Over the past few weeks, as the Black Lives Matter movement has grown following outrage over the killing of George Floyd, high school students have leveraged every social media platform to call out their peers for racist behavior.
Students have repurposed large meme accounts, set up Google Docs and anonymous pages on Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, and wielded their personal followings to hold friends and classmates accountable for behavior they deem unacceptable.
“People will post videos of people saying the N-word, or videos where they’re being racist or using derogatory words and stuff like that, and they go viral,” said Sophia Gianotti, 16, a sophomore at Whitesboro High School in Whitesboro, N.Y., where a teacher was recently criticized for stating that “all lives matter” in a virtual school event. (He later apologized.)
On June 2, an anonymous Instagram account dedicated to exposing racism at San Marcos High School in San Marcos, Calif., appeared online. Oseas Neptali Garcia, 19, a senior, noticed it almost immediately. The account was shared across group chats and Instagram Stories, and within a few hours had amassed about 900 new followers.
The account began sharing screen shots and videos of students at the school using racial slurs, engaging in cultural appropriation, participating in the “George Floyd challenge” and making insensitive remarks. The names and handles for each student were included in the posts.
Within 48 hours, the account had grown to nearly 3,000 followers. “Pretty much the whole school was following,” Mr. Garcia said. Some students, angry after being outed, began submitting fake and Photoshopped images to the account in an attempt at retaliation. Virtual fights broke out between friends. Soon after, the page was shut down.
The San Marcos High School call-out page is one of dozens that have appeared on Instagram in recent weeks. “These pages are popping up left and right,” said Ethan Ramirez, 18, a graduate of Bowie High School in Austin, Texas. “There’s ones that are region-specific, high school-specific and district-specific.” Several large meme accounts have also now devoted themselves to exposing racist behavior.
Students are invited to submit screen shots of problematic behavior, which are in turn shared to an audience of sometimes thousands online. “They allow people to submit anonymous info or images or videos. They’ll cross out the sender’s name but leave the racist person’s contact info basically for everyone to call them out,” Mr. Ramirez said.
Francesca Valle, 17, a student at Verona High School in Verona, N.J., started an account called @exposingracists.nj for her school district and those around it.
“I get a lot of DMs from people sending racist things their classmates have said online, things people have said in livestreams, on Snapchat stories,” she said. “If I have their Instagram or Snapchat, I’ll post that along with their racist behavior because I believe in having productive conversations. My aim is not to send people to bully these people; it’s to send people to go educate and inform them about what they’re saying and how they’re wrong.”
But often, the result is a social media pile-on: harassment, doxxing, cancellation. Brynna Barry, 16, a student at a Catholic day school in Jacksonville, Fla., learned this firsthand.
After posting some advocacy on Instagram and TikTok for the Blue Lives Matter movement, Ms. Barry, whose father is a police officer, was met with vicious harassment. Her posts spread across her peers’ Instagram feeds, and “my own friends were commenting that I was racist, that they can’t support me,” she said. “Things travel fast. I’m nervous about my address getting leaked.”
Bigotry on Video
For students who have been on the receiving end of racial slurs for years, these Instagram accounts can feel like the only theater of justice they have. Jayden York, 18, a recent graduate of Bowie High School, decided to share a Snapchat post his former girlfriend had made, posting it on his own Snapchat. In it, she used the N-word as she stated that she would “never date” a black person again.
“Within 30 minutes it had 1,000 views, and it blew up on Twitter,” he said. “At first I was like, she deserved it. She just doesn’t understand the stuff we have to go through. I thought I’d put her on blast so she got a little taste of what we have to go through.”
Solange Dzeketey, 15, a black student at Pacific Ridge School in Carlsbad, Calif., said that she understands the feeling of wanting justice for having to endure a lifetime of discrimination. She follows one account called Exposing Ignorance on Instagram and has seen students from surrounding high schools exposed for bigoted behavior. But because she trusts her school’s administration, she has shied away from outing peers on social media.
“One of the assistant principals at my school, he’s in the Black Student Union,” Ms. Dzeketey said. “He made it clear that if anyone at our school makes racist remarks or is enabling them we should let him know so he can speak with their parents.” When she spotted a classmate comparing black people to dogs on Instagram last Tuesday, she flagged it to the administration. “I believe that they’re working on it right now,” she said.
Many students believe the only consequence their peers will take seriously is having their college admissions letter rescinded. “I’m not trying to target freshmen or middle schoolers, but people who are about to go to college need to be held accountable for what they say,” said Anamika Arya, the 16-year-old administrator of @Smithtown_Racist_Callouts, which is focused on Smithtown, N.Y.
“People who go to college end up becoming racist lawyers and doctors. I don’t want people like that to keep getting jobs,” Mx. Arya added.
“People think when you call out a racist student, it’s ruining their life,” said Mariwa Gambo, 15, a junior at a New York City public school. “But when you prevent them from advancing, you’re helping to stop the spread of racist lawyers or doctors or people who make it harder for the black community.”
Skai Jackson, an 18-year-old actor and YouTube star, has shared a steady stream of videos and screen shots of fellow teenagers doing racist things with her more than half a million followers on Twitter.
She tweeted that she’d already received over 3,000 DM requests from fans asking her to expose people they knew. “People go through these struggles every day in life, and for me, it’s kinda like my duty with the big platform that I have, to use it for good,” she said in an interview with “Entertainment Tonight.”
Anonymous Google Docs have also become a tool for accountability. “They made a Google spreadsheet w/the info of racist students who post racist comments on social media. won’t you look at that,” one young woman tweeted on June 4. “Someone rly started a Google doc of racists and their info for us to ruin their lives. i love Twitter,” another said.
These lists often contain students’ full names, school information, social media profiles, contact information, the college they plan to attend if available and sometimes screen shots or an overview of their racist behavior. “Some people say, ‘You’re ruining their lives,’” Karina Carbajal, 22 and the creator of one of the Google Docs, told Forbes. “I think it’s the only way to prove to them that actions do have consequences.”
For days, Yarelis Nuñez, 17, had been gripped by Instagram accounts revealing (mostly anonymously) the experiences of black students at elite private and prep schools around the United States.
There is @BlackAtLovett, which was created June 4, and is dedicated to the experiences of students at Lovett School in Atlanta. (“Students that I have never talked to were ‘petting’ me,” wrote a student who came to school with new braids.)
There are @BlackAtBrearley (“A white classmate told me I didn’t need to worry about the college process because I could get in anywhere as an affirmative action candidate,” a graduate wrote) and @BlackAtChapin (“We still don’t know how Chapin administration thought ‘Ask Me About My Whiteness’ was a good campaign. We have since left the school,” wrote one former member of the school community). Each account was created this month to give voices to black students and alumni of two of the most elite girls-only private schools in Manhattan.
When Ms. Nuñez noticed this past weekend that a “BlackAt” account had been created at the school she recently graduated from, Grace Church School in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City, she decided to share the story of when the “N-word” appeared in a play during drama class.
The white student whose turn it was to read paused before saying the word and looked to the teacher for guidance. The teacher, a visiting artist, noticed the silence “and proceeded to say, ‘It’s okay, it’s just a word, you can say it,’” Ms. Nuñez wrote in the post. “After a few moments of silence and trying to understand where she was coming from, with all of her might she broke that silence by saying the n word loud and clear.”
She didn’t report the incident to the administration, Ms. Nuñez said in an interview Monday night, because she didn’t think it would act on it quickly and because witnessing a teacher uncritically saying a word that “we all knew the harmful nature of” made her feel startled, confused and unsure if anyone would care.
Ms. Nuñez, who will attend Wesleyan University in the fall, said three former classmates have reached out to her to say, “I remember when that happened that made me really uncomfortable too.”
The @BlackAtGrace account was started by two black women, one who graduated in 2019 and one who will be a senior at Grace Church School in the fall, on Saturday. By Sunday it had more than 500 followers. By Tuesday morning it had more than 1,100.
The women who manage the account — which includes several stories about black students being confused for other black students by administrators and others about the use of the N-word — did not want their names revealed publicly. They are not concerned about retribution from administrators, they said, so much as they don’t want people who are sending stories to post to see the account as anything other than a blank screen to receive their testimony, like a confessional booth at church.
“It’s about the school taking accountability for the pain it has inflicted,” one of the women said.
After a post on Monday castigating Grace for its silence, the school responded. “The process of combating racism is messy, and it cannot come without discomfort from those with power and privilege,” read the statement posted on Instagram. The post included a caption that said, in part: “We commend @blackatgrace for providing a space in which these painful experiences can be brought into the light and for pushing the school toward making good on its promise to become an anti-racist institution.”
In an interview Tuesday morning, Grace’s head of school, George Davison, said, “Our society is filled with racism and schools are not hermetically sealed from it.” The school has 780 students in grades pre-K through 12. About 15 percent of the student body self-identifies as black, and 35 percent of students identify as people of color.
Last year, students complained to advisers that the use of casual and overly racist language had become intolerable, Mr. Davison said, and the school has made some progress addressing these concerns, but not yet enough. “Racism has persisted, it is pernicious and it is hard to stamp out.”
He said he is proud of the @BlackAtGrace Instagram account. “One of the things we want our students to have is agency and the voice to speak up for what is right.”
Meredyth Cole, the head of the Lovett School in Atlanta, said the school has not addressed on social media the @BlackAtLovett Instagram account, which was created on June 4 by two alumni, Ashley Jeffrey, an education policy analyst at a think tank in Washington, and Allison Burns, a rising second-year law student at the University of Virginia.
The account now has more than 3,000 followers. “I think it’s good that people are having conversations, but I would like to see more,” Ms. Burns said. “I would like to see public acknowledgment of theses stories and the pain.”
Ms. Cole said that commenting on an Instagram post is not the school’s way. “Social media has been a great platform for people to share their experiences but it’s not an effective platform for conversion and dialogue so we have not used it that way,” she said.
She has been reading the Instagram feed. “It’s really painful,” she said. But she would not address the content of the posts.
Some black students who attend these schools say they are only somewhat encouraged by the platform the accounts are providing, because they have not yet resulted in engagement or accountability from school administrators.
Chi Igbokwe, a 17-year-old rising senior at Andover, has posted several times to @BlackAtAndover, including: “The mere fact that I attend school with people who think ‘not liking black girls’ is a ‘preference’ and not an objectively racist statement proves that Andover students are not nearly as ‘progressive’ as they like to market themselves.”
A spokeswoman for Phillips Academy said in a statement that members of the administration had a meeting on Tuesday with student leadership “to discuss the broader implications of these posts and to consider a collaborative and productive way forward.” She was unavailable for an interview.
Ms. Igbokwe noticed that on the posts she contributed, and many (if not all) others, the people running the account tagged @phillipsacademy which would make the posts show up on the school’s official Instagram page. But those tags have been removed.
“It’s blatant silencing,” Ms. Igbokwe said in an interview, “which is a move I’m surprised they took because they’re very big on keeping up appearances.”
Ashley Álvarez, a recent graduate of Andover who will attend Harvard University this fall, has been reading the @BlackAtAndover account frequently and carefully. When Ms. Álvarez, who is Latina, saw a post describing an event she witnessed, in which students reported that a dorm adviser who is a member of the faculty had said that using the N-word was not a big deal and was common when she was growing up, Ms. Álvarez posted to her Instagram account to substantiate the details. “If you stay silent, you are complicit,” she said.
But for some black students, speaking up itself is a privilege. Summer Seward, a rising Andover senior, who has been reading the account carefully, is hesitant about posting herself. “I’m on full scholarship and that can very easily be taken away,” she said.