An Open Letter to St. Ignatius College Preparatory

I want to begin by saying that I am writing this letter primarily for the students of color at SI who are going through the many things that I went through. I am writing this to begin a conversation and also to extend a hand in solidarity. I know it isn’t easy, and you don’t deserve the things that you are going through, but you are strong enough to make it through. I promise.

Let me also be the first to say that SI is an amazing institution with the brightest of students and teachers. I met great people and continue to meet more great people who have walked the same hallways as me. This letter is not an attempt to discredit the success and prestige that SI has as a college preparatory high school, but it is more so an attempt to explain the shared experience socially of minority students.

In the fall of 2008, I happily made my journey to begin high school as a Freshman at St. Ignatius College Preparatory, also known as SI. Growing up in the East Bay, I had never heard of SI until about 2006 when my older brother was hired to work there as the Director for the school’s Magis program, a program for middle school and high school minority and otherwise underprivileged students designed to prepare them for higher learning through summer classes, workshops, and creating an open space for minority students to feel comfortable and connected on campus (to name a few).

St. Ignatius was a different world for me.

As a black student coming from Union City, my typical school day involved getting up at 6am, getting dropped off at the Bart station, riding the train for about 45 minutes into San Francisco, then transferring to Muni and riding for about another 30 minutes to get to school. Adding the rigor of playing basketball and running Track and Field made my days longer and fortunately, my best friend lived close enough to me that we made most of those journeys together.

SI was the first time I went to a predominantly white school. At the ages of 13 and 14, all incoming freshman come into the school with a mix of high hopes and expectations to start fresh and make a name for themselves. I was proud to be a Wildcat. It changed the way I talked, the way I dressed, the way I looked at others. I saw how people reacted when I told them I went to SI. I remember the pep rally we had the first week where I got to see the energy and spirt of my class. We were rowdy and intelligent, a perfect mix.

Over those four years, I learned so many valuable things, but the biggest part of SI that stuck with me is honestly the racism I experienced as a student. When I think of my high school experience, I always have a sour taste in my mouth because of the blatant disrespect and racism that students of color go through almost as a rite of passage at that school. Something I had to learn early was that it was socially acceptable to be racist at SI. If you were white, people thought it was funny to make racist jokes. If you were black, the easiest way to fit in would be to make fun of yourself. I couldn’t tell you the first time I experienced racism, but I can recall many incidents. Now that I’m older, I can acknowledge that high school students simply regurgitated what they heard at home or saw on TV, but unfortunately I’ve noticed that some of the students who did the most unacceptable things haven’t really changed. I’ve decided to list a couple of experiences that I can remember off the top of my head to shine light on the situations that I dealt with.

  1. Racist jokes were the thread of student life. I wouldn’t be surprised if I heard a racist comment at least once every single day. White students viewed racist jokes as simply jokes, often times ignoring the fact that students of color were hit with so many that it was hard to see them as anything other than disrespect. For example, if the lights go low in a class…I would brace myself for someone to say “Where’s Justin?” As a student, all I wanted to do is fit in, so I often times would laugh these things off until the point where I couldn’t take it and had to distance myself from people or get into arguments about why it was not okay.
  2. I had friends who found it funny to pretend to crack a whip at me and call me boy. Some of these friends I would call my good friends at this point and I can forgive them for their past behavior, as I see it was the school that made them that and not who they truly were, but regardless these experiences still stick in my mind.
  3. In a class with only two black people, the two black people (including myself) were assigned by the teacher to play the two slaves, while two other non-black students were assigned to be slave owners. To this day, I am unsure of whether or not this teacher intentionally did this or not, but regardless this situation made for an uncomfortable class session that we were just forced to deal with like everything else.
  4. A coach referred to me and my friend as the “East Bay Muggers”
  5. I lived in Union City and did nothing but openly represent this fact, but was often times believed to live in Oakland for no reason other than the fact that Oakland has a high black population.
  6. I can recall students having something along the lines of Wigger Wednesday where they dressed up in outfits that they deemed black, fortunately there was no blackface.
  7. Some of my teammates thought it would be acceptable to call me Juzzy Boy as a nickname.
  8. I had arguments with students over why there were clubs for minority groups such as AAAS (Association of African-American Students) and ALAS (Association of Latin American Students) and not a white club.
  9. It became evident after my sophomore year that many of my “friends” were actually not my friends. Many of these bonds were broken by racist comments that they were so happy to say to me whenever an opportunity sprung up.

I wish I had written some of my experiences down while in high school, but these were some that popped into my head while writing this. I clearly felt inspired to write this in light of the students suspended over the “Wigger Party” at the Grove, a place I coincidentally never went to as I was informed early on that it was not the place to be as a black kid. It did not surprise methat this event occurred. It did surprise me that students actually got caught and suspended over it, as things like this often fly under the radar.

If it wasn’t for the Magis program, and my brother being in charge of this program, I am not sure how I would have gotten through SI. I am positive that a number of other students that I graduated with would completely agree. That corner office in the student center was the only place where I truly felt comfortable on campus. It was a safe space for people of color to discuss what was really going on and not be fearful of the consequences. My white classmates often times wondered why it was necessary for there to be a Magis office, likely because they didn’t understand that the entire campus was their Magis office. High school was a dark place for me socially, amidst the racism, recurring suicides, commute, and just the fact that I was a teenager going through teenager issues, but I am happy I made it through and it only made me stronger.

My call to action for past, current and future students at SI is to acknowledge the treatment of minority students at SI and work to create a more inclusive culture there and anywhere else you go. Racism is a deeply rooted issue in this country and it is completely represented by the demographic and social experience of students at SI. As a graduating senior at Howard University, I am now more proud than ever to be a Black man and I’m thankful that Howard re-built me where SI broke me. If you go to SI or went to SI and would like to talk about your experiences, I would be very interested to hear what you went through or what you’re going through. It is important for us to be in solidarity especially at a time like this.

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