“When you get called racist you feel awful about it right? ‘Oh, that’s a horrible thing.’ But if we don’t talk about the need to constantly be evaluating what we’re doing to make sure that we’re not being racist, and to change when we find that we are, how is anything ever going to change?” Libby Reimann, social studies teacher, said.
In a community like Lake Zurich, it’s more likely for a white person to say the n-word than for a Black person to say “I can’t breathe” as they’re murdered by police in the streets. But racism, whether it causes discomfort or death, is still harmful.
This year, America saw over 7,750 demonstrations across all 50 states linked to the Black Lives Matter movement, 93% of which were peaceful, including Lake Zurich’s BLM rally on June 4, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Protesters shouted “No justice, no peace,” as they marched down Old Rand Road and demanded that police officers be held accountable for the disproportionate police brutality rates against Black Americans.
But the effects of institutional and structural racism aren’t only found in statistics. Racial microaggressions happen on an interpersonal level, and are direct results of systemic racism. They are often subtle; in the form of jokes, slight shifts in behavior, or ignorant remarks. However harmless microaggressions may appear, they uphold the systems of oppression that the Black Lives Matter movement is working to dismantle.
Reaction to the BLM movement
The recorded murder of George Floyd produced understandably strong reactions, but reactions to the following upsurge of the Black Lives Matter movement were more complex. After three months of strict quarantining, American media swiftly switched to covering police brutality, peaceful protests, and riots. The national protests that followed drew the eyes of the nation, and of local residents too.
“I think that for me, and I can speak on behalf of the Black community for this, the death of George Floyd in May was horrific, and I think that we knew that things like this had been going on, but the fact that it was filmed on video just made it so much worse,” Marshall said. “I thought that the protests were needed. I think that they were obviously people just feeling so angry, sad, confused, frustrated, and people were upset and they wanted to be heard.”
The videotape of the graphic murder amplified awareness of police brutality, and the spotlight placed on an ordinary Black man’s loss of life brought the issue close to home for many Black families.
“My closest friends and family, we experienced immense, a lot of grief. Grown men, women, crying in front of their families. Because of the grief, sadness, fear that it would happen to a person whom we saw, our sons, our brothers, our fathers, our uncle’s. It feels like it’s happening to our own families when we see a black man like George Floyd dying in front of us.” Lisa Gregoire, Isaac Fox Elementary School principal, said.
A large reason as to why people of all races were shaken by the video was rooted in it’s explicitness in showing the departure of life. The video was emphatic of the brutality of which the police killed Floyd. Gregoire and Libby Reimann, LZHS social studies teacher, were both “sad” that it took such a horrific event to be the “catalyst” of the summer’s demonstrations.
“There was something in that eight minutes and 46 seconds video that spoke to people in a way that other deaths have not. I will admit I have not watched it. I don’t think I could bring myself to watch it. To watch the light drain out of someone’s body for eight minutes and 46 seconds while he calls for his mother is horrific,” Libby Reimann, LZHS social studies teacher, said.
Consistent with previous reactions to police brutality resulting in a Black person’s death, protests erupted in Minneapolis the day after Floyd’s death. Students like Michaella Gregoire, junior and Black student, watching from their homes as the protests spread nationally and globally, were astounded by the roused support for the BLM movement.
“It was crazy. I was in my house and I would sit there and I’d watch [the news] and be like, wow, this is absolutely insane — long overdue, but absolutely insane. Then it kept on getting worse because someone else would get shot every single week,” Gregoire said. “Honestly, since I was little I’ve never been super comfortable around the police. It’s just been something that has been drilled into my brain. Seeing what’s happening and then you hear stories and watch the videos and you hear that [police] didn’t get convicted and their defenses I would get angry. I wouldn’t really understand why it kept happening, and I still don’t really understand why it keeps happening.”
As national protests were at their peak coverage in the media over the summer, Marshall noticed how many Lake Zurich students began to use their social media accounts to try to spread information.
“I was surprised by the amount of people from Lake Zurich that were posting about stuff and were going to marches and were showing that they were in support and allies of the Black Lives Matter movement and it really was like, ‘wow, there are people in my school that stand for what I believe in,’” Marshall said. “The reason why it was so surprising is because in Lake Zurich, everybody is known to be very privileged and we don’t have a lot of diversity in our district, I’m not really used to my friends advocating for that.”
In a school survey, 69.4% of 294 students responded saying that they supported the BLM movement, whereas 18.7% said they did not and 11.9% said that they would prefer not to say.
As students’ involvement in activism rose, Jenny Shodunke, junior and Black student, noticed performative activism gradually becoming a recurrent drawback to students’ online efforts. Although she appreciated the amount of social media support LZ students were giving, Shodunke says the endeavors became “redundant.”
“It kind of seemed like people were posting just because it was a trend or something, they weren’t posting because they really cared about it,” Shodunke said.
As tension increased at protests, many students like Shodunke, who supports the Black Lives Matter movement, were unhappy with the rioting and looting that occurred at some of the demonstrations.
“When [the protests] were more peaceful at first I definitely supported them,
[…] but when they turned into riots I think that just sort of defeated the whole purpose,” Shodunke said. “The whole point was to show how we felt in a peaceful way to get others to really understand what we felt in terms of the injustices that were happening. And when it started to turn into riots, like robbing and setting places on fire, I thought it kind of tarnished the whole movement and what people were trying to stand for.”
How everyone can support the Black Lives Matter movement
Lake Zurich BLM supporters belong to a primarily white community, while supporting a movement that addresses minority experiences that they largely can’t empathize with. But since even months of protesting can’t solve all racism, ongoing anti-racist learning and unlearning is necessary for those looking to be an ally to the Black community.
“My generation of white people thought, ‘if we just don’t do those horribly racist things, like shouting at kids who integrated schools,’” Libby Reimann, social studies teacher, said, referring to footage from 1957 of white people harassing newly integrated Black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, “I think my generation thought, ‘as long as we’re not doing that, then we’re better.’”
Racism may look different today than it did in the 1950s, but it certainly hasn’t gone away. Racist ideas that were historically spread for a plethora of reasons (mass incarceration, to foster white supremacist idealogy, to perpetuate segregation) cause internal biases that survive across generations. But many white people may not be aware that they even have these biases.
“I would have five years ago said to you, ‘oh no I’m not racist.’ But now I’m gonna say, ‘I’m doing my best to learn to not be racist,’” Reimann said.
Dismantling personal implicit biases can be uncomfortable, but it is a necessary step to being an ally. Lisa Gregoire, Isaac Fox Elementary School principal, says the best way that non-BIPOC students can combat racism is to be open to the conversation.
“When someone shares their experience, don’t write it off as being whiny or being victimized. Stop and listen and then do better,” Gregoire said. “There’s no way […] a non-Black student can know what it is to experience life as a Black student, or another person of color, or somebody who’s of the LGBTQ community, or of a different religion, but they can open their minds, and they can change their minds and their behavior based upon the stories and the experiences that people are sharing.”
Gregoire quotes and agrees with the late Maya Angelou, a Black American writer and civil rights activist, saying “I truly believe that sometimes people do not know, or realize, that they have biases. But when they do learn that they have some biases, it is incumbent upon them to, once you know better to do better. And this applies to all students.”
Doing “better” doesn’t just mean posting a black square on social media. Attending protests might not be for everyone, especially amidst a global pandemic. But anti-racism can be practiced even at school.
“You don’t have to be an active protester in order to help people,” Jenny Shodunke, junior Black student, said. “If you see your friends saying snarky remarks that are obviously racist, don’t just sit back and observe it. […] Even if it’s just not egging them on or not adding on to what they’re saying. Just make sure it’s known that you feel uncomfortable with what they’re saying and make sure that you make it known that you don’t condone racism and you don’t condone rude things like that.”
Racist behavior at school can range from unintentionally offensive remarks to blatant use of racial slurs. It can also be found in attempts to shut down those trying to start an open conversation about racism, such as using the phrase “all lives matter” in response to “Black lives matter.”
“Do I believe that all lives matter? Yep, absolutely. It sounds like an inclusive statement to say that ‘all lives matter.’ But it does not address the point of the Black Lives Matter movement that Black and brown people are disproportionately being killed. And therefore, this time, all lives do not yet matter equally,” Gregoire said.
Reimann has a simple response for those who use “all lives matter” to oppose the BLM movement: “All lives will matter when Black lives matter. I’ve yelled that at people who’ve yelled at me at demonstrations,” Reimann said.
Having white privilege can make viewing everything from police brutality to feminism to environmentalism through a racial lens feel far-fetched or unnecessary. But choosing to ignore the way racism affects criminal justice, political, educational, corporate, and activist spaces isn’t a privilege most BIPOC have.
“What systemic racism means is that sometimes it’s buried in the details, such as redlining,” Gregoire said. “It’s having an awareness and understanding that some things are, whether intentionally or unintentionally, baked into the system.”
“I think it’s a hard topic for everybody, especially people who aren’t Black, because they don’t really know where they fit in,” Taylor Marshall, junior Black student, said. “They don’t want to do too much but they also want to be part of it. I think that we, as black people really do appreciate all of the support. And I think it’s really important for people to have conversations, even with people who don’t stand for the movement, because maybe they can have a change of heart, or they can change their mind or they can educate themselves. So I think it’s important that we’re willing to have conversations with each other to make a difference.”