When Tevis Bryant, a PhD candidate in education, arrived at Plymouth State University 18 months ago, he hoped for academic rigor in a bucolic setting – where racial diversity was not only tolerated, but supported and encouraged.
What he found was not what he envisioned.
Last year, some students spray-painted the N-word in bathroom stalls on the PSU campus. It stayed up for almost a year, Bryant said, until he contacted campus police, who removed it. Recently, a female athlete was called racist slurs on Snapchat. Last month, an online Black Lives Matter listening session for faculty, staff and students of color was Zoom-bombed by someone playing Negro spirituals, he said.
Before Bryant arrived, he said a student proposal to hold a Jamaican Day parade met resistance from administrators. Last fall a diversity and inclusion student group disbanded after a white faculty member objected to their using the name “One Tribe,” he said.
“We weren’t actively able to function as a group,” said Bryant, who is director of student life at Plymouth State and president of the Black Students Union. “I was exhausted with the fight.”
He said athletes of color are wooed by recruitment materials that advertise diversity, which turns out not to be the case on campus, so they transfer to larger universities in more diverse, urban places. At Plymouth State, LGBTQ student resources far exceed what’s available for students of color, which makes them feel less valued and less included, said Bryant, who is black and a member of the LGBTQ community.
“We can’t blame lack of diversity’’and inclusion “on geography or the community. It’s about being honest and transparent” about what’s happening on campus, supporting students of color, and responding in ways that make students know racism won't be tolerated, he said.
"Plymouth State University is a community that takes pride in celebrating diversity and embracing differences among all people, but we also acknowledge that challenges exist, including those raised by Tevis Bryant," PSU administrators said in statement Thursday. "Diversity is one of our core values, and we have a long-standing commitment to being a vibrant, inclusive, and multicultural community and we are actively working to include the campus experience for people of color."
The University System of NH Board of Trustees is currently reviewing a proposal to create a PSU administrative office focused on diversity, equity and social justice, which would include a cabinet-level administrator. Bryant said having people of color in positions of authority helps establish respect and inclusion.
Racism – and nurturing diversity – remain a challenge throughout New Hampshire, according to leaders at schools, Manchester and Seacoast NAACP, ACLU of New Hampshire, racialunityteam.com (a watchdog group on the Seacoast) and members of the Governor's Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion. Racist bullying – and bullying for any reason – happen more often than anyone but victims realize, they say, including in elementary and secondary schools and colleges, and in rural communities where residents believe racism is non-existent because the population is mostly white.
“There’s not one incident happening. You’re always going to have comments from people who are raised to hate,” Bryant said. One of the main reasons racism in schools is under-reported is because students “don’t feel the support to report.”
Without racism-specific education for parents, teachers and pupils – and unless active and consistent intervention occurs – racist harassment can continue in speech and behavior, intermittently or frequently, even unconsciously, according to victims and diversity advocates at the NAACP and ACLU, and racialunityteam.com.
Overt incidents seem rare in the Lakes Region, where people of color account for less than 5 percent of the population. But much of what occurs is subtle or unnoticed. Incidents happen at school where supervisory adults cannot see or hear, and just as many occur in classrooms, according to national research.
Rogers Johnson, chairman of the Governor’s Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion and president of Seacoast NAACP, worries that teachers are either oblivious or ignore bullying when it happens, including racist behavior or remarks. ““How could anyone with a sense of decency not want to prevent a child from being bullied? Once that hurt has been established, it doesn’t go away. It lasts a lifetime," he said. Johnson said the NH Department of Education's website includes training and resources of bullying prevention that are rarely used by schools.
According to a 2019 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 43 percent of bullied students report that it occurs in school hallways or stairwells, 42 percent experience it in classrooms, followed by 27 percent in cafeterias, 22 percent outside on school grounds, 15 percent online or by text, 12 percent in bathrooms or locker rooms, and 8 percent on school buses.
The most common reasons for bullying are physical appearance, race or ethnicity, gender, disability and sexual orientation, research shows. Race or bias-based school bullying accounts for more than a third of reported incidents, and racist bullying is significantly associated with negative physical and emotional health effects, according to studies from 2012 and 2013.
"Unfortunately, I think racist bullying is more prevalent than what is reported. I think bullying in general is more prevalent than reported," said Kirk Beitler, superintendent of schools in Gilford. That district is currently developing a policy on diversity and inclusion that will guide racism prevention and response at district schools. In Gilford, where roughly 94 percent of students are white and racist incidents are uncommon, racist bullying has taken the form of inappropriate word use and racial slurs, he said.
Dan LeGallo, superintendent of schools in Franklin, says district schools have extra social workers on site to address social and emotional issues, and staff and teachers can follow children closely because schools are small. But he concedes that some bullying incidents go undetected because students choose not to report, fearing escalation or backlash, or that reporting will not solve anything.
“Kids don't always tell us what's going on in their lives," LeGallo said. Racist bullying is "a terrible thing when it occurs, and it makes the kids feel so lonely" – uncomfortable with peers, alienated at school, and feeling rejected and flawed for a reason beyond their control.
Racist bullying can breed social malaise and identity and self-esteem challenges, as well as anger and hurt, according to experts at New Hampshire's chapters of the NAACP and ACLU, and long-term research on the effects of bullying. Although racist incidents may be uncommon in New Hampshire school districts where target populations are small, the effects can be profound.
What hurts “more than physical abuse are the words young people use,” said Jordan Thomas, racial justice organizer for ACLU New Hampshire and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Nashua, who went to middle and high school in Nashua.
Thomas, 21, said, “It generally makes you feel like you’re less than,” especially in a predominantly white state, “and that ‘I’m not like everyone else here. I’m an outcast and an outsider.’ It’s a difficult feeling that affects your grades, academic performance and view of yourself.” The effects worsen when incidents are ignored, he said. “When children are “treated with disrespect, if people act like that behavior is OK, it creates a really unwelcoming environment. It can be the comment or racist joke you didn’t mean” to be offensive, but which made others laugh.
Thomas coordinates speaker forums called “New Hampshire is Not Innocent,” a title inspired by a sign placed on the statue of Daniel Webster after a BLM rally outside the Concord statehouse. Thomas said he hopes Granite Staters airing their experiences with racism will be eye-openers for audiences statewide. The free listening events will occur in Bethlehem, Canaan, Claremont, Dover, Exeter, Keene and Nashua.
“It’s really about acknowledging what has flown under the radar for too long,” Thomas said. “We can’t move forward in a way that’s authentic and substantive if we don’t acknowledge the issues right in front of us.”
Name calling by other kids, including the N-word – whether copied from family members, playmates, television or social media – and derogatory comments about skin color, which a black girl experienced with little or no response from elementary school officials in Hampton, should not be dismissed as childish insensitivity or an isolated event, said Jim McKim, president of Manchester NAACP.
Downplaying racist behavior in front of children sows thinking about people of color as “less than” yourself, even before children have any interaction with other races, said Woullard Letts, co-chairman of the education committee at Manchester NAACP. And those attitudes become entrenched if uncorrected, he said. This leads to wariness or avoidance, when skin color may be the only differentiating factor between children of different races, apart from their personalities, interests and ethnic backgrounds – “which are differences we all share,” Letts said.
“We’re influenced by our experiences, what we see, what we’ve been taught,” said McKim. "Black males and black people in general have become associated with danger.”
Racial profiling starts early in life. In the 1940s, psychologists asked children ages three to seven how they felt about two dolls with plastic skin – one pink, one brown. Most white children and some black children expressed negative perceptions of the brown doll. Fears that humans harbor about people different from themselves come from the section of the brain responsible for fight or flight in situations of danger. Unless that response is countered with positive interaction, reason and education, it can lead to destructive stereotypes, said McKim. Racism can continue as thinly-veiled insults, such as telling a person of color who just earned a PhD that “Your people must be so proud of you” or saying to a black teenager, “You’re really pretty for a black girl.”
“Saying ‘We don’t have diversity here,’ in my mind, is a cop-out," McKim said. "The dynamic is children are in a developmental state and are looking for self-worth. Their self-worth comes from how others react to them." Parents and teachers need to be role models who coach speech and behavior, he said. He urges parents to join or form parent-teacher associations at their children’s schools to ensure that racist behavior stops.
“We need to be looking through other people’s lenses as much as we can on a daily basis,” said Alison Buchholz, a professor of education at Plymouth State. “Our actions need to protect others. Children need to learn that saying, ‘Your hair is so fuzzy, let me touch it!’ is really not an appropriate thing to say."
Schools need to teach the history of racism, and explain the contributions of people of color to American history and culture, said Letts at the Manchester NAACP. And teachers need to become aware of their own biases, said McKim.
According to reports that Manchester NAACP has received from local families, some teachers give students of color less challenging class assignments than their white classmates, or tell immigrant children they're not expected to be able to do the work. Some students of color have been discouraged from taking advanced courses, McKim said.
Racism also occurs when a teacher tells a student to ask an Asian-American classmate for help with math, said Ken Mendis, a Sri-Lankan- American and former chair of racialunityteam.com based in Exeter.
Racism also erupts in school projects. Recently, 11th graders at Dover High School sang about the Ku Klux Klan and violence against African Americans to the melody of “Jingle Bells” for a history assignment.
Sarah Harris, who teaches deaf children and includes tolerance of others in her lessons, grew up in Holderness. When she heard that the N-word was used against a bi-racial third grader on her first day of school in Bristol, she was appalled. "I felt disgusted. This is a very young child,” she said.
Harris currently lives in Queens, New York, with her husband and their two bi-racial children, in a racially and ethnically diverse neighborhood where she hopes they will escape racial insults. But she worries about her bi-racial niece in elementary school in Plymouth.
“I don’t know the answer to this. But one thing is to be proactive. The SAU needs to know that this incident is more prevalent than anyone wants to admit." The two third-grade girls who came forward to tell the principal what was said at recess "need to be recognized for doing the right thing” and for being allies against racism, Harris said.