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In Light Of Ferguson, Students Of Seattle's Least White High School Talk About Race

Kyle Stokes
Rainier Beach High School students watch a video about Emmett Till, who was 14 when he was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, as part of a discussion of this summer's demonstrations in Ferguson, Missouri.

This summer's events in Ferguson, Missouri aren't the only things that make Jaedyn Colly, who is black, wonder what makes him different from the police. 

"I have family members — they've been arrested," said Colly, a sophomore at Rainier Beach High School. "You just question, 'What is the difference? What makes [a police officer] so better than me? What gives you the power to have control over me?'"

It's the kind of frustration Rainier Beach High teachers want to bring out into the open. Just ten days into their young school year, they've already carved out half-hour blocks over three days to discuss the police shooting of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and the racially-charged demonstrations that followed.

"It would be irresponsible to start this school year without talking about what went on over the summer in Ferguson," said history teacher Christina Black of the school-wide lessons.

'My Name's Ms. Black, And I'm White'

Rainier Beach High's student body is the least-Caucasian of any traditional high school in Seattle. More than half of the school's students are black. Nearly one-third are Asians or Pacific Islanders. Latinos comprise roughly 12 percent of the student population. Only two percent of Rainier Beach students are white.

But more than two-thirds of the school's teachers are white. Black, who worked as a student teacher at Rainier Beach last year before accepting her current position as a history teacher, said discussing race openly and early in the school year helps her build relationships with students.

"You have to say, like, 'Hey, my name's Ms. Black and I'm white, and none of you are. And that's OK,'" she said. "'And you can say, 'white person,' and you won't offend me, and we can talk openly and respectfully to each other."

Acknowledging The Elephant In The Room

During Wednesday's discussion, Black dimmed the lights as 35 sophomores fidgeted in desks scattered around her second-floor classroom during the "academic success" period, which is similar to a homeroom class.

If any student was shying away from the tough questions, it wasn't obvious. Black projected a presentation onto the screen in front of her students, displaying prompts for them to discuss.

"I feel safer around people who are my same race than those who are not," one prompt read. The class was asked to rate the statement on a scale from "1 (false)" to "5 (somewhat true)" to "10 (true)." Raising their fingers, students offered a range of ratings, then discussed their responses.

"It doesn't matter what color they are. It matters how they carry themselves," one black male student said.

A black female student chimed in to say she felt discomfort around other racial groups, and used to feel self-conscious about using the word "Caucasian."

"I used to feel bad when I called white people 'white people,'" this student said.

Another black male student offered his own answer.

"I d0n't think that I can really trust anybody," he said. "There are certain people I trust, but I don't trust them enough to get caught sleeping around them."

Black is glad the awkward moments in the lesson are coming in the beginning of the year. She wants students to acknowledge race as the elephant in the classroom.

This way, "kids know they can come talk to me, not just in class but outside of class, about whatever's going on," Black said, "and that they do have an ally in me and in the teachers that are teaching the Ferguson curriculum."

Students Familiar With Historical Context

Rainier Beach students are no strangers to tough conversations about racial issues.

Last school year, staff screened a Seattle International Film Festival entrant at the school that explored tensions between Africans and African-Americans.

During Wednesday's discussion, students discussed the similarities and differences between Michael Brown's death in Ferguson and the 1955 slaying of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black child in Mississippi. They also discussed how media stereotypes of racial groups played a role in the Ferguson protests.

Rainier Beach staff have also scheduled a showing of the film "Fruitvale Station," which discusses the killing of a Bay Area teen at a transit station in 2009.

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.