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How students experience and cope with racist stereotypes

“Racism is still deeply rooted all over America,” said Martin Luther King Jr. in a 1967 speech. “It is still deeply rooted in the North, and it’s still deeply rooted in the South.”

Fifty-three years after King said those words, American students say they still encounter racial stereotypes in their daily lives. To mark today’s anniversary of King’s birth, PBS NewsHour’s Student Reporting Labs collected testimonies about racism from our recent No Labels Attached project on misconceptions and stereotypes.

In interviews with their peers, student journalists found teenagers grappling with a variety of racial misconceptions, ranging from annoying attitudes to deeply hurtful views.

“I’m African American and Native American. I receive racial slurs from students, racial slurs from teachers,” said Angie of Clinton Township, Michigan. “I’ve been stared at, regularly, on the street from normal pedestrians…It’s things like that I’ve dealt with in this generation.”

“My brother was pulled over by the police,” said Khia of Greenville, South Carolina. “It was just some stereotypes.” She said the officer thought her brother “had drugs, he checked his record – my brother has a clean record.”

Several Asian American students told SRL student reporters that they encountered racist misconceptions at school.

“Whenever people look at me they’re like, ‘Oh, she’s Asian, like, she constantly studies,” said Tera, a student in Rancho Cucamonga, California.

Stereotypes regarding students’ personalities or hobbies can be frustrating or alienating. Karlene, a student in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said that when people learn that she has Jamaican parents, they “expect me to be more outgoing and loud.”

For Austin of Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, people misjudge the music he likes. “People will think that I’m sitting there, blasting trap music and just like being crazy with it,” he said. He prefers to “relax in [my] room and plug in a nice Metallica or Fleetwood Mac” album. Cellist Ethan in Zachary, Louisiana, said he feels like an outsider at classical music events where he’s often the only black participant. “I can just walk in a room and I’m already being perceived as lower,” he said. “I feel like I don’t belong in places at certain times.”

While students say America has yet to fulfill King’s vision for a just and fair society, they suggest that personal confidence and kindness towards others can help overcome pervasive racial misconceptions. “I don’t think my skin color’s what defines me,” said Raj, a student in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

“I think it’s important to get to know a person under their skin. Everyone deserves equality and to be a part of something and to be respected,” said Angie of Clinton Township

“I break the stereotypes that I’ve encountered by laughing at them, and walking off,” said Khia in Greenville. She added, “A stereotype doesn’t make you. You make you.”