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Subtleties of Racism: Instagram Reveals Gap Between White & Black Students at Groton School

With posts on Instagram, Black students at Groton School write about their experiences in a predominantly White and privileged environment.
by Robert Stewart
     It’s been nearly 60 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a stirring speech of racial justice and hope at Groton School – a speech, some say, laid the groundwork for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C. several months later.
     Six decades later, those words of social and racial justice have found new relevance and meaning among young Black students who attend some of the country’s most elite private schools including Groton.
     In response to the racially charged social unrest around the country, Black students in at least 10 elite private schools in New England have created online platforms that allow Black students at these institutions to write about their experiences with faculty and White students. In addition to Groton School, online platforms were also created at Tabor Academy, Phillips Andover, Middlesex, Noble and Greenough. The online sites were created by current and former students and the comments are thoroughly vetted before being posted.
     The comments received to date reveal a wide gap between White and Black students at Groton in terms of how Black students are perceived economically, intellectually and socially. While the comments are from the perspective of Black students, the hope of the creators is that White students would read them and reflect on the behavior and situations those comments represent. The creators of the online site expressed the desire to share experiences that would be instructive and not become a collection of angry rants. In its introduction to the site, the creators state, “It is important to note that the purpose of this account is to educate and inform...It is also important to acknowledge the opportunities that Groton (School) has afforded its students of color, and the creators of this account are grateful for the world-class education we received and Groton’s existing efforts to strive for diversity and inclusion.”
     The comments on the site vary widely on different situations but are generally focused on widely held perceptions of White students and some faculty about what Black students believe and how they behave. These situations involved in-class discussions, out-of-class interactions and social acceptance.
The comments reveal a significant lack of understanding by White students of Black students and in all likelihood show a tremendous lack of exposure by White students to Black students. Some comments detailing conversations between Black and White students indicate a level of understanding ripe with stereotypes that are reinforced by media (online and traditional), movies, familial relationships and close-knit groups of friends.
     A sampling of comments that show the stereotypical attitude displayed by some White students and non-White students towards black students:
     “Hearing some students refer to us as ‘Just one of those affirmative action cases’ or ‘new money trash'.”
     “I was asked if fried chicken and watermelon are my favorite food.”
     “A Black female speaker with some very strong political opinions came to campus to give a talk to the school community. I was extremely frustrated afterwards about how the only thing most of the White population of the school could talk about was how angry and aggressive she was. When my advisor in a group reminded people of the significance and harm of perpetuating the 'angry Black woman’ stereotype, they largely brushed it off and insisted on emphasizing how angry she was.”
     “A boy who was a double Harvard legacy called affirmative action 'discrimination' that gave students of color an 'unfair advantage'.” Sometimes I wonder if people ever recognize their privilege. If only he saw the generational wealth and opportunity that he’s been afforded, he wouldn’t be so quick to discredit the accomplishments of others.”
     “Being told that it was shocking that I’m so expressive and eloquent because I talk 'white' but I’m Black.”
     "A student once said that the only reason that I studied so hard was that Black people are inherently stupid.”
     “I distinctly remember my sophomore year we had a cultural alliance meeting discussing the Ferguson (Missouri) protests when a non-Black student of color said that Black people used to be 'respected' when they played jazz. But, now, because they ‘sag their pants’, police were killing us with impunity. He was completely serious. It was our fault. Not the fault of an oppressive and racist police state.”
     “At dances, people who didn’t normally associate with us would surround me and my Black friends and watch us dance. It felt dehumanizing in the sense that it felt like we were performing for them.”
     In addition to comments relating to how Black students should or should not behave, there were many comments about how appearances made a difference in the way Black students were accepted or not accepted by White students. Black female students with lighter skin were judged less severely than darker skinned girls. Black male students tended to be judged for their masculinity and mystique.
     Some comments that reflect these stereotypes are telling:
     “After getting with one Black guy, a White girl approached me and told me that she was ‘done with White guys’ and was looking for other Black guys to hook up with. She then went on a tangent about how cute she thought mixed babies were. I didn’t even know what to say.”
     “Because I was lighter skinned and had looser curls, I was considered more attractive in the hook up culture. When I did get with a White boy, I was shamed by Black guys saying I was a ‘traitor.’ You just can’t win.”
     “(It is disheartening to see) the blatant colorism and disrespect towards dark-skinned girls and the fetishism of Black boys.”
     Headmaster Temba Maqubela, who has been at Groton since 2013, said one of his main priorities in coming to Groton was to increase diversity and inclusion at the school. Maqubela, who is Black, said in general that students at Groton live, work and play together and form close interracial friendships. In commenting on the messages posted by current and former students, Maqubela stated, “I speak about inclusion regularly, and our diversity and inclusion programming raises awareness and invites discussion on these difficult topics. We recognize that our efforts do not address individuals’ past experiences. Racism is a global scourge; we are doing our best but it won’t be overcome overnight.”
     On a personal note, Maqubela strongly related his own experience and his lifelong commitment to end racism. He stated, “I am a Black man married to a Black woman, with whom I share five Black offspring. Some of us (in the family) have been direct targets over the years, and we have been actively fighting to end racism all our lives, and not just that initiated by the police. We believe in action, not rhetoric, and the Groton School, we know, is also about action.”
     The student moderators of the Instagram site had this to say about the comments and entries they have received thus far, “Groton is an institution that does make efforts to pursue diversity and inclusion. However, Black students experience both overt racism in some cases and frequent microaggressions from the non-Black segments of our community. Many Black students feel that their experiences show that there is a lot of work to be done before the way they are spoken to, the way they are perceived, and the life they have on campus can be said to be truly equitable to that of their non-Black counterparts.”
     Groton is an independent, private school with a total student population of approximately 380. Of that number, there are approximately 42 black students or roughly 11 percent of the student population. Under the leadership of Maqubela, the number of black students at Groton has nearly doubled in the seven years he has served as headmaster.
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