Image courtesy of Ipista K
Written by Sophie Lajnef
Recent events surrounding racist Instagram posts shared by an unknown student are alluding to a greater, underlying problem at Seaholm: how our lack of diversity results in insensitivity towards other cultures and races.
On Monday, December 10, a Seaholm student was impersonated through a fake social media account, posting a multitude of racial slurs and racist remarks, leaving students and staff in a state of utter shock.
Seaholm Principal Kyle Hall condemned the incident in an announcement to the student body during fifth hour on Wednesday, December 11, and renounced the presence of hate crimes at Seaholm.
“As I said in my statement to the student body, I am profoundly disappointed that this incident occurred in our building. I have worked for 36 years to teach students to see the world and to eventually lead our world to a place that not just ‘accepts’, but also celebrates and engages all cultures,” Hall said.
She emphasized the importance of accepting, appreciating, and respecting other cultures.
“Isn’t it wonderful that we have such different cultures, and isn’t it wonderful that we all share such universal emotions such as love, compassion, joy and sadness, curiosity and wonder?” Hall said.
Hall reflected disappointment with regard to the student(s) who may have committed the act.
“I am fascinated by the way the world works, but I don’t expect it to always look like my own. I am saddened when an individual chooses to hurt others simply because they may look different,” Hall said.
Hall expressed that Seaholm will not tolerate any form of racism or similar hate crimes under any circumstances.
“Quite frankly, we won’t accept that kind of bigotry in our building. Never,” Hall said.
However, despite her disappointment with recent student actions, Hall is pleased with other student and staff reactions to the incident.
“I am very happy with the response of the student body to this event. Immediately, I received offers to help reinforce our unity from the teachers, staff, parents, and especially students. By early Thursday morning, Student Congress… created the signs, ‘HATE HAS NO HOME HERE,’ that you see posted around the building. Other students and teachers are working on different projects to reinforce that theme and reestablish our mission to think with reflection, to act with compassion and to perform with honor,” Hall said. “We stand with our African American friends to show them that we won’t accept that individual’s attempt to divide us–that’s the message our students are sending. I am very proud of them as I am extremely proud of the resiliency and courage of our African American students as they respond to this hate speech.”
Sophomore Ellison Honigman wasn’t sure how to react to the degree and sheer creation of the racist posts.
“First it was anger, then it was fear. To be honest with you, I couldn’t believe that someone at our school would say something with such hate behind it,” Hongiman said. “I had heard hurtful things said in the hallways before, but never something like that.”
However, despite the shock that resulted in the community, this is not Seaholm’s first incident with racism to this degree. Seaholm has quite a history of racist activity and borderline hate crimes. According to teacher Robin Moten, who has been teaching at Seaholm for 23 years, such issues at Seaholm are not unusual.
“When I came in, Seaholm had a reputation. In the 80s they had some skinhead activity,” Moten said.
Although the skinhead problem has since gone away, Seaholm’s reputation has sustained itself to this day. According to Assistant Principal Mike Wicker, some fairly recent incidents (among many others) include both racist graffiti and a swastika carved into a desk.
Additionally, there was an incident in 2017 during a school field trip to see the film Hidden Figures, in which a parent engaged in a physical altercation with a teacher over the use of a racial slur.
But racism at Seaholm does not always manifest itself in these extreme ways. Many students have reported experiencing microaggressions, or what can be referred to as “casual racism”.
“Students respond to me about their issues with micro-aggressions, they hear the n-word in the hallways,” Wicker said. “I’ve had students tell me that at football games, African-American students have had the n-word directed towards them.”
Seaholm student Naomi Richardson reported that she has witnessed other situations in which cultural insensitivity was prevalent.
“Cultural appropriation… a lot of stereotyping, and a lot of prejudice [are common],” Richardson said. “When [white students] start trying to act like us but don’t allow us to be ourselves, that’s when it gets out of line.”
Small, seemingly isolated incidents like these are what lead to a perceived schoolwide culture of repression of different identities and, as a result, fear of expressing these identities freely.
“For black females especially, there’s an invisibility factor. I feel invisible sometimes because the school environment does not reflect me necessarily,” Moten said.
Many feel as though the general race-related problems at Seaholm stem from a lack of diversity in the staff and student body.
Sophomore Ariana Wauer claims that, in terms of the student population, Seaholm struggles because of the lack of diversity among people employed by and attending Seaholm.
“The problem is that we’re a primarily white school,” Wauer said. “Studies show that you can succeed more with a teacher of your race. It’s proven. But we only have like two teachers of color.”
Bodies of recent research, including one study by the Institute of Labor Economics, demonstrate strong correlations of increased success of all students when diversity in race and gender is brought to teaching staffs. More than 75% of teachers nationwide are white, and a majority of teachers are women, conditions thought to have led to achievement gaps between white and non-white students, and female and male students.
Moten holds that the absence of staff diversity is a problem in Birmingham, and maintains that even in a majority-white district, diversity will still help create better-rounded students.
“There needs to be more diversity on our staff. You don’t have [to have] diversity on your staff for the kids who are diverse necessarily—you have to think of it in ways that will benefit others. I would like to think that with my white students, they see me and think of someone who is having a different experience or a different perspective,” Moten said. “They can ask me questions, and I think that’s helpful for their growth, as well as [me] trying to be a role model for black students. It’s important for all of the student body [to have more diverse teachers].”
Another aspect of the issue stems from ignorance and lack of education on race-related matters.
“Race problems in general come out of ignorance. I think if we had a more diverse student body, if we had a more diverse staff, we might see a reduction, but I also think we could see a reduction of microaggressions if we had a larger knowledge base,” Wicker said. “Education is something that I think helps.”
And education is exactly how the BPS school district plans on addressing racial issues. Wicker explained that, on a case-by-case basis, students responsible for perpetrating racist incidents, in addition to standard disciplinary action, are sent to counseling to work through whatever issues caused their hateful actions.
“We had a student write a letter to the GSA for a slur they took part in, we have a student doing community service with an affected group that they were targeting. Suspending a student because they did something wrong, that doesn’t necessarily work… but helping them become immersed and seeing the people that they hurt, understanding what they do and why it’s hurtful to people, is more of a way to rehabilitate and educate than punish,” Wicker said.
Moten believes that having uncomfortable conversations about race is sometimes necessary to encourage understanding and open-mindedness among the student body.
“I’ve seen [racism] in the classroom, in not being comfortable with discomfort… When you’re reading texts that have the n-word, and you don’t quite know how to handle it, that’s when comments can get very awkward. [But] Sometimes discomfort is a good thing—it allows for growth,” Moten said.
In terms of systemic change in the school, Wicker stated that Seaholm is making an effort to raise awareness of different cultural groups.
“Last year and this year there has been a lot of professional development based on what is called CRT, or Culturally Responsive Teaching. So we are working as a staff towards a better understanding of being culturally responsible to our students. And that means being responsible not only to race but to things like gender, creed, sexual orientation, religion, and that’s one of the major focuses not only of Seaholm but of the Birmingham Public Schools District in general,” Wicker said.