Black in a Suburban School - Part 1
As I grew up in a school where I was the minority, I would befriend many students. They liked me because I was different, and claiming to be my friend would also make them different. And different was cool. I would find myself making “black” jokes once I met new people, to establish the comfortability, and appease my white friends. I tried to never make them uncomfortable, and intended to always carry the feeling deep inside myself for their sake. I eventually learned that no white person liked to be reminded of slavery, the civil rights movement, the Klu Klux Klan (KKK), or even the Holocaust. So, I kept it to myself. My teachers adored me because I was outspoken and “sassy”, and my hair changed every day with surprise. I started to notice the patronization early on, and could never become accustomed to it, and an attitude would quickly arise and throw my teachers off foot.
“Do you think your parents can afford this?” “Do you have lunch money today?” “Did you get any presents for Christmas?” Questions that I tried to avoid with a smile and a quick nod with my head, a sob in my chest. I lived in oblivion until high school.
I was very excited to start a new chapter. I was going to meet new people and be able to find myself. I didn’t start to notice or experience any discrimination throughout my freshmen year, which I am entirely thankful for, but during my sophomore year and approaching the election, comments of racisms towards Mexican and Muslim students popped around. I’d try to speak up, but not quick enough and the topic would abruptly change. I was afraid that those comments spewed by social media would soon shift towards the black community. A week before the election, students became open about their opinions, and the crude comments regarding it. Those who wore “Make America Great Again” hats and shirts boasted with smiles and received applause from their friends, sickening he rest of us who wore our skin color as a target. After election, students became even more open and comments about Muslim students and Mexican students were an everyday thing. Towards the end of the year, I found myself out of trouble and safe, though my friends were not, and were experiencing attacks by their peers. I tried to ignore it.
Restrained by silence would soon end, for one day my video teacher asked if we could feature in a kindness video, discussing how it felt to be on the opposite side of the spectrum. Not an average “Franklin student.” White and privileged. I agreed and featured in a video that changed my perspective on everything that I could stand for. That video was shown to our entire school, and teachers were instructed to have follow up discussions with their classes, to debrief and digest how serious the message was. A boy turned to me, delusion radiating off him, and had the audacity to say, “I think you’re exaggerating. Black people don’t have it that hard.” I argued with him and stormed out of class. Or the time, after the video was aired, I had arrived at one class late and another boy had the audacity to say to me, “Why were you late? Were you getting lynched?” Nothing could explain how hurt one could feel, being asked that question. I told him to never say that to me again and sat down, my eyes narrowing on the board. A few other black students and myself, created a committee for justice and met with our administration to express our complaints, distress and anger. We wanted justice for a problem that they didn’t know how to fix, which frustrated us even more.
Coming back my junior year, I already knew that I would experience ignorance from my peers, and I would have to endlessly speak up to explain why I was always uncomfortable.
I never thought it would get this bad.
In my classes, I had to argue with teachers who would never keep a neutral opinion on their beliefs, repressing me into an opinion deemed insignificant. They bashed those who peacefully protested at NFL games in support of the black lives matter movement. To hear authoritative figures call those protesting for my life disgraceful feels as if my life shouldn’t matter. Or arguing with a large group of boys in the lunch room because I heard them use the N word, and denied my courtesy of peaceful confrontation. Being escorted from the lunchroom minutes after the argument became hostile and I was on the verge of tears and self exhaustion. Then having to have a reformation with some of the boys who laughed and listen to them say, “Black people aren’t even oppressed.” Endlessly showing up to the office with the committee of black students to speak with administration and find a solution to a problem that still couldn’t relate to. Reporting incidents of discrimination over and over, and still receiving the same format of satisfaction. I was starting to think that my principals only met up with us to appease us, to say that they cared enough to call the meeting and have other black students vent about the racial comments and discrimination that they have experienced by students and even teachers. To appease us so our voices only go to them, and not to anyone else. So that word of our negative social climate could never escape the walls of Franklin High School.
It wasn’t all terrible. My video teacher, a woman with the purest heart of social change, organized a student- to-teacher discussion where minorities of the school could speak about stereotypes and slurs to our teachers in a large group setting. We received great feedback and I saw a shift in how my teachers treated me; normally. There wasn’t much of the patronization, but they still called me sassy.
But we were still left with the problems and disunity of the students. And still, the question of “How do we get students to be kinder?” kept being asked, and our solutions weren’t strong enough. Non-African American students still freely said the n word, and making ignorant comments. I proposed an idea to have a mock Juneteenth celebration at my school for black history month. To help instill unity, awareness and equality for not only the small black population that attends Franklin High, but for every other student who wanted to be enlightened about black culture. My administration loved it and we began planning the event with excitement, and propelled our ideas to our video teacher who claimed supervision. We were finally going to change the climate of our school with something that held such beautiful significance, and I was so very happy.
In January, my family and I went to Cancun for vacation. I was sitting in my hotel bed when I scrolled on a picture that left me speechless. It was a photo of our school’s water fountain, one labeled “white” and another (though there wasn’t a water fountain there) labeled colored. Anger filled me instantly and I sent the photo to almost everyone I knew. People who were as passionate about equality and liberalism as myself and would grit their teeth seeing such insanity. One of those people was my sister, and I texted her saying, “Blow this up.” In which she did, receiving over 700 shares, and contacts by Fox 6 News, Channel 12 News, the Milwaukee Black Panthers and even the NAACP. I had a few interviews from my hotel room in Cancun, Mexico, speaking to anyone and everyone who would want to listen to me. They asked me about my administration and how they dealt with situations like these. I told the truth and told them that they didn’t. I received calls and texts from my friends in Milwaukee, telling me that I was a celebrity because I was on the news, and how teachers spoke about the encounter in the classroom. I received news from peers at school who told me that it wasn’t addressed well, that the picture was one act of racism, and that student does not define our entire school. I was upset that a school assembly wasn’t called. How could we not debrief with the school after a terrible photo like this was taken? That’s completely absurd. I emailed my administrator and told her that student communication and discussion was vital to progress and push through a problem such as this.
I had so much anxiety returning to a school that didn’t confront social injustices with communication. How were people going to treat me? Did this photo awaken the eyes of those who help oppression in their hearts? Do people see me as colored still? But it was very strange, everyone acted like things were just okay. But I could feel it, the tense atmosphere and the side eyed stares from my peers that reminded me of elementary school. People were either coddling me with, “are you okay?” Or not speaking to me at all, and I don’t know which one I hated more. There was also a handful of students who repeatedly asked me, “What are we going to do, Bria?” And automatically I was thrown at the top of the protest that everyone began to conspire. “Bria, how should we protest to show unity?”
Later in the week of my return, a handful of students wanted to do a unified front protest to show the school that we are one, and that racism could never divide us. On that morning, I was pained to see some of the students who have terrorized a few black students, freely and unapologetically said the n word, and destroy the peace, chanting “we are one!” I wanted to throw up. How could I associate myself with a peaceful movement when it’s full of hypocrites and people who only took part because some filmed it for Snapchat? I still bothered my administration to let me run student led discussions, real conversations that regarded around issues that have become instilled and overlooked in our school. They agreed again, and I began to gather names of those who would be interested.
The next day, a group of individuals counteracted the “peaceful” protest and said that “hicks” and “basement kids” are deserving of equal rights too, mocking the students of colors demands of equity.
The environment created by my peers, re-enforced by the actions, or lack thereof of administration, makes me feel as if I am not a student at my school anymore. That I am a burden on the school for bringing up race and demanding that the color of my skin should not determined my potential, successful capacity, and life satisfaction.
I can protest, argue, and speak my mind to the best I can, but it will never be enough.
But I know that I can work with many other students of color to promote Afrocentric events like “mini-Juneteenth” to expose my white classmates to real ethnic history, and work in my community to ensure that other black students in Harambee are educated. But I am not satisfied, and it does not seem like it would be enough as long as white supremacist culture is reinforced by my education system.
It’s hard to feel like an outsider for the first ten years of your education, pushed from the white community for being “too black” and then pushed from the black community from being “too white.” It’s an identity crisis that could leave an individual unsure of what to claim, or who to claim.
I am thankful for my conscious mind and the ability to speak my truth, to not be silent and appease my oppressors. There are times I would like to leave Franklin High School, but I know that is what they would want. They’d want a school without the loud and proud voices of Black students calling for equity. If I were to leave, where would the justice come from?
Bria Smith is a youth leader in Milwaukee, living in the Harambee neighborhood. She is a student at Franklin High School, a member of the Youth Council at the City of Milwaukee, and a organizing fellow with Leaders Igniting Transformation.