The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The often ugly reality black students face in our schools

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While protesters are taking to the streets of America to protest police brutality and racial injustice, black and other students and alumni of color are using social media to tell personal stories of racism that they encountered in school — public and private, K-12 and college.

The posts are mostly anonymous, often on pages that are specific to individual schools — such as the elite private schools Sidwell Friends in Washington, D.C., and Princeton Day School in New Jersey.

As reported by the New York Times, students are starting pages and inviting other students, alumni and even teachers to tell their stories. There are now scores of them, often beautifully composed text boxes that share stories of what it was and is to be black at those schools.

This post is from Alden S. Blodget, a white educator who spent decades working in private independent schools that claimed to have “diverse” and “inclusive” communities but didn’t. He said he tried to talk with black students to learn about their reality but didn’t get far. He writes:

They weren’t going to share painful experiences with some old white guy who ran a mostly white school, especially when those experiences criticized the school and belied our claims to having created a welcoming, diverse community. I was asking for their trust in a system that they didn’t experience as trustworthy …

Now, he writes, he sees promise in this new social media movement, writing, “Their collective voices challenge the empty rhetoric of our idealistic claims.”

Blodget was both a student of independent schools and a teacher of English and drama, as well as an administrator in five different schools in several states during his nearly four-decade academic career. He has published numerous pieces about education.

From 2000 until 2014, he worked with University of Southern California neuroscientist Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, offering workshops for teachers to explore the implications of her research and that of Harvard University’s Kurt W. Fischer.

By Alden S. Blodget

School people, especially boards and heads, are really good at spinning words into fluffy fantasies of utopian worlds where they have “created diverse, inclusive communities,” “protected and empowered the most vulnerable” and “cultivated environments to unlock the richness of diversity.” Lofty sentences appear in glossy catalogues and websites and swaddle prospective parents and students of color at open houses. School heads create a nice mission statement, appoint a diversity committee and hire an equity and inclusion coordinator. Problem solved. And as often happens, people start to mistake the hype for reality. Sweet land of liberty, of thee we sing. Unfortunately, real life tends to occur in the shadows.

When I was assistant head of school, I found the greatest challenge was penetrating the invisible world of youth. There is the world as adults want to imagine it, the world that conforms to the healthy, smiling images of our aspirations and mission statements and student handbooks. And there is the world of the young.

Students are masters of illusion, able to misdirect our attention to reinforce our beliefs. So, as a school administrator, I suspected that despite our complacent pride in our professed progress in creating a diverse, inclusive school, our students of color might not agree.

But I couldn’t find the truth. I met with black students, mostly one-on-one, and tried to get some insight into what their daily life was like, how they experienced the culture of the school. They were adept at remaining hidden.

Five years ago, Kip Bordelon published an article on the website of the National Association of Independent Schools titled, “What Happens to Empathy Deferred?” He wrote about the need for white people to see and understand the world from the perspective of a black person:

“ … the administration of each school must develop a realistic, accurate sense of the particular culture in which teachers and students of color live on their campuses. That is, schools must understand how these teachers and students experience life at their schools on a daily basis. Do they feel alone? Do they have a voice? Do they feel respected? ”

Recently, Mark Mitchell wrote a similar article, “Take a Selfie for Social Justice,” in which he suggests pretty much that same thing: adopting the “Mother Teresa Standard” that “we belong to each other” and recognizing the need for teachers and administrators to understand how students of color experience the culture of a school. “Who can’t breathe?” “Whose neck are you kneeling on?” He offers excellent suggestions for approaching and discussing challenging questions like these.

What I learned from my earlier experiences is that minority students didn't trust me. They weren't going to share painful experiences with some old white guy who ran a mostly white school, especially when those experiences criticized the school and belied our claims to having created a welcoming, diverse community. I was asking for their trust in a system that they didn't experience as trustworthy.

Gaining insight into the actual, lived experience of black students in our schools, getting at the truth, learning who can’t breathe requires a level of trust on the part of the powerless that simply has not been part of the culture. If the powerless can’t trust the powerful, they will not speak the truth. So I was not optimistic about Mitchell’s advice being any more productive than Bordelon’s.

Until the other day, when I discovered the “Black at” movement on Instagram, which finally offers students of color an anonymous community of voices free to share their experiences at various schools (such as Lawrenceville, Exeter, Andover, etc.). Their collective voices challenge the empty rhetoric of our idealistic claims:

“I was told by my dorm advisor … that my interracial relationship with a white male was an abomination and we both were forced to call our guardians in front of him to let them know what we were doing. Whenever he would see us together, he would make us separate. That teacher is still there.”
“MLK Day was my least favorite day of the year … We had no classes and instead took workshops on diversity. But this meant I had to hear racist comments all day long in the workshops and even during lunch break when I made the mistake of sitting with my dorm. Ex: Discussions about how affirmative action led to black students who didn’t belong [here] being admitted, [conversations] about the N word, ignorant opinions about what is wrong with the black community, interracial dating and gold digging, etc. I felt uncomfortable, singled out, and miserable …”
“A white classmate introduced me to a white male student who randomly asked me if I knew a certain black male student. … I said yes. He told me they had been assigned roommates as new [students] and he didn’t like it because he didn’t like waking up to see his bare black a** every morning, and he laughed. I did not. Then he told me someone left a note that said [the N word] on their door, and he laughed again. Later, I asked the black student if that was true about the note, and why I hadn’t heard about it. He just looked at me, like, ‘You know why. What’s the point?’”

The opportunity here is powerful. It is way past time for schools to stop the self-delusion and self-congratulations for rhetorical and symbolic solutions that have failed to address the experiences of students of color for decades. The voices on Instagram are not presenting a new reality.

Instagram has merely provided a platform for these students to speak about the indignity and pain they have always suffered and continue to suffer at their schools. The invisible has become visible.