Berkeley High School's lingering racial tensions exploded this month in a flurry of online and verbal slurs, on-campus protests, and disciplinary actions. The Class of 2009's highly charged final days ended Friday in a celebratory graduation ceremony that only partially masked the friction recently ignited among the student body.
About two weeks ago, a white male senior posted a Facebook photo album entitled "Niggas," which included images of him and his Caucasian friends in hip-hop attire with guns. The album used the word multiple times and triggered angry responses among students, especially from the Black Student Union.
Shortly thereafter, the same student posted a photo of African-American history teacher Wendell Brooks, which had been modified to outfit Brooks in stereotypical gangster paraphernalia and wardrobe. The photo was accompanied by a caption and several comments from both white and black students that also used the term "nigga."
Part of the dispute involved the difference, if any, between the words "nigger" and "nigga" — the latter of which some view as a slang nickname and not a derogatory insult. Other students, angered by any form of the word, brought this to the attention of Brooks, who said he resolved the issue with the student.
One of the seniors who appeared in the original photo album also was accused of allegedly calling a female African-American senior a "nigger bitch" on campus. According to Taylor Brown, a member of the Black Student Union who was nearby but did not witness the incident, the male senior was criticizing the black students' response to the Facebook album, and that sparked a confrontation between the girl and boy. Whether the term "nigger bitch" was used remains his word against hers. The Express is not publishing the students' names.
The culmination of these events was a walk-out on Friday, June 5, in which more than 200 students left campus during finals and staged a protest at the Berkeley Unified School District Office. At the June 10 school board meeting, Black Student Union members issued a list of demands that included the implementation of awareness training, an ethnic studies requirement for graduation, student input into the hiring of more diverse teachers, and programs designed to initiate discussions in the aftermath of racial incidents. School district spokesman Mark Coplan said Superintendent Bill Huyett would address the demands this week.
These incidents highlight the challenges officials face when attempting to respond to online actions on social media outlets such as Facebook. Online behavior officially occurs off campus, and such speech is legally protected.
School officials declined to discuss the incidents with the Express, but seem to have responded only when the behavior occured on campus or involved a teacher. There apparently was no tangible response in the case of the photo album, which had no connection to the school other than the students who posted it.
Although the fate of the two main seniors remains unclear, several students said the student who posted the photo of Mr. Brooks is facing expulsion. He was banned from walking at graduation and a student appeal panel at BHS will determine whether he will actually graduate and remain eligible for admission to UC Santa Cruz. The student who allegedly slurred a female classmate was apparently suspended for three days. He was banned from speaking at graduation, as his fellow students had selected him to do. He is expected to continue on to UC Berkeley.
Black senior Kad Smith, who is friends with the two students but also an active member of the Black Student Union, said he tried to make both sides understand the opposing perspective. "He was desensitized to the word," Smith said of his white friend who posted the photo. "He hears it every second and has friends who allow him to use it. ... I told them that they did not understand why it was insensitive and why it would make people so upset." Smith said he felt that expulsion was too harsh a punishment. Smith spoke at graduation without incident, although several members of the Black Student Union apparently considered turning their backs on him and raising the black power fist.
Student school board representative Eve Shames — a white student who protested alongside the black students — agreed that expulsion was unfair. "One guy's life is being ruined over this," she said. "He said something really stupid ... but he has been getting the message for four strong years that it is okay to say it."
Teachers, students, and parents agreed that the recent events highlighted a larger tension within the school community. "None of this would have exploded had it not been for underlying frustration and preexisting issues," said Brooks, the history teacher. Brooks said the student who posted the "disgusting" photograph of him apparently meant it as a joke with little appreciation of its offensiveness. Although he said the issue is resolved between the two of them, he added that many black students feel frustration over what they view as racism among white students, while they often feel unjustly accused of racism due to the actions of a handful of classmates.
Black Student Union member Taylor Brown said that the events stemmed from underlying community prejudices but not racism. "The walk-out was about real issues, but the events that led up to it were not really of substance," she said. "The class of '09 has done a lot of growing. I feel like this is the proudest I have ever been."
However, black sophomores Ariana Fowler and Rikki Moore said the protest was unnecessary and unmerited. "People blew it way out of proportion," Moore said. Both students agreed that many participants knew little about the controversy and simply wanted to skip class.
Berkeley High PTSA president Mark van Krieken criticized the administration for its lack of transparency, citing its failure to properly inform parents of what has been happening on and off campus. "There is a general tendency at Berkeley High to address things behind closed doors," he said.
Both of the two students involved in the Facebook actions declined to comment.
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