Sunday, July 14, 2013

Race at Payton

Just a few weeks ago, I graduated from high school. Our community was rocked when media outlets published stories that implied racism on the part of my peers and others that represent Payton. Payton students spoke out via our resident newspaper, The Paw Print. With the news regarding the ruling in the Trayvon Martin case, I have been shocked and disappointed by the youth responses, particularly my classmates, I have seen all across social media. All in all, there seems to be lack of sensitivity on both sides. Everyone has a reason for opposing or defending the court ruling; that in itself cannot be used as an ultimate judge of character or morality. Respect, yo -- that's key.

Me & Baraa.
Together we can do anything.
Below is my response to the baseball controversy, previously published in the Paw Print, however it aims to get at the larger issue of the role that race plays at my high school. A role that I'm sure is not unique to Payton. Yeah, this blog usually deals with lighthearted things, but I feel compelled to share this article. Out of everything I've ever written (and that's a lot), this is the one thing I hope Payton kids read and, ultimately, seek to converse with. Share your opinions in the comments section, email, twitter, what have you. I'm open to hear everyone's thoughts. Also, share this article if you're vibing with my message.

Here we go:

"Address issues head on"
By Stephanie Greene
Staff Writer

It is nearly safe to say that the situation involving Payton’s and Brooks’s respective baseball teams was not racially charged. So, now that that has been figured out we can continue to pretend that race is simply a social construct that every Payton student (and their mother) chooses to ignore. It has been resolved: race is a non-issue at Payton.

Provided that it was unfair for the media to paint our school in such an unpleasant light, this was an opportunity lost. In response to the implicated racism on the part of Payton parents and students, we toted facts about how our school is so diverse, how we pull kids from all over this segregated city, and how we are a majority-minority school. While all of that sounds great, we can throw a bunch of kids that look different into a room together, but that does not mean that prejudices are thrown out of the window.

As president of African-American Club, one of the many clubs that aims to provide platforms for students to voice their opinions on and celebrate culture, I’ve facilitated and participated in many discussions about race at Payton. I am sure that we are not the only club to have such discussions, but the issue is that these conversations are confined to a relatively small group of students. This baseball hoopla was the perfect time to open up a school-wide dialogue regarding differences, whether they be racial, religious, or anything else under the sun.  

If someone were to walk into Payton classroom, I’m sure they would think it was a dream: kids from all over the city and world sharing ideas and experiences. Gosh, sounds grand. But, as a Payton senior, I can say that that is a dream. Just like the city we come from, we, as students, self-segregate. I like to think that I am one of the few kids that has managed to maintain relationships across self-imposed and, quite honestly, arbitrary social boundaries. But, I am one of the few students. Payton is fantastic, I absolutely love it here, and it has been a second home to me, but every family has its dirty laundry. Ours happens to be the way that our students interact.  

The Payton community needs to acknowledge differences. By dismissing the accusations of racism, we are dismissing race as a legitimate source of contention and identification. It is one thing for us to respond in a way that let’s the city of Chicago know that the situation was not in any way related to race, but to imply that no one at Payton has preconceived notions in relation to race is absurd and simply untrue. I’ve heard a kid say, “I don’t like what white people say,” while her friends cooed in agreement. I’ve had someone ask me if a book entitled “Autobiography of Red,” a brilliant collection of poetry that challenges the conventions of autobiography, is about an Indian man. I’ve heard everything from “wetback” to “towelhead” to “faggot” to the “n-word” in the Payton hallways. This is not just kids being kids, it’s kids being ignorant.

This past summer, I participated in the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, a program that aims to foster and sustain mutual understanding between American and Iraqi teens. Through small group discussions moderated by an adult, we did just that. It’s a simple model, and one that works. One that I’m sure could work at Payton. Even if we have our mature upperclassmen moderate these discussions because we lack the numbers in adults, in general, these discussions need to happen. We need to foster a space where students are comfortable making mistakes in relation to sensitive topics and every student feels as if they have the right to self-identify.

One of the most eye-opening experiences I’ve ever had was during a moderated discussion in which an Iraqi girl said, honestly and bravely, “I thought all black people and Mexicans were gangsters until I met you all.” And, I, as a self-identified black person, had to make a decision in that moment: to be offended by her adherence to a crude stereotype or be humbled and honored that she felt comfortable enough to share her thoughts with me in that moment. I choose the latter. We need to create spaces like that for our students. Payton is welcoming, we all know that, but we have yet to seriously tackle issues of identification as sources of social division. As a community, we have moments of brilliance; like the queer themed Humanities Festival and our annual International Night, but these moments don’t make up for when individuals feel silenced because they feel as if their voice alone will never be loud enough.

So, while it is safe to say that the Payton-Brooks situation was not racially charged, it is not safe to say we are post-racial community. We do a fantastic job of attracting the brightest students from all over the city, but we do a poor job of preparing them for the culture shock that they might experience as a Payton student. This media attention should have been used constructively and I think we tried, but, ultimately, let this opportunity slip away without any major advancements within our school community. Accordingly, let it be resolved: race is an issue at Payton, but it is an issue that I am sure we are not afraid to address head on.