Across Atlanta private schools, black students and grads share their pain

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Westminster, Paideia, Lovett, Woodward, Galloway and St. Pius students join social media movement to tell their stories

Across Atlanta private schools, students, current and past, are sharing their experiences as minorities in elite education settings. They are pulling back the curtain on the everyday racism they faced that was often explained away as being a joke or unintentional.

Their alarming, heartbreaking and painfully similar accounts show this barrage of slights, insults and stereotypes is more like a punch to the gut than an elbow to the rib.

The students and alumni come from a range of private schools, including those that emphasize diversity and inclusion or are founded on Christian values. They are organizing Instagram pages — such as Black at Paideia, Black at Galloway, Black at Eagles Landing Christian Academy, Black at Marist, Black at Westminster, Black at Pius, Black at Pace — and anonymously sharing their experiences.

A Paideia student wrote: “The first time I ever found peace at Paideia was when I accepted the fact that I am never going to fully belong here. Trying to friend the white majority just feels like a losing battle. Out of all the black girls I’ve gotten to know in the past three years, I don’t know a single one who has ever felt included/wanted here. Not one.”

These public testimonials are occurring nationwide. The personal anecdotes often describe offhand and callous remarks. A Woodward Academy student shared: “Once I wore long cornrows to school and one of my white friends told me I looked like I escaped from prison. I never wore cornrows again.”

Yes, there are racial slurs, but there are snipes, too, about the value of a Black History Month or students of color getting into Ivy League schools only because of race.

There are also many troubling anecdotes about school staff confusing Black students with one another, even when there were only two or three African Americans in the class, or teachers suggesting they cheated when they did well. Many students talked about how easily and often teachers fell back on stereotypes.

A former Atlanta International School student described asking another student of color a question during class about the lesson and the teacher reprimanding them with, “Stop talking about Beyoncé.”

Many school leaders have already responded to their communities, with both statements and virtual town halls. “First, I am sorry. I am sorry for the racist conduct that our students and alums of color have endured in our school that I lead. The buck stops on my desk and I take ultimate responsibility for failing to create a school community which fully lives up to the words of our mission. My words of apology feel like very little against the pain of the words shared on Black@AIS,” said Atlanta International School headmaster Kevin Glass in a statement.

“This is a national conversation regarding systemic racism, and being that schools of all kinds are important institutions in our culture, it makes sense for this conversation to move into our halls. We held two virtual community-wide discussions on June 9 and 11, for which we had nearly 700 registrants, parents, faculty, alumni, so we’ve already started the conversation about how to make meaningful change,” said Lovett head of school Meredyth Cole via email Monday.

In its statement, Providence Christian Academy said, “We have read every comment as well as fielded phone calls and emails. It’s clear that we have fallen short in making Providence a safe and welcoming place for all of our students.”

“The takeaway from all of this for the heads of schools reading these posts is that we still have considerable work to do just from the education standpoint and it has to be repeatedly, not an hourlong conversation you have in orientation the first week of school,” said F. Stuart Gulley, president of Woodward Academy, where, despite an enrollment of 52% of students of color, there is still a dispiriting Black at Woodward page. “It has to be an ongoing conversation where we talk about the norms and value of respect, care and concern for folks regardless of background.”

Gulley has already assured students, faculty and staff that he has heard what they are saying and outlined a series of initial steps to allow students of color to share their experiences, if they are willing. He told his staff in a meeting last week that schools must realize they are reopening amid two pandemics, the coronavirus and racism.

Neither has easy solutions.

In a telephone interview, Gulley said the current exposure of racism by their students compels educators to “examine everything we do through the lens of the experiences of those who are not white, to be certain that we are mindful of their experiences of the matter.”

The Black at Paideia page contains a simple entreaty that several school leaders agreed is a critical first step for them: Just listen.

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-The first time I ever found peace at Paideia was when I accepted the fact that I am never going to fully belong here. Trying to friend the white majority just feels like a losing battle. Out of all the black girls I've gotten to know in the past three years, I don't know a single one who has ever felt included/wanted here. Not one.

-I emailed a teacher with a question. Although he was able to respond back to me at the right address, in the email itself, he called me the name of one of the other two black girls in our class. This was especially frustrating because our school emails contain our first and last names.

The daily digs from classmates often focus on appearance. A Westminster Schools student wrote: “I once heard a girl say another girl was ‘pretty, at least for a black girl.’”

An Atlanta International School student wrote, “As someone with an Afro, I am numb to the countless times unprovoked hands have reached for my hair, not to mention inappropriate comments about it like: ‘Can You Wash it?’ ‘That has to be a wig.’ ‘Can I cut some off?’ Or, ‘Can I touch it?’ As if this is a petting zoo.”

Many alumni who attended these schools when Barack Obama was elected related the anger directed at them when he won the presidency.

An alum of the Marist School wrote, “When President Obama was elected, people came by my locker and put a sign on it that said, ‘Hope you’re happy’ with a lynched black person drawn on it. Throughout the day, white students kept saying that and yelling about affirmative action and many other racist things. It was one of the toughest days of my life.”

A white Providence Christian student recounted what happened to Black peers when Obama won: “One instance I remember was the day after Obama was elected, when the only two black girls in my class were basically told to shut up and stop being so happy because, and I quote, ‘This is a horrible day for our country.’ And this was not a student saying this, y’all. This was a teacher.”

A student new to Lovett recalled being invited to a birthday party over lunch. “When formal invitations were being sent out later that week, I did not receive one. Instead, I received a screen shot of a group chat where the kid said, ‘My father said no black kids allowed.’”

Cole, Lovett’s head of school, said, “We’ve held multiple virtual meetings and phone conversations with many students and young alums in the past few weeks to hear their stories but also to talk about how to move forward in ways that make sure everyone feels a sense of belonging at Lovett.”

These are other posts from Black at Lovett page:

-When our football team was scheduled to play Grady High School, my classmates would joke about "getting shot there after the game." My cousins went to Grady and my aunt was a teacher there.

-I busted my ass in high school and got into many top colleges. Comments made by my classmates that I only got in because I was black stayed with me for years.

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The students and grads of the Westminster Schools who created blackatwestminster explain it as: "A safe space for black students and alums to share their stories. This account is student run and not directly affiliated with The Westminster Schools."

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The Black at Galloway page on Instagram explains: "This is a safe and open page for Black students and Alum to share their experiences at the Galloway School. We are reclaiming our voices together."

Among the posts:

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-I told my friend I planned on going on one of the overseas trips for Excursion. She asked, "Are you sure you'll be able to afford that?

-This white girl touched my hair (without my permission) and said it felt gross.

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Among the posts at the Black at Pius page from students and grads at St. Pius X Catholic High School:

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In some instances, grads have acknowledged seeing themselves and their actions with new awareness.

For example, in response to the post about the St. Pius band, former students who were in the band at the time have responded, including this comment:

I am sincerely sorry that the actions of the band during that performance hurt you and others. As a band member in that show, my (and many of my colleagues') intentions were not to demean any human or group of humans but to produce a pump-up vibe in the spirit of inclusion and respect for hip-hop music, and to support the Pius and other school's football teams. At the time, I did not see this as a hurtful act. I am learning, though. Thank you.

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