What to take away from the Mills basketball game

On Friday, Jan. 12, during the first boys’ varsity basketball quad game of the year against Mills High School, several Burlingame High School students began chanting “You can’t see us” in response to “We can’t hear you” being chanted from the Mills student section.

Principal Paul Belzer shut down the cheer immediately. However, it was reported that other comments were being made to players as they ran up and down the court. Belzer brought up the incident at a student council meeting the following Tuesday, Jan. 16. He expressed his deep disappointment over the actions of Burlingame students.

He also notified the staff of the incident and the fact that he addressed student council.  Because the incident was so public, many staff members were embarrassed by student conduct, yet unsure of how – and whether – to approach the issue with their students.

The following Friday, Jan. 19, Belzer made an announcement over the loudspeaker at the end of fifth period, calling for the respect of all players and spectators at that night’s second quad game against Capuchino High School.  

“Racial stereotyping and other acts of discrimination are unacceptable and need to be addressed directly and denounced,” Belzer said in his announcement. “Although we are not defined by the acts of some members of our community, we need to stand together and make it clear this kind of behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

While Belzer’s announcement was commendable and appeared to have an effect at that night’s game, there are bigger underlying issues that are not being addressed.

Burlingame High School lacks a strong sense of school spirit and school pride, which makes it easier for students to resort to derogatory cheers when faced with an impending loss at a sporting event. As a well-ranked athletic school, we become accustomed to watching our teams win, and we forget how to “lose with grace,” as Dean Fred Wolfgramm puts it. Cheering should be about building your own team up, not tearing the other team down.

Passivity exacerbates the problem; we’ve become adept at turning a blind eye to the sort of behavior that grows into a racially-inclined chant at a basketball game. Living in one of the most liberal areas in the country creates a sense of separation and protection. How could we say anything offensive when we’re assumed to hold such progressive views? It’s easy to write off a race-based comment as a joke based on a stereotype we don’t believe in, but we forget that that’s not how others perceive it.  

The last action taken to ameliorate the situation was when Belzer and counselor Karen Latham took representatives from Leadership, ASB, and Service Commission to Mills to deliver a letter of apology. Belzer said it was a good opportunity for conversation.

As the basketball season comes to its end, and our rivalry home quad approaches, we need to use this incident not as a merely a lesson in poor judgement but as a starting point to move forward. We need to remember that words can have more power than we might foresee. We need to remember that just because we live in an area where racism is not a commonality doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. And we need to remember that inspiring positivity, respect and pride should always be what we are working towards together as a school.

Posted on February 12, 2018 .