The first black woman to serve as student body president of the nation's most expensive boarding school was forced to resign from her position because of an Instagram photo that lightly mocked privileged white males—the most vulnerable among us.
I hope you've had your passport renewed, because the story of Maya Peterson is a long journey into hell.
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.
Peterson was faced with disciplinary action unless she resigned from her position as student body president, according to BuzzFeed's Katie J.M. Baker.
A "critical mass of faculty members and students" felt that it was inappropriate for a student leader to make fun of members of the community she had been tasked with representing. Peterson herself seems to recognize as much and admitted that the photo was a mistake. Where everything jumps ship, however, is the instance that what Peterson did was racist—a word that probably shouldn't be used by people who have never experienced racism.
A major issue here seems to be that many members of the Lawrenceville community are confused about what racism actually is. Mocking a group of privileged white men isn't racist. Racism requires power—like the type of power that allows you to force the removal of a person from an elected position simply because they hurt your feelings.
This is also a great time to remember that the idea of reverse racism—a term that was directed at Lawrenceville's black students—as it is often employed, is a fallacy. I'll just leave this right here:
There is no evidence that Peterson crusaded against hockey bros or put in place rules that discriminated against rich, conservative white man. What Peterson did do was try to implement diversity initiatives to help make minority students feel more comfortable on campus and provide them with greater representation. These changes were not well-received, which is unsurprising considering how often diversity is conflated with an affront to heteronormativity and whiteness.
The on-campus attitudes towards Peterson are astutely captured in a series of quotes from a Lawrenceville student named David—who should thank whatever god he prays to that his last name was not included in this story. His comments are a reminder that many high school students don't know any better than to drink deeply from the waters of their own perceived intelligence and limited worldly experience.
"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."
I mean, I didn't go to a school as good as Lawrenceville, so maybe that's why I wasn't taught about all those times members of the Black Power movement lynched white people. Silly me.
Peterson was unapologetic about her mockery of what she calls "the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians," as she should be. Her story reveals that the Lawrenceville School—an organization that admitted its first black student just fifty ears ago—could do well to have a few more Maya Petersons in its ranks.
Image via Maya Peterson.