Over the past month, I noticed an emergence of new Instagram accounts dedicated to exposing the mistreatment of Black students at private schools. I learned I hurt my peers, and these are my takeaways on how to be a better ally moving forward.
My memories of high school belong on a postcard. Every fall morning I woke up to vibrant orange leaves, like small flames outside my window. Every winter as I gazed outside to see the world covered in velvety snow, I’d smell a fond crispness in the air and excitement would course through my veins. In my mind, the visuals of my high school experience are picture-perfect.
I attended a wealthy private school in Massachusetts, half an hour away from Boston and only a jog away from a beautiful nature reservation. My four years there—I left home at 13—would be the greatest time of my life, many told me. Alumni I met, mostly white and affluent, seemed lost in memories every time we talk about our high school. I watched their eyes glaze over slightly and noticed a wisp of a smile upon their faces. They were CEOs, lawyers, investment analysts, and award-winning authors; I wanted to join the ranks.
So these are my associations with high school, and they reek of money and privilege, but I cherish them nonetheless because I benefited from my time there.
I’m not white, but for years I felt close to being white because I attended that school. I paid full tuition, which means I never had to balance work and study, and I never had to worry about purchasing textbooks and snacks at the school café.
But I am complicit in the system at so many private schools that perpetuates racism and classism, and I only just realized the full extent of how in the past few weeks.
What needs changing?
We are at what some cultural commentators are calling an “inflection point.” In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the national conversations around race and police brutality, companies, newsrooms, industries, and schools face critical examination for the way they treat Black people.
Black students across the nation also speak up about their experiences at predominantly white institutions, particularly on Instagram through the creation of “Blackat____” accounts.
When I found the account created by Black students from my high school, I selfishly feared if I ever acted in a racist manner towards a classmate. I played back memories, again and again, scared that I could be ‘cancelled’ and lose friends.
I learned these fears are counterproductive; these Instagram accounts are spaces for accountability and justice. As a student who attended PWIs for high school and college, I need to know the ways in which I participated in and enabled racist practices at my schools.
Here are my takeaways on what students can do moving forward to combat racist behavior and microaggressions (I am still learning, too!):
https://www.instagram.com/p/CB4elLVh9Zx/ (A white international student in a History 200 class asked why Black people like watermelons and fried chicken so much. When Black students in the class got mad at the white teacher for mishandling the situation and not explaining why that was so messed up, she cried after class.)
It’s not on Black students to “educate” peers and teachers about the problems they face
Think about all the times your school promoted diversity and inclusion by pointing out students of color and multicultural student clubs. These students are not at schools for the sake of diversity, and schools should not expect students to do free work of calling out racist behavior and implementing solutions. Student clubs are spaces for students of color to come together to listen, celebrate, and support one another. Schools take advantage of these community-driven spaces when they expect students of color to lead the way in promoting diversity—that job should the school’s as a whole, and particularly the role of the administrators.
Especially in classrooms, where teachers are the figures of authority and reason, it should not be on Black students to answer their peers’ often offensive questions about African-American culture and history. Teachers should know how to deal with these situations when they arise. While all teachers would benefit from diversity training and unconscious bias training, what would be even better is if schools hired more faculty of color. It is not enough to work at combating racism on an individual level, the entire system needs challenging.
https://www.instagram.com/p/CBlsdWdjan1/ (When I graduated, a large number of Black and non-Black faculty members of color left the school with us. When I spoke to one of them about it, he said this place is very hard for faculty of color and a lot of them couldn’t take it anymore.)
Administrators need to create a healthy working and living environment for faculty of color
Once schools hire more faculty of color, the challenge comes in retaining them. Many of these private schools are predominantly white institutions. Though these institutions did many good things, providing education and research opportunities to brilliant students, their history is rooted in whiteness.
My high school was founded during the American Revolution in 1778. It started as a stepping stone to Yale University, and the student population back then was all male and all white. Though my high school’s history is storied—a nation and an academy, founded in tandem—it also highlights how the school was never meant to accommodate the students and faculty on campus today. Administrators and trustees cannot change history, but they can carve out the path to a brighter future.
Schools cannot give their students the best education possible if there is no diversity among the faculty members. Just as diversity within the student population helps students develop their sense of curiosity, empathy, and compassion, diversity within faculty expands students’ learning.
However, many of these faculty members tire of the microaggressions and the subtle racism just like the students do. While students their trusted teacher or advisor to lean on, faculty are expected to bear the pressure alone. They need a stronger support system. They need their co-workers and employers to create a better culture of accountability and respect.
https://www.instagram.com/p/CBeClBgj_3C/ (I have heard so many white seniors dismiss the college acceptances of Black people, to the extent where I feel scared to say where I’m going, because I know that they’ll attribute my success solely to affirmative action and diversity quotas.)
Students work hard to get to where they are; Black students are not the only beneficiaries of affirmative action
At a competitive high school, it is easy to dismiss your peers’ success because it makes you feel better about yourself. When college decisions came out, almost every senior was on edge, and they are more insecure than usual. It is hard to learn that you did not get into your dream school, but that should not motivate you to cut down your friends and fellow students.
Everyone is different, so this is not to say that every Black student faced the same experiences or has the same goals. Nonetheless, Black students admitted into top-tier institutions—the schools we might have dreamt of—worked hard for their accomplishments and should be allowed to celebrate their successes just as much as everyone else. Whether racial affirmative action played a role in someone’s admission should not undermine their merits.
Affirmative action is tricky to talk about, and after a group representing Asian-American students sued Harvard for alleged discrimination, I found it harder to know where I stand. Due to better understand affirmative action, we only have to look at its history in the U.S. to see what it has accomplished. Turns out, those benefiting most from affirmative action are white women.
The first affirmative action measure passed without mention of equal opportunities between genders. It was not until President Johnson amended the measure in 1967 that women were afforded some protection against discrimination. Since then, women are the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action measures. A 1995 report by the Department of Labor found that 6 million women, most of whom are white, had advances at their job made possible by affirmative action.
When it comes to affirmative action in colleges, it is harder for students to see the effects of these equalizing policies. While it is valid and necessary to scrutinize how colleges handle admissions, it is unfair and mean to invalidate the merits of our Black peers.