These Private School Students Will Not Be Ignored Any Longer: The BLM Movement Grips Social Media
June 30th, 2020
The Black Lives Matter movement has not died down; in fact, it seems to be gaining steam. The protests are especially prominent in New York City where a native can expect to bear witness to one at least twice a day in any of the five boroughs. The riots tend to happen at night and are much less frequent, but it’s not uncommon to hear the occasional gunshot puncture the quiet--we never know if the shooter is a police officer or, much more rarely, a rioter. In place of sun-dried summer leaves, one can crunch headlights scattered on the sidewalk under their sneakers.
With many teenagers wishing to support the movement but not being able to venture out of the confines of their homes because of COVID-19, social media, specifically Instagram, has played a large part in strengthening and sustaining the Black Lives Matter movement. Many accounts are sharing petitions to sign, posts to like and share to show your support, and instigating trends such as posting a black square to demonstrate your allyship. It is a movement happening behind the screen, which has both negative and positive benefits considering that social media has been known to amplify the voices of the privileged and mute the voices of the oppressed.
It is worth questioning if posting a black square or any other social media post to inform your followers of your allyship is an appropriate response to Black lives being taken, or if it is even a helpful way to support the movement at all. As it is with all social media, no one knows what happens before or after that post. Does one post a black square and then feel that your contribution/duty to the movement is fulfilled? (If so, is it better not to post and fulfill that desire to help with other, more concrete channels?) It may appear that someone who posts a lot on their Instagram is a real supporter of the movement, but in reality someone who is not posting at all is attending all of the protests and calling their representatives to enact concrete and tangible change. In this way, social media has become an instigator for change, but also a place that allows people to appear to be fulfilling the “ally” role. Conversely, people who don’t post on their social media are being called out as supporting the status quo with their silence. While social media has helped many spread useful information to help their followers, it’s also become an environment where many people feel they must perform to prove their activism, or simply become someone they’re not.
However, a recent Instagram movement has stolen the spotlight (rightfully so) from these thoughts and has refocused on what truly matters that can’t be disputed or questioned: the personal experiences and voices of POC, specifically of students in predominantly white institutions.
It all started with a post on June 10th. A red background with gold lettering began with “Welcome to Black at the Big B”: The Black At Brearley Instagram account had been created. The account to date has amassed an impressive amount of followers in the week it’s been operating: almost 6,000. The account shares personal testimonies of Black alum and current students about racist interactions they experienced while on campus: everything from microaggressions to blatant and purposefully offensive acts carried out by white students and faculty. (Even though you most likely don’t attend Brearley, I encourage each and every person reading this to head over to their account, @blackatbrearley, and read each story word-for-word.) I recall heading over to this account and reading about all that had happened to these students and thinking how lucky I was that this was not happening at my own school. Inspired by Brearly, countless other predominantly white New York private schools began publishing their stories: Black At Spence (@blackspencespeaks), Black At Chapin (@blackatchapin), Black At Hewitt (@blackatthewitt_), and Black At Nightingale (@blackatnightingale). Days later I realized how ignorant I had been when a new Instagram account surfaced, Black At Grace (@blackatgrace), featuring personal accounts from Black students at Grace Church School -- my school. I immediately began to pore over all the stories that had flooded the account. Stories of how a white student had told a Black student that “his family [had] owned slaves” and implied that the student “could’ve been related to them.” Or how another white student had asked a Black student “how funny would it be if I showed up to halloween this year in blackface[?]” Or another instance where a Black student shared how they were shut out of an advanced math class or advised against applying to an Ivy. Or when a white student brought into school their family’s sickle from the plantation they used to own. There were so many students of color who dreaded walking into school everyday to face racist after racist joke and all they could do was absorb it because their cries for help were supposedly being heard, but not listened to. This was happening right where I go to school everyday and I had had no idea. It made me question everything I thought I knew about the kind of ally I thought I was and aspire to be.
For this reason, I thank the Black At Grace Instagram account, and all of the other associated accounts, for forcing me to realize my own compliance and ignorance. These accounts have taught me so much more than all of the things I have read or signed this past month. Although this movement is on the screen, it is one I can get behind because social media is giving these stories space and room to be heard within the community, not taking away from them. It is not a place to prove your allyship to anyone else or to be afraid of saying the wrong thing, but rather one that encourages listening and reflection.
It should be noted that Grace has issued a formal response to the account in a letter from the Head of School, George Davison, as well as a Letter from the Office of Community Engagement which states that they “...will do better. We must.” In a recent post on the Black at Grace account by Abisola Fashakin ‘19, though, she describes this response as similar to one she’s heard before, meant to keep POC students “...compliant up until we left.”
If this is true, and continues to happen, we as students (and especially white people) need to take matters into our own hands. It is definitely the school’s and administration’s responsibility to handle, but we can’t wait for them to act because things can not stay the same as they have been. That much is painfully clear. I have found personally that taking the initiative to educate myself more about the relationship between America and POC has made these conversations, even beyond school, so much easier and encouraged me to engage in them more often.
Because of the nature of a high school, it is especially difficult to stamp out racism since a new batch of Freshmen matriculate every year with their own past experiences and are unaware of the climate of the institution they are becoming a part of. As high school students, though, it is our responsibility to make clear to younger generations their roles in being responsible and equitable citizens of their schools and their communities. I urge you to take it upon yourself to make these values clear to incoming students so that they might do the same to the next Freshman class. In one of the most recent posts from the Black at Grace account, one student remarked, “On the website or promotional information, students of color, in particular Black students, are always front and center. Yet when it comes to making these students feel safe, institutions are severely lacking. Students of color aren’t objects to be used for marketing; they’re human beings that deserve to be treated with respect...Further steps need to be taken because clearly things aren’t working right now.” It’s time to place the rights and voices of students of color in the front; they have been relegated to the back of the picture for far too long.