One day last March, Lawrenceville School Student Body President Maya Peterson donned L.L. Bean boots and a Yale University sweater to pose for an Instagram photo depicting what she described as a typical “Lawrenceville boi”: white, Republican, and cockily holding a hockey stick.
Peterson, who graduated in June, added hashtags like “#romney2016,” “#confederate,” and “#peakedinhighschool” before posting. It was a joke, she said, inspired by classmates who complained to the school’s dean of students about Peterson’s own senior photo, in which she and 10 friends, all black, raised their fists in a “Black Power” salute. But not everyone thought it was funny.
“You’re the student body president, and you’re mocking and blatantly insulting a large group of the school’s male population,” one student commented on the photo.
“Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians,” Peterson responded. “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…”
Three weeks later, the administration told Peterson she would face disciplinary action unless she resigned from her post as student body president, she said. Peterson was the first black woman to serve in that role at The Lawrenceville School, a prestigious boarding school near Princeton, N.J., that costs around $53,000 a year to attend, making it the most expensive high school in the country.
A critical mass of faculty members and students believed “it was not fitting of a student leader to make comments mocking members of the community,” Dean of Students Nancy Thomas told the Lawrenceville student paper. But the photo was simply the last straw for many white students who never wanted Peterson to be president in the first place — and for Peterson herself, who said she was sick of fighting vicious attacks from the most privileged members of the elite school.
The Lawrenceville School, founded in 1810, first admitted black students just 50 years ago. Female students weren’t allowed to enroll until 1987, a change that led 50 students to shout “Better Dead Than Coed” in protest, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer (“We were told they’d be so much smarter. They’re morons, most of them,” one senior boy elaborated). Notable Lawrenceville alumni include famous CEOs (Michael Eisner, Lewis Bernard), state senators, and the founder of Forbes magazine.
Peterson, a tall, animated 17-year-old with flowing dreads and thick-rimmed glasses who ran on a platform of “inclusion and acceptance and pride in oneself,” wasn’t just the first black woman to serve as student body president — she’s an out lesbian too. She won the election by reaching out to students whom other candidates overlooked, including freshmen and minorities, other students said.
“The younger kids told me they felt comfortable opening up to me in a way they didn’t with other people,” Peterson said.
Chris, a 2014 graduate whose education at Lawrenceville was aided by a program called Oliver Scholars, a program that helps New York City students of African and Latino descent attend independent high schools, said Peterson won because “she really cares about people and their best interests.” To Chris, a transgender student, Peterson “came off as somebody who would advocate for us.”
One of Peterson’s first acts as president was to institute a “diversity representative” on the student council board to eliminate tension on campus when talking about race and gender issues. But her diversity initiatives were not widely welcomed; a push for gender neutral bathrooms was particularly controversial. And Peterson herself was viewed with suspicion by a significant number of students, mostly white and male, who opposed her candidacy from the start. Some even thought the school had rigged the election so that a woman would win; only two women served as student body president before Peterson.
“There was outcry for Lawrenceville to release the voting data for her presidency, because popular opinion was that she was not actually elected,” said David, a 2014 graduate. “I’d still like to see those numbers, is all I’m saying.” (The numbers were, in fact, released.)
The backlash to her election led to personal attacks. Shortly after Peterson was elected, an anonymous student sent the dean of students photos of Peterson using marijuana. Soon after, the school received more anonymous information that alleged Peterson had posted racist tweets about a Sikh student. In a school-wide meeting, Peterson apologized for the photos and the dean of students clarified that the racist tweets were fabricated. Still, many students believed she wasn’t right for the position.
“There was too much controversy around Maya,” said Rob, a rising senior. “We didn’t really want a president who breaks school rules. It isn’t a representation of who we are.”
Peterson was frustrated that the school didn’t investigate her anonymous attackers, even after another scary incident in the winter, when someone sent an email to the freshman class containing photos of Peterson half naked in her room. Peterson had no idea where the sender had gotten those photos, she said, and the administration, while sympathetic, didn’t either — or didn’t tell her if they did.
By spring, Peterson was sick of feeling unsupported, and the complaints about the “Black Power” yearbook photo set her off.
“I understand why I hurt people’s feelings, but I didn’t become president to make sure rich white guys had more representation on campus,” she said. “Let’s be honest. They’re not the ones that feel uncomfortable here.”
Students at prestigious boarding schools have long been more resistant to integration than their administrations. In an 1883 account called “Familiar Sketches of the Phillips Exeter Academy and Surroundings,” Frank H. Cunningham wrote of four indignant white students who told the principal they would leave if he allowed a black student to enroll at the school. “‘The colored student will stay, you can do as you please,” the principal allegedly said.
“During the troubles of the rebellion, a worthy colored student was a member of the Academy,” Cunningham wrote. “Exeter knew no color line.”
In more modern times, the difficulties of being a minority student at a prestigious private school have been documented in films like The Prep School Negro, and novels like Black Boy White School and The Fall of Rome. “The majority tends to have one perspective, and you feel on the other side all the time,” Prep School Negro director Andre Robert Lee toldThe Patriot-News.
Lawrenceville students say racial and class divides — which frequently work in tandem because minority students often come to boarding schools through scholarship organizations — are still pervasive, even though the school has made strides to be more multicultural.
In 2004, 70% of 805 Lawrenceville students identified as Caucasian, while 13% were Asian, and black and Hispanic students made up 12%. In 2014, only 55% of 815 students were Caucasian, while 21% were Asian, and the percentage of black and Hispanic students rose to 16%.
This data recently came to light thanks to an anonymous email that circulated around the student body in April, citing Peterson’s “racist” Instagram comments and dubbing Lawrenceville “PC gone wild.”
“We feel that the School’s interpretations of multiculturalism, and the implementation of policies stemming from this view, have become increasingly distracting,” the author wrote, claiming to represent a group of alumni, trustees, and parents who were concerned that the school was no longer prioritizing legacy students, who “provided a stable and positive influence.”
In an email to students, senior staff at the school said they were “disappointed and dismayed” by the anonymous letter and its accusations, which were “both untrue and destructive to the health of the School.”
However, the school confirmed that the statistics were accurate.
“About one thing the writers are correct: there is no doubt that the student body of Lawrenceville of 2014 looks different from the student body of the past,” the senior staff wrote, noting that the school’s students “are more racially, ethnically, religiously, and socio-economically diverse than they have ever been in the School’s history.”
“We are proud of the diversity of our student body and believe it prepares our students to succeed as they move forward in life,” Lawrenceville spokesperson Jennifer Szwalek elaborated in an email to BuzzFeed. (She declined to comment on Peterson, citing privacy concerns.)
But minority students at Lawrenceville — where, according to both black and white students, Confederate flags still line many boarding houses — said the school still has a long way to go.
One freshman student from Shanghai, China, wrote in the Lawrenceville student paper this year that he was fooled by the “faux ‘diversity’” the school advertised.
“Years ago, the average Lawrentian was privileged, Protestant, and deeply involved in athletics; that conception still holds today,” he wrote. “Lawrenceville, in many ways, hasn’t changed much since the twentieth century — it really is a seemingly homogenous, fancy American prep school after all.”
Black Lawrenceville students told BuzzFeed that racial divides are pervasive. Many said they had been called racial epithets, ranging from “Negro amigo” to “n***er,” by white peers who didn’t understand “why they couldn’t say the word too.”
One student said she overheard her white male classmates call black students on an opposing basketball team “Trayvon,” after Trayvon Martin. Another pointed out a newspaper op-ed by a white student criticizing a Black History Month celebration for “descending” into a rap performance “crafted with too little, if any, subtlety.”
Others said they tired of answering “dumb questions about their hair” or whether they were on financial aid. Peterson recalled controversy over a Facebook post about Obama’s reelection in 2012. “As a black and Latino, gay woman in the United States of America, today is a momentous day,” she wrote. “I’m sorry to all the rich white men who have failed to elect a president that endorses their greed.” Dozens of students commented, attacking her for being racist herself.
“I’m gonna have to assume from your political beliefs and what you’ve said that you do not pay for your Lawrenceville tuition in its entirety,” one student wrote. (In fact, Peterson’s family paid full tuition.) “But do you know who pays for that? Yeah, that would be all those greedy white men who actually worked for their fortune, not relied on the government to support them. Just saying.”
One 2014 graduate and close friend of Peterson’s said she had never been more aware of her race or gender than at Lawrenceville, even though she grew up in the South. Any anger toward Peterson stemmed from mostly wealthy white male students who “didn’t want someone who didn’t represent them,” she said. “Maya was the opposite of everything they stood for.”
It frustrated Lawrenceville’s black students when other students called them “unfriendly” or even “reverse racist” for sticking together. “Sometimes it’s hard hanging out with upper-class white kids, because they say things that are hurtful and make us feel uncomfortable, and it’s nice to be around students I can relate to,” said Chris.
And Peterson’s friends agreed that it was unfair of the administration to single her out for making fun of white students when racism goes ignored.
“It’s a private school thing,” said Myles, a 2014 graduate. “At Lawrenceville, people think white is a race that can be offended by a racial slur. What Maya did was rude, but it wasn’t offensive.”
That’s not how the students targeted by Peterson’s photo — and her identity politics — felt.
“What if people were running around in KKK costumes?” asked David, who said his friends complained to the administration about the “Black Power” photo. “That’s what I call left-wing extremism.”
Peterson’s Instagram photo “violated the spirit of the Lawrenceville community,” David said. “It was hateful. It wasn’t inclusive. When I think of Maya Peterson, I don’t think of someone who is an avid proponent of progress or of inclusiveness. I think of someone who is hateful. She had a hateful spirit.”
Other students upset by her photo were more diplomatic.
Peterson “was the face of ‘New Lawrenceville,’ and she was a great face of the ‘New Lawrenceville,’ but I think some of her actions made it hard for the student body to really embrace her,” said 2014 graduate Alec, whose father, five uncles, and sister all graduated from Lawrenceville; his grandfather taught there as well.
Patrice Evans, author of the book and blog The Assimilated Negro, which often jabbed at private boarding schools, shares something in common with Peterson: He was forced to resign as class president while a student at Choate in the ’90s after a fight prompted by racial tension, he said.
“I do think the ‘white privilege,’ sense of institutional entitlement that has been so buzzy to orient think pieces and internet debates around is maybe best illustrated through the behavior and practices of these elite prep schools,” he wrote in an email. “This is the privileged-access breeding ground for so many of the values we’re increasingly calling into question meme-by-meme, essay-by-essay, every day on the internet.”
Other Lawrenceville students sympathized with how difficult it must have been for Peterson to keep up her image as “uber-diverse Student Body President,” like 2014 graduate Anna Heckler, who wrote a school newspaper editorial after Peterson stepped down wondering whether “being the president of this iron-gated organization means upholding two-hundred-plus years of carefully-constructed tradition” and thus “differentiating your own values from the needs of the community.”
If that’s what it means to be student body president of Lawrenceville, she’s glad she resigned, Peterson said.
“I’m not saying what I did was right,” she said. “But it wasn’t racist. I was just calling those guys exactly what they are. And Lawrenceville is the type of place where those kids are idolized.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated that a student’s Lawrenceville education was funded by the Oliver Scholars Program, which only provides non-financial support. (7/1/14)