Native American Community Members of California's Riverside School District Still Demanding Accountability for Racist Display in Classroom
I recently spoke with Akalei Brown who posted the viral video of Riverside teacher Candice Reed's disgusting exploitation of Native American culture.
The focal point of American racism and what is deemed racist or racially offensive can be wildly selective at times. There are certain moments, statements, deeds that are generally viewed as undeniably racist, and other instances that are often dismissed, not adequately scrutinized or flat out ignored as they may exist beyond America’s measure of what it categorizes as a racist action or racist behavior.
The United States is anchored in white supremacy culture and has been since its inception. And because people of color in the U.S. exist within a complex system of social norms that centers whiteness or is willfully obtuse to anything demeaning to non-white people, there is often an unspoken hierarchy of what ethnic groups are able to identify a moment or act as racist, and to what extent that group’s grievance will be taken into consideration.
For example, it’s fairly common knowledge that a white person showing up in public in blackface is considered racist, or attacks levied against Asian Americans throughout the COVID-19 pandemic were in response to racist propaganda that blamed American-born Asians for the spread of the coronavirus. Most Americans recognize anti-immigrant or anti-Latinx or anti-Muslim language when they hear it. Whether or not citizens of the U.S. stand in defense of marginalized people when they are attacked by white supremacy culture is generally a matter of personal ethos more than it is a matter of being culturally ignorant to what is offensive to a particular group.
However, racism against the Native/Indigenous American community is often the exception to the aforementioned rule.
It is often common speak to hear Americans from various ethnic backgrounds refer to someone they share similar personality traits with as their “spirit animal,” a phrase that is deeply offensive to Native Americans. For years fans of the now-Washington Football Team cheered them on as the Washington Redskins, with no depth of context as to why it was never appropriate for the team to be named that. Other professional sports teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Cleveland Indians never abandoned their culturally insensitive, racist team names or logos, despite America’s growing awareness of racially insensitive customs that was the alleged outcome of the “great racial reckoning” of 2020.
Perhaps there is no institution in the U.S. where tone-deaf and/or outright racist attitudes towards Native Americans play out more than the public school system. One such example is the teaching of “SoCahToa”, which is a shortened phrase for teaching trigonometry functions in math that also sounds like a “Native phrase.” For years, Native American students have voiced disdain over math teachers who mimicked Native vocal inflections or went as far as appropriating Native American customs while teaching this lesson. Last month, Candice Reed, a white teacher and 12-year veteran of California’s Riverside Unified School District, went viral after a video recorded by a Native American student showed her taking a “SoCahToa” lesson to wildly offensive extremes.
Akalei Brown, a Native American educator and entrepreneur, and family friend of the student who recorded the video shared the clip of Reed gesturing wildly and making “tribal noises” to TikTok last month. The video has received hundreds of thousands of views and sparked weeks of protests from Riverside’s Native American community, leading to Reed being placed on paid leave, with many in the community calling for her to be terminated from her job.
I recently sat down in conversation with Akalei Brown to discuss the school district’s response to Reed’s actions, the role the Riverside teachers union has played in protecting Reed’s job, the need for Native American history to be a part of the statewide curriculum, and more. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.
Donney Rose: Can you talk about how you initially gained access to the full video of Candice Reed’s mockery of Native American culture in her classroom, and what was the result of you sharing it online?
Akalei Brown: A very good family friend called me and told me there was a situation in Riverside at the high school and told me that there is a math lesson that was done, that was extremely racist. And they said that the teacher asked the students to put their phones away before she even started the lesson. So that was a pretty good indication that she knew what she was doing was not appropriate. And they were asked to turn their phones off and usually, people don't do that.
And so I said, send me the video. Let me take a look. Because I had two degrees in Native American studies, one from Santa Barbara and one from UC Davis. So I can have a handle on what's appropriate. Within the first 30 seconds of watching the video on my whole body began to shake from head to toe. I had a physical reaction and that's never happened to me before. I'm a Native historian. I read like the most drastic history it's ugly. And this affected me. It brought back memories of my childhood and being made fun of in the classroom.
DR: What has the Riverside Unified School District been saying to organizers who have demonstrated/called for Candice Reed to be fired from the district?
AB: Well, the positive that came out of this is the district for the first time ever met with local tribal stakeholders from that area. So descendants from those tribes from Riverside were able to actually meet with the school board [and] air their grievances out something they've never been able to do. [The district told the community] We're doing our investigation. We'll let everyone know what our findings are, but at this point, we cannot just fire someone, fire her that way. There's a process.
DR: One thing I noticed when I read about this particular case was that this is not the first time that this teacher has been accused of being racially insensitive in the classroom. Can you speak to that? Has there been any [community] conversation about that?
AB: A lot of her former students reached out to me some from 10 years ago and they were saying back then they felt it was distasteful that it was wrong. But when you're a youth, you don't really feel like you have the right to stand up to an adult and tell them they're wrong.
DR: So this [behavior] had just been a part of her teaching?
AB: For the past 12 years. Yes. It's actually documented in the school yearbook for 12 years with the schools supporting her doing that.
DR: In your opinion, what responsibility does the teachers union have regarding this matter? Do you believe they fear backlash from one segment of the community should they decide to fire her?
AB: I think the teachers' union has a responsibility to not only not protect Candice Reed, but to protect children as well. They are teachers. They are the people that we entrust our children with all day. They should be protecting our children. And that youth said he felt violence was being committed against him. Anyone under 18 shouldn't feel afraid in the classroom or feel that their whole being is being put down. Their whole existence is unworthy. No one should feel like that in the classroom. And the teacher's union should be defending the student. I understand that she paid into it but what she did was wrong. If she would have said a different did this to any other race, I'm pretty sure this would be handled much more swiftly, but because it was Native Americans and there is no standard.
Everyone knows where the line is when it comes to other ethnicities. You can't say this, you can't say that. “Well, you know, you can't say this. If you say this it's racist, right?” There's no standard for Native Americans.
DR: You mentioned in your email to me that the Indigenous Education Now Committee and the California Native Vote project are planning to pressure the district to add Indigenous History to the curriculum at the state level. Do you believe that this implementation could prevent other incidents such as Candice Reed’s mockery from happening with other educators in the future?
AB: One thousand percent. Because when they implemented African-American history into the curriculum, that really helped people understand the history and the plight of African-Americans. So that actually gave people reference and it allowed them to have an understanding, but also to protect people when you see they're being discriminated against.
[Prejudiced people are] always going to exist, whether they're educated or not. But if we educate the masses next time someone calls me a Prairie N-word I guarantee, an educated non-Native will probably stand up for me if they, if they're educated.
DR: The most recent information I’ve found about this incident stated that Candice Reed still has not issued an apology for her actions. What are your thoughts on how the Indigenous community in Riverdale would respond to her returning to the classroom if she wholeheartedly apologized? Do you think there is space for her in that school district or should she be indefinitely removed?
AB: It's a part of our culture to be kind to people, you know, that's the big part of our culture and to be humble, you know, not to flash everything you have because others might not have any heat. And when this all happened, the student right away, his first concern was her safety and her health and her wellness, if she was okay, he wasn't even worried about himself.
The apology would mean a lot to Native American people instead of just weeks of silence. And we feel almost like it's not that hard to apologize. And the student was worried about her. So the fact that everyone knows the student was worried about her and she hasn’t apologized, really like is upsetting., I don't know about the district, but somewhere I'm sure they, they're not trying to ruin her livelihood and, and hurt her family. That's not the intention of this family, but the community at large is outraged and they want her fired because that video re-traumatized a lot of people, I got pushed out a lot from Native adults that were like, “how dare you not put a trigger warning on that!”
I didn't mean to traumatize people with [putting] that video out, but it did. And that's why people want her removed because you can't unring a bell. She showed herself. It's like showing up in blackface and then saying, sorry, it's the same thing. It's called redface. It's when you dress up as an Indian, it's called redface and people do it all the time. So there's no standard. We all know blackface is wrong. But as far as redface, you know, that standard's not there.
DR: What is the immediate action you are hoping for people to take regarding the Justice for Native Students in the RUSD petition? What kind of precedent are you hoping this advocacy sets for Native students in the future that are being educated in the Riverside district?
AB: Someone put out a petition, not sure who it was, but there is a Native American education bill that's up for review in the state of California. It's the very first of its kind. Now, if you know about California, like political history, a lot of laws that are liberal will be passed there first and then they'll kind of spread through the country. So that's what I'm hoping if this Native American bill can get passed in California first. And we see, you know, it being implemented into curriculum K through 12 and it does well, that's a case study for every other single state. Hey, let's start celebrating Native American Heritage Month. This month right now is Native American heritage month. But people don't know that [like] everyone knows February's Black History Month.
For more information on supporting Native students in the Riverside Unified School District be sure to visit Justice for Native Students in Riverside Unified School District to hold RUSD accountable to support the educational programs for Native Students and families in the district.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Donney Rose is a Writer, Educator, Organizer and Chief Content Editor at The North Star