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How Racism Has Manifested Itself In Schools, As Recalled By Listeners

In the past two weeks, high-profile politicians in Virginia including Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have come under fire for having worn blackface decades ago. These stories have caused many people to remember their own experiences — times that people around them blithely invoked racist caricatures — and how that made them feel unwelcome, or unsafe.

NPR's Weekend Edition asked listeners to share their own stories about racism at school, be it recent or many years ago. Here's some of what people said:

Corynne Jones of Georgia

Hello, my name is Corynne Jones. The story I wanted to share was, I went to Clemson University. My senior year, 2007, it was either on Martin Luther King's birthday or it was on the holiday. A group of white kids threw a Martin Luther King party and they had some kitschy slogan for it like 'Livin' The Dream' or something like that, I don't really recall. And a lot of kids showed up, a lot of white kids showed up with their skin darkened in some way or with other stereotypical things like foil in their teeth or 40s in their hands or pads in their butt to make their butt bigger.

It got out on Facebook and the way the university responded, it was interesting being on campus. Often you might be the only black person in classes there, and the school barely wanted to do anything at all. "Let's keep the peace" was the bigger response. At the time I was in college and I'm like, 'Hey, I'm trying to be a good member of society, and at every turn it's like you're reminded that you're nothing, and that you're always going to be thought of as a joke.' I guess every time something like this happens it takes a chunk out of you.

Nkauj Lee of Minnesota

My name is Lily Lee or my Hmong name is Nkauj. I'm Hmong-American. My siblings — my younger sister, my older sister and my little brother — we made up basically the Asian student body. You know, at first I didn't really think about it, I just felt it was school. Then the other children started singing songs, and they would make these gestures. They would slant their eyes up and then they would slant it down and then they would pull out their shirts like Christmas trees or breasts and they would sing "Chinese, Japanese, what are these? Christmas trees." And they would do that every single day.

When we're walking they would slant their eyes and say, "Can you see? Can you see?" You know, you're supposed to go to school and you're supposed to feel safe and I didn't feel safe. I felt tormented. Now looking back, I just feel angry. I've never ever spoken about this for the past two and a half decades and so it's really nice to just be able to tell you.

Brett Chapman of Oklahoma

My name is Brett Chapman. I'm a member of the Pawnee tribe and I also am Ponca and Kiowa. You know, growing up in Oklahoma what we would do is we would celebrate Land Run days. Basically, they take you out on the schoolyard and you got this little stick with a flag on it and you go stake your claim. The girls have little bonnets on. There's these little wagons, they look like covered wagons. I mean it's just nonsense.

We would celebrate Thanksgiving and you either put the little black belt buckle on or the hat or you do a headdress. You know, I can remember as a child picking — you had to pick one — and I'd be the pilgrim. You to demean your own culture like that — a headdress has a meaning. In Ponca culture there's only a few people that can wear headdresses. The line of hereditary chiefs, they can wear headdresses. It's a symbol of authority and respect, but it's just been so stereotyped into a joke. You know, you've got kids cutting out construction paper and putting it on their head and just kind of going around, making fools of Indians. And you know, the harmful aspect of that is no one ever takes us seriously because of that.

Beth Patin of New York

My name is Beth Patin. I went to a boarding school for high school in Alabama. To raise money for prom and different dances and things, our school would have slave auctions. Folks were allowed to raffle themselves off and stand up in front of everybody on an auction block. And if you bid the most money, then you got to keep that person for an entire day and make them do whatever you wanted. It really bothered me. I went to talk to the headmaster and they really weren't willing to change things, but they eventually changed the name to serf sales, I think by the time I had graduated.

I mean, it certainly makes you feel emotionally vulnerable and a little bit unsafe. When I think back to all the things my family had to endure to be able to just attend schools; my grandfather had to sue the board of education in order to desegregate schools in the state of Alabama. So access to education is something that I've learned to really appreciate and to have gotten all the way to the '90s, 30 years after my father desegregated schools, it makes you feel like you still don't belong there. We've had 30 years of participation, but it still is not a place that is safe for me.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Samantha Balaban is a producer at Weekend Edition.
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