Lab School Black Students Association Detail “Racism and Intolerance” in Open Letter

Black students at U-High say the school lacks diversity and rules prohibiting racist behavior are not being enforced.

By Brad Subramaniam, Contributor

Members of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools’ Black Students’ Association (BSA) delivered an open letter demanding greater efforts from Lab School administrators to address “racism and intolerance” during the school’s Martin Luther King, Jr. assembly on January 16.  

The letter, published in the Lab School's student newspaper U-High Midway, was written, according to the paper, after a student posted a racist meme on social media in December. It calls for more diversity training for faculty, a more inclusive curriculum, denunciation of derogatory and insensitive language by the school administration, to welcome more students of color, a more diverse faculty, and specific punishments for intolerant behavior.

In the letter, BSA says that while the school claims to prioritize diversity, insensitivity has continued to run rampant. “Lab is a place where jokes about racial and religious identification have been normalized. A place where Black students get their hair gawked at and constantly touched without their permission as if they were animals in a petting zoo,” the letter reads.

Lab School junior Mikaela Ewing, vice president of the BSA, was among the students who read the letter during the MLK assembly. She elaborated in an interview with The Maroon that some students of color feel uncomfortable in classroom settings due to a lack of diversity.

“You have to try to explain and be an ambassador for your race, or you have to sit there and let other people debate your experience and the Black experience,” Ewing said.

The letter concludes with a call for considering the entire letter rather than focusing on one specific demand. “We do not intend that this letter have all the immediate solutions to the problems presented; we want this to be a first step in truly making a difference,” the letter reads.

Ewing added that reception of the letter by the Lab School community has been mainly positive. “I think the fact that it got this much attention, and that people from other schools and newspapers and other institutions are talking to us about it, shows a lot about the way that your voice can have an impact, as well as the way the world works,” Ewing said.

In response to the letter, Lab School director Charles Abelmann announced by email an action plan which described current policy changes the administration had been planning to implement. These include listening sessions and training programs for members of the Lab community, an expanded Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and a review of steps to improve faculty and staff diversity.

To address the concerns described during the assembly, Principal Paul Beekmeyer also hosted an open forum discussing potential administrative policy changes.

Lab School junior Ella Beiser, an editor at U-High Midway, told The Maroon in an interview that a lack of enforcement of rules prohibiting racist remarks and behavior underlies why the administration’s efforts over recent years have resulted in little to no change.

“I feel like one of the reasons is that [racism] is not really punished…. The handbook says that it’s prohibited, but there isn’t any protocol, so a lot of things get excused,” Beiser said.