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SLHS valedictorian calls out anti-Asian racism she endured

Francine Newman looks at the camera just before delivering her speech as valedictorian of Saranac Lake High School. Like the rest of the school’s commencement ceremony, her speech was recorded earlier in June and screened as part of the commencement video Friday, June 26. (Screenshot from Saranac Lake High School commencement video)

GABRIELS — In Francine “Frannie” Newman’s speech as valedictorian of Saranac Lake High School, she spoke frankly about racism she has endured from classmates and teachers for being Asian, going back to day care when kids nicknamed her and her brother “Fortune Cookie” and “Eggroll.”

“I don’t mind the race jokes,” she said. “I don’t have a single friend who hasn’t made one, and I’m guilty too. I know there’s not a lot of diversity in the area, and I know that no one has ever intended to hurt me with what they say; there’s a lack of education and understanding, and it is not the fault of anyone living here. Knowing this, and growing up knowing this, did not make any of it hurt any less.”

The speech went public Friday night as part of the SLHS commencement, but it had been recorded earlier in June, as had the other speeches and each graduate walking across the stage. Good Guy Productions of Bloomingdale edited these parts together into a two-hour video, which premiered before graduates and their families Friday night as a drive-in movie in a field at Tucker Farms in Gabriels. The video is also now posted on the SLHS website, http://highschool.slcs.org.

Newman said things got worse for her when she was in second grade and switched to Petrova Elementary in Saranac Lake after Lake Clear School closed.

“In a larger pool of kids, and in an older pool of kids, innocent race questions turn quickly into blatant racism,” she said. “They tugged at the sides of their eyes and said they couldn’t have me over to their houses because I would eat their dogs. It seems so insignificant now, but in the mind of a second-grader? I cried openly in front of a class full of entirely new people, and was pulled aside afterwards and told that I needed to toughen up — that kids will be kids, and that it was all jokes, and that I was being sensitive, and that I wasn’t going to make friends this way. And so I did. I toughened up. I began to make the jokes before other people could. I began to respond to the new nicknames the kids on the back of the bus gave me. Gone were the days of ‘Fortune Cookie,’ replaced instead with ‘Chink,’ ‘Ling Ling,’ ‘China’ and ‘Squinty Eyes.’ These were trying times. Sink or swim. I wanted the friends and I didn’t care how I got them, even if I felt myself growing to hate the way I looked as much as it seemed everyone else did.”

As Newman got older, she said, “I began to resent my culture, resent my own mother, for making me look this way.”

“Adults in my life have played just as large a role in reinforcing my self-loathing as kids have,” she said. “In third grade I was given to the wrong parent at the end of a field trip, because the parent was Asian, with the excuse, ‘You all just look the same.’ In eighth grade a classmate was asked by the teacher, ‘In this room, who is going to get into college first?’ and was forced to choose Jackson and myself, seeing as we were the ethnic minorities. We were told that we were lucky to not be white, even though in that moment I would have given anything to blend in with the rest of the class, would have given anything to think that my future accomplishments would be based on merit and not on race.

“Today, standing before you, I can finally say that I am proud — proud of everything I have done, proud of where I am heading in the fall (Middlebury College in Vermont), proud of what I look like, proud of my heritage and proud of my mom.

“I am thankful for the person I was forced to become, and I am thankful that one day I will have the opportunity to teach my own kids about their culture and about acceptance. My only regret leaving high school is not having had these revelations sooner.”

She ended the speech on a positive note, thanking friends, parents, classmates and teachers, and saying, “I am so thankful to have been a part of this class.

“Over these four years, we’ve all found self-acceptance, and we’ve all grown into the people we were meant to become.”

(Correction: An earlier version of this misspelled Francine Newman’s nickname, Frannie. The Enterprise regrets the error.)

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