High school students Marriya Henry, left, Naiah Mensah, center, and Cecilia Garcia share a laugh as they talk openly with one another about their experiences in school and the community. Staff photo by Tyler Stewart
High school students Marriya Henry, left, Naiah Mensah, center, and Cecilia Garcia share a laugh as they talk openly with one another about their experiences in school and the community. Staff photo by Tyler Stewart
EDITOR'S NOTE: Ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, the News and Tribune hosted a conversation with three Southern Indiana high school students to discover what it's like being a young person of color in a divided America. Their experiences, both unique and shared, have given them perspective beyond their years.

SOUTHERN INDIANA — Stereotypes. Discrimination. Intolerance.

They feel it. They absorb it. Then they destroy it. 

Welcome to being a teenager of color in 2019.

You are followed. Stared at. Judged. Even shamed.

Right now. Today.

Just for the color of your skin.

"I think it's a stigma that's associated with minorities," said Naiah Mensah, a 16-year-old junior at Floyd Central High School, who says she's been followed at stores, or has faced menacing glares. "I'm just like, 'if you knew me ...' But I don't have to prove myself to show my character.

"You should see me as me, and not as the color of my skin."

Mensah along with Marriya Henry, 17, a senior at Jeffersonville High School, and Cecilia Garcia, 18, a senior at New Albany High School, reveal that the same poison of intolerance that fueled King and the Civil Rights Movement is still alive today. While more subtle than the Jim Crow era, discrimination lurks just beneath the surface, gulping air at opportune moments: a white nationalist march in Virginia, a partial government shutdown over a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, a prolonged stare while in a store.

"I have seen it and I have been around it, so I do know how it feels," said Henry, who says she's been accused of stealing. "It diminished me because I'm not that type of person. I am so mature and I am so intelligent, and it's so degrading that they would take that character from me."

As the nation wrestles with its identity, youth of color cull inspiration from those who fought before them, from those who are blazing new trails, and from their own inner strength, as they embrace a collective credo: know thyself.

"Don't let it get to you," Garcia said, "because at the end of the day, you know yourself, you know who you are, and nobody can change that."

REVISITING THE PAST

High schools are not immune to the weighty issues pressing down on a country. The election of President Donald Trump in 2016, all three said, brought those issues to the forefront.

Classmates are more emboldened to speak their minds, whether it be racial overtones or, most recently, thoughts on immigration with the debate raging over border security, according to the panel.

"When [Trump] was first elected there was a lot of people going around thinking it was OK to call me the N-word," Henry said. "They had a lot of things to say that had nothing to do with my character, nothing to do with the conversation, nothing to do with anything that was brought up. Politics has contributed a big amount to the tension that's going on."

The partial government shutdown, nearly a month old, has put the focus on immigration, and Garcia, of Mexican descent, hears the whispers at school.

"Right now as a Mexican, it's really tense. I did see a change," she said of classmates' attitudes. "Immigration, they think about the wall, and it's always like, 'it's Mexicans, they're bringing crime,' and we're stealing their jobs. So I've seen that around my peers. They have their political beliefs, which I respect, but sometimes there are comments, like stereotyping."

Those words cut deep impressions. Over time they stack up and harbor self-doubt, especially as high school fades away and the real world sharpens into focus.

"Just like with a job interview I don't know if they're going to look at me and not hire me," Garcia said. "Or even just your name, they can read your name and they're like 'she's got to be this.'"

Discrimination. Then, it's destroyed.

"But at the same time I do find inspiration in it," Garcia said. "To prove not to myself and to my family but my ethnicity and prove there is good in it, and that we're not just criminals."

"Prove them wrong," Henry chimed in.

Garcia: "Exactly."

FORCED BEHAVIOR

Youth of color are forced to grow up fast. To think about things most of us never fathom.

Henry says she's always aware of her environment, who's surrounding her, which dictates her actions.

"I don't want to put off the wrong image to someone else," she said. "I always want to make sure I'm representing myself and who I'm with properly. Because one little misrepresentation could turn something the wrong way that it doesn't have to go."

Even today, in 2019, routine trips outside the home become case studies in a type of self-prescribed decorum.

"Playtime is at home, it's not at the store anymore," Henry said. "We always make sure, me and my siblings, we go to the store and we behave, come home and roughhouse all we want, get it all in. But when we're out we make sure we put on an image that won't give out the wrong image to somebody else."

"And you're taught that," Mensah added. "I don't know how it is in other cultures but I know my mom, being an African-American woman, we were taught at a young age, me and my brother, to stay true to who you are, keep your character and who you are, but don't be all rambunctious."

Their fears are not an illusion. In a 2017 study, the Pew Research Center revealed that most Americans believe race relations have worsened since Donald Trump was elected President.

The study from Pew, a nonpartisan think tank, showed that a majority of Americans (60 percent) say Trump's election has led to worse race relations in the United States. Just 8 percent said Trump's election has led to better race relations, while 30 percent said it has not made a difference, the study states. Additionally, the study found "that a majority of Americans (65 percent) continue to say there are 'very strong' or 'strong' conflicts between blacks and whites in the U.S."

"I feel like we can overcome it, but it's just something right now, they look at you and they see the color of your skin," Mensah said. "It's just a revolving circle, it just keeps going back. I don't know how to get out of this continuous circle. I don't know what to do."

Added Henry: "It's scary."

"It's very scary because you go out into the world, it's just something we have to think about more consciously than say a white person may have to think of," Mensah said. "Just walking through this life is very different. It shouldn't be, but it is."

BELIEVING IN A DREAM

Martin Luther King Jr.'s message of tolerance and non-violence still resonates with high school students more than five decades later — especially in a polarized America locked in a partial government shutdown, with Democrats and Republicans unwilling to budge.

Being subjected to bias at school and in the community creates a tug-of-war mentality in the minds of young people.

"I know that he did not believe in violence," Mensah said of King. "And not going around the world angry. Because I don't want to be like 'the angry black woman.' I just want to go in this world not so angry, and it does hurt. But I feel like that's what makes us strong, is seeing that hurt and seeing all those different things our ancestors, or family, our people we're close to, everything. That makes us who we are, that makes our foundation."

For Henry, there's room to grow.

"Right now we're not in a violent, violent place, but it's not as peaceful as it could be," she said. "I do feel like we could become better, we could become stronger, to take the violence away and build on from there."

The divisiveness plaguing America could make the timing ripe to recall King's legacy.

"I think it's forgotten. We should celebrate his day more," Garcia said. "Kids just know it as a day off at school mostly, some kids don't even know what he did. And I think it's important for your school, your parents, anyone to really talk about that. Because he did so much. This world just wouldn't be the same.

"I think we should re-evaluate what he said and bring it back because it is going away."

The panel said lack of knowledge — and experience — from classmates' parents plays a big role in their peers' attitudes and actions — something King also fought.

"I just feel like they don't understand everyone is unique, everybody comes from a different background, that everybody has an experience," Henry said. "I feel like that lack of knowledge is what makes them so ignorant to another person's struggles, another person's challenges ... without that knowledge we're just floating in our own bubbles, never combining."

King would be 90 if he were still alive today. What would the world be like if he were still around?

"I feel like violence would be low, like at an all-time low," Henry said. "I feel like diversity and communication would be accepted. I feel like it would give people a free world to understand like, I'm me, they're them, she's her and he's him, and there's nothing else I can do about it.

"I feel that it would be ... what's the word?"

Mensah: "Uniting?" 

Henry: "Yes!"

DIFFERENT BACKGROUNDS

While all three of the panelists come from loving, nurturing home environments, their experiences at school differ.

Henry, for example, touted the diversity at Jeffersonville High School, which is nearly 20 percent black, according to the Indiana Department of Education. Other minorities make up 24 percent percent of the school's population.

"At Jeff, we do get a lot of exposure to different cultures from different backgrounds," she said. "I feel like that's what makes us one of the uniquer schools."

Mensah, however, has a different experience at Floyd Central, which is 91 percent white and only 1 percent black, according to the Indiana Department of Education.

"I've had an identity crisis since the time I was little," said Mensah, who attended Covenant Christian and Christian Academy of Indiana before Floyd Central. "I do not have a strong foundation of multicultural, and I want to. It's discouraging for me in a way. I've always questioned, 'well, do I know who I am?' Because what if I hung around a certain group of people, would I be the same person?

"I feel like my home-life and school, I know who I am based on those things. I just feel like it would be different if I had more color in my life."

Floyd Central has created a diversity council to give minority students a voice.

"I think there's a potential at any school for a minority to be marginalized," Floyd Central Principal Rob Willman said. "That's what we don't want to have happen. And if it does, to know about it and how to fix it."

Garcia sees the impact of the border-wall debate on her parents, and notices the "fear of the world just kind of going against them" in their eyes. Still, Garcia, who's been asked by peers if she's going to get deported, pushes on.

"My mom, my biggest role model, taught me something is either going to make you stronger, or it breaks you," she said. "In this case it's making me stronger. Those comments, it's how you take it."

KNOW THYSELF

All three panelists have big dreams. Dreams? No. Goals.

Henry wants to study at Georgia Tech to be an engineer. She takes inspiration from her aunt's friend, an aeronautical engineer.

"I feel like she's my biggest influence because I know I'm going into a white, male-dominated field," Henry said. "And I know that that's not going to stop me because this is what I want to do."

Mensah seeks to be a neurologist, with plans to enroll at the University of Kentucky.

Despite wrestling with her identity, Mensah finds inspiration in the struggle for equality.

"I don't feel discouraged at all," she said. "It makes me so proud, it motivates me to work even harder. Some people are going 100 percent, I'm going to go 150. You always feel like you have to one-up, and prove yourself."

The University of Louisville is Garcia's target, with a goal of becoming a pediatrician.

"People do look upon you, like, 'you're going to become a doctor?'" she said. "Like it's a big thing. There's not specifically somebody in the medical field that I look up to, but that doesn't mean that I can't be somebody else's role model someday."

Youth of color still deal with stereotypes. Discrimination. Intolerance.

Today. In 2019.

Then they destroy it, with a united credo: know thyself.

"Just stay true to who you are," Henry said. "There are many different things that somebody can see about you when you walk in. From your hair to your clothes or how you come to a meeting. But until they talk to you, until they get to know you, they won't know who you truly are until you speak."

"That's exactly right," Mensah said. "Knowing who you are is the biggest thing."

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