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'Why is your skin like that?' Students of color speak out about discrimination

Ashley Gross
Students from the Highline and Renton school districts shared stories about challenges they've faced at school. They spoke at the #IKnowYouSeeMe Equity Conference, hosted by the Rainier Educators of Color Network.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has documented a rise in incidents at schools involving racial slurs and discrimination against students of color in the past few years.

But students are increasingly speaking out. This week, educators and students across the country and in Washington state are taking part in the Black Lives Matter at School week of action, which grew out of a movement that began in Seattle in 2016.

Students from the Highline and Renton school districts shared their stories and concerns as students of color at an equity conference in SeaTac hosted by the Rainier Educators of Color Network. The group includes teachers from the Highline, Renton and Kent school districts.

Daniya Hassan, an eighth grader at Chinook Middle School in SeaTac, wears a hijab and described the many questions she’s received from other students.

“Why is your skin like that? Why do you look like that? Why are you so dark? Why are you Muslim? Why are you you?” she said. “Let me just say, I am who I am.”

School districts have said in recent years that they want to prioritize racial equity and improve the school climate for students of color. But students on the panel described situations that show there is still much work to be done.

Nahili Mohammade also attends Chinook Middle School. She described seeing disparities in how discipline is carried out.

“Sometimes students would do the same action and the student of color would get more discipline than the other student, and usually the other student would be a white student,” Mohammade said.

Kiala Vea is an 11th grader at Tyee High School in SeaTac. She comes from a Pacific Islander family and said many of her relatives have felt alienated at school.

“My family members felt like they were that dumb Islander kid that nobody wanted to help because everybody thought they were bad,” she said.

A young woman named Blanca, who asked that her last name not be used, said she is undocumented and faced discrimination from a second grade teacher because of that.

“My teacher was a white teacher and she told me, `You’re not going to be able to go to college,’” she said. “When she told me -- `You’re undocumented. You shouldn’t even be here’ -- I took that deep. Going through the education system, I always felt like, `I'm not good enough. I'm not going to be able to graduate. What's the point of going to school?'" 

She said she later found teachers who encouraged her to speak her truth and become an activist. She later graduated from high school and now attends college.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.