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Spotlight: Being Black at Paly


In 1969, eight Black Students graduated from Paly. This June, eight Black Students will graduate from Paly.

[divider]Black Students’ Experiences[/divider]

Before moving to Palo Alto at the start of his sophomore year, senior Ras Kebebew grew up in Rockville, a town in Montgomery County, Maryland. While Rockville is similar in size to Palo Alto, with a population of around 60,000, it’s demographics differ, according to the 2010 census, 9.6% of Rockville’s population is Black, while less than 2% of Palo Alto is Black.

“A lot of it, at least where I lived, was very diverse,” Kebebew said. “I could immediately tell the difference when I moved here.”

Because of the diversity in Rockville, Kebebew said he only began experiencing racial stereotyping once he arrived in Palo Alto.

“You have a lot of contact with white people, and Asian people, and Black people, so people don’t have a lot of assumptions,” Kebebew said. “When I moved here, a lot of people thought my family was poor, like I don’t actually live in Palo Alto, and that I played a sport and all that, all just because I’m tall and brown.”

As someone of mixed descent, Kebebew said he felt he was seen as much more “Black” in Palo Alto than he was in Rockville, and the change in his perception was a surprise.

“I’m only half Black, right? So my friends knew I was light skinned or mixed,” Kebebew said. “I mean, they still considered me Black. But here, when I moved here, everyone thought I was, quote unquote, really Black. That was a shock to me as well.”

Kebebew said he was further stunned, when, only a few months after he arrived at Paly, he heard non-Black students using the N-word.

“I remember one time I was at lunch, at Town and Country, it was like, my first semester. And I was just eating lunch.” Kebebew said. “And at the other table, there’s a bunch of students just throwing around the N-word carelessly. Although they weren’t, saying it at me or anything, I had to walk over there and string them out, asking them why they were using such words.”

While he did confront his fellow students on that occasion, Kebebew said he often feels like he has to act as a representative for all Black people in Palo Alto

“I feel like I have more of a responsibility to speak for and on behalf of all Black people, especially in the classroom.”

He said he thinks some teachers often feel the need to overcompensate and pay more attention to him because he is Black.

“I’ll get called out more in class, and that’s where the overcompensating part comes from,” Kebebew said. “Even if a student has the same grade as me, or I have a friend who has the same exact grade as me, they’ll look for me to answer questions more or to try to make me participate in class more, even though I’m just doing as well as another student.”

Kebewew said he also experiences racist jokes on a weekly basis at Paly, something he didn’t experience in Maryland. He said he understands they are not necessarily intended to cause harm, but he feels uncomfortable being on the receiving end of them.

“When it comes to group environments, people would try to crack jokes when the topic is mainly race,” Kebebew said. “And they would crack a joke, but it would be in light of Black people like saying, ‘Oh, you’re Black. You can jump really high.’ But it’s at the same time, it still has to do with race. And I don’t know, it makes me feel really weird. One, I’m the only Black person there. So I’m even more of a minority. And people wouldn’t feel as comfortable cracking those types of jokes if they were in a more diverse environment.”

Kebebew said the lack of diversity is what causes racial insensitivity at Paly, especially pertaining to racial slurs. 

“With all my Black friends in Maryland, we would use the N-word. That’s perfectly acceptable there,” Kebebew said. “But hearing Paly students just throwing around the N-word was a shock to me. It made me realize how different it is in Maryland, where everyone — everyone — knows the meaning behind the word. And everyone — everyone — is aware of who’s allowed to use it.”

Junior Jaelyn Mitchell lived in Atlanta until the fourth grade. With over half a million residents, Atlanta is the biggest city in Georgia, and it is extremely diverse. 

“I grew up in a gated community,” Mitchell said “I went to a really, really good school. I did not live in the inner cities or the urban cities. But it’s still really diverse. We’ve never seen them, but I heard Jay-Z owns a house there. As a Black American, I think you can flourish a lot more in Atlanta. It’s like the real-life Wakanda.”

Mitchell said the diversity in Atlanta was a better environment for learning about her Black heritage compared to Palo Alto. 

“I feel like when you have more Black friends, you’ll  understand their experience a little bit better. And you’re educated on that,” Mitchell said. “As a Black person that’s grown up in predominantly white areas after moving to the West Coast, I have to learn about Black history. Because I only know as much as my peers know.”

Since moving to the West Coast, Mitchell said she has been surrounded by mostly white people, and that’s reflected in her friendships here.

“I’ve grown up in really white areas,” Mitchell said. “I’ve always gravitated towards white people. They were my friends. They were my teachers. They were my teammates. So I’ve always made friends with them. Even at Paly, I only really have like one Black friend.”

While Mitchell said she has grown used to the lack of diversity in Palo Alto, she said she still encounters many uncomfortable questions surrounding her race. Mitchell said that her peers often ask racially charged questions such as, “Do you like fried chicken?” and recalls one time where she was pressed into a difficult situation in school.

“I was sitting in class,” Mitchell said. “And someone said, ‘Hey, can I ask you a question?’ And they said, ‘Oh, can I get an N-word pass?’ I don’t even say the N-word. Why would I give you a pass? And the thing that really irked me is that I was in a classroom setting, and my teacher just looked at us trying to see how this is all going to go down. As a teacher, and as an adult, I would expect you to interfere in that situation.”

Mitchell said the lack of experience around people of color directly correlates to these abrasive remarks. 

“I think it’s the lack of diversity and the lack of knowledge because of the lack of diversity,” Mitchell said. “I guess it just goes hand-in-hand together.”

Mitchell said she wants to make it clear she doesn’t speak for all Black people, especially in Palo Alto where there are so few.

“My experience is not the average Black experience at all,” Mitchell said. “Most students that live in Palo Alto that are Black do not have the stereotypical Black experience. So I always try to make sure to mention that everyone’s story is different.”

And while Mitchell has experienced a microaggressions during her time in Palo Alto, she still feels grateful to be a PAUSD student.

“I’ve really had an amazing experience with the majority of my teachers,” Mitchell said. “They have been really, really supportive. They reach out to me if we’re discussing Black history or slavery ahead and see what I’m comfortable with and what I’m not comfortable with.”

Junior Sebastian Chancellor said he is lucky to live in a prosperous community such as Palo Alto. However he also said, as one of the few Black students at Paly, the opportunity comes with extra pressure.

“I’ve been especially fortunate to be able to go to the school that I go to and be able to have the lifestyle that I have,” Chancellor said. “And I know that it’s a reality that there are many people of color like me that are not able to be in that space, and so personally, I feel extra pressure to excel in school because of that.”

Chancellor said he also feels like he always has to be alert so as to not create a negative stereotype.

“Black people are proportionally suspended (at a higher rate), and it comes down to the teachers as well who feel as if they need to give extra help to these Black students, or they feel as if these smart Black students are somehow less intelligent. I feel as if I’m in the place where there’s extra pressure because I feel like I’m representing so many other people that aren’t being given the opportunities that I have been given and , instead, they’re being placed in positions in which they are not able to excel.”

Chancellor said he had multiple experiences with teachers making preconceived assumptions about him because of his race. He said he was faced with an especially ugly accusation freshman year, when his teacher accused him of plagiarism.

“I was so confused how that could be taken, because I put a lot of effort into it,” Chancellor said. “And I asked him what the plagiarism was, and there was no website that he found it on. There was nothing. He just said this doesn’t sound like your work. This isn’t something that I think that you’d be able to do. And I couldn’t help but just feel as if that had some sort of thing to do with my skin color.”

Chancellor said his teacher eventually apologized to him, but he said the accusation left him with a sickening memory. 

“It’s just a slap in the face where he has this expectation for me, much lower than the other students,” Chancellor said. “So when I’m excelling, and I’m really working hard, instead of saying, ‘Wow, this is absolutely incredible work,’ it just turned into, ‘Oh, this must be plagiarism. Even with an apology, it’s not the deed that you did to a kid. It’s the memory that you leave the kid. It’s not the deed. It’s the memory. I’m probably going to remember that for the rest of my life.”

Chancellor said it is a shock in a district with such a high reputation, PAUSD has teachers with these kinds of racial prejudices.

“This is Palo Alto, Silicon Valley. This is the place where education is supposed to be top in the country. And this is how you treat it in my first year in high school? And that was just quite an eye-opening thing.”

Chancellor and his family moved to Copenhagen, Denmark in August to pursue a semester of in-person education. While Chancellor said he was happy to be back in the classroom for a semester, he felt the same lack of diversity in his new school.

“They view the United States as so lowly, and when you come from the United States, they have their own assumptions,” Chancellor said. “But Europe is nowhere near perfect. I view it as just as racist and just as separated.”

Chancellor only had one other person of color in his grade in Denmark, and he said he felt the need to stick with him.

“We felt as though it’s kind of the school against us.” Chancellor said. “People of color, we all got to stand together and help each other because at the end of the day, we’re the only people that we really have for each other, that’s going to stand by each other.”

Chancellor said he feels the need to stand by other Black people at Paly as well.

“With not that many of us at Paly, I always feel a lot more comfort in opening up to people of color,” Chancellor said. “And I always feel a lot more comfort. As a person of color and you meet a stranger, we instantly refer to them as a brother, because at this point in time, it’s like, ‘Hey, I don’t really know you. You don’t really know me, but we see each other’s skin color. And we know that we’re knowing the struggles that each other is facing.”

Junior Cade Creighton said he has numbingly grown accustomed to hearing racist remarks from his peers. Creighton said there are times, as frustrating as it is, that he feels he can’t really do anything about racial slurs.

“As a Black person, you kind of get used to that stuff,”  Creighton said. “You could laugh it off, or you can get mad. And so the big thing is with the N-word, which everybody knows you can’t say. But people want to say it. And if you’re in a position with the wrong people, and everyone’s saying it left and right, then there’s really nothing you can do.”

Creighton also said he often has to keep his cool to avoid other students’ attempts at provoking him. 

“They’ll look at you like, ‘Oh, Cade, aren’t you gonna react?” Creighton said. “’Are you gonna fight that kid out? Get mad at that kid?’ That’s kind of the disconnect. I think it’s a little bit worse at Paly because we don’t have that many Black kids. So some of the students aren’t accustomed to having to deal with those types of situations.”

Creighton said the use of racial slurs is especially prevalent in some gaming communities.

“They’re not all really mean people,” he said. “They’re just people who are kind of disrespectful. And you’re like, ‘Dang, don’t you have any respect for me or for Black people?’ I know you’re like saying it to be funny. But it’s not funny, and it’s not really worth it. People just don’t think about it all the way, and you can either try to set them straight or you can ignore it — which is the easier path, I guess.”

While Creighton said he thinks racism is a result of less exposure to Black people, he said he is really happy to live in a Palo Alto where so many people come from so many different places.

“All my friends are from different backgrounds,” Creighton said “And they’re all mixed. I’m the only Black kid in the friend group, but I feel like I fit in, and I can really be myself here.”

Creighton moved from Palo Alto to Papillion, Nebraska, where he spent his late elementary and early middle school years, before moving back in 7th grade. Creighton said Papillon is home to a conservative white and an African immigrant population.

“I’m half Black. My mom’s white, and my dad’s Black,” Creighton said. “And there weren’t that many people who were like me there. They are like African immigrants. And there’s some white farmer kids. And it was kind of a weird experience there for me, because I was kind of in the middle of it.”

Creighton said he saw how the African students were treated differently from whites in Papillion.

“You could definitely see that the teachers would kind of give extra help to the Black kids (as if they) were stupid, or they would give them less chances, especially if they messed up,” Creighton said.

Senior Oluwatunwumi Ogunlade moved to the United States from Nigeria three years ago. She first attended high school in San Jose, where she said she didn’t find it difficult to fit in. 

“In San Jose, we had a really large population of Black people,” Ogunlade said. “We had teachers who were people of color. It really did feel like you were accepted there.”

But when Ogunlade moved to Palo Alto and enrolled at Palo Alto High School midway through the first quarter of her junior year, she said things felt different.

“It took me a while to actually find people of color,” Ogunlade said. “I kind of have to get used to being one of the only Black people because, I mean I’m literally living in a place with mostly white people.”

Ogunlade said the lack of shared experiences and shared culture with her and her white peers made it difficult to feel like a part of the larger school community. This was compounded by instances where students were racist and disrespectful.

“Someone in my P.E. class literally said the N-word and laughed,” Ogunlade said. “And I’m like, ‘What is going on? Are you gonna watch this person say that? Are you OK?’ But I didn’t say anything because I was like, ‘You know what? I’m new here. Let’s not make a fuss about this.’”

Though Ogunlade found parts of Paly to be unwelcoming or intimidating, she said she discovered her community when a friend introduced her to Black Scholars United. 

“We talked about being some of the only Black people in our classes and about the issues that kind of plague the Black community,” Ogunlade said. “I just felt like I could relate (even though) I just joined Paly, and it was a crazy transition.”

Ultimately, Ogunlade said Paly needs more representation. With more students and teachers of color, particularly in groups like the Associated Student Body and Paly publications, students of color will feel less isolated and other students will have a better understanding of their experiences.

“There are some students living in privilege and either don’t know or just ignore it,” Ogunlade said. “If we have more representation, we have more people talking about Black experience, which leads to more people learning about Black experience, which leads to less ignorance.”


[divider]Paly’s History with Race[/divider]

Black residents only make up about 1.5% of Palo Alto’s population. This is a direct result of decades of segregationist policies and efforts to isolate populations of color in East Palo Alto. 

In 1920, the Palo Alto Chamber of Commerce passed a resolution to form a “segregated district for the Oriental and colored people of the city.” Although it was never actually created, the resolution gave housing developers a basis to collectively agree to avoid selling houses to Black residents.

Palo Alto resident historian Steve Steiger said after World War II, California’s population grew rapidly and as desirable land became scarcer, Black immigrants were directed to places like East Palo Alto. In 1968, the town was so overwhelmingly Black that residents circulated petitions to rename it “Nairobi” after Kenya’s capital. 

“Many developers didn’t want Blacks to buy houses in Palo Alto, even when they had the money,” Steiger said. “So if you had a young, Black engineer at HP, he would be told, ‘Here’s where you need to buy a house,’ and would be sent to East Palo Alto.”

Along with active discouragement, in many neighborhoods, deed restrictions discriminated against Black residents until the Supreme Court deemed them unconstitutional in 1948. However, the racist clauses in the deeds remain unaltered to this day. Efforts to rewrite this ingrained racism came in 2018, when two of Palo Alto’s middle schools changed their names from those of prominent eugenicists David Starr Jordan and Lewis Terman.

Paly Alumnus Greg Florant was one of eight Black students in the senior class of 1969. According to 2019-2020 statistics, that number will remain the same for the graduating class of 2021.

“It doesn’t surprise me that Palo Alto hasn’t changed as much as I hoped it would,” Greg Florant said.

Greg Florant’s brother Mark attended Paly two years behind Greg, and although his experience was mostly positive, he said instances of definitive racial discrimination existed, especially as he was applying to selective colleges as a senior. 

“My college counselor told me that I should apply to some other schools that weren’t so demanding,” Mark Florant said. “So, when I got declined from UC San Diego, he was all over me about ‘OK, now you’re going to go to community college, because you’re not going to get in any of those other schools.’ And I was just like, I was distraught. I mean, he really messed me up.” 

Florant went on to be accepted to all the other colleges he applied to and attended Stanford University.

“There’s no question that the situation with my counselor was because of my race,” Mark Florant said. 


[divider]Administrative View[/divider]

Race remains a prominent issue in PAUSD, as black students still make up only around 2% of the student body both at Paly and in the district as a whole, and some students say their experience in school is altered because of their race.

One of the PAUSD’s current goals, which it outlines in its PAUSD Promise, is to improve this experience and combat discrimination.

According to district Superintendent Don Austin, the district hopes to limit instances of racial discrimination in the by addressing reports of such cases by launching investigations into the causes of the discrimination and take measures to prevent repeated incidents.

“If an allegation comes forward, it’s immediately investigated,” Austin said. “And sometimes that requires removing a teacher or employee from contact with students during that investigation.”

This system is a major improvement over the dynamic that existed with administrators in the past, Mark Florant said. Florant said he recalls an instance where his basketball coach acted blatantly racist without punishment or accountability in the 1960’s. 

“It went pretty unrecorded,” Florant said. “The coach was that way, and it was known.”

However, both Austin and PAUSD Assistant Superintendent of Equity and Student Affairs Yolanda Conaway acknowledge these investigations    sometimes don’t provide a definite result. 

“The reality is proving that a student has faced discrimination can be difficult to do,” Conaway said. “But that doesn’t mean that they don’t experience it or don’t feel it or don’t feel the effects of it.”

Conaway said students’ experience with discrimination and microaggressions, especially those relating to staff members, are preventable due to their systematic nature.

“What I see is not at the conscious level of many educators,” she said. “They are executing on a regular basis microaggressions, sometimes without even realizing it. “But those are the things that we can shift the brain. Those are the things that we have some power over.”

In order to encourage this shift, Conaway said the district is working to educate staff and teachers about the effects of microaggressions and systemic discrimination. In addition to hosting events such as microaggression workshops and discussing these issues with staff, PAUSD is creating longer, equity-based events such as the 21-Day Equity Challenge, which calls on staff to reflect on issues relating to race and equity.

“Unless we have the conversation, we cannot affect it as a community,” Conaway said. “So the important piece is to make sure that people know what the truths are, and what the myths are around social justice and be able to understand notions about race, and where it came from, and what it really means.”

Conaway also said the lack of student diversity within the district is not necessarily something administrators can control.

“Our students come to us, based on their location in Palo Alto,” Conaway said. “So in terms of making the students more diverse, that’s a bit of a challenge for us.”

She said district officials have instead been focused on making changes at the administrative level to try to improve representation.

“From my seat, I think the district has been busy and active, but probably focused more on inputs, meaning things that we’re doing, than outputs, meaning whether they are having a positive impact on students,” Austin said.

In the recent past, Austin said the district took action by aiming to diversify the district’s staff in order to try to represent all of its students. 

For example, the district has been planning to put into place hiring practices which would aim to eliminate possible racial bias. 

“In the future, we’re thinking we could even have blind interviews,” Austin said. ”You’re only (deciding) based on the voice and not any of those other factors.”
The district also looks at issues of race through the lens of students’ academic and school-related statistics, Conaway said, including the disproportionate suspension rate of Black students.“We have a very low suspension rate, and yet African Americans are suspended at a rate of 6% versus 1% for other populations, or less than 1% ,” Conaway said.

Conaway said this statistic shows how PAUSD is reflective of larger racial issues affecting the entire country.

“What’s been found in the research consistently for for a decade now is that some of the same behaviors and same conduct that result in suspensions for African American students do not result in suspensions for other groups.” Conaway said. “I want to make that clear that that’s a national problem that many people are trying to focus on. So as a district, we are looking at opportunities to increase our knowledge around restorative practices.”


[divider]Ethnic Studies & Education[/divider]

Beyond a lack of representation within the student body and school staff, many feel there is a lack of representation of Black people and Black culture in education as a whole.

Paly Ethnic Studies Teacher Justin Cronin, who has taught World History and US History as well, said he thinks history in particular is presented in a way that creates a white-centric view of past events. 

“History being written by the winners meant that it was often written by the white power structure of our country in particular.” Cronin said. “And so getting voices and perspectives of others is helpful.”

Senior Noelle Burwell, President of the Black Scholars United club, agrees and said the way history is often taught neglects the role of non-white people.

“What we’re learning in our history classes is very one-sided,” she said. “It’s from one perspective, which is the white perspective, and I think because of that, a lot of things are missing out on so much history.”

Senior Abimbola Bolarinwa said this white-centric view of the world leads to a lack of education about Black historical figures and heroes.

“It’s not that many times that we talk about Black people in history classes,” she said. “We learn more about white people. We don’t learn (as much) about Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King or people before that. I think that’s a problem.”

And the limitation of representation of Black figures is not limited to history classes. STEM education has also lacked representation, Sebastian Chancellor said.

“In Denmark, we actually had a very interesting conversation in which … we talked about how many significant scientists of color you can name,” Chancellor said. “And I think the class could literally (only) name Neil deGrasse Tyson.”

In order to reintroduce some of the cultural and racial education which is missing from many classes, many schools, including Paly, offer an Ethnic Studies class, which teaches students about topics of race. 

However, the course has struggled to garner the attention of students in PAUSD. “The last time it was run was like 2008,” Cronin said. “And so for a while I was going around to US History classes, trying to drum up business, and it didn’t stick.”

The California legislature proposed a bill in late 2020 which would mandate students take an Ethnic Studies class in order to graduate.

The requirement was not put into place after Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the bill, but Paly still offers its students the chance to take the class.

Burwell agrees with the idea that the class should be mandatory, citing the unique value of the course. 

“I think it’s something that everyone should take. It should be part of the regular curriculum,” Burwell said. “At school, I got the opportunity to learn about my own community and other communities. .. I’ve learned a lot of valuable information that will allow me to go throughout the world with an evolved perspective of, the people that I am constantly interacting with.”

Burwell also notes that these cultures are particularly important for students to learn about because of their absence from required classes. “I’ve learned about the struggles of all of those communities… that’s not something that we’re normally taught,” Burwell said.

Cronin, however, said mandating an Ethnic Studies course may lessen its value because such a class thrives off student engagement and interest.

“I want people to take it for the right reason, because I think once you start forcing people to do it, then it loses its goal and purpose,” Cronin said.

However, Cronin agrees that all students would benefit from such a  class is something that students should try to take so that they can apply what they learn in the real world.

“We live in a world where people are different races,” Cronin said. “If you don’t understand where people are coming from, how can we expect different groups to get together and be able to get along?”

Overall, many Black students feel that education about racial issues is extremely beneficial and should be emphasized more.

 “Having conversations surrounding race and surrounding culture and surrounding the experiences of Black individuals would be good,” Burwell said, “because we’re not through our school curriculums. We’re not taught that.”

And while a common approach to race has been to ignore it entirely, Cronin said this ‘color-blind’ perspective disregards Black culture. Instead, they want their race to be acknowledged and their culture embraced.

“Sometimes you hear that, ‘Oh, I don’t see color,’” Cronin said. “And that’s well and good, but I don’t think our country’s there. And so what you’re saying is that you don’t see a person of color’s experience, which is definitely not the same. The thing with race in this country is people of color never get to put it down. White people can pick it up and go with it and march for Black Lives Matter and everything else, but they get to go home and still be white. As someone of color, I never get to just put that down. It’s always something that you carry with you. 

Burwell also said while the this sentiment may have good intentions, it is not a good way to understand other perspectives.

“It is not a statement that should necessarily be applauded,” Burwell said. “I think when you’re saying, ‘I don’t see color,’ you’re really saying (you) don’t want to acknowledge or embrace that community and their struggles and what they bring to the table.”

And Conaway said improving representation in education is a key step forward, starting with reforming the school curriculum to be more considerate of race. 

Conaway said a good step forward is to “structure curriculum and teaching to make sure the experiences of Black and Brown students are considered in that instruction and can see themselves, in an authentic way, rather than through a Eurocentric lens.”

But she acknowledges that doing so won’t be easy or fast. 

“It is not coming up with one program, or one remedial program or, another initiative to fix people of color,” Conaway said. “Because they don’t need fixing. What we need to do as educators and as adults is to build our capacity to meet the needs of more students of color. That’s where our focus needs to be.”

Burwell believes the best way for people to promote acceptance is to learn.

“It’s important that we proactively try to understand and teach about other cultures and communities, because that’s how we learn ourselves and educate others,” Burwell said. “And I think that is essential to becoming a more unified community.”

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  • J

    JordanFeb 23, 2021 at 11:34 pm

    Great to hear from other people who have somewhat of a similar experience to me, I didn’t often run into fellow brothas at Paly.

  • E

    Eric J. BloomFeb 19, 2021 at 8:35 am

    thanks and what a well done article. I wonder why is was put in Lifestyle rather than the front page – is it because it is not news?
    And I hope the district does not adopt “blind interviews” because I believe our lack of representation of people of color comes from not affirmatively seeking out teachers and administrative leaders of color AND then supporting and fostering their success – as pointed out in the article we are right where we were 50+ years ago, now is the time to OPEN our eyes, not continue to keep them closed and hope the right people step forward