In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, many conversations taking place in public forums have focused on the ways racial issues exist just under the surface of individuals’ daily lives. For many Philadelphia-area students and alums, this has meant talking more openly about their own experiences with racism in schools.
Many of these conversations have started on social media. Over the past few months, three Instagram accounts documenting students’ experiences with racism in predominantly White high schools in the region — some of the most elite and academically rigorous schools in Pennsylvania — have drawn both attention and controversy to the way race is dealt with inside these schools.
Each account is filled with posts alluding to individual students’ specific memories and experiences at Germantown Friends School (GFS), Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, and the Philadelphia School District’s special admit schools. The accounts appeared In the wake of recent protests following George Floyd’s death at the hands of police and have drawn several thousand followers.
Senzwa Ntshepe graduated from Germantown Friends School in 2010. He is the primary account holder of the Instagram account @blackatgfs. Some of the posts from the account detail his specific experiences, but he also has a larger strategy team that helps run the account and craft posts.
“One of my best friends went to Lawrenceville, New Jersey while he was in high school,” Ntshepe said. “He posted something about @blackatlawrenceville, and I started looking at it. I was like, ‘This is so needed.’”
Inspired, he decided to reach out to a few of his friends from his own school to create an Instagram account.
“We needed an external accountability structure for GFS,” he said.
Although GFS has a rigorous academic reputation, faculty and staff tend not to address racial issues, Nshtepe said. His Instagram account offers an alternative perspective on life inside a school that is focused on the image and brand it projects in the community, he said.
“They like to educate people on the history, but not necessarily participate in the now,” Nshtepe said.
Representatives from Germantown Friends School declined to be interviewed for this story. However, in their response, they said they are “working with the community to move our anti-racism work forward.”
Ntshepe is not the only alum or student looking to draw attention to racism at their school. The account @blackphillystudents gathers perspectives from students in public schools all over the city, focusing mainly on the district’s special admit schools.
The account is run by a biracial student who went to middle school at Masterman and now attends Roman Catholic High School. That person requested to stay anonymous as he and several of the contributors to the account are currently still in high school and fear reprisal from administrators.
“Seeing @blackmainlinespeaks, I realized I am not the only student who experiences these issues,” he said. “I wanted to voice myself and others. Which is why I felt obligated to create this account and take action.”
The administration at Roman Catholic High School did not respond to requests for comment.
Zora Charles and Madison Tyler are recent graduates from Masterman and are the two main account holders of @blackatmasterman. They work with other alumni who help with the graphics for certain posts. Charles graduated in 2018 and Tyler graduated earlier this year.
Just like @blackphillystudents, these two were also inspired by @blackmainlinespeaks.
“[The account] was the catalyst for Masterman Alumni For Change, which made a charter that was submitted to the administration outlining policy changes that would make Masterman a safe environment for its Black students,” Tyler said.
Masterman administrators have not responded to a request for comment.
These experiences, though, are not limited to schools within the city limits. The @blackdelcospeaks account documents experiences with racism in school districts across Delaware County.
Jasmine Lee is a Garnet Valley 2017 alumnae and said posts on the account accurately capture her own high school experiences. When asked if Garnet Valley worked toward being an anti-racist school during her time there, Lee immediately said no.
“First of all, acknowledge the messed up things,” Lee said. “The @blackdelcospeaks page should be a sign of all the things the school does. Why are people saying the n-word? They shouldn’t. Why is it everyone is so comfortable with the way things are?”
Though no administrators at Masterman, GFS, or the School District of Philadelphia agreed to be interviewed for this story, Dr. Marc Bertrando, the White superintendent at the Garnet Valley School District did offer comment.
He feels social media is a good tool to give a voice to those who are voiceless, but strictly aiming blame is not an effective way to open up dialogue.
“I think conversations are so important and relationships are so important,” Dr. Bertrando said. “Some of the social media sites that I see don’t offer a conversation. They offer a perspective and they offer demands. Unfortunately, I don’t feel that’s always the best way to work through a system.”
Experiences with racism
The students’ experiences with racism extend beyond what is documented in these accounts, and often impacted students long after they left school, they said. Specific incidents resonate long after graduation.
“I remember I had a do-rag on my head one day and this other kid was like, ‘Oh, he looks like he has a thong on his head,’” Nshtepe said.
Instead of returning the comment with an insult, Ntshepe threw something at him.
“With ignorant comments, they come from power structures and you feel like you can’t do anything about it,” he said.
Ntshepe remembers another incident, one of the most popular on the @blackatgfs account, that occurred in a computer lab room. A White female student walked in the room using the n-word with her peers.
“She goes, ‘Oh, I’m sorry Senzwa, I didn’t know you were there,’” Nshtepe said. “I was like, ‘So it would have been OK if I wasn’t there?’ And she kind of laughed it off.”
Tyler grew up mostly attending predominantly White schools.
“Even in fifth and sixth grade, obviously I knew there were more White students than Black, but I didn’t think anything of it until racist incidents started to happen,” Tyler said.
Charles is also biracial, with two biracial parents. She attended a predominantly Black day care but was shocked to see more White students than Black students when she entered elementary school, though race didn’t become contentious until later grades.
“I would remember little things that happened in middle school, not knowing it was racism at the time,” Charles explained.
What these students most remember are negative interactions with their teachers, especially moments where racial dynamics were overt.
Ntshepe recalls a teacher at GFS who grabbed him by the shirt and threw him against the wall while he was walking through a hallway.
“It was this small White woman telling me, ‘You’re going to get in trouble,’” he said.
Similarly, Raymir Johnson, a 2020 graduate from Masterman remembers a confrontation with a White teacher at an alumni basketball game.
“There was a post on the @blackatmasterman account about these kids that came to a basketball game,” Johnson said. “Apparently, it smelled like weed and they had to be kicked out. Those were actually me and my friends. But they didn’t smell like weed.”
A teacher, who many students had problems with, Johnson said, approached him and his friends. They were sitting close to the court and the teacher told them they had to move to the back of the bleachers or leave.
Neither the principal nor the referee had said anything to the students about their behavior; they weren’t doing anything disruptive, Johnson said.
“One of my friends told the teacher to leave us alone and that we weren’t doing anything,” Johnson said. “The teacher grabbed an officer who was downstairs guarding the door, told us to leave.”
Racial identity inside elite schools
For many students, the ways in which peers and teachers responded to their race impacted their sense of self-worth, they said.
While at GFS, Ntshepe observed how minority students who had been attending the school since the early grades, or were successful athletically, were generally viewed more favorably by their peers and teachers.
“I wasn’t that athletic when I was younger,” he said. “I was trying to figure out my racial identity at that time, as well.”
Johnson felt secure in his identity and had friends all throughout middle school. It wasn’t until ninth and 10th grade when he not only began to lose friends, but he lost himself as well.
“I started to assimilate to Masterman culture,” he said. “Masterman kids dressed the same, drank the same stuff and listened to the same music. But around 11th and 12th grade, I started doing summer programs, meeting new people outside of school. So I found myself more.”
For Tyler, being Black was something to be proud of while she was in high school. Tyler held leadership roles in Masterman’s African American Cultural Committee (AACC), which gave her a sense of community within the school.
“There were a few of us there,” she said. “Whether we all were best friends or not, no matter what was going on, we knew that we could rely on each other if necessary. They would be there by my side standing up and fighting. And I think that’s really important.”
Charles, though, said the pressure to succeed at Masterman was overwhelming, consuming her sense of identity and self. She often felt she had to work twice as hard to earn the same amount of recognition as her White peers.
“Looking back, I would have cut down the amount of time spent with sports and got more involved with AACC,” Charles said.
Lee said she often had to hide her true self in order to not draw negative attention to herself while a student at Garnet Valley.
“You have to smile because your face is intimidating to these people, or they’ll think you’re mean,” she said. “I didn’t want to be the angry Black person.”
Lee often felt an implicit social pressure to conform to other people’s expectations.
“It was a struggle for me to stand up for myself,” she said. “I didn’t want to be perceived in a negative way or be classified as ‘ghetto’ for being a certain way.”
Working toward an anti-racist environment
In Ntshepe’s time at GFS, he has never seen any effort by GFS to work toward being an anti-racist school.
“GFS is like a lot of institutions,” he said. “A lot of people in general are just very good at lip service because people want to hear that you’re anti-racist.”
Johnson feels the faculty at Masterman don’t work toward creating an anti-racist environment.
“It’s more so the work of AACC and Hispanic Club in middle school, to work toward having a safe community,” Johnson said.
Tyler wants to see more Black teachers, especially Black teachers who teach African American history.
“Some other things are just systems of accountability,” Tyler said. “It’s hard to figure out where to go to report racism if the administration is the one that is committing these acts against you.”
Betrando said working toward creating an anti-racist environment has become one of the Garnet Valley School District’s main priorities over the last three years.
“We’re already in the process of creating a youth court elective so that our students can engage with a lot of social justice issues,” he said.
Bertrando feels it is important to turn racial incidents into teachable moments for students and to not think that more punishment will be enough to solve a school’s problem with race.
“I would hate for a ninth 10th, or even a 12th grader to be considered racist after making a racist remark,” he said. “Give them consequences because they deserve it, but make sure to restore them by enlightening them and hopefully educate them to be a more productive citizen.”
Bertrando said Garnet Valley’s discipline policy lays out clear consequences if students harass someone based on race or sexual orientation. The district also allows students to use the Safe2Say app, where students can anonymously report harassment they may have faced or observed.
“I’ll be honest,” he said. “A lot of this stuff we learn about is through students coming to a trusted adult in the building, whether it’s an administrator and teacher.”
Looking forward, Nshtepe hopes GFS and other schools can try to change their culture and enact policies that make schools more welcoming Black students.
“Anti-racist work is really hard for everyone,” Nshtepe said. “We don’t even want to do this work. We have to do this work, because it has to be about our survival.”
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