Monet Cook is heading to Howard University, but her high school experience isn’t one she’ll soon forget.
The 18-year-old is among a group of girls talking about racism they experienced as students at St. Francis, a local Catholic private, college preparatory school near Sacramento State. It was at the school, she says, that she often found herself singled out, but it was also where she found the courage to speak out about it.
Ms. Cook transferred to St. Francis in her sophomore year, after attending another predominantly White school, County Day. She says racism was normalized there.
“A big part of what it was for me was the microaggressions, girls touching my hair without asking, coming back from spring break and girls saying, ‘Oh, I’m as dark as you now’ or, ‘I’m getting a spray tan and I’ll be as dark as you,’ stuff like that,” she said.
Then there was the time in junior year when Ms. Cook’s class started to read Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.” Both are considered American classics, but have come under fire in recent years for their use of the “N” word. Some schools have taken the books off required reading lists and at others, teachers warn students to change the “N” word when reading passages in class.
Ms. Cook says an assistant principal, Jason Javier-Watson, who is White, asked Ms. Cook and the other two Black girls in her class if they needed any support. He came to their class and addressed the sensitive nature of the book, but White students left class that day upset, feeling like their time had been wasted, because racism “wasn’t a problem on campus.”
“That was a game changer for me,” Ms. Cook said. “I had never had a teacher who cared that much to acknowledge that reading a book like ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ might be uncomfortable for the Black students in the room because it really singles us out.”
“That was kind of the beginning of me starting to speak out,” she continued.
In using her voice, Ms. Cook co-founded a Racial Justice League on campus where students could go and express their feelings and concerns. She also helped organize a related art show. While the exhibit was cancelled when COVID-19 closed schools, Ms. Cook said it received support from a few teachers and considered it a step in the right direction. She’s also started a podcast, “I’m Not Racist,” with a friend, junior Princess Pascua, to address microaggressions, stereotypes and the mental impact of racism.
While Ms. Cook says racism is a constant at St. Francis, it wasn’t until after George Floyd’s death in May and its aftermath that things hit the fan and became wider public knowledge. A member of the school’s student government team posted a message on Instagram acknowledging demands from protesters around the country that there be police reform and accountability and more broadly, better treatment for Blacks in America. School officials later reused the student’s post, along with the message, “We support our students of color. We see you. We hear you.”
Hundreds of commenters said it sure didn’t feel that way.
“There are different people on campus who want to do better and want to help however they can, but I think it would have taken a lot longer if all the social media stuff hadn’t blown up the way it did,” Ms. Cook said. “At that point, they had to do something.”
Two virtual listening sessions on the issue were held and alumni joined current students and their parents to share their experiences. Students have said that they’ve been compared to monkeys, that teachers unapologetically use the “N” word and aren’t reprimanded for it and that students of color serve White students in the cafeteria to pay for their lunches.
“There were girls who graduated 20-25 years ago who got on a Zoom call and sobbed because of their experiences with racism at St. Francis and it still stayed with them to this day. That was heartbreaking and painful to see,” Ms. Cook said.
“Tears flowed from 25 years ago, like they’re still broken,” shared Ms. Cook’s mom, local psychologist, Dr. Lenore Tate.
Students came up with a list of actions they want to see administrators take, including punishments for repeat offenders, making racial sensitivity training mandatory instead of optional, and the hiring of more teachers of color. The clock is ticking on the school’s promise to come up with “measurable” solutions to the issues students have.
“We’ll have to see from there what they plan to do and how ‘measurable’ it really is,” Ms. Cook said.
Dr. Tate says her daughter was traumatized by her experiences with racism and microaggressions at St. Francis. Many ask why Black parents send their children to schools where they are the minority. She argues that parents should have the freedom to pick the best schools for their children.
Most young people don’t have a say in where they go to school. Ms. Cook said she did.
“I did choose St. Francis. I wanted to go there more than anything. And although my experience there was somewhat traumatizing I don’t think I would have gotten the same benefits (if I hadn’t gone) to St. Francis. I’m so much more vocal about what I believe in and what I’m passionate about now. I think I’m just a more sensible person. I’m more confident in myself and I don’t think I would have grown into myself the way that I did if I hadn’t gone to St. Francis.
“Now that they’re being held accountable for their actions, it will be an amazing place for students of color to grow and blossom and become the best versions of themselves they can be,” she added.
Dr. Tate initially wanted her daughter to take advantage of the full-ride scholarships she got from such schools as Georgetown, George Washington, Pitzer, and USC. Like a number of the county’s top Black athletes, Ms. Cook chose instead to attend a historically Black university.
Having taught at such HBCUs as Prairie View A&M, Texas Southern, Meharry and Fisk, Dr. Tate says she’s seen “the good, the bad and the ugly” of all-Black campuses. After a “Come To Jesus” meeting with her daughter, however, she says she came to see why she wanted to attend Howard.
There, she’ll have Black teachers for the first time and she won’t be the only Black student in her science classes as she pursues a degree in biology.
“Her spirit is broken. With all the pain that’s going on with these Black kids today, I said you go girl, you go ahead and get lifted.”
Dr. Tate said she was asked to lead a Black parents group at St. Francis even though her daughter graduated in June, but is giving it a great deal of thought before making a decision.
By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer