In many ways the boys are similar, both were student council president and successful students. Both say they weren’t taught enough about race at school.
Delaware News Journal
WILMINGTON, Del. — As a kid, Omar Chatt could never wrap his head around why Rosa Parks wasn’t allowed to sit near the white passengers.
Race was only an occasional conversation topic among Omar and his parents, often only coming up when his class would reach the annual Black history lesson.
The realities of race gained new focus when he got his license. He was learning to drive, but he was also learning how to interact with police if he got pulled over.
“You have to stay still. You can’t be moving,” Omar said. “Seeing the blue and red lights, my heart is pounding. You think to yourself, ‘Wow, is this going to be my last moment?’ I get scared, but I just remain calm and say a prayer, ‘Lord, be with me now.’”
Will Rhodunda grew up being told police officers were the good guys, always to be trusted if he was in danger.
“When I started to be home alone, I was always told, if something is wrong, or there’s somebody at our house that’s not supposed to be, to call the cops,” Will said. “I’ve always trusted the police.
“I’ve woken up over the past couple of weeks to the fact that not everybody feels that way.”
In many ways, the high school lives of Omar and Will mirror one another. They each earned good grades at Concord High School in Wilmington, Delaware. Their schedules were filled with after-school activities and both served stints as student council president.
They are both bound for college, and graduating at a fraught time in the world, as the country faces both the uncertainties of a pandemic and a reckoning over its history of racism.
But at 18, watching news of protests and police brutality through their phones, Omar and Will both have a heightened awareness that no matter their similarities, the world still sees them differently.
Omar is Black, Will is white.
Omar scrolls through social media seeing videos of Black people getting arrested or killed, terrified that he or his family members could be next.
Will watches as police officers in riot gear confront peaceful protesters, pushing him to confront his own white identity.
It’s been just over a month since the death of George Floyd, and the nation is still reeling. It’s sent both Omar and Will searching for answers, reading whatever they can get their hands on to fill in the gaps of their education on race.
They’re both still processing the confusion and anger of watching the country argue over race and police violence. And they both reached the same conclusion.
Something in this country needs to change.
But like so many other Americans, they don’t know how to get there.
Lessons about race
Omar remembers a lot about growing up in his house on Lombard Street.
Living on Wilmington’s east side with his parents, grandmother and four brothers and sisters, he remembers the dirt bike and the handful of times people attempted to steal it. The alleyway that would get broken into, and the drug sales that went on in clear sight in front of his house.
One time he and his grandmother witnessed a man getting shot while on their walk home.
“Little things like that. It wasn’t a nice neighborhood,” he said. “It definitely shaped me a lot as a person. And a lot of people would never expect where I came from at all. You would never know unless I told you.”
Now, the Chatts live in a North Wilmington home near Wilmington Hospital.
After a concussion in ninth grade ended his time on the wrestling team, Omar decided to throw himself into other school clubs.
He joined student council, eventually serving as president his senior year, and represented Concord students on the district-level council. He volunteered serving meals at the Emmanuel Dining room, and played tuba all through high school.
Omar started thinking more seriously about race and politics when Donald Trump was elected president. Suddenly, teens would be arguing in the comments of Instagram posts over something the president had said or tweeted.
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He also started noticing quieter moments of racism as he moved through high school.
White students would casually drop the n-word in songs or conversation, claiming to have said it “by accident.”
When he worked in the front office, he noticed more Black students were being written up than white students. (Nationally, a body of research reflects his observations — Black students are much more likely to be suspended or arrested in school.)
Omar once asked his band director if they could play works by more diverse composers, particularly for Black History Month. At first, the director seemed dismissive of his request. But eventually, after more vocal complaints from Omar, the director came around.
“If I never would have stood up, we never would have been playing that piece,” he said.
Omar knows he has more to learn about Black history and race in America. He only learned about the Rodney King riots a few days after hearing about George Floyd’s death. But he’s also realized that some of his peers have remained even more in the dark when it comes to police brutality against Black Americans.
“I have friends who are like, ‘This is the first time this has happened,’” Omar said. “No, the stuff we’re seeing today is stuff we’ve seen since the ’50s and ’60s. In our schools, we learn about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. But we don’t really get into detail about these subjects. How about you teach me what happened in the past, so we can be better off in the future?”
‘People don’t give a second look’
Five years ago, Will attended what he thought would be a normal baseball game. But as he watched the Baltimore Orioles play the Boston Red Sox, riots were unfolding outside the stadium after the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of police.
That moment, timed with Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling protest during the national anthem, was when Will came face to face with his shallow understanding of race in America.
Will grew up a quick 10-minute drive from Concord High, in a neighborhood filled with manicured green lawns and neighbors who always greet each other on the street.
He’s lived in the house his whole life, and knows his parents were able to provide him a comfortable life growing up. He said he has never felt unsafe walking out of his home.
“People don’t question when I walk places at night if I’m doing something suspicious. People will always smile at me when I wave to them,” he said. “I feel like that’s how white privilege is, people don’t give a second look.”
He first saw the video of now-former officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck on Instagram. At first, Will was disgusted. But he wanted to know the full story before passing judgment. As more details emerged, he was left feeling “confusion, sadness and anger all around.”
“I was just embarrassed that as a white person, we have to be associated with someone who does something that harmful to another person,” he said.
Will watched as his social media feeds filled with posts about Black Lives Matter and violent protests across the country.
Friends on Instagram proclaimed they would end friendships with those who don’t support Black Lives Matter. Others accused those who were staying silent on social media of being complicit in the face of racism.
He worries that the outpouring of awareness online will be temporary and has already noticed that people are less vocal than they were a few weeks ago.
“I definitely think there’s a pressure for you to post things,” he said. “If you’re not posting things, people are saying, ‘What the heck is wrong with you?’”
Much like the protests Will saw in Baltimore, thousands marched through Wilmington and other Delaware cities in the weeks after Floyd’s death.
On May 30, protesters moved through Wilmington’s downtown streets chanting the rallying cries of “No justice, no peace,” and “Black lives matter,” eventually taking over I-95.
As day turned to night, lingering protesters began smashing the windows of Market Street businesses, and police in riot gear eventually ordered people off the downtown streets.
Neither Will nor Omar attended a protest that weekend, but they both saw the day unfold through social media. Confused and upset, they both turned to their senior English teacher, Julia Overly.
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They weren’t the only ones. In the weeks since the protests shook Wilmington, Overly has fielded calls and texts from dozens of current and former students, all trying to get a sense of what is going on in the world.
Even newly graduated seniors like Will and Omar were eager to keep reading and learning into the summer.
“People assume teens are just into their phones and their sneakers,” Overly said. “No, teens are extremely passionate. They are emotional. But they lack the deeper history and life experience to fully process those feelings. They are much more socially aware with this topic than I think people give them credit for. They’re involved. They’re watching.”
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The day after protesters marched through Wilmington, the Concord community gathered on the sidewalks as the class of 2020 paraded to the high school parking lot.
Will and Omar drove through the suburban streets with their classmates, waving at teachers and neighbors cheering them on with signs and balloons. It had been months since they’d seen their friends in person, after their typical high school lives ended abruptly on a Friday in March.
It was a happy occasion in the moment, the culmination of 13 years of schooling. In the fall, they’ll both head off to college; Omar attending the University of Delaware to study biology, and Will majoring in international business at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
But for the two graduates, celebrating that sunny morning also felt strange, almost wrong, as the realities of the world still loomed in their heads and on nearby streets.
“Seeing all my friends, it was the happiest we’ve all been in the past three months,” Will said. “We were all so happy, when there are people getting hurt and protesting the injustice in our country. I wish everyone could be as happy as we were that day.”
Read or Share this story: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2020/07/12/race-colors-students-lives-despite-similarities/5389661002/
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