By Ella Kohler
Hometown Weekly Correspondent
At Medfield schools, the majority of students never have to wonder if they will have teachers who look like them, or if the curriculum will mention their ancestors for more than one unit. Most Medfield students do not worry about encountering racially derogatory language in the classroom, either. In fact, most Medfield students likely do not direct much thought towards matters of their race — or, at least, they have the privilege of not needing to.
However, the ability of most students to go about their days without considering race is not so much a reflection of the absence of racism, but rather of Medfield’s demographic makeup; Medfield’s students and staff members are overwhelmingly white. But for students who don’t fall into this majority group, specifically the 1.2 percent of the students who identify as African-American, race does play a role in the school day. Recently, Black Medfield students who deal with this reality recounted the ways that race impacted their experience in a predominately white school system, as well their hopes for future improvement.
These students reflected on being made to feel different or less accepted than their peers. Rising freshman Trinity Kinney, who is attending private school next year partly due to her treatment as a biracial student at Medfield’s predominantly white middle school, spoke about comments made towards her.
“A lot of boys say, ‘You’re cute for a Black girl,’ or like, ‘You’re smart for a Black girl,’ or like, ‘You can talk really well for a Black girl,’” said Kinney. “That feels a lot more hateful than I think they mean for it to.”
Rising sophomore Elishaa Lafontant also spoke about race-related remarks she dealt with and how escalating racial jokes led to complications within one of her friendships.
“It went from being simple jokes to being like genuine, really, really specific types of racial things. And then it’d be, like, people who weren’t even involved were laughing about it now, and then [the friend’s] friends were saying things to me. And I’m like, ‘How did this go from me and my friend having a joke to, like, literally everyone normalizing racism?’”
In addition to verbal behaviors, multiple students mentioned issues with physical ones. This conduct included non-Black peers comparing skin tones with Black students after returning home sun-tanned from vacations, as well as touching Black students’ hair without permission. Speaking about this unwanted hair-touching, 2019 MHS graduate Kayla Victor said: “It’s almost like I’m an exhibit. I’m just being put on a spot as someone who’s there to basically study.”
Many of the students also spoke about regular N-word usage by their white peers in school. “They don’t really know the impact of the word sometimes,” said rising senior Jacob Tongue. “The word has a history behind it and that history is not a very good one.”
Tongue added that the use of the word sometimes disrupted his learning because he couldn’t focus as well in class if he was angry about someone saying it. “I just don’t want anything to be said to discredit who I am or what’s been happening to me, and some people still use it,” he said.
Additionally, Jayden Andre, a 2020 MHS graduate, said, “I don’t think that people in Medfield schools take the N-word seriously, because I’ve been called that a couple times just because people wanted to get a reaction out of me.”
Students also discussed “N-word pass” culture, which refers to non-Black students asking for permission, or a “pass,” to say the N-word.
“N-word pass culture in general is just not okay,” said Kinney. She advocated for avoiding the word altogether in order to prevent creating problematic habits.
Lafontant said, “I’ve had friends who are like, ‘Can we say it, can we say it, can we say it?’ And I’ve been like, ‘Okay guys, why would you want to?’”
Students responded to these comments and actions in different ways. Tongue said, “I just stay quiet most of the time and just let them go about their day, but if they’re saying it to my face, then yeah, I will address the problem.” However, he added that confronting the student puts both parties in bad positions, since the situation can lead to fighting or punishment for both individuals.
Lafontant spoke about overcoming fear in order to stand up for herself. “There was a time when I was scared. People would say things and I’d just be like, ‘Haha, that was funny,’ like I couldn’t really go forward or say anything more. But now I’ve really gotten the confidence level.”
Students also explained the challenges of calling out racially insensitive or ignorant behavior. “Those kinds of situations are really difficult because obviously it makes you angry and hurt, but you can’t react with anger because then you’ll be seen as a stereotypical angry Black woman,” said Kinney.
In order to improve this school environment, students pointed out changes they would like to see, including actions on behalf of the schools, students, and parents. Increased and altered disciplinary action for incidents of racism was highlighted as one possible administrative improvement.
Kinney said, “I’ve tried to go to guidance counselors multiple times to try to talk about how people have been really racist and ignorant to me, and usually they don’t even talk to the parents of the kid.”
Izzy Andre expressed a similar sentiment, reflecting on a negative experience she had in seventh grade. She recounted asking a teacher to move her seat because she anticipated having problems with a boy seated near her. After the teacher denied her request, Andre said the boy proceeded to bother her by touching her belongings and insulting her, as well as repeatedly saying the N-word near her.
Speaking to the response of the school administration, she said, “They were like, ‘Oh yeah, he’s being taken care of.’ He just went home. He literally just went home that day and then he came back the next. And I had to get all my classes changed, my schedule changed, just so I couldn’t be in classes with him.”
Tongue also spoke about inadequate punishments for using the N-word. “If you say the N-word and you only get a detention, they’re just going to say it again because they don’t think that it’s that much of a punishment,” he said, explaining that detentions are given for minor school offenses.
Students referenced changes they would like to see in the classroom, as well. These suggested changes included teachers increasing their focus on Black History Month and Black historical figures, emphasizing racism’s modern presence, and not saying the N-word if it appears in texts.
Kinney mentioned another possible way to improve student education on issues of race and racism. “I also think, when we have [race-related] assemblies, they should actually let African American kids speak if they would like to, or they should ask African American kids to make a little something for them to say.”
Additionally, Kinney and Izzy Andre spoke about a middle school affinity group that enabled Black students in the building to gather to discuss their experiences and watch current events videos centered around Black people. However, the group recently began allowing white students to attend — a change that some students found more harmful than helpful.
Kinney voiced her desire to limit the group to Black students, saying, “I feel like we kind of need a moment after the whole day, with white kids who keep saying the N-word and offending us and barely being able to make a difference about it.”
Older students, including Tongue, indicated interest in creating a similar group in the high school.
White peers also have room for improvement, according to the students. “I feel like everyone could just be a lot more open-minded and actually learn to listen, because you don’t have to be right all the time. It’s okay to be in the wrong,” said Kinney.
Students also expressed a desire for their white peers to step in during incidents of racism. Tongue, speaking about encountering racism, said, “Everyone kind of turns their heads to me, like, ‘Oh, you’re Black. You need to say something.’ And I’m like, ‘You know, you can say something too.’”
Lafontant added, “I can’t waste my time on educating everybody. I will help them, but I can’t do that.”
When it comes to parents, students said that they wished for greater action, such as initiating family conversations about the N-word and racial equality. “I think parents should definitely talk to their kids more about Black history, because I’ve been called, like, monkey and stuff. People have taken it far,” said Jayden Andre.
Tongue reiterated the value of parents understanding the N-word’s weight. “When [white students] get home, they say they’ll throw [the N-word] around and their parents do nothing, really. They’re like, ‘Okay, it’s just another day at school for you.’ I think their parents should know the depth of the word and I think that’s what’s allowing those kids to feel immune to saying it, too.”
With so much need for change, Victor spoke of empathy — not only for the victims of racism, but for those who make the racist comments and commit the racist acts. She said, “It’s not their fault. Ignorance is not something you’re born with. It’s something that you learn.”
Still, these students hope for a future in which their schools — and the staff members, students, and parents who shape them — are more empathetic and informed. Across the country, other schools like Medfield, along with countless other establishments and individuals, are tasked with this same goal.
Tongue said, “In the end, we’re all still human, and I feel like we should all be able to understand each other better. And what [the schools are] doing now is not bad, but it could have a lot of improvements.”