Names have been changed.
Four years ago, my family spent Christmas with my aunt in Dallas. One afternoon, we walked into a boutique at the mall. Rows of trendy clothes caught my eye. “Let’s get you something nice,” my grandma said.
I was excitedly picking through the shelves, talking to my grandmother in Spanish, when I suddenly felt this weird judging. I turned to see the cashier staring at me. She was a young, blonde white woman who looked at us like we were aliens from outer space.
Was I being paranoid? After a while, I picked out a black shirt with ruffles and headed to the front counter with my grandmother. But none of the workers were there.
We tried calling out and got no response. Then I heard the blonde cashier say from the back to a coworker, “I’m not going out there. You go and help them but I will not help those people who I can’t understand.”
She came out, rolled her eyes at me, and walked past us.
Judged by My Skin Color
Another woman ended up helping us, and we purchased our items and left. As I was leaving the shop, I saw the same salesperson who wouldn’t talk to us cheerfully helping White customers.
I couldn’t remember ever feeling judged because of my skin color before. I grew up in a diverse neighborhood filled with people who looked like me. I never felt out of place there.
That night, I celebrated Christmas Eve with my family and had a great time. We made carne asada and tamales, and danced bachata and cumbia. But what happened at the store still lingered. It made me think about how I would react if I experienced that kind of discrimination again.
Is My Teacher Racist?
Nine months later, I was starting my final year of middle school. History is one of my favorite subjects, but I was a bit panicked about my new teacher. Students gossiped about how Mr. Adams punished kids for the smallest reasons, like breathing loudly or standing up in class. Still, if I was respectful and hardworking, I thought, I’d be fine.
Early on, I found Mr. Adams was mostly a nice teacher who cracked jokes between lessons. But over time, he said things that made me feel uncomfortable. He frequently praised Trump policies such as building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and immigrant travel bans. He said he thought Trump “could do no wrong.”
Most students in my school live in small neighborhoods like mine with people of color. We feel directly affected by many of Trump’s actions and statements. Everybody has the right to share their beliefs, but maybe it wasn’t so suitable for the classroom, I thought. Either way, I tried to brush off those concerns and focus on my work.
Eventually, though, things became more uncomfortable and I began to feel as if I couldn’t keep my feelings inside any longer. One day in class, Mr. Adams pulled up a slideshow. It contained a caricature of a gorilla and he described it as a Civil War drawing that mocked Black people.
The classroom was quiet until I heard faint laughs coming from across the room. My friend Hope and I looked back in curiosity. One of my White classmates was laughing while pointing at Hope, who is Black.
“Wait, that looks just like Hope,” he said. I saw her face sink and I became angry listening to the chuckling around the room.
“Guys, stop. Please be quiet,” Mr. Adams said, quickly returning to teaching as if nothing had happened. Hope’s eyes began to water and she bolted out of the classroom. I went after her.
I was suddenly shaken by the sound of Mr. Adams entering the hallway. “Main office, right now!” He screamed loud enough for everyone to hear.
I asked him why he was sending us to the principal’s office and he told us we left the room without permission, and we’d disrupted the lesson.
The principal let us off with a warning and sent us back on our way. Still, it felt unfair that Mr. Adams disciplined us, and not the kid in the class who had made the racist comment.
A Hopeful Ally
Despite now dreading going to U.S. History, I loved my math class and teacher, Mr. Campbell. He listened and went the extra mile to assist students. A lot of us confided in him. I hoped he might be able to talk with Mr. Adams, or give us advice on how to make him see our concerns.
My friend Emma, Hope, and I visited Mr. Campbell one day during our free period. I took a minute to collect myself.
“Well, honestly, there’s not much I can do,” said Mr. Campbell, who is White, like Mr. Adams. “If he feels like his strict way of teaching works, then you just have to understand that this is the way he is. Either way, it’s not like it’s that big a deal.”
Not that big a deal? I was frozen by Mr. Campbell’s reaction. We left the classroom feeling defeated and helpless. Teachers repeatedly taught us to go to an adult when we had problems. However in this case, the problem was an adult, and when we went to another adult he dismissed us.
A Shocking Revelation
Wanting a distraction from our disappointing encounter with Mr. Campbell, Emma invited a few friends over to her house for a sleepover. We spent the afternoon huddled around phone screens.
Eventually, we searched some of our teachers and found Mr. Adams’ Twitter account. We clicked on his profile and scrolled down to read his tweets.
“Shut up you stupid n-gger,” read one. We stopped laughing and I grabbed the phone, feeling a knot tighten in my throat. There were pages of racist slurs and tweets targeting Black people and Hispanics. Some posts were even made that day.
After discovering the tweets, I began noticing Mr. Adams treated students of color with less respect than White students. One morning before class, I was chatting with Hope and Emma about our weekends.
“Why do you guys have to talk so ghetto? It’s early in the morning, just act like the others,” Mr. Adams said.
Such a reaction shocked me. Before, I shook it off when Mr. Adams said teaching about slavery and the Civil War wasn’t as important. But I realized comments like these made me doubt every aspect of myself. I wasn’t talking “ghetto”—I was being myself.
I’ve wrestled with my identity before, feeling less than because of being Hispanic—I remember seeing my parents being berated for not speaking English—and Mr. Adams’ words made me feel like I was inferior. The internal pressure mounted to say something. Still, I remained silent and didn’t even talk to my parents about it. I wanted to be a good daughter, focused on her studies.
Confronting the Past
Soon came my 8th grade graduation day. The auditorium was decorated with blue and white satin ribbons and portraits of our class dating back to 1st grade. I caught a glimpse through the curtain of my mother and father waiting in their seats. They looked overjoyed, and I was proud.
After we went on stage to get our diplomas and share speeches, I left the auditorium and sprinted to my family who were waiting in the gymnasium to congratulate me. Suddenly, a rush of courage overcame me and I knew what I had to do. I quickly hugged my family and friends, and scanned the room for Mr. Adams. I took a deep breath and walked in his direction.
I thought, I am not some powerless person who can’t speak up for herself. I had let this teacher get away with making multiple racist comments that left many students including myself feeling like we were less than him or, worse, like animals. The least I could do is let him know how his words affected me.
“Hi Stephanie,” he said as I approached him. “Congratulations.”
“Thank you Mr. Adams. May I talk to you for a second?” He nodded and we moved to the side away from the crowd.
“I think you’re a good teacher. History is my favorite subject and I’ve learned a lot from your class this past year. But I have to be honest with you. In your class, many of us felt uncomfortable with things that you said that came off as insensitive. When you called my friends and me ‘ghetto’ or dismissed certain history topics important to minorities, that came off as offensive. I don’t think you’re a bad person at all, but I just want you to be aware of this.”
I was shaking, waiting for a reaction. But I didn’t get the one I was hoping for.
“I think that you probably blew some of my jokes out of proportion, Stephanie,” he said.
“I didn’t mean to offend anyone. I hope you’re not accusing me of anything—.”
“No, I’m just trying to let you know so that maybe you can reflect on the impact of your words.”
“I hope you realize that I know how you feel,” Mr. Adams said, claiming he could never be racist because his family immigrated here. “But I guess I’ll be more careful.” He left me there confused.
He didn’t seem to understand. I don’t feel like I failed, though. I confronted him about his racist words, something that was out of my comfort zone.
After that, it became easier for me to confront people who make similar racist slurs. For example, I had a friend who repeatedly used racist language, degrading my Black classmates. “You should learn the weight of your words and how they can be rude to many people,” I told him. I’m glad I wasn’t afraid to tell him how I felt. I ended the friendship when he didn’t change.
I have also been more vocal in my writing. I wrote pieces in my 9th grade English class and AP language class about racism and shared it with the class, something I wouldn’t have done before. My favorite piece was an Op-ed about how the media sometimes portrays White mass shooters or criminals, giving them excuses while often portraying people of color as violent and unforgiving.
I’ve turned from a shy, quiet person, to someone who is not afraid to speak up against discrimination. I’m proud of who I am and my family’s heritage.