Insensitive remark sparks frustration in black community

From left, junior Douglas Arthur-Mensah, senior Jordan Dawson, senior Amaya King, senior Kaleb Jegol, senior Khitajrah Allen, sophomore Ryann Richardson.

Asia Porter | Editor-in-Chief

Racism is real, and it exists in Mason.

Whether that racism be attributed to bigotry or just plain ignorance, black students at Mason High School are saying enough is enough and are demanding they see change in their district.

The demands were sparked on January 10, when news outlets across Ohio posted articles detailing an incident in which a white teacher reportedly told a black student an angry mob would form and lynch him if he did not focus on his school work. Renee Thole, a social studies teacher at Mason Middle School, confirmed she made these remarks and has apologized for them. Thole has since been ordered to attend cultural training, a letter of reprimand has been placed in her file, and she has been placed on paid administrative leave. The story was an unfortunate reminder to many who say they have experienced racist comments while attending MHS.

Senior Jordan Dawson said she feels the district neglects to handle such comments whether intentional or unintentional with the severity and attention that they necessitate.

“That is a very serious topic, and I feel in a predominantly white school, sometimes racism is played down because it might not affect them personally,” Dawson said. “I feel like ignorance and arrogance often go hand in hand, and I feel like the students at this school–the majority, people whose race is represented and their race is very prominent–some of them have told me that racism does not exist, and that’s because it does not exist to you, but it does exist to me, which is not saying that you’re wrong, but it’s also not saying that I’m wrong. It’s saying you’re just not acknowledging my point of view.”

Mason City Schools released two statements following reports of Thole’s comments made back in December. Neither statement written by Superintendent Dr. Gail Kist-Kline explicitly stated the comments Thole made, but both expressed the district’s zero tolerance for racial slurs and insensitive commentary.

“We recognize that we have much more work to do,” Kist-Kline wrote. “We know we have ground to make up with those we’ve let down. We will not shy away from difficult conversations that may be hard and messy. We will continue to engage with our community on issues of racism and discrimination.”

Dawson said the statements are unconvincing.

“I feel like it’s kind of like a New Year’s resolution,” Dawson said. “It’s something that you’re going to follow through with for about two weeks, and then the third week, you’re done.”

Senior Amaya King cited this incident and other remarks that she has endured as a black student as a recurring ignorance in Mason.

“It makes you feel unsafe and uncomfortable,” King said. “It’s hard to learn in this environment when you feel like you’re being targeted. I call it implicit bias when you say something, and you don’t know that it’s racist. There’s a lot of implicit bias at Mason. I feel like I always have to be on defense as a black student here.”

King attributes this need to often take a defensive stance to the lack of representation of black students. As a result, King said she is often forced to play into a common stereotype held of black people, specifically black women.

“I feel like I have to scream or yell or be that angry black woman to be heard,” King said. “If someone says something offensive, I have to raise my voice, I have to have an attitude in order to get my point across, which is not how I want to be represented. We’re less than four percent of the school. The only time you hear about us is when we’re fighting or we’re in a sport. All around, people think that all we’re good for is sports.”

Ignorance is having a lack of information. In the case of racial tension, ignorance often leads individuals to spew racially-demeaning rhetoric unknowingly due to their lack of awareness of how what they said could be offensive to another race.

The “N” Word

Senior Khitajrah Allen said she has often heard the ‘N’ word said by her peers whether or not it was directed at her. Allen said the racial slur is unacceptable regardless of the color of your skin; however, King said ignorance plays a role in why people may think otherwise.

“You can’t say the ‘N’ word,” King said. I don’t care if it’s in a song; bleep it out. You can’t say it. That’s unacceptable. You’re not allowed to say that word, and I think it’s a lot about the history.”

Historically, the ‘N’ word was used as a way to strengthen the idea that black people were lazy, worthless and dirty. The African American Registry, a nonprofit educational organization, said in the early 1800s the word was firmly established as a racial slur. As years went by, children’s books were created by whites, promoting the slur. ‘The Ten Little N*****s’ was one of the first of these books to be written and detailed how ten little black boys were killed or attacked in various ways–the first by choking himself, another by being swallowed by a herring, being attacked by a bear, being chopped in half and being stung by bees.

While artists in the entertainment industry often use the word in lyrics, due to its history, many members of the black community find the word to be intolerable and do not approve of people, including black people, saying it.

It starts at home

Ignorance is often cited for foul language said in the hallways, insensitive comments made in the cafeteria and racially-demeaning outbursts in the classroom, but prejudice, a preconceived opinion not based on fact nor reason, can also be to blame

Senior Kaleab Jegol said this starts at home, and he calls for the district to recognize and build relationships with parents to collectively obliterate incidents spawned from prejudice.

“I think that making parents as partners is important because a lot of the instances that have happened are ideals that are acknowledged at home, and prejudices start at home,” Jegol said. “I think that we all need to own up to the prejudices that we have, and I wish that the school would tell parents to talk more about what they feel about race and their opinions on race and identity and hopefully breaking those structures of stereotypes in their heads at home.”

Born in Louisville, junior Douglas Arthur-Mensah attended a school district with a black population greater than Mason’s. Upon moving to Mason, Arthur-Mensah said while he got along with everybody, he felt the need to act cautiously, saying as a black student, you not only feel the pressure of making your own personal impression, but also representing your race in the best manner possible.

“You can get along with everybody, but being black in Mason, what you have to be aware of is how you act, how you talk,” Arthur-Mensah said. “It’s the pressure of representing the black community. As a black person, you always have to prove yourself to everyone because the expectations may not even be that high of you to begin with, so I think you always just have to prove yourself in these settings.”

King also moved into the MCS district and said she was surprised to see how some people reacted around black people.

“When I came here my freshman year; I’m from Dayton, Ohio, and it was a culture shock to me,” King said. “People think it’s okay to say certain things. Like when I first got into my first class, someone asked to touch my hair. A teacher came and touched my hair, interrupting all of class as if that was okay. And, you can’t react like the crazy black lady because that makes you look bad.”

The role of MIC

Arthur-Mensah and King both serve as board members for the Mason Inclusion Club (MIC). Formerly known as Mason African American Students for Change (MAASC), two years ago, the board elected to change the name of the club in order to create a more inclusive environment conducive to discussion applicable to a greater range of students. At the end of the 2016-2017 school year, the board instituted the first non-black board member and has partnered with the Muslim Student Alliance, Gay Straight Alliance and Social Justice Club for panel discussions and interfaith events.

Sophomore Ryann Richardson is a member of MIC and said the club’s open discussion style allows her to voice her sentiments regarding current events and things going on in her community, something that should be enacted in Mason outside of the club.

“You need to talk to the student body,” Richardson said. “You need to talk to the black kids. You need to talk to the other colored kids. Colored is a variety. That doesn’t just mean black; that means Latino, Asian, anybody really. They almost need to have a meeting and ask, ‘What’s up with you guys? Is this okay? Are you okay in this environment?’ and really check up on us, not just once, but several times.”

What is Inclusion?

Arthur-Mensah defines inclusion as not only having a diverse student body but exploring it, emphasizing understanding cultural differences over simply observing them.

“Well inclusion to me would be recognizing and understanding what makes other people different and what they bring to the table,” Arthur-Mensah said. “There needs to be initiatives that promote inclusion among students. For example, a course over inclusion and diversity in our world today that students are able to take.”

Jegol said inclusion can not be so easily defined; however, he extended beyond diversity, pointing to equality as a key element to what defines inclusion.

“Inclusion to me is–especially in a school environment–where every student can feel like, whether it’s their peers or their teacher, (they) see them as equal,” Jegol said. “You throw the word around, inclusion, and a lot of times, in a community like ours, it’s like, ‘Everyone is already inclusive,’ and many don’t see that there are many students that feel disadvantaged or not looked upon the same. It’s kind of hard to define exactly what inclusion is, but my sisters go to the intermediate school, so I feel like for them, it’s seeing themselves equal as their friends.”

The key to achieving an inclusive learning environment is communication, according to Richardson.

“They need to have open arms, and I understand they have open arms right now, but it just doesn’t feel like it,” Richardson said. “The way that Mason is–the way that it is set up–there’s not as much diversity, and there’s not as much inclusion as there needs to be. In order to go forward with that–with inclusion–they need to start having us voice our opinion first and actually listening and taking into consideration what we think we need to do.”

Leveling the Playing Field

After the initial communication, Jegol said Mason needs to take steps towards providing its students with equal opportunity to thrive in the district.

“It begins with creating structures and curriculum that works for all students,” Jegol said. “We already know, and many studies show, that whites and Asians are at an advantage a lot of times when it comes to schooling, so I think it’s creating a curriculum where all students are on an even playing field. A lot of our black and hispanic students fall off because they aren’t on that same playing field that they’re expected to meet.”

During a December meeting, MIC invited Assistant Principal Dion Reyes to speak to them in order to gain insight as to how racial comments are handled administratively. The topic of clothing, specifically those expressing racial or political commentary came up when members asked why students were permitted to wear t-shirts bearing the confederate flag, but others had been asked to take off Black Lives Matter apparel.

Arthur-Mensah said it is instances like this that elicit his despondence that change is coming.

“There’s been many incidents like this in saying that you’re taking action, taking action, yeah well we don’t see it,” Arthur-Mensah said. “I’m sorry to say it, but we don’t see it.”

Racial homogeneity

Racial socialization is society’s conveyance of the meaning of a race or ethnicity to youth, thus, impressing upon them the significance of their racial community to society. In a society where blacks are often marginalized and deemed lesser, racial socialization can lead to decreased self-esteem among young generations.

Richardson said integrating lessons and speakers meant to instill a sense of unity would help to combat negatives that can result from racial socialization, providing blacks and other minorities with an outlet of support.

“I know there are only 160 black kids overall at Mason High School out of about 3,400, and that right there is devastating,” Richardson said. “I would love to have more time and conversation with them and see what they think. That’s a really big issue for myself: it’s unity. It’s not just unity with each other as a whole–as the community–but it’s a unity within our little group, our little four percent.”

While this unity can be a positive, such as offering familiar faces and a sense of comfort, the issue schools and universities face is students nationwide have shown a habit of gravitating towards individuals of their own race, meaning conversation between ethnic groups is being limited.

Diversity Digest, a newsletter published by the Association of Colleges and Universities, surveyed an unnamed university with 60 percent of the student body coming from various minority races and found even on such a diverse campus, students’ friend groups aligned with this pattern. Blacks were mostly likely to have homogenous groups at this particular university, and 1 in 3 whites had a similar setup. Japanese and Filipino students reported the fewest instances of racial congruence.

Allen said she has noticed this in Mason’s lunchroom.

“You can see the different cliques are split up into race, you can see it if you look at the lunch tables,” Allen said. “You see that the Indians are sitting together, white people are all sitting together and black people are all sitting together. Last semester I had this white boy come up, and he said, ‘Oh my friend was talking about this. This is the black people table’ because it was all the black girls.”

Jegol said district-wide initiatives that promote students meeting new students could help to break up the homogeneity.

“Maybe it’s promoting meeting a peer that doesn’t look like you (or) some kind of cultural engagement class,” Jegol said. “It’s also important that we don’t say, ‘Learn from people of other cultures’ more we make it, ‘Learn from your peers as people that are equal as you’ because a lot of times when we say ‘Learn from people from other cultures,’ we assume that it’s going to be awkward because you don’t know what their culture is like, and they don’t know what your culture is like.”

HBCU versus PWI

Allen has not yet decided where she intends to go to college next year but said she is between the University of Alabama and Tennessee State University, TSU being a Historically Black College and University (HBCU).

Founded in 1837, HBCUs were minorities’ primary source of higher education; however, today, even with thousands of options, hundreds of thousands of young black men and women still choose to attend a predominantly black college.

Allen said having moved into MCS, she feels attending an HBCU will make for a more understanding environment, one in which she will be able to better perform; however, she said Mason neglects to inform students of these options, partially due to their not knowing of their existence.

“I think minorities should push towards HBCUs,” Allen said. “You can just do better at an HBCU, I think, around peers that you’re comfortable with. I feel like when I first came here, it was overwhelming to see so many caucasian people and not a lot of people of my skin color here. Mason pushes college so much, but they still have yet to talk about an HBCU. I even had to tell some of my fellow minorities what an HBCU was. That’s really sad actually.”

There are still many black high school seniors who will elect to attend Predominantly White Institutions (PWI) over HBCUs in the fall. King, who has committed to Purdue University, said she feels more confident walking onto Purdue’s campus in the fall, whose overall minority population is 35.3 percent compared to Mason’s 26 percent, according to College Factual and US News.

“I’ve always been a pretty strong person mentally, but Mason has made me–I voice my opinion, I don’t care who’s listening–it’s made more bold,” King said. “I think it’s made me a much stronger person. It’s kind of sad; it’s a double-edged sword: I’ve kind of had to develop thicker skin in a white community. I do think that’s a positive that I’ve made myself stronger, more resilient, and that’s translated into my athletics and academics. I’m prepared now.”

In order to combat racial congruity in the district while still empowering minority students and highlighting their worth, King urges the district to modify Mason’s curriculum, adding in historical lessons which explore the contributions minority races have made to the nation as a whole, in addition to the Mason community and school district.

“We’re not educating our students about the accomplishments that black people have done in history as opposed to the lynching and all the bad stuff that happened to us,” King said. “Slavery is pretty much the only thing you learn in the curriculum about African Americans. Talk about different cultures and their history. There’s a lot of hispanics here that don’t feel represented. There’s a lot of students coming here internationally from different countries that feel misrepresented like, ‘Just because I’m a Muslim, I’m a terrorist.’ It’s just about educating about their history and current events.”

Regardless of what action the district plans to take, King said it is important to act swiftly, or Mason risks its students graduating feeling as though they were not valued.

“I am so sick of Mason acting like we are this perfect little school,” King said. “Our education is good academically, but socially and morally, it’s come to a point where something needs to be done, or else students are going walk out of high school feeling like they weren’t important. How is that going to reflect on the school after people like you and me leave, after all the African American and minority students leave? How is that going to affect the rest of (those minorities’) lives? People aren’t thinking about that.”

Moving forward, Richardson said Mason needs to acknowledge the bad in their schools just as much as they do the good and understand there is work to be done.

“I don’t know if they’re really going to push this forward and say ‘this is wrong,’ and they know it’s wrong, but it’s all happiness with them,” Richardson said. “Not everything is happy right now. Not everything is good right now just based off of what just happened. There’s not always good, and you can’t cover that up.”

King said the district needs to step up now.

“If African Americans and minorities in the school don’t start seeing a change sooner or later in administration, in the curriculum, in how teachers speak to us, in the environment in general, there’s gonna be some type of protest,” King said. “Honestly, if I don’t see a change, and I don’t feel like my voice is being heard, there is no other way to get their attention; we’re at that point in time.”