Source: email by Jennifer Leighton, Granite Bay High School principal
“And the people in the houses
All went to the university
Where they were put in boxes
And they came out all the same
And there’s doctors and lawyers
And business executives
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same.”
These lyrics in Malvina Reynolds’ song, “Little Boxes” offer a perspective that, in some ways, parallels Granite Bay – a community characterized by its high socioeconomic status and the general affluence of both adults and their children.
Granite Bay High School is a reflection of the community. Having a majority of students and faculty who are Caucasian has left some minority students struggling to stay afloat in a sea of white.
Early last month, an email was sent to each GBHS parent and student by principal Jennifer Leighton.
The email was Leighton’s response to multiple cases of racism directed toward African-American students on social media, including incidences of blackface and the blatant use of racial slurs including the n-word.
The notice came to the Granite Bay community without any warning – the same way Leighton found out about the situation.
“It was all very overwhelming – , I thought in my head, ‘How could this be happening at our school?’ ” Leighton said.
Although this was not the first instance of racism on campus or in the community, this case was into new territory for Leighton.
“There have been isolated incidents in the five years I’ve been here (at GBHS), but very isolated that I was aware of – and all of a sudden it felt very overwhelming,” she said. “On top of it all, starting to hear from the community and to be on the news, it’s like, ‘Wow, this is something that we’ve got to deal with.’ ”
Since these incidents happened, Leighton said she is trying to shift the focus of the staff from the immediate safety concerns of gun violence after the Parkland, Florida, shootings a year ago.
“My most important job (as principal) is to make sure that our students feel safe, and last year with all the school shootings we focused on the campus being safe physically, but now we need to look at how we are treating each other,” Leighton said.
Since the beginning of the year, administrators and teachers have been working together in meetings to further their understanding as it relates to the issues of race and culture.
“We have been reading a book in our faculty meetings about culturally responsive teaching,” Leighton said. “We’ve been learning about how our teaching affects others and why as teachers we might even have an implicit bias.”
With these most-recent incidents, Leighton noted the actual scenarios are being dealt with differently – and although she can’t disclose the punishments because of student confidentiality, she noted the goal.
“The most important thing is to repair the damage because, while there is a consequence, it is about how we fix the problem,” she said.
The solution will be about understanding what people of color go through as minorities.
“People of the predominant race don’t understand what it is like (to experience discrimination) because they can’t relate to being one of the 30 students that are different at this school,” Leighton said.
These incidents of racism, however, are not reported every time. The struggle of being a minority at GBHS is full of incidents unknown to the broader community. Whether it is blatant racial slurs or being treated differently because of their skin color, for persons of color, Granite Bay is not always the most comfortable place to be.
“In Granite Bay, I guess you could say I’m different,” said senior Lamont Mason, who is African American. “I am viewed as one of the black people instead of an individual.”
Mason attributes occurrences of prejudice to him being different.
“I think that people are threatened by me, when I walk into stores I can see that there is a sense of unease to a certain degree,” Mason said.
Mason said he does not reflect the prejudice he receives.
“Sometimes people stereotype me before they actually meet me because of my skin color and not for who I am,” Mason said. “If you know me, I’m actually a safe person and not crazy. There feels like a target on my back, especially around Granite Bay.”
The instances are not novel to him, as they have been happening since middle school.
“I’ve been suspended for a week (in eighth grade) while my white friends who were doing the exact same thing were only suspended for three days,” Mason said.
According to Mason, he’s been the victim of assumptions that not only were wrong, they were dangerous.
For example, when he was in eighth grade, he was once pulled into the principal’s office searched for cocaine.
These kind of assumptions of him committing crimes don’t just happen at school – and they happen because he looks different than his neighbors.
“I was parked outside of my house, and I was standing outside on my phone, and a neighbor thought I was robbing my own home,” Mason said.
However, not all of the prejudice he experiences is subtle – he has been the subject of racial slurs both on and off campus by fellow students.
“I have been called a bowling-ball n*****’ to my face, f***** n***** and a cotton-picking n***** by someone in a group chat with a bunch of guys from my grade as a straight-up slur,” Mason said. “None of my friends who were in it told me until a week later. These students are on the campus of (GBHS) where I am every day.”
For 2018 graduate Kasey Yean, being around the typical GBHS girls – white, skinny, wearing expensive clothes – was challenging.
“I always thought there was something wrong with the way I looked because I wasn’t skinny or white like the girls in Granite Bay,” Yean said.
These feelings of insecurity led to Yean to want to go as far as changing her body.
“I was always wanting to get a nose job from 12 years old, which hearing that now is heartbreaking that as a little girl I wanted that just so I could fit in with those girls,” Yean said.
Yean’s body-image issues eventually turned into eating disorders.
“I starved myself to lose weight so I could be skinny,” she said. “My last year at (GBHS), I lost 15 pounds from restrictive eating. It goes to show how long-lasting the standards at (GBHS) could affect someone’s life even after so many years.”
Students of color can also be separated from their white, wealthy counterparts by class.
Stephen Hernandez, a mixed-race Latino senior at GBHS, was born into a working-class family.
“Some of the people that have darker skin are also affluent in this community, so even if I can relate to their experiences of a dark-skinned person, I can’t relate to them on an economic level,” Hernandez said. “It feel like there are very few people on this campus that can genuinely relate to the whole of my experiences, and that really gets to me socially sometimes.”
Hernandez noted that the general affluence of the Granite Bay community sometimes leaks into classroom discussions.
“In my government class people were talking about the working class and people were raising their hands and saying that the working class should just work harder,” Hernandez said. “We are already working hard, man, that’s not the issue, and it just doesn’t seem like people are being understanding.”
Because of the escalating racial tensions during the administration of Pres. Donald Trump, Hernandez has had to have novel conversations with his family.
“My mom has told me to be careful – some people are not going to like you because you are brown,” Hernandez said. “A mom talking to her child about that, I wish (it) didn’t need to be said.”
In response to the rise of racist incidents on campus and in the community, some teachers have stepped up to try to start conversations about tolerance.
“These are not political conversations – it doesn’t matter if you are conservative or liberal,” said Kyle Holmes, the GBHS drama teacher and theater coordinator. “I think that the political climate that we live in right now can discourage people from having these conversations.”
Holmes said he has to be very intentional in order to understand the struggles all of his students go through – and even then, he knows he comes up short.
“I check all of the boxes for visible and invisible privilege,” Holmes said. “My job – as a person who has been, whether I chose it or not, born into privilege – my job is to listen and advocate.
“I have never had anyone follow me through a store. I have never had anyone talk to me differently or look down on me, or felt unsafe because of the color of my skin.”
Holmes said that when a student speaks up and advocates, it is rewarding to him as a teacher.
“When (my students) are going to administration and saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to talk to you about this because we have some ideas on how we can do this better moving forward,’ then I’m like great, I’ve done my job.”
In the end, Mason and others said it’s important for all students, and especially those who aren’t minorities, to be mindful of what they do and say on social media.
“Watch what you say and watch what you post,” Mason said. “Stand up to people who make racist remarks, be more aware of what you do, because you never know what will come back to you.”