Editor's Note: As part of our efforts to educate the Lake Oswego community about race and racism, Respond to Racism is launching a multi-platform storytelling campaign focused on the experiences of people of color called #notanisolatedincident. This project will utilize everything from personal essays to interviews to photos of graffiti and social media screenshots to capture the pervasiveness of racist incidents in this town. Some stories may be familiar because they made the news at some point, but more often than not, these incidents go unreported, giving those who seek to discredit any anti-racist efforts the excuse to pretend LO's racism doesn't exist, or, as is often the case, dismiss any story that makes headlines as an "isolated incident." Our hope is to build such a large database of stories, photos, interviews, and any other form of effective storytelling that we can move beyond the denial and actually make the changes that ensure all members of our community have the opportunity to thrive. If you are interested in submitting your own stories, please reach out to us via direct message on either Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.
In this installment, recent Lake Oswego High School graduate and former Black Student Union president Mya Hudson shares a college essay where she discusses her response to a well-publicized incident involving racist graffiti and specifically, what it's like being one of the only Black people in the room during these conversations.
Martin Luther King once said, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
With high spirits, I walked into the history room, excited to discuss another complex topic in our monthly Diversity Council meeting. I thrived on the conversations in which others shared their perspectives and together we produced a tapestry of conclusions. However, my robustness did not match the room I entered. The faces of my peers were strained with discomfort and their arms were crossed, guarding them from the cold, stale energy surrounding all of us. I sat down, and became still, trying to figure out where the tension was festering from.
My history teacher, Mrs. Wolfe Rocca, stood up from her seat and hurried to her computer. In her sudden movement she wheezed, “I do not know if you all have heard, but uhh, there have been some, some racist remarks on the bathroom walls. Umm, a student found these in multiple bathrooms, and he...” Her voice trailed off when the photos presented themselves on the projector. The black sharpie carved out the words, “Nigger. Kill The Niggers.WHITES ONLY NO NIGGERS NO CHINKS NO MEXIS.” I was stunned and the weight of the words dug into my heart but I was unable to register my emotions or produce any thoughts.
Regardless, the room was charged with rage. I sat in silence listening to all the students and teachers in an uproar discussing how to show Lake Oswego High school students that this behavior was intolerable. The idea most people wanted to pursue was to find the assailant and craft a spectacle for his humiliation. In this scenario, we would force the boy to sit on a stage, apologize for his actions and listen to his victims, one by one, tell him how much his words hurt them and how terribly his actions reflected on his character. My fellow members of the Diversity Council were trying to take a protective stance, showing that they cared. But how could they understand the way I felt? I was surrounded by a room filled with white people. The only other person who could truly empathize with my grief was David, the only other black person on the Diversity Council.
David and I gave each other a sullen look, because neither of us agreed with the proposed solution. I was trying to think critically, and not just react to a hostile act with an effort to shame or humiliate. The boy who wrote the horrible words, whether he did so as an ignorant joke or an expression of cruelty, would not be awakened or reformed through shame, and the people and the community he violated would not be healed.
David tried to speak his mind. I watched him struggle to articulate his feelings and thoughts, while tears slipped from my eyes. We were the ones in the room whose voices were being held hostage by the weight of hatred and racism. The solutions that were being discussed were built off of frustration and anger which would generate negative outcomes. The council kept looking at David and me for answers, but it was too soon for me to say anything. All I could do was pause, listen and try to think rationally.
My goal was to change the culture. I wanted to be able to reach out to every student in this school who felt any level of discomfort from these slurs. I wanted our community to band together when trying times like these occurred. We needed to unify in order to support each other and avoid giving the oppressor a victory in our separation and his publicity. My focus was on the ones who were hurt, because supporting them and working to create a community that truly embraced them would isolate the oppressor and defeat the kind of hate that he spewed.
So that night I went to the store and bought twelve posters, in neon pink, yellow, and green. On each pink poster I placed a quote describing the power of love. On the yellow posters the theme was the power of unity, and on the green I quoted the power of courage. The next morning I showed up to school early to tape each poster in every bathroom. I quoted all genders and ethnic backgrounds on these posters and decided to put them up anonymously to escape prejudice and bias. The posters carried words of inspiration and truth. I wanted to counteract the hatred stained walls with positivity, because, “Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that” (MLK).