Proof that it happened: BIPOC IN NEWTON and the voices of youth of color

Since last summer I’ve followed the BIPOC IN NEWTON Instagram page as a place to hear unfiltered, anonymous stories from youth of color in Newton about their experiences facing racism in the city, mostly in the public schools. From moments in classrooms, buses, and all around town, we hear about the confusion, fear, shame and anger these young people felt when they were marginalized or harassed based on racial stereotypes. Sometimes these episodes are from years ago, which makes the pain these young people carry all the more difficult to consider. These stories reflect a harsh reality faced even by elementary school students, one that complicates Newton’s self-professed identity as a progressive and welcoming community. 

BIPOC IN NEWTON has over 1900 followers and has already become a reference point in the city, with its posts cited by students in papers on current events and presented to NPS officials as a way of sharing student voices. I was grateful that the co-creator of the page, a non-Black person of color born and raised in Newton, wanted to talk with me about what it means to convene this space of testimonies to the lived experience of young people of color in the city. Our phone discussion is presented here with edits for clarity and length.

Josh Jacobs: Since last summer the movement for racial justice has prompted the launch of many “[Identity] in a local place” pages. What in particular motivated you to start the BIPOC IN NEWTON IG page? 

BIPOC IN NEWTON: Last summer during the protests after George Floyd was killed, my friend who goes to school in Hopkinton told me about a page where people could submit stories about their experiences. She said there was some backlash because her school is a bit less aware of racial issues than ours in Newton. As a Newton North student, I thought that sharing stories this way would be helpful for anyone in the city, not just in the schools. I wanted to be an ally to the Black community, and decided not to wait for someone else to start a page for Newton.

In Newton there’s a misconception that it’s such a great place that is super safe for everyone. This is somewhat true, relatively speaking, but it hurts minorities when they talk about their experience and hear people say, “oh you’re in Newton, if you were someplace else it would be so much worse, these are just ‘micro-aggressions.’” In fact even my own parents have said that kind of thing to me because they have a different perspective.

JJ: What has been most surprising or impactful for you curating this feed and reading the stories submitted?
BIN: For me the best part about the page has been feeling I was able to connect with everyone in my town a bit more, and have meaningful conversations with people in my messages about a topic that’s hard to speak about frankly. I’m grateful that people who come to the page or DM me normally have an open mind, looking to educate themselves and learn about things, and that even some teachers I know follow it. The one time I got negative messages was after posting about the rally at City Hall where the driver drove his truck towards the crowd, and people DM’d me to say “oh that wasn’t racist.”

JJ: How do you feel about this page in the context of “performative allyship,” particularly on social media?

BIN: When I first created the page, I asked myself whether it should be about “how to be a better ally,” but instead I decided to just stick with these stories and let people read and interpret as they will without altering them or adding my own commentary. 
I find it hard to write in an eloquent and well-spoken way about racial issues. Because Newton is pretty progressive most people were posting similar things about the movement, and I wanted to do more than just repost what everyone else was doing, and to let these voices of people of color speak for themselves. You can see what happened in the other direction, for example on “Blackout Tuesday,” when all these black squares on people’s feeds crowded out the actual Black creators and artists from speaking about their experiences.

JJ: Newton talks about itself as being really progressive. How do these stories complicate that story? 

BIN: It’s good for people in Newton to have this other perspective on what’s going on, because many teachers and administrators don’t address racism unless there’s a really big incident. Newton is centered on education, on providing students the resources they need, and the schools are our pride, and to see all these issues students face in the NPS is kind of sad. I wish more people could have the energy to fight these smaller incidents that kids face every day. 

We don’t realize the impact that microaggressions have on our community when they aren’t noticed, and when people don’t notice, the students who witnessed or experienced these acts get told they shouldn’t feel the way they do. 

I’ve spoken out more about these things than some of my classmates, which is thanks to having some pretty good teachers in the past. I’m lucky that I have been taught that speaking up is a good thing when something bothers me, because I see it hurts people when they can’t speak up about things that bother them.

JJ: How do you see the role of anonymous forums like this feed in addressing social justice issues, as opposed to explicit, named calls for action or naming people who acted badly?
BIN: The anonymous part is so important because it’s hard for people to talk about these issues. It made me sad to realize that people would have to self-censor or feel they aren’t a good person for sharing their experiences. I also decided to keep it anonymous because people [who have been the aggressors] need a chance to be able to fix themselves and have a second chance to better themselves, because we don’t know what they’re going through. There were some call-out pages last year that named names, and I didn’t think that helped anything, because apologizing on social media is really hard to do in a meaningful way.

JJ: What do you see as the future for this kind of space that met an urgent need for a lot of people last year, both for you personally and as part of broader efforts to fight systemic racism?
BIN: There were so many submissions in the summer, and now it’s really slow. But it is important to have the stories up from the past year and not be taken down, to be available as a resource, and as proof that real things have happened to people in Newton. I’ve heard people tell me they use these stories as examples in presentations, in articles or essays, for things happening in our town.

JJ: What do you hope that adult readers of this feed in Newton will think or do differently as a result of reading these stories?

BIN: I’m very hard on my parents for some of the things they say that were acceptable when they were young. People joke about Gen Z being “soft” and caring about microaggressions, but it’s important to recognize differences between age groups and the different experiences we’re having than older generations. 

I want parents and teachers not only to watch what they say but also watch their reactions to when their kids or students share things that happened to them. It is very hurtful to go to a trusted adult, share something that was painful to you, and they say to shake it off and it’s not a big deal…this reaction can be more painful than the original thing that happened to you. I’m grateful to offer a safe place for people to share things even from years ago, so people don’t have to hold onto things. 

Go easy on young people: the students and young people who submit these stories are going through a lot in their lives in general. And even if you’re not part of a minority, it’s hard to be a student right now. Sometimes we also need to take a break from these conversations: especially for a person of color to constantly be asked “how am I doing” is draining. For teachers who see students in distress right now, you don’t realize what people are going through and the interesting things they could bring to their classes if given a chance.

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