When Maya Peterson was pressured to step down from her position as student body president at the prestigious Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, it wasn’t because she did anything wrong. It was simply because her sharp wit and uncomfortable truth-telling hurt the feelings of the rich, White boys at her school and the leadership found that unacceptable.
Unbelievable? No, unfortunately, it’s not.
Peterson reportedly spent much of her time at Lawrenceville — the most expensive prep school in the country — targeted for several reasons: for being Black; for being Latina; for being lesbian; for refusing to conform to the respectability standards that good, little Negroes are supposed to rigidly follow lest the dubious honor of moving among White people be stripped away.
After some White students raised hell because she and a group of friends dared to pose for a picture holding Black power fists high in the air, she decided to socialize a more acceptable picture, one more to their liking.
Peterson, a poet and softball powerhouse, posted an Instagram photo of herself dressed as a “typical Lawrenceville boi”: Yale sweatshirt, L.L. Bean duck boots, hockey stick and an unmistakably arrogant expression. The picture was captioned with several hashtags, including: #romney2016, #confederate, and #peakedinhighschool. Though she understood why White, male students were offended, she also made it clear that their hurt feelings were not her concern:
“Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians,” Peterson wrote. “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.
“I understand why I hurt people’s feelings, but I didn’t become president to make sure rich white guys had more representation on campus,” she said. “Let’s be honest. They’re not the ones that feel uncomfortable here.”
Yes to every, single word of that.
This is the type of uncompromising leadership that we need far beyond the privileged walls of Lawrenceville — unapologetically Black, fearless, with a willingness to step into the establishment and flip it upside down and inside out. Her brilliance every step of the way, from the picture to stepping down as student body president, is important to note. But what is even more important is the pathology of White expectations that this “controversy” exposes.
There are many privileged White men in this country who want us to believe that class, not race, is the sole issue and that sexism is exaggerated.
There’s that lie, then there’s this truth: women, particularly Black women, are never supposed to challenge the superiority of White men. We are never supposed to turn that mirror on them so they can see the ugliness some of them perpetuate, whether willfully or subconsciously. We are never supposed to let them see that their over-inflated sense of self-importance does not intimidate us. We are never supposed to speak truth about racism in racist environments.
We are never supposed to be in positions of power.
Instead, we are supposed to speak softly and ride a mean stick. We are supposed to be grateful, respectful, humble, happy and subservient. We are supposed to be Black shields that protect them from accusations of exclusivity, prejudice and institutionalized racism. Because look at the happy Black girl, racism couldn’t possibly dwell here.
It’s easy for rich, White folks to pretend to be inclusive when the Black people in their midst have assimilated to the point of being unrecognizable. It’s not so easy when we stand in our Blackness and demand respect.
Katie J. M. Baker reports for Buzzfeed:
Black Lawrenceville students told BuzzFeed that racial divides are pervasive. Many said they had been called racial epithets, ranging from “Negro amigo” to “n***er,” by white peers who didn’t understand “why they couldn’t say the word too.”
One student said she overheard her white male classmates call black students on an opposing basketball team “Trayvon,” after Trayvon Martin. Another pointed out a newspaper op-ed by a white student criticizing a Black History Month celebration for “descending” into a rap performance “crafted with too little, if any, subtlety.”
Others said they tired of answering “dumb questions about their hair” or whether they were on financial aid. Peterson recalled controversy over a Facebook post about Obama’s reelection in 2012. “As a black and Latino, gay woman in the United States of America, today is a momentous day,” she wrote. “I’m sorry to all the rich white men who have failed to elect a president that endorses their greed.” Dozens of students commented, attacking her for being racist herself.
“I’m gonna have to assume from your political beliefs and what you’ve said that you do not pay for your Lawrenceville tuition in its entirety,” one student wrote. (In fact, Peterson’s family paid full tuition.) “But do you know who pays for that? Yeah, that would be all those greedy white men who actually worked for their fortune, not relied on the government to support them. Just saying.”
But that level of hostility and racist stereotyping is perfectly acceptable, it seems. The leadership at Lawrenceville — a school where Confederate flags reportedly still line several dormitory-style houses, where Black men weren’t allowed to attend until the 1960s and women weren’t allowed to attend until 1987 — is more concerned about the loss of “tradition” and White, male students feeling disrespected than they are about the Ku Klux Klan logic of some of their students.
That is the perverse fallacy of racist White, male expectations. The belief that safe spaces for racism, homophobia and sexism should not only exist, but be protected and revered is one that thrives in a nation where White capitalist hetero-patriarchy is the golden standard that must be preserved at all costs.
Maya Peterson’s bold, revolutionary act has resonated far beyond the walls of Lawrenceville because it speaks to Black resistance and White cowardice in the face of entrenched racism. And in witnessing her stand in her truth, may others find the courage to stand in their own and continue to expose the layered lie of White supremacy.
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.