Sounding off: Students, staff address hate speech at Oswego East

The Unite the Right rally that took place in Charlottesville, VA, on August 12th, 2017, took a decidedly deadly turn when a attendee drove a vehicle through a crowd of Unite the Right protesters, killing one. Photo courtesy of Anthony Crider & Wikimedia Commons.

In Nebraska, posters were put up promoting heterosexual pride month. In Mississippi, graffiti containing racial slurs was found in a restaurant bathroom. In Oregon, a homeless transgender woman was assaulted in a parking lot. Each attacker used either homophobic, racist, or transphobic language towards their victims. Each incident took place on a single Sunday according to various news organizations. Yet these incidents are not confined to the major cities and streets of America. Sometimes they can come closer to home, as close as Oswego East High School itself.

In a time in which hate speech seems much more normalized and, ultimately, disturbingly acceptable in some areas, the school’s very own reflected in the surge of hurtful rhetoric such as this.

Sophomore Madeline Benzaquin said she hears slurs every day and is personally targeted because of her Jewish heritage at least once a week. Even if it’s a close friend simply making a joke, she still finds it damaging.

“I think they feel like they’re being funny but it’s annoying and hurtful, and never funny,” Benzaquin said.

Junior Cameron Andrea is another target of frequent harassment due to his sexuality. He said that despite the slurs he endures, he has become accustomed to hate speech.

“I just shake things off rather than deal with them in the present,” Andrea said.

Yet other students think the use of slurs is lessening the hate being spread. Senior Danfred Razon, a member of Hate Free At OE, said that he thinks certain groups of people use these words to almost claim them as their own.

“Slurs are gradually being appropriated by their intended targets into their own form of slang, nullifying some of the offense,” he said.

While these students had specific ideas to share, they are not the only ones who are used to hearing hate speech at school.

In a poll of 542 students, 8% of students said they never hear derogatory terms being used at school and 18% said they do on occasion. Twenty-four percent said that they sometimes hear hate speech and 50% said that they always hear abusive language, sometimes multiple times in a single week.

How often do you hear hate speech at Oswego East?

Poll based on a cross-section of East students

Freshman Ella Gershon, another member of Hate Free at OE, actually disagreed with the majority. She said that students’ use of derogatory terms is actually better than in middle school. 

“I’m pretty sure that people just think they’re being funny most of the time, at least when it comes to my own experiences with the use of slurs,” Gershon said.

But it’s not like staff members aren’t aware of the use of hate speech. Hate Free at OE sponsors Patrick Sweeney and Laura Wachowski are putting significant effort towards correcting students who use derogatory terms. 

Sweeney said he does not allow any kind of discriminatory speech in his presence. With any type of slur, he addresses the student and lets them know that it is hate speech. 

“I just make it very clear that it’s not something that’s tolerated. I never let it slide,” Sweeney said. 

Wachowski, on the other hand, utilizes a much gentler approach. 

“I try to move them in a direction of more creative language, rather than those old slurs that people use out of laziness almost,” Wachowski said.

M.O.S.A.I.C sponsor Esmeralda Foster also shared her views on hate speech and why people continue to utilize it in a school setting. She spoke of the issue of student’s comfort levels and openness with the hurtful words. 

“Before if we saw an adult we’d be like, ’oh we better not say anything,’ but now I could be walking behind a group of students and they just look and me and just keep going with their conversation,” Foster said.

There are other aspects to the issue that can be considered as well. ISA (Indian Student Association) Salina Naser said that, fortunately, racist slurs and hate speech can be weeded out of everyday conversation with patience and time.

“I’m not worried about this generation because you still have a whole generation of people behind you who know the connotation of [the words], who understand the power [these words have] on you,” Naser said. 

Wachowski said that consciousness is the answer. She argued that if people stop using slurs out of sheer laziness and start making an effort to fix our vocabulary, society can become more conscious of how certain words hurt and shouldn’t be used. This is one potential solution to the normalization of hate speech.

Benzaquin, for one, said she thinks solving the issue is complicated. 

“There needs to be [a solution] but I don’t think there can be. Kids aren’t going to change and you can’t change them,” Benzaquin added. 

Benzaquin mentioned one last thing students can do. She said she hopes to live in a world where hate speech is no longer the norm.

“The best chance there is to stop people from using slurs is to tell them off when they do use them and not let things like that fly.”

Lucy Weiher & Alexis Witherspoon are staff writers for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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