Three days after an Upper School student posted a racist comment on his private Snapchat story, about 200 outraged and concerned students packed into the Chao Room for a forum promoting dialogue about diversity and inclusion on campus.
On Feb. 7, Unity Council, administrators and African American Affinity Group leaders hosted the forum to address the incident and encourage conversation. Due to the large turnout — one of the largest ever, according to Director of Community and Inclusion Gene Batiste — students and Unity Council leaders split into smaller groups and spread out across campus.
“I was concerned that the forum might not be taken seriously or might be a bit light, but it went well,” AAAG member William Wallace said. “The good thing about having an optional forum is that the people who actually care will be there, so there weren’t any real problems.”
Unity Council co-chair Matthew Yekell leads a discussion with students and faculty. Unity Council leaders asked questions about diversity and inclusion to promote discussion in their small groups.
Led by a Unity Council leader, each small group discussed questions focused on solutions and progress towards a more inclusive community.
“I was pretty surprised at the amount of knowledge in my group, especially [from] my non-black peers,” Wallace, a senior, said. “They were happy to tell me about misconceptions, experiences they’ve had or their opinion on the incident. I was genuinely impressed.”
The forum was one of several community responses to the incident, when a freshman posted a video of students dancing at the AAAG assembly on Feb. 4, with a caption comparing the event to a slave auction. The student who created the post is no longer part of the St. John’s community.
Two days after the story was posted, Head of Upper School Hollis Amley, Batiste and AAAG members Skylar Williams, Subi Farayibi and Eliot Aiman addressed the Upper School in another assembly to acknowledge the effects of the incident and discuss how to move forward.
“I was really proud of the School’s response,” freshman Nylah Ali said. “I liked how they explicitly called [the post] ‘racist and bigoted.’ The way the School responded to it promptly and transparently was really good.”
AAAG president Genson Hooper-Price addresses students and faculty at the forum. Several AAAG members discussed the impact the racist post had on them and other African American students.
Batiste noted the ironic timing of the post — three days prior to the incident, students had read the new SJS Statement on Community and Inclusion at the All-School Chapel, emphasizing the importance of respecting differences and creating a loving and caring environment for everyone.
“We need to find ways to affirm and celebrate each other as people from different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, political, cultural, religious, sexual and gender identities,” Batiste said. “We need to find ways of not just appreciating, but celebrating and embracing our differences.”
Batiste suggests that the School concentrate on the “phenomenal” AAAG assembly and how students and faculty rallied around administrators to deal with the situation: in less than 24 hours after the post was made, more than 30 students reported the racist comment to administrators.
“It’s important we have forums like this so we can talk about the healing and how we can grow and learn from a bad situation,” Batiste said. “I, quite frankly, don’t want to talk about the incident anymore because we will stay in a state of negativity if we just dwell on that.”
Wallace noted that although the School has demonstrated efforts to promote inclusion, the community still has far to go.
“Things are probably going to die down in the next few weeks, but in the future, we have to have these conversations and be uncomfortable,” he said. “Coach [Virgil] Campbell always says to me, ‘You have to find comfort in the discomfort,’ and that’s something that’s really resonated with me throughout this whole issue: It’s not comfortable, and it’s not an easy thing to talk about.”