By Helen McDonald
Some say a picture is worth a thousand words, and for Maya Peterson, the first Black, female, and queer student body president of Lawrenceville School, an Instagram photo said more about racism at the nation’s most expensive prep school than her classmates bargained for. Buzzfeed reported that earlier this year, Peterson posed for a picture wearing a Yale sweater, L.L. Bean boots, and holding a hockey stick to depict the typical “Lawrenceville boi.” The hashtags added to the picture included “#Romney2016,” “#Confederate,” and “#PeakedInHighSchool” as it made its debut on social media. Only three weeks after the picture’s release, the Lawrenceville School administration informed Peterson that she had to resign as student body president or face disciplinary actions.
It all started when Peterson posed with ten of her Black friends raising the Black Power salute for her senior photo and a number of Peterson’s classmates complained to the deans on the grounds that it represented “left-wing extremism,” in the words of student named David (’14). In response, Peterson took the “Lawrenceville boi” picture admitting, “Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians. 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…”
The most interesting aspect of this Lawrenceville situation is how uncritical the angry, white male students and the administration of this “prestigious” institution really are. The Dean of Students, Nancy Thomas, told the Lawrenceville School student paper that a substantial portion of the staff and student body felt “it was not fitting of a student leader to make comments mocking members of the community.” However, this stance ignores the racial violence that has surrounded the Lawrenceville School since for decades, if not centuries. It took 154 years for the school to admit Black students (not to mention that it took 177 years for the school to admit female students), but in the Lawrenceville School’s 204 years it has not managed to eliminate racism from its campus. Confederate flags still decorate many of the boarding houses, Black students are often greeted with racial slurs like “negro amigo” or even the n-word, and one white student went as far as to write a newspaper op-ed calling for an end to “student-directed minority representations” at the school.
Maya Peterson, in particular, has received a number of attacks for her beliefs and political stances. In her campaign for student body president, Peterson appealed to marginalized students who were tired of not hearing their voices heard. She created the role of “diversity representative” on the student council board to address race and gender problems on campus, and even advocated for gender-neutral bathrooms. “I didn’t become president to make sure rich white guys had more representation on campus,” Peterson asserted. “Let’s be honest. They’re not the ones that feel uncomfortable here.” Those “rich white guys” sure took offense to a president that was not going to defend their privilege and the attacks on Peterson’s character ranged from demands to see proof that the election wasn’t rigged, to fabricated pictures of Peterson smoking marijuana, to even pictures of Peterson naked in her room sent anonymously to the freshman class. Although the school administration defended the way they punished Peterson for her “Lawrenceville boi” photo by emphasizing that the school did not tolerate mockery of student body members, the administration did not investigate Peterson’s anonymous attackers.
Peterson’s experience and that of other students of color at Lawrenceville are not unique. These prep schools that pride themselves on being “institutions of higher learning” exist to defend the white supremacist, patriarchal, classist status quo. Although Peterson’s picture was just a joke to cope with the incredible backlash she received from some of her classmates, this incident sheds light on the racial tensions at this “elite” high school. Furthermore, by creating a caricature of these privileged white students, Peterson used the same mechanisms that these male students had been using to degrade her: she reduced them to a stereotype designed to limit how other people could see them. These “rich white guys” are not angry because Peterson made fun of them, but rather they are angry because her gesture threatens the power structures that support their privilege. In one picture alone, Peterson attacked the financial security and the white supremacist notions of these students, and she imitated the ease with which they could strip someone of their humanity.
Clearly, Maya Peterson’s picture is not actually a display of the mythical reverse racism that problematic white people cling to in times of trouble. The Lawrenceville School ought to thank Peterson for showing them the ugly face of the “Lawrenceville boi,” who places like the Lawrenceville School were founded to cultivate into the rich white men who profit from the colonization and continual subjugation of marginalized groups. Peterson’s photo and her high school experience draws attention to the reality of being a student of color in the “ivory tower.” As much as these schools endorse diversity programming, they champion multiculturalism only to the extent that it will normalize whiteness and white supremacy. Peterson put her foot down and decided that she did not want to be a prop for her school’s colorblind charade. Kudos to Peterson for disrupting the norm, even if only for a moment, and reminding us that when white men get angry, it probably means that we’re doing something right.
About the Author:
Helen McDonald is a 20-something college student living off of bad cooking, social justice and a lil snark. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog revolutionaryrainbows.tumblr.com.