By JohnCarl McGrady, editor in chief
Editor’s Note: if you would like to help combat racism at NHS, the student anti-racism group will be meeting on Tuesdays during advisoy. Email principal Mandy Vasil for more information.
Over the four years I have spent at Nantucket High School (NHS), I have written about the issue of racism more than any other issue—a total of nine articles I have published have been concerned with racism, including a series of three reports, the last of which was published last week, that sought to expose and discuss racism within NHS. My reporting on racism has often been the most contentious and widely seen reporting I have done, generating a lot of community feedback, both positive and negative.
I’m white, which means I’ve experienced a huge amount of privilege in my life. A great example of this is that during my entire 9th grade at NHS I never really considered the issue of racism on Nantucket. I was worried about racism on a larger level, especially with the rise of Donald Trump, but on the local level, the deepest my insights went was that systemic racism in the rest of the country was repeated on Nantucket, like non-white people working lower-paying jobs and being less likely to go to college. Until my mom got a Facebook message from then-Veritas advisor Laurie Richards asking if I would take on a last-minute assignment and cover an instance of vandalism that had just occurred at the African American Meeting House.
I am sure that the images of that graffiti had a much more profound effect on many of my non-white classmates than on me, but the moment was still a real jolt. It shocked me awake and forced me to confront the fact that severe racism existed on Nantucket. Like when you see a unique word in a book and then suddenly start seeing it all over the place, I started to notice racism on Nantucket everywhere. I’m ashamed it took me as long as it did to see it; it was blatant.
I reported on the District Report Card, and it turned out one of the reasons Nantucket’s chronic absenteeism rate was so high was because we have more Latine students than the Massachusetts average, and they tend to be more chronically absent. I looked around my Honors and AP Classrooms, and they were heavily white. I listened to white students talk, and they casually made fun of Latine Nantucketers for not speaking English well, or having poor living conditions. Someone made a Facebook post taking it as a fact that native Spanish speakers litter more than native English speakers.
In Fall 2019, I began work on the first of my three reports about racism at NHS, focusing on racial discrepancies in AP Classes at NHS. Writing that report was a fascinating experience. What I came away realizing was that racism at NHS went far deeper than I’d anticipated, and people were scared to talk about it. I distinctly remember waiting for an anonymous source in the freezing cold at Miacomet Beach, because they didn’t want anyone to see us talking. In researching my three reports, I’ve spoken to over 20 students, faculty, and administrators, but many of those conversations, and large chunks of others, will never become public. Often, people would only talk about certain issues off the record, and those stories that I can’t share have driven me even harder to find and report on the ones that I can. I have total respect for these sources, and would never push them to reveal what they have said—I just want them to know that they inspire me, and I think of them when I write these articles.
The second report in the series was supposed to come out in March of 2020, but first, the pandemic hit and Veritas temporarily paused publication, and then I learned just how hard it is to get people to talk about the racism they face on the record. It took almost a year for me to get enough to publish—but when I did, the response was huge. I’ve never had an article generate the kind of tremors this one did. Former students on Facebook shared that they had also faced racism in the school, and a couple reached out to me personally. New dimensions to racism at NHS continued to crop up, including vile bigotry against Asian students, and more concrete accusations against faculty.
In all of this, I have been faced with a difficult problem: how do I stay unbiased in my reporting, when what I am reporting is so biased? In thinking through this, I came to a major realization. Unbiased reporting does not mean identifying two sides to an issue and making sure they are both heard in even and equal amounts, but rather being absolutely certain that what you are reporting is the truth, the whole truth—at least as much as you can find—and nothing but the truth. In other words: above all else, truth. As I have said before, taking the position of false neutrality is not journalistic integrity, but rather a lack thereof. False neutrality is propaganda.
So I avoid opinionated wording in my articles, and I don’t present my own views or beliefs, but I also don’t give a voice to people who claim racism at NHS doesn’t exist, because objectively, it does. To give them a voice would be to undermine the truth. The causes, solutions, scale, and importance of that racism are all matters of opinion—matters I have strong opinions on myself—but saying there is racism at NHS is a simple fact. In my three reports, I have always reached out to students, teachers, and administrators for comment, because all three viewpoints are critical, and I’ve never shied away from printing contradictory statements and experiences.
Some students said they had never experienced racism from teachers, and that all of their teachers were wonderful and supportive, so I printed that. Others told me stories of racism they had experienced from their teachers, so I printed that. I’ve been accused of editorializing in my news articles before, and I don’t dismiss that concern outright—certain news articles I’ve written have strayed too far into the realm of opinion for my liking, and I would change them if I could have a second chance. These reports in particular, however, demanded the utmost attention to neutrality and tone, and I gave them that. I debated specific word choice for hours, one example being the decision to call the articles “reports” instead of “exposes,” which I worried sounded too biased.
That said, I do have opinions of my own, shaped by the students I have spoken to. All of them were worried about the consequences of coming forward with their stories, at least to some degree. Principal Mandy Vasil wants students to come forward, and she has repeated in every conversation I’ve had with her that she wants students to be comfortable sharing their experiences with her, but they don’t come forward and they’re not comfortable. I believe Vasil wants to help, but convincing people of that will require action on the part of the school and proof that students will be heard.
Another huge step is diversifying the faculty, and particularly the administration. When minority students look at the people in power in their lives and see white face after white face, it’s no wonder that so many stay quiet and just try to graduate and get out. Having a non-white administrator would also give non-white students someone in power who they could go to with experiences of racism who understands what they’re going through in a way a white administrator—or a white student like myself, for that matter—never could.
People like to pretend that Nantucket is perfect, and no racism troubles these shores, and I’ve even had people tell me not to publish my work because it would make Nantucket look bad, but the reality is, it’s just exposing what’s already there. It isn’t my job to propagandize in order to attract summer tourists—my job is to push for truth, above all else.
I wish I could wrap this up with a neat bow. Tell a story of beating long odds, or achieving a meaningful victory, or something, but I can’t. I haven’t. All I’ve done is opened the door. I’ve forced discussion of these issues into the public eye and thrust them into the spotlight where they can’t be ignored. I’m proud of that, and I’m glad that I could help in some way, but it’s not enough. As a journalist, I can only do so much. Now, the discussions have to happen. Action has to be taken. Progress has to be made. Excuses have to be cast aside. It’s not enough to shrug and say “well, we tried.”
Our students deserve better than that. Our students deserve change. Standing on the windswept beach that cold Fall day in 2019, my anonymous source told me that they had no hope whatsoever that things would get better. They scooped up a flat stone and skipped it across the water. It took three hops before sinking under the waves. “Nothing will change,” they said, as they watched the stone sink, “not unless the whole culture changes, and I don’t see that happening.”
Let’s prove them wrong.
Let’s show them that we care, and we’re listening, and we’re going to do better.
Let’s change the culture.