Despite 70 percent of the San Joaquin Valley population being of a minority race, and 50 percent being female, many students in these groups feel their voices are limited in the classroom.
Recently, more students have spoken out about the race and gender discrimination they face daily, even in Bakersfield. There are constantly stories brought to the surface about children and teenagers experiencing mistreatment in school.
Alexandra Biternas is a senior at Stockdale High School who regularly stands up for what she believes in. She immigrated to the United States from Venezuela with her family in the summer of 2010. She explained some of the frustrations she has faced and continues to face when speaking up in class.
“I want to say more, and I would feel more comfortable saying more if what I said was considered valid…,” Biternas stated. “It’s about what [other] people don’t say.”
Biternas explained that while she initiates meaningful conversations in her classes, what she says is often shaped to keep others at bay as she’s experienced minority groups’ opinions are met with pushback by their peers. Although teachers are supposed to guide conversations and make sure students are respectful, oftentimes they remain quiet.
In a classroom where teenagers are quick to incite arguments, the tense atmosphere leaves some afraid to start a discussion. So, when controversial topics like inequality are brought up, high schoolers are quick to shut down opinions that don’t match their own. This, in turn, has created an inability to foster cultural understanding in schools.
“Something I’m really passionate about is how racism and inequality affect daily life,” Biternas revealed. “If we don’t really talk about it, then no one will, and the cycle will repeat itself.”
Biternas continued by discussing the frustration she feels about being unable to speak freely in class — explaining that she cannot go in-depth about the discrimination she faces because students are quick to become defensive and fault her for not looking like a “real Latina.”
Biternas revealed her circumstances, explaining that she often has to substantiate her ethnic background to be taken seriously. She stated that when she weighs in on conversations about race, she has to inform everyone around her that she is Latina so that they will listen to her.
“I have to prove my Latina-ness. I have to prove that I can speak Spanish. I have to prove that I’m from Venezuela…to everyone,” Biternas stated.
She continued by revealing that although she feels she must work to prove her worthiness, she often feels mistreated. She remembers how as a child, as young as nine years old, she and her Latino friends knew they must try harder and find unique ways to make themselves heard in class.
Oluwadara Deru, a Nigerian high school senior, voiced that there is a tendency for people with privileged dispositions to try to relate to minority groups.
“People tend to ignore the fact they have never been through an experience, but continue to try to relate to students…,” she explained. “There’s a gap… and instead of trying to compensate for that gap, meet them [minority groups] where they are.”
In some cases, as a way to relate to a minority’s experience, their white counterpart tries to share a similar encounter. But, in reality, the white individual does not face racism in such incidents, while the minority person does. And, this ends up diminishing the minority student’s experience and discrimination.
“One of the major things you can do if you’re a person of color or minority…is to be open. Be vocal about your perspective, your personal experience because it is very hard for someone to disagree with something that has personally happened to you,” Biternas commented.
Both Biternas and Deru strongly believe that change and understanding are both necessary and deserved.
“Self-awareness means nothing…it’s better for people to just listen,” Biternas advised.
Another issue affecting students is school censorship. The reality is that through increasing awareness is preached in schools, it is often difficult to address relevant topics in the classroom.
“I think a lot of censorship comes from this fear of radicalizing children,” Biternas vocalized.
Biternas went on to explain the consequences of several parent complaints about the “controversial subjects” discussed in her English class. Parent complaints have become so common that it is almost routine for the school faculty. And, although the English teacher stood his ground, there are more instances than not when teachers react adversely—placing excessive restrictions on their students. Teachers are the ones who lead what direction political and social commentary in class tends to lean in.
“The teachers who censor the most are also the ones most biased with their political beliefs,” Biternas also pointed out.
Students expressed frustrations when issues they want to learn more about receive backlash and pushback. Biternas revealed that her freshman-year teacher had shown the class the popular Gillette Razor commercial about toxic masculinity and the Me Too movement. And, the first reaction from her classmates was boys complained and felt attacked, rather than being supportive of the advertisement’s impact.
Biternas said, “Most of the guys were being…extremely inappropriate. It made us all feel, in the class, so uncomfortable that the teacher never did a discussion like that again.”
The school administration also plays a role in what gets said in classrooms. The administration is worried about what image the school will receive when controversy brews; and, teachers want to keep their jobs by being as less controversial as possible. Everything that happens in a classroom is under a microscope by the administration and parents. In the end, the students are the ones who end up suffering when they miss out on learning relevant social issues.
It is the government curriculum, in general, that is lacking. The young women I talked to pointed out several times where they felt they should have learned more in their education.
“Please, tell me why China and Japan were taught at the very same time? Are they not distinct cultures? … Can we talk about Cuba? Is Cuba off-limits?” Deru expressed.