Upturned slit eyes. Double buns with chopsticks in them. A red dress with gold detailing. Slapped in the middle of our poster board about China was an uncomfortable cartoon of a Chinese girl that had prompted an argument the day before.
We were doing a school project, and I told my partner that the cartoon was disrespectful, but she was adamant that it was “cute” and needed to be shown to the world. After spending half the class arguing instead of working, our teacher called us outside to settle our dispute. I explained the situation, mentioning that I, a Chinese student, should maybe have precedence over this issue. He proceeded to give us impeccable advice: “try to talk about it.”
Frustrated, I tried one last resort. I took the project home so my partner couldn’t deface it. But somehow, between the time when I returned it in the morning and when I entered class, she found a way to make sure the cartoon was front and center on the poster board.
This was seventh grade social studies. It was the first time I experienced overt ignorance in school, but more importantly, it was the first time I felt let down by a teacher.
To call my teacher outwardly discriminatory would be an overstatement, but I can’t deny that he, like several other students and staff, looked at me through oblivious lenses. Unfortunately, I am not an isolated example. Other schools in South Dakota have publicly apologized after making headlines for discrimination or ignorance. In 2017, Sturgis Brown High School forfeited a homecoming game after students spray-painted “Go back to the Rez” on a car. In 2019, Roosevelt High School ignored their own vetting guidelines and put on a play where students were dressed in KKK robes. These incidents are just the outer layer; there is still a culture of less headline-worthy insensitivity that continues to plague our halls.
But what does this mean for students? If our peers and teachers have created an environment where we feel unheard, we become less likely to interact with our schools and ask for help. To be clear, the problem is not that everyone is bad. The problem is that because of a lack of trust and a history of mistreatment, underrepresented students will often miss out on opportunities because they never know about them.
There is an expectation that students should reach out to staff if they need help finding resources. But this fails to answer a key question: how can we expect marginalized students to reach out to the same institution which marginalizes them?
One important thing to note about inequity in our schools is that because it’s so common, it often goes unnoticed and is perpetuated unintentionally. For example, all of my teachers have been white, and several of them have proven that they aren’t great at dealing with issues of race. I was once learning about the California Gold Rush in a history class, and one of my classmates would look at me every time someone said the word, “Chinese.” After class, my teacher told me to stay behind, and she asked, “Are you ashamed about your ethnicity?” I think it was an honest attempt at helping me, but it achieved the exact opposite. It made me more aware of the differences that existed between other students and me, and I became less comfortable talking to teachers. This discomfort set a precedent for later when I’d avoid pay-to-play activities out of fear of exposing my low-income status, or when I’d avoid asking questions when I didn’t understand a concept, hoping that I could figure it out on my own.
And it seems like this discomfort is a national phenomenon. Psychology research at the University of Texas at Austin revealed that over time, middle school students lost trust in their schools. Though this affected all demographics, it was especially harmful for black and Latinx students whose trust declined faster than white students after experiencing unequal treatment from teachers. But their perception of teachers is not unjustified; research has proven again and again that unconscious bias leads to lower expectations for minority students. The resulting trust gap discourages students from engaging with their schools or attending college, and it deprives them of access to resources.
When students in some of their most formative years lose opportunities because they can’t trust their schools, we see extensive untapped potential. We see high-performing, low-income students taking AP/IB classes and participating in honor societies at a significantly lower rate than their higher-income peers. We see half of these same low-income students never applying for federal financial aid, and a quarter of them never applying for college. We see disproportionate representation in gifted programs with black students being 54% less likely than their white peers to be recommended for them. And we see strikingly divided school environments that mimic and perpetuate inequality in America.
So, to address these problems, intentionally created or otherwise, it is necessary to actively inform disadvantaged students of opportunities tailored to them to build trust and to promote success and inclusivity.
This includes (but is not limited to) advertising programs to minority students to help them explore options they could be unaware about, assisting low-income students with financial aid and fee waivers to help them navigate the college admissions process, and giving overlooked students a platform to speak about their school, allowing them to address sensitive topics to root out inequity at its source.
Oftentimes, disadvantaged students live with the assumption that doors are already closed for them. The onus shouldn’t be placed on these students to find opportunities for themselves, particularly if their own community has low expectations of them.
My school project partner was incredibly determined to give that racist cartoon an opportunity to be on our poster board. It concerns me that we aren’t as determined to give underserved students an opportunity to experience quality education.