It’s nothing new for many Black students to find themselves attending predominantly white institutions. As Black students often face challenges and struggles that their white peers may not understand or even recognize, it can create an uncomfortable learning environment for these students. Dealing with stereotypes and microaggressions, and being left out of important conversations about education can leave them feeling like they don’t belong.
Leatile Kelly, a student leader in BSU and a senior at Franklin High School, says, “To me it feels more like a microaggression when they’re just sly little comments and things in the education or in the course that make you feel uncomfortable.” Kelly also recounted an instance where her class was reading a book called “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood. “The Handmaid’s Tale” is about Offred, a woman living in a society where women are stripped of their rights and used solely for reproductive purposes. Kelly says, “the [book] compared it to slavery,” and continues to talk about how they also compared it to “the Underground Railroad.” While the women were sex slaves, it can be an issue when fiction is compared to the very real slavery of Black people. When she brought up how it made her uncomfortable, “the students were like, I think it’s appropriate to label it as such because it’s just literature.” She says, “I definitely feel like my opinions have been looked over.”
The opinions of Black students are often overlooked and dismissed when it comes to discussions about race in education, especially when the student is one of the only students of color in class. Black students are being constantly told that they’re “making it about race” when the reality is that race affects every aspect of life. It impacts the way they are perceived, the opportunities provided, and the way they are treated by others. As such, it is impossible for Black students to separate their experiences with race from other aspects of life. It should be no secret that race plays a big role in our society.
One major issue at Franklin is the lack of representation for Black students in student leadership roles. The lack of Black student leaders remains a pressing issue here at Franklin. When Black students don’t see people who look like them in positions of power, it’s unmotivating. Representation matters, and seeing other Black students as leaders can help inspire and motivate students to pursue their own goals. Kelly says “student led white leadership” is a challenge at Franklin, adding, “It has made it so incredibly challenging to get anything done, one as a member of BSU, and two as just a Black student.” Many Black students don’t feel comfortable signing up for leadership positions, due to fear of being overcrowded by their white peers. Many Black students feel their opinions are overlooked and not valued, compared to white students. Kelly explains, “We’re so sick and tired of your tired [spirit week and assembly] themes [that underrepresent Black students’ culture],” going on to say, “We need something new, and you never want to hear something new.”
Chris Frazier, the Black Principal here at Franklin High School, states, “We recognize what the district data shows, that a lot of our [Black] students don’t feel connected to the school community.” He goes on to say, “We try to intentionally create opportunities for our students.” Frazier talks about events this year like the Black family night and Franklin Talks, saying, “This year, [in Franklin Talks] we focused more on centering on education, and what is the educational experience of our students.”
Important resources for BIPOC are affinity groups. Frazier elaborates on this and says, “We also endorse and support clubs like the Black Student Union … Asian Pacific Islander Club, [and] Latino Club.” These groups provide a safe space where students can connect with their peers and discuss issues that affect them.
Kelly’s advice for Black students that go to predominantly white institutions is, “I would obviously first say join, if you have a BSU, and if you don’t have one, start one.” Frazier agrees and says, “I would highly encourage students to stay engaged and if something doesn’t exist, create it.”
So what can we do to ensure that Black students in predominantly white schools receive the support and resources they need to succeed? “We have to make them feel seen, heard, and not just be heard, but have a seat at the table and be able to be a part of decision making when having difficult conversations,” says Frazier. It starts with acknowledging the experiences of Black students and actively working with them and actually listening. We need to prioritize listening to and valuing the voices of Black students. This means actively seeking out their input and ideas, and taking action when they bring up concerns or suggest solutions.