The Silenced Minority: Diversifying discussions on race relations at Tam


Graphic by Cassie Jeong

By Cassie Jeong and Cassie Jeong

Graphic by Cassie Jeong
Graphic by Cassie Jeong

ll Tam News classes recently discussed an article titled “The Authoritative Tam Dictionary: Volume One” from page 11 of our last issue. The discussion topic was whether it was racist for the white majority of Tam students to use terms such as “cakes” and “thirsty” that have been popularized by rap and hip-hop music, which is identified with black American culture. This is a prime example of cultural appropriation, an action in which members of a group adopt traits associated with another group with little respect for members of its origin. I was present for two of these discussions and briefed by Tam News advisor Jonah Steinhart on the third, and am dismayed that fourth period, the class that runs the publication and enrolls the oldest, most experienced writers, conducted the most closed-minded discussion.

Of the students who spoke during fourth period, only two, including myself, argued that it was racist. The rest of the class passionately defended the adoption of terms from African American Vernacular English (AAVE) into Tam High’s predominantly white community. Here’s the kicker: every single person who defended white appropriation of black culture was white, and both people who argued that it was racist were students of color, one of whom was black. White students argued over the voice of a black student about the exploitation of black culture.

Perhaps this incident shouldn’t be surprising, given the imbalanced demography of our program. According to Tam High’s 2012-2013 School Accountability Report Card, our school’s white-identifying population comprises 72.1 percent of the student body, but 91.9 percent of the Tam News staff as of March 2013. Three – half – of our students of color on staff are graduating in a few months.

Journalism is not the only program at Tam where students of color are underrepresented, but we are unique in our responsibility to represent the thoughts and interests of the student body. Though this is difficult to do properly with such homogenous enrollment, we can at least educate ourselves and show support through our coverage.

I speak now to readers and Tam News staff members who enjoyed “The Authoritative Tam Dictionary: Volume One” without considering the historical context of cultural appropriation.

Everyone, of every race, is biased on the subject of racial oppression. The crucial difference is that white people benefit from the glorification of whiteness that rules our school, our nation, and our world. If we’re really going to develop a racial hierarchy among sources when discussing racism, who should be taken more seriously: students who benefit from a social structure that accommodates their comfort above everyone else’s, or students who are harmed by it?

If you are white in a white culture, or any member of a dominant group, you will be scrutinized by the oppressed, but for legitimate reasons. This is different from racism or intolerance because people in power should be held accountable for exploitative, exclusionary practices. If you take these observations as attacks, that only proves the pervasiveness of white supremacy: even in an article about people of color being treated as second-class citizens you have found a way to make yourself the victim.

If you, as a person of privilege, are not actively fighting the various oppressive institutions that dictate the amount of hardship one faces in this world; if you, who are not marginalized by societal constructs, do not make a conscious effort to make our community less racist, sexist, classist, etc., then you are part of the problem and should be held accountable.

White supremacy alters our perception of history. It alters the legacy of revolutionary civil rights activists until they become versions of themselves safe enough to appease the people in power. It also mentions only the most shocking examples of prejudice-based brutality so that casual and daily methods of oppression, such as the appropriation of AAVE by white students in a white community, slip by undetected. I leave you with a quote by Martin Luther King, Jr., one of the most respected civil rights advocates in history, though his ideas were and still are deeply feared by the demographic in power.

King spoke in 1967 of Stokely Carmichael, a Black Power advocate and leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. At the time, many white Americans reinforced existing prejudices and fears about black Americans by pointing to Carmichael’s disagreement with King’s nonviolence policy. “Stokely is not the problem,” King said. “The problem is white people and their attitude.”