By Riley Quigley
As a classroom at Summit Denali High School talks about race, heads begin to turn to senior Claire Mallinson. She is the only African American student in her classroom.
“Every time a topic like that is brought up everyone turns and looks at you,” Mallinson said. As the sole African American student in the classroom, she is seen as having all the answers. She said, “Everyone expects you to be the next Rosa Parks, but I’m still trying to figure this out too.”
To figure out why Denali has such a small African American population, first take a look at the school’s location. Summit Denali is located in the city of Sunnyvale, California.
According to the 2010 United States Census, Sunnyvale was 45.9% Asian, 42.1% White, 17.3% Latino and 1.7% African American.
The United States as a whole, as of 2018, was 76.5% White, 5.9% Asian, 13.4% African American and 18.3% Latino.
Comparatively, as of the 2018-2019 school year, Summit Denali was 33.6% White, 30.3% Latino, 17.4% Asian and 0.9% African American. This means that, as of 2018, six out of 575 total Summit Denali students were African American.
Those statistics include both the Summit Denali middle school and high school. The administration of Summit Denali high school was unable to get the isolated numbers of the high school by publication deadline. They acknowledge that these collective numbers are a good representation of the high school demographics.
Denali Operations Manager Amrit Chima offers her insight on the lack of African American students. She said that in the Bay Area, “We’re seeing an outflux of certain types of families and it can be challenging to maintain a strong diversity.”
When asked about where Summit markets their school, Ms. Chima said, “I think that there are certainly priorities on targeting local communities.” This means that Summit is aiming to directly pull from Sunnyvale, which has a low African American population.
Sven Engvall, who teaches Modern World to freshmen students, said that a lack of diversity can affect students. “I think that it definitely affects learning.”
“If we have a whole white or Asian classroom, we might only get one perspective,” Mr. Engvall said. “Latino, Black, Native populations, without them it can be very hard to build a culture of empathy in that classroom.”
When asked about teaching sensitive topics regarding race, he said, “If we don’t have the affected people, it feels like we are first world people talking about how to help disadvantaged, oppressed people who we put in that situation. And that’s not necessarily helping if we are just speaking for them.”
Denali freshman Malachi Daniher reported similar experiences to Mallinson. He said, “When I have to talk about race, everyone is like, ‘Oh my god, he’s black.’ It makes me feel weird to learn about it because everyone is looking at me and expecting answers from me.”
Daniher also said he’s almost always the lone African American in his classroom because at Summit Denali he knows less than five African American people.
“I like talking and giving my opinion on everything, but when I talk about it I get afraid to talk about it because all the non-colored people can’t relate or talk about it,” Daniher said. “My learning is affected when there’s only one African American to speak about it.”
Mallinson said that even when the classroom does have productive conversations about race, she isn’t always heard. “Opinions tend to come from a ‘woke’ white person. A lot of the time people say things like we don’t see color but if you don’t see color you don’t see me. They think it’s woke but in reality it’s just negative.”
Mallinson continued to say that when she does end up talking, she is seen as speaking for all African Americans. “Everyone thinks I speak for all black people — you’re asking my opinion, not the whole races. I don’t speak for everyone.” She said that when there’s only one African American, it’s hard to compare and contrast different African American experiences when it comes to race.
Mallinson also said that the African American experience at Summit is different than other minorities. “Everyone has their groups, there are enough White, Asian, Latin groups for them to not feel alone.”
However, Mr. Engvall acknowledged that it’s hard to grow the school’s African American population because of Denali’s status as a growing school. “I think Denali is still a growing campus who accepts any person who applies, if we’re trying to get a more diverse population sometimes that can’t happen.”
Mallinson agreed that it’s hard for Summit to have a higher population of African Americans, due to location. She said, “You can’t force diversity.”
Featured Image (at top of page): Mr. Engvall’s classroom is primarily white, which is not uncommon considering the demographics at Denali. PHOTO CREDIT: Riley Quigley