From majority to minority
White students view Cleveland’s diverse culture through a unique lens
November 3, 2016
It’s become so routine that people don’t even notice. You fill out a government form and it immediately wants you to identify yourself based on a check box. Are you White? Black? Pacific Islander? If you have a look that others have labeled “exotic,” people want to know what is your race. Are you gay? How much money do you make? What neighborhood do you live in? People feel like they can sum up your entire life by giving you a label.
At Cleveland, those labels are what make the Eagles unique. It’s one of the most diverse schools in the district, and students run the gamut: Muslim. Chinese. Black. Adopted. Low income. First generation. Gay. Middle class. Homeless. This series, “Boxed In,” will be dedicated to covering diversity at CHS, whether it be the changing demographics of the student population, the lack of teachers of color in a school full of students of color, or stories around gender identity and religion. The Journal hopes to spark conversation and new perspectives for Cleveland students. This is Part 1.
Freshman Anthony Ginsberg walks to Room 1335 every morning for his ninth grade Humanities class. Once he enters, he takes a seat at his desk and looks to his left and right; he is surrounded by people of different races. The only difference between Ginsberg and his peers? He is white.
In a world where whites are typically in the majority, at Cleveland, they become the minority. White students accounted for only 6 percent of Cleveland’s student population during the 2013-14 school year, while accounting for 45.8 percent of the number of students enrolled in Seattle Public Schools during that same school year. The remaining 94 percent of students that attended Cleveland in the 2013-14 school year identified as students of color.
This year, Cleveland has 37 white male and 23 white female students.
Ginsberg selected Cleveland because of his interest in the STEM program. During his orientation, he was told by one of his school tour guides that there was a small population of white students at the school.
Ginsberg attended Pathfinder K-8 in West Seattle, where 60 percent of students identified as white in 2014-15.
“It was kind of weird going from mostly white to like, not white at all, especially since my middle school was really white,” he said.
Ginsberg’s ninth grade Humanities class was where he said he gained more insight into race, gender and much more. It was in that class that teachers led a “privilege walk” during their first unit that covered identity and how society views people of different backgrounds.
“I wanted students to have a personal connection to the learning that we were doing about oppression and privilege,” said Robert Gandy, a teacher on the ninth grade Humanities team.
The privilege walk consisted of students standing next to each other in line and moving forward or back depending on whether or not a statement being read by the teacher applied to them. At the end of the activity, the amount of privilege a person has is determined by where they are in the room. If a student was closer to the front of the classroom, they would be considered students who had more privilege than the students in the back, who would be considered less privileged.
“I ended up being a little more than halfway from our starting point more towards the front,” freshman class president Chapel Barnes said. “You can’t help to have guilt that there are people behind you because of your skin tone.”
Leaving the nest
Initially, being a white Eagle in a nest of color may be jarring, but it doesn’t take long for students adapt. Eventually those white students are lulled into a circle that doesn’t seem so different. It’s not until they leave Cleveland that they learn other places in are not as diverse as their alma mater.
Class of 2015 Cleveland alumni Elizabeth Paulson is currently a sophomore at Western Washington University in Bellingham. She is three-fourths white and one-fourth Samoan.
“At Cleveland I was seen as white, but now I’m at Western, I’m seen as Samoan,” Paulson said. “I was used to being the only white-passing kid in the class, but now I’m at Western, where everyone is white.”
Though she was seen as being only white by her peers at Cleveland, Paulson didn’t feel as if she was bullied because of how others viewed her. Overall, Paulson cherished her moments attending Cleveland, even though she was considered as part of the racial minority group at the school.
“We started having more meetings on race and police brutality,” Paulson said. “I started to appreciate diversity more.”
For elementary and middle school, Paulson attended Maple Elementary and Asa Mercer Middle School. Both schools are in South Seattle, where diversity among students has been historically high throughout the years.
“I’m honestly not used to being around so many white people,” Paulson said, remarking on the fact that 73.2 percent of all students enrolled at her college identify as white.
Paulson believes that her time at Cleveland has helped her become a person who is more culturally aware of her surroundings in social settings.
Senior Timothy Wetzel also agrees that attending a school as diverse as Cleveland has helped him gain perspectives from his peers about their cultures. One minor struggle Wetzel has had to overcome is breaking the stereotypes of white students.
“They [students] automatically say ‘Oh, you’re rich,’ and I’m like ‘No, not really,’” Wetzel said. “After a while they get to know you and they know you’re not any different from them.”
Having come from Aki Kurose Middle School, where the white student population was only 3 percent during the 2013-14 school year, the transition to Cleveland was fairly easy for Wetzel. He was also fortunate to have many friends choose to attend CHS.
The right choice
Sophomore Madison O’Brien transferred to Cleveland from Issaquah High School. She still lives in the Issaquah area and uses public transportation to get to school every day. Her decision to apply to Cleveland as an out-of-district transfer was influenced by the STEM program as well as members of the Lady Eagles basketball team, who recommended the school.
“The transition was pretty easy because I’ve grown up with a diverse family,” O’Brien said. “I have a brother and a sister who are both part black.”
O’Brien’s experience at Issaquah High School, which has a 63.2 percent white student population, lacked the cultural diversity that she wanted to be exposed to. She also believes her transfer has positively affected her dating life.
“I mainly hang out with people of other races and cultures,” O’Brien said. “I tend to find guys of color more attractive than white guys.”
O’Brien feels fortunate to have been accepted into Cleveland as an out-of-district transfer because she did not have to be put on the waiting list for her spot. She does not regret the choice she made.
“After I got in, I was really excited,” O’Brien said. “The overall fact is that I love this school.”