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Talking about race on Long Island


As a senior at Mepham High School in Bellmore, I’m excited that ERASE Racism has launched a Long Island-wide public discussion called “How Do We Build a Just Long Island?” As a Hispanic student who has always gone to primarily white schools, I know how hard it is — and how important it is — to talk about race.

It’s hard because America was founded on both the concept of freedom and the fact of slavery. That’s not an easy combination to explain.

It’s important because the future of Long Island depends on it. According to researchers at Brown and Florida State universities, Long Island is one of the 10 most segregated metropolitan regions in America, and that’s something we need to talk about.

We need to talk about it because it’s important that all Long Islanders be accepted for who they are and have equal opportunities to succeed. We need to discuss the things that keep segregation in place, especially the things that are structural, like the way school districts are shaped and the way their curriculums are created.

One thing that bothers many students of color on Long Island, in my experience, is that those curriculums are what is known as “Eurocentric.” They’re based on a European — and, therefore, white — telling of history.

The focus is on how Europe evolved. Other cultures come up only when they are destroyed by Europeans. There is no celebration of African culture. Africans become slaves.

One of the side effects of this telling of history is that it becomes about white people, and everyone else. Everyone else is lumped together without any distinctions.

As a Hispanic student, I would get apologies in middle school during Black History Month for slavery in America. There were no black students in my grade, so I was the substitute. My father is Colombian by heritage and my mother Puerto Rican, but as a person of color, it was assumed that slavery was relevant to my background. I would get all the sad stares.

The conversations can become so complicated that in seventh grade, a classmate commented that my shirt was black and then apologized for saying it. Black is a color, and there’s no need to apologize for a color. I don’t happen to be black, and apologizing suggests that calling something black is an insult, which it’s not.

Discomfort with talking about race always seems to focus discussions in school on the civil rights movement, and not on the present. We get stuck in the 1960s, which again keeps the discussion focused on white and black — with no place to talk about Hispanics or Asians, then or now. It’s just more comfortable to talk about the ’60s and all that was accomplished then.

But Long Island is still segregated. I’ve been in Bellmore schools since first grade. More than 90 percent of my classmates have been white, and I’ve never had a black teacher.

The public discussion that we need to have is guilt-free. There’s no need to feel guilty about slavery if you weren’t involved. There’s no need to feel guilty about segregation if you’re working to end it. I’m involved, for instance, with ERASE Racism’s Education Equity Initiative, which is working to end structural racism in schools.

The initiative offers a variety of ways in which adults and students can get involved. There will be a Long Island-wide student conference in March focused on the challenge of replacing the Eurocentric curriculum with culturally responsive resources.

But you can’t just look the other way. Long Island is now known for its segregation, and that defines all of us as Long Islanders. Either we’re doing something to end it, or we really are part of the problem. There’s no way to escape that reality.

The public discussion that is underway through ERASE Racism (www.eraseracismny.org) is a great place to start. It’s time to talk about how to move Long Island forward.

Gabriela Daza, who lives in Bellmore, is a senior at Mepham High School.