Film featuring Black students’ experiences in La Crosse debuts to spur action against racism

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Black teens in La Crosse encounter indignities such as people saying, “I bet your favorite food is watermelon and chicken,” 15-year-old Diariana says in a movie chronicling the feelings of local Black students.

The 30-minute film was unveiled during a virtual meeting Wednesday night titled “Amplifying the Voices of Black Youth … Part I,” a collaborative effort of the Greater La Crosse Area Diversity Council and Waking Up White organization.

It features seven Black students explaining racism they have encountered and offering suggestions on how to erase the bias.

Other incidents of disrespect have included hearing people tell others to hide their wallets because a Black person was around or having people ask to pet her hair, Diariana said.

“They let you know you being a Black is a problem” and they are scared, she said.

She recalled an experience in which she was explaining to friends in the school lunchroom how difficult it is for her to wash her hair and get snarls out.

A boy approached her and said, “‘I wonder if this will be hard to get out and squirted ketchup in my hair,’” she said.

Losing the struggle to stifle her anger, Diariana said, “I poured milk on his head and got in trouble big time.”

Meanwhile, the ketchup perpetrator alibied that his action was an accident — because ketchup packets often squirt.

That’s when the fact really hit her that “I’m an African-American in an all-white school,”

Serving as moderator for the virtual discussion of the movie was Diana DiazGranados, a social worker who is a certified mental health first aid trainer with Better Together.

Diaz Granados described the film as a “snapshot documentary” about acts of “racism, indignities, and trauma” the students have experienced.

The film is an outgrowth of several La Crosse demonstrations during the summer that arose from nationwide protests over the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and Ahmaud Arbery near Brunswick, Ga.

The students told their stories at those gatherings, many of which also raised the Black Lives Matter issue, Diaz Granados said.

After “hearing these messages on bullhorns in parks,” the diversity council decided to make the film instead of having the students tell their painful stories repeatedly, she said.

As reflected in the title, the film aims to “amplify” the students’ voices in an effort to “dismantle systemic racism,” said Diaz Granados, who said the council has taken special measures to protect the students from backlash.

“Our youth have ideas for how to shape a better society,” she said.

Other students in the film, including Takobie, a 15-year-old at a private school, said they have been targets of use of the “N” word, often finding that teachers didn’t know how to defuse such situations.

Takobie talked about a school resource officer who kicked an apple that was on the lunchroom floor and ordered him to pick it up — even though he hadn’t tossed it there.

He refused, the SRO threatened to make him clean up the whole lunchroom, emotions escalated and the incident led to a meeting with his mom and the SRO, he said.

The film segues to suggestions on what schools might do to dismantle the racism, prompting one student to say, “Support us, but definitely don’t judge us.”

He also recommended classes that depict successful Blacks instead of just stories of slavery — showing that they can be doctors, scientists, and any other occupations.

“Teach Black achievements,” he said.

A 17-year-old student who has lived in La Crosse for three years said English is his favorite subject, and he asked his teacher to include topics about Black people.

The teacher was able to select some books for him, including the works of Jason Reynolds, a Black author from New York who writes novels and poetry for young adult and middle-grade readers.

“The teacher helped me,” he said. “And the next thing I knew, Jason Reynolds was in La Crosse. She went that extra step.”

The fact that she researched Reynolds, studied him on Twitter and other resources, contacted him, and brought him to La Crosse was evidence that things are improving, the student said.

His father agrees with that assessment, the student said, adding, “We are starting to move at a faster pace.”

The film is intended to promote action, Diaz Granados said.

“Not being racist” isn’t enough, the film voice-over says, declaring that it’s time to “be anti-racist.”

The film will be made available to schools and groups, Diaz Granados said.

The film’s follow-up, from the perspective of Black parents, is titled “Amplifying the Voices of Black Youth … Part II.”

It is scheduled to be presented during a virtual session on Nov. 18.