By Danielle Saunders, Contributing Writer, Chicago Defender
The University Of Chicago Lab School located in the Hyde Park neighborhood, is a private co-ed school affiliated with the University of Chicago. Recently named one of the top five STEM Schools in the nation, the elite private school has a black student population of about 9% with a little over 19% of the students identifying as multiracial. On Thursday, January 16th, members of The Black Students Association read an open letter at their recent Martin Luther King assembly. The students outlined five areas of consideration for the University including reconsideration of the curriculum, more diverse faculty and students and comprehensive diversity training. This comes after a recent incident where a student posted a racist meme on social media.
An Open Letter to the Lab Community
As a school that repeatedly claims to “honor diversity,” Lab must address its own problems with racism and intolerance. If our vision as a school is to “strive to appreciate fully the role of diversity in education and to define the crucial and continuous commitments we must make as a community to foster diversity at the Laboratory Schools,” we need to actively work against the many problems we have had as a community regarding racist incidents. As we settle into a new decade, it is time to radically change Lab’s culture into one that is truly inclusive in all aspects of student life. While we acknowledge the effort to start a conversation about the recent events, having rules that are so transparent that they allow any racially based altercation to not be included on a record is counterproductive.
While we share pride in Lab’s attempts to promote diversity, this is still a deeply flawed and imperfect institution. Lab is a place where jokes about racial and religious identification have been normalized. A place where Black students get their hair gawked at and constantly touched without their permission as if they were animals in a petting zoo. A place where many students of color unfairly feel the need to internalize racist and harmful “jokes” in order to assimilate and survive. A place where we have to sit in classes and have people debate our own existence and identity while sitting demurely as a way to protect ourselves. None of these things are acceptable. We believe that this school has a great deal of potential to truly be a more safe, equitable, just, healthy, and inclusive environment for all students. Inspired by the call to action from students at the Collegiate Prep community this is our letter to the Lab school:
- For the administration to create and swiftly enact specific consequences for the use of intolerant language and actions, regardless of a student or teachers financial background, donations, and long standing relationships between that person and the school. Currently, these actions are prohibited, but no specific punishments are outlined. Without set rules and swift action, it makes it extremely easy for racist and bigoted actions and words to be swept off as a “joke” or unimportant to our community. It also passively tells other students that these acts are not important and implies that it is okay to continue these acts and ideas. In addition, we ask that if a student who has an infraction stay in our community that there be a learning session implemented for the student to make sure they understand how and why their actions were harmful and inappropriate. We believe that students should be given a chance to redeem themselves and that incidents like these are prime teaching moments. However, the responsibility of educating students should not fall constantly on students of color. These punishments should be explicitly stated in the handbook so that no student can claim ignorance of their actions and the consequences.
- For the administration to send a formal letter to the entire Lab community (students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni, etc.) explicitly addressing recent events and condemning the use of hate speech. It is never too late to do so.
- For the administration to explicitly denounce the use of slurs and derogatory terms in the school and to hold teachers responsible for making students accountable when these words and their variations are said.
- To initiate and require more diversity, equity, and inclusion training for faculty, specifically centered around the use of course material that includes racism and other potentially harmful themes.
For the decision to read racial slurs in literary and historical texts addressed aloud and acknowledged that it is not okay to be said out loud. These discussions should have faculty members of color and students of color present.
• A careful reevaluation of the place of books such as “The Bluest Eye” and “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings,” to name a few examples, in Lab’s English curriculum. The impact of these books on students of color that does not explicitly pertain to academic enrichment is often overlooked. Though amazing stories, much of the media we consume paints a very unbalanced depiction of the minorities involved. Not every Black girl is Pecola Breedlove, not every South Asian is Sanjeev or every Native American is Sherman Alexie. Although Shakespeare is the master of tragedies, every story involving a person of color should not be one. Thought-provoking, insightful, and awe-inspiring pieces are written by people of color every day that highlight the successes, joys and challenges of their identity. We will have no problem helping you find them.
• For books that focus on racism, and vernaculars such as AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) to be discussed as more than literary devices. These important cultural aspects should not be degraded to literary devices for entertainment and consumption of white people.
• For the use of disturbing images or videos depicting racist acts to be disclosed to students prior to them being shown, allowing students of color to prepare mentally, or choose not to view these images at all. Also media surrounding racism and hatred towards a specific race should not be presented in classes where only one student of that particular race is present. Having to act as a mouthpiece for your race can be a traumatic experience for many students of color.
• We would like to see the addition of courses focusing on LGBTQ+ and South American history offered in the History department. In order to live up to to Lab’s promise of “honoring diversity”, we must acknowledge the ways in which our school reflects the student body, in and outside of the classroom. Their history should not be confined to independent studies.
- To curate a faculty and administration that more accurately reflects the diversity of the student body in terms of race, religion, ethnicity, gender expression and identity, political affiliation/alignment and sexual orientation. While we love, appreciate and admire Lab’s faculty and hold them in high regard, please recognize that there are more-than-capable and overqualified teachers out there from a plethora of underrepresented groups. Seek them out. It is detrimental to every student when their education lacks the frame of reference and point of view of teachers who are not cisgender heterosexual White men, in all departments. Lab has an amazing science department, yet considering that the school has a student body where 52% of people identify as female, we lack women science teachers, and the number of women of color in most departments is abysmal.
To admit more students of color. Latinx students make up only about 4% of the Lab community. Black students make up only about 9% of the Lab community. Multiracial students make up only about 19% of the Lab community. Asian students make up about 20% of the Lab community.
• The creation of a Student Academic Committee that will work with teachers to ensure a deeper and more inclusive curriculum. This committee will help curate a curriculum that features true diversity of thought. For example, looking for historians who are not white men and reading literature that doesn’t center Black people in the context of slavery, segregation, etc. We need a curriculum that ensures that we cover a myriad of cultures and religions in a non-Eurocentric way. We envision that this committee would be elected by upperclassmen during the same time as elections for Student Government. One or two upperclassmen would be elected per grade each year; once elected these students would not be permitted to run for re-election. The vision for this committee is flexible, but we believe that something along these lines is imperative to the betterment of every Lab student’s education.
In closing, we implore that this letter is understood as one piece of work as we do not have the option to leave our race at the door; it is a part of our existence and should not just be a topic to discuss. We understand that it can be tempting to allow one specific demand, example, or sentence to overshadow the entire letter. Please take time with this letter and read it multiple times. We do not intend that this letter have all the immediate solutions to the problems presented; we want this to be a first step in truly making a difference. This letter is our way of honoring Dr. Martin Luther King’s words “our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” We will not sit by idly and watch Lab’s mission statement, the very words plastered on the walls of the school, become twisted and convoluted by the actions and behaviors normalized and perpetuated in this community. We believe that these are reasonable demands that will truly help us work towards a better Lab community.
No student, current or future, should have to experience Lab the way many of us have. No student should be desensitized to racism in the Lab community because it is such a common occurrence.
We will do everything in our power to make the Lab community better for our peers and every student of color that will come after us. We thank you for reading and listening to our requests. Finally, we look forward to continuing to work with the administration, faculty and fellow students in the future. (Uhighmidway.com)