Casual racist remarks, actions are not OK

November 27, 2017 — by Elicia Ye

When I learned about the two racist Prom askings at Los Gatos High School last May, I was at a loss for words. The first incident involved a junior asked a girl with a poster that said, “Do u wanna be like a n***** and hang at Prom?” next to a drawing of a lynching. That incident was followed by a senior boy’s blackface Promposal a month later.

It was something I had seen in movies about the Old South or novels written in the 19th and 20th centuries instead of an affluent neighborhood in the Bay Area, supposedly one of the most diverse, tolerant regions in the nation.

I expected Los Gatos High officials to take immediate action or issue a statement regarding the news that had made its way to national headlines, but I didn’t hear about the incident again until August, when Saratoga High’s Leadership class participated in a Diversity and Equity Training Day organized by Epoch Education. A similar program was implemented the following day at Los Gatos High School, but its impact is something I can only guess at.

In fact, someone I knew through mutual friends, a current senior at LG, Snapchat-storied a picture of the training with the caption, “One racist prom asking and this is what we get. LOL.”

I was shocked by this sentiment. I had expected remorse and shame or, at the very least, an apology, but instead this person’s response only highlighted the enduring racism that seems rooted deep in the human psyche.

Take the n-word, for example: Some of my peers use it for various occasions, from referring to their buddies to calling people out. One reason so many might find the n-word acceptable is that Saratoga has an exceptionally small African-American population. People assume that those who could potentially be offended by its usage wouldn’t actually hear it, so we don’t have to hold ourselves accountable.

But these seemingly miniscule words and actions accumulate day by day, from person to person until they develop a culture of inequality and apathy.

The Los Gatos boy who asked the girl to “be like a n******” probably wasn’t the only one who found it amusing. Chances are, he had the support of his friends and peers while those who may have been offended said nothing. This incident was the boy’s decision, but what about the ones who perpetuate a culture in which such racism is possible?

Most of us are part of the problem. When we see casual racism online but scroll past with disbelief in our hearts, we allow it to spread. When we judge the incident with our friends but fail to point it out to the perpetrators, we add another layer of desensitization to the ever-growing bystander mindset. The only way we can possibly put an end to this problem is by direct interference.

A controversy that prompts heated public debates is the double standards associated with the n-word. The general presumption is that black people can say the word in any situation without repercussions whereas people of other ethnicities would be criticized; however, Gene Demby, lead blogger for NPR's Code Switch team, holds an opposing viewpoint.

“When Asian folks or Latinos or white folks ask why they can't say [n*****] but black people can, the question misses the point. Anyone can say it — that doesn't mean there won't be fallout for doing so,” he wrote on his blog.

Instead, Demby believes that the usage of the n-word has various meanings and consequences in different contexts. For example, he makes this analogy: The term “‘baby’ might be affectionate at home, but grounds for a sexual harassment complaint at work.”

Because of the layered historical and contextual differences packed into this single six-letter word, it is worth our efforts to avoid it altogether. Although not everyone could come to a consensus about when, how or whether the term should be used, Demby correctly asserts that “[n*****] is a slippery word, with complicated, ugly histories baked into it.”

The n-word is merely one of the many derogatory expressions students use as part of their daily lingo. From “SPED” — which stands for “special education” — to “you are so gay,” these phrases share one common thread: They are words that trivialize the struggles of the group they seek to demean. We know that the n-word is historically the epitome of anti-black sentiment, and we don’t have to look too far back through history to recognize the discrimination against the LGBT community.

Often, we don’t even know the meaning of the lingo. We hear it in the hallways or read it in our group chats and almost instantly adopt it to fit in. It wasn’t until someone pointed out to me that I realized our interpretation of “savage” — a cool, hardcore person — overshadowed the implications of the word, which refers to the name Europeans had given to primitive Native American tribes before they drove 90 percent of Indians to extinction.

Since not everyone is aware of the origins or reasons behind a popular phrase, the ones who do know must assume the responsibility of speaking out and interfering — it is the only way to spread awareness of sensitivity, respect and accountability in our communication.

Words are our attempt at understanding this otherwise complex world. More so than emojis and pictures, language has the ability to evolve overtime to better adapt to our usages. Although we have the right to free speech, we should nonetheless be more mindful of our words. It’s 2017, not 1957, and racist prom askings shouldn’t be occurring in the wealthy, well-educated suburbs of Silicon Valley.

What we say and write leaves behind a profound impact on not only those surrounding us but also on the many generations to come.

Let’s try to make it a positive one.

 

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