In the wake of the Black Lives Matter march in Rye, the LGBTQ+ event on the village green and other activity detailing experiences of bias in our community and in our schools, MyRye.com will be running interviews with those who have been impacted by bias in Rye and others who are working on ways to address these inequities.
Our first interview is with Brigitte Fleitas, a 2018 Rye High School graduate.
(PHOTO: Brigitte Fleitas in high school with her boyfriend, now fiancé, George.)
Your name: Brigitte Fleitas (RHS ’18)
MyRye.com: What is your ethnicity and how else do you identify?
Fleitas: I was born in Greenwich, CT, but I am a first generation in the US. I am Uruguayan from my father’s side and Peruvian from my mother’s side.
Does Rye have a problem with bias? And in your experience, is it isolated to certain people, traditions, or institutions, or more pervasive?
Fleitas: In my experience both directly and indirectly, Rye is 100% bias against those who do not fit its mold. It is certainly projected towards the minority groups and new families/individuals present in the community. Rye has a huge problem with favoritism, having bias in favor for those with old ties with others in the community or even if a certain individual comes from a wealthy family, they are accepted and integrate well in Rye.
You moved to Rye when you were in fourth grade and attended Osborn Elementary. What was it like being one of a handful of Hispanic kids? At that age, how aware were you of your ethnicity and any related bias?
Fleitas: Coming from another town that was very diverse, it was quite a shock to be one of only a few. Of course there were some stares from my peers in class and many already had their own friend groups made up. It seemed as though my safest option was to be friends with the other Hispanic kids at Osborn. However, no one wanted to join our group or play with us when we were all together. Sometimes kids would even pick us apart, how one seemed more ghetto than the other. Some even asked if I was from Port Chester (as their demographic included a large Hispanic population). Of course being so young, there were other instances that I looked over because I was so naive and desperate to be accepted.
You graduated Rye High School in 2018. How did your experience with bias change or evolved as you went though the school system from elementary to middle to high school?
Fleitas: As I got older, many of the remarks got worse. In middle school, kids would make fun of my last name, change it to fajitas or call me a derogatory term for a Hispanic individual. The bias evolved because as we all got older, our innocence started to fade away. However, I started to experience bias from teachers and other adults present in the school system.
(PHOTO: These experiences from Brigitte Fleitas were posted on the BIPOC at Rye High School Instagram account.)
You said, “everything in Rye is so deep rooted”. Explain to people what you mean by this. What is the manifestation of this in your experience?
Fleitas: Given the stories on the BIPOC Instagram page for Rye, stories from my older siblings and parents and observations, it is clear that is not just with the children, but from the whole family. Working at a store in Rye, many parents of past and present students at the time, were racist to me and truly did not regard me as an equal, speaking slowly as though I did not understand English even after talking. Or when I would get followed in the stores by the older women in the boutiques. My older sister, Alexandra, who graduated in 2011, was bullied both physically and mentally. I have had other parents in the community tell their children that I am a drug user and a bad influence (I have never touched or done any drugs in my life).
In Rye High School, you said some of the teachers are racists, and you talked about how one English teacher hated you and the other Hispanic kids. Can you describe the bias and say if you think it was conscious or unconscious bias?
Fleitas: I truly believe that the bias was conscious because they are well-educated individuals. Said English teacher would yell and embarrass me in front of the whole class if I made a grammatical error on a paper. Another time I did not receive a due date for an assignment, but she had blamed me for this mistake and would not grant me an a extension, but when another student asked for one without hesitation. The main reason why I believed she was racist was because the other Hispanic students in my class were treated the same way.
A few years ago, Rye High School experienced a rash of bomb threats. How was that situation treated by the administration on your view?
Fleitas: Safety wise, the school were on top of the all the threats and made sure we were safe and away from the building. However, it only should have been a one-time incident, done by students trying to play a “prank”. This was not the only occurrence, but one of many to come. Yet in end, out of the all the other students involved, only the person of color was arrested in connection to the threats. For years, this has never sat well with myself and those in the minority groups.
Your boyfriend in high school, George, who is now your fiancé, is white and grew up in Port Chester. You said “If you are not from Rye, you will be shunned” and that the boys in high school gave him a particularly hard time. Can you give our readers and example of what would happen?
Fleitas: George would take me to school and pick me up eventually, other kids noticed that he was not from Rye. The boys would laugh at him and stare at as he would wait in his car for me. They would cross in front of his car slowly, trying to arouse a reaction. Some people would ask who he was and why he was here all the time. Others would look appalled by our relationship.
How much of this do you think was because you are a mixed-race couple? And how much of this was due to George being from Port Chester, a town with a vastly different socioeconomic profile?
Fleitas: I do not believe it was much of a mixed race issue (as I have been in Rye for some years at this point), but given that George was from Port Chester, he was seen as less than the others. This problem goes way back even from the 80s, when my father had similar issues as he grew in Port Chester as well when he came to the US.
You also mentioned being pulled over by our local Rye police department. What were the circumstances, and do you think conscious or unconscious bias was part of this?
Fleitas: Many of the cops that pulled over George and I when we were in his car, had similar excuses for stopping us. It normally revolved around our intentions for being in Rye and sometimes assumed we were doing some suspicious activity. This was definitely conscious bias because the police run through the plates and they will obviously see that he was from Port Chester.
In the last several weeks, we have seen a Black Lives Matter march in Rye, as well as community action supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Do these events give you hope that we are moving in the right direction? Is this a milestone moment or not?
Fleitas: I think it is giving more awareness to the issues, but more has to be done than just the protests and marches. Rye has a lot of bias to change and get rid of, I do not think a change will happen right away, but for the years to come. No it is not a milestone. The racism in Rye is so deeply rooted, that this is just a small step in what should be a huge change to come.
The Rye City School District and its board of education is forming a race task force to look at the issue of bias. What voices need to be part of this task force? And, like the question above, does this step make you hopeful?
Fleitas: I believe that anyone who experienced any bias in Rye and were fully aware of the circumstances should be a voice. I would like to be hopeful that this will change anything in Rye, but the bias is so intense and extreme in this community, I am uncertain that this will help, but it can bring more awareness to the issues. There are so many people in the community that have faced negative bias, but are afraid to speak up because they have been rejected too many times, they feel as though their voice is invalid.
Thank you, Brigitte!