Heard, Hurt, Disturbed: Divergent Legacies of @blackatgds Live On

Chart by Ethan Wolin.

If you visit @blackatgds on Instagram today, you will see a page almost unchanged from its brief peak in the summer of 2020. The dozens of stories that remain are artifacts from the moment when they shook GDS. The account has, with very few exceptions, been dormant for the past year.

But look around the GDS community—or ask those touched by the account to reflect—and you will find that the impacts of @blackatgds continue to reverberate in sometimes divergent ways. From students’ attitudes to the school’s initiatives, senior and Student Action Committee head Maddie Feldman observed, “GDS would not be in the place where it is now without @blackatgds.”

And yet, GDS is in the place it is in—and is the place it is—in spite of @blackatgds. When asked whether she saw any tangible changes in her in-person GDS experience last spring, one of the two students who founded the account paused pensively for 10 seconds, then said, “I can’t tell you that. I mean, I don’t really know.” (She spoke with the Bit on the condition of anonymity.)

In the wake of Jan. 6, several @blackatgds posts created a controversy that demonstrated the account’s power in a very tangible way for Kailyn Oppenheim, a former member of the Class of 2023 who said she left GDS after 11 years in part due to criticism from posts on the account.

Oppenheim had posted on her own Instagram account a comparison of rioters at the Capitol and those at Black Lives Matter protests, meaning to argue that “all rioting was bad,” she said in a phone interview from her new school in Birmingham, Alabama. “People took that really differently and said that I was racist.”

Specifically, one @blackatgds post written by an anonymous member of the Class of 2023 said a particular classmate—namely, Oppenheim, though she went unnamed—had “been known for holding some pretty bad beliefs” and called her Jan. 6 comment “gross.” 

Reading that, Oppenheim said, she “started laughing. Just because my beliefs are different than most people at that school, it doesn’t mean that they’re wrong, and it shouldn’t mean that they’re bad.” 

@blackatgds has not posted since January. Later that month, the account’s second founder, who had previously managed most submissions and posts, stepped back from that role. (She declined to be interviewed for this article, and the other founder declined to comment on her decision.)

The account’s recent silence is a far cry from its early days in June and July of 2020, when 162 posts were added over the course of a single week and word of @blackatgds spread quickly through the community.

Bryce Savoy ’20, then a rising senior and Black Student Union co-head, said he had been contacted shortly before by one of the account’s soon-to-be founders but did not get involved in their project. “When I first saw it,” he said in a recent interview from college in California, “there were some things where I was like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know people at GDS went through this kind of thing.’”

Science Department Chair Nina Butler-Roberts had begun participating in meetings at GDS when @blackatgds provided her an unvarnished (if unverified) glimpse of the community she was entering. She was not surprised and even recognized some microaggressions on the account from her time as a Black private school student.

Kailyn Oppenheim, for her part, had not been aware that @blackatgds existed before a friend told her about it in the fall. In January, she went back to read some previous posts and concluded that while the account may have made some students “feel better,” it was also “hurtful” to those criticized in its posts.

The remaining founder of @blackatgds, meanwhile, said she has not tried to speak with Oppenheim since the Jan. 6 episode because Oppenheim’s original post “hurt too much.” She said the decision to post some of the claims about Oppenheim was “rash” and fueled by anger, and that the account immediately took down some of them.

To Oppenheim, the online blowback was swift and “harsh.” She contacted multiple GDS administrators and met with 10th Grade Dean Julie Stein. Afterwards, Oppenheim suggested to Stein that she hold a grade-wide assembly to address the treatment Oppenheim had received. 

Stein replied that she would contact individual students involved with the episode privately, according to an email Oppenheim shared with the Bit. Stein declined to comment, saying her conversations with students are confidential.

The administration’s decision not to intervene publicly was the last straw for Oppenheim after years of feeling ostracized at school for her conservative political views. She had planned to stay in D.C. part-time and finish high school at GDS while her family moved south, but now she applied to a new school.

The @blackatgds manager maintains that it was “important” for Black students to call out statements they found offensive but wishes they had done so less forcefully. When told that her Instagram account contributed to Oppenheim’s decision to leave GDS, the manager said on behalf of @blackatgds, “We are sorry that we slammed her like that. What she did was wrong, but we are sorry we went all-out.”

The student who runs @blackatgds said she keeps her identity secret—even from the GDS administrators trying, through anti-racism, to learn her account’s lessons—because she doesn’t want “to make the focus all about” herself. She wants the account, in its anonymity, to represent “everyone who’s Black at GDS.”

But, as Julia Blount ’08 put it, “it is a misnomer to say that there is a Black experience at GDS.” When @blackagds exploded, Blount had just left her role as a GDS middle school history teacher for a new job running diversity, equity and inclusion at an elementary school in Los Angeles. 

Although the account does not represent the experiences of all Black students and alumni, Blount said, its actual effect was to “call attention to places where people felt not seen and not recognized.”

In that aim, the creator of @blackatgds said she has been successful. The account remains on the back of her mind, but she has no plans to either revive or remove it. “If you want to share a story, then it’s there,” the student who runs @blackatgds said, speaking to Black students and alumni. “It’ll always be there for you.” 

It will always be there for the rest of the world to see, too—to recall the zeitgeist of GDS in 2020, to look back on a school’s storied, if smudged, history, or to judge, in years to come, whether anything has changed.

Ethan Wolin ’23

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