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Student Panel Addresses ‘Hate in the Age of Multiculturalism’



State Sen. Pete Harckham with students at the recent “Hate in the Age of Multiculturalism” forum in Brewster. Photo by Victoria Doody/Harckham’s office.

State Sen. Pete Harckham, D-Peekskill, recently hosted a special forum, “Hate in the Age of Multiculturalism,” which featured comments and insights from a dozen high students from around the region regarding racism, hate language, bullying, the effects of social media, and ideas on how to bring people together.

The event took place at the First United Methodist Church of Brewster at the invitation of Pastor Elaine Pope-Joffrion.

“The rise of hate and intolerance in our communities has increased in recent years, and it is crucial that we, as a society, acknowledge and understand this systemic problem while finding ways to address it,” said Harckham. “This forum was meant to provide a safe space for these students to express themselves and share their experiences, and I am so grateful for the remarkable observations and feelings they imparted to us. It is truly heartbreaking to realize how pervasive racism and hate speech is in our schools and communities.”

This was the sixth “Hate in the Age of Multiculturalism” forum Harckham has hosted since taking office in the State Senate five years ago. The dozen students at the most recent event represented nine different schools, from Brewster, Croton-Harmon, Chappaqua, Cross River, Somers, New Rochelle, Ossining and Somers.

About 20 parents and community members also attended the forum.

Harckham kicked off the forum by asking the students how racism, hate speech and intolerance impact them, their families and their communities. Immediately, students talked about how much this hateful behavior has become normalized.

“People say things and know they shouldn’t,” said one student.

“I was bullied, and it stuck with me,” admitted another.

“It’s so common – and if you complain, people say you’re making a big deal about nothing,” said yet another student.

 “People joke about racism and hate language when it happens,” said a fellow student, who added that a classmate drew a swastika on a homework assignment and everyone in the class laughed while the teacher simply ignored it.

The role of social media in racism and bigotry was addressed next, and the students were unanimous in their view that online sites only exacerbate the problem while granting offenders a certain anonymity. Again, this offensive behavior is shared and thought to be funny to many students, participants said.

Some schools even have social media sites where students can make fun of each other, ignoring how much of it can be hurtful, according to one student.

“Social media reinforces the impression that hate language is acceptable, and even encourages people to bring hate into real life,” they said.

 A troubling takeaway from the forum is how often students spoke of how school administrators and teachers, as well as other adults, do not take complaints or concerns about incidents of hate language, racism and bullying seriously.

“Teachers hear comments all the time and just walk by,” said one student.

“My experience is that the teachers laugh about it, too,” said another.

“I think teachers have given up trying to stop it,” added yet another.

Some students said their schools will reprimand and suspend students for hate speech and racist actions, but that no lessons are learned with the punishments handed out.

“It’s just not the teachers who are ignoring this problem, it’s everyone working in our school district,” said a student.

“I don’t think we can punish our way out of this,” said another.

Toward the end of the forum, students began to share experiences about different cultural appreciation events held at their schools, as a way to connect to each other and share interests in common values. While some students may not feel the need to connect to peers when they are already connected to their friends, as one student explained, others related how much they enjoyed learning about other students’ cultures or even aspects of their different heritages and ethnicities.

“There has to be a greater emphasis on encouraging students to learn from each other,” said one student.

“It should be about breaking down barriers,” said another. “First educate, then enjoy.”

“Seeing how many other cultures were represented at my school made me feel a lot better,” admitted yet another student.

Ronald Reid, co-founder of the Putnam County Community Engagement & Police Advisory Board, said he was proud to hear from student panelists who spoke so eloquently to the issues still happening in local schools.

“The topic of hate speech and how it has become rooted within our school systems was unanimous among the student panelists,” he said. “Some were victims with personal experiences that were never addressed by schoolteachers, administrators or the districts.” 

Pope-Joffrion said the First UMC of Brewster was honored to host a youth panel discussion on such a crucial issue.

“The young panelists were articulate, insightful and candid, and their shared experiences and opinions were riveting,” she said. “I pray their voices will be heard and their experiences will lead to solutions, bringing forth commonalities across our diverse communities and multicultural groups, rather than disparities. Because living together is not just about sharing space, it’s about embracing diversity and fostering a shared sense where all are made to feel they belong.”

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