Photos by Annie Savage

Is East Racist?

Published on April 6, 2015 online

There are only 28 black students at my high school, which has a student body of over 1,600. This disparity makes discussions about racism rare and painfully uncomfortable. After an outbreak of racist social media accounts spurred a viral campaign from many of our black students, I decided to broach the topic. For this story, I sat in on a meeting of our Black Student Union and listened to them describe the daily insensitivities they endure. I also conducted in-depth interviews with three black students and one of our three black teachers. I focused on writing a story that was both unbiased and bluntly honest. 

In the week after the story was published, it garnered over 5,000 views on our website and was featured on our local NBC affiliate and radio station. Students came into the journalism room to ask for extra copies. I was stopped in the hall by teachers and students alike, both to be thanked for my article and to be questioned for writing it. Although rocking the boat was a challenging, nervewracking experience, it was worth it when several of the students in the Union stopped me in the hall to hug me and thank me for finally giving them a voice.

“Anyone have something they want to share?”

Social studies teacher David Muhammad sits on the edge of a stool at the front of his room. The 15 students scattered in the desks in front of him make up only 0.8 percent of the total student body at East, yet they represent the majority of the school’s black community. They chatter comfortably, catching up on spring break stories and weekend plans as Muhammad starts the weekly meeting of The Union, an empowerment club for black students at East that began earlier this year.

Muhammad shifts on his stool as he asks the class another question.

“I think a good conversation we’ve had before is interracial dating,” Muhammad says. “How many of you girls have been asked to a dance?”

Only two of the girls lift their hands, while the rest study their desks, kicking their feet against the tiled floor.

“It’s like they don’t see us as beautiful because of our skin,” junior Ricki Taylor says. “Who would want to take prom pictures with someone who’s black?”

Junior Malik Travis leans back in his chair and laughs sharply.

“The guys got it bad, too,” he says. “It’s trashy for a white girl to date a black guy. I heard a guy the other day in class say, ‘Katie Phillips* likes black guys, she’s such a slut.’ He said that right in front of me.”

The students in the classroom nod. Muhammad shakes his head. Their reaction is one of understanding, of mutual frustration. Each week, this group gathers in Muhammad’s seminar to share new stories of dealing with the issue of race at East — classmates’ jokes about slavery and quick quips about being able to dunk, clueless questions about the texture of black hair and the painfully uncomfortable moments when a white person uses the n-word. 

This group isn’t official or school sponsored. They didn’t take a picture for the yearbook. Yet the members of The Union find that their shared bond of race is a powerful tool for navigating the issue of race at East. From weekly conversations to the viral #ITooAmEast movement in early March, The Union is bringing together a community that barely existed before this year.

The big question

The regularity with which white students joke and comment about race makes students in The Union wonder — is East racist? Black students at East are surrounded by a white-dominated culture and community, and they deal with constant jokes and inaccurate assumptions based on stereotypes.

Yet Muhammad and the students in The Union don’t think that East students are racist. They believe that issues of racism and prejudice at East stem from ignorance caused by what Muhammad calls a “whitewashed” community that hasn’t been exposed to or gained an understanding of black culture.

The introduction of The Union has inspired its members to refuse to remain complacent about this hurtful ignorance. By bringing together this group of students, Muhammad aims to provide a sense of community for black students at East. He wants to take this vision a step further by educating white students to avoid the ignorance that causes a racial divide between white and black students. 

“I don’t think [East kids] are racist,” Muhammad said. “I think they’re ignorant. They just don’t know it. They haven’t been around black kids, and they don’t know how hurtful their words can be. They don’t know how it feels to be the outsider.”

Muhammad thinks that part of this racial divide comes from the lack of a black student presence at East. In the entire student body of 1631, there are only 28 black students and three black educators. This means that it’s possible for white students to go through four years of high school without ever having a class with a black peer.

As a whole, the black population makes up 1.7 percent of East. In comparison, the Kansas Department of Education (KSDE) reported a nine percent black population at SM South and SM North and 14 percent at SM West.

With a KSDE-reported 86 percent white student body, East is the least diverse high school in the district. 

Without having black peers to interact with on a daily basis, Muhammad believes that most students at East receive information and understanding of black society from pop culture and social media. This creates a reinforcement of stereotypes that are created by the media.

“There’s these expectations that people have because they haven’t really interacted with black people,” junior Georgia Weigel said. “They’ve never had someone who was black in classes or in their lives. They think [black people] are going to listen to rap music, or dress or talk a certain way. They couldn’t be more wrong about me. They have these stereotypes, and it all comes from ignorance.”

The odd one out

Black East students face the daily presence of familiar jokes and offhand comments that meld together to create a subtle yet powerful message — they are different. 

“You can’t really get around it,” senior Ronnell Lewis said. “Race isn’t an easy thing to ignore, especially for people who don’t see much of it. I’m different. I stand out. But there’s also a way that people act, things people say, that make me feel even more like I don’t belong.”

As a leader on the varsity track team, senior Kaycee Mayfield is constantly teased that she’s only fast because she’s black. Lewis’ football teammates asked if it was okay for them to call him “my n***a.” Even Muhammad encountered teachers and parents who made comments asserting that his position at East is based on the district’s need to fill a quota.

The feeling of sticking out at East used to be a source of embarrassment for students like Mayfield, but Muhammad is working to empower black students to take pride in who they are.

“I don’t think it matters what race you are, everyone wants to fit in,” Mayfield said. “I’m both black and white and I don’t want to be seen as just one or the other. I want people to know that I’m both. But I also want to be just me, just Kaycee. I want to be seen as kind and normal.”

In a meeting of The Union, Lewis admits that many black kids wished they were white at some point in their life. Three or four other students nod in agreement. 

It would be easier, these students say, to have a skin color that allowed them to blend in with the student body, to avoid discrimination. But this isn’t how Muhammad wants them to feel about their race. He tells his students that being black isn’t something to be ashamed of — it is something to be proud of, to stand up for.

When a student makes a derogatory or racist comment, Muhammad encourages the students in The Union to explain how those comments are hurtful or inappropriate. His emphasis is the goal of educating, not attacking or becoming defensive. 

“I’m trying to not react in a negative way and come back at them with intelligence and more maturity,” Mayfield said. “I’m obviously going to have more maturity than you if you’re going to say something derogatory to me for no reason.”

Muhammad wants to mentor students to react calmly to ignorance. He cautions students to avoid responding with aggression or anger, instead coaching them to focus on appealing to their compassion.

“These students have to be smart,” Muhammad said. “If you get mad and yell at someone, that only cements that stereotype in their minds. You can’t solidify stereotypes. I have regrets over ways that I reacted in the past. But I know who I am now, and I’m going to speak up calmly and kindly, but I’m going to speak my mind, and I’m not going to let someone disrespect me because of my race.”

Challenging ignorance

In early March, six months after the club was first formed, Muhammad realized that The Union could only go so far with in-class discussions. Although teaching students how to react to racist comments was important, the key to the problem was that the comments were being said in the first place. He realized that the school needed to begin a community-wide discussion of race.

“I’m not saying the kids are racist,” Muhammad said. “They’re culturally insensitive. They’ve never been told what’s wrong. If we weren’t so afraid to have this discussion, if we were telling our kids what is right and wrong when it comes to race, I think you would see this ignorance fade away.”

This urge to educate was intensified after a derogatory Instagram account, “SMSSuckAss,” was made at the beginning of March. The account’s description read, “Only thing I hate more than South are Mexicans, n****rs and well SMSD n****rs.”

Realizing that white students needed to appreciate the hurtful impact of their words, Muhammad started the #ITooAmEast campaign on March 11. Fourteen students wrote quotes of common racist comments — “Stop acting so white” or “You don’t sound black you sound educated” — on whiteboards, then posed for pictures that were posted on Instagram. The same day, the Kansas City Star picked up the article, and the story was shared and liked over 4,700 times on Facebook alone. 

The campaign’s impact relied on shock factor — the ability to make white students realize that their words have weight and often demean and ostracize black students — and Muhammad believes that it was successful in this regard. In the week after the campaign took place, principal John McKinney and multiple students and teachers approached Muhammad to compliment the project, saying that it made them truly think about issues of race. 

This fits into Muhammad’s goal of making students think before they speak. He believes that jokes based on stereotypes are a large part of East culture, extending beyond relationships with the black community. He points to examples such as the old “South Of The Border” game theme to remind students that their racial stereotypes are often unintentional, yet still destructive.

“You wouldn’t see that happen if we had a 30 percent, 40 percent Hispanic population,” Muhammad said. “It’s power in numbers, and because there are so few people standing up against that type of prejudice, it’s hard for [East] kids to notice their own racism.”

Although he wants to bring attention to this ignorance, Muhammad and students like Weigel and Lewis don’t want white students to feel guilty about their lack of understanding of black culture and black students. However, they don’t believe that this is an excuse to not attempt to speak with respect.

This is why The Union is focusing on education. The students believe strongly in the compassion of their fellow East students. What they hope to achieve is a mutual understanding. By explaining to white students what is hurtful and what isn’t, they believe that they can begin to ease the underlying tensions that exist between the races.

“I see it as a privilege thing,” Lewis said. “A lot of these kids at East, there’s a lot of things that they’re doing right, so they don’t see what they’re doing wrong. But this is a great school, and a great community. Once you give them the chance, they can be incredibly accepting, so we’re trying to give them that chance.”

The Union hopes to ease the awkwardness of interracial interactions. And although the Union members understand that there are changes they can make in the way they respond to ignorance, they want white students to understand that the bulk of the burden of fixing racism rests on their shoulders.

Fixing it

It starts with the jokes. Black students don’t want to be asked about their hair or told that they can jump high. They don’t want to be teased about wearing Nike Jordans or having tattoos. They don’t want to be made fun of — even with innocent intent — just for the color of their skin.

But it goes further than that. Muhammad and The Union challenge East students to begin questioning their own stereotypes. They want to see East students check themselves before they expect a black boy to play basketball, or question a black student auditioning for a play. They want to see East students begin to recognize this internal racism, and to also begin fighting against it.

“I don’t think they honestly mean to do it,” Weigel said. “I’m not saying that people, at least most people, are trying to attack black kids. [Racism] is something to fight against and fix, and we want to help you do that.”

To continue this message of actively fighting racism, students in The Union want to see the eradication of the n-word. From hip hop music to casual captions on Snapchat and Instagram, black students at East see white students using the n-word on a daily basis.

It doesn’t just make black students feel uncomfortable; the racially-charged word causes them to feel isolated, as a reminder of past racism and bondage that is impossible for black students to ignore. Muhammad encourages both black and white students to abandon the word, emphasizing that its negative connotation can’t be removed.

“There is no way to remove the original context from the word,” Muhammad said. “We can’t empower it. If I call someone my n***a, what am I calling them? My slave? My inferior? There’s a context that can’t ever be changed. I want to call them my brother, my sister, my friend, not a slur that was created to degrade us.”

These changes are just the beginning in the movement that The Union hopes to create. They want to sponsor events that encourage discussion about racial issues, and to host viewings of movies that show racism from the perspective of black youth. Most importantly, The Union wants to continue to create an environment that allows black students to feel confident in their own skin.

And although Muhammad and The Union hope the district will begin encouraging more discussion surrounding racism, they realize that the real transformation will come from the students themselves.

“We need to change,” Mayfield said. “We need to change how we respond, but we also need to change how white kids see black kids. The kids have to change it. It’s not gonna be an adult who changes racism. It has to be the students.”