Students lead discussion on “Asking for Courage” day dedicated to racial issues
March 19, 2016
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Sam Klein/Sagamore staff
B-block – Auditorium: Tell Your Story
The “Tell Your Story” blocks are presented as an opportunity for students, mainly students of color, to share their stories in individual speeches delivered to the audience. The speakers during this block were senior Johanna Kepler, sophomore Talia Vos, senior Michée Mande, senior Zaria Karakashian-Jones, senior Lea Churchill and junior Nadjae Edmondson.
Headmaster Deborah Holman began the assembly with a speech thanking the organizers of the day and describing the urgency of the discussions given recent racial issues and events in the school and nation. She encouraged the attendants to open their minds to new voices and views throughout the day.
Moderators seniors Shams Mohajerani and Radha Patel first introduced Kepler. She spoke about her experience growing up with two mothers as a child adopted from Guatemala. She also said that others, throughout her childhood, made her feel like an outsider. She talked about the misconception that outsiders were a bad thing and should be excluded. Ultimately, she said, forcing people to minimize their differences and conform to certain standards is a dangerous precedent to set.
A transcript of Kepler’s speech can be read here.
Next, Vos, who said she has blood from all around the world, spoke about being tired of having to “pick a side” and being told that she “isn’t enough” of one race or another. Ultimately, she also said that she dislikes the negative emphasis placed on these differences.
The next speaker, Mande, shared his story of coming to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo when he was five years old. He talked about the inaccurate perceptions people had of his origins and said that he originally had made assumptions about White people when first arriving here.
A transcript of Mande’s speech can be read here.
“To me, to be White meant that you could be one of two things: the savior or the destroyer,” he said. “It took the influences of wonderful people in my life to convince me that all people can do harm to others… These people also told me love and compassion can come out of anyone and for any reason.”
Karakashian-Jones spoke next, imploring people to build bridges, not walls. She reminded attendees that pretending race doesn’t exist isn’t the solution to racial issues and that White people don’t have to have ancestors who owned slaves to benefit from the system of privilege and oppression.
Next Churchill, who identifies as mixed-race, spoke about her family history and her experience growing up in France, describing the mixed-race experience as “walking a tightrope.” She said that she has been called “exotic” countless times, but finds it insulting, as it’s a term that should be used for plants, food and animals, not when people can’t determine her race.
A transcript of Churchill’s speech can be read here.
Finally, Edmondson spoke about colorism and the many microaggressions and obstacles she has faced as a woman of color with dark skin. Among these, she described not being able to find makeup or makeup artists who would work with her skin color, and countless incidents of name calling and rude comments directed at her when she becomes loud, passionate or excited about something.
A-block – Auditorium: Latinx Experience
The Latinx Experience: Unidad con Diversidad assembly consisted of storytelling by several Latin-American students and a presentation by Organizing Director at The Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition Cristina Aguilera.
Latinx is the gender inclusive noun to refer to someone from a Central American, South American or Caribbean country. It is non-binary and is not male dominant.
The assembly began with a video showing various clips of insults to Hispanic and Latinx people. An infamous clip of presidential candidate Donald Trump making offensive comments about Mexicans drew boos from the audience.
The first speaker was senior Jose Merida who gave a passionate and moving talk about his experience with illegal immigration and being Latinx in the United States. He said that he learned to assimilate and fly below the radar for acceptance and safety.
“I understood early on that standing out was dangerous,” said Merida. However, he said that, as he grew up and eventually got citizenship, he realized that he shouldn’t have to hide and be silent.
“I can stand up for my people who are called criminals and rapists,” he said. In conclusion he thanked his parents, who were present and the assembly, and received a standing ovation for his moving story.
Next, Aguilera spoke about the perception of Latinxes in the country and how they are typically seen as “taking,” even though they give a lot to our society.
“I invite you to think big on how similar you are to your Latino brother and sister and how those differences contribute to you and your community,” she said.
Following her presentation, seniors Kerimel Suriel Guerrero and Sofia Morera talked about what they thought being Latinx meant. Morera said that, while being loud is thought of as a negative stereotype for Latinas, she is proud of her loudness. “Loud to me is not being afraid to speak up,” she said, “I am aware enough to have an opinion.” Their talk made strong points about how the high school needs to change in order to be a more accepting place. One major point they made was that the teacher faculty doesn’t represent the diversity of the student body. Morera said that she has had less five teachers of color and only one of them was Latinx.
The talks as a whole revolved around the importance of acknowledging these racial tensions and stereotypes and being aware, empathetic and respectful of Latinx’s race and culture.
A block – MLK room: “Mixing it up”, a short film about racial identity
The A-block Race Reels presentation started off with a brief introduction from social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne. He explained that Race Reels are documentary viewing events with subsequent conversation with the audience on the topic of race, and have been taking place at the high school for five years.
The short film shown consisted of a series of black and white headshot videos of biracial and multiracial women sharing their experiences in the acting industry.
Many of the women said that their physical appearance makes it hard to get cast into certain types of roles.
A few women said that they are frequently asked a multitude of questions at auditions because they cannot be pinpointed as one race or another.
“Being asked all these questions about my background is a very uncomfortable situation,” one woman said. “They have nothing to do with the work.”
Nearing the end of the film, the actresses spoke about the successes of other multiracial actors and actors of color. They beamed with enthusiasm and hope.
One of the women said that it is a process to have biracial and colored actors succeed and gain equity in the acting business.
“You have to plant it and let it grow,” she said.
After the short film came to an end, Cawthorne began the group discussion with a prompt, “How many of you know or have heard about biracial or multiracial actors?”
A sprinkling of names were thrown out by faculty and students, but after a few, the room was silent. Cawthorne said, “We can only readily name two or three multiracial actors. Now think about that.”
Students responded with the idea that they may know of multiracial actors, but subconsciously associate them with one race or another.
Later in the conversation, Hawthorne pointed out that the acting business is one of the only industries in which it is legal to openly and easily discriminate based on looks.
This sparked a conversation about beauty standards in society and how they play into casting roles for movies.
Cawthorne closed out the presentation with a final question: “How does something like this play out at Brookline High School?”
Many students responded to this question, commenting about their relationships between their peers, their parents and how they perceive themselves.
Two biracial people in the room shared their experiences and urged the community to progress in terms of racial profiling.
One student responded, “There’s hesitance to change.”
X-Block – Atrium: Activism Fair
During X-block, the atrium was lined with tables, advertising activism opportunities and organizations that give students the chance to make a change in terms of racial issues.
One of these organizations was “Racial Reconciliation and Healing,” a project that offers students high-level training toward addressing and ending racism. The group works by giving students the opportunity to explore their own racial identity and experiences with racism, while analyzing how their own stories affect others.
Director of Community Health Programs at Jamaica Plain Health Center Abigail Ortiz began the movement with partner clinical social worker Dennie Butler-MacKay in an attempt to improve community health and racial equality.
“We are trying to train young people in public health, health equity and racial injustice so that they understand the impact that racism, which is a system of injustice based on race, has on people’s health outcomes, in addition to their education and housing,” Ortiz said.
The fair also included booths from the Sojourn to the Past group at the high school, the Amnesty International club at the high school and other groups that address race and racism in our community.
X-block – Schluntz Gymnasium: Privilege Walk
One of the two activities planned for X-block was a “Privilege Walk” in Schluntz Gymnasium, similar to an activity done in advisories a few weeks ago. Students started in a line at one end of the gym with linked arms. They then stepped forward or backward based on their response to statements written by Amnesty International’s Field Director Kalaya’an Mendoza. These statements were about their identities and caused the group to unlink arms as they took different paths across the gymnasium.
Sophomore Komal Wasif presented the activity on behalf of her sister senior Nawal Wasif, who planned the activity but was out sick. Senior Julianna Yue led a discussion afterward. She said that the goal of the activity was to expose the reality of White privilege.
“We wanted to make room for a block to show that White privilege is real and that it exists,” Yue said.
Social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne added that the point of the activity was to show people’s starting points in society and the amount of opportunity they have based on their unchangeable identities.
The statement categories varied widely, ranging from race and gender to religion and economics. “If you are relatively sure you can enter a store without being followed, take one step forward,” one question read. “If the members of your gender are portrayed on TV in degrading roles, take one step backward,” read another.
View more of the questions here.
The following discussion focused mostly on opportunity, with some students saying that it was interesting to see a visual representation of privilege.
The Walk, attended by about 35 students, was dominated by female students, with only one White, cisgender male present.
“It’s disappointing that the most privileged group is not here to discuss this with us,” one student said.
E-block – Auditorium: #BlackLivesMatter
Students and teachers from the high school, as well as community advocates and seniors from Boston Latin School came to discuss the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a phrase coined after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013.
Panelists included Brookline High School seniors Ronique Williams and Hal Triedman, English teacher Nick Rothstein, community activist Sharon Antra, and Boston Latin School students Maggie Noel and Kylie Webster.
As students entered the auditorium, the lights were dimmed and Chainz by Usher played through the speakers, while a slideshow showing pictures and descriptions of African-Americans who were victims of police shootings was played. After the video was finished, junior Ty West and senior Donnaya Brown began a organized question and answer session with the panelists.
West and Brown asked senior Hal Triedman why the #BlackLivesMatter movement needs to exist. Triedman responded by saying that the United States was “founded on racism,” so the movement is needed to raise awareness.
West and Brown then asked Webster, whose father is a police officer, what she thought about people who see the movement as inciting violence against police officers. “The #BlackLivesMatter movement is about the lack of desire to figure out what the movement’s about,” she said.
Triedman was asked what he thought of the #AllLivesMatter movement as compared to #BlackLivesMatter. He said that he finds the former “interesting, because what it is is White people reacting to an attack on their White privilege.”
English teacher Nick Rothstein followed Triedman’s remark by reflecting on his time at high school and saying that his African-American friends were arrested for crimes that he could get away with because of his White privilege.
One controversial comment made by Webster in response to a question about how other minorities, such as Asians and Hispanic/Latinos, fit into the #BlackLivesMatter movement, was “If you’re not Black, you’re White.”
Noel explained this further by offering the example that before the Civil Rights movement, if you weren’t White, you were expected to use the “Colored” bathrooms and drinking fountains.
Panelists also talked about the difference between equality, which is giving all groups an equal amount of support, and equity, which is giving groups support proportional to their disadvantages. The difference was illustrated in a handout that had been distributed to the audience.
Williams said that the main takeaway from the assembly, and from the #BlackLivesMatter movement, is “pro-Black doesn’t mean anti-White.”
As students left the assembly, they were given sheets of paper with ways they can get involved and show their support in the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
E-block- MLK: REDx Talks “What I know”
This assembly featured a short Race Reels film about the power of languages in our world. Ten minutes were set aside at the end for discussion led by social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne.
Students listened to Tlakwasikan Khelsilem speak on REDx Talks, a speaker series which hosts prominent indigenous people from all over the world. Khelsilem is an indigenous man from Canada who works to revive native languages.
Khelsilem mainly talked about how important it is to hold on to languages, as they are the defining features of a country.
“Languages allow us to see the world differently and understand the world differently,” Khelsilem said in the video.
After the video, students responded thoughtfully to Cawthorne’s questions and shared their experiences with languages.
Cawthorne invited everyone to attend the next Race Reels at the high school on April 7.
G-block – Auditorium: Asian American Experience
In the G-block assembly “Asian-Americans at BHS,” student panelists shared their personal experiences. The panel was moderated by senior Radha Patel and included seniors Julia Finnerty, Manjot Singh, Kazuto Nishimori, Izzy Meyers, Alex Xu and Ivy Yu, and junior Elena Stotts-Lee.
The first speaker was Finnerty, who is half Korean and half White and identifies as mixed-race. She started off by listing all the stereotypes she is used to dealing with, although she doesn’t speak Korean or celebrate Korean holidays. Finnerty also talked about the time she first felt offended by stereotypes about Asians. She was in middle school and boys in her grade would sing the song “Ima Korean” by Rucka Rucka Ali. These boys would joke that parts of the song, which make fun of Koreans, describe her. Finnerty ended by addressing the lack of mention about major Asian movements in social studies textbooks that are a part of the high school curriculum.
Singh, who is of both Indian and Asian descent, spoke next. Singh said that she felt that Indians are neglected in racial conversations and is torn between her Indian heritage and her Asian heritage.
Next, Xu, Yu and Stotts-Lee presented their film, entitled “The Asian-American Experience at BHS,” which was made for their Social Justice action project. It touched on people’s opinions on the lack of Asians in racial conversations and struggles with stereotypes. They said they made the documentary to educate people on the experiences of Asian-Americans at the high school. The film had several sections: ‘Instances of Racism towards Asian Americans at BHS’, ‘the “Positive Stereotype”‘, ‘Racial Consciousness’, ‘Talking about Race’ and ‘Our Story’. “When you don’t live up to (positive) stereotypes, you can disappoint yourself,” Dean Brian Poon said in the section called Positive Stereotypes. The video ended with a powerful message that said “WE ARE SPEAKING UP.”
The next speaker was Nishimori, who was born in Tokyo, Japan and has spent nine years living in Japan and nine years in the United States. Nishimori explained how he hates saying his name because “it brings so much cultural baggage.” He said that he was in the English Language Learners program at Michael Driscoll School and was pulled out of normal classes for half of the school day. This made the immersion experience even harder for him socially.
The last speaker was Meyers, who spoke about her struggles being an Asian-American adopted into a White family. Meyers said she knew she was adopted early on from the adoption books in her house and the way people stared at her when she was with her parents. She said that when her mother came into to her school to talk about adoption, the kids were very curious about how the process and what it was like. Questions asked by her peers ranged from “Do you know your real family?” to “Were you not wanted?”
G-block – MLK: “Raising Our Voices: South Asian-Americans Address Hate”
This assembly was organized as a shorter version of the Race Reels event that took place in the library after school. A video focusing on hate crimes against South-Asians, specifically prior to the attacks of September 11, was shown. It portrayed not only the hate crimes, but the trials that followed and the enormous support provided by their communities. One particular man was shot and injured so badly that he was paralyzed and will likely never regain movement of any of his limbs. Many of these victims tried to go to the police, yet were never taken seriously and received little justice.
After the video screening, social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne led a discussion where students broke down the film and discussed the hate crimes. One idea that came up through the discussion was how most of the film took place before 9/11. Students discussed that although recent terrorist attacks fueled stereotypes about South Asians and Muslims specifically, there were prior prejudices towards these races. The group also discussed what exactly made these acts hate crimes, touching upon the fact that all of these people were grouped into one general stereotype, even though South Asians have many diverse cultures.
G-block – Black Box: BETCO performance “It’s Not Fair”
Brookline Educational Theater Company teacher Mark Vanderzee started off the block by introducing the upcoming pieces. Vanderzee explained that the four scenes that the members of BETCO, a drama class for juniors and seniors, had written and would perform were part of a larger cycle of vignettes exploring fairness and inequality. He expressed his desire to push boundaries and explore topics that might make people uncomfortable.
The first scene, featuring seniors Maeve Forti, Samantha Higgins and Stephanie Coyle, was a satire about two White students who say racially ignorant and insensitive things, referring to “the Blacks” and complaining about “reverse racism.” The teacher then berated them for talking about race, saying that since they were White, they couldn’t mention it due to an “unspoken rule.” The scene ended with one of the students sighing at how hard it was to be White, a statement that was met with laughter from the audience.
The second scene began with a “Work Bank,” which sold words to people for their speaking use throughout the day. Two characters were in competition for the same job, but one could afford only 55 words for her interview and the other could afford unlimited words. The first interviewee carefully rationed her words, gave minimal answers and was anxious about running out. The second character chatted confidently, but seemed to have less experience and to be less responsible. The interviewer, played by junior Océanne Fry, chose the second character over the first for the job.
The third scene was about a little boy, played by Higgins, who loves the movie “Cinderella” and dreams of marrying Prince Charming. His older sister, played by junior Gracie Western, walks in distraught from a fight with their mother and angrily tells him he cannot marry a prince because he is a boy. A slip of the tongue, saying “the princess won’t love you,” revealed that Western’s character was gay herself and wasn’t accepted by their mother.
The final scene included Higgins, Forti, Western, Fry, Coyle and junior Kayla McKeon. They stood in a line at the “Birth Portal” to receive their umbilical cords and be born. Each was asked what kind of life they would want to live, and each gave an exciting answer from being a bandit to starting a bath products company. However, they were each met with derision as they were told their future race and ethnicity and relegated to cruel stereotypes. The character who wanted to be “badass” was told she would be Asian so at least she would be smart and develop a taste for dog. But the final character, after stating her aspirations, was told that she would be White and thus could accomplish whatever she wanted.
The show was followed by a Q&A with Vanderzee, the members of BETCO, English teacher Jen Rose-Wood, senior Jose Merida and other students on the themes of the scenes, Whiteness, the discomfort of talking about race and of doing provocative theater.
F-block – Auditorium: Tell Your Story
The F-Block Courageous Conversations / Day of Courage included one final round of poignant student speakers.
Sophomore Komal Wasif, who is Muslim, spoke about her childhood. Moving from place to place in the United States, Wasif and her direct family members were often racially targeted and bullied, especially after 9/11. She was pointed out by her classmates for her skin color. Teachers at the past schools she attended in Connecticut, New York and elsewhere did not take action against these problems. Although her parents fought for her liberation from such stereotypes, the experience took a great toll on Wasif socially and emotionally.
Junior Ndanu Mutisya, a Kenyan-American, recited a list of her pet peeves about race, ranging from people automatically consulting her on racial issues to being the only student of color in her Advanced Placement U.S. History class. Mutisya proudly stated that she is the only African-American on the boys and girls tennis team, and mentioned that, although she is a tall African-American woman, she does not play basketball, for that is a stereotype and stereotypes are often false.
Lastly, juniors Dahana Smith-Rose and Melanie Tavares Rodriguez spoke out against the re-popularization of the n-word arguing that it represents slaves in the slave era and should not be reintroduced into common jargon as a replacement for “friend” or “pal.” The common use of this word in the Black community, they said, seems to deem it acceptable for White people to use as well, which they said they felt it was not.
The assembly ended a few minutes early with a roar of applause.
7 p.m. – Auditorium: What’s the Big Idea, parent discussion
After a day of discussions about race for students and staff at the high school, around 80 parents attended a 21st Century Fund-organized conversation, entitled “What’s The Big Idea?” The first event of the night was named Courageous Conversations: Students Voices on Life at BHS.
As parents were walking in, a slideshow was projected, featuring headlines from the Sagamore’s articles on race and the list of demands students wrote that are currently hanging in the atrium.
The event began with a poem by senior Hannah Timmermann entitled “How to tell your racist step-father that you held hands with a Black boy.” Her last spoken line was “He’s the only one who makes me not afraid of what you are about to say.”
After Timmermann, Headmaster Deborah Holman thanked parents for coming and for the Fund for organizing the event. She told parents that she would repeat what she had said to students in the Tell Your Story assembly during B-block.
“The Day of Courage is a special day because we hear voices that make us think,” Holman said. “The Brookline community has been called upon to be better. Brookline High School has the chance to be the best it can be.”
The next speaker was Diane Cheren Nygren who framed the conversation and explained some terminology such as “microaggressions.” She elaborated on the different levels of racism such as: interpersonal, microaggressions and institutional/systemic racism.
Next, a video clip was shown, featuring seven students reciting their speeches at the Asking for Courage day and the Martin Luther King Jr. Assembly. Senior Lea Churchill was the first in the video, reading the same speech she presented at the B-block Tell Your Story assembly. She mentioned the “fetishes that surround White girls.”
Senior Manjot Singh also recited her speech. She said she feels like she can neither fit into American social norms nor her Indian family. For example, she said, when she asks her mom not to throw her apple core on the freeway, her mother calls her American.
Senior Isaiah Milton spoke about the importance of the African American Latino Scholars Program and how glad he was when AALSP Director Christopher Vick talked to students of color in his grade school, for he felt that he was finally getting recognition for his hard work. When he was a child, he learned that, as a Black student, he would have to work twice as hard to get the same level of recognition as a White student.
In sophomore Komal Wasif’s speech from the F-block Tell Your Story assembly, she compared her experiences as a Pakistani in many different areas of the United States, such as Washington, D.C., Alabama, New York and Massachusetts. She thanked social studies teacher Ben Kharl who sent her “articles and videos, where he would encourage to express my opinion.”
Senior Kerimal Suriel Guerrero began her speech previously given at the MLK assembly by telling the audience that she was finally going to be honest. She asked everyone to acknowledge privilege’s existence and encouraged students of color to take advantage of the education they are getting in Brookline, in order to make a change in the world.
Senior Hal Triedman gave the same speech as he did during the MLK assembly. He told the audience that he was racist for passively benefitting from the institution of racism and not “swimming against the current of passivity,” which he later encouraged the audience to do at the end of his speech.
Senior Donnaya Brown was the last student in the video. She told the audience that no one is too old or too young to have conversations on race and ended by saying “my generation has a voice, and we plan to use it.”
The leaders of the event then began a forum with a panel, consisting of parents and Brookline residents Alicia Hsu, Scot Huggins, John Laing, Lisa Lisi and Charlotte Mao; social studies teacher Malcolm Cawthorne and Holman.
The first question was in regards to students asking Holman to change her title of “Headmaster.” She said that it wasn’t actually students who asked for the change, but that she has created a proposal in Lunch and Learn and is willing to change the title if it is hindering her ability of collaborating with students.
The second question was about the plans for hiring a more diverse staff. Holman answered by saying that there have been two recruiting events of near 60 attendees, in order to build relationships with future staff members of color. She told the audience that there are currently 15-20 teachers of color at the high school, consisting of African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans.
The next question was about the reasoning behind the first three speakers at the event being White. Nygren answered by saying that those currently in the position to create this event are White, but that these types of race conversations are in place to change that.
A parent asked a question about the social segregation of Black and White students at the high school. Huggins said that this type of clustering helps students of color build confidence, come together and feel pride. Cawthorne also replied to this question. He said that a difficulty that may arise in clustering is that it leaves social and academic groups predominantly White, whereupon the teacher is still made to have one-sided conversations around race.
Questions about the African American and Latino Scholars Program were asked. For example, a parent asked why it only has students of color in its honors level classes. Cawthorne said that it was the original inception of the program, which was to bring promising students and give them the support they need to succeed.
A parent later asked what defined being “of color” and why Whites are not considered a part of this group, to which Cawthorne replied, “The idea of everyone being of one color or colorblind is disingenuous and denies my history. That’s what makes me what I am.”
Mao said that it is important that parents talk to their kids about race and identity so that they know they do not have to face the confusion alone. Hsu said that it is crucial for parents to understand that each student encounters different hindrances in life, although they all end up sitting next to each other in the same classroom, working on the same problems and taking the same tests as one another.
The recent incidents at the high school, such as the Kahoot situation, were brought up. Holman said that educationally, they are dealing with these incidents by putting a spotlight on them and making it apparent that inappropriate and offensive language is inexcusable. Inappropriate use of technology, which is a new medium that teachers need to learn how to regulate, is also being reprimanded.
The last question was in regards to the sophomore pilot class and if there would be a requirement for taking a racial awareness course to graduate. Holman said there are three different ways that the administration could incorporate more race-related discussions in the school. She said that administration could implement conversations in advisory, but, according to Holman, this would not work because there are other things that need to accomplished during that time period. There could also be classes that students are required to take in order to graduate. Also, the five departments at the high school, English, Math, Social Studies, World Language and Science, could incorporate discussions on race more often.
The next event hosted by the 21st Century Fund will be a “Speakers Panel on Racial Equity in Education” on April 4.
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