Two weeks ago, at an affluent and predominantly white high school in Greenwich, Conn., five seniors were suspended for adding a coded message of racial hatred to their high school yearbook. When pieced together, their individual captions read, "Kill all n------," and they made national news.
Outrageous as this incident may seem, it is not isolated.
As a high school student myself, in a county that has operated for more than two decades under an effective desegregation plan, I see both overt and passive prejudice often. Those in my generation, who were born after the civil rights struggles and the school desegregation battles of the 1960s, were supposed to have taken society beyond its historic discrimination. But I still see prejudice in my daily life.
I attend a school, Northeast High School in St. Petersburg, where the administration and students work cooperatively and pro-actively to deal with racial issues. We have a multicultural committee where students of different races have worked together to promote understanding at elementary, middle and high school levels. However, even at Northeast, we experience the same kinds of racial tensions that are felt in high schools across the nation.
We have large populations of both African-Americans and skinheads at my school, and I often see evidence of prejudice. This past school year, administrators, student leaders and police helped calm a potentially troubling situation after rumors were flying that a black student had made a disrespectful remark to a skinhead's girlfriend. On a more routine basis, derogatory references to people because of their race are too often heard, and there is a certain degree of social separation present. In a school community that should be unified, there are often social lines between different races.
How will racism be replaced with understanding? The era of Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy saw the destruction of some overt prejudice, but since then, progress has slowed. Because we're much better off than we were when King campaigned so strongly for civil rights, we forget that we still have a long way to go. We have become comfortable with our hidden prejudices, trusting affirmative action, the NAACP and various discrimination laws to fix the problem. But racism is too often a hidden predator, attacking passively, yet effectively.
As a high school student, I find it painful to watch my classmates proclaim white superiority and draw swastikas on their backpacks. It's sickening to hear elementary school children, who would have no reason to be racist except that society has influenced them, speak in ignorantly racist terms. Many spout the "n"-word as if it's nothing. They need to be taught to discover for themselves that racism is wrong, before it's too late. We should be using the integration of our school systems to heal, not perpetuate, racism.
We have a personal responsibility to end racism. It's our obligation to speak out against the destructive presence of racism, to refuse to submit to it. As Martin Luther King once said: "The day we see the truth and refuse to speak it is the day we begin to die."
For too long, I didn't take responsibility for the racism I saw around me. Many afternoons I rode the school bus home, only to have to deal with the large "white-power" population of my bus. I listened to people yell out the window, "Look at that herd of n------!" I listened to them talk about our school being "overrun" and about how the "superior" race would one day crush all others. Even though, as a white girl, I was exempt from their disgusting insults, their words hurt as much as if they were directed at me. Several afternoons, I came home shaking with frustration. But I never spoke up.
One afternoon, after having listened to these offensive remarks for months, I suddenly exploded at two boys talking about "two n------" on our bus. Both boys had known me for years and knew I was usually quiet and never used bad language. I shocked them into silence when I exploded into an angry tirade against their racist attitudes, not sparing them the several profanities that came to mind. I told them exactly what I thought of them and their ignorant and cruel prejudices. When I had finished and turned around in my seat, surprised at my unplanned outburst, the bus was silent. No one looked at each other, and all eyes were downcast.
Then a strange thing happened. At the next bus stop, several of the people who had risen to get off the bus patted me on the shoulder as they walked by. Some whispered, "You're right," or "Way to go," on their way off the bus, and I even received a few small smiles from people who usually laughed along with the white-power insults. And when the two boys at whom I'd exploded got off the bus, their eyes gazed downward, and no one said a word to them. Some strange transformation had occurred.
From that day on, I heard only one racist remark on the school bus, as opposed to the almost daily string of them. And when the utterer of that remark saw me glaring at him, he stopped talking and apologized quickly. I had finally taken on the personal responsibility that accompanied the knowledge that racism had to stop, and I'd discovered that a lot of people agreed. It made me see there were a lot of bright spots in the fight against racism.
Despite the many patches of darkness in this world, I continue to believe that most people are fundamentally good. Racism is based on ignorance, and with concentrated effort based on righting the wrongs behind it, it could someday be obliterated. Children need to be taught to fight it with the powerful tools of knowledge and logical thinking, but their elders are the only ones who can impart those abilities to them. The only way to solve a problem is to take action against it, no matter how small the results of our efforts appear to be. Hope and an open mind are the only tools we need.
Kristin Harmel is a student at Northeast High School in St. Petersburg.