Wilton High School students discuss diversity issues
Wilton High School seniors Lia Tavarez, Kate Williams, Cole Hawthorne, Chandler Carter, Jackie Lucia, and Quinn Reedy led an open discussion on racism and its impact on the school’s own minority students on Wednesday, April 6.
Students and staff packed the Little Theater for the Diversity Issues at WHS open discussion during the Festival of Languages, the high school’s annual three-day celebration of languages, cultures and diversity.
Jackie, the only non-minority on the panel, said although she will “never have the same experiences” as Quinn, Chandler, Lia, Kate or Cole, she recognizes there is a diversity issue in Wilton.
“I’m not saying we’re awful, but we’re a predominantly white town. That’s how we’ve grown up and that’s what everyone who’s lived in Wilton their whole life has known,” she said.
“We’re not really aware of kind of the rest of the world and how different it is, and it’s something we need to address.”
According to Connecticut Department of Education data, the racial makeup of Wilton public school students in 2013-14 was roughly:
- 88% white.
- 7% Asian.
- 2% Hispanic.
- 1% black.
- 1% multiracial.
Lia said it’s important for non-minorities to realize that “people of color experience things differently.”
“Even though we’re going through the same high school process and everything we’re going through is very similar,” she said, “it affects us in a different way because we face different challenges in life.”
Lia said it’s also important “to move away from stereotypes, educate yourself about different cultures, and be open to different people who have different experiences and ways of life.”
Sense of difference
As an African-American, Chandler said, living in Wilton is “a very interesting experience.”
“When you are one of many, you just feel normal [but] when you are a minority, you feel kind of alone. I don’t particularly feel excluded here, but I feel that only a few people get my experiences,” she said.
“I’ve lived in a lot of different communities. I grew up here in Wilton, moved to Seattle and then New York, and then I came back to Wilton.”
Chandler said she sometimes feels like she has to be careful when talking about racism in Wilton because “it’s a very sensitive topic here” compared to “schools in New York and Seattle, where there’s very open conversations.”
Even though he’s never felt ostracized in Wilton, Cole said, he feels he’s seen as “different.”
“Since moving here, I’ve had a positive experience with people treating me as an equal, but you’re still definitely treated as someone who’s different and it’s hard to deal with sometimes,” he said. “It’s tough to explain, but there’s a feeling of separation sometimes between you and the rest of the town.”
Although she used to play into the stereotype when she was younger “to be funny,” Kate said, it bothers her when people assume she’s good at math and science just because she’s Asian.
“Asians are kind of considered the ‘model minority’ because they’re seen as having top beauty standards and top academics,” she said.
“When I get a B on an essay and someone says, ‘Oh, that’s an Asian F’ — no, it’s not, and it’s actually really offensive.”
Kate said there’s “no reason to segregate others” when everyone’s at school for the same reason — to be educated.
Quinn said he feels people tend to make assumptions about him because he’s part black.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘You’re the whitest black kid I know,’” he said. “I talk properly and people wonder why, and it’s like they expect me to talk and behave a certain way just because the pigment of my skin is darker.”
If people took the time to think and consider the fact that he grew up in a predominantly white town, Quinn said, they would realize that community — not skin tone — is the influential factor.
“Not making assumptions and prejudgments about people will really help you in the long run,” said Quinn. Growing up in Wilton has forced him to think about why non-minorities act, say, and do the things they do when it comes to people of color.
“I feel like they don’t see themselves. It’s not like they see another white person and say, ‘Hey, I wonder why he isn’t getting Starbucks.’ That’s because they don’t see themselves as white people — they see themselves as people,” said Quinn.
“They can see the individuality in other white people, but they can’t really see the individuality in a lot of minorities, as if we’re not individuals ourselves.”
Kate agreed and said it’s important to “look at people as individuals and not what they’re seen as in society or look like physically.”
“If you have a closed mind-set, you’re going to be prejudging people before you know them,” she said.
Quinn said racist jokes aren’t uncommon in Wilton High School.
“I’ve heard so many racist jokes in the locker rooms and growing up that I’ve had to kind of like put those past me. I don’t think that’s something someone should have to do, but I choose to do it and I choose to not let them get to me,” he said.
“Sometimes they are very funny, but what offends me 100% of the time more than the racist joke is when people are like, ‘Quinn, are you OK if I say this racist joke?’ or when someone says a racist joke and then looks directly at me.”
Kate and Chandler both said if someone begins a joke with “no offense,” then it’s obviously offensive and shouldn’t be said.
Chandler said telling racist jokes is a reflection of one’s character.
“If you tell racist jokes, it [shows] the type of person that you are. If you find that funny … it’s your personality,” she said.
“Growing up in Wilton, we don’t really think about race. We just kind of go through the motions and don’t think about it and what we do,” said Jackie.
“It’s time to start talking about it and to think about it and ask questions. Look around you and be aware.”
Lia said talking to ABC scholars like herself about how they have adapted to a completely different culture and racial environment can be helpful for students who are about to go into more racially and culturally diverse situations in the future, such as college.
Twelve minority students are enrolled at Wilton High School this year through ABC of Wilton, a nonprofit organization that has been bringing young people of color from economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to Wilton to attend school since the 1990s.
“I think it’s really helpful to look at the A Better Chance students because we’re kind of faced with the opposite problem. We have come from very diverse communities to a community that lacks diversity, and I can say from my experience that it’s very easy to make friends,” said Lia, who hails from Manhattan and was born in the Dominican Republic.
She said students from Wilton may face some social challenges in a more diverse community, but overall, the experience should be “very positive.”
Cole agreed and said any experience “is what you make of it.”
“If you go into college and only want to talk to the type of people you’ve been talking to your entire life and don’t want to go out and meet new people and have new experiences, then obviously you’re not going to meet people who aren’t like you,” he said.
“If you go in with a mind-set of being interested in learning about different cultures and different people, you will make friends with people who come from different backgrounds.”
Kate encouraged her peers to discuss race and diversity with their family, friends and community members.
“I think that’s really important, because it’s not addressed enough in this community,” she said, “and I think that’s one of the reasons why people feel so uncomfortable talking about it.”