In his 50 years, Isiah Anderson, a businessman and basketball coach, has never been called the N-word – a mercy he attributes to luck, and to growing up in a culture of greater decency, with sensitivity to words that hurt.
Nothing prepared him for what his daughter encountered on her first day of school last month. During recess, an 8-year-old classmate insulted her appearance and called her the N-word – a term she’d never heard before. It was a word her black and white parents hoped would never be uttered at her small, rural elementary school, with its culture of kindness and a social-emotional curriculum called “Choose Love.”
“We have normal issues on the playground,” said Sarah Rollins, principal of Bristol Elementary School. “I’ve never heard that word used before," in six years here as principal. "We address what is community, inclusiveness and diversity. We don't say black or white. Part of my job is teaching them to be really good citizens and individuals."
Bristol Elementary serves an area that includes bi-racial and immigrant families, where parents are conscious of social issues and teachers are attuned to student needs. This summer, residents walked in a Black Lives Matter rally organized by a former Newfound School District student. Against that backdrop, the playground incident surprised both school administrators and parents, especially in a small town in a close-knit school district, in a state where, on average, 85% or more students are white. The incident spread quickly on social media, and outraged many families and community members.
"This was a racial incident. We shouldn't treat it like it doesn't happen here, because it does," said Anderson. "If we want to be a great state, we have to be great from the inside out – not because of our beauty, or because we're a welcoming place."
"What are we doing to help these children? One child needs to be made whole. One child needs education," said Kendra LaPlume, a parent of two white teenagers at Newfound Regional High School. "We're still not addressing racism. It's all about kindness. That's not good enough."
New Hampshire schools are required by law to have policies to discourage and respond to bullying and discrimination for any reason, including sexual orientation, gender, religion and race. Bristol Elementary followed protocol, Rollins said. But policies and procedures – and even coaching on how to teach kids about kindness – may not sufficiently counter thinking patterns that begin at home. In many places bullying over race starts early and continues unnoticed and unchecked at schools, according to victims and families who report their experiences or seek advice from civil rights groups in New Hampshire.
"This is so prevalent throughout New Hampshire," said Rogers Johnson, chairman of the Governor's Advisory Council on Diversity and Inclusion, and president of the Seacoast NAACP. "In some places, individual students are bullied within an inch of their life, and students continue to be at risk" where schools and teachers aren't reporting it or taking measures to stop it when it happens. "Some incidents are not seeing the light of day." When it becomes a pattern, parents end up moving their children to private school, Johnson said.
Communities are often oblivious, because information on school bullying is usually not made public, and is not always reported to the state or to parents, as required by law, Johnson said.
"People think, 'I don't have to do anything because I'm not seeing any racism' or 'I'm not a racist'", said Ken Mendis of Exeter, a retired engineer and Sri-Lankan-American member of racialunityteam.com, a community education group that tracks racist incidents on the Seacoast, including in schools.
When Mendis moved to New Hampshire seven years ago, he said a local school superintendent told him, "'We don't have a diversity problem because we are not diverse.'" Mendis' response was, "But your kids are going into a diverse world," he recalled. "If you're not teaching them about diversity, you've lost them. Most of the school systems don't know (racist bullying) exists."
Across America, racism and its manifold expressions have become heated political issues. Despite the spotlight, racist speech, behavior and thinking remain entrenched – unconscious and implicit in daily life, a product of history and false perceptions and fear of people who look different, or who come from different places, according to experts at the NAACP. Those attitudes are often learned in families and frequently continue undetected or unchallenged in schools, where they can be abetted by educators who look the other way, don't correct bullying behavior when it happens, or keep incidents concealed for fear of repercussions, Johnson and civil rights advocates said.
This pattern replays statewide, including in places without diverse populations, where diversity is more of an idea than a norm.
"If it's not glaring you in the face, people want to believe it's not a problem," said Steve Zadravec, school superintendent in Portsmouth, which is conducting listening sessions and training in racism and diversity for students and teachers. "Whatever way you approach it, it's a conversation that needs to happen."
According to recent census data, New Hampshire is 91.2% white, and remains one of the nation's least-diverse states. In rural areas and small towns, the percentage of children who identify as white is 96%, sometimes higher. Between 2011 and 2019, racial diversity in New Hampshire grew by 5.1%, according to a study by the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, and is currently highest among youth. In Manchester and Nashua, more than 30% of children are members of racial minority groups. And for the small but growing percentages of Black, Latino, Asian, and bi-racial students in the state's elementary and secondary schools and colleges, racist bullying is much more common than reported data suggests, say Mendis, Johnson, and James McKim, president of the Manchester NAACP. The Manchester NAACP occasionally takes calls from families and victims in the Lakes Region and north.
Because of the ramifications of disclosure – personal, disciplinary and legal – it's a problem that victims, teachers and school administrators can be reluctant to report or even admit, according to the Manchester and Seacoast chapters of the NAACP, ACLU-New Hampshire, racialunityteam.com and administrators at colleges and universities in the state. When school districts report bullying and harassment incidents to the New Hampshire Department of Education each year, few or none are categorized as relating to race, color or national origin, the data shows - even when administrators recognize that it's a problem in their district, according to racialunityteam.com.
School superintendents in Franklin and Gilford say they rarely if ever hear of racist bullying in their district, and incidents may not be reported by victims who do not want to draw attention.
"There have been times we need to work with kids on the language they use" including race-insensitive words, said Steve Tucker, superintendent of Laconia schools, which have a diversity and inclusion task force. "If it happens in the classroom we'd address it. If it's an allegation of bullying, we'd have to treat it as such."
"What I am finding is no school wants to report racial incidents," said Mendis on the Seacoast. "Some teachers don't get back to parents with that issue. So you don't have remediation of what's going on," and it simmers until it erupts again. After racist bullying of an African-American girl between ages six and eight continued for three years at Hampton's lower and upper elementary schools without adequate intervention or reporting to parents by school officials, the girl's parents sued the school district for the costs of putting her in private school in Massachusetts, where her parents say she is flourishing. The case was investigated by Office of Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education, which found that teachers there had no training to deal with bullying or discrimination because of race, and school officials never interviewed the victim about what had happened to her.
The case prompted the passage last year of Senate Bill 263, which opens up school districts, teachers, administrators and school boards to lawsuits for not addressing incidents or patterns of bullying and discrimination for reasons including race.
“In the words of my colleagues, ‘Racism is the water we swim in,’” said Chris Kelly, a member of the Manchester NAACP, and past co-chair of its education committee. Commenting on incidents like what happened in Bristol, Kelly said, “It’s demoralizing that we still have to go through this. The last few months have been a somber reminder to all of us that we have so much that remains to be done. These students didn’t invent racism. They’ve been born into this world and in many ways are a blank canvas,” Kelly said.
Perhaps one of the most egregious incidents of racism occurred two years ago in Claremont, where three older boys tied a noose around the neck of a bi-racial boy and pushed him off a picnic table. The students were convicted and placed in a residential treatment, corrections and education center.
Although it may be rare in many schools, racist harassment occurs statewide, often where supervisory adults cannot see or hear it – or where it is dismissed as an aberration or an insensitive-but-unknowing and childish remark, said Mendis and experts at the NAACP.
“I receive a number of different complaints from parents and students about bullying, which was treated, at best, as an isolated incident, or at worst as horseplay or a misguided act” as well as complaints of "a certain level of inaction” on the part of school administrators," said Woullard Letts, co-chair of the Manchester NAACP's education committee, which also addresses complaints from the Lakes Region.
Racist remarks, behavior and discrimination are especially hurtful at young ages, educators say, because that's when children are calibrating their self esteem by how they're received by others – and learning what is right or wrong, forbidden or tolerated from teachers and peers. A culture of kindness is seldom sufficient to shift the needle on racism.
"A canned curriculum is not enough," said Alison Buchholz, a professor of education at Plymouth State University. “We need to talk about these things. Whether they intend it to be hurtful or not, these conscious or unconscious things can become normalized because they continue, even though they’re unkind. We need to be more explicit about what is OK and what is not.”
When she was insulted and called the N-word, Anderson’s daughter told her teacher the boy had been mean – nothing more specific, because she was embarrassed and hurt, her mother said. At home, she cried and couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to return to school. School administrators and her parents learned the following day exactly how he'd been "mean," when two girls reported what they’d witnessed at recess. When asked about the incident, the 8-year-old boy readily admitted what he'd said.
Anderson shared his feelings of sadness and outrage on Facebook. He's received calls from single mothers of bi-racial sons in the area who'd been victims of racist bullying. Some parents offered the Andersons sympathy and support. Some contacted the school principal and superintendent.
The Andersons' 20-year-old son in college cried, and said he wished he’d been there to protect his little sister. “It was as if he relived it,” said Isiah Anderson, who never knew until recently that his son had been called the N-word in school, and had to slough off racist remarks. “You just have to survive it,” Anderson said his son told him.
“I have a young daughter who is traumatized. I don’t know how to fix it,” said Anderson, who worries that this incident will be minimized or dismissed over time. "We're not just fighting for our daughter, he said, "but all the children."
“The solution is not to not talk about it,” said the girl’s mother, Jen Anderson, who is white. “It’s talking in-depth about why we don’t do those things and what feelings they cause, and how we don’t do that as a kind person. As stable adults it’s important to step in and say what’s acceptable and what we want for our kids.”
Across the country, bi-racial Americans are the fastest-growing demographic, according to the U.S. census. People of color comprise 19% of the population of Manchester, and 4 to 11.4% of students in school districts in the Lakes Region, according to DOE data.
At a time when local Black Lives Matter parades and rallies are raising awareness of racism, and riots and violence in major cities are stoking fear, New Hampshire seems like an eye in a traveling storm. The formative experiences of children during their early years are sobering reminders of ways in which the culture must shift deeply and early, said McKim at the Manchester NAACP. And parents and educators must lead the charge, especially in a rural state where many believe racism is infrequent or doesn't exist.
It's not enough to encourage "a culture of charity," said Letts at the NAACP, who is regional head of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in New England. Punishing kids is not going to change their thinking, he said. "It’s more important to correct them. They’re just reflecting what they learned somewhere else. And somewhere else is still putting out the same messages. Until we have a higher standard for each other and ourselves, we’ll run into these things. Our behavior is passed down through our children."