By Gretchen Shelby, Guest Columnist
For those of you who do not understand why many non-white, non-Christian, non-wealthy people are afraid:
I grew up in a rural southern Illinois town. The majority of my classmates were white, Christian, and middle-class.
When I was in 1st grade, I made the mistake of identifying as non-Christian to my classmates. I had outed myself as different, and throughout my time in that school district I was bullied because of it. It did not take long for me to discover that I could avoid mistreatment by hiding and lying about my beliefs. As long as my classmates were not reminded that I was different, I could blend in when I wanted to because on the surface I looked just like them. To this day I choose not to label my beliefs or wear religious symbols because I know that I will be discriminated against or thought of as less because of it. Very few of my Muslim friends can blend in like this to avoid mistreatment.
Starting in 2nd grade, the students divided themselves among socioeconomic lines. House kids did not play with townhome kids, and townhome kids didn’t play with the trailer park kids. The teachers were always a lot nicer to the house kids; maybe it’s because they behaved better, maybe they just came from better families. Whatever the reason was, those children who had issues at home were often overlooked. When our teachers or fellow classmates noticed red flags, few people acted on them, those students were labeled “trouble makers.” That title has followed the majority of them into adulthood and you can imagine the result.
In 7th grade, my best friend was Mexican. She and her family were so kind to me and I have so many amazing memories of the get-togethers, trips and meals we shared. It was around this age that I first remember hearing adults, and sometimes other kids, talk about Mexicans and other minority groups as being different, lesser. I was too young at the time to understand why they were saying these things.
That same year in middle school, someone had been vandalizing the girl’s bathrooms. In an effort to stop it, the dean decided that every woman’s bathroom in the school would be closed. At an age where most of us were too embarrassed to explain to the teacher why we HAD to go to the bathroom right then at that moment (for feminine reasons, obviously), each of us was forced to debate with the teacher to get permission to walk across the school to use the only-available bathroom in the nurse’s office. If, perhaps, you had wanted to go during a passing period to avoid conflict with your teachers, you’d almost always find that the line was too long. I was too young to understand what an unreasonable response that was, and I don’t think I ever told my parents.
That same year in middle school, the male gym teacher who was teaching the sex ed course fall semester supposedly asked a 13-year-old girl if she owned a sex toy. That male teacher wasn’t fired, but we were not given the opportunity to take sex education later that year. Because I moved around over the next few years, the only sex ed course I took was in 8th grade at a school in the northern suburbs. I’m not sure about my classmates at the rural school though.
When I moved back to this area for my second year of high school, many things had changed. More housing meant more students were moving into the district, and the facilities available to students were no longer sufficient. Other students and their families that I had known since first grade blamed the black and Mexican students who had come down from Chicago. They made horrible jokes and comments about minorities and “section 8 housing,” things that they’d heard from their parents but had no understanding of. I recall one boy telling me that the year before, in freshman year, I had “missed out” on a “race war.” I did not understand what that meant then, and even now I still do not; however, I can assume that some sort of violence was involved.
At the end of sophomore year, I tried to help start an LGBTQ club on campus because many of the LGBTQ friends were bullied on a regular basis. As we tried to organize, the school gave us various reasons as to why we were not allowed to meet on campus. Instead, we would meet at the ice cream shop across the street. When we hosted our Day of Silence event, the few students who participated were shoved into lockers, had their books knocked out of their hands, and were made fun of by other students. When the administration was asked to do something about it, they said that we brought it upon ourselves.
Junior year, someone I know was assaulted at a house party they had held while their parents were away. My friend never reported the incident because it would have caused more harm than good, but they told me and some other friends what had happened. As a I am also a survivor of sexual violence, I became very angry. Whenever I saw the attacker I would call them a rapist. No, it was not a nice thing for me to do, and I absolutely should have handled it in a more mature way, I know that now.
One day, just after arriving in the cafeteria for lunch, I was asked to go with a security guard. She led me to a room where the school’s social worker and 10 other students were waiting to interrogate me as to why I was calling this other person names. I told them what had happened, leaving out my friend’s name because I didn’t want to cause them trouble. I was told that my friend was probably lying. If they were not lying, then why didn’t they report it to the police? I broke down in tears as I struggled to deal with the same frustration that I had been faced with years before. I told them that this person was dangerous and they ignored me. Two weeks later, that same person committed battery against a young teenage girl.
That same year, me and many of my classmates began driving. Whenever the police would see my trailer park friends driving, they would be stopped and searched. Twice I was in the car when this happened.
The first time, my friend made an unprotected left turn in front of an undercover police cruiser. It was our high school’s police officer driving. We were all nervous because we had too many people in the car, with one of our friends in the back of the SUV’s storage area. Because the driver would get a ticket, the boy in the back hid during the stop. When the police officer heard something coming from the backend she pulled out her gun, screaming for whoever was back there to get out. She told us that she had almost shot him because he had scared her. Afterwards, she searched the car.
The second time, I was in a car past curfew. My friends and I were dropping another friend off at their house, which was on the same street as a house party that was being busted. The police stopped us, and pulled each of us out, making us sit on the curb as they searched the vehicle. That night I was picked up from the station by my mom and given a ticket for being out past curfew. When I paid the fine, I dropped an envelope into the proper receptacle, giving the department the last bit of money I had in my bank account. One week later I received a phone call saying that I had only paid part of the fine, and that if I did not pay the rest of it a warrant would be put out for my arrest. I cried because I had paid the fine, and I had no more money to give them.
Now, I try my best to avoid driving in that area, especially if it is past 10 p.m., because it makes my anxiety act up. I can only imagine what someone with easily identifiable differences or assumed differences feels like when they drive through the area or have to interact with the police there.
Senior year of high school, I had bigger culture shock moving from southern Illinois to the western suburbs of Chicago than I did moving from the U.S. to China. People still do not believe me when I tell them these stories, but I have plenty of classmates who can verify these accounts.
It doesn’t surprise me that Trump has won. His statements have already inspired hate and violence towards minorities. Now that he is president many of the people who hold this hate in their heart will see it as acceptance of their behavior.
It makes me fear for those non-majority and underprivileged kids who are still in areas like the one I grew up in.