Judaism. Items she said were stolen during the vandalism were found in her apartment.

A week after the rally, during Spring Break, she was named as the only suspect in the hate crime that resulted in the cancellation of all Claremont Colleges classes. Remember that class was not officially cancelled on 9/11. A year later, Kerri Dunn would be convicted and sentenced to a year in jail for filing a false police report, as if that charge comprehended the damage she had done.

A hoax is a joke, a jest, a prank, a trick. Bunco, Three-card Monte. A confidence game: You lay a foundation and achieve the trust of your mark. Then you get what you came for.

What Kerri Dunn did was not a joke, not a jest. Yet newspapers reporting the incident have consistently called it a hoax. As if she were playing a long con. What would that be? She said she wanted people to recognize the racism endemic in their communities. She said she wanted students to take action. When saying it didn’t turn out to be enough, she caused a spectacle. Show, don’t tell. She showed us the racism, the real deal. She got us to trust her and shut our eyelids and clasp our hands. She lit a fire under our asses. Rallies, teach-ins, panels.

Or she just wanted attention. She got it.

Or maybe she wanted to be the right kind of white girl.

The fallout of what Kerri Dunn did can’t be measured. I wonder how many of us, who watched her speech on the steps of Big Bridges, still think about that night and her wild fraud, and wonder what it meant.

In the immediate aftermath, the conversation withered. We had our panel, and Jacque and her cohort worked tirelessly on “Revisiting A Call to Action,” but mostly, nothing changed. Which could have been the case anyway, even if the perpetrator was someone else, some honest-to-goodness racist. And it’s possible that people got the message in spite of its fraudulent medium.

I feel some mild sympathy for the college administrators who boldly cancelled classes. Maybe it wasn’t bold, maybe they caved to pressure, but they must have felt good and righteous about the decision. All those people gathered. And then to find out she spray-painted her own car. How humiliating.

When, last year, a rape accusation against the singer Conor Oberst was found to be a total fabrication, a writer for Bustle commented, “The news that Faircloth’s accusations are false is crushingly disappointing.” As if the lie is worse than a rape would have been, if not for Faircloth, then at least for the cause.

This is understandable, if poorly worded. Certainly, those whose charter it is to deny that racism exists have a long memory of the Kerri Dunn incident. The story fits all too neatly in a certain strident right-wing narrative. Google search results for her name include,,,, and the ominous As recently as March 2015, a commenter styled as “rightistight” recounted the tale in response to an article at with the headline, “Person Putting ‘Whites Only’ Stickers Around Austin Turns Out to be Liberal Social Justice Warrior.”

By shutting up about Kerri Dunn once she’d been unmasked, we gave away the narrative and its meaning. I wish we had talked about it. I wish we had gathered around Big Bridges again to talk about what went wrong, and what drove this woman to her desperate act. The conversation would have been rattled and broken, but something could have been salvaged.

You don’t have to take Kerri Dunn at her word to understand the desire for an irrefutable, concrete example of capital R Racism. The response to the cross-burning had really been maddening. I remember well the despair and frustration of arguing against the general view among students (and administrators) that the act of burning a cross had been an innocent, ahistorical mix-up. That kind of slippage, that soft denial, underpins a justice system that gives cops the benefit of the doubt when they kill unarmed black men. Nothing is overt enough to call racism what it is.

We could have talked about why we, as a community, needed this white woman victim so badly. Why a burned cross wasn’t proof enough for us, just because the arsonists didn’t wear hoods. Why we hadn’t already left aside our bridge games, inflated grades, free alcohol, and dining hall sushi for one day so we could gather on the well-watered lawn of the quad and rally.

The game was up, and we never spoke of it. But we had rallied. We had marched. It wasn’t a dream. Surely we were changed. We left a dead narrative for the vultures to peck into the shape they chose — but surely the narrative, when it had lived, shaped us. I know it shaped me.

I’ve never read Them by Joyce Carol Oates, but I look for it in every used bookstore I walk into, and I think of Samuel Yamashita on the steps of Big Bridges, telling us the true story of a terrible cruelty.

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Amy Susanne Robinson
Human Parts

Essayist, poet, writing teacher. Mom. Very good cook. Web: Twitter/IG: @amysmcd