B is for Blindfolded, C is for Culture


Humera Lodhi

Students explore racial microaggressions in and out of school
After meeting in their mosque’s youth group years ago, Japanese-Palestinian junior Hanna Abdulkhaleq and African-American senior Maha Hamed developed a friendship they still enjoy. Despite vastly different personalities, Hamed is a self-proclaimed “nerdy fan-girl,” and Abdulkhaleq is more outgoing and prefers spending time out with her friends. However, people often assume Abdulkhaleq is a “nerdy” student, and Hamed is more extroverted.
After countless misassumptions about personality, Hamed recognizes this for what it really is: racism.
“That’s the most prevalent type of racism; it’s just those sly remarks. It affects society as a whole, because at first you don’t realize it.” Hamed said. “English is my first language, but in kindergarten they put me in ESL. They saw my name and just kind of assumed I didn’t know English. I was with all these people whose second language was English, and I was reading fluently. Then they were like ‘Oh, she doesn’t need to be here,’ and that’s when [the racism] started for me.”
Like Hamed, Abdulkhaleq experienced racism her entire life. From a young age, students made slights about her heritage. Often times, Abdulkhaleq said, people jokingly say things like ‘You shouldn’t have any trouble with your math test; you’re Asian,’ not realizing it offends her.
This type of racism is labeled as racial microaggressions, according to the American Psychology Association, and is defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”
Abdulkhaleq and Hamed have both experienced racial microaggressions several times.
“When people repeatedly make jokes, it really does start to bother me,” Abdulkhaleq said. “Whether it is unintentional or intentional, you can’t make a joke that’s racist and not expect people to be hurt by it.”
Abdulkhaleq’s experience with racism changed over time as peers became more aware of her Muslim and Arab background. The slights were different, Abdulkhaleq said, and she began to experience overt forms of racism.
“One time, I was wearing a hijab, walking with my friends downtown, and a group of college guys rolled down their window, and I don’t remember exactly what they said, but it was something like ‘jihadists,’” Abdulkhaleq said. “It just made me feel scared and insecure, and it was definitely not a good feeling at all.”
While both the jokes and the name-calling affected Abdulkhaleq, she does distinguish between the two. To her, microaggressions have a lesser impact than overt racism. Though she does experience this kind of racism, Abdulkhaleq said, it mostly annoys her. Overt racism, however, can frighten her and shake her confidence in her identity.
However, assistant principal Dr. Lisa Nieuwenhuizen believes both overt and racial microaggressions are equally harmful.
“Oppression is oppression. All forms of oppression are bad. Pain is pain. All oppression is equally painful to all people,” Nieuwenhuizen said. “I think microaggressions are probably the most common forms of racism in our society because it happens all the time.”
RBHS is not free from racism. The school, Nieuwenhuizen said, is a microcosm of American society. As such, she has seen several instances of racial microaggressions in the halls. It can be as small as applying a stereotype to a student, or it can be as obvious as using a derogatory slur, such as the N-word, in jest. Hamed also hears similar remarks and does not believe it is possible to eliminate racial discrimination.
“It’s immoral, and we know it, but it’s essentially a tradition in America because of slavery and how America started,” Hamed said. “I honestly don’t think we’ll ever get rid of racism. People will always have those stereotypes. The way they act in society might be more accepting, but in their head, it’s just ingrained in them.”
Unlike Hamed, Nieuwenhuizen sees ways to fight racism. Nieuwenhuizen began training with the district’s equity team last year, and this year she is working with teachers throughout the district to tackle issues of inequality.
Nieuwenhuizen said it is important to keep having these dialogues for things to change.
“Racism is embedded within the fabric of society so deeply that often times we pat ourselves on the back, saying ‘Oh, racism doesn’t exist anymore; look at what we’ve done,’” Nieuwenhuizen said. “We have to be willing, not just at Rock Bridge but in society, to look really at the structural oppression that exists in our society, in terms of policy and the way people are treated.”
One of the biggest hurdles to overcoming racism, Abdulkhaleq, Hamed and Nieuwenhuizen contend, is people’s unwillingness to accept that it exists.
However, Abdulkhaleq admits that before she faced racism she did not realize its prevalence. To get past this, Abdulkhaleq said, people who do not personally face racism need to engage in dialogue with those who do face racism in order to understand the struggles that they face every day.
“When I heard other people say they’re scared to live in this country because of their race or beliefs, I didn’t fully understand what’s so scary about it. I mean, this is America and we have freedom,” Abdulkhaleq said.
“But once you go through that experience, you think differently. You get that hit that ‘Oh, racism still exists today.’”
By Humera Lodhi
Feature photo by Madelyn Stewart