Do you ever feel like a complete outsider in an environment where you’re supposed to feel accepted? I am sure we have all felt this way at some point in our lives, but it is something I feel whenever I walk through the doors of my school. I have always felt like I didn’t quite belong but instead was just hanging in there until I met people who made me feel safe. I have never felt like I belonged at Boston Latin School even when I spent months pretending like I did. I always felt unheard and alone, which is a hard thing to process at 12 years old.
Last year, I was walking with my friend, who is black, to her locker. When we got to her locker, we could hear a group of students who we knew talking and laughing. They were gathered in the hallway in a large group. When they saw us they started telling us what had just happened. They explained to us that a white student, who we knew, said the n-word to another student who was black. I was completely stunned, wondering why they were laughing while telling us this story. I was horrified at the student who said it, wondering if he understood the horrible story behind the word. My friends and I stared at each other in disbelief, while the other kids could barely tell the story without breaking into a laugh. I questioned them about what had happened to the guy who said the word and what the administration did to get involved. They looked at me confused and said it wasn’t a big deal, and they walked off talking and laughing at how dumb the situation was. All I thought was how scared the person who was called this word was, and I hoped that someone would get involved with some type of punishment.
The problem with a lack of diversity in a school environment is that people think making fun of horrible experiences that people of color have gone through is okay because no one had told them differently. They also have only one idea of what a person of color is, and since I am light skinned, I come across to a lot of people as white, so people have said offensive things to me downplaying the Black part of me.
My two friends and I were walking in the hallways between classes when one of them asked me what my race was. I get this a lot, especially when I meet new people who are trying to wrap their head around me, trying to figure it out. I explained to him that I was mixed: Black, White and Asian. They both looked at me and started laughing, telling me that I was too light to be Black. They kept on insisting that I wasn’t Black and that I am not allowed to claim that I am Black since I am too light. At that moment I thought it was a joke, so I laughed it off and we moved on. Thinking back to it after, I now feel so mad and stunned that I didn’t do anything to tell them that what they were saying wasn’t right. I wished I had told them how important my identity is to me and it isn’t something they can joke about. In that moment I felt unheard, which, as a minority, is a feeling I have gotten used to over the last few years.
Being a part of the 7.7% of Black people in a school that I was already trying to prove my intelligence made me feel like I could never catch up to some of my white peers, like I was always going to be behind because of the way I looked. The Boston Public Schools system is only 15% white, while Boston Latin School is almost 45%. You might look at this wide difference and not think anything about it because everyone technically has a “fair” shot at getting into BLS and the rest of the exam schools. When I saw these numbers and started to look around my school, I saw an unjust advantage White people have over people of color.
I have always grown up in a diverse family, neighborhood and school. No one I interacted with when growing up was ever the same; they all had unique stories, which helped my mind broaden also. I went to the same school for eight years and my friend group was always a mix of people of different races and backgrounds. I felt safe here because no one saw me as different or didn’t understand some part of me which never made me feel like an outsider. I never saw a difference between BLS and my old school until I looked up one day and I looked around my classes and hardly saw anyone that looked like me. I always thought this was nothing of importance until I learned that there are environmental blockages in the system that make it hard for more students of color to get into. Realizing this made me feel uncomfortable since I couldn’t relate to my peers and none of them understood me, giving me a feeling of isolation.
This year there was push back against the school when they revealed that they weren’t going to have the ISEE this year and instead focus on grades and taking a number of people from each neighborhood. This would make the incoming class much more diverse than anyone before them. Before, no one questioned the system because that was the way we had always done things. I think that the test wasn’t fair to begin with. Schools get money from taxes, which are based on how much those homes in that neighborhood are worth, so better schools are filled with wealthier people. These places usually have a higher percentage of white people. This means that the school has more resources to prepare their students for the test. Schools in places that don’t have enough resources to help better prepare their students are places with a higher percentage of people of color. This leads to an unfair advantage and a large gap between races in getting admitted into the exam schools.
I was recently talking to some of my friends about what they thought about the new rules, thinking everyone was excited about the new opportunities. One of them said that they hated it because it was taking away opportunities for people who studied the test and worked hard. She said that because the city was picking by neighborhood based on grades, it wasn’t fair to students who had already been studying. I quickly dismissed that not everyone in the city has the resources to get tutoring for the exam because they cost money and even the ones that are free don’t go to all the schools. The school I went to didn’t have free tutors, and it was made up of low income families who couldn’t afford to get tutors or their children had to watch their siblings or make dinner because their parents were working two to three extra jobs. Also, a lot of people I went to school with were told they wouldn’t get into the school because they weren’t good enough to take the test, so they didn’t even try at all. She fired back that not everything in life was fair and that everything isn’t always fair to everyone. I said that I agreed that obviously not everything in life is equal for everyone, but the test is much harder for some people to study for or take, which is why not having it takes some stress off parents and kids who are worried they won’t be good enough to take the test because they didn’t have the resources to take it.
Being a person of color has given me a unique lens on how hard we fight everyday just to have our voices heard in places where we are unwelcomed. Having different voices lets everyone have a seat at the table and lets us have a say on how we can make the places we are in all day a place we actually want to go to. School should be a place where you want to come learn and be with friends, but if half of the people are making the place uninviting, then why would you want to come? As we move into a hopefully more inclusive world, on behalf of other people of color, I beg school systems to break tradition for their old ways and make schools a place we feel like we are all appreciated and welcomed.