Unheard and Unseen: Black students take to Instagram to voice experiences at PWIs

Black students across the country want to let you know, once more, that they want change.

They’re fed up with being mistaken for other Black students. They’re fed up with their academic abilities being underestimated because of their background. And they’re especially fed up with the administrations that, they feel, have not taken on these issues proactively.

Seeing most other options as inefficient, Black students have taken their frustrations to Instagram, creating “Black At” pages for students, parents, and faculty to anonymously submit stories and experiences they faced at their respective schools.

Unheard and Unseen: The Students

At Deerfield Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Massachusetts, Jada Howard and Chenelle Jones, along with four other alums and several current students, created “Black @ Deerfield.”

Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, MA / Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The page aims to take “an honest look at the reality of black students at Deerfield” and provide “a safe space for the students the academy has failed to protect.”

“We agree that we had dozens of positive experiences from which we have made memories and friendships to last a lifetime.” they said.

“But amidst the positive experiences, we still faced our share of micro-aggressions and stereotypes…Deerfield has always pushed the perspective that their main focus was ‘inclusion’ but as time progressed, their model of inclusion came from a ‘color blind’ perspective.”

Students from other high schools, universities, and even law schools, have echoed this sentiment regarding administrations that, they feel, lack urgency in enacting efficient change.

At the University of Southern California, the creator of “Black at USC” feels as though every time students present changes to be made, they are ridiculed for “making everything about race.” She also believes the university’s curriculum is Eurocentric and that the school addresses this and issues like it, but falls short of actually making changes.

In Cambridge, Mass., Black students at Harvard Law School also feel as though they are tokenized by their White peers and systemically left out of the curriculum.

Harvard University in Cambridge, MA / Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

“The law itself is anti-Black, and the typical school curriculum purports to be ‘colorblind.’ So in property, we learn about wills and arcane property laws, but we don’t learn about redlining or slaveholding,” said the creators of “Black at Harvard Law.”

“There’s also a sentiment among certain white students that we got in because of affirmative action, and that we don’t deserve to be there.”

However, at Vermont’s Middlebury College, while the organizers of “Dear Midd” felt similarly about being singled out and underrepresented, they noted that their school’s small Black community is very close, easing some of the stress of being Black at the reputable college.

Often times, Black students who feel unseen or left out at PWIs find comfort and understanding in multicultural or Black-centric organizations.

Fatoumata Soumare, a recent graduate of the Thacher School, is one of those students who found solace in her school’s Black Student Union, a place where her blackness was validated and her qualities were not ridiculed, as she felt they were in other areas of the school’s community.

She created “BIPOC at Thacher” with hopes that the California boarding school would finally come to terms with past incidents and not “sweep this under the rug.” While Soumare noted that changes were being made at Thacher, she was disappointed that it took a wave of recent events and community pushback for the school to act.

Unseen and Unheard: The Faculty

Black students at a PWI may feel alone, but Black faculty members at PWIs across the country want to let them know that they are not.

“Inspired by the students at so many schools around the country, we wanted to make a space to share stories about what it is like to be a black teacher in a predominantly white institution” said the founders of “Teaching While Black at a PWI”, a faculty version of the mostly student-centered “Black At” pages.

From being asked how many kids they have and if the father’s around to parents being surprised to see actual degrees after assuming they were unqualified, the page is filled with incidents that Black educators face at work.

“We care about the kids, and they notice when the micro (and macro) aggressions happen to us too,” they said.

Zuri Washington, a 2009 graduate of the exclusive Dalton School in New York, spoke on this subject in our interview, noting how she’d heard stories of wealthy white families receiving special treatment and how that affected students and faculty of color.

The Dalton School in New York, NY / Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

She felt like both students and faculty of color at Dalton were left out to dry when parent or alumni money entered the conversation. Many, she said, were driven away from the school because of it.

“They’d rather remove themselves than submit to that kind of treatment.”

This situation is not unique to the school, which consistently ranks among the top private schools in the country. Nonetheless, Dalton, as well as several other elite institutions, have expressed interest in being more inclusive and welcoming to people of all backgrounds.

Despite this, many students believe their administrations are talking the talk, but they, the students, are having to walk the walk for their schools.

Doing ‘Their’ Job

Many Black students feel as though the weight of implementing anti-racism work at PWIs has fallen on their shoulders, forcing them to simultaneously deal with and combat racism, all while keeping up with their work.

At the Williston Northampton School, a prestigious boarding school in western Massachusetts, the alum who runs “Black at Williston” felt like she was working an “unpaid internship at a high-tasking firm.”

She added that Black students and faculty were essentially responsible for doing the work that, she felt, administrators should‘ve been proactive about.

Black students at other institutions made similar statements.

Williston Northampton School in Easthampton, MA / Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

At New York’s Trinity School, the creator of “Black At Trinity” pointed out how “It suddenly becomes your job to explain why certain things are offensive” but as a result, Black students are deemed “sensitive” when trying holding their peers or higher-ups accountable.

Black student organizers at the Dalton School feel the same way, “merely giving voice to decades of trauma and giving it an outlet” via their page “Black at Dalton”.

However, those students, fed up with carrying the weight of being proactive to a seemingly reactive administration, believe “It is up to Dalton to make the change.”

Seeing error and seeking change

While unique to each institution, the “Black At” pages expose the systemic micro- and macro-aggressions that affect Black students at PWIs. Their founders want action from their institutions, something they feel is long overdue.

The founders of “Black at Andover,” detailing life for Black students at one of the nation’s top schools, hope Phillips Academy Andover acknowledges the racism that occurs on its campus as well, expressing in our interview that they hadn’t been taken seriously before, but they are hopeful for change.

University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, MI / Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In Ann Arbor, the creator of “Black at Michigan” made similar points about the University of Michigan, saying the administration should “lead the university by being proactive in listening to students,” especially after years of repeated calls and demands for change.

Yet, beyond the traumatic submissions and calls for change, the existence of the “Black At” pages is uplifting to many Black students who felt as though their experiences were invalid or unique to them. For non-Black students, the pages also expose them to a hidden reality they may have been unaware or ignorant to.

“We’ve had many students, past and present, send us DMs, thanking us for creating the page and for opening their eyes to the racial issues that happen behind closed doors…The positive feedback has definitely kept us going” said the organizers at Williston.

Fiona Bundy, a recent graduate of Williston, realized that she should’ve been more aware of the school’s racist culture.

“As a white successful student athlete at Williston I felt safe and I refused to leave that comfort zone that Williston provided me, which led me to be complicit in instances when I should have spoken up” she said.

“This page [Black At Williston] allows me to face the consequences of my silence while challenging me to constantly grow and be better.”

Whether they’re student, faculty, or parent-focused, all of the pages aim to bring Black experiences at PWIs to light and encourage their peers (and administrations) to actively be anti-racist in their words and actions. In the same vein, they are dedicated to making their school’s better places for future students to come.

“A lot of these stories involve statements like ‘and no one said anything’ or ‘I wish I had spoken up’ and ‘I felt so alone’” the organizers of “Dear Midd” said.

“Hopefully, our community members hear this and are more vocal in the face of these aggressions, whether it involves them or a neighbor.”

The views and opinions of interviewed subjects do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of the author. All Instagram accounts mentioned are NOT affiliated with their respective institutions and are independent entities.

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syracuse student interested in u.s. politics and foreign affairs

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