The race for awareness

A conversation about skin color and understanding racial consciousness

Hordes of Vernon Hills High School students shuffle through the second floor-hallway, side-by-side with friends, their necks craned over smartphones. Among the teenage bustle, a glass display case stands in the background, a colorful mirage of bubble letters and construction paper.

Several messages dot the center of the display below a title that reads, “Dear VH.” Printed on bright construction paper are phrases like, “White privilege does exist,” “Don’t ask me for a pass to use the ‘N’ word,” and “Don’t be afraid to talk about race.” These phrases are only a handful of the several stapled to the display. VHHS’s Black Student Union created the board to share the many microaggressions its members have become familiar with throughout the years.

Not only does it promote awareness, but it also creates discussion around a sensitive subject. Some students don’t believe race is acknowledged or openly talked about enough, despite living in a society where racism continues to lurk in the undercurrents. Eva Otoo (11), a member of the Black Student Union, said that she also doesn’t believe race is discussed nearly enough.

“If race was talked about enough, students wouldn’t avoid talking about it in class. They wouldn’t be completely uncomfortable asking questions or saying what they think,” she said.

Otoo stressed that these conversations are so important, because they can help people in becoming more aware of what they say and believe about race. The ultimate hope is that people can become more educated about confronting issues like white privilege and racial bias instead of taking the easier route and ignoring the problem completely.

“If students aren’t educated on this issue, how are they supposed to be comfortable or willing to talk about it?” Otoo said.

Students of other cultures also feel that the discussion around race is lacking. Riya Rathod (12) expressed that she hadn’t experienced many of these conversations herself until she took Social Justice Literature last semester.

“There are things that I didn’t even notice myself until I took this class,” Rathod said. “Then I would think back — there is no way we talked about it nearly enough [in previous classes.]”

Rathod said that throughout her upbringing in Vernon Hills, she felt the need to conform to her white peers, repressing her own Indian culture in the process.

“Growing up, I always tried to change the way I dress, the way I eat — anything to try to fit in with people around me,” she explained.

She added that she’s become more comfortable with her culture in the past year. Before, she was hesitant to post Instagram pictures of her wearing traditional Indian clothing, or even bringing her own Indian food from home. What students like Rathod experienced are things that others may not have to think twice about. Another girl may not be concerned about the peanut butter and jelly sandwich her mom packed, or a dress from Macy’s she wore to a family wedding, simply because these are typical things white Americans eat and wear. They don’t have to worry about fitting in to the “norm.”

Subtle differences like these paint a broader picture of a struggle some non-minority people might not see on the surface. When someone sees themselves greatly reflected within a population, they don’t have to worry about fitting in, or if they will have any representation at all. Racial consciousness is the awareness of other races and cultures, as well as acknowledging that people of different races will have different experiences from one’s own. It’s also an awareness of the impact of one’s own racial identity.

Latina social justice literature student Gabby Arribas (12) describes racial consciousness as “being aware that there’s going to be certain opportunities for you just because of your race, and that it might be easier.”

It can be hard for some to acknowledge and accept the existence of white privilege simply because it’s something that a white person doesn’t have to think about in their day-to-day life. They often don’t have to worry about how they will be perceived due to their skin color, or even something as simple as walking into Target and finding band-aids that match their skin color or shampoo that works with their hair texture, as VHHS equity coordinator and diversity council sponsor Ms. Young pointed out.