March 02, 2023

By Jasmyne A. Cannick


I do not get triggered easily. However, the Pepper Tree Elementary students in Upland, Calif. who say they were subjected to racist bullying managed to trigger random memories of my own childhood, as I am sure it did for many Black adults who went to predominately white institutions (PWI) for grade school.

As a young Gen Xer, it’s funny the things I can remember and the things I cannot (IYKYK).

I don’t remember much from my elementary school days during the 80s in Hermosa Beach, but I do remember that my best friend lived up the street from me, was white, and her name was Jeanette. I remember she came from a fairly large family — I think they were from Texas. And I remember that her family reminded me of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Let me preface all of this with, I didn’t know anything about racism as a child other than the carefully curated Black History we were taught — and that wasn’t much. The first 12 years of my life were very sheltered. Now I am sure my parents have their stories about being one of less than a handful of Black families in Hermosa Beach during the 80s, but whatever they endured, as a kid, I was oblivious to it. And for a time — maybe too long of a time — I thought I was just like all of the other kids at my school.

But back to Jeanette and me. I don’t remember why Jeanette and I became such great friends, but we did. Her parents were always nice to me, and I remember that whenever they went out to dinner at Norm’s or Bob’s Big Boy, I was always invited to go along and vice-versa.

Jeanette had big brothers and kids back then and used to like to get into things.

I remember one night, for no particular reason, her brothers decided they were going to “break in” to our local elementary school. And for context, breaking in just meant sliding through the gate. This was the 80s in Hermosa Beach, after all. I was spending the night at Jeanette’s, and we wanted to tag along, and they let us. I remember it was dark, and we were running across Prospect Ave. and I heard her brother say something to the effect, “Damn Jasmyne, you’re as Black as the sky.”

We all laughed, me included. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t think he was being racist at the time because I didn’t even have a concept of racism. Maybe he didn’t either, but looking back now, it was definitely a very racist thing to say.

While I can’t remember one minute after I put a pot of water on to boil for tea or where my keys are (IYKYK), I can somehow remember that comment from Jeanette’s brother 35 years ago. Now, of course, today, it doesn’t sit right with me, but I used this example to show how racism — even subconsciously — has a way of staying with us long after the incident and into adulthood.

That’s why when I heard the story of the Ethiopian 6th grader at Pepper Tree Elementary School in Upland, California, being given a “Golden N-Word Pass,” it enraged me. He didn’t even know what the n-word meant. He just thought it was a means to an end to stop being bullied for being Black.

Believe it or not — using the n-word as a term of endearment is an African-American thing — not an African or Black thing. So being an Ethiopian, as a child, he didn’t know what the n-word meant exactly. He just thought that if he signed it, he would stop being bullied. He had to go home and ask his mom what the n-word meant. His mother told reporters that she herself didn’t know what the “n-word” was and had to Google it.

“You might think I know that but from the country where I came from n-word means — it’s an alphabet for me,” said Kabene Gabremariam. “So I have to go ahead and Google that and I have to learn what the meaning of which really breaks my heart.”

Similarly, listening to 13-year-old Chloe Jenkins recount her experience being the only Black person in her class and assigned to be a slave in an American Revolution reenactment triggered another experience that I still can remember. I was a slave during a reenactment of a slave auction at Will Rogers Middle School in Lawndale. In fact, I can even remember that my friend Mitzie was the auctioneer.

But that was in the 80s, and it’s 2023. And while it wasn’t appropriate back then, I would like to think that we’ve made some progress — but it seems that we haven’t made enough.

Why is this still happening to Black children? I am not the world’s leading expert on child welfare or parenting, I don’t even have kids. That said, no one can convince me that the children involved in the racist bullying at Pepper Tree Elementary didn’t learn this behavior from the adults around them. Kids, especially those of the age involved in the bullying, have not been alive long enough to develop the kind of hatred they are displaying. They mimic the language and behavior they see and hear at home. Whether subconsciously or consciously, what we have is a situation where if this goes unchecked, these same children are going to turn into the same type of racist adults found in our schools and police departments today that we continue to work to expose and eradicate.

And it goes both ways.

I can remember driving in South L.A. some years ago with my then-kindergarten-aged godson. Something happened with another driver, and I must have said something aloud about it, because he quipped, unsolicited, mind you, “Stupid Mexicans!”

I was so shocked, and looking in the rearview mirror, I asked him where he learned that, and he said that’s what his mom always says. He learned that day from me, that was not something he should ever say — even if his parents say it.

I’m telling you, kids are like little sponges soaking up everything happening around them.

It’s hard to expect a child not to be a racist when their parents have given them the green light, literally and figuratively. If you ask me, having a racist parent as a child should be considered a form of maltreatment if it isn’t already. Child abuse is not just physical violence. It is any form of maltreatment by an adult, which is violent or threatening to the child, including emotional abuse that harms a child’s emotional well-being. I’d argue that being raised by a racist harms a child’s emotional well-being.

It’s sad to know that all of these years later, this is still happening in our schools. However, I am proud of the Black students at Pepper Tree Elementary for stepping forward publicly about the abuse they’ve endured from other children. But the onus is not on them to fix the situation. It’s on the parents of the bullies, teachers, and administrators who allowed this situation to fester and get to the point it is now. We know from the suicides of 10-year-old Seven Bridges in Kentucky and, more recently, 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor in Utah, that bullying is real and has real effects and consequences, whether verbalized or not, on children. Bullying cannot be left unchecked.

The students and parents at Pepper Tree Elementary are doing the right thing by exposing the racism and the bullying and, in doing so, are setting an example and adding to the playbook for other Black children and their parents on how to go up against Goliath (their schools) — and win.

Jasmyne Cannick is a Gen X award-winning journalist and on-air contributor in Los Angeles. She writes and talks about the collisions at the intersection of politics, race, and social issues. She’s online at

Category: Opinion