British Columbia·MATHESON

Brownwashing and the n-word: Race and culture are complicated topics at Surrey's Matheson secondary

South Asians — generally considered a minority — are the majority of the student body at Matheson. That has led to a unique, diverse cultural milieu within its hallways and classrooms. But some students feel singled out and treated differently.

Some students feel like they fit into two cultures — but others feel like they don't belong at all

At L.A. Matheson Secondary in Surrey, South Asian students are the majority of the student body. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Nolan Fuchs, a Grade 11 student at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, is known to get "lit" when one of his favourite songs is playing.

Issa Jatt is a Punjabi hip-hop song by Indian singer Sidhu Moose Wala. Nolan's friend and classmate Simran Jagroop says it's a huge hit at the school

"This is every Surrey boy's favourite song," Simran laughed. "Pulling up in the parking lot, this is the first thing they blast.

"During Vaisakhi or Diwali, when all the brown songs come on, I see Nolan jumping into the crowd getting lit. I'm like, 'Yeah, white boy!'"

Nolan, as Simran says, is a "white boy." But it's no surprise he likes Punjabi music.

"I guess I am kinda brownwashed," Nolan said. "It just happened on its own. Everybody here is brown. All my buddies talk like that. You talk to your friends the way they talk to you."

At Matheson, South Asians — generally considered a minority in B.C. — are the majority.

That has led to a unique, diverse cultural milieu within the school's hallways and classrooms — but still, some feel singled out and treated differently.

Grade 11 student Simran Jagroop said some students have embraced South Asian culture. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Punjabi sport, language

At Matheson, students try out for the Kabaddi team — a traditional Punjabi wrestling sport —  and in the classroom, Punjabi is an elective course alongside French.

"This was not the case about 10, 15 years ago," said Punjabi teacher Gurpreet Bains.

"Kids are getting more involved in kind of getting in touch with their roots, culture, their mother language.

"Also ... there's more employment opportunities that have come up because of the Punjabi being the language of employment nowadays."

Like Nolan, Grade 12 student Albien Mercado grew up largely with South Asian friends.

"I get pointed out a lot," Albien said.

"Everyone's brown, brown, brown, and they see one Asian kid, and they're like, what's happening here?"

He doesn't fit in with many Asian kids, he said, and that can be difficult.

Albien Mercado says he feels like he's grown up between two cultures. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

'They don't ever think about the black people'

Grade 11 student Zainab Osman knows she's different from her peers.

She's one of the few black students at Matheson. She, along with classmates Michal Oqbe and Gnane Daniel, described being treated like outsiders.

They agree that racist language is common — including casual use of the n-word.

Zainab Osman, Michal Oqbe and Gnane Daniel, left to right, say it can be a challenge being a black person in Surrey. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

"It's disappointing, especially when you see people who you used to be really close with and you see them not helping when others are being affected by it," Zainab explained. "They don't ever think about the black people here."

Zainab said the n-word is often heard from boys who are trying to act "hard."

It's frustrating, she said, that those attempts to act hard mean black students have to hear racist language.

"I'm not going to dismiss that," she said.

Visiting the school ahead of time is a way to reduce anxiety for students moving into a new school with older, bigger kids. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

This story is part of a series called Matheson, examining the lives of students at L.A. Matheson Secondary School in Surrey, B.C. CBC journalist Jason D'Souza was given unparalleled access as he spent a month embedded at the high school in order to hear unfiltered stories of students today.