(Pictured: Isaac L., Age 15, Irvine, CA)
It was first-grade; I was seven. A classmate came up to me during lunch and started chanting, “Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these.” He paired the insensitive rhyme with the equally insensitive movement of his eyelids; his eyes slanted up for Chinese, down for Japanese, as if that were what made the difference. When I told the teacher what the boy did, he was let off because it was just a joke.
Let me tell you… when you experience racism as a kid, it’s jarring. You don’t know what it is, you don’t know what they’ve just done. All you know is that you don’t belong because of something you have no control over.
Looking back, I was lucky. I grew up in a city with a majority Asian population. I didn’t have to worry about not fitting in. Granted, I would be met with the occasional microaggressive comment, but overall, racism was mild. Except it wasn’t.
When I was 14, I learned what systemic racism was. It almost surprised me. It made sense that a country built on white supremacy would maintain it at any cost. But, I guess a small part of me died when I realized that even a city like Irvine, California, glorified for its safety and diversity, could suffer the same fate.
Maybe it was the fact that only 2% of the population was Black, or perhaps, it was the fact that all the housing billboards had white faces. And maybe… deep down I already knew—the moment that kid came up to me.
It’s funny, really. Racism in school? It’s not unfathomable, but not common either. And if you need to wonder why, then I guess it really works. It’s come to a point where our education has been colonized right under our noses.
And you know, schools were built to unite children. It was a place where kids of all colors could learn and grow. You taught us that this was the land of the free! We sang the Preamble, we learned your language, we played by your rules. And it still didn’t matter to you.
When I was 8, Black students made up 16% of students. It didn’t matter that they also made up 34% of expulsions; we were too busy celebrating a madman’s colonial explorations of genocide. Or, as you called it, Columbus Day.
When I was 9, you brought in police officers. It didn’t matter that they shoved a child to the ground; we were too busy learning about the enslavement of the Asian-immigrant population. Or, as you taught it, the Transcontinental Railroad.
When I was 13, you told me slavery was illegal. It didn’t matter that slavery lived on through the prison complex system; we were too busy learning how lawmakers paved the way for legal slavery. Or, as you put it, the 13th Amendment.
You did what you thought was best for us, and I applaud you for trying. But, there is no middle ground. When it comes to the equity of human lives, compromise isn’t an option. But you didn’t care. Columbus slaughtered for European expansion; you made him an “honorable explorer.” Slavery continued for 400 years; you said it was “outlawed.” Martin Luther King was a provocative protestor; you rebranded him as a mild motivator.
At every step, you racially suppressed our history. You whitewashed our textbooks, glorifying the white man. Like a disease, you attacked us at our roots, conditioning us to become as ignorant as the ones who oppressed our ancestors. And like a virus, racial prejudice is embedded in all of us.
So where do we go from here? What can you do? As a virus has no cure, there is no way to fully eradicate the racial prejudice we see… but we can treat the symptoms. There are a lot of fixes needed (removal of police from institutions, college aid for underrepresented minorities, etc.). Still, by far, the most important is reforming the curriculum.
The world is a diverse place. Your teachings told us otherwise. So perhaps, diversify your curriculum. Teach kids the full scope, understand the hurt that people of color have gone through, and the pain they still endure today. Teach them to check the facts. And most of all, to have an open mind and love one another with a kind heart.
You were meant to equip the next generation for the future, and prepare them for the problems ahead. And right now, this generation is solving issues of racial injustice, but no thanks to you. You can try to ignore it, suppress it, contain it… but ultimately, racially equality? This is a lesson you need to learn.