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Students grapple with racism

Last modified: 9/22/2011 12:00:00 AM
The children of Concord - those born here and those born across oceans in other cultures - do not understand.

Sixth graders at Rundlett Middle School giggled nervously yesterday as their peers talked of being called "the n-word" while playing basketball in a city park. They don't always understand the gravity or the history of the words, their teachers said, because they are too young, and come from another culture.

Tenth graders twisted their faces into scowls as they heard the stories later.

They don't understand why anyone would drive past a park and yell racial epithets and obscenities at kids, they said. They don't understand why someone would write paragraphs of hate on three homes this weekend, proclaiming the refugee residents "unwelcome" "mud people" who have brought death and crime to the city.

The children of this city don't understand racism, they say, but they do know how it makes them feel, and they know what they want to do about it.

Rundlett Principal Tom Sica met yesterday morning with all of the middle school students who are children of refugees to talk about the graffiti attack, and he invited the Monitor to listen in. Later in the day, students from Concord High School reached out to the paper to share with the community their own opinions.

Sica said the school will work on having a conversation with the entire student body soon but wanted to address the issue with the children of the refugee community as quickly as possible.

The sixth, seventh and eighth graders - children of refugees from Bhutan, Nepal, Rwanda, the Congo and several other countries - said their reactions to seeing or hearing about the graffiti included "hurt," "sad" and "unwelcome" to "heartbroken" and "threatened."

"I don't get it," was the phrase of the day.

"I don't get why they're doing that," said sixth-grader Saif Khudair. "What if they put themselves in our shoes, and how would they feel?"

Seventh-grader Saritha Mirisi added "I honestly don't get it, why people would make fun of other people because of their skin color, when if you look at it, we're all human beings."

The older students had a similar reaction.

"I was saddened and stunned," said Concord High senior Ethan LaFrance. "It's shocking to see someone trumpet something so hateful. We like to think society has progressed to where people can't do that, and when they do, it's surprising, it's shocking, and it should be."

Photos of the graffiti from Sunday morning were shocking to sophomore Ryan Donnelly, but not unfamiliar, he said.

"There's stuff that happens here at school, too. It gets written in the bathrooms, and then it gets painted over," he said.

He's hopeful, though, that the high visibility of the latest attack will spark something bigger.

"This, maybe, will be the incident where we decide something's gotta change," he said.

Concord High Principal Gene Connolly said that in his 10 years in the school, he's seen students already creating an atmosphere of acceptance.

"There are certain social rules already, where if someone uses a term that's hurtful, the kids come and tell us. They say 'You have to deal with this,' " he said.

The teens said they are now more excited than ever for a leadership summit they've organized for next month. While at this point, the training may draw students like themselves, who already appreciate diversity and promote cross-culture communication and awareness, they said the goal is to create a better normal.

"People like to think racism doesn't exist anymore, or doesn't exist here, but it does, and it's our job to do something about it," said sophomore Maddie Stewart-Boldin.

The event was planned before this weekend's graffiti incident and was already aimed at making the school a more welcoming place for students from diverse cultures.

It might preach to the choir, but the idea is to "get the choir all together and get them really excited," Stewart-Boldin said, and in the process, create a new normal.

The event will train students how to be leaders in their everyday lives, and encourage them to examine what stereotypes they hold about foreign-born or minority students, how they can push themselves to break those thought patterns, and stand up to their friends if they use derogatory terms or stereotypes, she said.

"Schools are all about peer pressure. We want to establish social norms about diversity as a positive influence on the school," she said.

"Numbers matter," LaFrance said. "It takes one person to pick up a marker and write hateful speech on a house. It takes many people, an entire community or an entire school, to make new Americans feel welcome."

"You can teach away ignorance," LaFrance added. "It's crucial at our age to broaden the viewfinder we see the world through."

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com.)


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