Winsor Students and Alumni Expose Racism and Call for Action on the School’s Instagram

By Elly P. ’21, Caitlin S. ’21, and Annie A. ’21

With protests continuing nationwide demanding an end to the systemic racism that kills Black Americans, Winsor students and alumni have begun to use Instagram as a way to publicly call on Winsor to create change within the school to foster a more just and welcoming environment for Black students. Through comments on a Winsor Instagram post, students and alumni have outlined their experiences with racism and classism at Winsor and urged the school to take tangible action against racism. These calls for action from Winsor students and alumni are connected to a larger movement of change, as many other local private schools have received similar responses on their social media platforms.

Winsor’s post, published on May 31, displays a quote from a letter Head of School Sarah Pelmas wrote “to the community,” according to the caption. The letter, however, was sent only to parents and alumni, not students. The first response to protests that most students saw from Ms. Pelmas and the Winsor administration was this Instagram post. In a letter to students sent on June 5, Ms. Pelmas and Winsor’s Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Julian Braxton, explained that students did not receive the first letter to the community due to technical difficulties with the systems responsible for sending such emails. This second letter addressed specific concerns that alumni have raised with the Winsor administration, such as hiring practices, diversity of the student body, and inclusion and diversity training for students, faculty, and parents; it did not mention the Instagram comments from students and alumni, of which there are, at the time of writing, 59. Many of the comments have been liked by over 50 people, and a few by over 100, indicating the widespread viewing of the post and the tremendous support members of the Winsor community have shown for the authors of the comments.

Amongst the comments calling for action and donations are comments about specific racist events that happened at Winsor. A comment from DeAndra Williams ’13 outlines one such occurrence. In the fall of 2012, a Black baby doll was moved from locker to locker as a “prank.” At first, it was just put in different lockers. However, it eventually was hung from a belt in a locker in a manner reminiscent of lynching, leading Black students from the class of 2015, the grade of the students involved in the incident, to ask Williams, a senior at the time, for help. She spoke to the students’ dean, Mr. Murdock, and eventually a homeroom was organized to discuss the so-called joke. There, Williams says that white members of the class told their dean they did not know what lynching was. No punishments were ever given to perpetrators, as Winsor administrators never identified them.

In an email to the Banner, Mr. Murdock said he was unable to comment on disciplinary issues due to Winsor’s privacy policy, which leaves the sharing of information to Ms. Pelmas. Ms. Pelmas, who was not yet at Winsor in 2012, told the Banner in an email, “I can tell you that there were several students and administrators (and some faculty) involved in resolving this situation. In fact, there was at least one homeroom in which it was addressed, after the investigation was finished. I can also tell you that, despite many discussions and research back then, no adult ever saw the doll, and no individual or group of people were ever identified as responsible for putting the doll in the locker.”

Williams also shared that outside of the specific horror of the hanging baby doll, she felt the ramifications of racism at Winsor. Throughout her eight years at Winsor, she often felt “uncomfortable, ignored, or openly disliked/the butt of teacher and students’ jokes.” In an interview conducted after she wrote her Instagram comment, she told the Banner that “I wish that the school had let me and my peers who went to Student Diversity Leadership Conference actually be leaders and host an assembly for the upper and lower school. I wish that adults generally would refrain from saying “children can’t handle XYZ” because I was told the same when I wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance for the lower-schoolers. Adults shy away from discussing topics with children that they themselves are uncomfortable and uninformed about. I get that now as a teacher. But it’s a disservice to kids. Children can conceptualize more than what some adults think they can.” There is now a lower-school Spectrum.

One of the students who asked Williams for help, Jacqui Dumornay ’15 told the Banner that “I really don’t think that [the Black baby doll] is an imagery I will ever forget.” She outlined other occurrences of racism she encountered at Winsor, saying, “I believe that current students would know what happened at that school within their lifetimes.” Throughout her time at Winsor, white students jokingly talked about wanting to start a white affinity group, not acknowledging why Black and other students of color needed the support affinity groups provide. Dumornay shared that “In 7th grade they [the white students] wanted to call it ‘Cool Kids Club.’” 

She also spoke about being forced to discuss and vote on whether or not her English class should read the n-word when it was shown in text and write the word out when quoting from Huckleberry Finn. She remembers being called into Ms. Grant’s office, the Head of the Upper School at the time, because a classmate incorrectly accused her and another Black student of calling someone a “white b****.” Due to Winsor’s privacy policy, Ms. Grant also was not allowed to comment on the specific event, but did share that “of course, the goal, then and now, is that all similar matters are handled as consistently as possible.”

Overall, Dumornay conveyed, “I love that Winsor is being called to task in the comments and that the Black experience at Winsor is being illuminated. And as for Winsor’s future, I would love to see increased emotional support for students of color. The racial trauma I endured there I will never forget. Winsor should be more intersectional in their curriculum offerings. Students should not have to wait until university to seriously interrogate tough issues.” 

Williams echoed Dumornay’s hope for Winsor to get deeper into intersectional issues: “I hope that discussing cycles of oppression becomes a more normalized part of English and History courses in the future. I felt like my teachers went out of their way to teach me about the marginalization of women but not about queer people, people of color, or religious minorities.” Rising senior Lillian Gibson ’21 shared this sentiment, saying “I think Winsor definitely strays away from these issues in a classroom setting. Though these topics can be hard to discuss, failing to [do so breeds] ignorance within students and faculty. For me, during the Dr. Ford/Kavanaugh hearing it seemed that Winsor pushed feminism, but it was clear that it was not intersectional. Sometimes it comes across that issues surrounding BIPOC or the LGBTQ+ community are not digestible or marketable for Winsor. We can all come together to discuss the alleged assault of a white woman against a white man but won’t discuss these issues on a broader scale or mention Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas. I don’t think it’s enough to cover these issues during a random assembly, most of the time student-led; they also need to be led by the school and weaved into the curriculum. Having more discussions helps students see that these are not political issues but human rights issues.”

Many other comments on the post ask what concrete actions Winsor is taking to educate students and faculty and create a safer environment for Black students. One such comment, from Mikako Murphy ’18, asked, “Has the school, the trustees, or the admin committed themselves to donating? To actually acting?” Her comment is the only one that Winsor specifically replied to, saying “Various concrete actions are being planned and we will keep the community updated as best we can.” In an interview with the Banner, Murphy explained why she commented, saying “I was tired of seeing Winsor get away with its performative activism, yet again. Actions speak louder than words, and Ms. Pelmas’ email regarding race relations at Winsor had way too many words. Black and POC students don’t need an empty commitment to ending the microaggressions and sometimes blatant racism at Winsor. They need to see action, support, and trust.” Although the administration did not share immediate concrete actions after George Floyd’s death, a number of teachers put their regular curriculum on hold to engage in discussions about race and police brutality, and many advisory groups watched educational videos and discussed the protests.

Winsor does have a series of long-term initiatives that Ms. Pelmas pointed to in her email to the school, including hiring practices that diversify faculty and staff; work to increase diversity in the student body; diversity and inclusion trainings for community members; the establishment of the Community Engagement, Diversity, and Social Justice Fund in 2019 to support teachers and students pursue social justice work; and the development of partnerships with Beacon Academy to share summer reading on inclusivity and Boston Latin School to host forums for faculty and staff of color. In an email sent on June 29, the third from the administration, Mr. Braxton pointed to a new webpage on the Winsor website that highlights community members’ work in the “fight for justice” and speakers that Winsor has hosted who have discussed equity and social justice. 

The website also includes Anti-Racism and Social Justice resources, including a tab called Take Action, Make Change that encourages community members to donate to organizations that combat racism and donate to Winsor’s Community Engagement, Diversity, and Social Justice Fund. This is the first movement from Winsor to encourage people to donate. When asked about Winsor’s donation policy, Ms. Pelmas replied, “Schools are nonprofits and as such focus their energies on supporting the education of our own students, including the justice and equity work within the school itself. I am interested that some people want the school to donate money elsewhere. That might suggest that education itself doesn’t do enough.”

As Ms. Pelmas said, a revised donation policy may be an aspect of a larger conversation about Winsor’s role as an educational institution. Comments on Winsor’s Instagram post point to a growing sense among students that Winsor should use its money to directly support protesters and its position to encourage parents and trustees of the school to use their money to donate. As Salma Ibrahim ’21 explained, Winsor’s location in the middle of Boston puts it nearby to the predominantly Black neighborhoods that face over-policing, meaning it should act as a member of the Boston community. As an alternative to directly donating, she suggested that “As a member of this community, the least Winsor could do is support student clubs that are willing to take action now and in the future by lifting the cap on club fundraisers and reserving more funds to promote and support student advocacy.” Winsor has a limit on the number of student-led fundraisers that can take place to prevent asking too much of the student body financially, but some community members believe changing this rule for clubs that focus on community outreach could further the school’s mission of developing generous-minded students.

Emma Charity ’21 thought that while the letter was detailed with Winsor’s on-going efforts, it was too late in coming to students: “I think the email sent by Ms. Pelmas, while it was detailed in terms of ongoing actions taken by the administration, could have been more of a proactive, offensive letter and less of an automatic defense. They put themselves in that position by not responding fast enough, but I was hoping to find things that the school would improve upon, potentially new actions inspired by current events or an acknowledgment of past mistakes.”

Charity hopes that Winsor uses the comments on their Instagram post to shape aspects of Winsor’s future work, remarking that a lack of response to the comments is just another indication of a lack of forward motion.“If they could organize something for the alumni (because clearly they are still coping with the pain caused by their time at Winsor) so they could vocalize these thoughts right to the administration and make suggestions, that could be very productive.”

Winsor is not the only “elite” private school to have racism highlighted by students via Instagram. On posts from Milton, Pingree, Dana Hall, and Belmont Hill, past and present students shared similar stories and questions. Further, a growing number of Instagram accounts dedicated to sharing stories of racism at schools have appeared in the past few weeks. @HiddenvoicesofWinsor, an account that describes itself as “A safe place to share the experiences of students who are BIPOC and/or LGBTQ+,” was started on June 17. The account posts eleven or twelve times a day, sharing recollections of racist, classist, and homophobic incidents occurring in classrooms and among students at Winsor. Similar accounts exist for many other schools and have begun to attract attention from people outside of the private school world. In fact, the Boston Globe even published an article about the accounts on June 23. Social media has proved to be a powerful tool for students to use their voices, and there is no indication that they plan to stop anytime soon.

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