Black at NCS: How an Instagram Account is Exposing Racism at NCS

Profile+picture+for+the++Black+at+NCS+Instagram+account.+The+fist+is+a+reference+to+Black+social+justice+movements+and+the+purple+and+gold+color+usage+alludes+to+NCS%27+school+colors.

@blackatncs

Profile picture for the Black at NCS Instagram account. The fist is a reference to Black social justice movements and the purple and gold color usage alludes to NCS’ school colors.

By Helena Getahun-Hawkins, National Cathedral School

From the story of a white student who asked her Black peers to twerk for her, to the testimony of a Black girl whose St. Albans date refused to take pictures with her at Winter Formal, the Black at NCS Instagram account has provided students, teachers, parents, and alumni with a platform to share their experiences facing racism at NCS. While most students are familiar with the most recent iteration of the account, which published its first post on October 19th, a Black at NCS Instagram account actually first emerged over the summer.  

the resignation of Ms. McIntyre, the former Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, served as the “tipping point” for reinstituting the account.  ”

Following the murder of George Floyd and the revival of demonstrations against police brutality, students from schools across the D.C. region, such as GDS and Maret, created “Black at” accounts. NCS’ first account was created around this time by anonymous creators. Because NCS’ BSU was working closely with the administration to implement anti-racist initiatives for the school, the BSU asked that the account be put to a halt to avoid jeopardizing the positive relationship with NCS administrators. However, according to the creators of the most recent account, the resignation of Ms. McIntyre, the former Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, served as the “tipping point” for reinstituting the account. 

The creators of the account, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, elaborated on the significance of McIntyre’s resignation: “She was only here for about three months, and to lose her…somebody who was trained to deal with racism…who felt that…she couldn’t do her job at NCS, that she couldn’t make the school any better for Black students,” was disheartening. Though McIntyre was said to have resigned from NCS due to personal reasons, some upper schoolers said they suspected that she resigned due to racist incidents at the school. 

McIntyre ultimately discussed the reasons for her departure in her article entitled “For Black Women Who Have Considered Quitting When the Whiteness Was Too Much” published on October 25th on the Wells Collective’s website (The Wells Collective is an organization formed by Black women in the Baltimore area seeking to help schools and organizations with DEI work). At the end of her article, McIntyre cites the reasons for her resignation, writing, “this work no longer brings me joy” and “at work, I have to explain my right to exist to people, regularly,” amongst other reasons. After McIntyre’s resignation, “That was when people started reaching out to us…and saying…we want…a platform to share our experiences,” noted the creators of the account. 

The account now has a substantial following, tallying up 1,085 followers, and has 60 posts published to date. Students can submit their stories using an anonymous form, where they are asked to share their testimonies and their position at NCS (student, parent, alumna etc.). The students behind the account said they have received an abundant number of submissions, but carefully moderate the frequency at which they post stories to ensure that each one gets sufficient attention. While they have received some hostile submissions with entries such as “Black Lives Matter is a communist organization” and “I hate this account,” submissions for the most part have been genuine. 

Ms. Siu, who teaches 9th grade English and the Protest and Literature elective, has been grappling with the stories of racist incidents shared on the account. While Siu has worked at other predominantly white institutions and was not shocked by the idea that racist incidents occur at NCS, she recalled feeling “heartbroken” as she read the posts. When asked about how other faculty members are responding to the account, Ms. Siu shared her observations from conversations with her white colleagues: “I think it’s really hard…because we all love the school so much and we love our students…I think there’s a kind of paradigm shift happening…and when a teacher has thought a certain way about the place where he or she works, or has a certain idea about how the students are doing, and to have that completely ripped, completely dismantled, is really destabilizing.” 

Siu was at first hesitant to broach the topic in her classes: “I think sometimes Black students feel a burden in those discussions to have to speak up…I know Black students are tired and I did not want to put that burden on them.” When a student in her Protest in Literature class mentioned the account, she decided it was time to have a discussion about it: “I would much rather provide a space for students to process what they’re going through…than to pretend nothing is happening, because it’s clear that it’s important.” 

I do think that part of that work is listening, but the work can’t stop there…I think if you only listen, you sort of take yourself out of the equation.”

— Ms. Siu

To teachers who may be struggling to address the topic through discussions in their classes, Siu encourages them to ask questions and listen: “I think that the Black at NCS account is…so important because it’s giving us a chance to listen…Black students have done the work to create a space…We’re lucky that we get to listen.” Siu also emphasized the importance of white faculty using their voices and taking action. “I do think that part of that work is listening, but the work can’t stop there…I think if you only listen, you sort of take yourself out of the equation,” she said. 

While many stories shared on the account concern interactions between students, a few posts point out racial insensitivity and racism in various NCS departments. On October 26th, an anonymous faculty member expressed dismay at the English Department’s plans to teach a book called Our Nig: Sketches from the Life of a Free Black by Harriet Wilson, who is believed to be the first published African American female author; the faculty member felt that the English Department failed to acknowledge the “pain and disappointment” Black students and teachers felt over this decision (the English Department ultimately decided against teaching the book). 

 Head of the English Department Dr. Sundman reflected on the post writing, “[I felt] profound sadness and a personal sense of devastation that an action of the department that I lead has hurt children about whom I care deeply.” When asked about how her department is reacting to the post Sundman noted, “In an effort to move forward in an intentional and healing manner, I have had dozens of conversations with colleagues, both in and outside of the department.”  

Sundman also discussed where the English department went wrong, writing, “Through curricular changes over the course of the last ten years, the English Department has endeavored to center the experiences of marginalized people; we continue to be reminded that the work of creating an anti-racist English curriculum is a long-term endeavor. In designing last year a new curriculum for ALT [American Literary Traditions], a revised curriculum intended to foreground diverse rather than historically marginalized voices, the task force (which was comprised of NCS and STA English teachers, department chairs, division heads) had hoped to actively advance NCS’s DEI initiatives. As a result of the conversations this fall, the department has learned that it is not enough to adopt anti-racist texts, but that we must also continually evaluate the effect and impact of teaching those anti-racist texts on our students of color in a primarily white institution. In other words, the context of the teaching matters as much as the content and history of the book.”  

Sundman also described continuing plans. “The department is engaged in conversations about several concrete, near-term initiatives, including: crafting an anti-racist language policy, implementing trigger warnings – especially for US electives –, and creating a taskforce to compile an annotated list for each grade level of texts by and about people of African descent that foreground joy and celebration rather than oppression and trauma,” she said. 

Allison Pierce and Nia Brown, who are both part of BSU leadership this year, said they have been feeling energized by the account. According to Brown, the account is important because “it takes…our [Black students’] words and our truths in story form for them [non-Black people] to realize…what’s happening, because it’s so behind the scenes, because Black girls are so afraid to come forward.” 

Since the creation of the account, Brown has had a non-Black student reach out and apologize for an incident detailed on the account, and Pierce has similarly noticed the account’s “powerful impact for a lot of non-Black students.” She said she is sure non-Black students were cognizant of racist incidents at NCS, but she is not sure “they knew how deeply they [racist incidents] affected so many students” before the account was created. Both students said they are pleased with the school’s acknowledgment of the account and hope they will follow through with anti-racist measures. While Brown noted that racism is somewhat inherent to predominantly white spaces, she does think NCS can take concrete steps to improve the school, including providing bias training for desk staff and hiring more Black teachers.  

Brown and Pierce feel that holding the school accountable for racism is important, but caution against only putting pressure on administrators for change. “Yes, the institution is [racist], but also the environment, and it’s… students that contribute to that environment,” said Brown. Brown called upon non-Black students to take action: “So when we say that we are a sisterhood, so when we say that we are a brotherhood,  [and] your Black peers…come out and say that they’re not a part of that, you have to actively make them a part of that.” 

Chanda Garfield, a mother to a Black senior at NCS, found out about the account from her daughter. As the mother of a Black daughter, Garfield said she knew smaller microaggressions were present at NCS, but she “was not fully aware to the extent of the testimonials in the account.” Garfield added that she is grateful that students and faculty have a place to share their stories but admitted, “It’s so heartbreaking… [to hear] all the stories that both students and faculty…put forth.” 

Some of tenets of the Episcopal church are that we are all children of God and we all deserve love, and so to the extent that NCS can stand on the tenets of Episcopal church, they have every duty… to implement immediate concrete action steps for the students”

— Chanda Garfield

Garfield said she was shocked by a post from an anonymous junior whose peers claimed she was admitted to NCS so the school could seem more diverse. “That was just so sad and disheartening because I know that so many generations before us fought for you all to attend these institutions, and a lot of parents are willing to pay the extra monies and do whatever is necessary so that their smart, independent, intelligent daughters…can attend these institutions and do great things in the world,” Garfield said. Fearful that the racist incidents detailed on the account are taking away from Black students’ education, she sent an email to head of school Sue Bosland demanding that school both listen to the students’ stories and take action. Garfield herself has been working on an anti-racist taskforce for the city of Chevy Chase and hopes the school will create a similar taskforce of faculty, alumni, and students to develop a plan moving forward. She said she believes the school should be held accountable for taking initiative. “Some of tenets of the Episcopal church are that we are all children of God and we all deserve love, and so to the extent that NCS can stand on the tenets of Episcopal church, they have every duty… to implement immediate concrete action steps for the students,” she said. 

On October 27th, Bosland addressed the account and its implications in an email sent to students and parents. “To the community members who are sharing their truths: We are listening. You belong here,” she wrote. She also acknowledged that listening is not a sufficient enough reaction to the account, including that NCS would be working with the Glasgow Group, a collective of consultants engaged in DEI work, to “examine our systems and programs through the lens of diversity, equity and inclusion.” 

Associate Head of School and Head of Upper School, Denise Brown-Allen, posted her own personal message to the Black at NCS Instagram account on October 30th. “Know that your pain has caused me great sorrow and regret,” she wrote. “Being here for you, representing you, and speaking up for you hasn’t been enough…Promises and apologies are no salve for the hurt here. I believe in you and our power to change these institutions.”  

This story was originally published on The Discus on November 18, 2020.