Racist dating video at Lincoln Park High School sparks difficult conversations among students

“A huge misconception that a lot of kids have is that racism is just a joke,” says Alexa Avellaneda, a junior. “It’s not a joke. It’s bigotry.”

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Chicago public high school students. WBEZ interviewed students in depth about race, stereotypes, dating and what schools can do better.

WBEZ spoke in depth with Chicago public high school students about race, stereotypes, dating and what schools can do better. Here’s what they had to say.

WBEZ

Teens from different racial and ethnic backgrounds might go to the same high school, but there’s little guarantee that some students will get beyond the stereotypes about each other.

That became painfully clear a few months ago when a student at Lincoln Park High School made a video asking classmates what race they wouldn’t date.

Most of the answers were racist and offensive, with many kids laughing and talking comfortably about how people of other races smell, are ugly or even carry diseases — all of it in the school hallways with other students watching.

The video was quickly taken down, but it thrust this hurtful episode at Lincoln Park into the public eye.

“You could put kids from around the city into the same building and say, ‘Look, we’re a diverse student population, look how varied our experiences are, what we bring to the table,’” said Scott Zwierzchowski, a Lincoln Park teacher.

But that’s not enough, he said: “They could be in the same physical classroom but not identify with one another.”

Lincoln Park High School has one of the city’s most diverse student populations. The North Side school practices restorative justice and has a climate and culture director.

But Zwierzchowski says those efforts need more support, that more needs to be done to unify different student cultures, and teachers need to be better equipped to help. He wasn’t surprised by the video.

Lincoln Park administrators declined to comment. In an email to the school community in January, they said they don’t tolerate biased behavior. Chicago Public Schools officials said they are requiring all schools to report bias-based harm incidents for the first time this year so they can keep track.

There are a lot of “Who wouldn’t you date?” videos posted to social media from all over the country, and, not surprisingly, teenagers say lots of schools struggle to help kids from different backgrounds relate.

To figure out what’s driving this, WBEZ reached out to high schoolers from across the city, asked them to fill out a survey and sat down with several of them for in-depth conversations about race. Most said they reject stereotyping. They shared ideas for how schools can help.

“A huge misconception that a lot of kids have is that racism is just a joke,” said Alexa Avellaneda, a junior at Lincoln Park. “It’s not a joke. It’s bigotry. And it can really harm someone’s mental health.”

Consuela Hendricks, a nonprofit leader, helped hone in on an issue highlighted in the Lincoln Park video: teens of color making biased comments about each other. That’s familiar to Hendricks, a co-founder of People Matter, an organization that helps to bridge the divide between Black and Asian residents in and around Chinatown.

“Schools don’t have the tools, nor do they talk about race enough,” said Hendricks, who graduated from a majority-Latino CPS school in 2013. “I was bullied severely because I was one of the only Black kids. [There were] a lot of conversations that my teachers and the principal weren’t willing to have.”

Communities of color have long faced their own separate battles with systemic discrimination, she said, and that’s forced them to compete against each other.

“There are a lot of tensions between many communities of color, and a lot of this is because we just don’t understand each other,” Hendricks said.

The following are what five Chicago public high-schoolers said about race, stereotypes, dating and what schools can do better. The interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Layth Awadallah.

Layth Awadallah.

Maggie Sivit/ WBEZ

Name: Layth Awadallah

School / year: Lincoln Park High School, sophomore

How do you identify? Palestinian

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

“Before the video, I would say no. But, after the video, it turned into a strong maybe. Because I didn’t hear that extreme or blatant racism before from my school. But after seeing the response from the video, and some people saying that, ‘Oh, it was just funny,’ it changed how I thought.”

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

“No, but I feel, like, in friend groups it’s sometimes easier to be friends with people that are your race or ethnicity just because they understand the issues that you go through. But I wouldn’t shun someone from being my friend based on their race or ethnicity or [not] date them.”

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race with your classmates?

“My history teacher has done a great job of explaining both sides of the story, making sure that people of color and marginalized groups’ voices are being heard. I feel like that should not just be happening in one class. It should be happening throughout the school.”

Alexa Bermudez.

Alexa Bermudez.

Susie An / WBEZ

Name: Alexa Bermudez

School / year: Disney II Magnet High School, sophomore

How do you identify? Black

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

“I feel like, as a girl, it’s a little bit different when it comes to dating because guys can be really picky. They have stereotypes about different races in their head. Like, ‘Oh, she’s Black, so she’s ghetto. I don’t want to date a ghetto girl.’ I think a lot of people don’t see it because they don’t want to see it.”

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

“You should date whoever you feel comfortable around.”

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity with your classmates?

“We always kind of have those types of conversations. I think our teachers aren’t afraid to bring that up because they know it’s important.”

Isa Sargan.

Isa Sargan.

Maggie Siggit / WBEZ

Name: Isa Sargan

School / year: Northside College Prep, senior

How do you identify? Filipino American

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

“For mostly Asian students, I’m pretty sure that we are viewed as a fetish. People say, ‘Oh, I’ve never dated an Asian before.’ [They] view us as this completely alien, exotic kind of thing, commercial good that we’re supposed to provide for them. It does vary among students, but that’s been something that I’ve experienced.”

What do you wish your school would do more of or do differently?

“More teacher development days, where people really need to learn how to be mindful of how they speak to us, especially when it comes to tone-policing and calling us by the same name as another student who looks like us. That has happened to me so many times. It’s the bare minimum for teachers to learn our names and be mindful of our backgrounds.”

Mateo Stewart.

Mateo Stewart.

Susie An / WBEZ

Name: Mateo Stewart

School / year: Disney II Magnet High School, sophomore

How do you identify? Biracial — Black and Hispanic

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

“I know it’s still around, and people make jokes about it. But … I think most people are accepting about dating anybody or being around anybody, no matter what the race is.”

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

“I’m not really picky. I don’t necessarily care what people’s race is. Personally, it’s just if there’s somebody I like, and I just like being around them and their personality is cool.”

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity with your classmates?

“A lot of schools, especially in textbooks, you’ll get these couple of Black people, like, ‘Oh, we’re gonna tell you about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman.’ Schools really just push those three, but there’s so many other leaders. … [My] school has a lot of places for people to express ourselves. For example, I went on a choir trip. They were trying to unify, not just white choirs, because there’s a whole lot of white choirs in Chicago.”

Alexa Avellaneda.

Alexa Avellaneda.

Susie An / WBEZ

Name: Alexa Avellaneda

School / year: Lincoln Park High School, junior

How do you identify? Asian and Latina

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

“This is a strong no for me. It really does not matter.”

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity with your classmates?

“My history teachers for the past few years have done a great job at telling the full story, the full side of things. I didn’t know that Andrew Jackson was a bad person until, like, sophomore year. He committed genocide to Natives that were here first. That just says a lot about our education system.

“But I think that recently teachers at our school have been doing a really great job at just telling the full side of the story and not just the white perspective. My [English] teacher has done such a great job at tackling difficult conversations. He would show us videos about vocabulary to use versus vocabulary not to use. And, when we’re having these hard discussions, he just lets us have a whole class period to digest everything.”

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Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is a reporter for WBEZ’s Curious City.

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