In a school that’s almost three-quarters white, being a student of color can feel like being an outsider in their own community
December 13, 2019
High school is tough enough, but being the only minority in the classroom makes it even harder. It’s something many students of color are aware of, but stay silent about. Meanwhile, white students may never notice at all. They are taught to be “color-blind,” that the subject of race and racism is taboo, or that society has come far enough in terms of civil rights. But, differences between the experiences of high schoolers because of their race cannot be ignored.
Anyone who knows West junior Saleh Kigozi knows he is vibrant, funny, and not one to shy away from the spotlight. An immigrant from Uganda, Kigozi reflects on how he has found it hard to explain himself to those who have never been in his shoes.
“People don’t understand my point of view,” Kigozi says. “I know my skin color is not ideal. When people think of someone to hangout with, or someone to go on a date with, they don’t usually think of a black person. People notice you more, but they find you intimidating.”
Being viewed in a negative light by those around you is harmful enough, but being characterized in conflicting ways can be confusing too.
“Because I’m black, people wanna know me or be my friend,” states Kigozi. “People find it essential for their social groups or experiences. It makes me feel like an accessory. I’m not to be used to make you seem cool,” Kigozi says. “When you don’t become the more ‘likable’ black, you lose your purpose. You become irrelevant.”
To be viewed as an object can be incredibly dehumanizing, and Kigozi explained that those who try to excuse their behavior and try to say that they are ‘not racist’, should save it.
“I don’t care what cousin of yours is black, you’re still not black. Your ancestors still used their power over blacks, and it’s incorporated into you. It does not make you black.”
While this statement may be shocking, Kigozi believes his stance it comes from a place of being exhausted.
“We should be united. We’re all human.”
East junior Gisselle Sandoval is bubbly, funny and loves to play racquet-sports. Born from immigrant parents, Sandoval discussed what being a Mexican-American means to her, and the importance of empathy.
“There’s different races here, obviously,” she says. “But you turn a corner and there’s American people. White people. Because of that, I feel like I don’t have much of my culture because, let’s say, I can’t speak Spanish to one of my white friends. So, it’s like I can’t express myself like I could with someone who speaks Spanish. In a weird way, I feel like I’m not as Mexican as I could be.”
Tying into that internal struggle, Sandoval feels as though her race invalidates her opinion.
“I feel like my opinion on some things isn’t as important,” Sandoval says. “It’s as if I, a Mexican, have this opinion, I’m going to be overruled because there’s so many more Americans who might think the complete opposite of me. I feel like we have no say in a lot of stuff. Because if there’s a vote [for example], there’s so many more of them they’re obviously going to win. I feel like my opinion is seen as lesser than.”
Considering the fact that this is the reason why diversity is so valuable in things like jury panels, and minority student-unions exist, it makes sense why a student going to a school with few of these kinds of resources could feel silenced. Additionally, experiences of blatant racism has led Sandoval to feel as though she is alienated in her environment.
“During the time of the Boston marathon bombing, which I can’t believe kids were thinking like this in fourth or fifth grade, but everyone would say ‘What if it’s Gisselle because she’s Mexican?’. I sat there like ‘And you’re white. I’m Mexican. It could’ve been anyone.’ That was the first time as a kid that I was hit with [racism]. Since elementary [school], I did bilingual classes, so I was always with Mexicans. Which, by the way, is awful. I hate that. They separated us from white kids. They never made us bond. I never talked to an American kid because they excluded us. We couldn’t quote-on-quote “communicate” with them. But I was there, learning, I could communicate.”
Although Spanish is her first language, and the one predominantly spoken in her home-life, Sandoval learned English through the television in her household. It would make sense to want to share her language and culture with others. But, even through everything, Sandoval is still grateful to have her culture by her side.
“I like the idea that I have so much more culture behind me.”
Because she has a culture that other groups do not, Sandoval emphasized that she wants people to try to understand, instead of hate, what is unknown to them.
“Be open-minded to anything,” Sandoval says. “Once you go off, you’re not going to be surrounded by white people. You’re not going to be secured in this white bubble. You’re going to go out there and you’re going to meet different people of different ethnicities and everything and you have to be open-minded to all kinds of people.”
Continuing on this idea, Sandoval made it clear that she wanted other minority students to accept themselves.
“If anyone were to say something rude or racist or something, don’t let it hit you,” Sandoval says. “At the end of the day, you have more culture, you probably know another language, and I’m being 100% biased right now, but just by you being you, you’re superior. You have so much. So much culture, so much everything that these white people don’t have. At the end of the day, you know more, you do more, so just keep going.”
As harsh as it may sound, Sandoval spoke frequently of how she had always been surrounded by white people and friends.
“Basically, a lot of white people are like, ‘If you don’t like it, leave.’ Let me explain that. As someone who is a first-generation American, I could say my grandma is from Veracruz, in Mexico, [where] you can’t even walk in the streets past 7:00 or you will be killed, and your kidneys will be found on the black market. So yeah, I could go back, but I’m definitely going to die.”
Finally, Sandoval felt necessary to share her feelings on the controversy that has been surrounding our president.
“Just because Trump may be reelected doesn’t mean you need to be rude about it,” Sandoval says. “Ever since Trump came in office, that’s when the racism really hit. Don’t be close-minded, please. One day Mr. Trump will be out, and you won’t be able to hide.”
Outgoing and funny, with a love of both going out with friends and staying home by himself, West junior Lance Lawrence was born to a Caucasian mother and a black father. According to him, his experiences of being a different skin color than most has affected how he looks at life.
“There’s a lot of racism in this school,” he says. “Cliques form based on different groups, and there are groups you can’t be a part of because of your race. It gets pretty tiring being a different color at this school.”
He explained that race plays a role not only in school, but his everyday life.
“It makes for a lot of people looking at you funny,” Lawrence states. “People don’t trust you. People will think they’re better than you, or that you’re not as smart. In convenience stores they think you’re going to steal or rob them… I find it hard to get jobs because of my race.”
Along with this, Lawrence explained that there is no need for racism, or treating people as though they are different.
“You don’t get anything out of it,” Lawrence explains. “Don’t see me as a black guy. I’m not some foreign person because I’m black.”
Dealing with this is a daily task, and Lawrence commented how his parents are “always giving him advice” on how to cope.
“They say to not feed into what they’re saying,” Lawrence states. “I don’t have to accept what they’re saying, because all the time people are going to be racist, and try to put you down for who you are.”
Similarly, Lawrence would like to assure other minority students to “not let people bring you down because of who you are. Don’t change yourself because your white friends think you should be like that.”
After a full day of crying in English class because of her homework, eating a loaf of garlic-Parmesan bread, and winning her tennis match, West senior Eileen Zheng, born from Chinese parents, discussed the importance of being proud of who you are, even when you are not like everyone else.
“I don’t think [West] is super, super diverse. [But] I don’t think it’s like ‘ooh, there’s only one [minority] here.’ There’s a few, and we all know who we are.”
Being one of the “few” can mean having more of the attention on you in conversations of race. In Zheng’s case, it can also mean being the only one to stand up for your culture.
“Sophomore year during the Celebration of Words, I wrote a poem about being ashamed of my race in middle school,” Zheng says. “I would go home and I’d sit there and go ‘Wow, why am I the only Asian in the entire school? Why is this the way I am?’ People would stereotype me like that and make fun of the snacks I’d bring and I was ashamed of it. I’d go to the store with my parents and think ‘Wow, my mom can’t speak English. She can’t talk and everyone’s staring at us, this is so embarrassing. I don’t want to be like this.’, and I wrote a poem about how I went from hating the way I was to accepting myself the way I am, and how my parents were immigrants and came here and fought for a living, got a business, and now we have a family, and we’re fine.”
Even though she has come a long way with her self-acceptance, Zheng believes that both she and some of her peers have work to do.
“People don’t understand that we’re exactly the same,” Zheng explains. “They’re like ‘Oh, you’re different because you’re this, so you have to be this way. You’re this way because of that.’ and I’m like, there isn’t a ‘that way’… But, sometimes it does get to me. ”
Not having a support system is tough, and Zheng explains how she can’t go to her parents about subjects like these because there’s not much they can do about it. So, she instead emphasizes the significance of minorities being there for other minorities.
“We are all in this together. We are all a group, we all understand each other. That’s why I’m so close with a lot of the other minorities in the school. We know where the good boba shops are, we know where the food is at,” Zheng laughs.
For Zheng, open-mindedness does not just apply to race.
“As a society, and as a school, we need to stop being ignorant. We need to stop thinking that it’s okay to make jokes, even if there’s not a minority present. Minorities are people with disabilities too. They’re looked down upon for being different. I don’t think being different should be shamed.”
Outgoing, musical, and an avid member of LASO, West junior Kevin Márquez described how being an active member in his community has allowed him to be proud of who he is.
“There’s a lot of diversity at this school,” Marquez states. “Throughout the halls you see the little Hispanic groups, the white groups, the black groups, and then you see a bunch of people talking together.”
When asked how being a minority has affected his high school experience, Marquez explains how being a member of LASO has so positively affected him.
“Since I was part of LASO freshman year, and being a part of it with Mr. [Otto] Corzo,” he says. “I feel like LASO is better around the school, and has been participating more with school events. More people know about it. The Day of the Dead event we did, I feel like people realize now that there are Hispanic people in the school. Corzo told us that there was a lot of teachers and families there, and the Hispanic and Latino communities benefit from these different events that we do.”
Although these events have been shown to benefit the Latin communities in our area, exposing other communities to different cultures can have benefits as well.
“Our current president has his own views about Hispanic people, and I think that people believe his words and have their own opinions towards us when in reality they’ve never spoken with us or had contact with us. They should really talk with the Hispanic community and actually learn about them.”
After finding time between shopping at Hollister, playing on the court, and scrolling through memes, Filipino West junior Alyssa Abiol explained the struggle of feeling pressured to fit the stereotypical “Asian” mold.
“People like to joke around, I just laugh it off but I do get hurt,” Abiol says. “Like that one joke, ‘she’s smart because she’s Asian’. It might be a compliment, but I don’t take it that way.”
But, when she is with people with her own race, she feels more able to let loose.
“Relating to other Asians, I feel more comfortable.”
In situations where you’re surrounded by those with different opinions, it can make it hard to go against the grain. So, Abiol wishes people would make more of an effort to help.
“Make me feel like I’m included. Period.” Abiol laughs.
After her amazing day, Crystal Julio, who identifies as a Mexican-American, reflected on the diversity you can find at West campus, and how being a different color than most has affected her in both good ways and bad.
“I’ve met more Mexican-Americans here than there was in my middle school,” Julio explains. “It’s been very nice.”
That sense of community can be very beneficial for a person who grew up without it. However, students like Julio still have to be aware of their surroundings.
“My parents taught me to just be more careful than you should [have to] be around cops.”
The pattern of having “The Conversation” is a segregated one. Parents of color all around the country may have this talk with their children in order to protect them from the increased likelihood of being both stopped by the police, and killed by the police. According to an analysis of 2015 police killings by the Guardian, “Racial minorities made up about 37.4 percent of the general population in the US and 46.6 percent of armed and unarmed victims, but they made up 62.7 percent of unarmed people killed by police.”
Nonetheless, to other minorities, Julio would like to teach them this.
“A lot of people will judge you off of your ethnicity, but you should just keep being you. Don’t change.”
An English teacher, first-generation Mexican-American, and leader of the Latin American Student Organization (or LASO), Veronica Cornejo knows what it’s like to feel different.
“I went to a Catholic elementary, middle, and high school on the South Side of Chicago,” Cornejo says. “Most of my classmates were Mexican. When I got to high school, I had the amazing opportunity to get to know new classmates from all over Chicago and the surrounding suburbs… It was a new and scary experience for me, I was intimidated to talk to a white girl because I had never had a white classmate until high school.”
Although intimidated, she reached out to her new peers and found a community of people.
“Despite my fears, I allowed myself to open up, listen, be heard, and make new friends that turned into family,” Cornejo reflects. “I am fortunate for this experience as our world is so much bigger than the neighborhoods we grow up in.”
This value is one she brings with her as she leads LASO, a group similar to the “Spanish Club” Cornejo herself was in in high school.
“I think LASO is so important because it is a safe place where all members can be themselves and have fun. I think the common misconception is that LASO is for the ‘just for the Latino students.” Everyone is welcome!”
A place where everyone is able to be a part of a group, have fun, and uplift the communities around them is a very wonderful thing. As stated by Mrs. Cornejo, “I know it can be scary, but that’s how we can be stronger: together. We are a stronger school, community, and world when we can truly lend ourselves to get to know, advocate, and empower each other.”
At the end of the day, the stains racism has left on society may never fully go away. But, recognizing the importance of diversity, as well as practicing empathy to those who have to deal with it, can go far in helping students of color feel understood, represented, and accepted.