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Black students, alumni go public with painful stories of racism at prestigious prep schools

Phillips Academy Andover was one of at least 10 prep schools that are the subject of posts discussing racism and isolation by Black students and graduates.
Phillips Academy Andover was one of at least 10 prep schools that are the subject of posts discussing racism and isolation by Black students and graduates.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Echoes of the nationwide reckoning on racism can now be heard among current students and recent graduates of the country’s most elite prep schools.

Students and alumni of color have launched dozens of social media accounts in recent weeks, creating forums to reveal often painful accounts of their experiences at the prestigious, predominantly white high schools. The pages are an online counterpart to the demonstrations against racism and police brutality that have filled streets across the country.

The web pages, mostly on Instagram, document scores of disturbing incidents, from white students using racial slurs to white teachers promoting stereotypes about people of color. Some demand their schools issue public apologies and take actions ranging from diversifying faculty and curriculum to conducting racial climate assessments.

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At least 10 private Massachusetts schools, some among the most prestigious in the state, are now being called to task by students and graduates wielding these pages with rapidly growing audiences.

“The whole world is fighting against these injustices,” Yasmin Madmoune, a 19-year-old who last year graduated from Tabor Academy in Marion, told the Globe. Madmoune said that fight would not be won unless it reached her classmates from influential families, who she said would go on to hold positions of power.

”The people’s children who are in control are still learning and perpetuating these systems that the whole world is fighting against,” she said.

On June 9, Madmoune created the Instagram account @blackattabor. The page, which is public, launched with a post that read, “Welcome to Black at the School by the Sea. This platform serves to amplify voices who feel silenced. We want to share stories of Black life at Tabor, in hopes of showing the institution that they need to create a safer space for the marginalized at Tabor.”

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By the end of the day, the account featured 51 stories submitted by anonymous students and alumni of color. It now has more than 120 posts and more than 1,500 followers. Pages for other Massachusetts schools followed: Middlesex School, Phillips Academy Andover, Noble and Greenough School, Deerfield Academy, Groton School, Milton Academy, Dana Hall, Matignon High School, and Boston College High School, all featured in anonymously run pages.

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“A student once said that the only reason I studied so hard was that Black people were inherently stupid,” reads one post on @blackatgroton.

“My English teacher once told me and my friends that we looked like a little ‘gang’ because we all wore box braids,” wrote a Deerfield community member.

“I had too many negative racially charged experiences with teachers to count,” wrote one anonymous member of Andover’s class of 2019. “It really damaged me. I am in college now and still unlearning the trauma and imposter syndrome that resulted from my time at [Phillips Andover].”

The stories are eerily similar. White students who used the N-word. Educators and administrators who constantly confused Black students’ names. Suggestions by classmates and teachers alike that high-achieving students of color only won college acceptance letters or leadership positions because of their race.

Another persistent thread centers on the isolation felt by Black students at the schools, which can cost more than $50,000 a year.

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Including herself, Madmoune estimated there were 10 Black students in her graduating class of around 120 or 130 at Tabor. She said she felt lucky that her class was more diverse than average. Still, she found herself in the position of educating both her peers and her teachers about race, even as a newly arrived freshman.

“I was put in this position where I was given a title [of leader and educator] before I was even acclimated to the climate I was in,” said Madmoune, who arrived to Marion from Queens, N.Y.

“Those ideas being ingrained in my head where it’s like, ‘If I don’t do it, nobody will. If I don’t bring about change, nobody will’ ... That’s detrimental,” she said.

“I was there to teach my teachers. I was there to teach my white peers. I was there to comfort my Black peers. And you know, my self was on the back burner. My mental health was on the back burner. My education was on the back burner,” she added.

A student from Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, who wished to remain anonymous, said there were four Black students in their class of about 120. The student was motivated to launch @blackatnobles with friends after seeing similar pages for other schools. Dozens of stories quickly flooded in, from students and alumni dating back to the early 2000s.

Reading and disseminating Black stories from Nobles, the student finally felt less alone.

“These stories do exist at Nobles, and we have to address them because oftentimes it feels like there’s a bubble at Nobles where nothing from the outside world can penetrate it,” the student said in an interview.

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Nationwide protests against racism seem to have breached the bubble — at Noble and Greenough and countless other schools.

“I like the term reckoning, and I do think it’s a long time coming,” said Rodney Glasgow, the incoming head of school at Sandy Spring Friends School in Maryland and president of a consulting firm that advises independent schools in matters of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Thinking about this Black refrain of ‘I can’t breathe’ and being suffocated, there are so many ways metaphorically that Black and brown children can be suffocated at predominantly white institutions,” he said.

Glasgow, who is a Black alumnus of a private school himself, pointed out that nationally, Black students are more likely than whites to be punished in school for the same offenses.

“One of the first places that Black and brown children are policed by white authorities would be an independent school,” he said. “What you’re seeing are alums stepping back and saying, ‘We’re talking about the country, but you know what, I wasn’t even safe in my own school.‘'

Glasgow said these conversations have long taken place behind closed doors, in isolated pleas from students and alumni of color. Now, weighed down by a pandemic and emboldened by a movement to expose systemic racism, they are speaking out loud and in public.

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“Part of why you’re seeing this happening publicly instead of privately is that alums aren’t speaking out for the first time. They’ve been trying to say everything they’re now saying even when they were students,” he said. “It’s kind of like the old saying: God whispers until he has to scream.”

One former student of Middlesex School, in Concord, decided it was time to scream. After months away from campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the recent graduate, who wished to remain anonymous, felt they could see their own experiences as part of a national and global struggle with racism.

“Being away from the bubble kind of opened my eyes because then I could see what was going on in the world and actually not be shielded from it,” the graduate said in an interview.

After the school sent out an e-mail expressing support for Black students in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in police custody, alumni created the Instagram account @blackatmiddlesex and started asking other Black students to share their stories.

“At first I was a little reluctant to make [the Instagram account] because I thought of us as a much smaller school,” the graduate said. “But they’re so important in the world. They have so much money and influence. If one school starts to make a difference ... I think that could inspire other schools and other organizations.”

Middlesex, Milton, Phillips Academy Andover, Boston College High, Groton, Noble and Greenough, Dana Hall, Matignon, and Tabor all shared statements with the Globe saying they support students of color sharing their stories. Many said they are in the process of implementing plans to improve equity and inclusion on their campuses. Deerfield did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Glasgow said predominantly white schools can take several concrete steps to better serve students of color: hiring more faculty of color, appointing directors of equity and inclusion to senior administrative teams, and reflecting their students’ diversity in curriculums. He also said schools should commission studies to determine whether they disproportionately discipline students of color.

Most importantly, he said, even schools with centuries-long histories must be willing to change. “Independent schools were founded largely for the white and wealthy,” he said. “In some ways, you’ve got to shift your culture to allow other cultures to thrive.”


Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore.