A degrading culture

*Editor’s note: The following article contains derogatory language; reader discretion is advised.

Maalik Mbatch (’14) was sitting in the music studio with a few friends, hanging out: “They were joking around and rapping, and I was of course the only black guy in the studio. Then one guy goes, ‘He knows what he’s doing, just look at the color of his skin.’ It just blew me away,” Mbatch said.

Mbatch’s experience is not a unique one at ASL; it is not a rarity for students belonging to minority races to be subjected to racial abuse. To Mbatch, the term “casual racism” can be defined as: “References to stereotypes in conversation. People associating you with something much bigger than yourself.” And it is important to be clear that racism – or the explicit action of saying something and intending to cause offense based on someone’s race – is difficult to be truly “casual;” it is the setting and the friendly intention that sets casual racism and racism apart.

This is not a problem that is limited to ASL students, or for that matter, the greater London community. In a recent Time article, it was revealed that 10,000 racial slurs are tweeted each day. The problem of casual racism is truly one of a global scale.

Casual racism is not limited to social media, though. According to an Associated Press (AP) poll conducted in 2012, 51 percent of Americans have racist tendencies, this number having risen 3 percent from a similar poll conducted in 2008.

The casually racist culture at ASL typically manifests itself in the form of a joke, in relaxed, non-malicious conversations between friends. An ASL junior deems casual racism acceptable if it’s used in the right context. “I’m [casually] racist all the time. I don’t actually hate all black people. I don’t actually think all black people should leave America. It’s kind of a conversation lubricant,” he said.

This junior identifies the presence of malice and genuine hatred as the distinction between what is OK and what isn’t. “It’s not OK to hate people just because they have black skin or dark skin or something like that … It’s OK to hate people if they murder people [or] steal things,” he said.

Luke Bandeen (’17) uses racist jokes, but solely when referencing his own stereotypes in a humorous manner. “I feel like I’m not naturally that funny of a person so sometimes I try to compensate for that with racist jokes,” he said.

Bandeen is quarter-Chinese, quarter-Korean and half-Canadian, and he often makes himself the subject of his own jokes. To Bandeen, this is OK. “Sometimes I’ll be like, ‘I know everything, I’m Asian.’ I say it in the sense where everybody knows that I’m joking so no one will take offense to it,” he said.

Irrespective of the intention, it is agreed amongst students that casual racism is prevalent within the High School. Mbatch experiences casual racism on a “daily basis”. He is subjected to stereotypes based on things he cannot control – primarily his skin color. “I think people have taken it to a point where they’ve made assumptions based on the color of my skin. I’ve been associated with drugs, I smoke, clearly I drink because of the culture I come from,” he said. “People just assume that of me, people assume I know people who do all sorts of [illicit] things. True or not they will assume that of me.”

MD Shelton (’15), a former black student, had a similar experience to Mbatch during his time at ASL. Shelton attended the school from Grade 5 until the completion of his freshman year. Throughout his time at ASL he, like Mbatch, experienced racism on a daily basis. “[While at ASL I was called] ‘coon’, ‘nigger’, ‘nigga’,” he said. “I don’t know how many times someone would say ‘nigga’ and then try to justify by saying ‘well I didn’t say ‘er’, I said ‘a’ which makes it OK’.”

While the notion that casual racism is an issue within the student body is commonplace, there is no Student Faculty Disciplinary Board (SFDB) precedent relating to racism, according to faculty advisor to the SFDB and English Teacher Peggy Elhadj: “Ninety-nine percent of our cases are issues of academic integrity. We’ve never had a case of or relating to racism,” she said.

Principal Jack Phillips believes that despite the lack of an SFDB precedent, casual racism is an issue that the school has to combat. “Remember, [if] things go to SFDB, that means that they got caught,” he said.

Jack Roberts (’15) reaffirms Phillips’ point that there does not necessarily have to be an SFDB precedent for there to be a problem. He cites students’ recognition that casual racism is an inappropriate thing to do, therefore that they are careful when and where they use potentially inflammatory language.  “If you’re dumb enough to say it in front of somebody who would care and would inform the administration or a teacher, then you should be punished for it,” he said.

Phillips hopes that there will be improvement with regards to the casual racism problem at the school. “I am already engaged in brainstorming with faculty and will begin with students, and even parents, thinking about how we make this environment even more inclusive and more supportive and safer. And not just in terms of racism but in other ways too that erode the community,” he said.

Phillips’ ideas are not uncommon amongst the community. Members of the Unity in Diversity club, a group that seeks to improve how the school handles diversity, also believes that the first step in addressing racism involves changing the community – albeit in a different manner.

Alec Ashley (’15), Head of the Unity in Diversity club, agrees that ASL’s lack of diversity contributes to the problem. “The amount of casual racism in the community is based on how the community values diversity. If it’s considered racist, then people won’t say it because ASL likes to maintain its political correctness,” he said. “When you don’t have to worry about being racist because there’s no one of a different race to you in a room, then you’re able to say it and have it just be casual conversation.”

Angie Kukielski (’15), a member of the Unity in Diversity club, sees increasing ASL’s diversity as the best solution to the problem. To Kukielski, it seems “[ASL has] more black cleaning staff than we have [black] High School teachers.” Accurate or not, this perception is indicative of the problem the club is trying to combat: A distinct lack of racial diversity. Similar to Ashley, Kukielski feels that the casually racist culture can be partially ascribed to the lack of diversity within the school, “I think ASL isn’t diverse and it is not appreciative of the value of diversity … It’s definitely one of our [Unity in Diversity’s] goals to change how the community views diversity and micro-aggressions,” she said.

Shelton also agrees with this sentiment. “The presence of more African Americans, or just black people in general, would call for a better treatment of that race. But because of the lack thereof, in terms of population, it’s a much harder thing to be cognizant of,” he said.

Mbatch believes that due to the lack of diversity, racist jokes are more personally offensive, to the point where he feels that retaliation could potentially be warranted. However, he values the opportunities afforded to him by ASL more than any satisfaction that could be gained by retaliating. “None of the actions that I would’ve taken prior to coming to ASL, violent or nonviolent, would have been worth losing the opportunities that I have now so sometimes I just have to walk away,” he said. “Being on the SFDB is so important, tutoring kids is so important, teaching foundations is so important to me and it has taken me so many different places.”

Despite his continued ability to abstain from retaliating, Mbatch harbors deep resentment towards students’ casually racist ways. “I don’t laugh, it’s not funny. I can’t sit there and giggle with everyone else like it’s the most hilarious thing I’ve heard,” he said.

While racism is most severe towards black students, other forms of derogatory language – whether that be racism towards other groups or anti-semitic language – are present in the school. Adam Koren (’14), a Jewish student and co-president of Middle East club, thinks anti-semitic language is present, though not a severe issue. “The types of jokes you hear at ASL are really dark stereotypical jokes about the Holocaust, about Jews being known as greedy and stuff like that. I don’t think it’s a problem within ASL, the only times I’ve heard the jokes are really rare, I do think that the word ‘Jew’ is used a lot [in a derogatory manner],” he said.

Tamara Masri (’15), a female student of Arab heritage, has both experienced and heard offensive comments be made about her culture, “‘Keep your woman in the house,’ I’ve heard said to my brother about me. Or ‘what are you doing? You’re an Arab man, you shouldn’t let her talk to boys,’” she said.

What is apparent though, to perpetrators, victims, and sources of potential resolution, is that an attitude of derogatory and offensive comments is present within the school.

Phillips is saddened by the prevalence of casual racism – and other forms of derogatory language – within the school, but he offers a message of support to those afflicted by this culture. “Students need to know if they hear it or if they’re saying it, or if they’re on the receiving end of it, that it’s not OK. We don’t condone this, and they should feel comfortable talking with us about it, identifying it, writing articles about this, we need to bring this to the forefront of our community dialogue,” he said. “It is the only way we’re going to get at it. So support is the message I would give to those students. We support you. I support you,”

In the future, Phillips plans to redouble the administration’s efforts to further diversify the school, in the belief that this will help tackle the current problem of casual racism. “If we can humanize each other, we intrinsically value one another, that is the foundational work that allows us to address racism or intolerance of any kind.”