Students of Color Protest an ‘Unrecognized Culture of Bias’

I wonder, how should we respond to racist behavior?

by Rainier Harris

Last February at Ethical Culture Fieldston, a private school in the Riverdale section of the Bronx which runs from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, a video made a few years ago resurfaced and went viral. In the clip, three apparently intoxicated White male students repeat the phrase “crack n-gger.”

The school said it was disciplining the students. “One student withdrew from Fieldston. The consequences for other students involved have been differentiated based on their responsibility for the video, its content, and how it was used,” the head of school wrote in an email to alumni. “We will make no further comment on the disciplinary process as it is confidential and involves teenagers.”

Some students at Fieldston, which is about 40% nonwhite, felt the administration’s response was inadequate. A few weeks later, a Fieldston group called Students of Color Matter staged a three-day “lockout” to protest what they called the school’s “unrecognized culture of bias.” They blocked administrators from entering and posted a list of 20 demands on the school doors and online. These included the introduction of a mandatory Black history course, racial bias training for parents, and for Fieldston to actively recruit more faculty and students of color. Most classes were canceled and students who didn’t want to join the protest could go to the library.

Students Occupy the School

When I first heard the news, I thought the students were overreacting. I have attended private schools in Manhattan my whole life and have always been one of the only Black students. Racist comments have been directed at me and I have been called the “n” word. I agreed that the boys in the video should face disciplinary action, but to me it felt like the protesters were giving this years-old racial slur way more power than it deserved. As my mother told me once: “The history of the word is unchangeable, but the sting will only sting when you let it.”

From my perspective, the students were lucky enough to be admitted to this prestigious school, and there were throngs of others who would wish to be in their position and take advantage of the resources Fieldston offers. By effectively shutting down the campus, I reasoned, they were impeding their own education over the actions of a few drunk White boys who likely did not represent the view of all the Whites in the school. I felt they should just go to class and let the administration deal with the problem.

I figured the administrators would agree and discipline the students who took part in the protest. Instead, I was surprised to learn that the administration agreed to meet all of their demands. Even more surprisingly, I actually came to agree with some of those demands as I reflected on my own educational experiences.

Administrators Meet Their Demands

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For example, one demand is for the school to create racial affinity groups where students of color can discuss their experiences, starting in 1st grade. As the only Black kid in an otherwise entirely White school growing up, I never saw people who looked like me, even in the faculty. Now that I’m older, it’s easy for me to be comfortable in my own skin, but my younger self did not always feel this way. Back then, I was much more reserved and kept to myself. In class I wouldn’t raise my hand and I tried not to stick out more than I already did. I was always aware that I was different.

I feel that I am in a privileged position since my two older siblings went to the same private grammar school I did. Many Black students who are the first in their family to attend a private school may be more likely to feel uncomfortable in a majority-White environment.

In my experience, it is rare for majority-White institutions to explicitly make Blacks feel unwelcome or ostracized, but they often do this implicitly. For example, if a teacher overhears a student making inappropriate comments about race, I believe it is the teacher’s responsibility to reprimand the student. This does not necessarily need to go as far as even detention but rather giving the student a stern warning to stop making comments like that. But I’ve seen teachers fail to do this, and their silence sends the message that racist comments are alright or only a joke, which makes students of color feel uncomfortable and unwelcome at the institution.

Schools have a responsibility to support students who are in the minority. One way is to support groups like Students of Color Matter on their campuses. Students of Color Matter describes itself as “a collective of People of Color from Fieldston dedicated to improving the experiences of marginalized students everywhere.” I believe seeing even five other kids who look like you out of 700 in the school can give students from these backgrounds a greater sense of belonging.

I Can Relate

Another way is to have Black studies courses available in each school, something the Fieldston students demanded. I think too many students are unaware of the extensive oppression that continued after slavery in America and the ways it has contributed to the racial disparities that still exist. For example, teachers should explain how policies like racial discrimination in housing, banking, and education created this situation.

Being one of the only Black kids at school helped me grow as a person by allowing me to recognize and refuse to shy away from my differences. The experience of sometimes feeling different from everyone else helps me empathize with others who are also in the minority.

Even though I do not totally agree with all their demands or the way they occupied the school, I can now see why the Fieldston students protested. Institutions are meant to serve the students they admit. If students feel they are being ignored and the administration is closing off dialogue, the students have the right to demand change.

At the end of the day, occupying the school was effective, and I commend the students for standing up for their beliefs.

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