KnowEl Willhight was initially greeted with polite applause and warm smiles as she approached the lectern to read her award-winning essay in front of 130 people gathered at Rhodes State Office Tower in Columbus.
As the Maumee Valley Country Day School eighth grader began to read, the audience’s smiles disappeared, some people shifted uncomfortably in their seats, and others looked offended.
“The ‘N’ word has been around for what seems like forever,” she said. “It was used mainly back when African-Americans were still slaves and were experiencing much more racism than today. Open racism, that is.”
Young Willhight, 13, then chastised African-Americans who use the word and other derogatory variations of it. White people throughout history have used the slur to dehumanize black people, but they don’t need to anymore, she said. African-Americans who direct the word toward each other dehumanize all involved.
“Today it’s almost as if blacks are condoning racism with a smile on our faces, none the wiser,” she said. “You see, my major problem is the accepted use of the ‘N’ word in today’s society. It’s used in music, television, movies, and everyday life.”
She was one of five middle and high school students throughout Ohio whose essays were selected as winners of the 2014 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Art, Writing & Multimedia Contest. A banquet to honor the winners was held Feb. 27. The annual contest is sponsored by the Ohio Civil Rights Commission.
In the art category two students from Toledo’s Notre Dame Academy took home top honors: sophomore Lauren Neese and junior Reem Hajeir.
“We had a lot of entries this year,” said Johncie Kanney, director of public affairs for the civil rights department. “More than 3,000-plus schools were invited to participate.”
This year’s theme was “We Shall Overcome,” which encouraged students to describe how they could affect their schools, Ms. Kanney said.
“The contest keeps it alive within the students,” she said. “Even at their age they can make a change. It keeps the dream alive. It gets them to speak up and believe that they can make a difference.”
Young Willhight said many black and white students at Maumee Valley Country Day School commonly use the slur or a popular, shortened variation of it. The essay contest gave young Willhight a platform to speak out. She discovered many of her classmates felt the same way.
“I was kind of nervous at first because a lot of people are ignorant and passionate about how the word doesn’t mean the same thing,” young Willhight said. “They’re just fooling themselves.”
In addition to writing the essay, she posted a pledge roll at her school asking students to sign it and “stop tolerating the use of the ‘N’ word.”
The number of student signatures is growing every day, school officials said, although an exact number wasn’t available.
“I’m really proud of her; she’s blossoming into this leader,” said her mother, Rhonda Willhight. “The other students all had nice, conservative topics — not KnowEl. She got up there and started talking about the ‘N’ word and she delivered her essay fearlessly.”
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