By Aanika Veedon ’22
On May 31st, Miesha Agrippa, Chapin ’16, posted a letter to her Instagram account regarding Chapin’s nearly weeklong silence after the murder of George Floyd.
In the caption of her letter, she addressed all New York City prep school students and alumni: “Call on your institutions to do and be better. Call on your institutions to proudly stand for justice beside you and your historical and institutional brutality. Call on your institutions to exercise their position, their privilege, and their power on our behalf.” She began compiling Chapin alumnae and students’ stories of racism within the school into Instagram posts under the account name @m.t.m.a.b.l.m. Soon, classmates and alumni alike flooded the comments, condemning the horrors their peers experienced.
Alumni at schools such as The Brearley School and The Spence School created public Instagram accounts that shared Agrippa’s mission. @BlackatBrearley, which first posted on June 7th, wrote that it is “a platform for the Black girls who feel silenced and want to share the stories of Black life at Brearley, in hopes that these stories lead to institutional changes.”
Within a day, the account had amassed hundreds of followers and gained attention from nearby sister schools, who began similar accounts. Submissions to these accounts are open to current students, parents, faculty, and alumni. They provide a space for Black stories that have often been ignored.
One submission to @BlackatNightingale was written by the first Black student to ever attend the school. Other submissions to @BlackatBrearley include photos of the first Black students to lead the Upper School Athletics Association and pictures of Brearley's Black affinity group, Umoja. These accounts have united the BIPOC voices within predominantly white institutions and are an embodiment of racial change in education across the country.
It has never been a secret that racism thrives within the walls of New York City’s elite private schools. Eliza Shapiro of the New York Times wrote an article in mid-June regarding the accounts created by Black alumnae titled “Elite N.Y.C. Girls’ Schools Have a Racist Culture, Alumnae Say.” Shapiro wrote that the stories of racism faced by Black students were limited to “whisper networks among alumni.”
The truth of Shapiro’s words reaches far, as racism within New York City’s private schools has been rampant since their origins. And yet, the administrations and student bodies of elite private schools have never held themselves accountable.
I have heard firsthand the shock of my peers upon reading the stories of Black students across New York City. Most of them never knew of the institutionalized racism their Black classmates endure within their own schools. Their surprise speaks to the ignorance of many members of private schools who have turned a blind eye for decades.
These accounts have caused many students to realize they have been complicit in the mistreatment of their peers. As Shapiro wrote, the thousands of stories on social media have simply been “whispers.” Students have never been silent; it is the administration who suppresses their stories and fails to enact institutional change.
Often, when Black students speak to their school administrators, their stories are dismissed. The students and teachers who have participated and still participate in racist incidents continue their lives with little to no consequences.
A Black Brearley student approached the administration about an incident when a white student had called them a “monkey.” According to the victim, the administration did “nothing to educate the student,” and instead “reassured [the White student] that they would not be getting into any trouble.”
A student who submitted to @BlackatNightingale wrote that they were “coerced into silence” by a member of the faculty who “threatened that being too vocal was a direct way to getting less financial aid.” The student who submitted the post wrote that they “feared” that Nightingale would “strip [them] of [their] education” if they vocalized opinions the administration did not want to hear.
There is no acceptable excuse for teachers to cultivate overt racism within schools. Despite their racist remarks, several faculty members still work at many of their respective schools. @BlackatBrearley posted about one college counselor with a “demonstrated history of discouraging Black students from applying to competitive schools.” Alumnae filled the comments narrating similar experiences with that counselor. Chapin alumnae added similar stories about the same college counselor when she worked at their school.
Another @BlackatBrearley post highlighted one incident where a poster was hung up, prompting people to share something that mattered to them. When one student wrote “Black Lives Matter,” a teacher crossed it out to write over it, “All Lives Matter.” A @BlackatDalton story discussed that teachers have told white students in the reading of books such as Tom Sawyer, that if “[they] feel comfortable reading [the n-word] aloud, [to] go ahead.”
Racist ideals are embedded within the curricula of schools across America. One student wrote that “at Nightingale, the Black experience has been reduced to a single story in English class.” This sole narrative revolved around the idea of Black people being “victims of slavery or colonization.” One student at Hewitt recalled an instance where a girl used the n-word in front of an entire class, and “the teacher didn’t say anything about it.”
The number of submissions across Blackat accounts involving students being mixed up by members of the faculty is astronomical. @BlackatGrace details a time when two Black students, Malcolm and Chase, switched their classes one last period. The teacher looked each student in the eye to take attendance. Malcolm and Chase look nothing alike, and the teacher could not tell them apart. They were “able to sit in the wrong class for an entire period.” None of these is an isolated incident. As demonstrated by the thousands of stories from Black students across New York City, racism within private schools is normalized.
These stories also expose the lack of diversity within private schools. A Brearley student detailed that in their thirteen years at the school, they only had one Black teacher. A similar submission on @BlackatNightingale states that after nine years, a student “never had an African-American teacher.” Many of the few Black teachers at private institutions have left; one student who submitted to @BlackatBrearley asked a Black teacher who left after 1-2 years if it was because it was hard to be a Black teacher at Brearley. The student wrote that the teacher “gave her a sad but knowing glance.” The post also revealed that a group of white students consistently disrespected this teacher. Other students who wrote to @BlackatBrearley emphasized that most of the only Black faculty were not teachers but members of the facilities staff.
Not only do private schools lack diversity in their faculties, but also in their student bodies. One student who wrote to @BlackatTrinity expressed that they could “count the number of Blacks and Latinos and Asians on two hands.” Another former Nightingale student discussed the “seven girls of color” in her entire grade. A student who shared their story to @BlackatDalton wrote that his class “graduated fewer Black men (5) as had left or been asked to leave (6).”
Every member of the Interschool, a coalition of eight New York City private schools, is a predominantly white institution that preaches ideals of diversity and inclusion, yet this mission is reflected in neither the racial makeup of the student body nor the faculty.
Other accounts such as @Collegiate.Speaks.Out and @QueeratCollegiate highlight the experiences of “BIPOC, those in the queer community, and non-male identifying folk...who have been silenced and mistreated by Collegiate and its culture.” Though many of the stories on @Collegiate.Speaks.Out and @QueeratCollegiate have overlapping themes from those of other accounts, they also reveal underlying issues of misogyny, normalized rape culture, and homophobia within the Collegiate School.
Many students from sister and other schools detail their experiences of abuse by known predators within the Collegiate community. One Brearley alum wrote that their abuser “is still accepted in the larger community.” Other stories discuss the “normalized sexual violence at New York City private schools,” and that rape culture is embedded within Collegiate. One female faculty member wrote that a few years ago, she was assaulted by a high school freshman at Collegiate. When she brought the issue to the administration, they dismissed it and said that “it wasn’t as bad as it used to be.” The faculty member noted that the Collegiate student is now graduating as a result of “his parents [having] enough money to [sweep] it under the rug.” One comment on this post revealed another underlying issue, of “discipline based on a student’s wealth” being another problem in the school.
Other submissions to this account reveal that slogans such as “hippity hoppity, women are property,” are frequently said within the school’s halls. @QueeratCollegiate has even received submissions from middle schoolers; one said that they feel “nervous and scared” about coming out to their peers. Others relate similar stories of dealing with their sexualities; one alum expressed that the “sheer homophobia” made it “nearly impossible” for them to come out while they attended the school.
These stories are nothing new. In 2019, two videos of Ethical Culture Fieldston School and Poly Prep Country Day School students drew attention from the media. Last March, Fieldston students organized a lockout in response to a resurfaced video from a few years prior to Fieldston students using racist, homophobic, sexist language, and a racial slur. After three days of lockouts, overnights at school, and conversations with the administration, nearly all of the demands made by the Instagram account @StudentsofColorMatter were met. This incident followed a video that circulated around the Poly Prep community. The video showed two white girls in blackface swinging their arms and imitating apes.
Following the video of Poly Prep students, several private school students wrote open letters to their administrations. The Grace Church School was one of them. Recently, the @BlackatGrace Instagram account released a summarized version of the open letter written by students to the school. The demands ranged from “explicitly banning the use of hate speech in the handbook” to having students take required history and literature classes solely devoted to discussing marginalized groups.
@BlackatGrace wrote that though the meeting regarding their demands left students unsettled, there was “verbal confirmation from every faculty member” that there would be concrete change within the school. @BlackatGrace followed this post with a copy of the demands they had made; eight out of ten were not met.
In the past two weeks, administrations within the Interschool consortium have written many letters to parents and students. They promise change and create detailed anti-racist action plans, but it is vital that the steps private schools claim to take will actually become a reality. It is long overdue that we see such institutional change.