Reading, Writing, Racism: What I Found When I Called Out a Classmate

Photo illustration shows brown paper doll cutouts in a shadowed semicircle, with a single paper doll laying flat
Shutterstock illustration
Photo illustration shows brown paper doll cutouts in a shadowed semicircle, with a single paper doll laying flat
Shutterstock illustration

Essay by Kylie Bridgeman, Walnut Hills H.S.

English class was always a place where I felt seen, heard and successful—until one day, during a presentation, a white classmate responded to me: “No, you monkey.” After my initial confusion, his hateful and racist words struck me in the face and changed my worldview. As a biracial woman, the dichotomy of race is something that has always challenged me. To have someone else, a classmate who looks so much like people who love me, disrespect my identity made me feel more out of place than ever before. Did he not see that we were more alike than we were different?

I could not understand why he wanted to break me, using race as his weapon. For weeks after this happened my English class felt divided and broken, as countless conversations circled around those three simple words. Some of the discussion was comforting, as it allowed me to feel seen again, but in the same light the rest of the conversations were more hurtful than the three words themselves.

Some of my white classmates couldn’t see the problem with what had been said to me; others did understand what was wrong, but just did not care. Why should racist speech at school matter to them, if they’re not directly affected by it? Many of my Black peers were not supportive of me, even worked hard to invalidate my feelings: This kind of stuff happens to them all the time—why couldn’t I just shake it off?

But I stood my ground. I communicated, I cried, I listened, but most importantly I did not apologize for being hurt. 

Calling out racial injustice and discrimination can be a double-edged sword. On one side, silence allows the problem to continue; on the other side, vocalizing our trauma can cut even deeper, because there is always a chance that others will deny your lived experience. I stood firm in my truth, I got over my fear, and I chose to speak up, despite many people pushing me to drop the issue. My experience shed light on the racism and microaggressions lurking in my school community: hard conversations were had, counselors visited classrooms, and people began to face consequences for their racism. 

I never would have thought that a simple project presentation could lead to me finding myself, but after peeling back layers, I found confidence. I found that my Blackness is not just half of me, but all of me. Most importantly, I found my voice. In a way, I’ve become thankful for those three words. They allowed me, my peers, and my community to grow. If it weren’t for that day, that group assignment, those three words — the hate might still be hiding under the surface, and I would still be stuck in friendships with people who do not respect and value every part of my identity.

That slap in the face opened my eyes.

Kylie Bridgeman is a member of the Democracy & Me Student Advisory Board this fall, a staff writer for The Chatterbox, the student news site of Walnut Hills H.S., and editor-in-chief of The Rembrancer (yearbook.)

Kylie Bridgeman

Questions for Discussion:

Have you witnessed or experienced racist comments, other hate speech, identity-based bullying or microaggressions at your school? What happened? How did you feel? What did you do?

Do you think Kylie did the right thing here by speaking up in her English class? What do you think of the way others responded to the situation?

How should teachers, administrators, coaches, and other adults handle incidents of racism between students? How should students deal with racism among their peers?

Can you think of a time when a painful experience or an uncomfortable conversation taught you something important about yourself? Try journaling about it, or comment below.