‘I experience it way more than I should’

Local students speak out about racism in our community.

12 Jun 2020 | 12:44

Do you want to share your story or experience with us? Email: comm.engage@strausnews.com.

In response to weeks of protests in our local towns, our country and around the world, we asked readers to share their stories about racism in our community. We will listen, review and publish stories, past and present, to shine a spotlight on an issue that has not been given the attention it deserves.

We did the same at the onset of the Me Too Movement, asking brave women to step forward to share their stories of sexual abuse.

We’ve received pushback from readers this time around, criticizing us for reporting out a divisive topic at a time we need to come together. We felt the need to go ahead and share the stories of our neighbors anyway because we can’t unite until we face what’s in our midst. These stories getting told is long overdue.

We also intend to continue, beyond the current Black Lives Matter movement, to amplify voices and stories from people of color in our communities.

We started by inviting local students to share their stories. One asked to remain anonymous. The other, who is still in high school, was willing to share her identity. While we admire her bravery in sharing her experience, our editorial team made the decision to remove any identifying markers from her story as well to protect the student and her loved ones.

Below, we have are their stories as they were told to us.

‘I was singled out’

The first person who reached out to share her experience is a Warwick Valley High School graduate, who has asked to remain anonymous.

Why?

“Warwick is kind of, you know ... there aren’t a lot of people of color there and I wouldn’t want to become a target or anything.”

She also didn’t want to stir up tensions within her family.

She’s in her twenties now.

But as a person of color growing up in a predominately white community, she has had various encounters with racism throughout her life. She recalls her mom being pulled over for no reason when she was a child. Because her skin is lighter than her mother’s, she remembers police officers asking her mom, while pulled over, if she was the parent of the child in the back seat.

She recalls being called the n-word in elementary school by a fellow Warwick Valley School classmate.

‘An incident I think about all the time’

But when she was a sophomore in high school, an interaction with police in the Burger King parking lot in Warwick is “still an incident I think about all the time and it bothers me to this day,” she said.

She was a fifteen-year-old kid driving around with a couple of friends. Both of the kids she was with are white; she was the only person of color in the vehicle. They were parked in the Burger King parking lot, hanging out, for about 20 minutes.

Then, they were met with bright white lights shining into the car. They were confused at first, eventually realizing it was a police car. They didn’t think they had done anything wrong.

“I had no idea that sitting in the car in the parking lot was considered loitering,” she said.

Three officers approached the vehicle, telling the group of teens that they were loitering, asking if anyone was under the influence and asking the kids to get out of the car.

“We got out and I was shaking and visibly afraid.” she said. “I had no idea what was going on.”

The owner of the car gave one of the officers permission to search the vehicle for drugs and alcohol.

Meanwhile, “the other officer turned to me and told me he was going to pat me down to see if I had any weapons on me,” she said. “Of course I did not.”

She was crying as he patted her down. She remembers the officer laughing as he did so.

“It was just a really unpleasant experience,” she added.

The two white kids, who were also in the car, were never patted down, searched or accused of having a weapon. There were no drugs, alcohol or weapons found. No one was intoxicated. They were free to go.

When she got home, she told her parents — and didn’t understand why her mother was so angry and upset about what had happened. Her mom spelled it out for her.

“I was singled out,” she said, “and I now realize that it was probably due to my skin color.”

One message she’d like to get across to her peers and community: “If you see someone being mistreated, try to speak up more than you would, even if you are afraid.”

‘I experience it way more than I should’

The second student who stepped forward to share her experiences with racism is a current sophomore who attends an area high school. She says the n-word is thrown around often by her peers at school, a large majority of whom are white.

“In the school, you hear a lot of ignorant comments,” she said. “When I was younger, it made me very, very angry. Now that I’m older, I’ve just realized the ignorance in people. I’ve realized that I can’t just fight everyone.”

She’s only fifteen years old. The amount of racist comments she has had thrown in her direction, and experiences she’s endured, is staggering.

“As an African American, I do feel like I experience it way more than I should,” she said.

She told us about when she was visiting a friend’s home for the first time as a child, and being told by the friend’s mother that she was “actually pretty, for a black girl.”

“I didn’t know how to feel about it. I was like: ‘I don’t know if it was a compliment or an insult.’ I was just very taken back by it. Especially coming from a parent.”

A black bandana

Then came 8th grade. Like most middle school kids, she was self-conscious about her appearance. She explained she was insecure about her forehead and wore a bandana to school regularly to partially cover it.

“I would wear a black banana every single day,” she said. “It was fine, nobody ever said anything. Nobody ever looked at me different. The principal and the vice principal never said anything at all.”

But toward the end of the school year, another black student wore a bandana to school.

Suddenly, teachers started telling her that she had to take it off or leave the classroom. The same teachers who had permitted it all year long.

“Instead of taking it off, I just left.”

She went to office and would sit with the principal. Both the principal and the vice principal agreed with the 8th grader; they saw no issue with her wearing the bandana. The vice principal gave her the opportunity to write the school’s dress code for the following year.

But the 8th grade student was still missing out on lessons in both Social Studies and Math, where the teachers had kicked her out of class because of the bandana. She recalls being kicked out at least twice.

She assumed, as an 8th grade kid, that her teachers thought she was in a gang since the bandana was never an issue until another black student started wearing one.

‘What I learned from it’

“It was very hurtful at the time,” she recalls. “I was always in class. I was always doing what I had to do. I was never a disruption.

“Especially because those were teachers that I really liked and respected — it was definitely hurtful. But, to me, I feel like what I learned from it is to remember who I am, and know what I know about myself; to hold my ground.”

She’s continuing to hold her ground.

Today, as she takes an active part in posting about social justice on social media in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests happening in her hometown and across the country, the fifteen-year-old is regularly fielding racist comments from her peers.

A group of fellow students put her in a group chat and told her to kill herself.

She’s been direct messaged on social media, mockingly called “Rosa Parks” by classmates in response to her posts about racism and social justice.

She was told by one of her peers: “Fuck you, and your people,” in response to one of her posts on social media.

She’s remained strong. She’s been actively participating in and helping organize local protests.

“People really get mixed up on what we’re actually trying to say,” she said. “We’re not saying that all cops are bad people. We’re just saying that a lot of us are dying because of police brutality.”

Resources
Editor’s note: The burden to learn about the prevalence of racism in our communities and our country should not have to fall on black individuals, friends and neighbors.
Here are resources you can use to learn more about racism, social justice and white privilege compiled by The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley:
Podcasts
• 1619 (New York Times)
• About Race
• Code Switch (NPR)
• Intersectionality Matters! hosted by Kimberlé Crenshaw
• Momentum: A Race Forward Podcast
• Pod For The Cause (from The Leadership Conference on Civil & Human Rights)
• Pod Save the People (Crooked Media)
• Seeing White
Books
• Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins
• Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Dr. Brittney Cooper
• Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon
• How To Be An Antiracist by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
• I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
• Invisible No More: Police Violence Against Black Women and Women of Color by Andrea J. Ritchie
• Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
• Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad
• Raising Our Hands by Jenna Arnold
• Redefining Realness by Janet Mock
• Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde
• So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
• The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
• The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin
• The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
• The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century by Grace Lee Boggs
• The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
• Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
• This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color by Cherríe Moraga
• When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America by Ira Katznelson
• White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo, PhD
Films/TV
• 13th (Ava DuVernay) — Netflix
• American Son (Kenny Leon) — Netflix
• Black Power Mixtape: 1967-1975 — Available to rent
• Blindspotting (Carlos López Estrada) — Hulu with Cinemax or available to rent
• Clemency (Chinonye Chukwu) — Available to rent
• Dear White People (Justin Simien) — Netflix
• Fruitvale Station (Ryan Coogler) — Available to rent
• I Am Not Your Negro (James Baldwin doc) — Available to rent or on Kanopy
• If Beale Street Could Talk (Barry Jenkins) — Hulu
• Just Mercy (Destin Daniel Cretton) — Available to rent for free in June in the U.S.
• King In The Wilderness — HBO
• See You Yesterday (Stefon Bristol) — Netflix
• Selma (Ava DuVernay) — Available to rent for free in June in the U.S.
• The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution — Available to rent
• The Hate U Give (George Tillman Jr.) — Available to rent for free
• When They See Us (Ava DuVernay) — Netflix
Quote from part one: “If you see someone being mistreated, try to speak up more than you would, even if you are afraid.”
Quote from part two: “It was very hurtful at the time. I was always in class. I was always doing what I had to do. I was never a disruption. Especially because those were teachers that I really liked and respected — it was definitely hurtful. But, to me, I feel like what I learned from it is to remember who I am, and know what I know about myself; to hold my ground.”