In the wake of George Floyd's killing last year, the racial reckoning of the "Black at" movement spread across Instagram. Black alumni and current students of independent, private schools stretching across the country — including The Lovett School, Sidwell Friends, Dalton School, Brearley, Chapin, Spence School, and more — shared their painful stories, detailing their racialized traumatic experiences as students, which for many began in elementary school on their predominantly white campuses.
With over 250 accounts representing schools from over 27 states, the "Black at" movement will be cemented as a seminal moment at the intersection of education, social media, and racial injustice, bringing attention to the systemic, institutionalized anti-Black racism as the foundation on which these schools were built.
"The number of stories that came out shook the notion that Black students were being supported by the school."
"I started my school's 'Black at' page because I wanted to build momentum and solidarity so that people would have the courage to speak their truths and to no longer be silenced," said Dana Nichols, who graduated from an independent school in Sherman Oaks, CA. "I felt like the school wasn't going to take Black people seriously until it was out in the open for everyone to see how they treat us. I don't think the head of school and board fully understood the gravity of the situation until we showed them. The number of stories that came out shook the notion that Black students were being supported by the school. Everything is about optics for these institutions, to make sure the people with money are pleased — but something like a social media movement made it so they couldn't control the narrative. Finally, there was something for us, by us. It motivated change — asking nicely and waiting for the institution to do something didn't work."
To examine this fractured private school system, we must begin with the history of American education, where even a cursory review reveals the Black community's exclusion from these independent schools. It traces back to plantations during enslavement, when enslaved people were forbidden from being educated, and only white children were allowed to attend school. The practice of discrimination continued in American schooling through Jim Crow laws, racial covenants, and segregation that "ended" in 1954 with the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board. Acts of defiance against desegregation began to bubble up across the country, resulting in public school closures, white flight, redlining, and simultaneously the establishment of the largest number of private schools within the United States, expanding segregation within schools.
Over time, some private schools began to desegregate and began to admit Black students. However, the institutions never contended with their racist past which, by design, devalued and disrespected Black students. Now, these systems continue to inflict and perpetuate racial trauma and violence on to Black students to this day. Within the life of school, this trauma runs the gamut, including regular use of the N-word without consequence by white students, a complete omission or a mere footnote on the contributions and history of Black people within the curriculum, a disproportionate rendering of discipline for Black students, including suspension and expulsions, and a dismal representation of Black teachers and students. In some cases, Black students are the only or one of a few in their class.
"Independent schools are a particular breed of cruelty because so much of being treated well is contingent on how well you can blend into elite white culture, which is already a hostile environment," Nichols told POPSUGAR. "Racial trauma for Black students is hard to talk about because it's so normalized to treat Black children poorly. The expectations are typically set so low for us, from teachers and peers, and as a young person it becomes very easy to internalize how they see you. Our experiences weren't isolated experiences that had no racial relevance as we'd been gaslit into thinking. These traumas were no longer something to suffer in silence, alone."
"It's taking back your power to be able to own your story, and to be brave enough to disrupt the status quo."
In these kinds of spaces, Black students carry the burden of representation, in which their every move is under a microscope, while white students are allowed to be kids and make mistakes as a part of growing pains. But the adultification of Black students is palpable, and within the institution, there is no margin for error. This undue pressure is a function of the racial trauma experienced by Black students, where their Blackness (how they wear their hair, having darker skin, or even speaking out against the racism they experience) is subject to being penalized. This creates a hostile environment in which Black students are silenced. As the national conversation on race heightened, some schools released statements of solidarity in support of their Black alumni and students. However, this was seen as performative and counter to the reality of what Black students experienced during their time at these institutions.
The "Black at" movement exposed the racism happening within these private schools, specifically opening the eyes of many white parents who weren't aware of how deep the racism ran within an institution with a $40,000-plus price tag. "It's taking back your power to be able to own your story, and to be brave enough to disrupt the status quo," Nichols said.
Real, sustainable change has the chance of happening when white parents, who are in the majority at these schools, demand that the work of racial justice and anti-racism be at the forefront of a private, elite school education. White parents can advocate for change by holding the school accountable to diversify curriculum and book selections to include voices that decenter whiteness and amplify Black narratives; they can advocate to increase the recruitment and retention of Black faculty and students; and overall, they can work to dismantle institutional practices that are inherently anti-Black, such as a discipline system where Black students are disproportionately impacted. White parents with young children can begin this work now to change the future trajectory of private schools.
The path forward to true healing and justice will begin when diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are no longer buzz words in a school's mission statement. It will begin when Black students are no longer treated as charity, tokenized in the school's marketing materials. And it will ultimately begin when a school's success is measured by how they affirm and uplift Black students, Black identity, and Black history.
The path forward to true healing and justice will begin when diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice are no longer buzz words in a school's mission statement.
"Most institutions do nothing to meaningfully participate in healing and justice because so many people derive their sense of being from reinforcing white supremacist systems," Nichols said. "In order for them to repair the harm they created, schools would have to purge those harmful systems and the people who inflict the harm. Most school leadership is not equipped to do that, and that was very disappointing. One of the healing aspects of demanding justice was that the leadership we envisioned coming from the school, we found in ourselves. Black women came together to lead the 'Black at' movement, demanding accountability from these institutions in the hopes that their efforts will bring a more affirming and uplifting experience for the next generation of Black students that will come after them."
Almost nine months have passed since the first "Black at" page emerged on Instagram, and many schools have yet to fully reckon with their past, only producing shiny PDFs that are more of the same performative gestures of "progress," instead of reckoning with the necessary eradication of institutional systems, policies, and practices that are ingrained, and therefore require the disruption of the power-hoarding that enables the status quo to prevail.
The "Black at" movement is a living document representing the deep pain that Black students endured, where their souls were broken within an institution that was responsible for their care. Schools have now received the data and have read these painful stories. The question remains — how many more children need to be racially traumatized before schools act? Too much time has already passed.