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OWATONNA, Minn. — “I knew it wasn’t O.K.,” Kloey, 16, stated. “I knew that for sure.”
Late one Saturday evening in February in Owatonna, Minn., Kloey posted a selfie on Snapchat with two of her mates. Kloey caught out her tongue, Candace pursed her lips and Grace wore a wide-eyed grin. While singing alongside to a rap tune in Kloey’s automobile, Grace, who’s white, used a hateful racial slur for what she stated was the very first time. Kloey, additionally white, posted the photograph on Snapchat to commemorate the event, spelling out the slur within the caption.
The publish unfold rapidly amongst Owatonna High School’s small inhabitants of black college students, who had felt for years that racism had been allowed to quietly fester of their faculty. Not once more, they stated to one another in anger.
Teenagers flirt on social media. They pour out their souls. And all too typically, in an period of viral movies, they showcase their intolerance in the case of race. High faculty college students have been captured flashing the Nazi salute and singing Ku Klux Klan-themed Christmas songs. Teachers have dressed up as a border wall for Halloween and requested their black college students to take part in mock slave auctions. The fallout from such episodes typically appears the identical: on-line apologies and outrage, after which everybody concerned strikes on.
But after Kloey’s Snapchat publish, one thing completely different occurred on this city of 25,000 residents, the place practically 90 % of the inhabitants is white.
With the prodding of black college students, white Owatonna residents did what that they had largely had the luxurious of avoiding: speak about race.
It hasn’t been simple. Jeffrey S. Elstad, the Owatonna superintendent, stated that what occurred was a “wake-up call” for the predominantly white faculty. “Race for us is something that we don’t have to think about all of the time because we are white,” he stated. “Our students and our families of color think about race all the time. As white people, how are we O.K. with us just, only when it’s convenient, talking about race?”
Kloey’s publish helped set off a violent conflict the next Monday that concerned college students, academics and law enforcement officials. The scuffle ended with a black 16-year-old woman being tackled and arrested. That prompted the varsity’s handful of black college students to demand that the varsity tackle its tradition of racism. Their efforts led to messy, uncomfortable conversations that might have appeared unimaginable not way back.
Struggling to Explain Why
Sitting in a Mexican cafe three months after the unrest, Kloey struggled to elucidate why she had felt so comfy utilizing the racial slur. Maybe it was as a result of she had a relative who would generally use the phrase when speaking about black individuals after which chuckle, she stated, so it didn’t appear meanspirited. Perhaps it was ignorance or selfishness, she stated.
“I think it comes from a place of racism,” stated Abang, the woman who was tackled and arrested, recalling that she had instructed Kloey again in center faculty to not say the phrase, however that she had continued to say it anyway.
After Kloey’s publish, a lot of Owatonna High’s black college students got here to highschool upset.
“They’re so quick to address situations about vaping, skipping school and everything,” Eman, a 15-year-old Somali-American sophomore, stated of faculty officers. “But when it comes to racism, they never want to address it. They never want to say, ‘This is happening at our own school, we shouldn’t be doing it.’ It’s not O.K.”
To make issues worse, after Kloey’s publish had gone viral, two extra Snapchat posts by different white college students, each utilizing the identical offensive racial slur, started to flow into that day.
One was from a white scholar who posted a selfie flashing his center finger, with a caption that accused Owatonna’s black college students of “playing the black card.”
The different was from a white wrestler who had posted a selfie on Snapchat with a caption stating that he was beginning a new custom throughout Black History Month, utilizing the identical offensive slur to explain it.
Y.J., a black, 14-year-old freshman wrestler, stated his white teammates had been taunting him with the slur nicely earlier than the social media publish. He stated his coaches had failed to handle his complaints.
Emotions boiled over and Owatonna’s black college students demanded that the administration take motion. “Students got out of control a bit, and we were losing what we thought was a safe, orderly environment in the school,” Mr. Elstad stated.
Administrators ordered a lockdown and referred to as the police. Dozens of scholars had been ushered into the health club, the place the battle escalated. As college students rushed towards an exit door, they had been blocked by the law enforcement officials and academics.
In the following chaos, Abang, a sophomore whose mother and father are refugees from Ethiopia, obtained into a battle with a police officer that ended together with her being tackled by one other officer, handcuffed and arrested. Video of the episode went viral and brought a lot of criticism to the school.
Abang was charged with fourth-degree assault of a peace officer and was suspended from school for a month.
Kloey and two other white students were suspended for a month. Y.J. was suspended for four days for sharing his white teammate’s racist Snapchat post with a black friend, which administrators said contributed to the unrest at the school.
Although she does not face jail time, Abang is scheduled for a hearing in several weeks. “My stance now is the school and Owatonna in general is a racist area,” Abang’s father said. “Even though they intimate that they are going to correct this, they are going to make things better for the future, I’m not sure.”
Shifting Attitudes and Assumptions
Two decades ago, tens of thousands of Somali refugees began settling in Minnesota. But black students still only make up about 7 percent of Owatonna High’s 1,400 student population.
In 2009, the school was subjected to a joint investigation by the federal Education Department and Justice Department after a scuffle broke out among white and Somali-American students over a paper written by a white student that suggested negative stereotypes about Somali-Americans.
The investigation concluded that the district had meted out disproportionate punishment against the Somali-American students and that it had failed to properly address the discrimination and harassment that those students faced.
Owatonna High agreed to address the issues, but current Somali-American students say they did not go away.
In the aftermath of the incident in February, the black students at Owatonna told administrators that they didn’t just want the school to ban a racial slur. Eman and other students said they were after deeper change that would address why white students felt comfortable using the slur in the first place.
School leaders introduced trainings on race for teachers and students. They brought in diversity experts and hosted community events and forums. A mediator was called in to lead meetings in which the white students involved in the racist posts and the black students hurt by them discussed what had happened.
Of course, it was slow going. Whether the discussions truly transformed anyone’s thinking on an issue as fraught as race remains to be seen. But many students said they saw the beginnings of what they hoped ultimately would make for a better environment.
About a week after the unrest in the gym, Candace, whose mother is white and father is Mexican, met with several black students, including Eman, to apologize. She told them she understood if they could not forgive her, but that she wanted to help make things right.
A few days later, Eman asked Candace, a 15-year-old sophomore, to help her lead a weekly lunchtime discussion group about race.
“I knew at some point we were going to have to work it out,” Eman said. “I don’t like not fixing stuff, especially when it comes to race.”
During the lunchtime discussions, Candace, like many white students at Owatonna, found herself surprised to learn just how common it was for her black classmates to experience racism. Although she said she never used racial slurs, Candace said she realized that she needed to call out those who did.
“That’s one of my biggest regrets,” she said, “is not doing something sooner.”
In an interview, Grace said she felt her use of the slur in the song did not come from a racist place. She suspected that she had said it because she had heard white classmates say it so regularly that it had become normal to her. “I think it was, seriously, it just slipped out, and I was used to hearing the word the last week or so,” Grace said. “It was just in my mind.”
Grace, 15, is home-schooled, and did not participate in the conversations at Owatonna High, but said she has started talking to her black friends more explicitly about how race affects them. “There’s people struggling with a lot that I’ve never experienced before because I’m white,” Grace said.
For her part, Kloey had brushed off criticism right after the episode. “What happened in the past doesn’t happen to them now,” she recalled thinking about black people. In her mind, she used the word as slang, not a slur directed toward black people.
But over the course of several meetings, that attitude started to change, she said.
She heard black classmates explain that they and their families never used the slur at home — she had assumed, she said, that most black people said it casually.
Slowly, Kloey said, she began to understand how the world still viewed black and white people differently. It made more sense, she said, why the word continued to resonate so painfully with black people.
“I feel bad,” she said. “I didn’t care what others thought and I didn’t care about others.”