Dominion of New York

Social Justice

May 30, 2012

Readers Respond to Students’ Racial Profiling Remarks

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Written by: Editorial Staff
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A group of Stuyvesant high students exposed their prejudices against black and Latino males during a WNYC interview. Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Art Poskanzer


esterday, we reported that some white and Asian high school students at Stuyvesant High had given interviews to WNYC explaining the logic of racial profiling.

Some of the students said things that were offensive, including explaining why they’re not stopped. “We don’t look suspicious. We don’t look like scary criminals or terrorists, or whatever. We’re very unthreatening people,” said Benedict Bolton, a 15-year-old freshman at Stuyvesant who is white. “We’re a bunch of, to be honest, skinny white kids.”

But one student, named Colby Goldberg, showed insight and empathy. He said: “If I was the same exact personality but born to a different family, with a different skin color, then that would totally change my, I guess, my life,” said Colby. “It’s a sad consequence of the way society is and the way society forces people to be.”

After reading WNYC’s article, two readers from Los Angeles wrote and submitted responses to it.

Your Words Have Power

by Diana Wu
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever been called?

Could it lead to violence against you and everyone of your race, or your premature death, like in New Orleans after Katrina and Rita? More on that later.

No? Good.

Cuz the thing that one of you said in the WNYC article, the part about you not “look[ing] like scary criminals or terrorists, or whatever,” could contribute to someone else’s real death. And that hurts my heart, because in another world that could be you. Or me.

Or, as someone else pointed out to me recently, it would never be you, or me, and that is also the point.

* * * * *

Twenty years ago, you at Stuyvesant High School could have been my high school classmates, or my cousins. And now, at the college where I teach, I teach students who are like those you will become.

I see you. I see that you see the reality of the way that other kids – other students – get racially profiled by police, teachers, and community leaders, how they get stopped, and frisked, or worse, and dehumanized, on a daily basis, in small and big ways, and that you don’t.

But what I don’t know is how you feel about it, what meanings you make from this clearly, intensely unfair and unjust differential treatment of your fellow students, of other races of people. Is it fair? Are you OK with this? Do you think your fellow students deserve this treatment? For wearing a hoodie … like Justin Bieber and the kids on Glee?

And I don’t know if you understand how terribly true and horrifically problematic this particular statement is: “We don’t look like scary criminals or terrorists, or whatever. We’re very unthreatening people. .. We’re a bunch of, to be honest, skinny white kids.”

After all, you’re totally right. White kids are not mostly perceived – by schoolteachers, police, and mental health counselors in nice neighborhoods – as suspicious. But how did “skinny white kids” become associated with not being … threatening? What is it exactly that “scary criminals or terrorists, or whatever” are supposed to look like? The Unabomber, a bearded middle-aged white dude in Montana, a native of Chicago, Illinois, a Harvard graduate, a University of California professor, someone who could have been … your father?

And, well, some of us – people of color in the United States, queer and trans people of all races – have found historically that engaging with groups – gangs? – of “skinny white kids” can in fact be … deadly.

Us Asian kids on the other hand – the lighter-skinned ones – often don’t get the same level of surveillance as Black and brown students either (we do get stricter scrutiny on other axes of oppression. Or, if you are a wealthy Japanese investor in Alabama, or a poor kid in a working class family in Chinatown, in which case, you might be deported). Ask your darker-skinned cousins though, or our southeast and South Asian sisters and brothers, what it feels like to walk through the world when the world perceives your body is wrong.

It’s intensely painful, dehumanizing, and angering. Imagine what that feels like, every day, over a lifetime?

So let’s say you’re more like Colby Goldberg — one of the students interviewed in the article — and you get that policing is racist. What next, beyond the necessary first acknowledgement that racism is real and has real impacts on people bodies and hearts?

We just had a panel on racial profiling at the university where I teach. There, a young man – a student – from a local school talked about how he was harassed by the police on his mother’s birthday. Harassment, in this case, involved being put in a pain hold and held in the air .. he was walking to the store at 10:30 am on a Sunday morning. He is like the brown-skinned students in Alisa Chang’s article, my neighbors, my friend’s children, the ones I used to train capoeira with. Survivors of state sanctioned violence. Who want a chance to dream.

My friend Ky-Phong Tran wrote a piece about this: “Hoodies and Bandanas do not justify murder.” You should read it. Feel it. Because in another reality, another city, another time, he says, it was him.

Ky-Phong was at the panel last week. There, he asked us to be careful about creating new habits of language that reflect the just world that we want, not re-create and reinforce the racist one that we see.

Words hurt. And sometimes, they kill.

My colleagues at smartMeme always tell this story: Remember Hurricane Katrina? Remember the two photos that came out at the same time on the newswires, of people with garbage bags wading in chest-deep water?

Remember that the picture with the young Black man was captioned with the word “looting,” and that the caption for the photo with two white people in it said “finding”?

The toxic soup of words, stereotypes, popular culture and public policy swirling in the still rising water made a difference about whether the National Guard was sent in to protect you – or kill you.

Looting, versus finding.

Criminals and terrorists, versus … fellow students.

A habit of language.

Who did your words kill today? Or who did they humanize, and thus, keep alive?

Use Your Critical Thinking Skills

by Ruffa Arguelles
I’d like to see more of New York’s best and brightest using their critical thinking skills to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, like Colby Goldberg. Everyone else, look around you. Are there any students of color who are not Asian at your school? So how do you know that African American or Latino youth are gang bangers? Does it make them “fit the description” if they are dark skinned and sporting the latest in urban style? I won’t even pretend to know the latest fashions “terrorists” or “evil criminals” wear. Everyone wears hoodies, tennis shoes, and jeans. Those are staple wardrobe of American teenagers. But what difference does it make that a Black or Latino teenager wears a hoodie versus skinny white dude wearing a hoodie?

Perhaps it is time to critically examine your opinions and reflect on Black and Latino youth are getting arrested or frisked while the white and some of the asian youth are free to walk around, unharassed. Think back to the stories you’ve heard growing up about people of color, the images you see in the media, and things you’ve read in AP American History. Are there any connections you can make to the plight of youth of color to why the police would over-criminalize and continue to harass them? Not every Black person or Latino person is a gang banger or a drug dealer. Not every White person is a serial killer like Dexter or not every Asian person is a Kung Foo master who can’t speak English.

I am asking all of these questions not to bother, you but to exercise your critical thinking skills. You are future academics and leaders; And to walk away from a world class education by equating a hoodie with criminalism, is a crime on education. If there is one thing, I can ask of you to do before you graduate, is to see people of color as people. Not stereotypes. Not criminals. But people who have been harassed, called names, and criminalized throughout history and today. Wouldn’t those be some shoes to fill.


Your big Sis


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.