Black Students Matter
Zachary Moulaye Gaouad and other members of Rye High School classes of 2018 and 2019 recently wrote to Rye City School District Superintendent Dr. Eric Byrne regarding their petition to increase awareness of racism and expand the diversity of the student body at the school. They shared the letter and the petition with the paper.
Rye High School was founded upon the basis of “pursuing excellence”, as its mission states. The recent injustice surrounding George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breanna Taylor (among innumerable others) has sparked a social movement whereupon the voices of black students and people of color are finally being heard. We, as Rye High School alumni, ask that Rye High School beg the question: Are we doing enough to preserve the moral compass we strive to achieve through our very mission?
Based on data reported by the NYS government, Rye’s student body is 82% white, and 1% black. Given such racial discrepancy, you would assume that Rye High School would attempt to provide more diversity, whether through hiring diverse faculty, or diversifying the student body itself. However, in all our years at Rye High School, very rarely have we been taught by a person of color. Such a development places emphasis upon the fact that we, as a community, are not doing enough to educate our students upon the many hardships students of color may experience. As a result, we are promoting the subsistence of racism and xenophobia, as experienced by many of our nonwhite students. Students may not even be aware of their own racism, as it is either ‘implicit’ or ‘explicit’. Since the black community was so greatly outnumbered by white faculty and students, experiences were never truly understood nor heard.
To give an example, some of us have been told we “act too white for a black person”. Such microinvalidations and microinsults adhere to unjust stereotypes and invalidate our own identity. Thus, they perpetuate the very racial injustices plaguing America as we speak. When did we ever question the “whiteness” of our fellow students? Our experiences should emphasize how much of a privilege it is to be white in a privileged place like Rye, N.Y. We need to listen to the voices of Rye’s 1%. Although we are thankful to have attended a wonderful high school, we ask that Rye implement structural changes and attract more diverse faculty and students in order to make sure its student body is not left with tunnel vision. If not now, then when? We are at a critical point in American history, and now, more than ever, change is necessary. No longer can we stand idly by as our mixed and black students are left marginalized. We need our students to broaden their perspectives. Rye needs to abide by its very mission, because leaving students shielded from reality only hurts them in the strive for “excellence”.
We would also like to touch upon how weak Rye High School’s response has been to the #blacklivesmatter movement surrounding black injustice. In his email dated June 2, 2020, not once did Superintendent Dr. Eric Byrne condemn the murder of George Floyd or express support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The email was so brief, and the furthest it went was to say, “Many of the images are difficult for children (and adults) to process and could result in anxiety or fear.” Most schools have condemned the violence and expressed support for the Black Lives Matter movement. Furthermore, the email was sent to parents, not students.
Rye High School is supposed to educate its students, not shy away from enumerating the injustices facing the country it stands under. In this case, Rye’s response was far from “excellent”. It was condemnatory. This is another problem that stems from a lack of diversity, because it becomes uncomfortable for a white superintendent in a white school to address a black issue. “If we have no black students, why does it matter?”
We must not stay silent. We must not teach our students to be silent. We ask Rye High School to ponder what message it sends students through inaction. Anti-apartheid activist Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” As an academic institution pledging “excellence”, Rye High School must act as the example, not the oppressor.
Maybe we are being harsh with our words, but we are legitimately upset, and rightfully so. And everyone should understand why by now. As an academic institution, Rye should work to amplify the voices of its marginalized students.
Throughout our years at Rye High School, never was that the case. Our classes offered little to no black literature. When we read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the eighth grade, our teachers seemed to beat around slavery’s bush. When we were taught about slavery and segregation in US History classes, that also remained the case. For instance, in some of our 11th grade APUSH class, we were forced to undertake a North vs South debate, where we would play out the roles of Confederate figures against former slaves like Dred Scott. Basically, white and black students were asked to play the role of someone “justifying slavery.” How uncomfortable do you think it is for a person of black descent to get assigned Robert E Lee?
Slavery and segregation were briefly touched upon and intertwined within big units. It becomes uncomfortable to talk about slavery and segregation when classrooms are filled with, if ever, a single person of black descent in the back. Not properly educating students only perpetuates the racial tension millions have gathered to protest against. Also, never were we taught about contemporary black issues. Never were the likes of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Rodney King, Malice Wayne Green, Abner Louima, Amadou Diallo, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile remotely mentioned.
In order to progress, we must also call things for what they are. There is no “side” to pick. Nobody, including faculty, can act “defensive” and say, “Well I did this, or I did that…” No. Because you are most likely not black. All of us of black descent feel this way, so what we say is not unwarranted, because it can only be the truth.
On that note, we would love to address proposals to address our concerns. We have written a petition (www.change.org/ryehighracialawareness) united with several alumni of Saint James Boarding School in Maryland, who have outlined these specific requests, which we also ask Rye High School to consider.
Zachary Moulaye Gaouad ’19, Dezie Udeagha ’18, Alaire Kanes ’19, Iman Syed ’19, Kirsten Daley ’19, Ian Quinones ’19, Mehdi Gaouad ’19, Sasha Spitz ’19, Paul George ’19, Alex Kirk ‘19