The students at Wilson High School are used to navigating racial and ethnic divisions. The rivalry between black, Asian, and Latino gangs affect their everyday lives, constantly making them potential victims in a war where only external appearances and group loyalty matter. As a consequence, at school and in their neighborhood, students learn to remain within the confines of their own identity group. However, when Ms. Gruwell begins to teach her class about the historical consequences of ethnic violence around the world, focusing on the stories of Anne Frank in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands and Zlata Filipović in contemporary war-torn Bosnia and Herzegovina, her students are forced to confront the horrific consequences of ethnic hatred. Inspired by Anne and Zlata’s experiences, Ms. Gruwell’s students learn to see beyond the barriers of race and ethnicity, discovering that peace and tolerance are infinitely greater goals than remaining focused on people’s different identities. Ultimately, the Freedom Writers commit to focusing only on everyone’s inherent humanity, concluding that there is only one race that matters: the united human race.
The students at Wilson High School are immersed in the urban world of Long Beach, where racial tensions and a vicious gang war divide the population along ethnic and racial lines. As a result, one’s social identity and appearance determine one’s entire life, from one’s friend group to one’s chances of survival in the street. Erin Gruwell begins to teach in a historical context of racial tensions. Two years earlier, in 1992, officers in the Los Angeles Police Department were filmed brutally beating Rodney King, an unarmed black man, before arresting him. When the police officers were acquitted for this act, six days of violent rioting erupted in Los Angeles, protesting the long-standing discrimination and abuse that the African-American community has suffered from the police. This long stretch of rioting had a severe effect on increasing racial tensions in the area, and Ms. Gruwell notes that the tension could be felt in the school itself. Later events, such as California’s Proposition 187, meant to prohibit illegal immigrants from using various services in California (including health care and public education), only heightened the sense of discrimination and exclusion that many minority communities experienced at the time, in particular Asian and Latino immigrants.
Ethnic and racial communities were also in direct rivalry with each other, as African-American, Asian, and Latino gangs engaged in a ruthless war for power and territory. To remain safe, people generally stayed loyal to their own group, as one could be shot at for the mere fact of having the wrong skin color—regardless of whether or not one actually belonged to a rival gang. At Wilson High School, these divisions are strikingly visible. The school quad is divided according to color and ethnicity, as people mostly make friends with members of their own identity group.
This ethnic hatred and violence affects all students. Most of them have been shot at, have directly witnessed gang-related violence, and have seen their friends die over the course of the years due to gang rivalry. After Ms. Gruwell questions a student about the rivalry between the Latino and Asian gangs, trying to make that student realize that this war is just as senseless as that of the Capulets and Montagues in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the student comes to realize that Ms. Gruwell is probably right. Yet even though he cannot justify the gang’s divisions, he still abides by their logic: “[Ms. Gruwell] always tries to corner you into accepting that there’s another side, when there really isn’t. I don’t even remember how the whole thing got started, but it’s obvious that if you’re from one family, you need to be loyal and try to get some payback.”
Through Ms. Gruwell’s teaching, the students discover that racial and ethnic tensions have deep historical consequences in other places in the world. Reading the diaries of Anne Frank, who was killed in Nazi Germany for being a Jew, and of Zlata Filipović, a young girl caught in the contemporary Bosnian war, divided among nationalities and religions, allows the students to examine ethnic divisions from a distance. They come to realize that peace and tolerance are much more inspiring messages than ethnic hatred and rivalry.
When, as a student teacher, Erin Gruwell intercepts a racist caricature of an African-American boy in her class, she becomes furious and tells her students that such stereotyping is precisely what led to horrific events such as the Holocaust. She soon realizes that most of her students have never heard of the Holocaust. As a result, she decides to devote her teaching to the promotion of tolerance. When her students discover the stories of two fellow teenagers, Anne Frank and Zlata Filipović, they come to terms with the devastation that ethnic divisions can cause. During World War II, adolescent Anne Frank is forced to hide for years and is ultimately sent to a concentration camp, where she ultimately dies—all because of the mere fact that she is Jewish. In early-1990s Bosnia and Herzegovina, another young girl, Zlata, is forced to hide in a basement to escape the brutal ethnic war that is tearing her country apart. Ms. Gruwell’s students soon note similarities between their own lives and the senseless violence that these two young girls had to endure. Inspired by these young diarists’ messages of tolerance, the students become inspired to write their own diaries, chronicling their lives in a world where racial tensions and gang violence are rife.
It is when the students delve into a geographically closer past, that of the United States, that they find the inspiration to make a commitment against racial violence and injustice. They read about the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists—seven black and six white—who rode a bus across the American South in the early 1960s to protest the segregation of public buses. In Alabama, the Freedom Riders were violently beaten by a mob of Ku Klux Klan members. When Ms. Gruwell’s students discover that these black and white activists were ready to sacrifice their lives to champion equal rights, they realize that they can use this episode in American history as inspiration in their own fight for diversity and tolerance. Making a pun with the original activists’ name, they decide to call themselves the “Freedom Writers.”
After long months of studying the historical consequences of racial hatred, the Freedom Riders conclude that dividing people according to their appearance or group identity is absurd and dangerous. They commit to the ideal of unity, based on the premise of recognizing everyone’s humanity. The students come to terms with the fact that separating people among racial or ethnic groups can generate injustice and harm. In Diary 33, a student recounts a time when she had to testify in court. After having seen her friend Paco kill another man, she is supposed to defend Paco and lie about his involvement in the murder, so as to defend her fellow Latino “people,” her “blood.” However, in court, she sees the despair in the eyes of the accused man’s mother—who is black—and realizes that this woman reminds her of her own Mexican mom. In this moment, she realizes that both sides of the conflict are affected by the same, senseless violence, and that protecting injustice in the name of her group identity will only tear more families apart. In a courageous move, she decides to tell the truth and accuse Paco of murder, therefore going against her presumed loyalty to Latinos in order to defend a greater ideal of justice. This decision demonstrates her commitment to recognizing everyone’s humanity and dignity, regardless of their race or identity.
However courageous and inspiring the Freedom Writers’ messages of diversity and tolerance might be, the young students often experience resistance from close-minded adults. When the Freedom Writers invite Zlata to come to the United States, she gives a speech at the Croatian Hall where she talks about her experience of ethnic hatred in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Even though she is a direct survivor of severe ethnic violence, some adults still ask her what her ethnicity is: Serbian, Croatian, Muslim? The adults’ reaction demonstrates their resistance to conceiving of the world in a color- or ethnicity-blind way. Yet Zlata boldly answers: “I am a human being” and the Freedom Writers stand by her, confirming that people’s humanity—and not their nationality, religion, or skin color—should be the only thing that ever matters. In Diary 17, a Freedom Writer reiterates this conclusion in her own words: “As long as I know that I am a human being, I don’t need to worry about what other people say. In the end, we all are the same!”
Race, Ethnicity, and Tolerance ThemeTracker
Race, Ethnicity, and Tolerance Quotes in The Freedom Writers Diary
I asked, “How many of you have heard of the Holocaust?” Not a single person raised his hand. Then I asked, “How many of you have been shot at?” Nearly every hand went up. I immediately decided to throw out my meticulously planned lessons and make tolerance the core of my curriculum. From that moment on, I would try to bring history to life by using new books, inviting guest speakers, and going on field trips.
My P.O. hasn’t realized yet that schools are just like the city and the city is just like prison. All of them are divided into separate sections, depending on race. On the streets, you kick it in different ’hoods, depending on your race, or where you’re from. And at school, we separate ourselves from people who are different from us. That’s just the way it is, and we all respect that. So when the Asians started trying to claim parts of the ’hood, we had to set them straight.
I’m not afraid of anyone anymore. Now I’m my own gang. I protect myself. I got my own back. I still carry my gun with me just in case I run into some trouble, and now I’m not afraid to use it. Running with gangs and carrying a gun can create some problems, but being of a different race can get you into trouble, too, so I figure I might as well be prepared. Lately, a lot of shit’s been going down. All I know is that I'm not gonna be the next one to get killed.
[I]t’s obvious that if you’re from a Latino gang you don’t get along with the Asian gang, and if you’re from the Asian gang, you don’t get along with the Latino gang. All this rivalry is more of a tradition. Who cares about the history behind it? Who cares about any kind of history? It’s just two sides who tripped on each other way back when and to this day make other people suffer because of their problems. Then I realized she was right, it’s exactly like that stupid play. So our reasons might be stupid, but it's still going on, and who am I to try to change things?
“Do not let Anne’s death be in vain,” Miep said, using her words to bring it all together. Miep wanted us to keep Anne’s message alive, it was up to us to remember it. Miep and Ms. Gruwell had had the same purpose all along. They wanted us to seize the moment. Ms. Gruwell wanted us to realize that we could change the way things were, and Miep wanted to take Anne’s message and share it with the world.
I have always been taught to be proud of being Latina, proud of being Mexican, and I was. I was probably more proud of being a “label” than of being a human being, that’s the way most of us were taught. Since the day we enter this world we were a label, a number, a statistic, that’s just the way it is. Now if you ask me what race I am, like Zlata, I’ll simply say, “I’m a human being.”
When I was born, the doctor must have stamped “National Spokesperson for the Plight of Black People” on my forehead; a stamp visible only to my teachers. The majority of my teachers treat me as if I, and I alone, hold the answers to the mysterious creatures that African Americans are, like I’m the Rosetta Stone of black people. It was like that until I transferred to Ms. Gruwell’s class. Up until that point it had always been: “So Joyce, how do black people feel about Affirmative Action?” Poignant looks follow. “Joyce, can you give us the black perspective on The Color Purple?”
I believe that I will never again feel uncomfortable with a person of a different race. When I have my own children someday, the custom I was taught as a child will be broken, because I know it's not right. My children will learn how special it is to bond with another person who looks different but is actually just like them. All these years I knew something was missing in my life, and I am glad that I finally found it.
As I got older, people who heard my story would ask me how I dealt with the idea of death and dying. I would think about it for a minute and reply, “See, being poor, black, and living in the ghetto was kind of like a disease that I was born with, sort of like AIDS or cancer.” It was nothing I could control.