July 21, 2020
My first friend and I—we were three—played with the same anatomically impossible Barbies. Except hers were white and mirrored her features—long, straight hair, skin the color of milk and mine looked like hers, only dipped in chocolate. With my kinky hair and wide nose, there were no dolls that looked exactly like me. My mother did her best. The characters in all the books we read were Black, so we read the same books over and over again.
This was my first lesson in white supremacy: You’re not pretty enough to be a Barbie.
Later came the bullying. My mother worked for the foreign service, and we lived abroad in Guatemala when I was in middle school. There were no Black people at the school I attended for diplomats and rich Guatemalans, and all the brown people I encountered were poor. I cried not only because I was alone and sensed the injustice, but also because a boy named Arturo called me Medusa every day and pulled my hair. Our teacher did nothing. The youngest children at the school called me dirty. Their teachers did nothing. I cried, too, because a parent of one of my classmates—who also was our neighbor and someone I would often rollerblade with—opened the door one day to call to her son to come inside, and screamed at me, “You’re a monkey!”
The torment was my second lesson: White supremacy is a global phenomenon.
High School Education
I went to an all-girls’ Catholic high school. For the most part the teachers were kind, loving, and encouraged my intellectual and spiritual growth. One met with me every morning to give me feedback on my creative writing. I have so many happy memories: I rowed crew and performed in plays and made lifelong friends. But something was always missing.
In history, we learned about the old civilizations of the Western world but never about Kemet. In sophomore English, the only book we read by a Black author—A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry—was on the summer reading list. In the history of Western civilization, we learned that Europeans were more technologically advanced than any other civilization so they had the power to enslave Africans.
Among the many lies we were told, the most injurious was that the nuns were benevolent toward the enslaved persons under their charge, and they’d taught them to read. As a report would later reveal, the nuns bought and sold their chattel like everyone else. My ancestors’ bodies paid for the grounds of our beautiful campus. The ramshackle cabin behind the field hockey field where we stored our crew boats was their wretched home.
My third lesson in white supremacy: Your history and culture don’t matter, don’t exist.
When I went to college, I learned about Marcus Garvey and the Pan-African Movement, about Black writers like Gwendolyn Brooks and James Baldwin, about socialist movements like the Third World Women’s Alliance. I breathed deeply for the first time knowing that I was inhaling lessons I’d keep with me my entire life. My friends were Black, and they knew, like me, what it meant to walk through a campus feeling like an unwanted guest in someone else’s home. We had our own affinity group that met weekly in the house for those of African descent, but that safe space wasn’t enough to shelter us from abuse.
There was an online forum where students and professors could post anything from philosophical musings to requests to borrow someone’s bike. There was one professor whose thinly veiled racist posts made me so angry that I went to his office to express my indignation. After only a brief exchange, he—yelling, red-faced, with his finger in my face—threatened to call campus police on me if I didn’t leave his office.
He later filed a grievance saying that I had threatened him. This was the first time a professor had ever done that to a student. Under pressure from fellow Black students who protested, the administration, including the president, forced him to drop it. Black and brown members of the student government voiced concern and proposed a code of ethics that students could turn to when a professor violated the mission of the college. In collaboration with the administration, this ethics code and an accountability system were eventually instituted.
My fourth lesson in white supremacy: Your body is always a threat.
A Black Editor’s Mission
When I joined NAIS’s team of editors in 2019, I came hauling the baggage of my experiences because the worst of my racial trauma had happened in schools. Racism operates on every level of society, in every corner it festers and spreads, through every crack it seeps to the core of who we are as a nation.
Attending the People of Color Conference for the first time last year, I was reminded that Black and brown people at independent schools are still isolated, emotionally wrung out, and attacked. And now, as I read the [email protected][institution] threads on social media by independent school alumni about the racism they endured, I see my experiences echoed. In this moment when so many Americans and people around the world are protesting with their voices and their bodies against police brutality and other injuries, I’m reminded once again of the pervasiveness of white supremacy. White women cry when we want to scream. And I witness from Black people the sighs, the laughs that mask the anger, the shrugs of “Well, we’ve been here before.” But just behind the eyes lives the rage and the terror that has been burning for centuries.
As a Black editor sharing her story on the blog that she edits alongside editors who share her vision, I recognize my privileged position. I hope Black and brown people reading this know that I’m here for them. I want to bring your stories from the margin to the center. We receive many submissions from white anti-racists doing necessary work to dismantle racism and white authors writing for white readers. And we need to share these narratives. But I’m exhausted by the constant reminder of how white people still have the privilege of centering their ideas and their work. It’s not that Black and brown people don’t write for the blog or the magazine, or that they only have to write about race; it’s just that I know too many of them can only scratch the surface of their stories because it’s unsafe for them to be honest about their experiences, especially when it comes to racism. White people still hold the power.
I’m raising a Black son. I think about sending him to an independent school, wanting him to feel loved and connected to his classmates and teachers. I know it will not be a perfect experience because white supremacy is deeply embedded in our society, and, though this moment is a time of reckoning, I know the hard work is still far from being over. After hearing so many stories like mine, school leaders have a duty to call out injustice when they see it. Otherwise, they risk retraumatizing those that share because they would have laid bare painful memories to those unwilling to change. But I believe in our schools and their capacity to transform racist experiences into progressive solutions.
This is a critical moment for society and our schools. The authentic conversations and the necessary work have only just begun. And I want to work to continue the conversations about the changes we want to see at our schools. I hope that after reading this, you’ll listen before you speak or act because there is so much you’ve never heard.
If you’re interested in writing, please email me.
Laurie Adamson is a content editor at NAIS.