On Instagram, Black Students of Elite Private Schools Have Found a Space...

Diversity and Equity

On Instagram, Black Students of Elite Private Schools Have Found a Space to Speak Out. What’s Next?

By Emily Tate Sullivan     Jul 20, 2020

On Instagram, Black Students of Elite Private Schools Have Found a Space to Speak Out. What’s Next?

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2018, a Black student at the Taft School returned to his dormitory to find his door defaced with the words, “Go back to Africa.”

It was one of a string of hate crimes that took place on the private boarding school’s campus in Watertown, Conn., that day. And it quickly became public. Local news outlets covered the incident. School leadership addressed it. Classes were canceled.

Then, eventually, everyone moved on.

Though that incident was widely publicized and condemned, it was not the only time a Black student at Taft has experienced racism—far from it. But it might have been the most visible, and the clearest cut, case in recent years.

In that way, the 2018 event at Taft is not entirely unlike the murder of George Floyd and the nationwide protests it inspired, a recent graduate of the school explained in an interview. People could agree that the defacing of the dorm room door—or the killing of Floyd—was racist and atrocious and should never have happened. But what about the subtler racist comments? The more insidious exchanges? The microaggressions? Just like racism in America is not limited to police brutality or a few “bad apples,” racism at Taft was not isolated to the MLK Day incident.

“There were so many other incidents that went unnoticed [on campus], or felt too small to matter,” says the alumnus. “But it makes a big impact on the student who is being victimized in that situation. … They’ll remember it the rest of their life. They’ll remember where they were, what the weather was like. They will not forget.”

The alumnus, who preferred not to be named, is an administrator of the @BlackAtTaft Instagram account, one of a slew of accounts started by students and alumni of elite private high schools in the wake of the Floyd protests to build awareness around the subtle and overt racism students have experienced on campus—year after year after year.

These accounts—most of which were created about a month ago—provide an anonymous forum where current and former students can share their experiences with racism and discrimination on campus. The experiences described include everything from racial slurs and untoward comments about hair and skin to being singled out or treated unfairly based on race. The stories reference exchanges with fellow classmates as well as interactions with faculty and staff. Some incidents appear rooted in ignorance, while others are more malicious.

Since the @BlackAtTaft account’s first post on June 13, it has accrued more than 2,300 followers and published 138 posts, almost all of which recount stories of racism and microaggressions. Some posts refer to events that happened as far back as the 1990s. But others are from current students sharing stories of something that happened to them this year.

One month in, as nationwide protests have dwindled, and some social media feeds have retreated from the topic of race, the @BlackAt accounts are still going strong, often publishing new posts every day or several times a day. So where does it go from here? How long will they keep posting? And will it lead to meaningful change?

EdSurge spoke with the administrators of three accounts—@BlackAtTaft, @BlackAtGroton and @BlackAtLoomis—to understand how they are sustaining momentum and what they hope the accounts will achieve.

None of the three private schools mentioned in this article made their staff available for an interview. However, all of them, Taft, Groton School and the Loomis Chaffee School, shared links to statements published on their school websites, which can be found here, here and here, respectively.

Creating a Space for Catharsis

Aigner Picou graduated from Loomis, a prestigious preparatory school in Windsor, Conn., in 2010. She works a full-time job and, frankly, hadn’t thought much about her high school experience in many years.

But in mid-June, after joining what she describes as a “frustrating” call between Black students and alumni and the Loomis administration that was intended to provide a space for alumni to share their experiences and ask questions, Picou decided to start the school’s @BlackAtLoomis account herself, on a whim.

The first of what is now 108 published posts on the account was about her own experience at Loomis. It reads: “My college counselor told me that every college on my list was a reach, including my state school, which had over a 50 percent acceptance rate. She had the school that I ended up attending listed as a ‘far, far, far reach.’ I was on high honors, had a job, lead a club, participated in other clubs on campus, played an instrument, did community service, studied abroad and took advanced classes.”

Picou says in an interview with EdSurge that she didn’t have any reason to think the counselor was treating her differently because of her race—until she talked to other Black students and white students and noticed a trend.

“I legitimately cried, the first college I got into, because even though I knew I was a good student, that narrative was internalized,” Picou says in an interview. “I ended up applying to 17 schools, because I was like, ‘Am I going to get into any schools?’”

She adds: “I was 17. I was still forming my identity. I was very impressionable. Even if you’re the most confident person in the world, you’re not going to totally dismiss that. She was trained to do this job, and this is what she’s telling you.”

Even though she started the account in a moment of frustration, Picou did not create it as a way to stick it to Loomis. She created it so Black students and alumni could see they were not alone, and share what they went through on campus, if they chose to.

“A lot of people suffer in silence; they haven’t shared their stories. Maybe they thought they would be ignored, thought they were the only ones, or thought the moment was too insignificant,” she says. “To me, it was like, ‘How can I hold space to tell the stories that people want told?’ I’ve had people reach out and say, ‘Thank you for posting this story. It’s literally not something I’ve ever said or told to anyone.’ I’ve also had a lot of white people say, ‘Wow, I had no idea this was happening on campus.’”

Since high school for Picou was over 10 years ago now, she feels like much of the experience and the memories have faded for her. Managing the @BlackAtLoomis account has brought up a lot of old recollections and feelings.

“The thing that struck me the most was that a lot of the stories that were coming in at first were from people younger than me,” she says. “You like to think things get better over time, but nothing has changed. It’s the exact same.”

The @BlackAtTaft administrators—two recent alumni, a male and female—decided to start the account after reading a June 1 statement from the Taft School that included the line, “Racism, in all its forms, runs completely counter to all we stand for and will never be tolerated at Taft.”

The alumni that started the account say they read that and were perplexed, thinking to themselves, “We’ve experienced countless acts of racism in our community. They’re just trying to cover it.”

“A lot of faculty members don’t know the trauma Black students go through during their time at Taft,” says the female account manager. Both alumni asked that their names be withheld to avoid becoming the faces of the account and to prevent the movement from focusing on individuals. “But they have to make some tangible changes. It’s not just kumbaya.”

Like Picou at Loomis, The Taft alumni wanted the account to be a “cathartic” way for Black students to share their stories.

“Some of these experiences are so, so crazy you think you’re the only one to go through it,” the female Taft administrator says. “Or you think it’s so, so small you think it’s not worth mentioning, but then you see it’s happening to someone else—they’re not isolated incidents. Whether it happened two years ago or 20 years ago, how you feel is valid because this was your home for four years.”

Her counterpart, the male alumnus, says that, often, incidents that happened two years ago and 20 years ago are nauseatingly similar.

“I feel like, when I look through the posts on each page, it’s almost like Mad Libs,” he says, referring to the fill-in-the-blank word game. “You have the same experience, in [the class of] 2004 and in 2021. It’s such a constant repeating cycle of issues that come up every single day.”

He adds: “It’s not an individual problem. If it happens year over year over year, it’s institutional.”

When Angela (whose name has been changed) and her friends from the Groton School in Groton, Mass., started to see the @BlackAt Instagram accounts for other prep schools pop up, they noticed all their peer schools had accounts but not their alma mater. They wondered if that was because, with a Black headmaster and a tuition program designed to foster equity and inclusion, there was a misconception that racism wasn’t an issue at Groton.

“We wanted people to realize during this national reckoning … that it isn’t just a problem ‘out there’ somewhere. It isn’t just extreme cases of police brutality. It’s in our communities, the close-knit spaces we occupy,” Angela says. So she and a few others decided they’d start the @BlackAtGroton account themselves.

She adds: “We wanted our students, alumni and faculty alike to be confronted with the racism that exists within the Groton community. And even we wanted non-Black students to see the incidents they maybe observed and didn’t say anything about or committed themselves, to see how racism permeates all of our lives.”

Effecting Change at Elite Private Schools

The account administrators at all three schools emphasized that their goal, first and foremost, was to give students a platform to speak out. But they do have other hopes for what will come of their efforts.

About a day after the two alumni started the @BlackAtTaft Instagram account, the Taft School’s official Instagram sent them a direct message on the social media platform saying they were listening (they later published a post on the official account with a similar message) and asking for the names of perpetrators described in the anonymous posts.

Since then, the account managers have sent a weekly spreadsheet of the names of faculty and staff involved in cases where the storytellers—the affected Black students—are comfortable providing names.

“They have been in communication with us,” the male account administrator said. “The question now is whether they follow through.”

Recently, 935 Taft alumni signed a letter addressed to the school leadership and the Board of Trustees that lays out a list of actions, from developing an anti-racist curriculum to committing to anti-racist spending and improving equity, inclusion and anti-racism among the administration.

The chair of the board responded on July 2 in a statement, saying that, “Beyond simply listening, which we need to continue to do, we must lean into the difficult conversations and we need to act.” He then describes the steps that are being taken to improve Taft’s anti-racism work, including professional development and training for faculty and for the board, the establishment of an anti-racism caucus for white faculty, the implementation of a new mechanism for reporting racist incidents on campus, the renaming of “headmaster” to “head of school” and the hiring of an additional counselor.

The female account manager for Taft, who says she devotes one to two hours every day to reading and posting stories on the Instagram account, says she will keep investing her time in this project as long as there are people who want to speak out.

“Were going to keep this going as long as we can, until we’ve posted every single story submitted to us,” she says.

Picou, who operates the @BlackAtLoomis account, would like to see the school invest real time and resources to understanding and addressing the extent of racism in its community. She recalls a task force that was created a few years ago to investigate incidents of sexual assault and abuse on campus, which resulted in public statements of the findings and, in her view, real change. A similar investigation—such as an external audit of racism on campus—would be welcome.

“If they decided to do something like that, it would definitely make me feel like it wasn’t just words on paper. They’d have the data,” Picou says. “I’d also love it if they acknowledged that black students have not felt safe on their campus, and take some ownership of that.”

So far, Loomis has acknowledged the Instagram account and responded with a statement, which makes several commitments around improving diversity and anti-racism on campus, including hiring more faculty of color and publishing an annual report on diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice at Loomis.

Before Angela and her friends started the @BlackAtGroton account, another group of alumni had already sent the administration a list of six demands, including donating to anti-racist groups, teaching an anti-racist curriculum and investigating the school’s racist history. The school responded to these demands—and acknowledged the existence of the Instagram account—in an email to the community on July 10.

“Despite all the efforts and results to date, the fact remains that racism and racist behavior exist on our campus,” the statement reads. “Having Black leadership, declaring inclusion as our top priority, and delivering on an ambitious program in no measure make our campus exempt from such behavior. Stories on the Black@Groton Instagram and the recollections that alumni have shared are a testament to that. The pain and anguish caused by the behaviors described are clear, and the behaviors are unacceptable.”

The school’s Board of Trustees did not go so far as to promise to meet each of the alumni’s six demands, and for two demands—donating to anti-racist organizations and involving alumni in anti-racist efforts globally—it left that responsibility up to the alumni to organize themselves.

As for the future of the account, because Groton is a small school, with just 380 students, submissions have already started to taper, and Angela and the other administrators have begun thinking about what’s next.

In the coming weeks, they intend to ask their followers and Black students and alumni of Groton where they’d like to see the account go from here. Angela says the content of the account may shift toward educational anti-racism resources, such as reading materials, suggestions for where to donate and other action items. They may also use it as a forum for highlighting Black alumni of Groton.

“We don’t want the school to see our demands and call for action and call for accountability as not being grateful for the efforts the school already makes in terms of diversity and inclusion,” Angela notes. “We want the school to take our pushes as constructive criticism rather than ungratefulness or bitterness. That’s our message to the school.”

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