At first glance, Chappaqua, New York looks and feels like many other small suburban towns orbiting New York City. It prides itself on its excellent public school system, beautiful houses, and liberal politics. It’s no wonder, then, that it’s the chosen home of everyone from former-President Bill Clinton and former-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to actors like Ben Stiller and Vanessa Williams, who also grew up there. However, recent racist incidents have taken place within the hallowed halls of the Chappaqua Central School District (CCSD), making clear that life in this exclusive hamlet is very different for its Black residents than for its white ones.
This June, a months-old Tik Tok video of students from Chappaqua’s Horace Greeley High School resurfaced and recirculated among the town's residents. It featured students saying the N-word in Greeley’s cafeteria, and its reappearance not only sparked disgust and outrage, but also revealed the trauma that Black students at the school face on a daily basis. The video was created in February — Black History Month — and shared amongst students; although the video was discovered by the school administration, its existence was kept quiet both internally and from the community-at-large, and the students involved did not issue a public statement nor were they made to offer an apology.
Perhaps it was this apparent lack of consequences for the students that contributed to the video's recent resurfacing — many people were upset that the students involved only received a two-day suspension. Or, perhaps the video’s existence would never have come to light again if it weren’t for the ongoing anti-racist protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd on May 25th.
Whatever the reason, when the video was recirculated last month, many Chappaqua residents wanted to ensure that racist incidents like this would no longer be tolerated within their community. After receiving an outpour of emails, CCSD decided to hold a special board meeting during which white students reflected on their white privilege and recalled moments when they had been racist, while Black students spoke about their experiences dealing with racism, which they made clear was often tolerated within the district. All who spoke during the multi-hour meeting were united as they demanded that the students in the TikTok video face punishment to show the school's uncompromised stance on race issues; they also called for more diversity within the school district, including a curriculum that taught Black history and achievement. There were tears, there was resurfaced trauma, and there were personal reflections from Chappaqua residents and CCSD alum, like Williams and NBC News anchor Phylicia Ashley, who called for change within the school district.
As a student who attended CCSD, and graduated from Greeley in 2014, I participated in the board meeting and was shocked — and encouraged — by the honest accounts my peers were sharing. It was clear that current CCSD students were actively interrogating their roles in such a racially compromised environment, as many called themselves out for tolerating and engaging in racism and recalled the lack of education they’d received around race. During my time as a student in CCSD, I felt like a modern-day Ruby Bridges, the first Black girl to enter a white school in New Orleans in 1960. Although there were decades between us, and the CCSD had never been legally segregated, I was the only Black person in my grade, all the way from K-12, and one of only a handful of Black people in the entire school district.
So, while it took a racist TikTok for some in Chappaqua to learn about the systemic racism within the community, its existence within CCSD is something I have been glaringly aware of — and questioned — since I was a child. For years I asked things like: Why did my parents move our family from the Bronx, NY, in search of a “good education” for me and my sister? Why do “good” public schools usually mean “predominantly white” public schools? What does it matter if segregation is illegal, when I was still the only Black person in my grade? I never found good answers.
Growing up in an almost exclusively white community, I knew I had to work twice as hard to be seen as equal, and it wasn’t long before I also realized though that even instances of blatant racism would simply be dismissed rather than comprehensively addressed. This was a lesson I learned as far back as the first grade, when a classmate joked, “Is that Alyssa’s real skin color, or is that a costume? Take it off!” I can still hear the laughter from my classmates, and I still remember how the teacher quickly switched topics.
My experiences weren’t isolated, though. Teddy Graves, who graduated from Horace Greeley High School in 2013, talked to me about his time as the captain of the football and basketball teams. “Under the guise of ‘acceptance,’ I was most often faced with the ever-too-common ‘You’re not actually Black’ comment,” Graves says. “The first time I heard that statement, it was said with the insinuation that I was [not actually Black because I was] well-spoken and intelligent. It was them telling me that I am all of the things their limited interactions with and perceptions of Blackness taught them Black people were not.”
Within the CCSD curriculum, there was also more covert racism, like when history teachers held up Christopher Columbus as a hero, or highlighted Martin Luther King Jr’s death as the end point for civil rights, as if his murder cured white Americans of racism and showed there was no more need for Black activism. “We were never taught about Black history and Black heroes. We were never taught about the success Black people achieved for this country, just [saw] images of them in shackles,” Graves says.
Of course, diversity within schools isn’t just about the student body, it’s also about the teachers and other school staff. I reached out to the Chappaqua Central School District for details on their plan to diversify their staff and address implicit racism within their schools. Dr. Tony Sinanis the Assistant Superintendent for HR & Leadership Development said: “Of the approximately 30 new educators we hired for the 2019-2020 school year, 1 self-identified as a POC and of the approximately 20 new educators we have hired thus far for the 2020-2021 school year, 6 have self-identified as POC.” Sinanis also shared that the district is working to change their hiring process and eliminate biases within it: “The district has made intentional changes in the wording of our job postings, and the dissemination of these job postings (leveraging SM, some college/university connections, etc.), to attract a more diverse pool of candidates and we are starting to see the positive impact of that based on our pool of candidates; we definitely have more work to do, especially as it relates to our recruitment of BIPOC educators.”
This much needed change isn’t only called for by Black CCSD students. Reid Birdoff, a white Greeley alum, and friend of mine, says, “Looking back on my experience now, I realize that there was a lot that I was blind to and sheltered from. I knew Black and brown people faced hardships in poorer neighborhoods, but did not think those who grew up in Chappaqua would be affected. I now know that not only did Black students in my high school face subliminal racism from within the community, such as teachers confusing two Black kids in the grade, but once they leave our small town and people may not know their backgrounds, they face other challenges having to walk around as a Black man or woman in this country.”
Birdoff, now a teacher in the South Bronx, notices a stark difference from the classroom in which she now teaches compared to the ones she attended, and says her teaching reflects that. “The most important aspect of teaching is being culturally responsive in both lessons and resources. For example, when I teach my students about World War II, we spend multiple days focusing on the experience of Black soldiers during the war. They were an important part of the war effort, but I do not recall this topic being addressed in depth at Greeley,” Birdoff says. “It is vital that we order books for the school and read class texts that have diverse main characters, which is not as easy to find as it is to find texts with a white protagonist. As a student, I never once questioned the lack of diversity in the books I was reading.”
One of the primary reasons people cite when they move to Chappaqua, and communities like it, is the great public school system. But what’s become clear recently is that these school districts have broken their promise to their students. In CCSD, education is shaped by white perspective and white fragility. Students are not adequately educated about Black history — and they are encouraged not to care about its absence. The Chappaqua bubble has fostered a racially insensitive attitude within its supposedly stellar school system, all while pretending to be inclusive and progressive. Hopefully, the current reckoning will provide an opportunity for the CCSD to mend its ways, and recognize that educational segregation isn’t something that ended decades ago or that was relegated to the South; instead, it’s alive and well in 2020, and operating in the kind of suburban New York town that offers homes to celebrities and politicians — but not more than a handful of Black people.