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Microaggressions in High School: Learning to Advocate for More Inclusive Communities

Collage by Sarah Quiat.

For most of my life, I’ve been surrounded by Jewish peers in each of my communities. I attended a Jewish day school during my elementary years, and I’ve gone to Jewish summer camp every summer since I was eight years old. This upbringing made it shocking when I began at a public high school with fewer than ten Jewish students that I knew of—two of them being my siblings. Back then, I didn’t realize the enormous impact this would have on my high school experience. I learned fairly quickly, though, that my school is just as influenced by the dominance of Christian religious systems as is our entire society. While this may seem like an obvious revelation, this was a jarring switch for a kid who had spent most of her life with other Jewish peers.

For summer homework before my freshman year of high school, I was tasked with reading a book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. This book included chapters about how to decipher symbolism while reading literature. One of the chapters that stood out most to me described Christian symbolism in literature and novels. The chapter began by mentioning loaves, fishes, and water. I didn’t know what any of these things meant or why they were being mentioned here. Description of Christ imagery continues in the next chapter, instructing me that if a character had wounds in their hands, is in agony, or was last seen with thieves, they were supposed to be a Christ-like figure. All of this information flew straight over my head. I knew absolutely nothing about Christianity, let alone how to detect Christian symbolism in literature. What was most frustrating, though, was that my teachers who assigned the book assumed that every student possessed this background understanding.

Every year in the fall, I have to take the time to explain to my teachers why I’ll be absent the next day for a Jewish holiday. I often receive scolding or passive-aggressive responses suggesting I still need to do my homework, or that I really shouldn’t be missing any class time. On other occasions, I’ve been asked by teachers to explain Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur to my class. These uncomfortable questions feel impossible to say no to because I’m put on the spot in front of my peers, so I’ll stand up and explain why I fast on Yom Kippur or why Jews eat apples and honey during Rosh Hashanah. A few years ago, the administration even scheduled a school trip over the Jewish high holidays, and I wasn’t able to go with my friends. On countless occasions, I’ve found myself having to take the extra step to understand materials because there are unfamiliar references or words I don’t know the meaning of.

I’ve noticed a common thread throughout all my experiences: the feeling of being othered. This “Us vs. Them” rhetoric can be dangerous on both large and small levels. In its extremes, othering can lead to genocide; it’s what fueled the nightmare of the Holocaust. But on an everyday scale—for example, at a public school—othering can take the form of asking insulting questions, not being inclusive in the curriculum, and showing disrespect toward holidays and traditions. As a high school student, school can feel like it’s my whole world. But when I feel like I’m being othered, even if it’s just from offhand comments, I feel erased in my own school community.

Though these experiences seem small individually, when they create a continuous cycle that hasn’t improved over the last few years, it all feels never-ending and overwhelming. Sometimes I find naming the exclusion I feel at school difficult because I know that my teachers and peers mean well. I feel too awkward to call these interactions out in the moment, but then it feels almost harder to bring up the moment at another time. I’m not trying to blame my teachers for all of the school’s microaggressions (even though there definitely needs to be some accountability on their part,) rather, I’m calling out a system that doesn’t make Jewish students feel seen at school—a system that doesn’t educate people on religions that aren’t the most mainstream ones in our culture. Of course, I know that there’s no getting away from a society that is deeply rooted in Christian traditions, but I do think that there needs to be better formal education regarding major religions and more instruction about how to interact with people of all faiths.

As I think back on my experiences as a Jewish high school student, I can say that it’s been a hard and draining journey. Despite the frustration I’ve felt and continue to feel, I’ve realized through these experiences that my feelings of otherness won’t just cease to exist. I do know that I can work to make my school community and any future communities I'm a part of reflect the positive values of inclusion and openness I know it’s capable of. As I’ve reflected on all the difficulties I’ve encountered, though, I’ve realized that a lot of good has also come out of these experiences. I’ve gained the tools for questioning and critiquing a culture that is oversaturated with Christian culture. I’ve also opened a dialogue at my school about inclusivity in the context of religion. Expressing when I feel uncomfortable or speaking with a teacher privately can impact the future of how religion is viewed in my school. Teachers hold so much power in the classroom and have the potential to create a space that is open to all religions and cultures. I will continue to advocate for more education surrounding religion and encourage those in positions of power to reflect a religiously inclusive community. High school has given me the space to grow as a person, student, and community member, and I will carry my experiences with me as a reminder to continue to stand up for inclusive school communities.

This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.

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How to cite this page

Fried, Georgia. "Microaggressions in High School: Learning to Advocate for More Inclusive Communities." 24 August 2022. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 2, 2024) <http://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/microaggressions-high-school-learning-advocate-more-inclusive-communities>.