Didi Elsyad closed the door to her bedroom, and the sound of her 10-year-old brother practicing violin shut off abruptly.
She crossed to her desk and the waiting laptop, its screen split between a gray panel and the face of her friend, Lisa Raj Singh. The panel, empty at the moment, would soon show a virtual School Board meeting slated to decide the future of admissions at their school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology — and whether more children resembling Didi, who is Black, would become part of the student body.
Didi was going to speak at that meeting. The killing of George Floyd, and the protests over racism that unfurled across the country over the summer, had forced her to reevaluate her three years at TJ, as it’s known in the Washington area. She had reexamined every harmful hallway comment, every time she felt singled out as one of her school’s only Black students.
She realized that the years at TJ — where the student body is 70 percent Asian, 20 percent White and less than 2 percent Black — had broken her confidence, converted self-love to self-loathing. And that drove a second realization: Didi never wanted another Black student to feel the way she had.
But could she achieve that, even by telling hundreds of strangers the very worst, most personal details of her time at the prestigious magnet school?
“TJ is segregation in its modern form,” she planned to tell the Fairfax County School Board that night, and she had come to believe it. She had found her voice, and the self-confidence she had lost, by arguing that change could not wait.
In this, she was like thousands of young Black Americans in mid-2020, who drew inspiration from the demonstrations after Floyd’s killing to begin pushing for reform at their places of learning, whether middle schools or college campuses, where they were all too often in the extreme minority. And members of the Fairfax County School Board, caught in a thorny debate over the racial makeup of the county’s highest-profile school, were like educators throughout the nation pressured to confront the ways systemic racism had seeped into and shaped almost every aspect of U.S. schools.
But for Didi, it was personal. At times, it felt like nothing less than her value as a human being was on the line.
TJ is a STEM-focused magnet school in Northern Virginia that often ranks as the No. 1 public high school in the nation. It has a national reputation for another reason, too: Like many American magnet schools, it has struggled to enroll Black and Hispanic children. Continuing a decades-long pattern, the freshman class of 486 includes fewer than 10 Black students.
This night the Fairfax County School Board would hear another plan to change that outcome, the eighth advanced in the last nine years. The push to diversify TJ’s student body, although stalled until recently, had gained renewed urgency and momentum over the summer in the wake of nationwide protests for racial justice. Alumni, parents and students had divided along battle lines, forming opposing action groups and arguing fiercely over how to change the admissions process, even as most seemed to agree the school needed to admit more Black and Hispanic students.
Then, in mid-September, the Fairfax superintendent supercharged the conflict by proposing that the school accept qualified eighth-graders through a lottery system.
Some, including Didi, saw this as the first hint of concrete progress in more than a decade. But others were bitterly opposed, warning a lottery would place unqualified teenagers in a too-rigorous academic environment and ultimately drive down TJ’s stellar rating.
Didi was one of 15 parents and students slated to argue for or against the lottery before the School Board. The 17-year-old pulled up a Google document and began reading through her speech. “Der-il-ection,” she said aloud.
“To pawn this on a committee would be a der-il-ection of your duty as a school board,” Didi said, jiggling one heel on the wheels of her desk chair. “Wait, is it pronounced der-il-ection? Or der-el-iction?”
Lisa, slogging through homework while she video-chatted with Didi for moral support, said she didn’t know. But she told her friend not to worry: Didi’s speech would be powerful no matter how she said the word. And besides, Lisa reminded her, Didi had been doing this — giving speeches like this — for months.
Lisa was right. Since June, Didi had been speaking out to share her experiences with racism: first in social media posts, then at socially distant rallies, then at School Board meetings. Late in the summer, she was invited to sit on an equity task force convened by the Virginia secretary of education.
It had taken her far beyond her comfort level. She had always been shy. And she had followed her father’s advice, turning away from racist insults and hoping the hate would eventually disappear, the haters would grow bored. But they never did, and now she was saying everything out loud — how classmates told her she would get into any college she applied to just because she is Black. How Asian American friends warned her not to come to their houses after school, because their parents distrust Black people. How other teens claimed TJ lacks Black students because they just aren’t talented enough. Or because they don’t care about school.
And the summer of activism had inspired a new worldview: That it was TJ, and not Didi, that needed to change.
She put her fingers over her ears and mouthed the words on the Google document one more time.
“You were elected to make the tough choices. Please do right by the students.”
She hoped the adults would listen.
The summer after her freshman year, Didi typed six words into Google: “how to naturally bleach your skin.”
She had known when she accepted a spot at TJ, after the rigorous, months-long application process, that she would be one of the only Black faces in the school. Still, she also knew TJ’s reputation: It could get her into an Ivy League, set her on the path to professional success.
Then came her first TJ “International Day,” a schoolwide event when students are meant to celebrate one another’s diversity. Didi came to class dressed in a toub, a long women’s tunic traditional in Sudan, her parents’ native country. She felt a little shy, but mostly excited: Here was a chance to show another side of herself. To tell classmates a bit about her culture, for a change. To repay her friends for introducing her to Lunar New Year, and to Korean foods such as kimchi and bibimbap.
Just before Health, her second class of the day, she was fishing inside her backpack for a notebook when a boy walked up and asked, “Hey, where are your tribal clothes? You know, the ones that Black people wear?” He grinned, turned and walked into the classroom. Didi, after a couple seconds, followed him silently.
Just a few weeks later, she stepped inside another classroom to say hi to a couple of friends. Three boys approached and gestured from Didi to a Black girl in the back of the room whom Didi didn’t know.
“You two look so alike,” said one, and pretty soon there were six boys, gawking and pointing and wondering loudly if Didi and the Black girl were related. Cheeks burning, unsure what to do, Didi fled the room.
So now here she was, having just finished her first year at the high school that was supposed to realize her career and college hopes. But she wasn’t celebrating her near-perfect grades, or reviewing her string of extracurricular achievements.
She was staring at advertisements for skin-lightening creams and powders, wondering which one would hurt least. She settled on a DIY “honey-lemon mask.” It would be so nice, she reminded herself as she mixed the ingredients and spread it on, to feel just a little less conspicuous walking between classes. To worry a little less that her friends’ parents might see her as a “bad influence.”
The mask felt gross. Within 24 hours, it raised horrible red hives. Didi, beginning to panic, asked her mother for help. Shaza Elsamani shook her head. She tried to stay calm for her 14-year-old daughter’s sake, but she was worried — more worried every day, as the hives lingered for a week, then two, then three.
The hives finally faded after 30 days, thankfully just in time for the first day of sophomore year, and Didi tried to put the episode from her mind. That was how she dealt with anything “uncomfortable,” the adjective she had begun employing to describe any comment that reminded her just how different she looked from most of her TJ classmates. Raising a fuss wasn’t worth it, Didi told herself all through that year and the next, because speaking up would just make people think she couldn’t take a joke. And it wasn’t a big deal — after all, this kind of thing only affected her. Well, her and a couple of other Black students. But that added up to a total of a dozen people, maybe?
And she always came to the same conclusion: It wouldn’t make any difference. No one, she thought, would take her seriously.
Then, in late June before her senior year, as unrest over Floyd’s death crescendoed nationwide, Didi decided to dig through some old folders in her bedroom. She lingered over pictures and assignments from lower and middle school. Some of them were boring, some of them made her smile — and then she found her honor roll card from eighth grade. Suddenly, she was sobbing.
The unbroken line of A’s had forced a realization: Receiving that card was the last time Didi felt proud of who she was. Of her whole self, every part and pigment.
Shortly after that, she agreed to speak to a reporter for TJ’s student newspaper, tjToday. “Being a minority here has really gotten to my head at times,” she said. Telling the truth felt intoxicating.
A few days later, she drafted a letter to TJ’s incoming Black freshmen. “Did I fit in here? No,” she wrote in what was eventually published as a tjToday op-ed. But “I belong, and you belong too. … I can’t change my past, but I promise I will change your future.”
By the end of the summer, Didi, wearing one of her nicest sweaters — black, with gold zippers — was logging into a Zoom meeting with TJ’s principal, the Fairfax superintendent, Virginia senators and top officials from the state’s Education Department. They had all been asked to sit on an equity task force. Didi was the only student on the call.
“Hi,” she told the adults, when her turn for introductions came. “I’m a senior at TJ. I’ve experienced a lot of covert and overt racism these past three years.”
It felt good — no, natural — to say it out loud.
It was late July. There were four of them, all current or former TJ students, sprawled in a circle in the basement of one of their houses amid stacks of pipe cleaners, bottles of Karo corn syrup and skeins of rainbow-colored thread. They had driven there, wearing masks, to package DIY science experiment kits for lower and middle school students. Working on behalf of a TJ club called “STEM-bassadors,” they would later deliver the packages to 550 households near Title I schools, part of an effort to boost interest in STEM fields among low-income and minority students during the pandemic.
Didi put down the blue sponge she was cutting into small, identical cubes.
“What are you going to major in?” she asked Adele Peng, 18, who had just graduated from TJ and was headed to Princeton.
“Neuroscience,” said Adele, who was sitting cross-legged on the floor as she decanted red beads into tiny plastic bags.
“Oh,” said Didi, fingering her Princeton lanyard — a memento from a summer camp — and wondering, for the thousandth time, if she would get into an Ivy League school. “I was thinking about that, too.”
Silence held for a few minutes, unbroken except for the snick of Didi’s scissors and the rattle of Adele’s beads. Then someone asked how many Black students had been accepted to TJ’s Class of 2024. Citing privacy concerns, Fairfax County Public Schools officials were refusing to say anything except that the number was less than 10. Still, everyone had theories.
“It was zero, right?” Adele asked.
“No, that was a rumor,” Didi said. “But zero or three, what’s the difference?”
She didn’t look at anyone, and nobody looked at her. She was suddenly conscious that she was the only Black person in the room. Adele had apparently remembered, too, because — a few minutes later — she looked up at Didi and asked if she could be completely honest.
“I feel like, you know, as Black people you have this unified community,” Adele said. “But there’s no sort of Chinese community, because we’re all so busy stepping on each other to get ahead.”
“I will say, to clarify, I’m from Sudan,” Didi replied immediately, almost reflexively. She was tired of people assuming her parents and grandparents and great-grandparents grew up in the United States, that her personal history must include a brush with American slavery. Nobody bothered to understand where she actually came from.
And, she told Adele, she had never found anything close to a “Black community” at TJ.
She talked about what it was like to be one of six Black kids in the grade, how she spent her free periods memorizing Korean words so she could understand her friends’ conversations.
If you’re Asian at TJ, Didi said, “you walk in and people just assume you’re smart. I’m constantly having to prove, over and over again, that I’m more than just a certain hair type — or I’m not just a rude girl that listens to rap.”
Adele laughed, surprised. She said she felt the same pressure in reverse: Because everyone assumed she was supersmart, school had always felt like a minefield. If she put one foot wrong — made one stupid mistake — people would think she wasn’t really Asian, that she didn’t really belong at TJ.
“So it’s possible that,” Adele said, “your experience wasn’t all that different from that of your typical Asian kid, quote unquote?”
Didi was silent a few seconds.
“Yeah,” she said. “Maybe.”
Didi got tired, sometimes, of serving as some sort of race ambassador, the poster Black child at TJ. She reminded herself she had chosen the attention, chosen the activism. But it was still exhausting to field the online comments, whether on Facebook or an anonymous forum called “TJ Vents.” Comments like:
“It’s evident that Asians clearly value education very highly, while on the other hand, Blacks and Hispanics value other things like music and sports.”
“Blacks just don’t want to go to TJ or don’t want to put in the effort to prepare to go to TJ.”
It was also hard to watch videos of parents screaming at socially distant rallies held to protest TJ admissions reform. In late September, two TJ parents would write a lengthy anti-reform article in the online magazine Quillette that disparaged Didi’s experience without using her name.
The article referenced a speech given by a Fairfax County School Board member at a virtual meeting.
The member “raised the anecdote — which gets trotted out repeatedly at these events — of a black TJ student who reportedly said she’d wanted to ‘bleach her skin’ to fit in as a student,” the article read. “The board member was apparently unaware that products such as “Fair and Lovely” have long been marketed to youth from India … One hardly needs to attend TJ to internalize such ideas.”
The authors of that article were both scheduled to speak at the school board meeting. Didi grimaced slightly as their faces popped into view, but she paid polite attention. After more than an hour, it was almost her turn: Just two people left. Didi peered into a mirror.
“I look like an egg,” she said, and began unbraiding her hair.
A few minutes later, the agenda reached the 15th and final speaker: Dinan Elsyad (her given name, although everyone calls her Didi). Hair coiled in two high, neat buns, she cleared her throat, turned on her computer camera and launched into her last, best argument for the lottery.
“I may be the only Black student speaker tonight, but I am not just speaking for myself,” she said. “I am speaking for the silenced majority whose talents for decades have been overlooked.”
She kept her voice steady for most of her three-minute time slot, all through a carefully researched argument that a lottery was the only way to eliminate bias in the admissions process — the only way to make sure future Black and Hispanic students did not suffer what she experienced.
Her voice quivered only once, when she reached a string of rhetorical questions.
“Do you really need me to sit here and prove to you that … students who look like me will not dumb down TJ?” Didi said, staring at school board members’ pixelated faces. “Do we not have enough talent to belong there?”
She began bouncing her right leg up and down furiously beneath the desk, willing herself to stay calm. “Are we not,” she asked, “worth fighting for?”
As she settled back in her chair, speech over, Facebook messages began flooding in. “you killed it,” someone wrote. Another friend messaged, “you were incredible.” Still another: “thank you for speaking up and saying what was on my heart and mind.”
But Didi was watching the School Board. And, as the heated discussion stretched past 10 p.m., when the meeting was supposed to end, the truth became unavoidable: The board was not going to adopt the lottery. They did agree to eliminate the TJ test, and an associated $100 application fee, but they were unwilling to go any further. Close to midnight, the board formally asked Fairfax Superintendent Scott Brabrand to come up with a new and different proposal for reforming TJ’s admissions.
For several minutes afterward, Didi sat silent in her bedroom. Lisa had logged off. Her brother had long ago put away the violin and gone to bed. Downstairs at the dining room table, her father tapped into his laptop, oblivious.
“I’ve been speaking my heart and soul for the past four months,” she said, to people who couldn’t possibly hear her. “Did none of that get to you?”
It was late. Didi thought about the research paper she still had to finish. About the college application essays due in less than a month. She told herself it wasn’t the end of the fight.
She told herself she’d wake up tomorrow morning feeling better.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said that an article in Quillette attacked Didi specifically. The article disparaged Didi’s experience without using her name. The story has been revised accordingly.