At first glance, the photo looks almost harmless.
There she stands, wearing a Yale sweatshirt and wielding a hockey stick, her critter pants tucked into duck boots. She is Maya Peterson, the first black, female, gay student body president of The Lawrenceville School, a prestigious boarding and day school in New Jersey. But this March, when she posted the picture to Instagram with hashtags including #confederate and #romney2016 in open mockery of her white male classmates, Peterson triggered a large backlash from the school and many of its students.
“You’re the student body president, and you’re mocking and blatantly insulting a large group of the school’s male population,” commented one student on Instagram.
Later that month, the Lawrenceville School asked Peterson to either resign as student body president or face disciplinary action. Peterson has since stepped down and graduated, but she clarified to BuzzFeed that her scornful picture was definitely intentional.
“Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians,” Peterson said. “If that’s a large portion of the school’s male population, then I think the issue is not with my bringing attention to it in a lighthearted way, but rather why no one has brought attention to it before.”
But the conversation about minorities’ experiences at elite institutions started long before Peterson’s Instagram post — and to some it hasn’t changed much since its inception.
“When I read about Maya’s situation I thought, ‘Wow! People are still having these conversations about confederate flags, about diversity in the curriculum, about micro aggression and cultural bias and implicit bias,'” said Stacey Patton, rattling off a long list of recurring issues. She’s an enterprise reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and she remembers what it was like to be a black scholarship student at Lawrenceville in 1996.
Patton came from a foster home in Trenton to Lawrenceville’s campus, where she became one of the 10 black kids in a class of approximately 200 students. She recalls the shock of seeing confederate flags hanging in several white students’ rooms and the prickly attempts to mitigate class differences, but she also remembers having teachers and mentors to turn to for positive conversation and validation of experiences.
“This situation is not unique — it’s happening across the country. It’s not a prep school thing; it’s an American thing,” Patton said. “This Maya situation, I fear, is going to be used as a way to scapegoat African-Americans who are on campus. Others will say, ‘See! This is what we’re talking about! This is what happens with you diversify and get rid of our traditions!'”
Patton’s fears are already being confirmed. Emails have been circulating on the Lawrenceville alumni listserve expressing concern for the diversification of the student body, specifically the growing number of Asian students. Patton says there has been a year-long campaign of dissatisfaction by a group called ‘Concerned Lawrenceville Alumni’ who claim that Asian students don’t participate in the school’s traditions, such as American football. The ‘Concerned Lawrenceville Alumni’ group includes men and women from graduating classes as early as 1952 and as recent as 2012.
“Maya’s election — a black female who’s an out lesbian — is symbolic for these people of what they see as the degradation of this school and its time-honored traditions,” said Patton.
For the past few months, Patton has been receiving emails from this group in response to Peterson’s resignation and other events. One email was titled “PC Gone Wild.”
“As a black alumni, when you get these kinds of emails, you’re like: You’re talking about me! You’re talking about people who look like me! This is our school too!”
The Lawrenceville School is approaching its 50th year of admitting black students and is in its third decade of admitting girls. Just over half of its student body is white. It is the most expensive private high school in the country (the 2013-2014 annual tuition charge was $53,320 for boarders), with an alumni roster that includes Michael Eisner, former CEO of The Walt Disney Company; Jay Carney, former White House spokesman; and Ricardo Maduro, former president of Honduras.
The school has kept itself at arms length from the Peterson resignation, refusing to comment on the specifics and instead issuing a general statement about the school’s commitment to engaging with diversity issues in productive ways.
For many, this feels like a missed opportunity.
“The way it was handled suggests that, if you had to say they took a side, it wasn’t hers,” said Dr. Camille Charles, a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania who specializes in racial attitudes, intergroup relations, and minorities in higher education.
“She has the right to express what it feels like to be her in that environment. And so to be punished for it in a sense and vilified for it is just really unfortunate. I think the big thing is that it’s teaching all of the students that you can shut this conversation down if you want to and that it’s in fact wrong to talk about it.”
Charles added, “It also illustrates the difficulty of really changing societal norms because, when faced with that moment, they made the ‘safe’ decision.”
Patton believes that change has to come from all directions, from students in the past, present and future, and especially from alumni across the racial spectrum.
“It’s always black people who end up being most vocal about these things. I’d like to see Asians speaking up. And I think Maya’s going to be the better for this experience for sparking this painful dialogue,” Patton said.
Maya Peterson declined to be interviewed for this story. This fall she plans to attend Wesleyan University, which counts among its notable alumni Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?”
(An earlier version incorrectly stated the school Peterson will attend this fall)