Last spring, Diarra English ’15 shared her experience at BB&N in an essay entitled “Black Faces in Private Spaces” for BlazeVOX, a literary magazine that publishes poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. Over the summer The Vanguard asked any Upper School students interested in sharing their own experiences in light of her critique to send in their thoughts. Here’s what they volunteered.
“Let’s talk about the issues at BB&N”
There’s this pressure for BB&N to be a perfect, diverse school with no problems…I feel like students have the need to be “woke” about race, religion, sexual orientation, and other systemic issues, but it’s also like, “How are you trying to be woke but not look at the issues in BB&N?” Especially after the election, there was more talk about [social justice] issues. One time in African American Lit, we went in on one of the articles The Vanguard wrote toward the end of the year with quotes from students about comments they heard (“Speech at BB&N,” Vol. 46, No. 1). We talked about the issues at BB&N and how or why they happen. Having that safe space helped, but it was only for a small class.
“I was afraid to voice my thoughts.”
I remember my first tour of BB&N as a freshman. I was really excited because everyone told me that high school is a time where you experience new things and discover who you really are. Throughout my tour everything seemed great, but walking into my first class gave me such a huge shock. I was the only student of color. It was hard for me. I felt really uncomfortable and out of place. As a result, I was ready to leave the school after my first week.
I tried so hard to convince myself that everything would be okay, and I constantly reminded myself that I’d be out in a few years. At times I was afraid to voice my thoughts for fear that I would be judged or that I would be corrected. When slavery was spoken about in classes, I would automatically feel eyes turning to look at me as if I knew the answer to every question.
Situations like this are the reason why students of color tend to move toward each other. You find yourselves experiencing the same things, and because of that, a friendship grows. I will become a stronger person in these short four years, and every September I try to walk in with a better mindset. I hope that future students who walk through the halls of BB&N will never experience the things that many of us are experiencing at this moment.
The real world is diverse and filled with so many different people, and that’s the way schools should be. It’s hard to leave an environment where you feel safe and protected just to enter one where you feel self-conscious or unsure of yourself most of the time. BB&N takes pride in being a school that’s really welcoming, but if the school continues to say that, then they need to finally live up to it.
“Each story must be heard”
When a person of color tells their story, we must listen. We are a part of the story, and we cannot separate ourselves from it. It is easy to say that we care, but hard to actually act on it. It is easy to give a standing ovation after someone gives a speech about their identity and their struggles, and then to sit back down again. We will talk about the speech during lunch as if we are not a part of the struggle, as if we are the exception. We might hear that speech, or read Diarra’s essay, or read this response, and then reflect on it, sympathize with it, and call it a day.
This is not something I can turn away from. I am a person of color, and I also identify as non-binary. I don’t know if I will be able to come out as non-binary at this school. Not even my closest friends know. I don’t let myself think about my gender. I am afraid of opening that door. I have heard the jokes, the casual conversations, the insensitivity that permeates these halls and the Commons.
It’s how easily people can make light of something that feels so heavy that makes me think, It’s best to just not talk about it, to not think about it. Someone is going to get uncomfortable. Someone is going to give me that look that makes me feel crazy. Someone is going to say they care and then silence me the next day because it is not convenient for them anymore.
I am afraid of taking up space, especially as a person of color. I often feel like I must hide my heritage to fit into this community, to be who I am but not too much, to be happy to share my culture and my story, but only to a degree. There are some parts of myself that I have internalized as irrelevant, that I regard with disdain—and even worse, indifference—because I was never taught to love them or be proud of them in the same way we are taught to be proud of this country or to uphold the spirit of this school.
There are people at this school who are listening, who care and are here, and I thank them for that because I don’t know what I would do if they weren’t. People of color have been treating the white narrative as their own for a very long time, and now, in order for us to grow as a community, each story a person of color tells should be given the same treatment. Each story must be heard and remembered for us to be true to ourselves out in the open, instead of anonymously.
“Speak up. Say something.”
Let me start off by acknowledging how lucky I am to attend BB&N. I feel fortunate to go to a school that is so accepting and empowering, an opportunity many don’t have. That being said, I do think it’s important to recognize our flaws so we can continue to improve our community. And as a student of color, I’ve come to realize that many of these issues surround race.
Racism at BB&N ranges from the overt to the disguised. On more than one occasion I’ve heard white students say the n-word, only to explain away their actions by claiming that their black friend said it was acceptable. I overheard one student tell her friend that she “just didn’t find Asians attractive.” Clearly it’s naïve to think we aren’t surrounded by racism—though I confess I did myself—just because we go to a liberal school.
However, what is more common at BB&N is casual racism: comments and behavior that are so subtle that we often overlook them. I would argue that this is even more insidious than overt racism because it almost always goes unnoticed. In a conversation about diversity, one of my classmates contended that many students get into BB&N “just because they’re black or Hispanic.” On another occasion, I was talking to my friend about the Model Minority Myth when a white peer interrupted. “I just don’t think Asians really face discrimination in America,” she said confidently, implying that she knew more about my own experience than I did. But I didn’t speak up.
I could name countless more examples: being confused for other South Asian students; hearing comments like “That’s so ethnic” or “Wow, so exotic”; and of course, scrolling past Instagram posts featuring white girls dressed haphazardly in kimonos and captioned “ohhh konnichiwa.” This kind of subtle, “oh but that’s not so bad” racism pervades our halls, and I’ll admit: it makes me uncomfortable, as much as I wish it didn’t. These micro-aggressions may seem harmless, but they stem from bigger issues; they reflect the systems and institutions that continue to oppress people of color.
The unfortunate reality is that we often lose sight of our prejudice. Just because you have a black friend doesn’t mean you’re not racist. Just because you read a book by an author of color doesn’t mean you’re not racist. And just because you went on a service trip to a developing country and took a selfie with the children you met certainly doesn’t mean you’re immune from racism.
So what’s the solution? When you see a situation of injustice, speak up. Say something. I know how awkward it is to be that person, but ultimately it benefits our school. If you feel like you don’t know enough about racism or you don’t feel equipped to deal with it, come to SHADES (Students Honoring All Differences and Embracing Similarities). Talk to your fellow students and your teachers. We have the huge privilege to be a part of this amazing community, so let’s use that to make it even stronger, even better.
“A lot more work needs to be done.”
As someone whose parents immigrated from the Ivory Coast at the age of 18, I do feel I have a different perspective than most African Americans, who have been systematically oppressed for hundreds of years. In the Ivory Coast, race was never an issue, and from a young age, I was taught that race didn’t really matter. Furthermore, as someone who has been fortunate enough to live in a very nice Cambridge neighborhood and go on Martha’s Vineyard vacations every summer and stay in Paris for two weeks (I say this not to brag, but just to illustrate that my perspective may vary from other people of color at BB&N), I fit into the lifestyle that many BB&N kids have.
I never felt out of place. However, I can identify with so many things: becoming the “token black kid” or having kids compare their skin color to mine after taking in Caribbean sun. I would be lying if I said that I never thought about my place at BB&N with regard to my race, but to be frank, it seldom came up. At BB&N I was able to write for The Vanguard, become a tour guide, be on the Student Admissions Board, and have a great and fulfilling time. But just because as a school you say your ideals are to be a diverse and welcoming community, and just because your students live in a liberal state—these do not mean you cannot say racist things or be insensitive.
The issue that I now see with many BB&N students is that they do not even realize that they can say things that are offensive. Most, if not all, offensive or insensitive interactions come from a place with no bad intention. When some of my friends say the n-word when rapping along to the newest Kendrick Lamar song, and then say they can say it because we are friends, they are being racist. Although I believe they are trying to be funny, or tap into what society has deemed cool, those remarks are offensive.
I would just like to remind all students to be careful with what they say. I do believe that the school has progressed immensely but that a lot more work needs to be done. I should not be the only black kid in all but three or so classes out of the 25 or more classes I have taken in my five years at BB&N. I should not only see two black teachers in the Upper School.