Ladan Mohamed, a Somali 23-year-old from Riverdale, worked hard to fit in at Bonneville High School, she said, and was elected the student body president.
That didn’t protect her from racism.
“I would be up on the stage at assemblies introducing what was happening,” she said. “And people would just scream profanities at me, like they’d call me a terrorist, they’d say the N-word, it was really bad.”
The discrimination she experienced growing up in Utah eventually became a factor in her choice to leave the state last year, after college. As Utah and the rest of the country mark seven weeks of protesting the deaths of Black and brown Americans at the hands of police, Mohamed and other young people are sharing their experiences with racism.
“Utah culture is passive, and this is my way of being very direct about a real problem,” she said in an interview from California, where she moved in October for work.
Many of Mohamed’s encounters with racism happened in high school, she said, where she and her siblings were some of the only Black students. High school was a turning point for other young people who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune, a time when they became more aware of discrimination they experienced.
Utah, which has a population that is 77.8% white, according to a 2019 U.S. Census Bureau report, does not require any diversity classes for high school students.
“Obviously, history and current events courses are places where some of these issues both can and should be explored,” Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah Board of Education, wrote in an email.
Peterson said several district offices work with teachers on anti-racism and diversity awareness. So far, the possibility of a mandatory diversity class — such as the course on race and ethnicity some students at Brigham Young University in Provo are requesting — has not been discussed by the K-12 state board, he said.
As an athlete on her high school soccer team, Mohamed hated playing on the wing — which left her closer to the stands — because students and parents from opposing teams would sometimes yell racial epithets, even calling her a monkey.
Other experiences were more subtle. Mohamed remembered classmates telling her, “You’re really pretty for a Black girl.”
Mohamed said she didn’t realize how much trauma she went through in high school until she joined the Black Student Union in college, first at Utah State University in Logan and then at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
She studied for two years at Utah State before transferring to the U. after the election of President Donald Trump. When Mohamed took a bus to the Logan campus the day after Trump was elected, a passenger looked her in the eyes, she said, and said something like, “Do you feel welcome here? Because you shouldn’t.”
“Utah State was not good for me,” she said, “and then, when I went to the U., I felt more welcomed.”
Mohamed said her experiences with racism in Utah were among several reasons for her choice to move.
“I just felt like I needed to know what it was like being somewhere else because … I know racism exists everywhere,” she said, “but I didn’t know if Utah just felt super suffocating.”
While living in San Jose, a more diverse city, “I don’t feel like I’m performing,” she said. “I can just be, and that’s OK.”
Looking back, she said, “I worked so hard growing up to assimilate that I almost made fun of myself. I wanted to be mean to myself before other people could be mean to me.”
Nineteen-year-old Wendy Joseph, who is Haitian American, said growing up in Layton, she learned to either “take a joke” or be considered aggressive for not laughing at racist comments.
Most of the microaggressions — indirect or subtle experiences of discrimination — came from her closest friends, she said. In high school, Joseph decided not to laugh anymore, she said, and this cost her several friendships.
Attending the U. “has been a breath of fresh air” because there are more people of color in Salt Lake City than in Layton, she said. She is comforted by the nod of acknowledgment her Black peers give her when they pass one another on campus.
It “helps me move forward when things feel isolating or when people insist on touching my hair, or my skin, or uttering some other microaggression like, ‘Where are you really from?’” she said. “That one’s just annoying.”
For 20-year-old Veronica Aponte, who immigrated from Venezuela as a young girl, growing up in Utah meant her predominantly white peers couldn’t appreciate her culture.
“I have commonly been told, ‘I didn’t know you spoke Mexican,’” Aponte said.
Some people have asked Aponte if she is a legal immigrant, and where Venezuela is in Mexico — not realizing Venezuela is a country on a different continent.
“Some have apologized, others have said, ‘Same thing,’” she said. “Which is very much incorrect.”
Aponte said it is important to have conversations about microaggressions and racism, especially as people in Utah and the rest of the country turn their attention to systemic inequalities faced by Black and brown Americans.
“White privilege is very much out there and should be discussed,” Aponte said. “I hope with the current movement, people come to expand their perspectives and learn to listen, advocate, stand for, and [empathize] with others.”
Angel Sanchez of West Jordan, now 21, said it wasn’t until high school that he realized subtle racism is a problem in Utah. Sanchez, whose family is originally from El Salvador, remembered an experience he had while working at Pro Image, a sports retail store in The Shops at South Town in Sandy.
The week before a Utah vs. BYU football game, Sanchez helped a customer find a BYU hat so he could represent his team. When the customer asked Sanchez which team he was rooting for, Sanchez said he was cheering for the U. because he is a student there.
The man responded, “You don’t know anything about football, you’re Mexican,” Sanchez said in an email interview.
“I remember being appalled and having a [loss] of words when he said that,” Sanchez wrote. “I recall keeping my composure trying not to call out the customer for his racist comments and maintain my professionalism.”
In retrospect, Sanchez wishes he had said something to the man about his comments, saying this is an issue people of color face in workplaces.
Cesar Valencia of Santaquin, now 23, said most of his experiences with racism were in public places. One time, when Valencia — who immigrated from Mexico at age 2 — went to a store with his cousins, their young children played loudly in the toy section.
An older man told Valencia he needed to control the kids, saying, “That’s why they don’t want illegal immigrants in the country.”
Valencia also said it’s important to have conversations about systemic racism. “I truly honestly believe that there are things in America … that are experienced by some races and some cultures that others don’t [experience],” he said.
White Utahns can help people of color feel welcome through personal interactions and through policy, Mohamed said.
“The foundational way to make [people of color] feel welcome is to first see us as real people with real struggles rather than dismissing our reality,” she wrote in an email. “Legislators and institutions with power must also create policy that is inclusionary to begin with, and not as an afterthought.”