Here is a fairy tale. Once upon a time in Brooklyn in the 1980s, a little girl from a working class, immigrant Chinese American family went to a very special private school. Her family told her she was lucky, her school told her she was lucky, and for a very long time, the little girl told herself that she was lucky, too. The school, everyone said, was magical, and it did indeed weave a special kind of American magic spell.
Years passed and one day, when the little girl was a woman, the spell broke.
I am an alumna of Saint Ann’s, an exclusive private school in Brooklyn Heights that brands itself as a “real-life Hogwarts,” with celebrity graduates like Lena Dunham and Zac Posen fueling its bohemian fantasy of producing members of the cultural elite. Recently, the stellar reputation of the school has been tarnished by scandals: first, a #MeToo scandal followed by a racism scandal. Critics characterize the administrative response to each as a masterful PR blend of lip service, pledges for future wokeness, and few consequences. Criticism notwithstanding, talk amongst alumni on social media revealed a contingent that seemed more concerned about protecting the male, mostly white faculty members from “false accusations” than they were about protecting the students, overwhelmingly female, who were harmed. Similarly, regarding the racism case where a group of white male high school students were caught making racist and sexist online posts — some of which targeted their female classmates — and got off with little more than a slap on the wrists, a fair number of alumni responded with shock and the belief that “back in the day,” Saint Ann’s would never have tolerated such behavior.
Institutions are fueled by their own mythologies, and in processing what I experienced at Saint Ann’s, the work of the French theorist Pierre Bourdieu is particularly helpful for understanding the class dynamics at play. In his terminology, my family lacked the capital that was the norm at Saint Ann’s. We had far less economic capital (wealth) than average, and no social capital (connections) or cultural capital (credentials) to speak of. If capital, particularly cultural capital, was what made Saint Ann’s into Hogwarts, then I was a “mudblood.” But with the opportunity to enter the rarefied cultural space of the school, I was able to perform a kind of Pygmalion act on myself, an act that is also known as assimilation, or the fulfillment of The American Dream.
We had far less economic capital (wealth) than average, and no social capital (connections) or cultural capital (credentials) to speak of.
Back in my day at Saint Ann’s, when I started the fourth grade in 1985, one of the first things that revealed my class and racial anxieties was an assignment where we were supposed to write biographies of our parents that included descriptions of their professions. I wrote that my mother was the president of an art supply company, which was technically true, but my language obscured the fact that she spent ten hours a day, six days a week standing behind a cash register in a poorly heated storefront in Downtown Brooklyn, which was, at that time, decades away from becoming gentrified. I wrote that my father taught photography, art, and drafting at City College, which was technically true because sometimes he would substitute teach a class here or adjunct for a semester there — but my language obscured the fact that he was a lab technician at New York City Technical College where, despite his teaching, the art department deemed him unqualified for promotion. I wrote those things in such a way as to allow my teachers and peers to assume that I was a member of the model minority class of Chinese immigrants who came to the US with student visas and obtained PhDs and MDs, and not the class who came to work in laundries and sewing factories in which my parents, neither of whom have college degrees, both worked when they first arrived.
I wrote those things in such a way as to allow my teachers and peers to assume that I was a member of the model minority class of Chinese immigrants who came to the US with student visas and obtained PhDs and MDs, and not the class who came to work in laundries and sewing factories in which my parents, neither of whom have college degrees, both worked when they first arrived.
In spite of much evidence to the contrary, I convinced myself, as per the institutional narrative, that the school’s progressive bohemianism stood outside of the elite structures of cultural capital, that Saint Ann’s was a meritocracy where, with enough intellectual and artistic ability, even working class, middle class, and nonwhite kids could succeed. I did what a good colonial subject does: I internalized the symbolic power of the school and reproduced it, acquiring over the course of my nine years there such excellent taste that even Cambridge University, the mothership of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, bought what I was selling. My education at Saint Ann’s groomed me both intellectually and socially to inhabit such ivory towers, such elite spaces of whiteness, so that I spent most of my college and graduate school years ensorcelled by the fantasy, blind to the racist slings and misogynistic arrows of Cambridge, too. The ethos of Saint Ann’s eschewed the bourgeois and reified the artistic class, obscuring how that class is nonetheless bound to economic and social capital.
A few years ago, I was talking to my best friend, an anthropology professor who lives in Brooklyn, about potential middle schools for her son. When she was listing non-options and got to Saint Ann’s, I was shocked to learn both the current cost and demographics of the student body. With my adult eyes, I saw one thing, but with my childhood denial, I saw another. I reconciled this disjuncture with an explanation along the lines of, “Saint Ann’s wasn’t like that in my day. It must have changed.” I recognize this now as the denial that it is. I could not let go of my childhood coping mechanisms, my necessary blinders, because to do so would have forced me to face the reality of what my position had been all along. Such denial speaks to a greater truth of how the colonial subject navigates colonialism and the price of doing so. You cannot do it without cutting off a part of yourself. You cannot do it without identifying with the colonizer. Having said that, when my friend asked if I would send my daughter to Saint Ann’s if I could, my immediate answer was no. In spite of the conditioning that left me unable to recognize my own vulnerability, I was still able to recognize my child’s and protect her from the things from which I was not protected.
I am not surprised that I was in such denial when talking to my friend. I had a long history of squinting one way or another to not see what was in front of my face. In ninth grade when I was talking to the rich white boy I was seeing about racial politics, he dismissed my remarks — including my account of racist abuse that my parents routinely experienced at work — and told me that I was “the least disenfranchised person” he had ever met. It felt bad, embarrassing, even, but I could not name it as the microaggression and minimization that it was. I was so invested in the fairy tale that I was lucky that when unlucky things kept happening to me, I didn’t see them as part of the systemic environment, but as personal failures.
As a lucky attendee of Saint Ann’s, I experienced a range of unlucky things, from countless microaggressions by students and faculty alike to being racially bullied by no less than my best friend, who, one night in tenth grade when I was away at a sleepover, prank called my house along with two other friends and made fun of my mother’s accent, calling over and over again in the night.
“How could you do that?” I confronted him the next day.
“We were high,” he said by way of explanation, “It wasn’t a big deal.”
“Yes, it was.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, but he didn’t sound sorry. He sounded like he wanted me to stop making him uncomfortable.
Within the walls of Saint Ann’s, racism supposedly did not exist because we, the exceptional intellectual and artistic elite, were supposed to be above it. This idea was rooted in the discourse that class privilege — cultural, social, and, more implicitly, economic capital — was the cure for racism, and the upholding of that discourse necessitated silence around any acts of racism, both overt and covert, that occurred amongst us. Neither faculty nor administration were equipped with an understanding of structural racism and were therefore unable to address it pedagogically or institutionally to foster a healthy school environment. For students, breaking the silence came with a slew of social costs, and the silencing of racism within the community along with its denial of institutional racism not only failed to protect the few token students of color at Saint Ann’s, but tacitly justified its blatant lack of diversity.
Within the walls of Saint Ann’s, racism supposedly did not exist because we, the exceptional intellectual and artistic elite, were supposed to be above it.
My mother to this day says that she wishes her accent had not cost me my best friend and despite my protests, she still carries this shame. To this day, I wish I had demanded that my friend apologize to my mother. I wish that after our confrontation, when he ostracized me from the rest of our social group, I had told everyone what had happened, but at the time, I, too, was ashamed — more ashamed of being a victim of racism than he was of being racist.
As it happens, shame goes hand in hand with silencing. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.” The oppressor shames the oppressed until they learn the lesson well enough to shame themselves, making shame the handmaiden of multiple forms of oppression. In senior year, on a school trip abroad, I was sexually assaulted by a classmate — a popular, handsome, wealthy white boy who had spent the previous week charming and flattering me. One night, after a dinner that included wine, he took my hand and led me to his hotel room where a consensual kiss quickly escalated into aggressive groping and demands for sex.
My mother to this day says that she wishes her accent had not cost me my best friend and despite my protests, she still carries this shame.
“What do you think you’re doing?” I snapped, shocked by the disjuncture between his innocent wooing, which felt all the more flattering and magical for it being in front of our classmates, and this sudden display of brutality and entitlement.
“Come on,” he whined.
“No!” I put my clothes back on and walked out. And he let me go.
I was lucky, I thought, that either this boy was too drunk to physically overpower me or that my words were powerful enough to shame him out of doing so. I was less lucky the next day, however, when he reacted to his own sense of rejection, shame, and male fragility by telling everyone that he’d had sex with me and that I was a slut — a story that some of our classmates, particularly a girl who was unhappy about the attention he was paying me, gleefully embellished and spread.
My luck would take an even bigger turn for the worse the following week when, after our school group dispersed to stay with our assigned host families, a friend of my host family drove me into the woods and raped me. For years, I could not name this as rape because I blamed myself for accepting the invitation of a scenic tour from a near stranger, for agreeing to get into the car, for not advocating for myself powerfully enough (in a foreign language), for not protesting hard enough, and, ultimately, for not fighting. I not only blamed myself, but afterwards, some of my classmates from that trip spread rumors all over school about my supposed sexual promiscuity, shunning and slut-shaming me for the rest of the year. I was ashamed and chose not to report these assaults to my parents or the administration, these unlucky things that were not supposed to happen to someone so exceptionally lucky. The fact was, the same silencing around racism also existed around misogyny, assault, and misconduct, and on some deep level, I knew it.
In a March 25th, 2019 letter sent to all alumni, concerning multiple allegations of employee misconduct throughout Saint Ann’s history, the current administration made many of the right noises — detailing the findings of their investigation, albeit without naming names, and setting out quite a hopeful plan for new protocols and safety measures. Two of the nineteen reported incidents that happened during the same period as my experiences of assault illustrate the culture of the school:
“In the 1990s, a Saint Ann’s faculty member engaged in sexual contact with a female senior prior to graduation, and sexual intercourse with that student immediately after she graduated from Saint Ann’s. There was no information gathered during the course of the investigation from either the victim or witnesses to indicate that any adults at the school were aware of this misconduct. The teacher left Saint Ann’s in the 1990s.”
“In the early 1990s, a Saint Ann’s faculty member engaged in sexual contact with and made an inappropriately sexual statement to a female high school student at an off-campus party where he was observed to be highly intoxicated. This same teacher kissed another female high school student at the same event. Neither student reported this behavior to the school, though it may have been witnessed by other Saint Ann’s faculty members. This teacher left Saint Ann’s in the mid-1990s.”
The letter goes on to assert that “Saint Ann’s has always been a place that prides itself on listening to and celebrating our students — their intellect, their passions, their potential…We were founded to be a different kind of school.” The discourse here is that Saint Ann’s was founded on core values that were violated by the misconduct, that the school was noble and exceptional until it lost its way. “Surely,” the letter ends, “in this realm is where a commitment to being different should matter most of all.” The truth, however, is that nothing that is happening now is any different from what was happening then.
The truth, however, is that nothing that is happening now is any different from what was happening then.
In 2012 on Alumni Day, a yearly event where former students and staff gather at Saint Ann’s for performances and activities, I was invited to participate in a poetry reading, after which I walked up to an old writing teacher at the reception excited to talk to him about the reading and my first poetry collection, which had just been accepted for publication. Instead, he leaned in, breath reeking of alcohol, and planted a kiss on my shocked mouth. My husband and daughter were standing in the next room. This year, I have been invited again to Alumni Day, which happens to be my twenty-fifth high school reunion. Some of the students who shunned and slut-shamed me after I was assaulted and raped have also been invited. I declined.
Four years after my last Alumni Day, shortly after the election, I posted an article about white fragility on my Facebook page and a former teacher commented that she thought it was a bad idea for people of color to antagonize white people. When I questioned her on it, she said that she disagreed with the critical race theory definition of racism as prejudice plus power. When I pushed back again, she private messaged me a note that was so sadly full of the cliches of white fragility — defensiveness, centering of one’s own feelings, egoism, and greater concern over being called racist than examining one’s own racist behavior — that it broke my heart. I loved this teacher who I had considered a mentor, who had nurtured my budding calling to write, who had been instrumental in helping me believe that I was worthy of the profession. And yet, this conflicting experience with her also existed. I spoke truth to power, biting the hand that fed me, and came face to face with the reality and impact of having been a non-white student at Saint Ann’s with only three non-white teachers over the course of nine years. Since then, I have blocked two other formerly beloved teachers for abusive and microaggressive behavior online.
Reevaluating my years at Saint Ann’s, armed with a set of tools acquired from my studies, I am now able to make much better sense of my own experience and the power dynamics within my school environment. I know now that for women of color in elite institutions, my story is so disconcertingly common as to be mundane, but codes of institutionalized silence prevent us from knowing the truth and advocating for ourselves. They prevent our parents, too, from making informed choices to protect us. Wanting a better life for future generations, they unknowingly drop their children into lions’ dens of classism, racism, and misogyny. For myself and for my daughters, I must reckon with how, as the intersectional feminist thinker Audre Lorde puts it, the work of “revolutionary change” necessitates not only dismantling systems of oppression, but recognizing the internalization of those systems in order to root out “that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within us.” As I peel back the layers of internalization, there within me are planted pieces of the oppressor: classism, racism, and misogyny. The raw, rotten heart of it. “Your silence will not protect you,” writes Lorde. My silence has never protected me. For breaking it after all these years, some will call me crazy. Some will call me ungrateful. Some will call me a bridge burner. So be it.
If you want a revolution, you have to burn things down.