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Marley has been interning with our team since December and this is her first published piece. Marley is a 16 year old junior at Fairview in Boulder, Colorado. She plays volleyball, basketball, and runs track and wants to pursue a business career in college.
Below are her powerful words about how we can change the conversation around diversity.
Recently, a ‘Diversity Day’ was held at my school and immediately people were figuring out ways to avoid it. No one wanted to listen to our administrators’ comments about acceptance or inclusion; we just wanted to get on with the school day. I’ll admit, I didn’t want to attend the assembly either. It seemed like a waste of my time because I assumed they were only going to talk about race and being an African American 16 year old girl in Boulder, I figured there wasn’t much I could learn about diversity here. Although well intentioned, a diversity day at my primarily white high school didn’t seem beneficial or necessary. This assembly wouldn’t change the fact that I’m different from my peers in ways they’ll never be able to understand, and having white students trying to teach me about diversity just seemed artificial. Moving to Boulder from Washington D.C. opened my eyes to the many differences between parts of the country. I didn’t feel as isolated before I moved, because when I looked around I saw people like me. I was a minority, but I wasn’t in the minority. My high school has so few students of racial minorities that our rival school mocks us at athletic events by chanting, “I’m rich, I’m white, I must be a knight” (our mascot is a knight of course).
However, the assembly surprised me because it made me appreciate the hidden diversity of my school. Instead of the assembly only being about race, students shared a range of experiences from struggling with their sexuality to having an abusive family member; issues that are invisible when those students walk down the school hallway.
“This assembly wouldn’t change the fact that I’m different from my peers in ways they’ll never be able to understand, and having white students trying to teach me about diversity just seemed artificial.”
These stories helped us recognize and appreciate the differences in our community. But, only a few hours after the assembly had ended, it appeared that nothing had changed. Once again I heard familiar phrases like, “You’re such a fag” or “Yeah, that’s retarded” hurled around as everyday chatter at my school. Hearing these hurtful words made me reflect on the culture of my school and how necessary, yet difficult, change is. Not even one day had gone by, and people were already using hateful speech without a second thought.
Hearing words like “gay” and “slut” make me flinch, but I’ve never been willing to do anything about it. I try to convince myself that when I hear even my closest friends say them, that they don’t ‘mean’ to use such derogatory language, or it’s just habit. After the assembly, I began questioning the environment around me. What has conditioned people to use words like this? Why haven’t we been able to stop it? Why don’t I stop it?
I have a few thoughts about this. First, it’s habit. People are accustomed to saying and hearing these words as insults. When they aren’t criticized or called out for their words, it’s seen as okay and that nothing will be done about it.
Second, what’s currently being done in schools isn’t enough. It’s the standard for high school students to be herded into a gymnasium, an auditorium, or a classroom, and sit down to talk about “accepting one another” and “being inclusive.” Students have this same message thrown at them so many times they’ve learned to tune it out because what they learn in the presentation isn’t connected to their everyday lives. We assume that yes, even though this language is wrong, this doesn’t really happen in my school, or I’m not really hurting anyone by saying these kinds of things.
After the presentation ended, my school broke into small discussion groups. My group was reluctant to participate past the bare minimum, and for good reason. In a group full of strangers, it can be extremely difficult to talk about the hard things, the things that make us uncomfortable. Having the tough conversation with our peers, and even our friends, can be almost impossible in the small bubble of high school. What I’ve realized is that talking about these subjects is a process, not just a presentation. This issue can’t be fixed in an hour of discussion.
“In a group full of strangers, it can be extremely difficult to talk about the hard things, the things that make us uncomfortable.”
Just trying to figure it out is a step in the right direction. As an intern with Cultures of Dignity, we discuss these issues and how to make them more relevant for students like me. We get to think about the conversation around diversity differently so we don’t revert back to the same habits.
Separating the discussions we have in the classroom from what we choose to do outside the classroom contributes to the issue itself. One student leading the Diversity Day suggested writing down every time we made a judgement about someone so we noticed our own judgments. I agree. We need to integrate this process into how we think all the time, so when we hear these words in school, we don’t just brush it off and act like nothing happened.