I’m a Bengali junior at Brooklyn Tech, one of the most competitive public high schools in New York City. Last January, our school got national media attention for a hashtag, #blackinbrooklyntech, that gathered stories of racism experienced by Black students.
The first time I became aware of what Black students were facing was two years ago in my 9th grade biology class.
I usually sat behind two boys, one White, one Asian, near the back of the classroom. I had a crush on the White guy but I was too shy to talk to him. So instead, I’d listen in on his conversations.
One day, I heard them talk about a pretty girl they’d spoken to in the hallway. The White guy described her as “tall, skinny, and ghetto.”
“What do you mean she’s ‘ghetto?’” the Asian one asked.
“Meaning, she’s not like the other girls I like. I think she’s from the projects because she talks funny, like she’s dealing drugs on the street. Plus, she has curly hair and really dark skin.”
“Ooooh, that explains it,” the Asian guy said.
My crush instantly terminated; I couldn’t believe that he would talk about someone like that. (This girl later ended up becoming one of my close friends.)
I began to notice that these racial comments were made almost daily in Brooklyn Tech and they were made by a lot of students, including some people that I used to consider my friends. These subtle but offensive comments and actions are often referred to as “microagressions.” As the Tumblr, “Microagressions,” which helped popularize the term, puts it: “Often, they are never meant to hurt—acts done with little conscious awareness of their meanings and effects. Instead, their slow accumulation during a childhood and over a lifetime is in part what defines a marginalized experience.”
Students Speak Out
Paola Soto, a 16-year-old junior who says she’s been a target of the discrimination, told me the hashtag was started “to raise awareness of how cruel our own peers could be, especially in what’s considered a diverse New York City high school. Also, it was to tell students that racism isn’t over; it’s happening in our school right now.”
It’s my understanding that the hashtag was fueled by a Facebook group chat that included a few Black students. Racist slurs were used in this chat that directly took aim at those Black students.
Then, non-Black students posted statuses that were racist and sexist to defend their friends who made the original comments. That’s when several Black students used the hashtag as a way of speaking their mind and raising awareness about the attitudes they constantly face.
Observations of Racism
“Since my first day at Tech, I’ve been continually reminded of my skin color,” said Karelyn Mayers, a 17-year-old senior. “And I’m not the only Black student who feels this way. The remarks students and teachers have directed toward us imply that we’re stupid, violent, lazy, and drug abusers who don’t belong here. Some students have straight-up called Black students monkeys or used the “n” slur toward them.”
When I was in 10th grade, I witnessed a teacher make such a comment. Right after Eric Garner was killed, we were discussing it in class and my teacher called Garner “lazy.” He told my class he wasn’t surprised that “those people would be protesting.” He said, “Those kinds of people are always looking for an easy way out.”
Other students have told me about other racist comments teachers have made toward Black students. They range from guidance counselors calling Black kids stupid and making fun of their hair, to teachers actually making jokes about slavery.
The students directly affected by these actions told me that they filed complaints and they still aren’t certain if actions were taken or not.
A Much Larger Issue
The hashtag is bringing more attention to a larger, longstanding problem—the lack of diversity in New York City’s select public high schools. Eight of the city’s nine “specialized” high schools, including Stuyvesant and Brooklyn Tech, admit students solely based on their scores on a single admissions exam. In March, the Department of Education released new statistics that highlight how the exam limits diversity. Only about 3% of Black students who took the exam scored high enough to be admitted, compared to 34% of Asian students and 29% of White students.
These statistics show that it’s not just Brooklyn Tech, but the city’s specialized high schools as a whole that have a diversity problem. Brooklyn Tech is actually known for being one of the most diverse of the specialized high schools (Mayor de Blasio’s son Dante, who is half-Black, is a recent graduate), but there are only 412 Black students in a student body of about 5,600. Bronx Science has only 66 and Stuyvesant has as few as 22 Black students. This is another reason why the #blackinbrooklyntech hashtag is so important; it raises awareness not just within the school but outside it as well.
In my opinion, the admissions exam favors more privileged students. Most of the kids I know took extra classes and attended expensive tutorials to prepare for the exam. I was one of those students. Many kids don’t have the money or resources to do that.
Even though New York City’s Department of Education offers free exam tutoring through a program called DREAM, which offers spots to low-income 6th graders with good scores on their state math and English tests, it’s not nearly enough. WNYC reports that last year there were only about 1,500 spots for the over 6,000 students eligible. I think the test needs to be redone so you don’t need extra help on it to do well.
Another option would be to adopt a measure like the “Top 10” law in Texas to promote ethnic diversity. Everyone who finishes in the top 10% of their class at any high school in Texas is guaranteed admission at any public university in the state.
Is Enough Being Done?
The morning after the hashtag was created, a Brooklyn Tech student made a statement during the morning announcements that the administration had read what they had posted online and that students “should be more careful of what they say.” This outraged and frustrated many of the students who were involved because they didn’t think this announcement addressed the problem.
About a week later, after a few meetings where both Black students and non-Black supporters explained their concerns, another announcement was made by principal Randy Asher. He said it was of the utmost importance to provide a safe space where students feel welcome and not targeted.
I think acknowledging the problem is an important step. But while many appreciated Asher’s efforts, some Black student activists felt that he hadn’t offered solutions. “Randy Asher’s announcement on the racism and microaggressions was very stock,” Nate Oko, a 16-year-old junior, told me.
However, one step Principal Asher did take was providing sensitivity training for teachers and other staff. Then teachers gave a lesson on microaggressions before mid-winter break. Unfortunately, I was absent that day but I heard that some teachers took this seriously. They listened to their students and led consciousness-raising conversations. Other teachers, though, just squeezed it into their last five minutes of class.
More needs to be done. “I recommend more in-class discussions on current events about racism in America, and more teacher training to make them more equipped to teach such lessons,” said Oko.
I think Oko’s ideas are a good start. I know that Black students often feel out of place in Brooklyn Tech because there are so few of them, and they feel ostracized and isolated. That is not OK. This affects their ability to do well in school and their overall emotional well-being.