Starting senior year in the middle of a pandemic has brought on more challenges than ever: Navigating college applications and maintaining my G.P.A. while dealing with Zoom burnout and no physical connection to my friends.
I attend Regis, the academically rigorous Catholic high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. To those who get in, it is tuition-free, and it is regularly recognized as one of the top high schools in the country.
So it is more than a little troubling that I know I will have to deal with casual racism at such an institution. Even as classes have started remotely, the racism that many Black students like me have experienced and continue to experience in school feels more emotionally draining than ever.
I felt immense pride entering Regis, but also great pressure. My older brother had been a stellar student there. He went to Yale University for political science, then immediately completed a simultaneous J.D./M.B.A. in three years at Yale Law and Yale School of Management.
My sister is a senior at Yale, studying computer science and music. Getting the “best education possible” is the mantra of my Jamaican-immigrant parents. As their youngest child, I feel the pressure to replicate. I feel a certain level of success is expected.
And yet even in this high-achieving environment, among peers who are “supposed to know better,” I have felt constantly diminished.
Classmates have made numerous comments over the years about how affirmative action puts them at a disadvantage for getting into top schools. While I know my friends may have innocently tried to put me at ease about an extremely difficult college admissions process, I see it very differently. Was affirmative action and legacy an excuse if they did not get into Yale? Did they mean to erase my academic achievement and my individual worth?
Even after a summer of protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and numerous other victims of police brutality, schools still need to do work to address institutionalized racism within their communities.
I am no stranger to racist behavior. In middle school, I was targeted with it, as well as enduring classmates casually using the N-word. Any hope that this would be avoided at Regis was quickly proved wrong. Within the first two weeks there, a photo of me was shared around school by a white classmate; the caption referred to me as a monkey.
Even in the most benign circumstances, Black students constantly feel othered. Whether it’s heads turning toward you during a lesson about slavery in fourth grade or everybody staring at you when the civil rights movement is discussed, you get used to it. The shock wears off.
One afternoon last year, some friends and I were venting about the racist culture in school.
A teacher heard our conversation and joined us. I am one of a handful of students of color at Regis; the students I was with were white and Hispanic. We felt comfortable with her and began recalling several racist incidents. I was completely surprised by her reaction. She was horrified and stunned that this was happening at Regis. When she asked me and my friends to identify the individuals behind the actions, I felt uncertain, given the response the administration had shown to a student the year before.
At the end of my sophomore year, the school expelled a white student who made what he thought was a benign birthday message: he posted a picture of one Black friend instead of the other, “falling” into the “all Black people look alike” myth. He truly thought that it would be a funny, lighthearted post.
Complicating this is the fact that the student also used the N-word with other white friends. He was asked to leave the school.
This punitive approach to racist behavior seems to be commonplace in the Catholic schools that many of my friends attend. The protocol is simply to remove the one “bad apple,” and thus the racism is rooted out.
I ended up naming the students, but I grew anxious afterward. I did not want them to be expelled. I felt that expulsions would do little to affect their behavior and would also place their lives and families in turmoil.
My fears were allayed, however. Regis took a new and innovative approach that I know made a tremendous difference: restorative justice.
Restorative justice “repairs the harm caused by a crime,” according to the Centre for Justice and Reconciliation. It involves a collaboration between victim and offender. The process is uncomfortable and tedious for everyone involved, but it leads to a transformative result. While restorative justice is often looked at through the lens of prison ıslahat, I believe that it can play an especially effective role in schools around the country.
Instead of expelling the offenders, Regis immediately scheduled a series of assemblies and classroom discussions. The school set up meetings with my parents and checked in with me every day to make müddet I remained in a positive mental space. Administrators facilitated real dialogue between me and my main offender, a former friend who had used the N-word in front of me on several occasions. While the switch to remote learning happened before we could have a sit-down conversation, we were still able to speak to each other about what had happened and any misunderstanding we had of the situation.
We talked at length over his thought process, and he even sent me a message apologizing and telling me exactly what it was he did wrong and that my frustrations were valid. I would have likely not had the chance to positively interact with him again, had he been kicked out of school, and he would no doubt have been embittered and less willing to talk to me as well.
Restorative justice doesn’t allow an institution to simply remove the bad apples. It inspires solutions that achieve value and respect for everyone. It forces an institution to look at community-oriented solutions that make everybody uncomfortable, not just those who are involved. But it’s the only way real change can be made.
“I’m sorry, Rainier,” my former friend said. “I didn’t realize why what I said was wrong. I didn’t know it was racist.” It felt like progress, as if I actually made a difference in his life.
Rainier Harris is a senior at Regis High School and a Queens native. His Twitter handle is @harris_rainier.