When the melting pot heats up…

November 10, 2010 — by Anoop Galivanche, Anika Jhalani, Kelly Liu, Anshu Siripurapu, and Elijah Yi

A few days prior to the highly anticipated football game between Saratoga High and crosstown rival Los Gatos, seniors Tim Lycurgus and Kevin Darchuk created a page on Facebook for Saratoga and Los Gatos students alike to discuss their sentiments regarding the game. The initial comments were harmless—one-liners poking fun at the opposing team.

But animosities flared, eventually providing for a sort of cyber battleground, with students making hateful and racist comments toward each other. One student from Los Gatos made derogatory comments about the large Asian population of Saratoga High, while another attacked two recent Saratoga alumni who had posted on the page—calling them “sand niggers.” Saratoga High officials, after being contacted by a concerned Los Gatos High administration, promptly asked Lycurgus and Darchuk to shut down the page.

Disturbing memories

For many Saratoga students, the Facebook page episode was painful, since it attacked the very ethnic diversity that the school prides itself on. While many students were stung by the racial slurs that were being employed to intimidate the school as a whole, junior Samantha Hoffman was particularly taken aback by the offensive comments.

“I saw the page and I saw the comments. It’s one thing to make fun of the opposing team’s mascot or something, but making fun of a person’s religion or skin color is just plain disgusting,” said Hoffman.

Hoffman, whom her friend junior Sneha Shivkumar describes as “a very strong and emotionally resilient person,” said she was particularly affected by the comments because they reminded her of a time when she experienced racism first hand on campus.

She recalls a time last year, as a sophomore, when she left a binder in her English class. When she went to retrieve it the next morning, she was relieved to have found it but horrified when she found that it had been vandalized. A crude replica of the Star of David had been drawn on the cover, presumably a reference to Hoffman’s religion, and the word “Jew” was scrawled in large lettering across the binder. A distraught Hoffman then attempted to show the binder to the substitute teacher for her class, but the teacher shrugged it off.

“She told me it was my fault, and that I shouldn’t have left the binder there,” Hoffman said. “She glanced at the binder, saw what was on it and then resumed reading her book or whatever she was doing.”

Lack of reporting

Hoffman’s case is unusual because although she reported the incident to an authority, no action was taken. According to a recent poll by the Falcon, the vast majority—95 percent—of cases concerning cultural misunderstandings go unreported because victims feel that the incidents are not serious enough to warrant any official action or because they do not want to publicize their problems.

Such was the case for junior Nicole Borda, who is also Jewish.

“People make snide remarks about being Jewish, but most of their comments are just jokes. I’ve heard people make jokes about stereotypes to my other friends who aren’t Jewish,” Borda said. “I’ve only really had one event where people crossed the line.”

This “one event” also occurred while Borda was a sophomore: a girl who Borda barely knew began making anti-Semitic comments to her when the class was supposed to be working in groups. Her comments followed the same progression as those on the Saratoga-Los Gatos Facebook group—starting out as harmless jokes about Jewish stereotypes but quickly turning into more serious accusations and offensive questions. By the end of the period, Borda was left confused and on the brink of tears.

“I had no idea why this girl who I barely knew was making these comments to me,” Borda said. “It would have almost hurt less if a friend made the same comments, but I barely knew her.”

Despite the emotional impact this incident had on Borda, she ultimately decided not to report it because she thought that doing so would prolong its impact.

“I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it because I just wanted it to end,” Borda said. “I wanted to forget about it.” In a way, her strategy was effective. After a while, the memory of the incident became a mere blur; in fact, at the time of the interview, Borda admitted that she had not thought of the event in a few months.

Cultural implications

To Borda and her peers who witnessed the exchange, both Hoffman’s and Borda’s incidents underscore long standing cultural misunderstandings on campus. Senior Shir Nehama, the head of multicultural club, says these occurrences, which in many cases fall just shy of outright racism, result in part from the ethnic diversity on campus. Following this diversity are stereotypes that are so frequently perpetuated by students that, in spite of their racist undertones, have not become social taboos but instead become social norms.

Administrative action

Luckily for Hoffman, she received some closure soon after the incident. Her friends took her to see assistant principal Karen Hyde, who swiftly organized an administrative response to the substitute’s impassivity.

Hyde remembers the aftermath of the incident vividly. “Sam came into my office with two of her friends, and she was very upset,” Hyde said. With other administrators, Hyde talked to the substitute teacher who had dismissed Hoffman’s pleas for help earlier that day.

“She claimed not to know what the Star of David was,” Hyde said. To make matters worse, the teacher in question was hardly a new instructor, Hyde explained. “The teacher wasn’t a twenty-something in her first year of teaching. She was a very experienced teacher,” Hyde said.

Though Hoffman and the administration chose not to pursue any further recourse against the teacher, Hyde said the administration discouraged the teacher from coming back to substitute.
The greater part of the crime—the actual vandalism of her materials—was never resolved, despite the administration conducting an investigation into who may have done it.

Causes of racism

Like Nehama, Hyde also feels that the cultural misunderstandings that so frequently occur on campus are a direct result of two factors: the great ethnic diversity on campus and the limited exposure students have to other cultures at home.

“Racism is cultural judgment about external fact,” said Hyde. “Your basis of understanding other cultures is that by which you are raised. It’s inevitable. We often don’t go beyond what we are taught at home.” Unfortunately, she added, what students are taught at home is often very narrow in perspective—views inculcated from a young age about other cultures that may or not be accurate.
“Growing up, we are generally exposed to very few cultures thoroughly. You grow up with your one culture, and at Saratoga, you have all these kids that have grown up with different cultures coming together,” Hyde said. “That’s a beautiful thing, but disagreements can occur.”

Survey suggestions

A survey put out by the Falcon in late October corroborated Hyde’s insights. In nearly 270 responses, more than 80 percent of students polled said they had encountered racism on campus at least once in their high school careers. Of these people, more than 95 percent said they had never spoken to an administrator about it. Most interestingly, more than 60 percent of those polled believed that “racism is a fact of life, but education about stereotypes can help mitigate it.”

These stereotypes are what Nehama strives to combat through her work in the multicultural club.
During a recent club meeting, members drew the flag of their ancestral country on note cards and made a quilt out of the cards. The members then shared a few facts about their country. The activity helped illustrate the unity that even the most diverse population can have, Nehama said.

Nehama fervently believes that educating people about cultures different from their own is the best antidote to racism. “When people don’t know about a culture, they tend to rely on what they’ve heard on TV and the media about a culture,” Nehama said.

More often than not, these sources present information that is blatantly inaccurate and often inflammatory.

The effect of the media

A sophomore who requested anonymity pointed to shows like “South Park” when asked about his own cultural misgivings.

“I was obsessed with ‘South Park’ in middle school, and although I never really took any of it seriously, the stuff they say in the show eventually went to my head,” he explained. He said that, after a while, he too began harboring negative sentiments towards certain religions and cultures.
Though he said that he is now “past that phase,” he still warns his younger brother and cousins to stay staunch in their moral bearing.

Nehama also advises her club’s members to avoid television shows that “completely lack knowledge and tolerance” of different cultures and religions.

Yet however organized and passionate Nehama and her colleagues at the multicultural club are at fighting racism, they face one fundamental problem: the definition of racism itself.

As senior Angel Hernandez, who leads the Spanish club on campus, said, there have not been any violent hate crimes or the like at Saratoga High, but there have still been episodes of racism.

“Defining [racism] is a problem, because it means different things. People always say that some decision was unjust, and then claim racism was present,” Hernandez said. “On the other hand, you can tell when something hurt somebody else. That means you crossed the line.”

The kind of racism Hernandez said is prevalent is not the overt offensiveness present in the experiences of Hoffman and Borda. Instead, he said that the subtle assumptions that people make about other people based on racial stereotypes are the most common.

“People assume a lot of stuff, maybe stuff I’m not even aware of. I don’t think it’s good, but I can’t necessarily blame them, because they are fed a lot of garbage from different places,” said Hernandez.

Still, he believes that the willful hatred underlying more extreme forms of racism is far worse than the unintentional harm people may cause because of an innocent but insensitive comment.

“It’s worse when people are trying to hurt you compared to when people hurt you unknowingly,” he said.

Hoffman agreed—saying that it’s harder to justify the motivations behind such actions when it is clear that the perpetrator meant harm.

And this is why Hoffman believes that combating racism on campus is such a pertinent issue for both students and administrators to address.

“Racism is the elephant in the room,” she said, “and if we don’t do something about it soon, the elephant will stampede.”