The words were piercing. Makdes Hailu had just won a coveted spot on an academic team at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School when she inadvertently overheard a classmate’s put-down: “Oh, she only got in because she’s black.”
“At that moment, I just remember feeling so hurt,” Makdes said. “For the rest of the year and throughout the team, I just felt like everyone was looking at me like, oh, I was that black girl who made the team because she was black and not because of merit.”
So begins “I, Too, Am B-CC,” a six-minute YouTube video that reveals the pain and struggle of black and Hispanic students at a high-performing suburban high school in Montgomery County, Maryland’s largest school system.
The video, inspired by black Ivy Leaguers who last year created a play, video and photo project called “I, Too, Am Harvard,” has opened a conversation at B-CC about what minority students experience and what can be done to change school culture. It comes at a time when racial stereotypes and racial profiling have become part of the national dialogue in the wake of fatal shootings of unarmed black teenagers in Ferguson, Mo., and Sanford, Fla.
One of the video’s most powerful moments comes when a B-CC senior tells a story of trying to dress and act white so that she will be viewed equally. “Now, I’m in a situation where I really don’t know, like, what am I?” she says, beginning to cry.
The video’s student creators have taken heart as their work has been watched thousands of times online and has sparked discussions across their school. With the blessing of Principal Karen Lockard, they have led conversations in more than 30 B-CC classes, probing stereotypes, personal experiences and remarks that cut deep.
“I think the most important thing is starting the conversation and telling them there is a problem,” said senior Orlando Pinder, who directed and filmed the project and said he does not blame students who are unaware of minority struggles at the school. “If an issue doesn’t directly affect you, it’s difficult to know what’s going on.”
In class discussions led by the video’s creators — Orlando, Makdes and Abigail Braithwaite — many students have expressed surprise about the intensity of their classmates’ experiences in a high school many regard as diverse and open-minded.
“I didn’t realize how deep it really goes,” said Victoria Barnett, 16, a white student who said she found the project illuminating and was proud of her school and fellow students for tackling the issue so thoughtfully.
Danny Germino, 15, said that the message came through so clearly that he found himself rethinking his own comments and humor in past conversations. “This video kind of makes you go: ‘Oh, okay,’ ” said the teen, who is white.
Other students told of their own difficult encounters.
Allistare Sasser, 17, recalled a hallway conversation just before the school’s winter concert, when someone asked who would be performing, and the African American teenager mentioned that he would be playing violin.
The students turned and looked at him, he said. “You don’t look like someone who plays the violin,” he remembered several of them saying.
He reflected afterward: “I felt it was degrading, like someone like me couldn’t look like they play the violin.”
At B-CC, with 2,000 students, 58 percent are white, 17 percent are Hispanic, 14 percent are black and 6 percent are Asian. The high school has a strong academic reputation in the Washington region, with families from a mix of economic backgrounds.
“From what I’m seeing, it’s opening the eyes of a lot students who didn’t know there was an issue at B-CC,” says Sharif Robinson, assistant principal and coordinator of the school’s Minority Scholars Program. The three students who created the video are officers in the organization, which has chapters at 13 Montgomery high schools.
The idea for the video started after Makdes, 17, heard of the Harvard campaign over the summer. She got Abigail, 17, and Orlando, 18, involved, and wrote a proposal in October for the school administration.
By late November, they were filming.
One student talks about straddling two social worlds, with his white friends and his black friends.
Orlando reflects that many negative comments are said as jokes: “But I think after those jokes are said, they kind of start to settle in and they become more than that.”
Other students speak poignantly about taking Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, where they see few, if any, other black and Hispanic students. “I was the only minority in my class and so I felt like I did not belong at all,” one student says in the video.
Makdes says one of the group’s interests was giving voice to the stories behind the achievement gap. At B-CC, as in many other schools, black and Hispanic students do not fare as well as white students on measures of student success such as SAT scores and AP exam results.
In class discussions, the video’s creators tell students that the problem can be subtle. As Orlando says, no one is blocking minority students from entering the school, as happened during the civil rights era. He and his co-creators end their discussions saying that negative comments can hurt. They urge students to make efforts to know a student outside their existing group of friends.
“Stereotypes happen because people don’t know other people,” Abigail says.
Lockard, B-CC’s principal, said she fully supports the students and noted that earlier this school year, they held a sit-in to draw attention to both the achievement gap and the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
“They have their truth to tell,” she said of the video. “I encouraged it, and I applaud that they did it.”
Parents have been supportive, too. Hailu Gtsadek, Makdes’s father, recalled similarly negative comments when he was attending college in the 1980s. He said that people have evolved since then but that the video shows there is still a ways to go.
“It’s a powerful statement,” he said. “This generation, these kids, have found the right way to go about addressing a problem. They put the problem out there, and they are proposing solutions as well.”
The video has gained momentum outside of the school, and not just on the Internet; it recently had an audience at a countywide meeting of high school principals.
Christopher Garran, Montgomery’s associate superintendent for high schools, called the project “awesome,” saying it builds on the district’s work to narrow the achievement gap and shows that more needs to be done. “I think a similar story could be told in many of our high schools,” he said.
No one at B-CC has disputed students’ experiences, the video’s creators said. But comments posted on YouTube have occasionally taken exception, with one saying the video was “kind of exaggerated” and that B-CC is “nothing like this.” The person wrote: “You don’t HAVE to dress a certain way. . . . You don’t HAVE to act a certain way.”
The video’s creators say that while they want to show minority student experiences at B-CC, they strongly support their high school.
“If it wasn’t for this school and the students at this school, the discussion would not be going as well as it is going,” Abigail said.
They point out that the Harvard social campaign that inspired them has spread to other colleges — and they see similar possibilities on the high school level. In the next month, they plan to work with other Montgomery students to create a video called: “I, Too, Am MCPS.”
“We’ve heard stories from kids who go to Wootton, from kids who go to Whitman, from kids who go to Walter Johnson, all neighboring schools, and they’re interested in making this a movement,” Orlando said. He said he doesn’t want the conversation to “stop at the 30, 31, 32 classes we went to, which is a lot of kids, but not enough.”
Makdes hopes to expand to other schools, too. She recalled competing for a school year on the academic team where she felt unwanted, often arriving home in tears after practices and meets. She is strong-willed and did not give it up, she said.
In the video, she appears as the final voice, asking people to think twice before they say things and to avoid perceptions based on race.
“We need to think more,” she says, “because our actions really can hurt people.”