Seeing and Being Seen: Race at Faribault High School

In having conversations with Faribault High School students about how race informs their experiences at school, we asked them to reflect on “seeing and being seen”: how they feel people perceive them, and how they want to be perceived. These probing questions led students to share their insights about the intricate workings of race in a hugely diverse, but small rural town.

Shanya, for example, an African-American junior at Faribault High, who grew up in Chicago before moving to Minnesota, spoke at length about being the only black person in any given space, and how challenging that is for her:

I don’t go outside. I don’t like people looking at me. Staring. —Shanya

She finds that, even in downtown Faribault, where there is a significant black Somali immigrant population, she feels immensely uncomfortable. “Yeah, I don’t like going downtown. I mean, and it’s gotten to the point where it’s almost normal. They look at me like, ‘Oh my God.’…I just tell people I’ve been tanning for months.” At first, she said, it was extremely emotional, and would make her upset with Faribault and her social experience at the high school. She says:

“After that you just get used to it. So, I mean, you’re gonna waste time sitting around thinking ‘Why are there people staring at me? Why is no one talking to me? Why do I have no friends?’ You waste time, so the only thing you can do is move on.”

Shanya feels similarly about church. When asked if she belonged to a religious community, she noted that although she loves “the man upstairs,” she doesn’t go to church. “I used to when I was a kid, but I stopped when I came out here, I believe. I went to church one time, twice. First time was the most awkwardest thing I’ve ever experienced before.” She originally thought she might enjoy church, but, she explained:

“Right when I walked in though, everyone’s eyes darted at me. It was all white people there. So I was like, ‘Aw snap, they’re gonna hate me, I’m not supposed to be here. We gotta go.’”

Ikra, a 15-year old sophomore from Kenya—who spent most of our interview speaking passionately about her love for baseball—named several behaviors that she sees in school as explicitly racist towards black students. One such experience was with a friend who she met in “food class,” a White male student who exclaimed “Uch, don’t touch me!” when one of Ikra’s Somali Muslim friends touched his arm. The conversation went as follows: Ikra urged him to explain his strong reaction: “Why?” she joked, “if she touches you, she’s gonna eat you? She’s not like a tiger!” Ikra just asked, flat out, “Are you racist?” Her friend responded, “No, I’m not!” “Tell me,” Ikra said, “you can tell me. I won’t tell anyone, I swear.” Her friend responded, “Yeah, I’m racist. I don’t like black people, by the way.” Ikra exploded: “Oh, my God, you’re racist! I have to tell everybody!” [laughs] Her friend said, “I thought you promised!” to which Ikra responded:

“Ok, I promised, but you don’t have to be racist to others. God only made you, like, you guys are human, same blood!”

Ikra also mentioned her light skin color, and how it often provokes commentary from other students. In discussing how the rest of her family has darker skin than her, she spoke about how several students have repeatedly questioned whether her brother and father are really so closely related to her. According to Ikra, students have said, “‘I think you’re lying ‘cause he’s not your color… [She responds:] ‘No, this is my brother.’ [And they continue:] ‘I don’t think so.’” Ikra raised her voice when she spoke about this issue:

“People are like, ‘Who born you? Some white guy and Somali just born you? Where do you come from?’ [And she responds:] ‘Why are you asking? I come from Kenya.’”

Somali identity here emerges as the dominant black identity, and her light skin color throws the assumptions of other students off kilter; “Some people don’t even believe me,” Ikra continues. “I say, ‘Good for you. Don’t believe me, but I know who I am.’”

Given the racial history of the town of Faribault, and the recent influx of black Somali immigrants, students at the high school seem to conflate blackness and Somali identity as part and parcel of an archetypal cultural, racial, and religious “other.” In this way, Somali students emerge as a sort of dominant outsider group, and blackness is perceived only as a subset of Somali identity. This, needless to say, is very significant for black students who are not Somali. Shanya further explains:

“People think that I’m Somali, and I’m not…I guess because all our skin colors are kind of similar in a way, that we just look alike all of a sudden.”

For Shanya, these assumptions are “extremely irritating,” and seem to conflate her experiences to those of a very distinct immigrant group. This also has distinct ramifications for the instances of direct conflict around race in the school. Hanan and Ikra (not the Ikra from above), two Somali girls, spoke to me about students’ use of racial slurs on the Internet:

“This girl went on Facebook and made a status saying, ‘Oh, all these Somalians should not be at our school…They shouldn’t be here, I don’t know why they came to our country, blah blah blah. Arab niggers…Okay? She called us Arabian niggers!’”

Hanan, her friend, was visibly hurt: “Yeah, that’s what she called us.” “The other thing was,” Ikra continued, “it wasn’t just the status. People were commenting, agreeing with that.”

The conflation of blackness and Somali identity are blended in a way that makes the 'n-word,' a term that was originally developed to disparage American slaves, an add-on insult to the xenophobic demand to 'go back to your country'.

The use of racial slurs, particularly the n-word, in reference to Somali students, came up in several interviews. Ayan, for example, a senior who came to Faribault in 2008, was shocked to hear this language in reference to a controversial fight between a Somali student and a White student: “They were using all words, the n-word and all that…Everybody agreed, “Oh, why don’t you just go back to your country?” Like everybody! Except me. Everyone was agreeing and I was really mad.” Here, we see the conflation of blackness and Somali identity most clearly; racism and xenophobia are blended in a way that makes the “n-word,” a term that was originally developed to disparage American slaves, an add-on insult to the xenophobic demand to “go back to your country.”

Another way that students discussed the racism and xenophobia in their lives was in students’ reactions to their troubles with English. One student described an encounter in P.E. class that she observed where White students taunted a newly arrived Somali student, who “had just come to America and didn’t really know English. And there were people saying, ‘Why are you speaking this language? We don’t understand, speak English!’” She was noticeably upset by telling this story, and defended her friend: “They just came here you know? They don’t speak English! I’m learning Spanish, and I cannot speak with people who speak Spanish, you know? It’s really hard.”

Confusion around race and racial stereotypes pervaded many conversations, not only in regard to black students. Josh, a student from the Philippines, commented on how people’s perceptions and first impressions of him are colored by reductive stereotypes about other distinct ethnic groups:

“You know how Chinese people are supposed to be like nerds? And like really smart? So they like expect that from me, but then I’m like, we’re different… I’m not saying that I’m stupid, but [I just wish they knew] that we’re different people.”

Here, Josh points to a widespread conflation of Asian identities that he sees as false and reductive; though even he fails to totally interrogate and unpack stereotypes about Chinese identity. Josh resents being subsumed in people’s perceptions of “Chinese people,” but also unwittingly affirms these stereotypes as true. This speaks to how widespread misunderstandings and assumptions around race are in many high school contexts.

Kayla also spoke about the way students see her, and how their ideas are colored by her perceived ethnicity: “I’m part Hispanic, so there’s some instances where, I don’t know why, but people come up to me and start talking in Spanish, because they automatically think I know [it], and I’m just like, [laughing] no!” Josh also shared a resonant experience where his ethnicity was wrongly assumed:

Josh: And like, they just think you’re Hispanic, because of your skin color.
Kayla: Because you’re brown.
Josh: Yeah. They just assume, you know?

These instances serve as a snapshot of the way students are struggling to navigate race and ethnic diversity at FHS. Stories of discomfort at being the only person of color in all-White spaces, to the oft-cited assumption that all black students are Somali, to the explicit use of racial slurs and xenophobic language, to widespread assumptions about racial identity based on stereotypes: these stories and challenges are real, and need to be taken seriously.

For more information on Faribault Demographics, see Demographics and Economy of Faribault