Young, Brown, and Weird

By Anna Almendrala 2-06-2008

Schools in the U.S. have been resegregating themselves at a fast clip for the past 15 years or so, and the racial demographics of some districts are approaching Old South numbers. Why should we care? I can tell you.

I was born in the Philippines and grew up in New Zealand, where 78 percent of the population is of European descent. The rest is mostly foreign-born, recently immigrated, and, in some cases, extremely socially segregated. There were disconcerting (albeit infrequent) experiences with xenophobia and racism: my dad and his South Indian colleague being refused service in a bar during a business trip, my parents whispering quietly in Tagalog with a friend who had his tires slashed and a swastika scrawled over his garage.

Growing up was awkward, difficult, and sometimes painful. I always just chalked it up to being a weird little person, until my family moved to Fremont, California, when I was 10. Only then did I realize how what should have been an idyllic childhood, in a country with more sheep than people, was instead marred by segregation and racism. In Fremont my school was incredibly diverse. I felt a lot of freedom and peace in my own identity once I saw how secure and confident the members of other minority groups were.

When I was 14 my family moved again-to Pleasanton, a suburb only 30 minutes away. The cultural shock was as startling as the move from New Zealand-in reverse. Like New Zealand, 80 percent of Pleasanton's population identifies as white. In my first few weeks at the new school, I remember standing in line for PE behind an Indian kid named Nikhil when he was called a "sand-nigger." I thought to myself, "Are you kidding me?!" I grew even more afraid as no one else in the line stepped in to defend Nik or protest the slur.

I don't count myself as oppressed or downtrodden-one of the good things about going to a majority white school in California is that it pretty much correlates to receiving an excellent public education (once you put all the privileged kids in the same institution, their privilege usually follows them). I made it into University of California-Berkeley straight out of high school, so I guess being called a "chink" once a year was totally worth it.

Here's something I learned at Berkeley: Ever since the initial breakthroughs in the years following Brown v. Board, schools have been tending toward resegregation through redistricting, strategic community planning, and prohibitive housing costs. In some school counties now it's Jim Crow in all but name, and that's a real shame. Diversifying schools gives more minorities the resources to earn their way to college in a less symbolically violent atmosphere. It's going to take effort on all levels

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