Although the 14-year-old Mexican-American girl had grown up in a North Carolina city that was nearly 80% white and less than 4% Latino, she hadn’t thought much about race until the week after Donald Trump became president.
While she was working on a project with four other students in her civics class, one of the boys, who was white, “started targeting me,” the girl said. He told her, “You don’t belong in this country,” and “Go back to where you came from,” and “You’re gonna be sent back,” she said. He mentioned the border wall Trump promised to build.
“I was kind of ashamed that it happened to me,” the girl said. “Never in my life had I experienced racism up until that point.”
She was one of 16 students who told BuzzFeed News that the Trump-inspired bullying they faced last school year marked the first time they had experienced racism. With the next school year weeks away, these students carry new anxieties about their place in the classroom social order that they didn't have this time last year — and they are entering the fall with a deeper understanding of the racial tensions they may encounter in the years to come.
When another white classmate tried to defend the 14-year-old girl, the boy called her “a fake American,” the girl recalled, and “told her that she should also leave since she was defending me.”
The girl didn’t tell her parents or teachers. She didn’t want her mother to worry, and she didn’t think her teachers would do anything about it. But more than that, she didn’t know what to do, because she was in an unfamiliar place — stunned by the boy’s words, confused about how to handle them, and lost in a school environment with few classmates of color who might understand what she was feeling.
For some children and teenagers across the country, the election of Trump — and the racial tensions and racist abuse that followed — was an introduction to the age-old biases that have battered minority groups since before the nation’s birth. Their experiences reveal the extent to which racial and religious intolerance has shaped how kids talk, joke, and bully, reflecting a national climate in which such language has become part of mainstream political speech — thanks largely to the rise of a president who talks like a playground thug.
As BuzzFeed News reported in June, white students across the country used the president's words and slogans to bully Latino, Middle Eastern, black, Asian, and Jewish classmates in the first school year of the Trump presidency. BuzzFeed News has been able to authenticate incidents of election-related bullying at 88 schools — and counting. These incidents were reported through the Documenting Hate project, a database of tips about hate crimes and bias incidents set up by ProPublica and shared with other news organizations.
The students who spoke to BuzzFeed News for this story each requested anonymity for fear that speaking out publicly would aggravate the abuse or damage their social lives.
All 16 attended majority-white schools and live in majority-white cities.
“It was the first time I really noticed that I was a minority in my own home,” said a 13-year-old Asian-American girl from Southern California. “It dawned on me that everyone around me looked the same. I’d never really paid attention to it.”
The racist bullying of the last school year was part of a larger wave of hate speech, vandalism, and violence that has swept the country over the past 12 months. In the four months following the election, at least three mosques were set on fire, Jewish cemeteries were defaced in at least three states, and white men in Kansas and Washington shot brown men because they thought they were Muslim, killing one and wounding two more. A BuzzFeed News investigation earlier this year tallied at least 18 hate crimes and bias incidents from November to March in Oregon alone.
As with those hate incidents across the country, the bullying in schools covered a wide range of prejudices. An 8-year-old girl in Kentucky — the only Latina in her class — was chased by a white classmate shouting, “Build that wall!” A biracial girl from the San Francisco Bay Area, who is part black and part Chinese, was told by a white classmate to "go back home to whatever country you're from." When a 16-year-old Egyptian-American girl from Colorado reached into her backpack during class, a white student joked that she might be grabbing a bomb. Three Jewish students said that they hadn’t considered themselves anything but white until classmates taunted them with Hitler and Holocaust jokes in the days after the election.
Several students described the racist abuse as a sort of moment of awakening for them — a realization that the current of racism they’d seen in the news and on television existed much closer to home than they’d assumed.
“You see these type of things in movies, but you don’t think it’ll happen,” said the 13-year-old girl from Southern California.
She was new at the middle school and, on many days, a group of girls she didn’t know would walk by her locker making statements about Trump keeping out immigrants.
“I couldn’t understand why they were targeting me,” she said. “I didn’t know who they were at all. Some days they’d scream my name and say phrases they heard Trump say.”
The bullying escalated. Following one particularly intense encounter, the girl suffered a panic attack. She met with a counselor. The principal suspended two of the bullies. The abuse stopped after that.
“I kinda grew from the situation,” the girl said. “I learned that there will be people who attack you because their disagreements are so strong. And I learned that I’m stronger than I think. I hope it doesn’t happen but I know there will always be people like that.”
For some of the parents whose kids faced Trump-inspired harassment, the bullying sparked conversations about race that they hadn’t yet thought to have — or had planned to initiate in a few years.
The father of a fifth-grade Jewish girl from Southern California had to explain to his daughter what a swastika was after somebody drew it next to the words “Go Trump” on a chalkboard in her classroom.
“I told her it was a symbol for people who don’t like Jewish people,” the father said. “I’d never heard of anything anti-Semitic happening at this school before.”
A Latino 10th-grader from a small town in Louisiana had gone to school with the same group of kids since kindergarten and been the only brown student in class, yet it wasn’t until October, when his high school held a mock election, that he suffered any harassment because of his race. After he admitted to classmates that he had voted for Hillary Clinton, scores of kids in the school cafeteria began chanting “Build that wall” at him, along with shouts of “Go back home!” and “Do you have your working papers?”
When he got home, he told his mother that he didn’t want to go back to school. He didn’t feel safe, he said.
“We had a long talk,” said the boy’s mother. “I had to explain to him that this is how some people see the world. We can’t let that stop us from living our lives.”
He returned to school the next day.
Some parents, though, worry that the racist climate of the Trump presidency will continue to fuel the bullying.
After a 12-year-old Latino boy from Virginia told his parents about racist abuse he was encountering at his mostly white Catholic school — taunts about deportation and building a wall — they began thinking about transferring him to public school, where the student body is more diverse.
“Everybody in the school was super nice — until President Trump won,” his mother said. “We started having conversations with our kids about why this is happening.”
For the 14-year-old Mexican-American girl from North Carolina, the emotional hit from her first experience of racist abuse felt debilitating.
“I was really scared to come back to school,” she said.
But then, in the weeks following the inauguration, she watched on television as protesters across the country rallied against Trump’s immigration policies. In the wake of what she had just gone through, the political conflicts in the news took on a new urgency in her mind.
“It made me proud about being Hispanic,” she said.
In the months that followed, as the election fell further into the past and her classmates’ infatuation with Trump cooled, the racist bullying “died down.” But the girl now understood enough about the world to keep her guard up.
“It’ll come back again,” she said. ●
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Albert Samaha is the criminal justice reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact Albert Samaha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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