Sarah Zhang collects stories of discrimination.
Shelby Williams campaigns for more educators of color.
Amy Liu has has created an interactive map of hate crimes against Asian Americans.
As students, each presses for change in predominantly white schools where racism remains a systemic problem.
When race is not discussed and the curriculum lacks diversity, students of all backgrounds are at a disadvantage, explained Williams, who heads to Cornell University this fall after graduating in May from George School.
“When you send your child to school, you want them to have a well-rounded education, and if they’re not reading authors from different backgrounds that’s going to impact the way they interact with other people, and the way they see the world,” Williams said.
Founded by Quakers, George School in Middletown prides itself on a commitment to social justice. Black students have attended George School since 1947.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 65% of George School students are white. African Americans make up 14% of the student body. Eight percent identify as Asian and 6% are Hispanic, according to federal estimates.
Yet, the curriculum doesn’t always reflect the current student body, Williams said.
“If we read eight books in a year, it wouldn’t be uncommon for there to be six books from white guys, then one from a woman, and one from an author of a different race,” said Williams. “Kids don’t have the opportunity to learn about people of other cultures, which leads to close-mindedness.”
In response, Williams helped George School develop a diversity, inclusion, equity and social justice plan.
Her Instagram account @BlackatGeorgeSchool has more than 1,200 followers, and there Williams shares the experiences of African Americans on campus.
For students of color, Instagram has become a digital bullhorn, allowing them to reach large numbers of students of color from their own schools and others across the U.S.
At Central Bucks High School East, Sarah Zhang started @DiversifyCBSD on Instagram. With posts, Zhang argues for a more inclusive learning environment.
“From a psychological perspective, this personal development is less likely to bloom if the child is uncomfortable, tense, frustrated, or can’t relate to the material,” reads one message.
Growing up Asian American, Zhang said she “normalized the racism I was seeing and experiencing” in the community.
When she posted photos of her new dog on social media, for example, fellow students told her “not to eat the dog,” she said. As COVID-19 swept across the U.S., Zhang perceived that others were afraid to stand even six feet away from her. She worried more-so that someone would attack her Chinese-American grandmother while walking down the street.
“Most of it comes from a lack of education,” said Zhang. “I can’t be bitter toward young people when it’s how they are educated.”
In response, Zhang and others launched an online petition to have students read more books by different authors. The petition asks that a minimum of at least one book in every English or literature class be authored by a person of color and feature the life experiences of persons of color.
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 89% percent of students in the Central Bucks School District are white. The remaining students are 5% Asian, 4% Hispanic and 1% Black, according to federal data.
“A lot of the history focuses on how people of color have been downgraded, overtaken, or colonized,” said Zhang. “It would be so amazing if we learned about people of color and their accomplishments and how amazing are those cultures. It would have made all the difference to me if I saw an Asian character in one of the books I read as a kid.”
Nearby at Central Bucks High School South, Amy Liu said she didn’t speak for much of her student life. She didn’t want to be “perceived as a nuisance.”
“My experience as a student of color was that I silenced myself,” said Liu. “Since most people couldn’t understand my experience, I almost stifled myself.”
“Due to the overwhelming majority of CB being homogeneously white, I felt like my voice as a student of color was frivolous,” Liu explained. “The underrepresentation of people of color at South — both in the student body and faculty — often contributed to a self-imposed cloak of invisibility.”
Liu said she believes students at her school use racial slurs because they “just don’t know the weight of racial slurs.”
In response, she collected stories of racism and the harassment of students of color and shared these accounts with teachers.
The teachers had no idea, she said. Students don’t report these incidents.
“Students of color may feel like nothing will be done if they report it,” said Liu. “They may feel like nothing can be done. In a way, racism is not as quantifiable. It’s not like someone punched someone in the face. You don’t have that physical scar.”
For their efforts, Liu, Williams and Zhang will each receive the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. Awarded by a committee of more than 400 Princeton University alumni, the prizes goes to high school students who work to advance racial equity and understanding. Winners each receive a $1,000 prize.
Contact reporter James McGinnis at [email protected]