I first became interested in exploring Paly’s social divide after passing “The Wall” as I rushed to my 6th period Chemistry class one day. While I walked beside the Student Center, a girl paces ahead of me turned to her friend and whispered, “That’s where all the ghetto kids hang out at Paly. My sister told me that.” Recalling that I was fed this same information by an upperclassman when I entered high school one year earlier, I decided to further explore why students seemingly self-segregate based on race between “The Wall” and the quad. As I engaged in more conversation, I realized these racial tensions influence more than just student hangout spots. The words of my peers touch on various unspoken social dynamics at Paly, including racial and cultural judgment, Palo Alto’s false façade of perfection and the effects of social isolation on students of color in the classroom. A few observations that caught my attention include the discomfort of my peers as they discussed social divides, the great contrast in responses I received, and the countless students who refused to be interviewed because they did not want to “offend” or express “politically incorrect” thoughts. As I found students willing to tell their stories, I decided a question and answer structure would provide the most raw and honest platform for students and teachers to express themselves.
Now, I invite our community to take a hard look at Paly’s social divides and embrace dialogue about topics like race that we currently deem too touchy to discuss.
Q: Is there a social divide among students caused by factors such as race, culture and city borders?
Esha: I think that there’s a social divide, but there are tons of social divides at Paly. Some are based on where people live and things like that, but others are based on what classes people take and their extracurriculars.
Jesús: People will say how there’s so many different groups at Paly, which is true. But you can just see how the split between kids from different cities or different races is more obvious than the others; it’s a lot bigger.
Jon: Yes. But it’s not just a student divide. It’s everyone at school. You feel the divide even when you’re with teachers and adults at school and in Palo Alto in general. People look at me different, talk to me different. People see me, how I dress, the color of my skin and look at me like, “You’re on the wrong side of town.”
Sasha: Absolutely, there is a social divide. We self-segregate and flock with people who are similar to ourselves.
Q: How is this social divide noticeable on a daily basis?
Romaine: You see a lot of the minorities at “The Wall”. Everyone else hangs out on the quad. On the quad it seems all happy and easy and smart. At “The Wall”, its different. We’re funny but we have struggles. I guess that’s not to say kids on the quad don’t have problems. I don’t really know.
Jesús: Just look around you. It’s blacks with Latinos here at the Wall. It’s everyone else, all the kids from Palo Alto, over on the quad. Almost everyone sees it.
Jon: Most people who chill here at “The Wall” are African American, Latino or Pacific Islander. I mean, of course, there are a few exceptions, a couple white kids. But if you just look, it’s mainly minorities.
Q: What makes people feel so different?
Jon: I guess the way people look and dress can make people feel different. Minorities wearing big hoodies, hats, certain shoes might stand out because other people aren’t used to it. The other way too. We might not be used to how the rest of the Paly kids talk and act and dress.
Omar: There’s judgement. People make assumptions. They think, “He’s black or Mexican or Tongan so he’s from East Palo Alto.” Then from there, people think, “East Palo Alto is a dangerous place so he’s probably a bad kid.”
Q: When does division start?
Omar: Well, when I was in elementary school, I was real cool with everyone, with the white and Asian kids too. Everyone, really. But I started getting older, everything changed. In middle school you can really see it.
Junior: For me, I’ve felt the divide ever since I was real little, I’ve always known it was there.
Adi: Middle school is when I noticed that people really split. People become more judgemental as they get older, everyone gives a f**k what others think of them. The divide grows bigger.
Q: What causes the split?
Ms. Burton: Race, city borders, culture, activities, many factors. East Palo Alto students who are part of the voluntary transfer program and don’t live in the same neighborhood in which they attend school find it difficult to spend time with students living in Palo Alto, due to a lack of parental communication and transportation.
Esha: I personally don’t know how much of it is a race problem. But yeah, if you look at Paly, it does seem to be the case that people of similar races are more likely to be hanging out together.
Q: How does the social divide affect classroom life?
Dr Walton: Before any person enters a new environment or setting, they ask questions along the lines of, “Am I going to fit in?” and “Are people going to respect and value me?”. When people are entering a new place, knowing their group is a minority or is negatively stereotyped, these questions of belonging and respect become more serious and bothersome. This can prevent individuals from staying motivated socially and academically.
Omar: Well, in class when I ask for help, kids look at me and ask me “Why weren’t you paying attention?”, or just talk to me rudely. I feel judged. It’s like, they’ll help other people in the class, but they don’t want to help me or people who look like me.
Jon: It feels like in a lot of my classes, there are maybe only three to four black or Mexican kids, or people from East Palo Alto. It makes it hard to talk in class, because you are the minority. You don’t want to say nothing, so you sit there and wait till the bell rings.
Ms. Burton: This is a question that needs to be on the district radar at all times. We often talk about academic improvement and bridging the achievement gap. But we need to focus on the fact that the degree to which a student feels they belong to a school or community correlates to their academic success within that community.
Jesús: Something I noticed is that my classmates talk to me like I’m not as smart as them, maybe because of the way I look, or the color of my skin. It’s funny, because I might actually be getting better grades than them.
Q: Do you believe discrimination is a two-way street?
Ms. Burton: Racism can be a two way street. There are stereotypes for students of color and those living in East Palo Alto, but there are stereotypes for Palo Alto kids too. Rich, snobby, privileged. This judgment runs strong and leads to assumptions about large groups of people. We need to think, maybe this rich, privileged child has an alcoholic parent or comes home to an empty home every night. People from Palo Alto don’t really talk about struggles, so it seems there aren’t any, but there are. Many are struggling too, the perfection is a façade. There are families here having a very very hard time, financially, emotionally. It’s just not talked about.
Suzie: Yeah, it is. People assume that kids in Palo Alto don’t really know what struggle is, simply because this is a wealthy area. But that’s not the truth. For example, my family was affected by the bad economy. My parents had to declare bankruptcy. I’m working my own job to pay for stuff. It pisses me off when people assume I’m some stuck up, rich, white b***h.
Junior: Not really, because for me, I feel like people judge me more than I judge others. For me, I don’t give a s**t where you’re from. As long as you’re cool with me, I’m cool with you.
Jon: I mean… I guess so. It’s hard to say. But yeah, I guess I can see that. I know some of my friends don’t want to be friends with Palo Alto kids because they just don’t get it. It seems like they get whatever they want. We think we have such different lives, so we assume we can’t become friends.
Anonymous: Most definitely. Everyone has family problems, it doesn’t matter how rich you are. From the outside I look like the stereotypical, privileged Palo Alto kid. But I have lot’s going on. My mom has depression and shes bi-polar. It’s hard to talk to her because she is so quiet or she is not in the mood. She works hard, like five-six days a week so is often super stressed. It’s just hard sometimes. My dad is generally good and supportive but he has lost it before and has hit me. I have friends with alcoholic parents. Kids here [in Palo Alto], we might not show it, and we might not talk about it, but some of us are dealing with pretty bad situations.
Q: Why is race such an uncomfortable topic for most to talk about?
Dr. Walton: We are taught that we’re not supposed to talk about race, about color. We are taught to believe fiction, that the world is now color blind and that we are color blind. We are not. These conversations feel awkward. People don’t want to be accused of being racist.
Ms. Burton: It’s something we don’t have practice in. It’s so personal, Sometimes for people of color, it might evoke feelings of anger and resentment. For people who are white, there might be a sense of guilt, not understanding or a fear of offending. It’s difficult to talk about so conversations that involve race tend to stay above the surface.
Q: Should this divide bother students? Should we work to improve it?
Ms. Burton: It’s something we should always be working on. We have a great opportunity to practice having those hard conversations, to break barriers. We owe it to ourselves to expose these obstacles, and breakthrough comfort zones.
Esha: It’s hard to say. I think it’s only problematic if different groups act unkindly to one another or if the social climate discourages people from intermingling. To my knowledge, I don’t think that either of those problems exist at Paly.
Adi: Well, in some ways, it’s a natural thing. Similar people just like to hang out with each other. But it should be worked on, just no one wants to say that. People will immediately get stingy and be like “It’s my freedom to choose who I hang with.” Yeah, but kids should at least give others a chance. Judgement should stop.
Jon: Agreed. People don’t wanna hear “You should work on making friends with different kids, and different races.” Of course, no one should be forced to hang out with others, but people should be respectful of people regardless of where they’re from. Everyone should be more open.
Q: How can our community work together to minimize this social divide?
Dr. Walton: Schools can take actions by creating activities that bring people together in cooperative ways.The Jigsaw Classroom is a psychological technique that divides a common project and allows each student to become an expert in their topic. Then, the students are put back in groups to teach and learn from each other. Classrooms tend to be competitive, the teacher has to pick who to call on, and students might be fighting to speak. Schools can work toward treating students on an equal basis, emphasizing team work, and common goals. As a community, we should have the attitude that we want to grow individually and become comfortable coming together and interacting with different people with different experiences.
Sasha: We would have to be open and recognize how much we can gain from welcoming different people into our lives.
Ms. Burton: Students need to find a connection and recognize that one exists. As a community, we need to work past perceptions on both sides and realize that students of all different colors and cities might be struggling with the same problems. It’s important that we learn to broach these touchy subjects and make new connections that will really benefit us.
Adi: People need to step out of their boundaries, even though they don’t want to. We all need to stop thinking, “I’m cool with what I know and I don’t need anything else.” When we recognize common interests, we’ll find we are really similar. Sports might be the activity people think of first, but there are really a hundred other things to bring people together… Hobbies, music, tv shows… so much more.
Jon: Just gotta talk to people… it’s not that hard to talk to different people but no one makes enough of an effort. We gotta make an effort if we want to improve anything. Young people shouldn’t be living with these boundaries they make for themselves.”