Lake Oswego students share firsthand experiences with racism
High school students seized a unique opportunity Monday to share their experiences with racism, telling a standing-room-only crowd at the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ that "it's hard to feel like this town is my own."
The comments came during the monthly meeting of Respond to Racism, a grassroots organization dedicated to fostering a communitywide discussion about diversity, equity and inclusion. The group has focused on racist incidents in the Lake Oswego School District before, but this was the first gathering where student voices took center stage.
All seven students on the panel are active in equity work in the district; most are students of color. The discussion was led by Bruce Poinsette, a 2007 LOHS graduate and the son of Respond to Racism co-founder Willie Poinsette.
"Too often we spend a lot of time talking, and we're talking about the students. But what we don't do enough is talk to them, and more importantly listen to them," he told attendees. "We wanted to yield the platform to them tonight, to find out how we as a community can better support these students."
The conversation centered around personal stories about racism that each of the panelists had either seen or experienced. The group included Lakeridge junior Mya Gordon, LOHS junior Anna-Marie Guenther, Lakeridge senior Max Herrera, Lakeridge junior Evan Melendez, LOHS senior Anushka Nair, LOHS sophomore Janelle Pranger and LOHS junior Penelope Spurr.
Pranger, who is African American, said racism is something that she experiences every day.
"I'm adopted. I have white parents, and most of my extended family is white," Pranger said. "I've been told by people that I'm the whitest black person they know. I don't necessarily appreciate that."
Pranger said that through connecting with students at other schools in the Portland metro area, she has come to realize that similar racism exists in high schools outside Lake Oswego. "There's a lot of experiences I have had that students, say at Beaverton High School, also had," she said. "There are a lot of similarities."
One that stands out: "People will touch my hair without asking, like I'm some sort of dog," Pranger said, an experience Gordon called "dehumanizing."
Another common experience for students of color: Pranger said classmates frequently ask her and other black students for a pass to use the n-word, something Guenther described as "an unwillingness to care about the weight of their choice of words."
Students on the panel said that most of the racism they've experienced in school has been microaggressions and covert, rather than overt. "They're small things that slowly pick away at you as a person, and make you feel like you don't belong in this town," Gordon said.
Spurr, who is Jewish, said she has experienced anti-Semitism in the form of comments about Jewish stereotypes and has felt judged for celebrating Jewish holidays. "It's painful not to have people there for you," she said.
Melendez said he has felt isolated too — he is of Latino descent but has light skin. "I tend to pass as white in Lake Oswego," he said. "Until people see my last name."
Gordon said she often feels hopeless that white students will change their tone. "They don't understand your culture, and they probably don't want to. They probably don't care," she said. "It's hard to feel like this town is my own."
Guenther expressed similar frustrations. After an impactful meeting at her school with an equity expert about racism and students' experiences with it, Guenther said she was excited to continue the discussion in the classroom.
"I felt moved, like I could talk about how I felt. But not only were students not willing to participate, they couldn't care less. It's extremely discouraging to see a lack of interest," she said. "The topic of race is often danced around. But if you never talk about it, how can you ever address it?"
Nair, who is of Indian descent, said that after post-9/11 hate crimes targeting Muslims also killed many Indians, she longed for any opportunity to discuss what had happened to her community in one of her classes. When she finally brought it up to a few classmates, she said, they were interested in her perspective, but their questions were ignorant and racist.
Still, she said, the incident taught her a valuable lesson.
"The problem with this district is that we don't give students a chance to ask dumb questions — and when we don't, they assume the answers, which is extremely dangerous," Nair said. "They had no one else but me to ask."
Having more teachers of color would help, the panelists agreed. Gordon said she has had one teacher of color and immediately felt connected to him.
"I can't describe it in words, but just seeing (teachers and staff members of color) around makes me feel like I'm not as isolated, that there are people in the school looking out for my perspective," she said.
"I've never had a teacher who was black. It would have been nice to have seen someone who looked like me," she said. "People say things that they know they can get away with because their teacher is white. Things that they wouldn't say if a teacher or a person in a position of power looked like me."