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Story of racism in Forest Grove broader than banner

Editor’s Note: The banner Leah Larson is referring to bore the words “Build A Wall” and was hung in the Forest Grove High cafeteria briefly last Wednesday before school officials took it down. In this piece, Latinx refers to Latina or Latino people without specifying a gender.

If I had to summarize my entire experience at Forest Grove High School in one picture, it would be the picture of that banner.

Since this happened May 18, I’ve seen a lot of people argue that a banner referencing [presidential candidate Donald] Trump isn’t racist — it’s just free speech. It’s just trying to keep the “illegals” out, regardless of their race, and it isn’t saying that those people are bad. That’s not the entire story.

Putting aside the fact that Trump’s wall campaign is built on a foundation of xenophobia, this fits into a much broader story of racism in Forest Grove. When I was a student, swastikas graced every other desk I ever sat at. It was impossible to walk through the halls without hearing a tirade of slurs on my way to class. A new white supremacist gang seemed to pop up every other week. Every Latinx student I knew had some story of harassment that almost always seemed to be overlooked by the teachers.

None of that was ever addressed by the administration. My impression of the administration leads me to believe that they’d rather do what’s easy and makes them look good rather than actually helping their students. I saw it every day in that school, whether that be with the underground newspaper I ran (Viking Log Underground) or the total apathy toward the lived experiences of the students.

Last week there was some blatantly racist graffiti in the Bafaro baseball stadium on the Pacific campus that read “No Blacks Allowed.” I’ve seen more confederate flags flying from the backs of trucks in this town than I have in any other city. Growing up, I would go to my friends’ houses and overhear their parents complaining about how the Latinx people are taking over our white community. Forest Grove is hugely racist and has been for as long as I’ve been alive. No amount of being “the home of Oregon’s Pinot Noir,” having a giant flag or whatever branding can hide that. At the end of the day, it’s just a coat of paint that covers up our reality.

I applaud the students’ participation in the walk-out. That takes a lot of courage and it’s incredible. I can only hope that it sparks some kind of change or even more productive dialogue.

Leah J. Larson is a 2011 graduate of FGHS, a writer and community activist. She is the former assistant editor of The Matrix: Journal of Social Justice and a columnist for The Mooring Mast at Pacific Lutheran University.