What it’s Like to Be a Student of Color at Wilson High

Diversity is sexy.  The idea of including historically oppressed groups in everything from clothing ads to classrooms is quickly becoming everyone’s first priority. Currently, it’s become very popular for companies, organizations, and even schools to push this concept of multicultural workplaces in order to establish what would be considered a favorable professional environment. White Americans are falling in love with the idea of diversity and inclusivity, but for people of color it sometimes feels like little more than an opportunity for white people to feel better about themselves. Which begs the question: is inclusivity ever actually implemented?

With a school that has widely accepted the fact that they have little racial diversity, what are the effects on the people of color at Wilson when a space doesn’t have a heterogeneous community? More than 75% of the student population identify as white at Wilson, undeniably shaping the cultural dynamics in a very public space. While Wilson adopts the idea of a multicultural atmosphere, it doesn’t acknowledge the prevailing monocultural dynamics in its space. Most of the general population, not only in Wilson, but in America, have difficulty identifying whiteness and navigating multi-cultural dynamics.

Because Wilson is a majority white school, most students assume that their experience in the space is the same as the rest, but in reality, their experience is quite different from minorities present in the space. For students of color, it’s difficult to exist in a climate that wasn’t made for them.

“You have to find a way to accept how little diversity,” Hana Adem said. “When you walk in, it’s the most closed off school [there is].” While yes, all students struggle with finding their voice and feeling accepted, for students of color, these struggles are amplified  to a level that their white peers couldn’t imagine due to their racial identity.

Many students of color feel that the the culture of Wilson doesn’t encapsulate all the cultures present in its atmosphere and feel that the dynamics at Wilson are more so influenced by white culture. Some of the themes interviewees also spoke to was the frustration felt when the words of the community don’t match their attitude towards how they fit into Wilson, in other words how their explicit bias doesn’t match their implicit bias.

“They want to push this message that Wilson is a very open school, it’s not the most diverse, but we still account for every race and religion. But it’s not shown in any project or any leadership, or walking the halls, because it’s very not open,” Adem said. The gestures feel insincere because they aren’t centered on the people they are supposed to be for.

Hana Adem (1).jpegHana Adem 

“They try to have the safe seminars and stuff like that, or like posters that say, ‘You’re welcomed here.’, but none of that stuff really helps…It’s just a poster, ” Tavares Tims said. There are some gestures directed for students of color, but these efforts are often forgotten and aren’t incorporated into the day to day social environment.

Officer of Unidos, Jasmine Maldonado, explained the overall indifferent attitude of the Wilson community, “The thing that makes me uncomfortable is that Wilson doesn’t actively seek to promote new cultures in the school. I’ve never heard anyone throw out ideas for cultural celebrations for various ethnic group,” Maldonado said. “However, staff members that support my ideas and respect my effort make me feel completely comfortable. They make me feel heard and give me the motivation to complete projects, because it’s just a lot for one person to handle.”

Students of color have to advocate for themselves, and create a space for themselves within the community, because without culturally affiliated groups, there wouldn’t be any other space centered on their experience. “I just don’t see myself here,” Nastra Abdullahi said, member of BSU and MSA, said about her experience.

White students may not realize that the culture itself at Wilson is very white, because they aren’t fully aware of different cultures. Some things that influence culture and norms include: language, tone, religion, body language, word choice, accents, traditions, humor, values, signs of respect, etc.

 

 

 

It’s common for students of color to feel that they have to silence themselves in Wilson as a way of conforming to white culture and being invisible (blending in and not being seen as different). Being silent means being safe. It means not drawing more attention to yourself. It means not having your opinion condemned in classrooms by a white student’s perspective. It also means not rocking the boat to ensure that their white counterparts are comfortable.

“I feel like I don’t have to act different when I talk to my own culture or race,” Adem said. “When I talk to a person that is white, it feels like I have to change my attitude.”

It’s a struggle for students of color to decide whether to speak up or stay silent in the classroom: speaking up means sharing their truth, but staying silent means safety from white fragility. “In the classes I wanted to be taken more seriously in, I’d go quieter, which was a total mistake because when I go quieter I don’t allow myself room to grow, and I shrink into myself,” Madeline Limon said. “So, yeah, I have changed myself for classes. But a lot of the time I do share my truth.”

Nastra Abdullahi (1)Nastra Abdullahi

Even outside of the classroom, it’s still difficult to interact with white peers. “When I’m in class or in the hallways I try to be quiet. I don’t try to talk to people in the hallway, because it’s always weird,” Tims said. “I’m more silent here; I’m more quiet. I have a lot of friends here, but I don’t hang out with them outside of school. It’s different talking to people here.”

Students at Wilson struggle communicating across cultures, which can either end in people refraining from interacting and creating relationships across cultures all together, because of a lack of ability to understand intercultural dynamics (the clash of different ways of communication between cultures) within interactions, or in students of color having to silence themselves in order to mold into their social climate. White students generally weren’t taught social/emotional skills to positively communicate with their non-white counterparts.

Unfortunately, one common result of this lack of social and emotional knowledge is the presence of microaggressions.  All of the students of color interviewed reported microaggressions around the Wilson Campus. These have a big influence on the culture of a space. Although you may think you’re just kidding, you’re perpetuating stereotypes and falsehoods about a certain group of people, which might not seem harmful, but if you’re a minority that was attacked , it’s unwelcoming and demeaning.

“It makes me angry at first, understandably, but after thinking about it and really processing the nature of comments like that, it makes me upset. Upset that some people cannot grasp the power assigned to words,” Maldonado said. “Yes, some could tell me, “It’s just a joke, chill out,” but the reality is, comments like that create a sense of hopelessness in students that deal with things like this on a regular basis. Hopelessness in trying to make everyone understand that comments and jokes like this really hit home for some people.”

Taking accountability for what has been said, and even if you’re having difficulty having empathy, respecting their request and seeking understanding, would make Wilson a more inclusive school for students of color.

“I’m always getting comments about how big and black I am,” Tims said. “And that’s kind of annoying. Even in the weight room or walking around, I always hear comments like, ‘I’m going to get my big, black friend Tavares.’ I’ve heard, ‘Oh, you should go to a party with us, but wear a durag and a tank top so if we get in a fight, they’re scared.”

It’s difficult to address microaggressions, because if a student of color musters up the courage to confront someone, it’s so easy for someone in the white majority to dismiss their claim. “I feel angry; I can’t really do anything about it, because if I do something, I’ll be in trouble,” Tims said. Students of color experience frustration when confronting their white counterparts about microaggressions because of their reluctance to acknowledge their ability to do harm with their words.

Offensive comments have a big impact on the climate of a space. For some it may seem like only a joke, but for students of color, it’s an inaccurate and inhuman reflection of how they’re seen in a community. “When you think of racism, or homophobia, or sexism, you think of the KKK, you think of gay people being thrown into prison, and being executed, you think of women having their feet bound,” Limon said. “What you don’t think of are the little tiny things. ‘That’s so gay,’ ‘You fight like a girl,’ ‘You sound like a girl,’ ‘That’s so Asian,’ ‘Of course you’re good at math, you’re Asian.’ Just the tiny little things that are tiny little injustices that you don’t think of on the daily.”

Even if the weight of words cannot be felt by the person whose lips spoke them, it can be felt by the people who hear them. The words carry historical meaning, pain, and dehumanization. “Sometimes you feel really great and comfortable in this school, and then sometimes you hear a comment that makes you wonder why anybody would say that because it’s almost like going back in history,” Adem said. “You don’t want to say comments about that, even if it was meant as a joke because you have to think about the people that are affected by those comments.”

whether comments are made consciously or unconsciously, they have the same impact. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it doesn’t change the fact that thing could be said at Wilson.

The effects of going to a predominately white school are most visible walking the halls, where standing out because of difference in skin tone and physical features, as well as hearing prejudiced comments, are blatant. Some black students at Wilson often feel like they’re being stared at by other students as they walk down the hall, which creates an uncomfortable interaction with not much explanation as to why they’re being watched. Many assume that it’s because they look different from their peers.

“I don’t know [why], because when they stare at me, I stare at them back. I feel like they stare at me because they don’t know my personality or something, because I don’t talk to them or anything. But I feel like at Wilson I get a lot of stares,” Abdullahi said.

Tims explained a similar experience walking down the schools halls, and how he felt judged. He went on to say, “It’s hard to walk through the halls because you don’t really see a lot of people that look like you. Like everyone there is mostly white. I feel kind of lost…I like being around people that look like me.”

For students who are bilingual, they don’t only stand out in terms of their skin color, but also what language they feel comfortable speaking. “I wouldn’t say I have been treated differently, but I have been told to speak English when I was talking to someone in Spanish,” Maldonado said. “I feel as though I was only told this because, unfortunately, Wilson staff does not pay attention to these kinds of things. I’ve noticed a ‘If it happens again then….’ attitude toward my situation, which is off putting for anyone else who might deal with this on a regular basis.”

Even if students of color, aren’t outright told to not speak their language, it can still be intimidating to be around native English speakers. Logan Moses spoke to the frustration he felt, being a non-native speaker in a predominantly English speaking environment. “I have a cousin that goes here, and whenever we talk to each other, we talk as if we’re at home, and it’s kinda easy to talk to him,” Moses said. “But when I’m talking to another person, I have to choose my words. I have to think the whole conversation in my head. I have to try to talk perfect English.”

It’s difficult to try to communicate, because there’s this pressure to not sound “foreign” and to connect with the people around you, but it’s easier to not risk that happening by not speaking at all, which can come off as standoffish and quiet. It’s much easier for people of color to talk to someone in the same affinity group, because they don’t have to stress whether or not they sound foreign, because they feel accepted. Which is why sometimes whether or not they have an accent changes depending on who they share a space with.

Similarly for black students, the feeling of otherness can be felt in class. History is repeatedly taught from a white perspective, which creates mixed feelings among black students as they have to navigate predominately white classrooms while learning about the dehumanization of their own race.  In an attempt to understand black students’ emotional response of dehumanizing events, white students look to see the reaction of black students when negative aspects of black history are presented in class.

“Every time we learn about black history, especially at Wilson, if there’s something that has to do with slavery, racism, or them saying the n word, I constantly get looked at. If we’re reading a book and the teacher says the n word, everyone in class looks at me…I’m one of the only black kids in class,” said Tims.

It’s not a necessarily “bad” or “good” thing, it’s just a thing that happens in a predominately white school. White students look to black students to gain understanding. The trade off is that it puts an unwarranted burden on black students of being put on display.

The Functioning Version of the Chart

It’s not fair to put pressure on the couple of black students in the room to speak and represent the entirety of a whole race. Their experience doesn’t encapsulate a whole group of people.

 

“I feel like I stand out sometimes. I think it just depends on what we talk about in class. Like when we talk about black history,  it’s kind of uncomfortable, because when people talk about it, I notice that people start looking at me more when they talk about it, especially when a teacher asks a question. They turn to me to ask a question, like I’m learning too. Just because we’re talking about the race I am, doesn’t mean I have all the questions,” said Adem.

 

It’s important to embrace black students’ perspective on history because their opinion should be valued in the space, but Wilson shouldn’t expect and pressure black students to speak up. While for some black students it may be freeing to share their opinion in class, for others it’s a very vulnerable and personal act to do in a white classroom that can have backlash; it can be unsafe.

While it can be unnerving to be different from the rest of your classmates, according to Abdullahi, it’s important to also be yourself, even if it means standing out. “I try to act like who I am, rather than be someone else.” She explained it’s her responsibility to herself to stay truthful to who she is. “I act the same way [with everyone]. If you have a problem with me, then just deal with it. I have to act my own self, because that’s who I am. I don’t want to change for anyone else.”

Not everyone is as confident as Abdullahi, and for that reason, students of color seek affinity groups in order to reclaim comfortability.

“My friends are my chosen family. I love them like I’m related by blood to them,” Limon said, referring to her friends who identify as LGBTQ+ and API(Asian Pacific Islander). When they’re around the general population of the school, there’s a pressure to act white because the people around them don’t understand or connect to the same type of culture or life experiences. Affinity groups are a space where students of color’s experiences are centered. Therefore, it’s crucial for them to create a space where they can be with people who share the same or similar identity because it can be difficult for them to embrace their culture and to discuss common issues they face as a minority in a predominantly white school.

Madeline Limon-photo credit Anna Hawkins (1)Madeline Limon

Ultimately,  the consensus among students of color is that Wilson is not an inclusive environment because of its white cultural dynamics that marginalize different racial groups through the inability to see whiteness and to accept multiple cultures other than their own.

“Actions speak louder than words. A lot of  ‘woke’ people at Wilson, including some of the teachers promote, some type of facade of being open or inclusive, when really they are actually not,” Synciere Love said. “There are people who are open and inclusive, but there are a lot more people who aren’t.”

Although Wilson has changed, and is no longer explicitly biased, it has a long way to go before its students of color feel accepted and included in its community.

“School is only as safe as you make it out to be. Any place is as safe as you make it out to be,” Limon said. “And since sometimes some people, even unconsciously even, make it out not to be safe, it just makes people who feel hurt by that, more hurt.”

Written by Lily Lum
Photo by Anna Hawkins