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Chicago teens open up about race, stereotypes and dating

Five teens talk about whether stereotypes affect their relationships and how schools can help students from different backgrounds relate.

CUrious City LPHS thumb

Chicago teens open up about race, stereotypes and dating

Five teens talk about whether stereotypes affect their relationships and how schools can help students from different backgrounds relate.

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Teens from different racial and ethnic backgrounds may go to the same high school, but there’s little guarantee that some students will get beyond the stereotypes about each other.

That became painfully clear a few months ago when a student at Chicago’s Lincoln Park High School made a video asking classmates what race they wouldn’t date. Most of the answers were offensive, with many kids laughing and talking comfortably about how people of other races smell — all of it right in the school hallways with other students watching.

“You could put kids from around the city into the same building and say, ‘Look we’re a diverse student population, look how varied our experiences are, what we bring to the table,” said Lincoln Park teacher Scott Zwierzchowski.

But that’s not enough: “They could be in the same physical classroom, but not identify with one another,” Zwierzchowski said.

Lincoln Park High School has one of the city’s most diverse student populations. The North Side school practices restorative justice and has a climate and culture director. But Zwierzchowski says those efforts need more support, more is needed to unify different student cultures and teachers need to be better equipped to help. He wasn’t surprised by the video.

Lincoln Park administrators declined to comment, but in an email to the school community in January, they said they don’t tolerate biased behavior. It said counselors were available for students and it was working with staff to navigate the situation. Chicago Public Schools also said it’s requiring all schools to report bias-based harm incidents for the first time this year so it can keep track.

It turns out there are a lot of “Who wouldn’t you date?” videos out there and, not surprisingly, teens say lots of schools struggle helping kids from different backgrounds relate. To figure out what’s driving this, we reached out to high schoolers from across the city. We asked them to fill out a survey and sat down with several of them for in-depth conversations about race. Most said they reject stereotyping and they shared ideas for how schools can help.

“A huge misconception that a lot of kids have is that racism is just a joke,” said Alexa Avellaneda, a junior at Lincoln Park. “It’s not a joke. It’s bigotry. And it can really harm someone’s mental health.”

Consuela Hendricks, a nonprofit leader, helped us home in on an issue highlighted in the Lincoln Park video: teens of color making biased comments about each other. That’s familiar to Hendricks, a co-founder of People Matter, an organization that helps to bridge the divide between Black and Asian residents in and around Chinatown.

“Schools don’t have the tools nor do they talk about race enough,” said Hendricks, who graduated from a majority Latinx Chicago public school in 2013. “I was bullied severely because I was one of the only Black kids. [There were] a lot of conversations that my teachers and the principal weren’t willing to have.”

Communities of color have long faced their own separate battles with systemic discrimination, she said, and that’s also forced them to compete against each other.

“There are a lot of tensions between many communities of color, and a lot of this is because we just don’t understand each other,” Hendricks said.

Read on to see what five Chicago public high schoolers have to say about race, stereotypes, dating and what schools can do better. The interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Curious City LPHS Layth
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

Name: Layth Awadallah

School: Lincoln Park High School, sophomore

How do you identify? Palestinian

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

Before the [Lincoln Park] video, I would say no, but after the video it turned into a strong maybe. Because I didn’t hear that extreme or blatant racism before from my school. But after seeing the response from the video, and some people saying that, “Oh, it was just funny,” it changed how I thought.

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

No, but I feel like in friend groups it’s sometimes easier to be friends with people that are your race or ethnicity just because they understand the issues that you go through. But I wouldn’t shun someone from being my friend based on their race or ethnicity, or [not] date them.

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race with your classmates?

My history teacher has done a great job of explaining both sides of the story, making sure that people of color and marginalized groups’ voices are being heard. I feel like that should not just be happening in one class. It should be happening throughout the school.


Name: Alexa Bermudez

School: Disney II Magnet High School, sophomore

How do you identify? Black

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

I feel like as a girl, it’s a little bit different when it comes to dating because guys can be really picky. They have stereotypes about different races in their head. Like, “Oh, she’s Black, so she’s ghetto. I don’t want to date a ghetto girl.” I think a lot of people don’t see it because they don’t want to see it.

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

You should date whoever you feel comfortable around.

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity with your classmates?

We always kind of have those types of conversations. I think our teachers aren’t afraid to bring that up because they know it’s important.

Curious City LPHS Alexa B
Susie An / WBEZ

Curious City LPHS Isa
Maggie Sivit / WBEZ

Name: Isa Sargan

School: Northside College Prep, senior

How do you identify? Filipino-American

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

For mostly Asian students, I’m pretty sure that we are viewed as a fetish. People say, “Oh, I’ve never dated an Asian before.” [They] view us as this completely alien, exotic kind of thing, commercial good that we’re supposed to provide for them. It does vary among students, but that’s been something that I’ve experienced.

What do you wish your school would do more of or do differently?

[We need] more teacher development days, where people really need to learn how to be mindful of how they speak to us, especially when it comes to tone policing and calling us by the same name as another student who looks like us. That has happened to me so many times. It’s the bare minimum for teachers to learn our names and be mindful of our backgrounds.

There’s definitely white teachers who know the difference between [kids named] Jake and Jacob. They can really differentiate between the white students. Then it comes to us [Asian students], you’re grouped together as one person … It’s really embarrassing for them.


Name: Mateo Stewart

School: Disney II Magnet High School, sophomore

How do you identify? Biracial (Black and Hispanic)

Do you think stereotypes about race or ethnicity affect how your classmates see you or who wants to date you?

I know it’s still around, and people make jokes about it. But … I think most people are accepting about dating anybody, or being around anybody, no matter what the race is.

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

I’m not really picky. I don’t necessarily care what people’s race is. Personally, it’s just if there’s somebody I like, and I just like being around them, and their personality is cool.

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity with your classmates?

A lot of schools, especially in textbooks, you’ll get these couple of Black people like, “Oh, we’re gonna tell you about Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman.” Schools really just push those three, but there’s so many other leaders … [My] school has a lot of places for people to express ourselves. For example, I went on a choir trip. They were trying to unify, not just white choirs, because there’s a whole lot of white choirs in Chicago.

Curious City LPHS Mateo
Susie An / WBEZ

Curious City LPHS Alexa A
Susie An / WBEZ

Name: Alexa Avellaneda

School: Lincoln Park High School, junior

How do you identify? Asian and Latina

Do you think stereotypes affect how you see others? Or if you would date them?

This is a strong no for me. It really does not matter.

Is your school helping you have meaningful conversations about race and ethnicity with your classmates?

My history teachers for the past few years have done a great job at telling the full story, the full side of things. I didn’t know that Andrew Jackson was a bad person until like, sophomore year. He committed genocide to Natives that were here first. That just says a lot about our education system.

But I think that recently, teachers at our school have been doing a really great job at just telling the full side of the story and not just the white perspective. My [English] teacher has done such a great job at tackling difficult conversations. He would show us videos about vocabulary to use versus vocabulary not to use. And when we’re having these hard discussions, he just lets us have a whole class period to digest everything. So shoutout to him.


Susie An covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZEducation and @soosieon.

Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is Curious City’s reporter. Follow her @AdrianaCardMag.