The morning Donald Trump was declared the president-elect, I groggily checked my phone to confirm what part of me already knew. It’s interesting living over half your life under an Obama presidency—transitioning from being in awe of a black president to becoming analytical, and at times critical, of the decisions he made (or didn’t make). To then to lose him to a person like Trump is the one of the most bitter experience I’ve ever had. In a perfect world, we could blame the outbreak of racist, islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic, and sexist bullying and discrimination in schools on Trump. But these incidents were already brewing, waiting for the perfect moment to emerge.
During my school’s spirit week, I found myself biting my tongue while a group of my white classmates casually used the N-word around me, giggling throughout. One white boy, let’s call him Andy, went so far as to say that it was “their word.” This was the first time I had heard them say the N-word in a classroom setting, and the first time I’d ever heard the word repeated that many times. Of course, I was aware that they said it in the hallways, which only gave me cause to avoid them. But in that classroom I couldn’t. With a teacher who wasn’t a native English speaker and didn’t understand the significance of the word, I felt hopeless.
It didn’t end there. Another white student asked what the others were wearing for “black people day,” in reference to my school’s upcoming Culture Day, where students were invited to wear culturally significant clothing in celebration of our backgrounds. Those boys, who clearly didn’t understand or care about the impact of their words, laughed as they described their do-rags, Yeezys, and cornrow-inclusive outfits. Once school ended, I ran out of the classroom faster than I ever had. I ranted to my friend Denise, who suggested I go to the vice-principal. Since I regretted not saying anything in the moment and really didn’t want to see anyone come to school in appropriative and offensive clothing, I decided to take her advice.
I ended up meeting with the principal and vice-principal that same day after school with Denise hovering in the room for support. I told them what happened word for word. The first thing my principal said to me was, “Wait, so they didn’t say the word to you?” I said no. There was an immediate shift in the energy in the room and the men in front of me seemed more relaxed.
They talked about how that it’s definitely not OK for them to by using the N-word in an in-school setting, or in any setting. I agreed with this wholeheartedly. I began to list the names of the boys involved. The vice-principal’s eyes widened and he shook his head. “Oh, wow! Andy? He’s a really good kid. I know he understands the impact of that word. And he really does have such a bright future ahead of him. He’s smart.” As my heart dropped, I laughed and turned to my friend in disbelief. I started: “I’m not trying to be rude but…” but trailed off. The principal asked me, “Is it possible that they were affected by the word the same way you were?” I couldn’t understand, and still don’t understand, what would make anyone think that a black person and nonblack people who use the N-word are affected by the word in the same way. The exchange went on, but I had already mentally left the room.
All that ultimately came from this meeting was me being asked to meet with the boys to educate them. Before speaking to my mom, I was feeling guilty about my unwillingness to do this. But she quickly dismissed the idea, already enraged that I had been told that one of the boys was “a good kid.” My job as a student is not to teach non-black counterparts. Learning about right and wrong in this context should come from parents, and if not them then the school. But we don’t live in a world where this is the expectation. I recognize that every day, black people in online, educational, business, or social settings are expected to answer questions. But after the 2016 election and questions such as, “Why is it ‘black lives matter’ and not ‘all lives matter’?” and, “Why can’t I say the N-word but you can?” it’s no wonder we find ourselves exhausted. That’s what I was after that day, exhausted.
The boys received a “talking to” as their punishment, and I hope that their parents were contacted, but I don’t know. Two days later, one said the N-word again, apparently prompted by our Mandarin teacher saying characters that sounded similar. Laughing, his friends told him to shut up: “Come on, you don’t want visit the principal again.” It wasn’t exactly a surprise to see they weren’t taking it seriously.
When one of the boys came up to me directly during lunch to ask if I “was really bothered by what was said,” I gave a blank look and started to deny it. After I met with the vice-principal to tell him that I wouldn’t talk to the boys at all, the heads of school promised to keep me out of it. I’m one of four black kids in that class and the others seemed unbothered; it wasn’t hard for them to narrow it down. I had to analyze why I was so afraid to be in a class with people that knew I didn’t like something racist that they had said, why I stayed quiet when they ranted about how Trump was making a better future. I realized how afraid I really was, and that was troubling.
Although this was a beyond aggravating experience, it has been paramount to my understanding of how any discrimination or bigoted behavior can be combatted in the school system—and that sometimes, it just can’t be. There will always be friends to talk to, the Black Student Unions and teachers you trust to take action, the guardians you want to email the school. These are all valid choices. And maybe you have principals that will understand and help you, because some surely will. If you feel comfortable to talk directly to the teacher or student saying something bigoted, please do it in the safest way possible. But please know it is never your responsibility to put yourself in harm’s way.
As Trump takes office, what we can ask of ourselves as young people is to pay attention, to call our reps when the situation demands it, to donate what we can, to care unapologetically, and to support each other without limit or shame. It can seem daunting at times, and a bit clichéd, but we are the future and every step we take now counts. ♦