Patrick Herndon, a senior at Fremont’s Irvington High School, has plans to start a cultural club next year. Like many of the other campus clubs, his would focus on his heritage and raise awareness about its roots.
But Patrick, 16, is white—and he knows that his idea for a Caucasian Cultures club is bound to receive some harsh criticism and maybe even allegations of racism. But he’s prepared to argue his point.
“I think people will consider it to be racist and they won’t let us do it because they think we will try to infringe on the rights of other races,” Patrick said. “But by not allowing us to have a club, it infringes on our rights as Americans.”
He’s not the first with the idea for a club for white students. Last year, Lisa McClelland, a freshman at Freedom High School in Oakley, made headlines around the world when she tried the same thing and ended up transferring to another school because of the harassment she encountered.
It’s a sign that the tables may be turning when it comes to racism, with whites on the receiving end this time. It’s an especially sensitive issue in diverse Silicon Valley, where minorities make up about one-third of the population. In many Bay Area cities, they represent the majority.
Edna Bonacich, a professor of sociology and ethnic studies at the University of California-Riverside, said some white people are still adjusting to their changing communities and neighborhoods.
“I think they’re uncomfortable,” she said. “They feel like they’re losing control.”
For Roni Cohen, a Jewish 16-year-old who goes to Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, it isn’t an issue of control. For her, it’s more about being taken advantage of and being able to speak her mind, even if what she has to say isn’t necessarily politically correct.
“African-American girls laugh at us when we dance because we’re white, but we can’t laugh back,” she said. Even though white people represent the majority of the nation’s population, it’s almost as if “they don’t have the right to speak, so they can never defend themselves.”
Nikhil Matani, a senior at Bellarmine College Preparatory in San Jose, understands why minorities are so sensitive about racism.
“The idea is that white people haven’t undergone a certain amount of racial oppression that others have, so when white people make racist comments or ideas, it’s more like they’re in an ivory tower,” said Nikhil, 16, who is Indian.
Other students, however, said they personally were not involved in racist behavior such as slavery and shouldn’t be held accountable for the actions of their ancestors. But Bonacich said racism continues today, even if it’s in smaller doses.
“There still is a privilege connected with being white,” she said. “You’re the normal person if you’re white and everyone else is qualified in some way. You’re an immigrant, you’re black, you’re different. Whites can say they’re not racist but that doesn’t mean that they don’t benefit or participate in a system.”
But not everyone—white or otherwise—considers race to be a big deal.
“Every person is human and should just be treated equally on all levels,” said Sahil Patel, a senior at Harker School in San Jose. “I wonder why people consider race as such a big issue in the first place.”
Suzie Spelyanksy, 16, knows that racial differences between people can’t be ignored.
“After a while you get used to it and it doesn’t bug you as much,” she said. “Now, it’s just, ‘These are my friends; why should I care what they look like?’ ”