Black students describe suffocating cultures of racism at elite prep schools

Saama Sane said that when he was a junior at Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, Massachusetts, a white student repeatedly called him the N-word as he sat at a table in the library. Sane said he responded by yelling insults back and ended up on the floor in a headlock, all while five white students, some of them laughing, stood by watching. He reported the incident, and the school, which enrolls just over 600 and charges tuition upward of $58,000 a year for boarding students, took disciplinary action against the student, he said.

But Sane felt suffocated at the school, he told NBC News. And the wounds from that incident and many others seemed to still be fresh even after graduating.

"I stopped loving myself because I realized the community did not love who I actually was," Sane said.

Since he graduated, he feels as though he can finally be himself, said Sane, a rising sophomore at Boston College. He has reclaimed his love for making music, something he felt he had to give up at Nobles, as the school is commonly known, for fear of being made fun of by classmates.

A spokesperson said the school could not comment on the specifics of the incident but said, "Noble and Greenough School takes expressions of racism — spoken or physical — with great seriousness and responds accordingly."

In recent weeks, Black students and alumni of elite private high schools, including Nobles, the Brearley School in New York, Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, and Trinity School in New York, have created Instagram accounts where their peers can anonymously share experiences with racism.

The accounts, with usernames that begin with the words "BlackAt," are part of a broader trend of students' exposing racism through social media, Taylor Lorenz and Katherine Rosman reported in The New York Times.

While many schools have released statements vowing to change, in some cases, the damage has been done, students and graduates say. In their posts on Instagram, Black students have described racist incidents, an inability to ask faculty for help and support, a lack of confidence and trust in authority figures and general feelings of being outsiders.

Catherine Hall, head of school at Nobles, said the school is listening to the stories shared by graduates and striving to be more equitable and inclusive.

"We are working with a group of current student leaders and have also established a Graduates of Color Task Force — a group of graduates spanning six decades — to help plan our work ahead," Hall said in a statement provided to NBC News.

The experiences detailed in social media accounts can affect Black students' mental health and how they approach education, experts said.

Black students are prepared for the academic stress of top private schools, said Howard Stevenson, a clinical psychologist and professor of urban education who researches racial trauma at the University of Pennsylvania. "But what really bothers them is the social status, having to navigate who they are as people of color," he said.

Stevenson studies racial stress and how educators, community leaders and parents can address it. He said Black students often lack a sense of belonging within their private school environments, which — in combination with the racism they experience — affects their long-term mental health.

JahAsia Jacobs, 22, is a graduate of Blair Academy, a private school of about 460 in Blairstown, New Jersey. "I don't feel like I ever belonged to a 'Blair community,'" she said. "I don't think of myself as being a part of the people who the Blair administration protects."

Jacobs said that while she was at the school, she internalized the hurt and lost a part of herself because of the constant microaggressions she battled. As a result, she said, "I really wasn't involved in much outside of classes at Blair and beyond what they required me to do."

"There were so many opportunities, and I found myself not really taking those up, because I just didn't want to endure anything that was more racist or more alienating than I already had," she said.

Jacobs said she got involved in extracurricular activities again only once she got to college, where she has worked as an activist and co-hosted a race and resistance symposium.

"I am just very deeply involved in all the things that I wanted to be doing at Blair but didn't feel comfortable doing," she said.

in a recent statement to the Blair community, Chris Fortunato, Blair's head of school, revealed a plan to further diversity, equity and inclusion.

"We are all committed to more fully ensure that we are an inclusive, safe and welcoming community for every student and every adult," he said. The plan includes increased faculty training, a curriculum audit, efforts to hire a more diverse faculty and a commitment to engage with issues of bias with transparency.

The sense of belonging that Jacobs said she lacked at Blair is essential for the development of young people, said Beverly Daniel Tatum, a psychologist and author of "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race."

"When you are an adolescent in particular, trying to define your sense of identity, who you are, what you hope to be in the future — if you don't feel understood, you're likely to experience a sense of alienation and discomfort," Tatum said.

The consequences of working to fit in

Kynnedi Hines, 17, said she has hidden a part of herself to fit in at Woodward Academy, a private school near Atlanta. She self-censors her speech and tries not to bring any unwanted attention to herself.

The anxiety is the residual effect of a racist encounter with her middle school principal four years ago, Kynnedi said. In her post on the @blackatwoodward page, she describes the time she and a classmate tried to plan a prom for their entire class. When they met with the principal to get approval, they were told they could not have an "African American-only dance" and that they would need to get signatures from their white peers supporting the event.

When reached by NBC News, the principal had no comment.

Stuart Gulley, president of Woodward Academy, said the former middle school principal retired in May. He said the school will encourage teachers and faculty to participate in "intensive diversity training," which has been offered for at least 11 years. The school will also host discussions with faculty and trained facilitators to digest their mandatory summer reading of "So You Want to Talk About Race."

"Over time, our hope is that we're going to create systemic change and that that change will be long term and regularly evaluated and reflect our commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion," Gulley said.

Kynnedi, a rising senior, is captain of the basketball cheerleading team and a tour guide for prospective students, but the encounter, which happened her first year at Woodward, has stuck with her, making her feel intimidated and wary of standing out.

When Black students experience racism, they are often just as hurt by the teachers who stand by and say nothing as they are by the perpetrator, Stevenson said. Black students need to know that their teachers will stand up for them and that acts of racism are not their burden to carry alone, he added.

What has stuck with Kennedy Austin, 22, is the feeling of powerlessness in the face of authority figures.

"I don't know what it's like to be a white student, and if you feel that, but especially as a Black student, you know that [teachers] have a lot more power than you do. And a lot of times they can say or do whatever they want," she said.

Austin started in kindergarten at the Berkeley Carroll School, a private pre-K-12 school in Brooklyn, New York, and graduated in 2015. The stories she shares in the @blackatbc group span elementary through high school. Her accounts include having been hypersexualized by teachers during health class, a white classmate's insistence that she would have helped her escape slavery, having been forced to translate the word "negrita" in class and a general sense of doubt about her ability to get into the colleges of her choice from peers and teachers.

She said that by the time she was given the chance to be herself and to feel empowered, the belief that she was powerless had already been ingrained.

"I've never felt comfortable going to office hours or having those 'I need help' conversations with my teachers, because historically they had never been the ones to help me," Austin said.

The exception came in ninth grade, when Black teachers allowed Austin to feel comfortable asking for support. Even then, she said, it took until her junior year of college to really build the skill.

A representative of the school wrote in a statement to NBC News: "We have been reading and carefully processing the stories from our Black alums and students on the 'Black at BC' Instagram and share their goal of ensuring that Berkeley Carroll is a supportive and welcoming environment for the Black community."

Austin said that although her main interest is in sociology, she is more comfortable in the Africana studies department at her college because of the support she feels she will get.

Despite their traumas, students have found ways to heal. Since graduating, many have found happiness at their colleges and in new communities.

"The only reason I'm thankful for Nobles is because I had to become a way stronger kid because of that school," Sane said.

But, according to Tatum, surviving the schools is not what is in question. These students have the ability to make it through, she said.

"The question is, should it have to be that hard? It should not."