Being Black at Bromfield

As one of possibly a handful of black students, surprisingly, I am rarely included in the crucial conversations that are so relevant to me. Although I think as a senior, sharing my experience at this point is a bit too late for it to have an impact for me, I do not want to waste this rare opportunity to bring awareness to the racially-biased issues that have affected me all along. I am opening up to my school community to share a few of my unfortunate and painful experiences, not only because I think it is somewhat therapeutic for me, but most importantly in the hope that it would bring positive changes for incoming students and ultimately make our community more inclusive, more culturally aware, tolerant and sensitive, and ultimately much stronger. 

Being a proud member of the Harvard Public School system since first grade, I have always been aware of the privilege it is to attend Bromfield and receive a top-notch education that would prepare me to succeed in life. On that note, I want to express my appreciation and deepest thanks to all the teachers and staff who have inspired, challenged, mentored and encouraged me to reach my full potential. As a child of Haitian immigrants who have made inconceivable sacrifices to provide a better life for our family, I was taught very early on the importance of a good education. I learned that it is my ticket to succeed in life to a point where I can actually make a difference for myself, my family, my community and eventually the world. For that reason, I resigned myself at a very young age to look the other way, ignore the pettiness (so I thought) of racist occurrences, remain focused and just persevere, no matter what.  

I have come to realize that there is nothing petty about the racist abuses that I have endured and there are no excuses for any of it either. There were many incidents that could have totally shattered me as a young black kid. Thankfully, I was surrounded by a strong, loving support system both at home and in school that held me up through the toughest times. Some of my earliest recollections still haunt me to this day. I remember once, one of my favorite teachers at Bromfield, who had always expressed admiration for my dedication to learning, saw me arriving at class and jokingly exclaimed “here comes trouble, let’s call the police.” The other students laughed. I joined along, mainly to cover up the awkwardness of the situation and my embarrassment. For weeks after that, many of my classmates joked about calling the police whenever I joined them. I really don’t think that the teacher ever realized the impact of his ‘joke’. That comment, whether intended to be offensive or not, pushed the unjustified narrative that black boys are trouble makers to be dealt with by law enforcement. At such a critical period of formation for me and my classmates, and even though I have been an exemplary student all along, that day unfortunately set a tone for my future social interactions with several of my classmates throughout high school. Suddenly, I was a joke and not a fellow classmate. My blackness was no longer a part of my identity but a punchline in conversation. Over the years, many of these classmates felt comfortable to call me or refer to black celebrities using the N word, either as a joke or to get a reaction from me, knowing full well how derogatory it was. Each and every time that happened, I had an immediate flashback to my teacher’s insensitive comment. Throughout the years, I have had some teachers who would harshly scold me for another student’s mischievous behavior, irrationally assuming that I was the instigator, even though it was clear to everyone else around that I was innocent. One teacher would constantly question the integrity of my work, borderline accusing me of cheating, right in front of everyone in class. The teacher would smirk, the students would laugh, and again I would join along with them, trying to deflect the situation and ‘be cool about it’. But inside, I was breaking. Why was it so hard for a teacher to believe in my ability to do well? Why was it ok for a teacher to afflict this unnecessary humiliation upon me continuously? These questions reverberated in my head and almost drove me mad.

That would not be the last of the issues I faced at Bromfield as a young black man. I was about 12 years old when a teacher told me not to worry that she would make a man out of me. Really? At 12, I was a child who needed guidance, understanding and support. I did not need to be a responsible adult male yet. The thing is, with my ADHD, I always had a tendency to be distracted and be forgetful. For example, I would leave my belongings behind or forget to bring them with me when needed. I could also be late to class or mistakenly go to the wrong one. Any such mistake was instantly seen as intentional and interpreted as mischief or outright disorderly conduct. That same teacher would make statements like “I know you’re working the system. I’ve got your number.” Huh??? Again, I was 12 years old. What number was she referring to? Even as a pre-teen, I understood that as a young black boy, I was not afforded the same luxury of childhood innocence as my peers. I didn’t need any research to confirm what I was already experiencing. To some, no matter how well I behaved, how dedicated I was to learning, as a black kid, I was seen as older, therefore should be more responsible than the rest. I was presumed guilty without any proof. 

Some of the most hurtful assaults came from my classmates. Someone told me that I was a shame to my race for not running fast enough to win a gym class activity. Back in 2017, a few months after the Obamas were called monkeys, some of my classmates thought it would be funny to sing the birthday song to me and would end it with “you look like a monkey and you smell like one too”. Some might argue that the intent was not racist, but these kids were fully aware that black people have been called monkeys as a way to dehumanize them and make them feel inferior. It may have been hilarious to them, but it was not to me and to the others that pointed out the foulness of it to me afterwards. 

I am always perplexed when people assume that I represent my race. If something happens in the news involving black people, the next day, some of my classmates would flood me with questions. “Tell me why black people think it’s smart or ok to burn businesses during demonstrations?” They would ask me to explain why there is more violence in the black community. They would refer to black demonstrators as “thugs”. They would argue that the reason black people don’t progress is because they are lazy. After the George Floyd incident and following the hype of social injustice awareness, many posted on their social media pages and on message threads that they were tired of “Black Lives Matter people whining about everything”. From their privileged standing, they could not understand that this was a painful moment for black people. We were reeling, forced to face the injustice that we’ve internalized and tried to bury in order to survive. We go along to get along. 

I remember going to one of the sports meetings with my mother. We were there first, so we sat at a round table upfront. When my teammates came, I went to sit with them. Within minutes, all the other tables filled up. I watched people standing right around my mom’s table, but not joining her. As she sat alone through the meeting, the speakers ironically praised the community for being exceptionally inclusive. I am convinced that many of my teammates realized what was happening. The awkwardness of the situation painfully reflected on their facial expressions. Someone even asked why my mom didn’t join the others. For eleven years, she did just that. And when she decided to remain at her seat, no one joined her. At some point towards the end of the meeting, I left my teammates to go sit with my mom. All I wanted to do at that point was stand on that table and scream at the top of my lungs “Come on people, this is the 21st century, segregation is no longer.”

These incidents may seem unreal to some, but that was and still is my reality. However harsh these experiences were for me, in retrospect, they may have taught me some of the greatest lessons about myself. They have made me more resilient, aware, motivated and empowered, more compassionate and empathetic. I am definitely more appreciative of those in the school community, and there were many, that have stood up for me or with me whenever I was the target of blatant discrimination, through exclusion, prejudice or other means. I am now more dedicated to bring awareness to racial disparities and work toward more inclusivity and social justice in our community and society as a whole. I think it is important for all of us to show mutual respect and have open and honest conversations with each other. We have a moral obligation to educate ourselves about each other, call out discrimination and injustice, and be empathetic to others. That is the only way to end marginalization and discrimination. I am encouraged by the steps that the school has taken, such as bringing Rebecca Rehm, the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion trainer, to help us understand and address these issues. The workshop was an eyeopener which provided invaluable tools to us to be better citizens. It was definitely a step in the right direction. I hope this is the beginning of many strides as we keep moving forward toward a better, more inclusive and equal tomorrow for us all.