Racism is prevalent even in elite private schools - GulfToday

Racism is prevalent even in elite private schools

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Sikkiim Hamilton helped create an Instagram account, highlighting racism at North Hollywood's Oakwood School. TNS

Jill R. Shah

Black at Harvard-Westlake. Dear Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy. Black at Oakwood School. Oaks Christian Stories. Dear Polytechnic School. These are among the Instagram accounts linked to some of LA’s most elite private schools — but created by students and alumni who are going public with personal stories of racism that have otherwise gone unheard.

In an outpouring born of the national Black Lives Matter movement, these private school letter-writers talk of their encounters with bias, exclusion and microaggressions at schools where annual tuition can run as high as $40,000 (Dhs146,680), and class sizes can be as low as 15 students.

Their comments offer an unsparing counterpoint to the guarded reputations and carefully curated images of diversity and inclusion that independent schools display on websites and marketing brochures and have forced rare public apologies from top school leaders who pledge to make changes.

The Instagram posts, most of which are anonymous, are shared on accounts that can have thousands of followers — offshoots of similar social media campaigns among students and alumni nationwide who are calling out racial injustices on their campuses.


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“We are at a position where we don’t have anything to lose,” said DeShawn Samad, a 2011 alum of Flintridge-Sacred Heart Academy, an independent Catholic school in La Cañada-Flintridge. “They can’t silence us … because we’re no longer at those schools.”

The stories include a range of first-person experiences involving other students, faculty and parents. On @blackathw, linked to Harvard-Westlake in Los Angeles, one post describes the writer attending their first basketball game as a freshman: “I waited in line at Taper Gym, only to be accused of stealing my ticket by the athletic director.”

On @blackatcampbell, for Campbell Hall in Studio City, one writer notes, “I had a white teacher say that living in Hollywood was like living in the ghetto.”

Archer School, Brentwood School, the Buckley School, Campbell Hall, Mayfield Senior School, Marymount High School, Marlborough School, Oakwood School, and Westridge School are among the campuses where such Instagram accounts have emerged. Several were created in protest after the schools made public announcements in support of the Black Lives Matter movement — words that rang hollow for students who felt the institutions don’t do enough to address racism within their own walls.

Samad sees her involvement in the Flintridge Sacred Heart account as a duty to support current and future Black students. After the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, she participated in Black Lives Matter protests and took a hard look at the responses of institutions in her life. Following the protests, the first public statement from her high school called for prayers for racial reconciliation through a Facebook and Instagram photo, which she found lacking.

“You can’t pray away racism,” said Samad, an environmental engineer in Los Angeles. “You can’t solve racism with multi-ethnic heart hands.”

Some of the posts at various schools involve the use of the N-word by non-Black students or faculty. One post cited a group reading at Flintridge Sacred Heart Academy:

“Dear FSHA, the head of the English department shouldn’t be forcing students to read aloud the N-word.” An Instagram reply showed a response from a user who wrote: “The head of the English Department does nothing of the sort. I leave the verbalisation of that slur up to each individual reader, finding it presumptuous as a white person to edit the work of a black author by omission.”

In comments to The Times, officials from Archer, Brentwood, Campbell Hall, Mayfield and Marlborough did not dispute the stories — they expressed dismay about students’ experiences. Sister Carolyn McCormack, president of FSHA, said the school is listening and apologised on Instagram.

“We want to acknowledge to all of you that Flintridge Sacred Heart, as an institution, is not perfect; we have made mistakes and we ask your forgiveness,” she wrote. “Please know that we are committed to doing all we can to educate ourselves to become better agents of change.”

Throughout the accounts, students of colour repeatedly report being mistaken for other students or stereotyped based on their race: “Dear Mayfield, A coach said that we needed the Black girls on our team because they were good sprinters. We were all too afraid of him to say anything.”

Others describe being tokenised in the pursuit of marketing: “During my time at Brentwood, I was more of a prop than a student. To be seen and not heard.” In a post on @dear—marlborough, a writer said, “The parent community is racist, snobby, cliquey: the warm welcome is reserved for white people of wealth.”

Nick Richard-Craven graduated in June from Pasadena’s Polytechnic School, which he has attended since kindergarten and where he said he was frequently mistaken for the other three Black male students in his grade.

In a class this year, a teacher discussing racist themes in a novel compared racism to a “bad habit.” As one of two students of colour in the class, Richard-Craven felt pressure to speak up.

“I said that I disagreed with that comparison,” he said. “I’d say racism is much more than just a bad habit.”

Telling a person of authority that they are wrong was stressful and uncomfortable, he said. But in a recent English class, his teacher selected multiple novels by authors of colour, which “opened up the discussion for people who aren’t of colour to talk,” a positive example of what needs to happen across the curriculum, he said.

One creator of the @blackatoakwood account, Sikkiim Hamilton, wrote that during her sophomore year a white faculty member used the N-word multiple times while referring to explicit music another student was playing in class.

“I didn’t know what to do at all,” she said. “I just left the classroom and started crying.”

She reported the incident during her senior year but said she never received a satisfactory response. The head of school at Oakwood, Jaime Dominguez, said that the administration investigated and resolved the incidents, but actions were not clear to students due to privacy concerns.

“It’s obvious to me now that the mechanism we have didn’t provide a way for us to adequately get back to the student to create closure for them.”

Tribune News Service

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