In September, a black female student discovered a racist comment scraped into the door of her dormitory room at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. A week later, the faces of six black students were crossed out with a magic marker on a photograph hanging on a dormitory bulletin board at Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn.
Now, one week since at least 23 black students at St. Paul's School in Concord, N.H., received letters in the mail that students said read, "bang bang get out of here," the unsolved incidents are sparking painful soul-searching by administrators and students. They have reawakened worries about race relations on prep school campuses.
A half century after the nation's most prestigious preparatory schools undertook major recruitment and aid initiatives to transform their all-white student bodies, significant numbers of blacks, Latinos, and Asians attend today, and the schools trumpet the diversity of their student body. But some minority students say the cultures of the campuses have yet to catch up with the marketing.
Word of the hateful messages sent to St. Paul's students spread quickly among prep school students in the region, particularly those from minority groups, many of whom know one another from programs such as Beacon Academy in Boston, which readies students for prep school. For many, it provoked bitter feelings about the persistence of racial problems.
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"There was a frustration among students that, as much as we talk about it, racism is still an issue," said Heather Flewelling, director of student multicultural affairs at Milton Academy, where whole class periods, at students' behest, were devoted this week to discussing the St. Paul mailings.
And why is racism an issue? Well, because of misunderstandings and stereotypes that our society is replete with:
What is more pressing, say students, is the abundance of cultural misunderstandings by white students who have had limited contact with minorities. Some white students mistakenly assume their minority classmates are like blacks they see portrayed in the media, say minority students.
"They're always asking me questions like, 'Do you wear Rocawear clothes?' " said Carlos Lopes, 16, of Charlestown, who attends Tabor Academy in Marion, referring to a brand of clothing popular among hip-hop artists. "They assume I know how to rap and how to dance. I do dance, but I don't rap."
Lopes said white students also constantly questioned his language and tried to mimic phrases he used such as "mad corny," which means silly, until he modified the way he speaks.
Kelicia Hollis, 17, of Little Rock, a senior at Phillips Academy Andover, said she has not experienced the same level of scrutiny and that she feels accepted on her campus. Even so, she said, white students often assume there are no differences between racial groups, particularly when a black American is a leading Democratic presidential contender.
"I hear a lot of people say that racism and stereotypes don't exist," Hollis said. "But it's important to remember that we're different and that we won't always see things the same way."