In late June, two rising sophomores created an Instagram account called Black at GDS as a forum for Black students, parents and alumni to anonymously share stories and thoughts about their experiences at GDS. The account’s contributors and followers quickly grew in number as word of Black at GDS spread throughout the community. Within weeks, more than a hundred stories had been posted.
The account was created in the wake of a series of killings of Black Americans by police and subsequent nationwide protests against police brutality—at a moment when the U.S. as a whole was reckoning anew with racism—to give voice to Black community members and to hold the school to account for its past faults. As of the date of publication, the account has made 194 posts, many of which express sharp criticism of the school and its management of racial issues.
“Right now, some people don’t feel safe at GDS,” one of the account’s managers said in an interview with the Bit. (The two students requested to remain anonymous so they aren’t viewed differently by peers or teachers.)
History teacher Richard Avidon said the issues raised by Black at GDS, centering around racism within the GDS community, were “threatening the very foundations” of an institution overtly—and, in some students’ minds, overly—proud of its roots as the first integrated school in Washington, D.C. Repeating the school’s founding story isn’t “good enough,” Avidon said. “That’s the start. That’s not the end.”
Sophomore William Edwards, who is Black, said he is tired of hearing about the school’s origins and believes GDS is in many ways “the manifestation of a toxic white savior complex.” He added, “It’s like they still think they’re doing us a favor letting us in with these white students.”
Many Black at GDS posts describe a school culture rife with racial insensitivity and occasional acts of blatant racism, sometimes exacerbated by a sense among non-Black students that their affiliation with GDS precludes them from being racist. “I am [a] GDSer so of course I’m not racist,” one post quotes a student as saying.
“I think it was an important moment of realization that we are not at all immune to the ignorance and the racism that exists in the world outside,” English teacher and 11th Grade Dean Khalid Bashir said.
Head of School Russell Shaw said in an interview that GDS students should be especially cognizant about racial issues: “Because you’re at GDS, it’s actually incumbent on you to think more and reflect more, and work harder to create an inclusive environment.” Shaw and Marlo Thomas, the director of diversity, equity and inclusion, expressed support for Black at GDS in an email to the community on June 30; their mention of the account helped to boost its online following.
Contributors to the account recalled stories of non-Black students mistreating them in a variety of ways—playing with their hair, questioning their blackness or the extent to which their admission to GDS was based on their intelligence, using racial slurs such as the n-word, complaining that social justice issues were brought up too often at school and inappropriately mentioning stereotypes associated with African Americans.
Several Black at GDS posts also point to a problem of misogyny and colorism among Black students. “Many times I’ve heard Black boys putting down darker-skinned girls,” one post reads. “They’re always saying that Black girls are ugly, and that they would never date us.” Another says, “Internalized racism from Black boys to Black girls is awful here.”
Edwards said that “Black boys at GDS have a tendency to idolize white people in a way” and can often feel pressure to “assimilate into GDS’ whiteness.”
“We fully understand that they can’t do everything,” one of the account’s creators said, referring to the GDS administration. “They cannot just make students stop doing these things. But I think there are things they can do, and as far as we know, they haven’t done them.” One suggestion the founders of Black at GDS mentioned in an interview was to better educate the student body on microaggressions against Black people.
Another major topic on the account is the school’s handling—or, as numerous posts assert, mishandling—of disciplinary cases regarding racial incidents, particularly those involving the use of the n-word. A manager of the account said that when it comes to non-Black students who have used the racial slur, the administration is “pretty good at sweeping things under the rug.”
Senior Bryce Savoy, one of the co-heads of the Black Student Union, agreed that the school should impose stricter disciplinary measures on students who say the n-word, some of whom continue to attend GDS. The account is unaffiliated with BSU, but Savoy said he would love for them “to merge in some way.”
Khalid Bashir, who is involved in the disciplinary process as a dean, acknowledged that the school may have made mistakes in its response to racial incidents in the past. “To say that I recognize that missteps happen,” he said, “is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Referring to the accusations of malpractice leveled against the school in Black at GDS posts, Bashir added, “I could recognize that these things certainly are possible and I would welcome addressing the fact that and acknowledging the fact that mistakes happen….We need those mistakes to happen. I think they’re a necessary part of the process.”
One of the students who started Black at GDS said that on multiple occasions while walking down the hallway at school, she has been asked by school photographers to join photos with all-white groups of students with whom she wasn’t associated. “I often feel like the token Black girl,” the organizer said, expressing concern that the school’s focus on diversity is only “for show.”
“One thing that GDS especially mixes up is the difference between diversity and inclusivity,” she said. “I think GDS is a very diverse school, but oftentimes I don’t feel included.”
Bashir concurred that the school sometimes conflates the two standards. “In the moments where GDS says, ‘Well, we have 30 percent here and, you know, we’re proportionally representative in this space,’ that is, to me, a fallacy,” he said. “That is not representative of inclusivity.”
The Black at GDS organizer quoted above also said that some opportunities at GDS are “not built for everyone.”
Among the extracurricular activities that are lacking in racial diversity are Quizbowl, the math team, theater and, as Avidon noted, The Augur Bit, whose staff has historically been overwhelmingly white. (Read Editor-in-Chief Tabitha Lynn’s article about her experience as a student of color leading the Bit.)
According to Bryce Savoy, “in theater, the concept of losing opportunities due to your skin color is real.”
And Fata Morgana, the student-led dance group, was criticized by a Black at GDS post and others on social media for failing to elect Black leadership despite relying heavily on African-American music and culture.
In addition to expanding its teaching about microaggressions and reforming the disciplinary process, the founders of Black at GDS said they demand that the school hire more Black teachers and administrators.
While increasing faculty diversity alone wouldn’t solve any problems, Bashir said, “when there are more Black people present, then there’s also a recognition that Black people are not a monolith.”
Black alumni—many of whom have followed Black at GDS and some of whom, especially more recent ones, have contributed to it—have had varied reactions to the account. Jason Campbell ’07, an anesthesiologist better known as the TikTok Doc for his popular videos of dancing in blue scrubs, said that the GDS of the past several years as described by the account “couldn’t be further” from his experience as a Black student at the school.
However, Campbell, a member of the Alumni Board, said the account’s portrayal of GDS does align with what he has heard about the school’s environment in recent years from current members of the community.
The doctor’s diagnosis? In the past decade, GDS has “gotten off track.” “No one would read those posts,” Campbell said, “and say, ‘That’s an environment [where] I want to send my kids.’ I don’t think anybody would want to send their kid there, especially a student of color.”
Two other alumnae said the account’s posts largely reflect their GDS experiences. Laura Charity ’10, who also serves on the Alumni Board, said Black at GDS “resonated deeply” with her and produced a “re-traumatizing and grief response.”
Reading Black at GDS posts, Charity said, she learned that the microaggressions she had experienced as a Black student in the late 2000s persisted in the community, and were even “becoming more macroaggressions and becoming more explicit and overt.”
The Black at GDS account startled new students as well, including sophomore Izzy Auerswald, who saw the account in June before entering the school. As the Black at GDS posts went up, she said, “the beautiful facade kind of came down.”
Almost all of the nine students who spoke with the Bit expressed support for Black at GDS and said the account compelled them to consider issues that may not affect them directly. Two non-Black sophomore boys said they hadn’t heard of Black at GDS at all.
The school sent out multiple email communications to the GDS community following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others at the hands of police and the national protest movement they spawned. Shaw and Thomas also endorsed and expressed gratitude for Black at GDS just days after it had been created.
In a letter attached to Shaw’s back-to-school email, he and Thomas wrote that after engaging in conversations with alumni and parents over the summer, they had “identified a path forward for the institution.”
The letter went on to outline several goals under the umbrella of advancing GDS’ work as an “anti-racist institution,” including reviewing curriculum, focusing on anti-racism in faculty professional development and creating support systems and avenues of communication with the school for Black students.
Shaw also said he plans to hire an external expert to conduct an institutional audit evaluating GDS’ progress and identifying issues to be addressed. In the long term, the school aims to improve its recruitment and retention of Black staff members and to establish ways to hold itself accountable in its anti-racist work.
Shaw said that GDS’ work on racism is ongoing and “may never be completed,” but that Black at GDS was an “important call to action.”
An alumna who graduated in the early 2000s and requested anonymity to speak candidly with the Bit said she attended a meeting with Shaw and Thomas during the summer, but recalled that the school’s proposals “didn’t get expressed as well as I had hoped.”
“While I know GDS is trying” to address the problems raised by the account, said Charity, whose job at a STEM education organization involves DEI work, “I am disheartened, because I know how hard it is to implement the things that they’re talking about.”
When asked why the account was necessary for the school to be conscious of Black students’ pain, Bashir said he’s “very aware of the burden that students may feel” needing to serve as change agents in their own community.
But in establishing Black at GDS on June 26, inspired by similar accounts that had sprouted up at other private schools in New York and D.C., a pair of rising sophomores readily accepted that burden. After struggling to get help from older Black students who they said seemed uninterested in their idea, they took it upon themselves to take the lead. In a matter of months, the account has amassed 1,557 followers.
Without the public account, Thomas said, GDS wouldn’t have been forced to “interrogate [itself] as a school and see what role we play.” To force the change they wanted to see in their school, Black members of the community had to take action themselves; they shared personal, sometimes painful stories with the world in the hopes of improving their GDS experiences and those of future generations of Black students.
To the organizers’ surprise, most of the stories have been submitted by GDS alumni. An initial flood of stories came as people seized the opportunity to get their stories off their chests; then, later in the summer, the volume of submissions slowed. The creators of Black at GDS want the account to last long into the future, though, even when its initial traction dies down—“even if it’s just one person who wants to share a story,” one of them said.
At the start, Black at GDS received submissions of stories through a Google form, but eventually changed to accepting them in Instagram direct messages to better ensure the anecdotes’ authenticity. The account’s managers censor profanity and occasionally reject outlandish, inauthentic posts.
One post that recounted its author’s purported experience of having been called the n-word by a GDS faculty member and then denied help from senior administrators drew attention and skepticism in the comments. The post’s reference to a “headmaster” was a red flag, and it was taken down.
Additionally, Black at GDS has received, but rejected, multiple submissions from non-Black students of color. One of the organizers said they want the account to be a “space for just Black voices.” She added, “It seems like in so many conversations when Black people speak, other people of color will insert themselves.”
Richard Avidon, who has worked at GDS for more than 30 years, said he doesn’t think the school has ever “not focused” on racial issues. But this year, he said, “the wattage of the spotlight has been enhanced tremendously.”
There have been moments in the past when students have confronted GDS about racial issues in the community. During the 2015-2016 school year, in an episode known as “Crisis Week” or “the Days of Rage,” students protested the school’s handling of a race-related discipline case by stopping regular school for several days to hold “all-school meetings and forums,” Bashir said.
In the late ’90s, Avidon said, a Black teacher shared in a faculty meeting that he’d been approached by several Black students who felt excluded and dissatisfied with their experiences at the school. Initially, “a number of white teachers got very defensive,” Avidon said. But according to him, the administration responded by working to increase the proportion of Black students and teachers at the school. Currently, 19 percent of high school teachers are Black.
When Avidon’s daughter showed him Black at GDS for the first time, the longtime history teacher similarly “felt a little defensive,” he said. “I wouldn’t stay at a school that I thought was not acting in the best interests of the children who attend.”
Still, he welcomes the opportunity that the school has now to improve, first by listening to the grievances of Black students, including through Black at GDS.
When asked whether GDS’ policies are inclusive, Bashir said, “No, not entirely,” before quickly adding, “and that’s not to GDS’ fault.”
The pair of students who started Black at GDS disagree. “The administration needs to do more than just sending emails, a couple emails here and there, saying, ‘We’re so sorry for this,’” one of them said. “We’re asking you to do better.”
The other said that the ball is now in the school’s court. “They have all these stories right there for them,” she said. “Our account is fully public. They can reach out to us if they need to; they know how to contact our page. So I think this is a big opportunity for them to actually listen.”
Both of the creators of Black at GDS have younger siblings at the school. But the student activists don’t want them to experience the same troubles they have. They want them to be safe.