It’s been an interesting week as a black alumna of Boston Latin School to say the least. I remember seeing a post on Facebook, encouraging people to participate in the hashtag #BlackAtBLS and not thinking much of it. In the following days, I continued to see posts referencing it on social media, and before I knew it my alma mater had headlined multiple publications as a result of the controversy. The mayor has spoken on it, and the school district has announced an investigation into BLS’s racial climate.
For a while, I haven’t known exactly how to feel about anything. I know first hand that there is legitimacy in claims of racism at America’s oldest high school, and its faculty unquestionably has a responsibility to students to actively and zealously combat hatred within the institution. But a part of me wonders how much the faculty can do, as disciplinary actions address symptoms, but not causes. I also recognize that in the climate of today’s social justice activism, things are too often and easily blown out of proportion, and become an echo chamber of victimhood that acts as an obstacle blocking any meaningful change or actual progress.
And I’d like to make it clear that progress isn’t one sided. It’s not one group of people airing their grievances while another group of people are silenced and demonized if they dare diverge from a narrative or challenge the status quo. It isn’t a facade of tolerance that welcomes all opinions, so long as they reflect your own. It’s an open exchange of ideas, a genuine effort to understand, and a willingness to grow. Or at least that’s what it is to me.
Context is important, so let’s examine the history that’s led us to this point. While Boston is recognized as a beacon of liberalism, enlightenment and acceptance, the reality of this city draws drastic differences from its reputation.
In the 70s, as Boston began to integrate, racial tensions reached an all time high and chaos ensued. And as the city healed over time, it was unrealistic to believe that every Bostonian’s beliefs and attitudes kept up with the times. Many people’s prejudices were internalized by their children and their children’s children, not allowing the city’s ugly history to die once and for all.
It’s also worth noting that until the late 80s, Boston Latin School had a quota of students of color to admit, until a white student sued the school for admitting a black student with either identical or lower credentials than she had.
I remember being in class and overhearing things that made me think twice about my classmates. I remember a guy I was talking to being embarrassed of me, seemingly because I was black and he was white. I remember wondering how some of the black guys on sports teams could be such good friends with people that didn’t seem to respect them.
But I also remember how intelligent most of my peers were. I remember that regardless of race, neighborhood, religion, or gender, people getting along for the most part. I remember sharing some of my longest laughs with people that I saw absolutely nothing eye to eye with.
Does bonding over a joke in Greek Mythology excuse or solve racism? Of course not. But I’m not sure that one sided discussions or administrative interventions solve them either.
No one is born a bigot. Bigotry is learned, and as much as you can try, I don’t think you can truly change anyone’s behavior or beliefs by talking at them without giving them a chance to vocalize their points of view. Dialogue isn’t productive if in reality it’s just a monologue, and the relationships people form probably do more to transform any negative stereotypes they hold than diversity training ever will.
My objective isn’t to invalidate anyone’s experience or take away from a potentially important discussion, but to remind my peers that things aren’t as black and white or black vs white as we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of them. All opinions aren’t created equally, and I don’t respect opinions rooted in bigotry, but we collectively accomplish more with honesty and open exchange than we do with self righteous partisanship.