If Azaan Rodriguez were to look in a mirror, he would describe himself as a 13-year-old kid who loves science, lives in Mattapan, and wants to be an ecologist. But recently, he's found himself thinking about how the racists of the world perceive the color of his skin.
"I think they see me as a criminal and a liar and dangerous," Rodriguez said.
This is a black teenager in 2019 navigating a term that author, sociologist and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois coined more than a century ago.
“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” Du Bois wrote in his 1903 book, "The Souls of Black Folk," “of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
Rodriguez is one of more than two dozen students of color from Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy who were racially profiled and harassed at the Museum of Fine Arts on May 16. Museum officials investigated the incident and banned two visitors, revoking their membership for discriminating against the students during their field trip. One made a comment to the effect of, “it’s a shame they’re stripping and not learning.” Another made several racists remarks, but what the kids remember was, “[Expletive] black kids.”
Rodriguez said he made a point not to respond as he heard crude words hurled their way.
“I’m still upset and there’s a small part of me that thinks I’ll never get over it. I’ll always remember it,” Rodriguez said. “...Why [do] they hate me? They don’t even know me."
Instead, he said he remembered the lessons of his mother and of his seventh grade teacher, Marvelyne Lamy.
“They would say that you have to be on your best behavior,” Rodriguez said. “Because no matter what, they’re gonna always see you as criminals.”
Exactly two weeks later on Thursday, Rodriguez sits in a classroom with four other classmates and his teachers. It’s homecoming week at the Dorchester charter school, which is based on the model and culture of historically black colleges and universities. In the hallways, there are images of Judge Thurgood Marshall, President Obama and political activist Marcus Garvey.
The school’s entire mission is to instill a mindset of excellence, black leadership and college readiness into their students. Those who attended the trip to the MFA were seventh grade honor roll students. Yet that day, at this tender age between childhood and adolescence, their worlds collided.
Natalia Alexander, 13, said she felt they were treated "like garbage, like nothing." Still, she tries to make sense of it.
"It's just how they are," Alexander said. "You can't really blame them, you have to blame who raised them ... because you learn how to act from whoever raised you, so whoever raised them must have been racist."
Alexander already knew she wanted to be a lawyer. Now because of this experience at the museum, the teenager plans to focus on human rights law.
In a recent interview, MFA Director Matthew Teitelbaum said the museum conducted the investigation not out of disbelief but to execute consequences for the mistreatment. "I was appalled. I was saddened. I thought, 'How could this happen?' As soon as the student said that was what they experienced, I believed them. I believe that they had an incident, more than one, at the museum that day that changed their experience and changed their sense of self and confirmed things about the MFA that, frankly, were very painful for us to acknowledge. [But] I know that the MFA wants to get it right."
In a public memo posted online on Friday, MFA officials outlined the institution's short and long term steps in response to the racist incident. Immediate actions include adding staff to the school groups entrance to "improve our welcome," changing the orientation greeting, adding visitor services employees to the galleries to assist visitors and respond to any "incidents while the guards continue their security function." The memo also said the museum was in conversation with local government officials about "race and Boston's cultural institutions."
The memo spelled out long term goals, such as expanding online mandatory training on unconscious bias and conflict resolution, including how to intervene "when acts of racism, abuse or discrimination are seen or heard in public spaces."
An MFA report shows that from 2013 to 2018, 81% of visitors were white.
"To me the numbers do say something. They do say that certain folks come to or think about the museum with a sense of invitation, welcome and engagement, and other folks don't," said Teitelbaum. "So, do we have more work to do to make this a museum for all of Boston? Absolutely, no doubt. And the numbers tell us that."
"Unfortunately, I wasn't surprised and I was glad it was those students," said school principal Arturo Forrest. "Unfortunate to say it that way but we train them [the students] to handle moments like this and to speak out against injustice."
Museum officials said they are slated to speak with the school's leadership on Monday and have requested another meeting with the students. Their teachers had the children write letters to the MFA after the fact. They met with Makeeba McCreary, chief of learning and community engagement, and Katie Getchell, chief brand officer, on May 23. Some of the academy’s students were going to perform at the MFA’s Juneteenth celebration on June 19.
That is no longer going to happen, said case worker and seventh grade special education teacher Taliana Jeune, who also chaperoned the trip. She said one never forgets the first time one experience racism. For her, it was at her 7th birthday.
“I had to practice a lot of self-control when the woman said 'these [expletive] black kids.’ She literally said it right in front of my face,” Jeune said. “I had to make a split second decision. Do I react or do I like stay composed? ... If I reacted I would've fallen right into the stereotype. It was frustrating that I had to hold all that anger in and how this lady was able to say what she said and react how she reacted because she just saw us and what we looked like and we just had to swallow it. That that still bothers me.”
Seventh graders Trinity Raye, 13, and Ariani, 13, who preferred not to give her last name, were among the students who were told the comment about stripping in the "Gender Bending Fashion" exhibition. They said they were showing their model walk.
“My mom always taught me that even when somebody does you wrong, you still gotta treat them right because nobody ever wants to see you win,” Raye said. “Ms. Lamy also taught us in class, no matter how hard you try to meet certain standards, they still aren’t going to accept you based on the color of your skin. So you just have to go 10 times harder.”
Raye said she's an "excellent student" who plans to teach math or become a dancer and a singer. She said she never wants to go back to the MFA. Neither does Dejaun Mitchell, 12. He describes himself as the kid in class who makes people laugh.
For luck, he wears neon-colored plastic bracelets on both wrists etched words like, “love,” “dream” and “faith.” He’s sick of talking about what happened.
“At this time, I really don't care about it,” Mitchell said. “But when people come around me and keep talking about it, it kind of pisses me off. I'm tired of hearing about it.”
Teacher Lamy has no regrets about being critical of the MFA on Facebook. Yet as a result of her public recounting of the incident, the racism hasn’t ended for her. She keeps receiving vulgar Facebook messages and harassing phone calls.
“I have people calling me a hood rat, ghetto hood booger. I've also had people call me a monkey in a wig. I've had people call me cockroach,” Lamy said.
But through it all, she said she’s watched her students grow and respond with maturity. She calls them her little social activists. At first, many went home crying.
Now they want to make sure no other students have to deal with this again. Lamy said she used racism as a fuel to work harder, a sad rite of passage.
“I had to prove myself. I had to rise above the stereotypes, especially having parents who aren't from this country. That’s instilled in you all the time. You can't just be good. You have to be the best,” Lamy said. “You always have to work hard. You can't just settle for A's and B's. I want you to get straight A's. I want you to get into the top colleges and universities. I want you to be able to navigate in a world that's gonna constantly tell you that you're not good enough.”
This segment aired on May 31, 2019.