@blackatspecialized: How Can We Address Stuyvesant High School’s Race Problem?

Black and Hispanic students speak out on the culture surrounding racism at Stuyvesant. Stuyvesant must respond: how can both students and staff make the school a more inclusive place?

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Introduction To The @blackatspecialized Project

Each year after the SHSAT results are released, New York Times writer Eliza Shapiro publishes an article titled, “Only 7 Black Students Got Into Stuyvesant, N.Y.’s Most Selective High School, Out of 895 Spots.” Sometimes, it’s titled “Only 8 Black Students Are Admitted to Stuyvesant High School.” In 2020 it was titled, “This Year, Only 10 Black Students Got Into N.Y.C.’s Top High School.”

When Shapiro compiles the experiences of Stuyvesant’s Black students into a repetitive statistic, it’s easy for New York Times readers to look at the low numbers without much thought. Non-Black members of the Stuyvesant community can see these numbers, think “what a shame,” and move on with their day. But for Black students at Stuyvesant, these numbers hold meaning. They mean that Black students can go an entire day without seeing someone who looks like them, or that they’ll often be the only Black student in each of their classes, or that they’ll witness discrimination that other people may quickly forget. Because there are so few Black students at Stuyvesant, it’s often difficult for them to even discuss their experiences with other students, either because others can’t relate or won’t take the issues seriously.

In my time at Stuyvesant, it has become clear that my Black peers do not feel that they are able to share negative experiences with racism and discrimination.

This summer, I wanted to provide a platform for students to share their stories and be heard across specialized high schools. I created an Instagram account called @blackatspecialized, where students are able to share their experiences with race at these schools. In the two months since I started the account, over 100 students have shared their stories on the page, and the account has gained over 1,400 followers.

An overwhelming number of stories focus on staff, teachers, and students at Stuyvesant. An anonymous submission on July 30 stated, “There was a teacher who said the N-word in a music class at [Stuyvesant]. Over six students reported him. He got a little talk from the administration and came by the class to explain himself, but [he] didn’t even say sorry. I think this was poorly handled.” Another student shared, “My White teacher made a project based on sharecropping [...] and said that we had to do the project ‘because it’s historic.’” The project required students to create a song parody singing from a sharecropper’s point of view. Another submission critiqued Stuyvesant staff who confiscate du-rags: “Several staff have chosen to take durags from students because it is a symbol of ‘gang violence,’ but nobody takes those bandanas White girls wear.” This behavior from teachers is inappropriate, and it is a big contributor to the uncomfortable culture around race at Stuyvesant. Adults are in a position of power, and they are supposed to create a safe and welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds. It reflects poorly on the school as a whole when efforts from the administration to combat racism are undermined by contradicting actions from their staff.

Students have also shared stories of discrimination and microaggressions from their peers on the Instagram account. One of the most liked posts on the page reads “Two non-Black kids dressed up in African dashikis, traditional wear, on [Stuylloween] costume day—one with a curly wig.” Several students also wrote that they often heard the N-word and other discriminatory language used around their school, as illustrated in the list of quotes from various anonymous submissions. The people who have interviewed with the @blackatspecialized project or submitted a story may be using social media as a platform to express their concerns because they don’t feel that they will be heard in their schools. In the following interviews, students echo this idea when discussing the administrative approach to racism.

Interviews with @blackatspecialized Respondents

“I don’t think I have had any conversations with teachers or faculty or anything regarding racism […] a lot of people don’t acknowledge it at all, which can honestly be really frustrating.” —Prapti Biswas, sophomore

“The [administration] kind of tries to cover up racism […] if there is an actual racist incident they try really hard to hide it because they want to project this image that we are all perfect and the best school and [that] there are no racist people here, which is just not true.” —Henry Ji, junior

“There are Respect For All month guidance push-ins where [the administration] talks about racism, but then it never comes up again, and when something actually needs to be done, it gets brushed off to the side. It feels really performative. They aren’t really interested in doing anything about it, they're just making themselves look good for show and to make the students think that they have the support of their school when in reality they don’t.” —River Soto, sophomore

“It’s upsetting to know that people just a few years younger than me will most likely have to find a way to cope with the same or worse experiences than my own, because racism knows no bounds. My school does not care about racism and they refuse to stop anything that happens. Any offender gets a flick on the wrist and proceeds to go on with their life.” — Anonymous, junior

“I like how socially aware most of my teachers are [...] but I dislike how a lot of racist incidents go unreported. We are scared of what happens when we do report them, because the people we report are now aware that we told on them and are not facing severe consequences or any consequences at all from our administration.” —Reem Khalifa, sophomore

“[Stuyvesant] should treat us and our problems as if they are more important than the way the school is treating them right now, because being Black at Stuy isn't really a topic that's discussed. It kinda gets brushed over because there isn’t a big population of us.” —Samaria Noel, junior

“About the way reports are handled, I feel like sometimes it's 50-50 if they are actually going to do something or not. I feel like they don’t take it as seriously as they should, because making sure that all your students feel comfortable in the school is a number one priority [...] when my music teacher said things about how they would've voted for Trump or how the first time they met a Black person was when they were 19, that stuff is not really acceptable in a school setting and it made me and my classmates feel uncomfortable. So, I feel like they should be more serious about how they handle it.” —Malcolm West, junior

Anonymous Submissions to the @blackatspecialized Account

“The amount of people that are secretly racist at Stuy is so crazy to me. Once I was talking to my friend about disparities in the education system and the percentage of Black students that get into a specialized school and he said that most of them just aren’t smart or capable enough.” —Anonymous Submission, August 27

“Before coming to Stuy, I browsed the school website, and there was a banner with a Black student under the spotlight standing among their peers. It's so sad how Stuy tries to show off the ‘diversity’ instead of just owning up.” —Anonymous Submission, August 17

“So crazy how someone posted ‘I'm honestly just curious about what’s wrong with a White lives matter shirt’ on the Stuy confessions page, and nobody interacted with that post. It had like nine reactions, and only two people decided to say something. Thank you to those two people, but this school always chooses to ignore stuff like this.” —Anonymous Submission, October 5

“Even as a South Asian, [and] even with the huge South Asian population at Stuy, I still feel like I don’t fit in because of the amount of East Asians. Just naturally, I can’t insert myself into a group of East Asians the same way an East Asian would. That brings me to wonder how left out Black students at Stuy feel. There are barely any people who look like them. The imposter syndrome must be out the surface.” —Anonymous Submission, September 1

“For the past two years [...], one Big Sib chair has been Black, and my non-Black friend keeps telling me that they only got the position because they are Black.” —Anonymous Submission, August 27

“The Latina workers at the McDonald’s by Stuy are consistently mocked by this group of White and Brown boys for their accents.” —Anonymous Submission, August 1

“At Stuy I heard some (non-Black) kids ‘joking around’ and making fun of Tourette’s, and then one of them proceeded to say the N-word and pass it off as part of the act.” —Anonymous Submission, August 13

“I was at the deli near Stuy[vesant] and this kid and his White friend were in line. They were talking about Black coffee and the kid goes ‘I like N-words in my coffee.’ The White friend was like ‘omg stopppp’ like it was a joke.” —Anonymous Submission, August 1

@blackatspecialized Data Analysis

To gain a better understanding of the opinions of different racial groups at specialized schools, I surveyed 200 anonymous specialized high school students. The following figure is separated into Black/Hispanic, White, and Asian groups, to measure their agreement with the listed statements on a scale of one to five.

There is a striking difference between the response of Black students and the response of White students when answering the question, “I have felt uncomfortable at my specialized high school because of my racial or ethnic background.” When rating their agreement to this question on a scale of one to five, Black students averaged a 4.15 out of five while White students averaged a 1.73 out of five. Black and Hispanic students also averaged 2.69 when rating their agreement to the statement, “I fit in socially at my specialized high school.” These data points echo what has been shared on the @blackatspecialized account. A submission from September 21 states, “I find it exceedingly difficult to make friends with people who look like me, especially when you consider the fact that only 1.4 percent of the students here [are] Black. Most of the students here will never have life experiences like me or have to deal with the same things that I did because of my race.” Students feel that friend groups are almost segregated into different racial groups, and that being Black or Hispanic has impacted their ability to socialize.

When responding to the statement, “I have heard or seen student(s) using slurs or being discriminatory toward other students at my specialized high school,” Black and Hispanic students averaged a 4.15. White and Asian students averaged 3.18 and 3.34, respectively. It is worth noting that while all racial groups surveyed indicated a strong agreement (3+) to this statement, Black and Hispanic students agreed more. A possible explanation for this is that Black and Hispanic students are able to notice and recognize harmful microaggressions, whereas White and Asian students simply may not because they have experienced less of it at their school. Multiple Black and Hispanic interviewees supported this idea by sharing that after their non-Black or Hispanic friends viewed the @blackatspecialized account, they actually reached out to them to ask if they had done anything that could have come off as discriminatory. One Bronx Science interviewee said, “I’ve seen a lot of my non-Black friends follow [@blackatspecialized] and I feel like it really shows them how much [...] we get told racist things even though they might not notice. [Out of] my friends who have been reading the posts, one even asked me, ‘Have I done anything like that to you? Because I've noticed that there are a lot of things I might not have known are racist but are actually offensive.’”

Not enough non-Black or Hispanic students are aware of the discrimination in our school, which is why it is important for the administration to promote discussion around racism and take action steps toward making Stuyvesant an anti-racist space.

The Stuyvesant Administrative Response to Racism and Discrimination

While there are teachers and staff who have acted in racist ways, there have been efforts to combat racism that students should be aware of. Firstly, the administration cannot always be transparent about their response to reports about racism. All racial groups surveyed rated their agreement to the statement “My specialized high school adequately, quickly, and properly responds to reports of racism surrounding discrimination” negatively, with an average of 2.3. It is clear that students are unhappy with the way reports are being addressed at Stuyvesant, but it is important to keep in mind that the staff who handle reports are not able to disclose what disciplinary action they took. While this can be frustrating, it doesn’t mean that nothing is being done about the situation. The administration follows guidelines set by the NYCDOE Discipline Code, or Citywide Behavioral Expectations to Support Student Learning which can be found on the DOE website. The code has evolved over time—in the past, the discipline code was zero-tolerance. If a student said a slur, there was harsh disciplinary action taken. However, the current version of the NYCDOE discipline code says in its mission statement, “New York City believes that overly punitive methods of discipline are not in the best interests of students, fail to advance school safety, and can harm students’ long-term potential.” The DOE has moved toward restorative justice, encouraging staff to address student behavior in a manner that “enables students to learn from their mistakes and be accountable for their misconduct,” instead of more punitive disciplinary responses. There is controversy surrounding whether restorative or punitive discipline is better, but regardless, administrators must use it as a guideline when addressing racism. While staff cannot disclose to students what action they’ve taken, students can use the NYCDOE discipline code as a resource to see what general steps administrators are instructed to take, what rights students have in the report process, and various options for disciplinary action.

While Stuyvesant may have to stick to NYCDOE policy when addressing reports, the administration has also been putting effort into addressing racism in other areas. Last spring, the guidance office, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) team, and I, as a student coordinator, worked to create the Respect for All program. Lectures were presented to each freshman homeroom during two of their lab periods throughout the month of February, focusing on anti-racism education. Soto commented that the Respect For All month program seemed performative, because the discussion “never came up again.” In order for these initiatives to create change and not come off as performative, they should be supported by the rest of the school. It is important that staff continue conversations about racism and discrimination, even outside the month of February. This allows initiatives like Respect for All to be more impactful, because it is not the only space for students to discuss race.

It is more difficult to feel comfortable discussing race as a community if conversations around race are isolated within Black History Month, or only happen because of initiatives created by Black and Hispanic people. As Vice President of the Black Students League, I can also confidently say that the guidance office, DEI, and select administrators have shown us respect and support when we have shared our concerns with them. They have taken time to meet with us, hear what we have to say, and outline next steps. They’ve also been working hard to make the school a more inclusive place. Earlier this school year, Principal Yu and the DEI team set into motion a plan to modify the school’s mission statement to include a mention of being an “anti-racist” school, soon to be added to the Stuyvesant website. The Stuyvesant Mosaic organization has also provided a space for parents of Black and Hispanic students to meet and socialize with each other.

However, it is not acceptable for the administration to rely on select administrators, the guidance office, or the DEI team to address racism at Stuyvesant by themselves. Senior Suki Ferguson said,* “You need to be sensitive when it comes to relaying information and teaching students of color […] Just being inclusive in what you teach by teaching in a way that's not censored but also effective, and doesn’t make students uncomfortable.” All teachers should be making a conscious effort in their classes—especially in English and Social Studies classes—to consider how their words and lessons may impact students of color. Students at Stuyvesant also need to do their part in speaking up against racism.

Staff should make the school a place where it is safe for students to speak about racism, but students should also make a conscious effort to speak up when they see something wrong. Senior Samantha Farrow said,* “At Stuyvesant there aren’t a lot of people […] who would stand up in their privilege to say, ‘That isn't right, you shouldn’t say that,’ and until we get to that point where people can say ‘Hey, it’s my role as someone privileged in this conversation to say that this isn't right,’ then I’ll feel like we've made good strides in racial equity at Stuyvesant […] but at this point I don't think we are even close to being there.”

The school should also improve transparency when it comes to their response to racism and discrimination. Students receive frequent communication with the administration, whether it be through weekly emails, morning announcements, or Talos blogs, but there is no clearly communicated policy that details the school’s non-tolerance of racism, or expectations of how students should ask. We have an existing Spiral of Communications for the Homework Policy, which is frequently distributed, and helps to clear up any confusion for students who have an academic complaint. Stuyvesant should have something similar that concerns an anti-discrimination policy. We need to make sure students know who they can talk to about any racial discomfort they are experiencing, and we should also make it clear to all students what is expected of them when it comes to respect.

Since July 30, over 1,400 students have engaged with the @blackatspecialized account since its creation, and most have shared the same sentiment: the current environment at Stuyvesant High School (and other specialized high schools) needs improvement. Efforts from the administration need to be met with open-mindedness from students in order to create a shift in culture—students and the administration both need to play a role in shaping the school into a more inclusive space.

*Quotes from Samantha Farrow and Suki Ferguson come from interviews conducted by Features writer Soobin Choi.