Dear AISB students, parents, and teachers,

Even though I technically graduated from AISB on Saturday, and was free to walk away, to stop working, stop writing, I felt the need to say something other than “farewell and good luck” via Zoom. With protests going on all around the globe, tensions growing, Black people in constant pain and terror, my voice is needed now more than ever.

So I come here as one of the school’s last remaining Black students to tell you this: the international school community, including AISB, is not doing enough to support Black lives. Plain and simple. And I think it’s about time we address and face the anti-blackness within our own community.

If reading that made you feel uncomfortable, good. Use that uncomfortability to fuel your proactivity. Besides, comfort is a privilege I refuse to let this community overlook any longer. And I’m only just getting started.

Why BLM is an international movement:

Anti-racism is an age-old song that Black people have been singing for hundreds of years—one that people hear yet refuse to listen to. The tragic murder of George Floyd and the sheer effort it took to get his murderer arrested is only further proof of that. Heartbreak has turned to frustration; and frustration, to outrage. The time for change is long overdue, and the Black community has had enough.

In short, the Black Lives Matter movement didn’t start (nor will it end) with George Floyd. It’s a statement about police brutality, systemic racism, overt and covert racism, internalised racism, racial insensitivity and intolerance, anti-black racism from other people of colour (POC), and white privilege, amongst many other issues. The movement may have started in the US, in 2013 with the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, but it doesn’t stop there. We are tearing apart anti-black beliefs and systems at their very core. It is not a trend. It is not an ‘American issue.’ Anti-blackness affects all of us.

So I ask you this: How can we, a school that has the word ‘international’ in its very name, turn a blind eye to one of the most international issues: racism?

Empathy is the pillar of an international environment. We as a school should be ashamed if we do not practice this very quality. Because, although there are only a handful of Black students at AISB, there are millions of Black people all over the world who are suffering, and who need our voices.

International schools are not exempt from being racist. 

I feel as though a lot of people think international schools are ‘less racist’ than local schools. That because of their supposed ‘diverse’ communities, students learn to become more accepting of a range of identities, and are less prejudiced and therefore, ‘less racist.’ But as a Black person who has exclusively attended international schools since the 3rd grade, and experienced consistent racism in every single one of those schools, I can confirm one thing: international schools are NOT exempt from being racist. In fact, it is the very illusion of a ‘non-racist’ environment that prevents students, teachers, and faculty from recognising racism in the first place.

Not enough people understand what racism is because they aren’t being taught correctly. They’re taught the definition of prejudice rather than racism, and grow up believing that racism is simply being unkind to another person based on their skin colour, instead of the actual definition: systematic oppression. Then, as they grow older, they assume that racism is all about calling people slurs and outwardly expressing hatred for people of colour, and because the average student isn’t going to do that, they will trap themselves under the illusion that they are not racist. 

‘I’m not racist,’ but I say the N-word and dismiss Black people for trying to teach me the origin of that word and why it’s not okay for non-black people to say it. ‘I’m not racist,’ but I’ll make racist Black ‘jokes’ and tell myself it’s okay because I’m not actually racist, and I’m only joking. ‘I’m not racist,’ but I’ll stay silent when a family member or a friend says something racist because it’s not my place to speak. ‘I’m not racist,’ but I say ‘all lives matter,’ distracting from the issue that the ‘Black lives matter’ movement is a response to the world refusing to value Black lives. ‘I’m not racist,’ but I’ll stay silent when Black people all around the world are begging me to speak up and act in response to the injustice against Black people in America, and internationally.

As you can see, racism is not isolated to a couple of extreme groups and individuals; it thrives in every single community, in ways that many people fail to understand. Microaggressions are still covert acts of racism.

You may claim to be ‘non-racist,’ but are you ‘anti-racist’? Do you listen to Black people and uplift their voices, or do you turn a blind eye because Black issues ‘aren’t your problem’? Do you silence Black people for trying to educate you after you say something racially insensitive? Do you acknowledge your privilege and use it when it benefits Black people and POC, without abusing it? Understand that it is not the sole job of Black people and people of colour to speak up about racism. In fact, in communities where there aren’t enough Black and POC voices, it’s hard to speak up. It’s daunting, feeling like nobody else is on your side. And at the end of the day, many things that POC say aren’t taken seriously unless a white person says it. It is your responsibility too; being non-racist is the bare minimum. You must be anti-racist.

Stop saying you’re “colourblind.”

A lot of white people like to say ‘I don’t see colour, therefore I am not racist.’ The foundation of being non-racist, to them, is seeing everyone as equal. This is a problem. This only enables you to turn your heads away from the injustice that people of colour face. Being ‘colourblind’ in a racial sense blinds you from understanding racism and white privilege. It’s the same as saying ‘All Lives Matter’: you are deliberately drawing attention away from important conversations and movements about race, and choosing to be ignorant. We want you to see colour; we want you to see our skin and the individual and systemic racism it brings. We want you to see it, accept it, understand it, and bring light to it. Speak out on it. Act on it. Treat us as equals, yes, but not in a way that ignores and undervalues the inequalities we face.

Admit and understand your white privilege.

It’s shocking and disappointing the number of times I’ve tried to speak to a white friend about white privilege, only for them to immediately shut me down and say it doesn’t exist. So, for every single white person reading this that still refuses to understand what it is, and why it’s important, here’s an explanation: white privilege does not mean that white people don’t have struggles. Everyone does. White privilege means that the colour of your skin is not the cause for those struggles. It’s not the cause for any setbacks in your life. People of colour, on the other hand, have to overachieve to be seen as equals. Now read that part again.

Not experiencing racism is a privilege. Not having the ‘people are going to hate you because of the colour of your skin’ talk with your parents as a kid is a privilege. Not having to learn how to behave around police so you don’t get unjustly murdered is a privilege. Learning about racism instead of experiencing it directly is a privilege. Being exhausted from hearing about racism instead of experiencing it is a privilege. Not being told that you’re smart or good-looking ‘for a black person’ is a privilege. Not having to worry whether or not your ethnic name will be shown on a job application is a privilege. Not having to worry about being accused of shoplifting at the mall based on the colour of your skin is a privilege. Not having to put up with strangers touching your ethnic hair out of ‘curiosity’ without permission is a privilege. Not having to wonder if your new friends, coworkers, or love interests even like people of your skin colour is a privilege. Seeing people on TV, superheroes, dolls, action figures, influencers, political figures, teachers, people on the street that look like you is a privilege.

In fact, something that so many white people fail to recognise is the privilege of being surrounded by people that look like you. It’s something so minor that I’m sure many of you don’t even notice, but it’s something that means so much to students of colour. Just imagine going to an all-black school. Imagine how out of place you’d feel. That’s the every day life for students like me. Being Black in an all white school is an anxiety-inducing experience, of constantly being reminded that you are different, and that you don’t fit in. Whether it’s the stares you get in public, a seemingly innocent race joke from a close friend, or simply looking down at your hands and noticing the colour of your skin; you are reminded over and over again that nobody looks like you. That you stand out even when you don’t want to. 

Consequently, something as little as seeing another Black person in public is such a comforting experience. I remember breaking down into tears the first time I went to a predominantly Black church in the UK. I wasn’t the odd one out. I wasn’t alone. The atmosphere was full of life, love, music—a passionate celebration of faith—of Blackness.

It may not seem like much, but because there are so few non-white students in this school, the community needs to do a better job of creating a safe environment for their students of colour. Because at the end of the day, it’s hard enough just being here. Let alone having to deal with racial insensitivity. 

Students aren’t being taught enough about white privilege, which is why not enough students acknowledge it. I think this is something that needs to be introduced to the curriculum somehow. This is not a ‘sensitive’ topic for white children to learn about. It is necessary. As my older sister once said, “The Black experience is one of fear and loss.” Black children grow up in a world where they have to understand, even from a young age, that they will be hated for their skin colour and there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s our reality.

We don’t get the privilege of learning about racism. So why be afraid to teach white children about it?

We need more teachers of colour. 

Think about the first time you had a Black teacher, if ever. For some, it happens late in high school, and others, even later—perhaps in university. I’m sure many of you have never had a Black teacher, even in an international school.

This is a problem. How can a school portray a diverse community without a diverse faculty?

For me, the first time I had a Black teacher was in the 10th grade. I shouldn’t have been so shocked, but I was: seeing a parental figure outside of my family that looked like me. That I respected. That I could relate to. 

White students can share experiences with white teachers in ways that Black students cannot. They can relate to simple anecdotes like, ‘When you wash your hair every day…’ or ‘When you get a sunburn…’ Black people cannot; and in turn, often go silent because of this. But, talking to a Black teacher about the best leave-in conditioners and curl creams, recommending cheap places to get braids done, laughing at the way her peers and coworkers always assume that every Black person in the school is related—those are uniquely Black experiences that help validate Black students and make them feel included. Black teachers are much-needed role models to their students.

Not only this, but as writer Andre Perry says, “When it comes to teachers’ roles in shaping anti-racist communities, it’s better to show than to tell.” Meaning, students can learn a lot more about diversity from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People Of Colour) teachers than reading about BIPOC experiences in textbooks. For example, my Black teacher liked playing Black African music videos during French class. She also talked about her experiences as an African woman, and the frustration of African culture being portrayed as one sole culture rather than numerous unique ones. This helped make her students more culturally aware. 

Exposure to Black culture and Black people at a young age is extremely important. Perry elaborates, “Not seeing qualified, competent Black folk in positions of authority may reinforce the belief, conscious or unconscious, that Black people are less worthy in some way than white people.” Thus, seeing an authoritative person of colour every day can minimise prejudice and racial stereotypes, creating more internationally-minded students. Black and POC teachers can also improve cultural awareness and sensitivity amongst their white colleagues, and recognise acts of racism more easily.

There are currently no Black teachers at AISB, and few POC teachers. This is simply not good enough. BIPOC teachers benefit both white and BIPOC students, by creating a more inclusive environment. We need to recruit more teachers of colour, and treat them equally when they do arrive.

Silence is not an option.

So, I’ve been telling you all to take action, but you may be wondering how you do that. Let me tell you: it’s not as simple as it sounds. There are many ways to invoke change and make a difference during a time like this, so it’s hard to tell what works, what doesn’t, what’s right, what’s wrong, and what’s the best way to do it all.

But there is one phrase I will always uphold myself to: Silence is violence.

You’ve probably heard that times by now—about how silence is siding with the oppressor, and how you cannot afford to be ‘neutral’ in a time like this. And it’s true. Being actively anti-racist must be the expectation. It is imperative that we use our voices and our platforms, no matter how small.

I’m sure for many of you students, I’m one of the only Black people you know. Think about it: If Black people are the only ones who raise awareness about Black lives, and we preach only to those who are educated about the issue, how will our message reach our most important audience: the ignorant and the racist? It is your job as non-black people to spread the word in your non-black communities. Uplift Black voices by sharing content created by Black people. Every time you find a reliable news source providing updates on the status of the movement, share it. If you read something educational about Black issues, share it. You have no excuse to be silent.

It’s not easy to know what to say and how to say it. But this fear should not prevent you from speaking up. If you say something wrong or spread misinformation, you will get called out, and thus, educated. Mistakes are the only way we can learn

So, take action. No individual can do everything and that’s okay. Speak up and act out, however that may look for you. And don’t stop once BLM stops being a ‘trend.’ Keep your foot on the accelerator as long as Black people keep facing injustice. It is our collective duty.

As AISB alumni Aries Brown says, “You have two choices: Either do what is easy, or do what is right.”

Understand how performative activism differs from spreading awareness.

Another fear a lot of people have about speaking up is being “performative.” There is a fine line between performative activism and spreading awareness, so let me clear the air a little.

Often times, a lot of things people do to “show their support” is very performative. You don’t need to “show” us that you care about Black lives. That does not warrant praise. Think about the time you posted nothing but a black box on Instagram with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. What did that actually do to help the movement? What change did that make except to show a couple followers that you support the movement? You are helping yourself more than Black lives by being performative. You are trying to make yourself look good.

Instead, put your money where your mouth is. You can spread awareness through hashtags and social media posts, but if you post about the issue and don’t actually take action (signing petitions, making donations, etc.) this doesn’t do much. Besides, I’m pretty sure there isn’t anyone with a mobile device that doesn’t know about BLM right now. If you’re going to post something of that nature, post something genuinely educational, from a trusted source or Black person you know who’s informed.

On the flip side, if you are taking action and not posting about it, ask yourself why. What is stopping you? Keep in mind that the only reason you found that petition is because somebody else shared it with you. I guarantee if you spread awareness about ways to help, at least one of your followers will make a contribution; and every contribution matters. Just remember to double-check the reliability of your sources, including petition and donation sites. We want all money and signatures to go to the right places. 

Being inactive on social media because you are ‘uncomfortable’ or because it ruins the ‘aesthetic’ of your page is wrong. You are meant to be uncomfortable. Just imagine how Black people feel. This is why we take action. 

And remember: If ever you’re afraid of doing something performative, ask yourself who you’re doing it for. That should be your answer.

How do we teach empathy?

As I said earlier, empathy is central to international communities. We, as international students, cannot only care about issues that directly affect us. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, even without experiencing the feeling ourselves.

White people cannot experience racism. They can never truly understand what it feels like. But that’s okay, and it shouldn’t stop them from wanting to support the BLM movement. That shouldn’t stop them from being anti-racist. Seeing millions of Black people hurting, dying, losing loved ones—that should be more than enough. Their response shouldn’t be ‘It’s not my problem.’ That is misuse of privilege. In short: white children shouldn’t have to see white faces in distress or white blood being shed in order to care.

So, how do we learn empathy? We must teach it, and we must do so when children are young. Exposure to Black people, culture, and voices in the media is one way to go about this. Kids need to read Black authors. See Black faces on the television. Hear about Black issues so they can understand their privilege and want to use it to fight against injustice. It’s not enough to read about slavery in history class, then push it aside as if it’s ‘in the past’ and no longer affects Black people to this day. Teach kids that racism is a contemporary problem that they cannot afford to ‘not care’ about. They need to be part of the fight.

Teach Black children to love themselves.

Growing up Black in predominantly white environments means you have to learn that it’s okay to look different; that it’s okay to not fit in. It took years for me to accept my Black body, and even longer to embrace it. Only now, as I write this article, do I realise that everything I hated about myself as a kid is just a product of being Black. My passionate nature, the curves of my body, my eyes, my nose, the thickness of my lips, my kinky hair, the shape of my face, and of course, the darkness of my skin: all things I was bullied for, and taught to find ugly. I hated my Black body and yearned for a white European one, without even realising it.

But Black bodies aren’t ugly. The white European standard of beauty is not the only standard, nor the most important one. Black is beautiful.

It should not have taken me 17 years to realise that.

Internalised racism is a very real thing. It can be taught and untaught. So teach Black kids to love themselves. Teachers and leaders, show these children Black role models to look up to, so they can stop comparing themselves to non-black people. Teach them to use their voices and support them when they do: I spent years of high school being called slurs and being compared to zoo animals and I didn’t tell anyone out of fear that I’d be called overdramatic. 

And finally, teach Black kids to embrace their culture and identities, in spite of everyone who tells them that Black isn’t good enough. 

Please, please look after the mental health of Black children. Now and always. During a time like this, where the world is in an uproar over years of injustice and mistreatment, tell Black children that it’s not fair that they live in a world like this. Tell them they deserve better.

Tell them that they can and should still love being Black.

Dear AISB community…

Take a stand. White people, check your privilege; recognise your whiteness; continue to educate yourselves; and listen to Black voices. Do not drown us out. Non-black POC, acknowledge the fact that although we both experience racism, it is not right for you to draw attention away from the BLM movement. We need you to stand with us. Students, stay informed and be considerate. Check up on your Black peers and keep fighting for them. Don’t be complicit when BLM stops trending on Twitter or Instagram, because Black lives will not go ‘back to normal’ as soon as your social media feed does. Teachers, ask yourselves if you’re including Black voices in your curriculum, and supporting your Black students. Administration, ask yourselves why we don’t have more BIPOC teachers.

Finally, ask yourselves: Are you non-racist, or are you anti-racist? Will you speak up about Black issues when we need your voices the most, or will you fade into the background? Be the international community we claim to be. Black lives have to matter for all lives to matter, and we cannot afford to be silent.

And remember: Don’t be afraid to call out racism. Even if it lies within yourself.

Sincerely,

Omotoyosi Ariyo 

Author