Every day, as Chandace Apacanis ’21 walks onto campus or logs onto Zoom, she feels like she must put up a guard to defend herself. As a Black female student attending a predominantly white institution (PWI), she constantly has to fight against the many manifestations of racism.
“When I go to school, it feels like I’m preparing for battle,” Apacanis said. “Whether it’s physically, people trying to touch my hair, or emotionally, somebody makes a rude comment towards me, or in ways that I don’t know about at the time. It always feels like I have to justify my existence and my presence at the school.”
In light of the current social climate, the school recently reinforced its efforts to address systemic racism and raise awareness about minority experiences. Given that the majority of the upper school population cannot relate to being racially outnumbered, Apacanis said listening and empathizing with that point of view is crucial. Zenmarah Duruisseau ’22 said the pressure of being a racial minority at the school complicates her daily life.
“It’s obvious I’m different,” Duruisseau said. “There’s nothing wrong with that, but it gets to you after a while. I feel like I have to change, and I find myself code-switching when I come to school. I switch my voice, I switch how I talk and it’s stressful.”
Ella Watkins ’22 said being a Black woman at a PWI makes for an especially difficult social experience because she feels she must prove herself in order to fit in. Watkins said she felt pressure to demonstrate her intelligence to justify her enrollment at the school, while Black males, who get more attention, do not necessarily have to do the same. Duruisseau said she also shares that struggle.
“If you’re a Black guy, especially if you play sports, you can be seen as the token at that PWI,” Duruisseau said. “But if you’re a girl, especially one who’s conscious of what’s going on in the world, comfortable in her own skin and does not assimilate with the culture at HW, you may not have many friends.”
According to all six female students interviewed, Black women are constantly subjected to microaggressions such as offensive or derogatory jokes, comments and actions. While this type of racism isn’t as conspicuous, the snowballing effect it has on its victims’ mental health can be emotionally devastating.
Gabby Odoom ’21 said she has experienced discrimination at both the Upper and Middle School. She said she was belittled by her peers, who claimed she didn’t deserve her grades, or by white students, who tried to justify the use of racial slurs.
“I remember getting a lot of comments from other people in my class saying that I was only getting my good grades because both the teacher and I were Black, even though I was working really hard and helping a lot of people in my class,” Odoom said. “Other people joke about getting an ‘N-word pass’ because they’re tan.”
Many female students of color said that they have observed and dealt with prejudice and microaggressions in the form of stereotyping. Kennedy Hill ’22, Duruisseau and Apacanis described situations in which they were characterized as the “loud and angry Black woman” or told that “Black kids don’t have dads.” While at the Middle School, Duruisseau heard students utter blatantly discriminatory remarks, such as “she can’t be president because she’s Black and a woman.”
Ash Wright ’22, who has attended PWIs since she was in elementary school, said that racist actions or comments have become normal to her because of the frequency with which they are used around her.
“I’m more desensitized to racially charged comments or microaggressions just because I’m so used to hearing them,” Wright said. “Sometimes if I do hear them, I don’t really register the comment. It makes me uncomfortable, but then I just tell myself it’s whatever.”
While Wright often subconsciously disregards offensive remarks, she said that Black Leadership, Awareness and Culture Club (B.L.A.C.C.) provides her with a safe place to confront the racism she faces on campus and connect with other Black students. Through listening to stories and participating in conversations, Watkins, Duruisseau, Wright and Hill said the club unifies and informs students about current events pertaining to African Americans in and out of the school community. However, Hill and Wright stressed that the lack of non-racial minority members keeps the affinity group from making a larger impact on the greater population.
“B.L.A.C.C. is the only source of culture for African Americans on campus,” Hill said. “It’s almost entirely composed of Black people, but we’re not the ones who need to be taught about this because we live it everyday. All of the community needs to hear and educate themselves on Black culture and the Black experience. It’s their duty to be an ally.”
In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement, the school affirmed its statement to combat systemic racism. The contents of the statement include requiring Diversity, Equity and Inclusion training for faculty, hiring a counselor designated to support students of color and redesigning history and English courses to include more Black history and culture.
Odoom acknowledged that the school is taking steps to combat racism and accredited the administration with becoming more supportive of the Black community. She said the school’s plan is a “good start and it’s encouraging to see such a strong initiative-.” However, she said she thinks the implementation of a new system of accountability for students is necessary to foster a truly anti-racist school.
“Holding people accountable is a big deal just because I know of people who still go to HW who have said the N-word and have made racist comments,” Odoom said. “It’s hard for me to look at what the school is doing as sincere if they’re not also holding people accountable. There should be a system created that’s somewhat similar to the Honor Board or having specific faculty who deal with incidents of racism.”
Duruisseau said members of the community should support each other and refrain from tearing others down. She added that all students, faculty and staff should be caring and respectful of everyone regardless of their race, sexual orientation and socio-economic status.
“You never know what someone is going through,” Duruisseau said. “Everyone has their own individual struggles, and we need to understand that and not use it against each other. Everyone is different, and we need to respect that. If you can’t, you need to check yourself first and acknowledge you’re wrong.”