“It wasn’t one day I was in that school that I didn’t hear white kids say the n-word,” said Zaahir Hall, the 17-year-old Oak Park and River Forest High School graduating senior and captain of the varsity soccer team, during a phone interview last week.
The COVID-19 pandemic canceled the remainder of his academic year, a formative part of his life (there will be no prom or graduation ceremony), and forced Hall, along with millions of other students across the world, into relative seclusion.
During the days he spent away from normal school life, Hall realized that hearing white students casually and cavalierly use the n-word should not be normal. And he felt ashamed, as if an accomplice, because he never said anything about it when he could have and so aided and abetted the normality.
“I laughed it off like nothing,” Hall said. “I gave them that power over me. They are entirely too comfortable and they’ve forgotten the hatred tied to that word and what our ancestors went through. To say that word to a person of color resonated with me and always has, so I’m really tired of it and I know there are a lot of other kids who have felt like me.”
Liberated enough to speak his truth, Hall posted a message on April 9 to his Instagram page detailing some of his experiences at OPRF. The post has since garnered more than 2,100 likes.
When he spoke (with the permission of his mother) to Wednesday Journal on April 11, Hall said that, in addition to the solitude brought on by the pandemic, other factors prompting him to speak out were the surge of African-American players who have joined OPRF’s soccer program — some two dozen within the span of a year. Hall said that when he joined the program as a freshman, he could count the number of black and biracial players in the program on one hand.
He also thought about his younger brother, a track-and-field athlete, and the young African-American players he mentors and trains as a coach with the Chicago Edge Soccer Club. Hall said he wants to be an example to the younger athletes of how they should respond to a disturbing reality at OPRF — one that many whites in the building don’t want to accept, he added.
Hall said he would hear the word constantly from his white teammates on the soccer team.
“They would say, ‘What up my n—a,’ and then laugh,” Hall recalled. “It was horrendous. There was zero fear. It was as if it was one big joke to them. That was partly on me for never saying anything. I was afraid to lose the core players on our squad.”
Hall recalled an incident during his sophomore year when an opposing player called him the n-word “all game.”
“My teammate goes up to the ref and says, ‘Did you just hear what he called my player? He called him the n-word,'” Hall recalled. “The rest of my team just laughed at [the teammate who was defending Hall]. And they still joke about it to this day because he stood up for me.”
Hall said he’d also hear the word in the hallways, in the cafeteria — reinforcing the treatment Hall said he got from teachers, students and security guards.
“There are countless times at lunch throughout my four years when I’m sitting down eating lunch in the hallway because the cafeteria is too loud and I get told to move by white teachers while multiple white students are sitting down eating their lunch and nothing is said to them,” Hall said. “The times when white students are talking completely over the teacher and the teacher says nothing, but the second I laugh or say two words, the teacher is on me.
“There hasn’t been one Martin Luther King assembly where I haven’t seen a white kid mocking students of color, Black Leaders Union students, who are sharing their poems and stories on the stage,” Hall said. “Not one year have I not seen a group of white kids laughing and mocking them, like their reality is a joke.”
Hall also felt compelled to share the experiences of a biracial teammate who wasn’t comfortable opening up about an incident that happened during the teammate’s sophomore year, when a white player called him a “coon.”
Most of the reactions to Hall’s Instagram post are positive, with people thanking him for sharing his story and many African-American OPRF alum praising him for speaking out. But there has been pushback, Hall said. He shared one Snapchat message from a student who called Hall racist for “generalizing a whole race because of their skin color.”
“I want to make this clear,” Hall said. “It’s not like the whole program is like this, but sometimes the bad just outweighs the good, mentally. There was so much good in the Huskie soccer program, but those little bad things mean a lot to players of color and white players just don’t understand what that means.”
Hall said that he didn’t tell his soccer coaches about his experiences and none could be reached for comment. Karin Sullivan, D200’s communications director, released a statement when Wednesday Journal contacted her last week about Hall’s post.
“While we can’t comment on incidents involving individual students, we want to acknowledge that extremely hurtful incidents of racism do happen at OPRF High School and that they are absolutely unacceptable,” she stated. “When we learn about these incidents, we work with the persons involved to create understanding of the harm that has been done and encourage efforts to repair the damage. This is ongoing work that requires the support of everyone to ensure that we can achieve our goal of being an equitable, racially just community.”
“When I first read the post, I was a bit shocked,” said one of Hall’s teammates, who requested anonymity. “I never knew that’s how he felt about our team. It felt like it came out of nowhere because he never said anything to me about not really feeling accepted or anything like that.”
The student, however, said he would take Hall at his word.
“He said what he said and that is his experience,” the student said. “You can’t take that away from him. Some people were saying, ‘No, he’s wrong,’ but you can’t say that because you never walked a day in his shoes. I think the best thing is accept other people’s experiences and do your best to not be a part of the problem.”