Recently, a group of alumni from the school I went to from Kindergarten to 12th grade sent an open letter to the school administration asking it to take steps to acknowledge its racist history (it was a white flight school founded after Brown v Board) and amend the curriculum to teach anti-racism and non-colonialist perspectives. They cited the actions taken by my college alma mater, Georgetown, to acknowledge its slave-holding history, as support. They also solicited stories from former students, especially POC. This is mine:
I originally wrote this as an anonymous email, but screw it. We’re gonna talk.
I graduated over twenty years ago. I am South Asian.
It’s hard enough being a minority in a school without a lot of diversity. There are a lot of cultural things that I, as a second generation American, couldn’t understand. I was different. I smelled like curry. My parents talked funny. When we would do heritage days, every other child would have at least another peer sitting in their booth for Scotland or Germany or Italy, while I was all alone at a table for a country other kids thought were made up. It happens. Some of that is part of life.
But as your open letter says, experiences that may seem small when listed out can have an outsized influence in a child’s life. Even when it’s other kids that just may not know better. In first grade I was regularly told by other young children that I was the color of poop. I was often told I was going to hell because I didn’t believe in Jesus. (I’m Christian now. This will be a theme). During the Iraq war I was frequently called a dirty Arab, spawn of Saddam Hussein, and was blamed for kids’ daddies being sent to war.
When we were older and people should have known better, it continued. On field trips people would laugh whenever they saw women in full hijabs and point to me and say that was my future. And those were my friends. And apparently, some guys said they’d never date a sand n*** like me. And God forbid anyone was accused of being mixed-race…oh, I’m sorry. A half-breed.
The thirteen years or so that I spent at my school affected my life in truly negative ways. I only listed a few incidents that have stood out in my memory. Listing them out like that makes it all seem so trivial — a “kids will be kids; they don’t know any better” type feel. I can’t really explain the day-to-day feelings I had of being different, left out, ostracized. Some of it was just being a huge nerd. But that just compounded a larger problem at the school: a diversity problem. And diversity doesn’t just mean treating people equally despite their skin color. It’s about truly accepting differences in people’s life experiences and identities without scorn. It means making sure your students don’t laugh at a child when they are asked to participate in a heritage festival and the only country in their heritage is one the other kids think is made-up.
I still feel like I can’t express the long-term damage in my self-confidence done to me by being at this school. For years, years, I prided myself in being someone comfortable in all-white spaces. Not someone who offended easily. Someone with thick skin. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I realized what had happened. That I had erased myself in order to belong. That I had accepted I was unattractive due to my skin color — which meant I let men in college take advantage of me because I was so grateful to be seen and desired. That I had tried to be a white-adjacent minority in order to be accepted. I was a conservative Republican for a very long time, with a southern accent, proud of my “southern heritage” — all as a coping mechanism to be not one of “those minorities”. As I’ve gotten older, and less worried about what southern racists thought of me, I’ve become more liberal and more accepting of my heritage.
The school’s problem back then (and I hope it has gotten better), was that the culture was against anyone different. I witnessed the harrassment of people suspected to be gay. I witnessed the harrassment of another child who much later came out as transgender.
And in those cases, there were absolutely administrators who could be quoted as saying stuff off-the-cuff like, “That boy ain’t right,” etc in reference to anyone exhibiting any form of queerness.
But by and large, anything directed at me was a microaggression, long before the idea of “microaggressions” was mainstream. It had an effect. Absolutely. But the outright racism against Black people was above and beyond anything I’ve seen since. And I won’t center myself by making that about me.
As a young Lower School student, we used to sing songs on our bus, which was driven by a Black bus driver. The songs were incredibly racist and used the “n” word (for example: “Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin had a gun. Pulled the trigger and shot the n* in 1981”). People often told me that their parents would kill them if they dated a n***. I was told wasn’t one of those dirty n***; I was a “good minority”. And a student was upset his license plate, which was something like “I H8 N**”, was denied.
Things like that obviously affected our Black students the worst. Outright hatred directed at who you are? I can’t even imagine the damage done to them.
But racism does have a ripple effect. That toxic culture affects the entire culture and disposition of the school. As for other minorities, who ought to be “relieved” the vitriol isn’t directed at them, it causes a complex that you can’t just erase with graduation. It causes the myth of the “model minority” — the ambiguous, white-adjacent person who isn’t one of “those” people. It’s exacerbated by the fact anti-Blackness is rampant in South Asian culture. And it’s easy for people in South Asian culture to dismiss that, because they are victims of racism too.
It’s important for me to point this all out, because right here, right now, this is a discussion about how America treats its Black citizens. Sure, yeah. All lives matter. Non-Black POC experiences matter. But I don’t want the school to grab a few more Asian students, have some diversity training and cultural festivals, and call it a day. It needs to confront its racist anti-Black history. It needs to acknowledge that yes, Suffolk is a town that is filled with old-school Southern prejudice, but it’s not enough to just throw up your hands and say you can’t change students and their families. Or that attitudes have changed over the years (because I really, really hope this has changed over the years).
Being anti-racist isn’t about just being nice, or trying to make sure you treat everyone equally. This school’s pedagogical imperative is to bake anti-racism into its curriculum. It needs to allow open discussion about what Black Lives Matter means, or what the NFL kneeling protests mean, or what the current uprising means. As a center-right moderate who is surrounded by conservatives, I’m sure the zeigeist is: “Don’t disrespect the flag. All lives matter. Police aren’t bastards! Don’t torch your town. Violence and looting is never okay.” Hell, as a moderate, I don’t necessarily disagree with all of that, but they are blanket statements that don’t encourage critical thinking. The world ain’t black and white y’all. Race-wise, or structural oppression-wise. Teach kids the shades of gray.
The administration’s not going to understand that. News flash: you’re isn’t really that good of a school. It’s populated with privileged people from privileged homes, and therefore their test scores are okay, and kids go to college. But with few exceptions, I wasn’t encouraged to expand my horizons. To actually interrogate the texts we read or the history we learned. To, God forbid, have intellectual discussions outside of school! (Only nerds did that). I got my three Rs, I studied and got As, and then I went to college. I never actually learned.
Again, I’m a centrist, in many respects. I could write screeds about the evil.of discussion being shouted down if you don’t follow the correct mindset. But y’all — this isn’t the time for whataboutism. This is about a reckoning. My beloved alma mater, Georgetown University, did that. Was it painful? Hell yes. But you want to truly educate kids? Do some damn work on yourse