A look at the past: Alumnae experiences with racial inclusivity

by Lily Bertles' 22

Over the summer two instagram accounts, @blackatsssas and @black_atsssas, shared the experiences of BIPOC students, faculty, parents, and alumni at SSSAS through anonymous forums. These accounts have led to a lot of discussions around race and inclusivity in our community. How can the administration make every member of the school community feel safe and included? 


Systemic racism is not new to our school as proven by the many experiences shared by alumni on the instagram accounts. These accounts shocked a lot of people who weren’t aware of the unchecked racism at our school. The only instances of racism that seem to be talked about are the explicit ones. For example, last year a student said the n word in class and was asked to leave the school. The Instagram accounts exposed the type of racism that is often ignored by administration and school community as a whole. One post on the instagram account reserved for black students’ experiences (black_atsssas), tells how some students laughed during a speech a teacher gave about the racism that she experienced as a child. Another post accuses the administration of ignoring a student who was openly a Nazi sympathizer. 


When asked if she felt included as a student,Yumi Belanga, who graduated from SSSAS in 1996, said  “No, not really, especially if we are talking about student life as a whole at SSSAS during my time there.” However she did feel included in her close group of friends. “My group was not the super athletic, or the super wealthy, or the super popular. We were a group of girls that navigated the already challenging teen years amongst glares, insensitive comments and intimidation. Because we were colored. It wasn’t like this all the time, but there are times I can still recall feeling shamed, sad or ignored,” she said. 


Rhiannon Walker, an alumnae who graduated in 2011, described some of her experiences with inequality at SSSAS. Similar to Yumi and the alums who submitted stories to the @black_atsssas instagram account, most of the driscrimonation she faced was due to bias and prejudice. According to the Cambridge  dictionary, bias is “the action of supporting or opposing a particular person or thing in an unfair way, because of allowing personal opinions to influence your judgment.”  


While looking back on her high school years, Rhiannon mentioned that some of her non-black peers said the n-word and the confederate flag was a “big deal” to some students. This goes to show how little things have changed since Rhiannon’s time as a student. According to her, “it sucked hearing people say it (the n-word) because... if I called out the students who said it  they wouldn’t have gotten into as much trouble as they needed to get into, quite frankly, and that was a really frustrating reality.” She also said that people who say the n-word and are non-black are “either willfully ignorant or they’re being intellectually dishonest.” On the popularity of the confederate flag, she expressed how she didn’t understand why it was such a big deal, especially since the Confederacy lost. “I’ve never seen a group of people so interested in the losing side in my life before… and people talk about heritage and I’m like, of losing?”  


Rhiannon shared a story of a time when disciplinary action was unfair. There were a group of white girls known as the “fab five” in the grade below her who used to follow teachers and students around and record them while making commentary about them, then they would post the videos on social media. They also didn’t hide people’s faces or names. When the school found out there were barely any repercussions. A few weeks before this instance, a black student posted a video of herself talking. In the video she alluded to people, but never gave away their identities. When the school found the video, the girl was expelled. 


An @black_atsssas instagram post from a 2011 graduate, shared a similar occurrence. “I clearly recall a pattern of expelling black students for infractions of the honor code,” the post reads, “while white students’ similar infractions were ignored or handled with a slap on the wrist. I specifically recall black students being expelled for (1) being accused of stealing a few dollars from a backpack, (2) posting a video online, (3) coming to school high, and (4) minor plagiarism/homework copying offenses. White students were constantly drunk and high on school property (especially at school dances) and the school went to impressive lengths not to impose any consequences. Not to mention the constant homework copying by white students. The students knew what was happening and darkly referred to the annual expulsions of black students as ‘Spring Cleaning.’”


Dean of Students, Ms. McGuire, commented on disciplinary actions for white and minority students. “Before I was hired there was no data on [punishments for black vs. white students] and it was very important to me to have that data,” states McGuire. “I set up a spreadsheet my very first year, that I continue to maintain, that gives very clear data so that we know [if there are any inequalities in disciplinary actions].” The data collected pretty much aligns with the percentages of the total number of minority and white students. “In suspension and probation, It’s pretty proportional,” she continues. “It’s really important to me that any disciplinary processes we have are meted out in a way that is inclusive, equitable, fair, and not designed to make anyone feel like they are on the outside looking in.” She ensures that this issue is on her radar, and has been since the moment she came to SSSAS. “It’s really really important to me. If at any time anyone would think that we have what looks like non equitable, non inclusive discipline procedures, I want to know and address it immediately. It’s a very high priority.” 


Class of 2006 graduate, Dr. Alysia Harris, shared her experience as a woman of color at SSSAS. “I remember one student getting up in the classroom and drawing an IQ chart, and being like: ‘here’s where white people are, here’s where Asian people are, and here’s where black people are,’” Harris recalled. “These things happened very casually and it often felt like when things were done or exhibited in front of teachers… they were still ignored or passed under the bus.” Harris also reflected on the curriculum of her history classes. “We never learned anything about anyone who wasn’t white! And that was just the reality. I remember in (and I know the school has changed this. I’ve had conversations with administrators over the 14 years since I graduated) When I was in school, I remember in world history there was this whole section we were supposed to do on Africa and the Middle East, and the professor just skipped it.” Before she graduated, she met with the administration to stress the importance of a racially inclusive curriculum. She said to them, “I am a rolodex of information about Europe or American history or art history when it pertains to [White history], but I can’t tell you anything about anyone else, and I think that's a very disorienting feeling when you go into the world and are engaging with people from your own culture and you’re like,’I don’t have any assets, any grounding, any anchor to even engage.’”


One of the posts on the @blackat_sssas instagram shares a similar experience surrounding the history curriculum. The post, submitted by a 2014 graduate,  reads: “We asked a history teacher why we only learn about Black people in February (black history month) and she said ‘well black people haven’t done much in history.’”


Yumi, Rhiannon, and Alysia all agreed the instagram posts were accurate representations of the discrimination that they experienced and saw. Yumi said, “I was shocked, appalled and scared for the students. Not just the students of color but the white students that clearly needed better understanding of their bias. I had felt everything that those posts expressed when I was in high school and I was stunned that it was still going on at SSSAS but with greater magnitude.”