Editor’s Note: The following is a copy of a letter sent to Keith Lyman, principal of Brattleboro Area Middle School, and Mark Speno, interim superintendent of the Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, in response to a story and video by the Reformer of racial harassment allegations at BAMS ("Student opens up about racial harassment at Brattleboro Area Middle School," Jan. 31) .
Dear Mr. Lyman,
I am writing in response to the recent video by Zane Rizvi that has been circling and published in the Brattleboro Reformer.
BRATTLEBORO — An eighth-grader at Brattleboro Area Middle School was left speechless after a…
When I spoke to you and Mr. Daughton three years ago in the conference room about my complete frustration at the racism I received throughout my time at Brattleboro Area Middle School, your words to me were: “I have a lot to learn.” As I recall, you even had tears in your eyes when you said this. Clearly you haven’t taken my words and all of the horrific experiences of racism at BAMS to heart. There has been so much time for you to reflect and learn, yet here we are. I hope you take Zane Rizvi’s words as an opportunity to take action.
While my experiences were different from Zane’s, there are many painful similarities. When a student calls someone out on their racism at your school, they are labeled as either wrong, or defiant. Bringing up racism at BAMS makes kids of color even more miserable because it is handled in a way that supports the twisted system, not the individual. While I would never speak for Zane or anyone else, his struggle resonated with me deeply. I had a similar experience with one of my BAMS counselors, which I expressed in the letter I read to you in the conference room that day. What happens when counselors fail to give all kids the emotional support they deserve because of the counselor’s biases and racism? Clearly nothing happens. According to Google, school counselors are supposed to “ensure equitable academic, career and social/emotional development opportunities for all students.” And yet, here we are.
The other part about Zane’s experience that resonated for me was the backlash he got from school staff for calling someone a racist. Racist should not be a forbidden term. It is not an insult. It is not a slur. Racism is simply an experience that minorities face because of the color of their skin, their culture, or anything that makes them different from the white “norm.” Why should he be punished for having the courage to call out teachers, students, and the administration? BAMS is a learning community. How are you supposed to teach children to learn when you choose not to do your own learning? It is concerning to me how much you target BIPOC students. We are not trying to be disruptive or be rebels or cause harm to anyone. This is our daily life. We are constantly checking what we are putting out and wondering if it’s going to be acceptable to all the white eyes that are watching our every move with hate, judgment, cruelty, and ignorance. I know the courage it takes to call out racism at your school. It’s the last thing we want to do, and it’s not fun. I know from experience the added pain and trauma of not being supported by a community that calls itself inclusive. Your sign in the hallway still says “Learning, Caring, Doing Together.” And yet here we are.
The physical and mental toll that it takes to be going into a school 5 days a week, getting called pejorative insults, getting stared at, and basically being treated like you don’t belong simply because of the color of your skin is a feeling that you as a white person will never experience. It lingers, it's traumatizing. Even in class, we still have to put our best foot forward while kids are treating us cruelly while most teachers are oblivious, often praising and favoring those same kids who continue to be racist.
“Oh no, my Jimmy would never do that. He’s in my class. I know Jimmy. He’s a good kid. How could you call him racist?”
“Mr… would never do that. I’ve known him for years. He’s not racist!”
“She’s our star athlete. She would never do anything to jeopardize her community. She’s definitely not racist.”
Are you kidding me? Racism is not a fixed personality trait. When many white people think of a racist, they think: slave owner, colonizer, kkk member. Let me tell you- racists can be “nice,” “popular,” “friendly,” and “educated.” Calling someone racist is not a defamation of someone’s character. Racism is a learned, taught, problematic behavior which can be unlearned, only when you take ownership of your complicity and take conscious steps to understand that white supremacy is one of the number one problems in this country. Recognition that BIPOCs do not have to own the responsibility of educating you is way past due. And yet, here we are.
It is not Zane’s job to make a video explaining to the community how hateful and degrading you and this school have been to him. It is not my job to be writing to you from a completely different state about the effects that this school, district, teachers, and students have had and continue to have on me as I write this letter. And yet, here we are.
When I was a student at BAMS I made a video essay explaining the issues around white supremacy at your school. It won an award. You shared it in faculty meetings, and promised that you would do better. The district even made a formal commitment to diversify your curriculum to educate kids and staff about racism, and to hire more people of color in leadership positions, as well as counselors and teachers. And yet, here we are.
This is middle school. Kids are going to be mean. But teachers? Counselors? Administrators? All of you are doing a type of bullying that is way more complex, covert, and damaging to the very soul. What will it take for you, as a leader, to open your eyes and see that you are contributing greatly to the problem, with your inaction and gaslighting? I cannot believe I have to tell you this, but there are tons and tons of books, videos, podcasts, and other online resources that you have at your disposal to learn about racism, microaggressions, racial trauma, etc. And yet, here we are.
Lastly, I am utterly disappointed and furious that BIPOC kids at your school are still suffering because of the lack of action, and continuous downplaying of the racism that runs rampant in the hallways, classrooms, and counseling offices at BAMS. I want to thank Zane Rizvi for speaking up even though it’s certainly not his job. He is remarkably strong, going to a school that does not have his best interest at heart. He is suffering from depression and bad dreams, finding it hard to focus in class, and still speaking out. I commend him. He gave me the courage to write this letter, and it is my sincere hope that this letter will in turn inspire others to share their experiences of racism at your school so that you will not ignore it anymore. When the WSESU district formally announced their Commitment to Diversity and Equity, I thought there would be a change. And yet, here we are.