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Race: The Modern Wall

Whether it is within the walls of West or in the heated arena of political debate during election season, the concept of race and concern about racial equality are issues that continue to dominate American society, perhaps because of a lot of misunderstanding.

Contrary to popular belief, the concept of race is not grounded in science. Biology teacher Leslie Vaughn explained that race has absolutely nothing to do with the way we look and is something that humans created in order to distance themselves from other groups of people. “Biologically, there is no such thing as race; it is completely socially constructed,” Vaughn said. She explained how and why the idea of race became integrated into society. “Humans always try to find ways to separate themselves, and skin color is the obvious thing. There is not just one phenotype for one specific race, because there is diversity in every race. There are tall, short, dark and light people in every race,” Vaughn said. Even so, 30 percent of Maine West students see their race as an important part of their personal identity, according to a Westerner survey of 149 students.

Race, like a complicated episode from our favorite show, cannot be summarized using only simple words, pictures, or sentences. “Race is used as a way for people to simplify complex ideas, like culture, nationality and identity. We often think we can look at someone and know where they come from or how they might identify themselves. In reality, we often are completely wrong. Human beings are highly diverse and complex,” sociology teacher Gwynne Ryan said.

Sophomore Sheryar Khan explained why you should not attempt to guess somebody’s race, the same way you should not judge a book by its cover. “In the past, I’ve tried to judge my friends by the way they look, but I realized I can’t. I have friends that are Mexican, and some ‘look’ Asian or European. Some are super tall; then there are others that are somewhat short. At first, when I met them I had no idea they were Mexican because, to me, they did not ‘look’ like it,” Khan said.

Students argued that identifying and judging people based on the way they look allows for the creation of stereotypes; stereotypes then create certain expectations based on race and can also build walls and make people feel isolated and like they do not belong. “When I was in second grade, everybody thought I was good at math because I was Asian and teased me about it. It was really hurtful at first, but in the end it only allowed me to get used to not caring about what other people thought of me and made me stronger,” senior Vincent Wong said.

Wong isn’t alone. In the Westerner survey, 41 percent of Maine West students said they had been treated negatively because of their race.

Junior Eyzel Torres explained the challenges she had to face in school when she was younger, due to her appearance. “One year, I was in a class where I was one of very few darker people. The teacher treated me differently than all the other kids, and at times made me feel like I couldn’t keep up with the class,” Torres explained. Though she faced a difficult situation, she did not give up and came out a better person by the end. “I just felt so sorry for her, because of people like my teacher, that decide to shame differences, only lose out themselves, because amazing things can happen when we all admire our differences. After I realized that, I brushed it off and worked harder for what I wanted; it was what I was taught to do at home when things got hard,” Torres said.

With a combination unlike almost any other nation in the world, the United States is like a big puzzle made up of a diversity of people of different races, religions and back

Junior Neli Peeva reflected on how being exposed to these differences has made
her more tolerant towards others. “When I first came to America, I was exposed
to a lot more cultures than in Bulgaria, and because of the kind of environment
Des Plaines has exposed me to, over the years I have grown to be more empathetic
and understanding towards others,” Peeva said.

Moreover, the more people know about those who are different from them, the more people can understand the common humanity we all share. “It also really helps that my parents always taught me to be respectful towards everyone, and not to focus on differences, but on ways that we are the same. Through this, we can achieve great things,” Peeva said.

Ryan explains how implicit bias — the preconceived ideas humans have regarding certain groups of people — affect individuals and society. “Whether we like it or not, the media and the larger society teach us ways to think about people and race that are often based on prejudice or racist ideas. The biggest challenge is that we don’t like to admit these ideas exist in our thinking or talk about it with honesty and transparency,” Ryan said.

The preconceived ideas people have about others based on their appearance often lead to racism; it happens even in our very own school. “I remember one time I was in class and this girl that I knew told me to go back to my country, just because I am and look Pakistani. I know she would not have done that or said that if I didn’t have dark skin,” Khan said.

These ideas have gone on to extend politically. In June of last year, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke of “building a wall and making Mexico pay for it” while calling Mexicans “criminals.”

Senior Cynthia Olivar described how Trump’s policies could potentially alienate minorities. “I think that Donald Trump should focus on finding a way to unite Americans, instead of making plans for an illogical wall built on hate and discrimination. Our country already has a big enough problem with racism, and we need an accepting president to help our diverse country grow,” Olivar said.

The effects of implicit bias are made evident not only in our own schools, but even in the presidential race. In the first presidential debate on Sept. 26, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton said that implicit bias is a major problem throughout American society. For law enforcement, where officers must make quick choices in responding to a crisis, Clinton also called for federal funds to be used to retrain police officers in order to help them “not jump to conclusions” as individuals have in the past, causing major conflicts. “It is really important to acknowledge that Hillary Clinton is taking this step in trying to come up with a solution to follow up all the shootings and accidents that have happened due to police racially profiling people. It is a big issue and a lot of people have been hurt. It’s great to have her admit it and propose a solution,” Khan said.

Also in the first debate, Clinton said that implicit bias is a problem that not only impacts police officers but also extends to the general public, and that “we should ask ourselves hard questions about why we’re feeling this way.”

When it comes to finding a solution to this dynamic problem, students can remember that just like in math, even the toughest problems have solutions. Vaughn explained how a solution can be achieved — a solution that coincides with Clinton’s comment. “No one is born being racist and having stereotypes. To solve this problem, people should not be so afraid to talk about it and admit that it is an issue. We should not just look at it from one perspective, but from both in order to work towards a solution,” Vaughn said.

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