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Black @ Packer Interview

. 22 min read
Black @ Packer Interview

By Angelica Kenworthy

1.   I’d like to open this conversation with an invitation to share your general experiences, thoughts and ideas that speak to the nature of doing this work. The below questions are just for guidance. It is entirely up to you what you choose to answer and which direction you’d like to go in. I want to be clear that my intention with this interview is to serve you and your readers in the best way that I can and provide a platform for any voice that wishes to be heard or any story that wishes to be told. The structure of this piece is largely up to you.

Admin B: Something that has often gone unsaid in regards to doing this work is the emotional labor that is required to immerse ourselves in these stories on a daily basis. To collect stories of racism, organize them, and fit them into a format that is appealing to attract and retain viewers started to take a toll on my mental and emotional health for some time. It wasn’t until the momentum in stories decreased that I realized how much more at peace I was from being able to distance myself from racial trauma. It has given me a slight peek as to what it’s like to be a white person in this country who isn’t committed to allyship. As to the emotional toll from running such an account, many viewers/followers of the account have made some remarks that undermined our efforts to use the account in a way that we found most productive. This felt particularly jarring when we had posted a submission from a white alumni, and some members of the Black community had stated that we made the wrong decision, and they felt cheated out of an experience to finally be recognized by the Packer community. I think this was hard for some of us to process because we had spent days developing our intentions for the account and planning how to execute it as smoothly as possible, all to hear that it was inflicting even more harm on our community. The experience of receiving this feedback from so many people, all while immersing ourselves in traumatic stories is difficult to explain. It’s so many emotions to juggle at once, and I’m very proud of the way our team maturely handled that experience. I’m sure not many people would anticipate us feeling such pressure, and that is part of the reason I’d like to recognize the intrinsic and extrinsic emotional labor a lot of us underwent to give the Black community at Packer a space that suits their needs after generations of neglect.

2. How did this account start and how was it developed?

Zamien/Admin “A”: I wasn’t originally a part of the first group of admins that created the account. I believe the original group was inspired by the first Black at accounts (@BlackatChapin and @BlackatBrearly) and understood the importance of creating an account for Black@ for Packer. I joined the team early on and as more people joined we kind of figured things out as we went. Everyone brought something different to the table—whether it was specific skills, passions, a vision or just their time/effort and we used what everyone brought. Our first goal was to advertise the account as much as possible because sharing people’s stories would’ve meant nothing if we didn’t have an audience. I believe we were one of the first Blackat accounts so it was hard in my opinion to advertise the account when people weren’t aware the “Blackat” movement was new and the larger BLM movement was still picking up attention and support. After we got the account going with our first 12 posts, 3 posts describing the account’s purpose and 9 stories, we gained a lot of traction. From there, we just tried to adapt to the reactions of the administration/state of the country and what was asked of us by our followers (especially our Black followers.)

Admin “C”: The people who decided to make it were a small group of very recent Black alumni. I think they were inspired by other Blackat accounts and empowered by the fact that they’d just been freed from the will of the administration. They didn’t have to worry about the repercussions of speaking out the way they had to just a few months ago, when they were students at Packer. The group shrunk a bit and then incorporated some older alumni. This second group is made up of the admins that actually began crafting the vision for the account and ultimately posting.

3.  What were you hoping would come of this Instagram account when you created it?

Zamien/Admin “A”: I just wanted to help create a space for the Packer community to share the stories that haven’t been shared because of people feeling as if they didn’t have a voice and/or fearing retribution or no justice. I hoped that it would showcase to Packer and the larger world that racism definitely exists at “liberal” institutions and how it’s a big part of the culture/institution. I never imagined BlackatPCI or the Blackat movement in general would become so widespread.

Admin “C”: I had a sort of unorthodox approach. I’ve grown tired of the cycle of social justice as it pertains to Black Packer students. Usually a Black student, or group of students, will air out their grievances and are then met with a mix of pity, dismissal, and platitudes. I felt like the account would just be another attempt to guilt-trip the community, mainly white people, into action. I thought it would be best to allow non-Black people to contribute their experiences and reflections about the times they messed up, whether it was overt racism or complicity. I wanted us to be able to vet and endorse the kind of reckoning we wanted to see from non-Black community members. I also know that a lot probably goes on behind closed doors that only non-Black people can attest to, and that there can be stories that they feel more comfortable sharing than a Black person would. When we posted a white person’s story, a lot of Black people felt betrayed. They felt like white voices get amplified enough as is, and that for the account to be a safe space to revisit trauma, perpetrators cannot be a part of it. I understood where they were coming from but I was still apprehensive about where that model would take us. As with anything, there’s no way of knowing if we landed on the most effective course of action. I most definitely underestimated the impact the publicity of the account would have, though. I’m just glad we were able to fulfill our primary goal of amplifying Black voices.

Admin “D”/ Satya: I knew when I graduated Packer that the current methods used by the institution to address anti-blackness were not enough. It fully dawned on me when, in my junior or senior year, the school arranged for Packer alumni of color to meet with current students of color. The stories shared in that space contained patterns that hadn’t changed in 3 decades. Unfortunately, as the blackat movement has demonstrated, our voices, our pain and our individual efforts to change the community were easily ignored. Packer Collegiate, and almost every institution included in the blackat movement, all have shown where their priorities lie; money, image and remaining among the status quo. Social Media is a space where all three can be easily challenged, and publically, in a terrain where recent alumna are much more well versed compared to the institution. My main goal was always to amplify black voices; we wanted to provide familiarity, validation, and closure to the trauma of all the black people who walked through Packer’s halls, cross generationally. But it was also very intentional that the pure and unabashed racism and anti-blackness that festered in that school would be displayed to the wider community, no longer able to be hidden under the shiny gloss of vaguely inclusive mission statements and staged ‘diverse’ website photos. We wanted this to be impossible to ignore. We wanted to cause members of the institution at every level to challenge their behaviors. We wanted to see tangible change. We wanted to never be silenced again.

4. What has been challenging or disappointing about running the page? What has been rewarding?

Zamien/Admin “A”: My specific job on the account is to make the actual posts for the account so I read every single story submitted and posted. (I just want to note that a few other admins also read every story submitted depending on if they choose to and/or because of their role) It can get very hard to read everyone’s story as I make the posts because I understand the pain in each of those stories and both the pain of choosing to relive that story and share it with others. The beginning stages of the account were also stressful at least for me. There was a lot going on in the world especially with digital activism. The Blackat came out of nowhere (not that it was a bad thing) and B@PCI’s creation was also sudden so there was a lot to figure out. Since we were one of the first, it was hard to figure out the account’s role, the theme, everyone’s role and how to get the account going. I’m not trying to speak for any other admin but it was very difficult to take on this project while dealing with the current state of the country and the emotional toll of everything. Personally, I was also going out protesting, taking summer classes, and speaking out on my platform trying to educate and engage with people that didn’t get why the BLM movement and understanding racism was important. It was a huge emotional toll and time commitments to say the least for me. In terms of the account being rewarding: I personally found it cathartic to tell my own stories on the account since I’ve kept that silent for so many years and I can only imagine a lot of people also experienced catharsis through sharing their stories. Some people have also received “justice” through the account so providing a space like B@PCI means a lot. I also personally feel like the account brought the Black community of Packer closer together in our struggle.

Admin “C”: We are always trying to serve the Black Packer community so feedback is important, but hard to come by. The account is pretty much a faceless gallery and I think that causes people to see it as something to observe rather than something to interact with. Oftentimes the minority of people with strong opinions are the only ones moved to provide feedback and then we don’t know how the group feels as a whole.

Admin “D”/Satya: What has been the most challenging about the page has definitely been the reopening of trauma necessary. Like Zamien said, reading through each story as they are submitted caused huge emotional fatigue. Through this process I realized much of the way that I was able to stay sane through my Packer experience was by blocking out huge chunks of memory. Each story plucked buried memories from my brain and I spent a lot of time reliving painful events that I hadn’t remembered in years. Navigating this psychological struggle on top of the experience of constant advocating, teaching, writing and learning to help my white peers gain some basic empathy through my own platform, in combination with the unstoppable immersion in the normalcy of black death from every media outlet, was definitely difficult. However, the familiarity of these stories was also rewarding. Often, struggles with the institution while still a student are methodically isolating. Racial gaslighting is rampant through upper administration, and to preserve the education that Packer offers or even just social comfort within the space, black students frequently have to sacrifice justice or really any acknowledgement of racism at all. Seeing that what I experienced was not actually isolated events, but part of a larger pattern of racism was validating – not because I hadn’t known before, but because now there was no room for doubt.

5.  So far, has exposing these moments of racism at Packer made a difference in how the school responds to complaints of discrimination and/or racism by students, faculty, etc. versus the failure to support Black students in the past?

Zamien/Admin “A”: The account has forced the Packer administration/Board of Trustees to hold two forums between themselves and alumni, the first of their kind I believe. While I and most people were extremely disappointed with how the forums went, those forums showed that the Packer administration could no longer ignore the racism happening in its walls. However, if the administration can no longer stay silent, they showed they didn’t initially care about real change based on the way they ran the forums and their new initiatives that were set forth to the community. To me, it looks like the administration is just staying the same; hiding behind empty platitudes while changing as little as possible to upset the status quo. It took two days of forums and white alumni threatening to pull funding/support for the administration to agree to come back with more concrete plans on how to address racism and a letter sent to them by B@PCI for them to come up with concrete tangible plans. Even now, the initiatives they proposed don’t make me feel hopeful and feel more like a method of appeasement for our anger. In terms of individuals/culture, I see the account making people realize how they have been a perpetrator/complicit in racism and anti-blackness at Packer. Even if the account can’t force the institution itself to change then perhaps it can change the culture at Packer by ‘waking’ everyone up.

Admin “C”: Well the new school year hasn’t even started so there aren’t really any new complaints to reference. The administration has mainly been collecting feedback and planning. As far as I know, nothing has been implemented yet. I don’t have much faith that the work I’ve seen will lead to meaningful change because they are creating new procedures to be enforced by the same people who failed us. I think the very first thing they need to do is introduce an independent party to create and enforce new policies. The student body has been having some nuanced and honest conversations. It’s been refreshing to hear about, but again, who knows if they’ll have any lasting impact?

Satya/Admin “D”:  I do actually think it has made a difference. I think the school realizes that if they do not make some drastic changes in the next year, there will be serious social repercussions. The forums held within the first week or two of the account were the first time the board and administration has ever met with the Alumni for a meeting of this focus, despite being disappointing in their approach. The Institution followed up with a list of new initiatives and goals for the next year, but it has yet to be seen how they will be physically implemented. Speaking for myself, it is hard to not be skeptical because Packer has never said they were anything but an accepting, open, and anti-biased community, when clearly that was not the case. I will have more hope for institutional change when I see the effects of these stated actions with my own eyes. I am confident, however, that the account has sparked the most productive conversations about race we’ve ever had within the community, particularly between students and alum, that will continue to shift the normalized culture of white supremacy within the social scene at the school. I can only hope that a more informed and united student body, with the help and insight of recent alum, can clear some huge roadblocks in Packer’s journey to becoming an anti-racist institution in the next year.

6.  The reality of sharing past experiences of racism is retraumatizing. Would you like to share any thoughts on how this is affecting current and past Black students at Packer? How is it affecting you personally?

Zamien/Admin “A”: I touched on my personal experience a bit in a previous question but telling my stories brought up a lot of memories I had previously buried. I had taught myself to bury and suppress all racist moments from my time at Packer in order to remain “blissfully ignorant” and to make it through the day. Now that I am pondering this question, I realize I have two memories of my time at Packer: a vision of Packer pre-BlackatPCI and a vision of my Packer experience after BlackatPCI was started. The two memories are mostly the same filled with the same good memories with friends and integral school moments/milestones. However, the post-BlackatPCI memory is filled with the realization of how much racism and trauma I buried in my mind and the realization that I feel suffocated at Packer. Sharing my stories and reflecting on my time at Packer afterwards made me so aware of the trauma me and my peers experienced– my entire time at Packer was a masquerade fueled by Packer’s quest for diversity and my need for survival. As for current/past Black students, I sense that there are two camps (some people are only in one while others are in both). I believe everyone or at least most people are happy that the account exists. Some are happy to finally have a space to share their stories. Others are quick to address the lack of accountability from perpetrators and lackluster response given by the administration.

Admin “D”/Satya: I answered this for the most part in a previous question, but I’d like to add that it further has affected me in reinforcing the love and admiration I have for my friends. As I unpack more and more trauma I am reminded of how my BIPOC friends supported one another through our high school experience. How we endured so much but still came out exceptionally talented, smart, joyful and full of love. Without them, I would not have been able to make it through as strong and confident as I have.

7.  Is real change possible at Packer? Why or why not?

Zamien/Admin “A”: Change is definitely possible but it’s going to be a very tough and long road, as for the rest of the country, especially on the institutional level. I believe there are two types of changes that need to happen: institutional change with the administration’s policies and cultural change which involves individuals and the overall culture of Packer. Currently the upper levels of the Packer administration and the Board of Trustees are mostly wealthy white people and I believe they are more committed to maintaining Packer’s image and endowment as opposed to enacting real meaningful policies addressing racism at Packer. However, I am hopeful that despite Packer wanting to maintain the status quo, a large part of the administration is new and they may be more open to change than the old administration. Furthermore, the BLM and Blackat movements have created social pressure both within and outside Packer that will pressure the administration to hopefully change. I think change on the individual level is more likely. I know that several students have organized their own forums both within their own friend groups, grades and between current students and alumni. The goal of these forums was/is to address the ways the larger Packer community has failed it’s Black students and how they can improve in terms of party culture, everyday life at Packer, the classroom and everything else. While the student run forums are only conversation, I am hopeful that current students can learn from alumni and help to usher in a new culture at Packer that includes everyone in every single part of the culture. The fact that students and alumni were even willing to participate in these conversations tells me they care on some level and realize that change is needed—something the administration seems not to grasp.

Admin “C”: I think change is possible but it’ll take a lot. I think the ethics of private schools are questionable. Education should never be a business. Mixing money and education leads to elitism/classism, and elitism falls hand-in-hand with racism. I can’t blame Packer for being profit driven because I understand that they need funds to operate, but we are asking for the disruption of the status quo and that will inevitably make a lot of their best “customers” very uncomfortable. Unless they put more work into finding alternative forms of funding and/or faculty and families who are willing to support the school as these shifts are made, change can’t happen.

Admin “D”/ Satya: I am confident that change is possible, but it is the degree to which that concerns me. Packer is but a microcosm of our larger American society, and like it, it silences and subjugates black students while benefiting off the ‘cultural exposure’ provided by our presence, and similarly exploits the labor of black staff and faculty at the expense of basic respect. The private school is an institutional model that is inherently flawed because it relies on the abuse of power normalized by our white supremacist patriarchal capitalist state to operate successfully. However, I do think that conditional change is very much possible. At this point my hope reaches as far as the idea that black students at Packer will eventually feel as though they belong just as much as their fellow white peers. Even this is a goal that questions possibility given the systems within Packer operates, however, there are steps to be taken to move closer to that direction. If the larger Packer community commits to self-reflection, self-realization, unlearning, learning, advocating, teaching and fighting, I think change is possible. If the larger Packer community makes it their goal to strive for anti-racism, not because it “is harmful” to BIPOC people but because they should not want to be racist people and no one should feel confident in an education from a racist institution, I think change is possible. If our school shows that they are willing to put their money where their mouth is to correct the anti-blackness bred in their institution, I think change is possible. It is very easy to listen to the black voices in your own community. It is about whether or not each individual member of the community wants to see change as much as their BIPOC peers. We will see.

8. Can you describe your experience spending most of your time at a school that was fundamentally white? What are some of the consequences of surrounding black students with a way higher percentage of white students?

Zamien/Admin “A”: If I were to really describe what experience was like attending a PWI like Packer, I would need a book or at least a decent sized essay. There are so many nuances and moments that it’s hard to pick a few.

Admin “B”: To be honest, while I attended Packer I didn’t think going to a PWI was as traumatic as it really was until I graduated. The moment I didn’t have to code switch, and put on a mask every day just to feel invisible, the authentic version of myself began to thrive that I didn’t realize I was suppressing to be able to survive a PWI environment. Now that some time has passed since graduating, I can’t imagine going back to that minimized version of myself. It’s heartbreaking to reflect on those isolating experiences as a black woman, and internalize my unawareness of the coping mechanisms I had developed until leaving. I only attended Packer for four years, and I’m grateful to have been able to restore the sense of self that I developed in my more diverse schools beforehand. I don’t know if black students who have grown up in PWI’s were afforded that experience to develop a healthy sense of self in the first place.

9. Do you feel that there were enough Black teachers and counselors at Packer?

Zamien/Admin “A”: Absolutely not. I only had two Black teachers in the 7 years I attended Packer. The fact that I can quickly name all the teachers (at least in the middle and upper school as I entered in 6th grade) really showcases the problem. With a bit more time, I can probably name all the Black staff of Packer, most of whom are a part of the maintenance staff. Most and if not all of the Black teachers there during my time left the school to pursue other teaching jobs. I wonder why that is…

Admin “C”: No not at all. Especially within the STEM departments. I never felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to, but I did wish I had a greater variety of people to look up to. I’m grateful that the few who are there are relatively vocal about race, but I think that’s a double edged sword. It’s great that they are advocating for Black community members, but I worry that they are seen as political spokespeople rather than dynamic individuals. That’s not a very healthy image for Black students to identify with, or non-Black students to draw understanding from. Also, it’s not like they get paid for their extra work.

10.  Describe your experience being taught about slavery in Packer classrooms.

Zamien/Admin “A”: It was bizarre to say the least. I was very aware that I was learning about history in a room full of rich white people taught (most of the time) by a white teacher in an institution mostly reserved for the wealthy and powerful—the same people who used to own slaves. It made me extremely uncomfortable to deal with that realization/atmosphere. Slavery was also not given the proper attention in my details. We would spend weeks discussing other units like Packer’s founder but would either rush through units about slavery in the U.S or just skip crucial parts like the antebellum/post-antebellum period. Teachers would also put black students on the spot frequently which made us even more uncomfortable and I dreaded those class conversations because y out of pocket things would be said without consequences.

Admin “C”: I took the elective about the Transatlantic slave trade. It’s taught by a middle aged Southern white man. I think he was a great teacher. He was always honest and upfront about the power dynamics in the room. He valued intersectionality, welcomed criticism, and covered a range of meaningful topics. I valued our time spent discussing the politics of history (i.e. What are the implications of the gross absence of first person slave narratives? Is there a way to ethically resolve that?). My biggest complaint would be that it was intellectually inaccessible at times. It’s an advanced/honors class. I accepted the rigor as part of the class’ advanced status, but I did worry about the impact of one of the few classes that really discusses slavery be taught with abstract theories.

Students have to have either done well in past history classes or have a teacher advocate for them to take the class. Some who qualify have to opt out so they can fit advanced STEM classes into their schedule. Most of the complaints I’ve heard from other people were about other students making missguided or insensitive comments. Outside of that class I don’t remember ever formally discussing slavery. It’s a shame slavery isn’t part of the core Upper school curriculum.

Admin “D”/Satya: I also took the elective about the Transatlantic Slave trade, in my senior year. Admin C pretty much covered it, but I can say that was the first time I ever took an in depth look into slavery from beginning to end in my entire schooling. I learned so much that was just never brought up to me in any other discussion before, had probably the most productive conversation about the N-word I’d ever had in predominantly white space before and read black theorists talk about slavery, which unfortunatelty was foreign to me. The class was, and remains, one of my favorites. I do often wonder how it would have gone had there been less black students in the class, however. There were several incidences, for example, a critique of the handling of content or checking the statement of a peer, that definitely guided the course in certain directions, that without the three or four very confident and vocal black students in the class would not have happened. Had there been no black kids in the class, or perhaps quieter ones, I could easily see how something questionable (ie racist) could’ve slipped. There were definitely racially insensitive incidents that occurred in the class before I ever took it. A different class comes to mind when I think about discomfort while being black in the classroom. In Tenth Grade, we read James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. It was not an elective class, and everyone in the grade had to read the book. I loved the book, it was the first time I’d ever read Baldwin and I just loved the way he wrote. I was so excited to do the in depth literary analysis, the tearing away at the symbols and the figurative language that we did just weeks earlier with The Great Gatsby. Instead, it was turned into a lesson about systemic racism. I understand why– it’s hard to get into the deep analysis of that book without a basic knowledge of institutionalized racism, but as 1 of 3 black students in the class, who sat as their peers turned to stare at them with horrified faces of “this is your life?”, I had never felt more accessory to white education than that class. My life was the teaching example, and I felt obligated to take on that role if it meant the importance of the lesson got through to my white peers. I was not prepared for the intense wave of othering that comes with that role. I was devastated at the sheer difference of approach between Gatsby and Beale Street. If you are going to commit to teaching your students about racism, do it in every book. Weave it into every part of the curriculum. Your discussions on any subject in any class should always look to speak on the related racism present. Then, we don’t have to take away from intellectually engaging with black genius in the way it deserves.

11.  The divide between private and public education ensures that New York stays segregated. Would you send your kids to a private school? Why or why not?

Zamien/Admin “A”: I definitely plan on living in NYC and raising a family one day. I would send my kids to a private school (granted I can afford it). While I’ve only been to private school my entire life (I entered Packer 6th grade), my brother and most of the kids in my community attended public schools. I saw and experienced how I had so many more opportunities and resources attending a private school and I want to give my kids the same education I had. However, I realize that means potentially sending my kids into the same toxic racial environment that I had to experience. I can already tell that this will be a decision I struggle with as a parent in the future: I don’t want to give my kids a good education and a greater chance at a good life at the expense of sending them into an uncomfortable environment. However when thinking of myself, even though I received trauma and identity issues that I will be working on for a long time, I am still grateful for my time at Packer and for my parents for sending me to Packer. I believe it’s the right decision even if it’s not the safest one. I want to note that if I send my kids to a private/independent school, I would be sending them in middle school like I was and not from pre-k; I don’t want them to be a lifer. There’s a lot more that goes into my reasoning for sending my future kids to a private school but I don’t want to make the article about my thoughts for this question.

Admin “B”: Absolutely not. If I didn’t attend Packer I would have attended a well-funded public school. I’ve spent 90% of my time at Packer regretting my decision to come here. The public school I would have attended was also predominantly white, but I remember there being much more diversity, and this not limited to racial diversity. The lack of diversity in ethnicity, religion, ability, and socio-economic status at Packer was a huge culture shock to me, and being immersed in such an exclusive environment does not prepare you for interacting with others in the real world, let alone the city we live in. I’m extremely grateful to have been given an opportunity at a school where the 1% send their kids, departments are properly funded (except diversity but that’s another conversation), abroad experience is offered, and where I could explore non-academic interests. However, I can’t say with confidence that those privileges were worth the cost of feeling invisible for four whole years.The word invisible is not something that I use lightly, and it goes to show how although Packer has granted opportunities to explore my sense of self, it has forced me to give up parts of myself that I should never have to give up… parts of my identity that I never had to give up in my predominantly white middle school. If I have kids, I will be sending them to public school, and help them navigate the high school admission process to get matched with a well-funded school like I did. $200,000 would be better spent on a college education.

Admin “C”:  Possibly. A lot of the top public schools are also very racially divided, even if they aren’t predominantly white. Stuyvesant is less than 5% Black. I might choose Packer over that kind of environment. I definitely wouldn’t have my kids go to a private or majority white elementary or middle school. The students with the most difficult experiences are typically those who went to Packer for Lower and Middle school. It just wasn’t a safe place to come of age for Black kids. I went to mostly lower to middle class Afro-Caribbean public schools before Packer. Those schools allowed me to develop a non-racialized sense of self worth, and friendships that weren’t disrupted by class differences. I don’t know if I would have graduated from Packer without that foundation. It reassured to me that my issues were situational, so I evaded a lot of the identity related confusion and pain my peers went through. My kids would have to have a strong foundation before going to a school where they are not fully accepted or well represented. Packer offered me a number of wonderful opportunities and I’m more than happy with the education I received, but I wonder if the public school I matched with would have provided a similar education in a less racist and elitist environment. I also want to add that I had it pretty easy. I keep to myself so I didn’t run into too many issues. It’s a very different story for my extroverted peers.

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