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Embracing diversity

(From left) Victoria and her friends Judy Chung and Amy Sanchez hang out at their school.
Photo by Editor Amanda Riddle

Before high school I didn’t really know a lot about other cultures. All I knew was that they were different from my white Jewish culture and that that was OK. My parents raised me to be accepting of everyone, taking me to the Museum of Tolerance since I was little and raising me around as many different people as they could. I was tolerant, but not free of stereotypes.

In seventh grade I sat in the back of my science class across from a Latina girl. She was really fun to talk to because everything she said was brutally honest, whether she was talking about clothes or other people in school. She talked mostly about boys and every day she would come in with dark lip liner, thick curled lashes, filled-in plucked eyebrows and a loud attitude. This was OK with me, but totally different from my quiet-in-class style. She made science class a lot more fun, but without realizing it I started thinking that was how all Latina girls acted and dressed.

It’s weird now to look back and see that I thought about people this way without knowing it. I had a hard time admitting this to myself, and even though I don’t think this way anymore, it’s hard for me to write this because I feel like a bad person. I worry that I will offend someone, and that’s the last thing I want to do. I’m just trying to say that my high school and the friends I have made have helped change my views about stereotypes.

I attend the North Hollywood High School Biological Sciences Zoo Magnet, which has about 290 kids and is located next to the L.A. Zoo. Since we are a magnet school, we are diverse. Our magnet is made up of about 40 percent white students and about 60 percent Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and other. We are more integrated than our sister school, North Hollywood High. My friend who attends North Hollywood High told me that during nutrition and lunch, most kids from different races don’t hang out with each other.

Our interests, not race, unite us

At my school students mainly separate themselves by cliques, like the punks, the preps, the anime kids and so forth, but since it’s a small school there is a lot more acceptance of who people are. I had never thought that I could express my weird love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer outside of my close friends, but one day during junior year I noticed a girl wearing a ring from the series. I had met her before and we had exchanged a few words, but for the first time I started talking to her. I think that at larger schools it’s easier to get lost in a big sea of people. I feel more accepted at mine.

Since I started high school I have met many people with different perspectives and cultures. My two closest friends are a Mexican American, Amy, and an Asian American, Judy, and jeez have I learned a lot from them. I remember the first time I went over to Amy’s house and her mother asked me about the size of my family. “Well, my mother’s side is pretty small and spread out, but my father has a really big family,” I said, getting ready to awe Amy’s mom with my large family tree.

“Oh, really? How big?”

I went in for the punch line. “Well there are four siblings in his whole family!” Amy and her mom started cracking up. Her mom told me she had 16 siblings. I had heard of big families, but never that big. And so started my learning of other cultures.

At the end of sophomore year Amy and I became leaders on dance team and spent more time together. Our personalities clicked. She knew which guys were worth her time and which were not, giving me “Oh God” looks when guys made dumb sex jokes. 

Amy almost always gets straight As and she quickly reads assignments like our boring history book while still understanding what it’s about. One assignment, which I thought was just busy work, was to make a scrapbook of The Catcher in the Rye, a book we had read. I pasted pieces of colored paper together and drew some pictures. When Amy arrived to class with her scrapbook I was amazed. She had bought an actual scrapbook. She had cut-outs from magazines, pop-up stickers—the works. I wondered why I was so surprised that Amy was an excellent student. I couldn’t figure it out until I met another Latina girl in one of my other classes who was boy crazy. She brought back the stereotypes I had in middle school about Latina girls. At first I tried not to think about them, but they didn’t go away. Once I admitted the stereotypes to myself I no longer felt that way because I realized how dumb and untrue they were.

This realization led me to see I also had a stereotype of quiet Asians who do all their homework and stay in on weekends. I got this stereotype from my friends in the North Hollywood High School Highly Gifted Magnet (HGM). They would joke about how Asian students in the HGM would study constantly and didn’t have a life because their parents would not accept anything less than an A.

She wasn’t what I expected

Judy seemed to fit that stereotype at first. She would do all her homework and run laps without complaining when the dance team leaders were punishing the team. Then one day she was practicing the routine for dance team and I saw her really dance. Every time we ran through the show her dancing was just as intense and energetic. I could tell that she was hardworking not just with her schoolwork, but also with the artistic ways she expresses herself.

We started to become friends and once I started talking to her, I couldn’t get enough of her crazy outlook. She makes up weird dances that we called the “hoe-down” because they resembled a country dance. She breaks out in her “hoe-down” when we are standing around during nutrition, and there is no way I can’t join in. When we became closer, we started talking about more serious topics, like the differences between our religions (I’m Jewish and her parents are Christian). We can discuss almost everything and I never feel like I have to hold back. She is the most bizarre person I know, and I mean that in the best way possible.

If I didn’t attend a small magnet school, I don’t think I would have gotten so close to Amy and Judy. Integration programs are important. Even people brought up in open environments like I was can form prejudices. It’s hard to find a television show with a main character who is not white, and if the main character is a minority then usually the rest of the cast members are as well. TV shows play up stereotypes because they think it’s funny, but stereotypes shouldn’t be jokes. People around you also can lead you to form prejudices, telling racist jokes or making fun of others’ differences. Magnet schools like mine, which are small and diverse, allow kids to be more open to different types of people, and break down their own racial stereotypes.

I hate that I had prejudices. But everyone does and the best way to overcome them is to acknowledge them. One of my other Latina friends said that when she first met me, she thought I was a stuck-up white girl. I get this a lot, I don’t know why, maybe because I’m quiet around new people. She said that once she got to know me, she saw that I wasn’t like that at all. I am happy to say that I will never have the same prejudices against Latinas and Asians again. Even if my prejudices were not as bad as the KKK’s, I still think it’s important not to have them. When you have prejudices, you’re not able to see the person for who they are and could miss out on someone who could become a good friend.