News: Racial awareness on GBHS campus

Published: Granite Bay Gazette Vol. 19, Issue 4. Thursday, Dec. 17, 2015.

Category: News Literacy

Reason for publication: With the rapid increase of incidents on college campuses involving racial intolerance, I wanted to explore the status of tolerance on the GBHS campus. I did so by addressing the status of the incidents on college campuses and incidents and awareness on my own high school’s campus. My hopes for this article were to tell the stories of racial minorities who have dealt with race-related incidents and whose experiences may not be recognized by racial majorities. 


 

 Colleges across the nation have felt the backlash of a growing movement of people – young people in particular –  who will no longer stand for racial intolerance.

  At schools such as Yale (where racially insensitive events involved fraternities), the University of Missouri (where students protested multiple racial incidents and one student engaged in a week-long hunger strike) and Claremont McKenna College (where racial tensions came to a head after questionable Halloween costumes were worn by students at the college and the staff’s response was unsatisfactory), students were demanding action on events they believed were not properly addressed.

  At Claremont McKenna, racially insensitive Halloween costumes were worn just a day after students at the college sent a message of solidarity to Yale and the University of Missouri with an organized protest in response to those schools’ own bouts with racially fueled controversy.

  “It all started when a couple of girls dressed up in stereotypical Mexican attire for Halloween (and were photographed with) our junior class president – who was not dressed like they were,” Granite Bay High graduate Sydney Talmi, who attends Claremont McKenna, said in an electronic interview. “This created uproar, because prior to Halloween there were a bunch of posters and emails stating ‘Our culture is not your costume’ and (expressing) that it (is) wrong to wear (essentially) what the girls wore.

  “This picture then circled Facebook and was pretty much the tipping point for many students of color. Now that they had the administration’s attention, they were able to declare the other wrongs done to them and work toward a solution. During the week or so of protests, tensions were high for everybody.”

  Following the protests prompted by the picture, dean of students Mary Spellman and Claremont McKenna’s junior class president resigned.

  GBHS senior Brandon Miyashiro, who is applying to Claremont McKenna, said he knows nothing of the events which have recently taken place and that these events would not affect his decision to attend if he’s accepted. However, Miyashiro said he does think student relations are an essential aspect of college life and necessary “when building a strong college community.”

  Sabrina McCord, a GBHS senior, said the events which have occurred on the campus at the University of Missouri, or “Mizzou,” might affect her decision to attend the college if she’s accepted. At Missouri, racial tensions came to a head when threats to shoot black students were made on the social media app, Yik Yak. After the university’s football team backed the protest and threatened not to play, both the president and chancellor of the university announced their resignations.

  “I’ve been seeing a lot of stuff in the news about (the events), and it’s a little worrisome to me,” McCord said. “I want to be on a college campus that values equality, and I don’t want to be in a place where people are (intolerant, so) it might affect my decision.”

  The racial tensions at colleges across the country have served, to some extent, as a period of reflection for GBHS. Rahul Bavirisetty, a sophomore at GBHS, said he does not believe racial tensions exist on the school’s campus. However, many students do believe racial awareness is hugely absent and thus racial intolerance and ignorance is – perhaps unknowingly – abundant.

  Senior Alex Gavia, who is of Hispanic descent, said that while instances of intolerance exist, it is never to a severe or extreme level, and it hasn’t involved things being pointedly said to him having to do with his race. Racial intolerance exists at GBHS, he said, because students often do not understand the weight or meaning of what they’re saying.

  “It’s not desired to be intolerant here, (but) because there’s no one playing in your backyard who you have to be tolerant with, there’s no recognition of that,” assistant principal Sybil Healy said. “You could say, ‘I’m not racist, I’m not prejudiced,’ and there’s not many people who are racist, but there are people who are prejudiced. Every single one (of us is), because those are our beliefs, values, how we’re brought up and our culture. But that could lead to racism.”

  Kasey Yean, a sophomore who is of mixed-race African American and Asian heritage, said she has never experienced racial tensions at school, but she remembers being racially insulted at a young age.

  “When I was around 9 years old, I went outside to play with another group of kids who I’m sure were my neighbors,” Yean said. “I’ve never talked to them before, but when I approached, one of the kids said, ‘We don’t play with black people,’ and then I walked home.

  “That’s the only time I remember where I was racially insulted to my face. But … even today I hear endless black-people jokes, but I hear jokes every day about all races. I know people don’t do it to be mean, and it’s rare when people take it too far, but it doesn’t even have to be (an offensive) joke (to be) offensive.

  “Sometimes people say to me, ‘You don’t act black’ or, because I am also of Asian descent, ‘You don’t look THAT black,’ as if they are giving me a compliment. It’s not a compliment. It is rude and it’s insulting to my African American family, friends, my race and me. You don’t act black means ‘you act proper, like a white person, and ‘you don’t look THAT black is another way of saying, ‘Hey, you’re actually kind of good looking for a black person!’ Some may not see it that way, but that’s how I see it.”

  This lack of racial awareness – especially when it comes to those things said in one way that can be taken as meaning something else – might be a contributing factor to the perceived lack of diversity at GBHS.

  Senior Sam Northam said that, because GBHS isn’t a diverse school, students don’t experience the same problems that other more-diverse schools have. Additionally, students at GBHS are at least naive – if not ignorant – because students believe that what they see is what every other school experiences, Northam said.

 According to Healy, schools in the Roseville Joint Union High School District, which includes Granite Bay High,  rarely pay attention to cultural or world events. Yean said one way to promote diversity with a non-diverse population is for a school to address Black History Month and educate students on African American history, even if it’s brief. Disregarding these kinds of historical and cultural events might foster increased ignorance, Healy said.

  “Our district (was) disappointing when Nelson Mandela died, nothing was said about that,” Healy said. “A few years ago when Coretta Scott King died, (nothing was done). Our district doesn’t acknowledge those types of things, but (they were) huge icons in terms of civil rights.

  “Those things are important to me, and if you go to other districts, they recognize that (and) acknowledge that. With … issues like Black Lives Matter, you don’t hear anyone talk about that here – it’s like it doesn’t exist. We had a recent breaking news story (about the) shooting of another African American male …  and again a police officer (was involved), and we’re not paying attention (to) this whole tragedy. (There are) comments about Syrian refugees, well how many Syrians do we have here? Do we pay attention? I would say not so much.”

  Racial awareness, or the lack of it, is perhaps at the root of the problems for many colleges experiencing the kind of racial tension that has wracked Claremont McKenna, Missouri and Yale. Experts say the ability to understand the points of views of others, specifically views from racial or ethnic minorities, is what it means to be racially aware.

  According to the California Department of Education, ethnic minorities made up approximately 33 percent of the GBHS population in 2014-15. About 66 percent of the GBHS population was caucasian. The disparity in diversity is much greater when it comes to the GBHS staff – 83 percent of certificated staff (teachers and administrators) were caucasian in 2014-15, 85 out of 102.

  There are no 2014-15 certificated staff members who are American Indian, Alaska Native, Pacific Islander or Filipino. When assistant principal Sybil Healy leaves GBHS for Adelante High after the end of the fall semester, there will be no certificated African American staff members on campus. This means beginning in January, roughly 4.5 percent of minority students on campus will not be able to find a single certificated staff member on campus who shares their minority designation.

   “One of the issues we have in this district … is (that) our staff has never reflected our student population,” Healy said. “I came here in ’96 and (recognized that) it wasn’t diverse. I was the first black teacher in the district. A couple others joined later, but it was still not reflective of the student population. When I became an administrator over 10 years ago, I was one of three black administrators in all of Placer County.”

  According to Healy, conversations between students or parents and school staff are much different when the staff member shares the ethnicity of the family.

  “Although I’m not their (assigned) AP, parents or students will want to talk to me,” Healy said. “When I talk to them, we talk a little bit differently about how to play school and make things work for (their) child, because it’s different.

  “We do discuss that, because that’s how the world is. The world is racist, it’s hateful and of course there’s great things, but we all have to navigate it differently based on our background, our culture, our ethnicity (and) our race  because that’s what society is a mixture of, fair or not fair that’s what happens.

  “Even when I was (working) at Oakmont (High), students would come to me and ask me, ‘Can I talk to you?’ whether or not I was their AP because they had to share things they could not share with their AP.  I speak Spanish, so the Spanish parents would come and talk to me. It’s (comforting if) you have a voice and someone understands your story.”

 When reflecting on encounters with students who have talked with her instead of their designated assistant principal, Healy shared a particularly memorable experience.

  “I had one student, a male junior (at Oakmont, who was) very, very sad come to me and (say), ‘Mrs. Healy I can’t do this anymore’ and I said, ‘Do what?’ and he said, ‘I can’t be black anymore, I can’t be a black male – it’s too hard,’” Healy said. “That was in 2009. That’s awful. We had a long conversation, but would he tell someone else? No. That’s why you need to have different staff, so the students will think (someone) understands their story and where they’re coming from.”   

  Yean said that while she will miss Healy, she doesn’t think much can be done about providing students with a more diverse staff. Yean said she does think the staff can work to ensure that students feel comfortable around those who work here and to reach out to students to see if and where discrimination exists.

  Northam and McCord, both seniors, said the hiring process for new staff members should be colorblind. Or, in other words, the hirees should not account for the applicant’s race or ethnicity in any way, and the person who is most qualified should be the one who receives the position.

  Healy said that, while colorblind hiring might be a good idea, it would be nearly impossible to put into effect because people make judgements automatically based on outward appearance. Furthermore, Healy said her friends who work in education have told her they are not interested in working in the district because, they say, it “is not an inviting place at all for minorities,” and it would help if the district made it clear it’s a welcoming place for employees of all ethnicities.

  There are other issues that sometimes are overlooked when it comes to the community’s lack of racial awareness.

  A few years back, a local Native American tribe took offense with GBHS students wearing traditional cultural headdresses, warpaint and using the name “the Tribe” for the student cheering section at school sporting events.

  According to Healy, this was one of many examples of a lack of racial unawareness at GBHS – in the case of the Tribe, the purpose of using another culture at school was unclear and the usage was inappropriate.

  “I agree with (Healy), we are culturally unaware and we don’t really see our student section being called ‘the Tribe’ as having any relation to (anything) cultural,” said senior Tribe leader Charlie Tooley. “We like the name because (the) name ‘the Tribe’ in general has a feeling behind it of being a family, (a) team and having unity.”

  One act of unintended racial division and separation involves a traditional school event – dances. The music played at dances is usually not a conflict of interest, but for some students, the music played can feel exclusionary.

   “What people might not know is that a few black students (at GBHS), when they go to dances, (will) stand aside and what they’ll say to me … when I walk by (and ask them is), ‘We’re waiting for them to play our music,’” Healy said. “They say that all the time, and people don’t realize that. Latino students will say the same thing.  Those are things we don’t think about, and it’s not being racist, but it’s not being aware, so it’s ignorance. You’re not meeting the desires and/or needs of everyone. Not just academically, but socially and emotionally, it’s not happening.”

  One unique program at GBHS is the speech and debate team, where ethnic minorities account for the majority of members. According to senior Ryan Joy, who is among four caucasian students out of 40 members, the students separate themselves by race.

  “I see that all of these kids, (who are mostly) people of Indian and Asian origin, separate into their own subgroups,” Joy said. “All of them would fit great into other social groups, but they don’t reach out. Everyone … sticks to their own ethnic group. It’s not that they can’t reach out or they don’t have the ability to, because they are the funniest and most fun-loving group of kids ever. They would fit into hundreds of other social groups in this school, but at the same time, you can see that social groups (at GBHS) are kind of dictated by race.

  “I have never seen one white student reach out to a speech and debate kid. When I’m walking down the halls (with one of them), I don’t see any of my friends or people who are white say, ‘Oh hey, what’s up, man.’ They just keep to their own. It’s not because they don’t accept them, but they don’t necessarily think of them as a friend or (give them) as much consideration.”

  Bavirisetty, the sophomore who is of Indian descent and is a member of the speech and debate team, said students segregate themselves because of family connections. Students aren’t as close outside of school, but they form tight-knit groups in class, he said.

  Joy, however, compared his observation of the groups inside the program to the larger state of cultural segregation which exists in the community.

  “(Some) of these kids are first-generation Americans, so you can see them trying to assimilate, but at the same time, you can see that … they like to stick to their own,” Joy said. “We grew up in white communities, and we don’t see our community as an Indian community even though … we are an Indian and Asian and Filipino community. But we don’t see that, because our family doesn’t intermix with (them). I never noticed, until I joined the speech and debate team, how many different cultures are in Granite Bay.”

  The idea of the “Granite Bay Bubble” has been mentioned by many students as a factor that contributes to the community’s general state of cultural unawareness. Outside of the community, issues involving heightened racial tensions certainly exist, as exhibited by colleges around the nation combating the effects of such, but this does not necessarily mean that race relations are perfect here, inside the bubble.

  The result of not paying attention – the result of a lack of racial awareness – is significant, Healy said.

  “We’re an (International Baccalaureate) school, so we should truly be an IB school,” Healy said. “There is nothing really international about us, except for the student body that comes here. If you came on campus … you’d have no idea that we’re an IB (school). … You want to be very careful, pay attention. Know who your clientele is and how you’re perceived outside our nice, comfortable bubble.”

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