"It was never meant for us”: BIPOC students on why the Ivy League is failing them
Eve Washington will forever remember exactly where she was on the night of April 11th, 2019. A freshman at Columbia University, she was at a party for the college newspaper she reports for when she heard the news that then-senior Alexander McNab, an editor at the paper, was racially profiled by public safety officers at Barnard College.
“I didn’t know what to think,” Washington, now a junior, tells Mic. “I didn’t know what my reaction to this was.”
That night, McNab, who is Black, was forcibly restrained and pinned down by six Barnard College public safety officers. Why? He didn’t flash his student I.D. to the public safety officer stationed at the college’s entrance on his way to the library late at night. While it’s a formal rule that students are supposed to show their I.D.s to officers at the gate post-11 pm, McNab told the New York Times, in an interview, that it’s rarely enforced.
While McNab’s story received national attention, an untold number of instances like it do not. But student-led initiatives that utilize social networks and heed lessons from organizers of the past are popping up, providing resources for students to navigate the oppressive systems that inevitably crop up at elite colleges, and also holding the institutions accountable.
Looking back, Washington says that night was one of the most formative of her college career — and one she reflects on often. A Black woman in STEM and passionate about journalism, Washington herself has been confronted with insidious and outright instances of oppression. “The hardest part of experiencing them is, they make you feel a little crazy,” she says. “It’s like, this club, this class, this professor, this process is racist or classist or sexist — so what? There isn’t any recourse, and when there is, it’s inaccessible.”
The experience led Washington to Black Ivy Stories, where she now serves as editor-in-chief. A website and Instagram account dedicated to highlighting the experiences of Black students at Ivy League schools, the student-run project encourages people to submit stories of incidents with peers, professors, and university-affiliated personnel through an anonymous form on the platform’s website. In order to maintain submitters’ privacy, the form does not ask for their names; rather, the only identifiers on the form are graduation years and universities. Submissions are then posted on Black Ivy Stories’s Instagram page. While the anonymity provides comfort for students who otherwise might be hesitant to speak out, it also means the entries are not vetted for accuracy.
The platform emerged in June 2020, as the nation witnessed its latest installment of protests fighting systemic racism and movements dedicated to dismantling criminal-legal, economic, and social institutions that oppress Black Americans. In a matter of months, the page has gained over 22,000 followers.
“It was obviously emotionally and mentally stressful for a lot of Black students, Black people in general,” Black Ivy Stories’s Instagram admin and founder (who requested to remain anonymous as they are not on the public-facing team) tells Mic about the platform’s creation. “So, this page grew out of the need to give Black students a place to tell their stories and give their voices a spotlight.”
The group is also implementing ways to celebrate the accomplishments of Black students and to provide resources to non-Black students on allyship, since “there was also a lot of movement for non-Black people to start educating themselves,” the founder says.
Reading through the account’s hundreds of submissions, a picture emerges that runs counter to the public images put forward by elite universities. Far from bastions of inclusivity and progressivism, the stories outline pervasive issues of racism and classism, and illustrate how bigotry and hate are often rewarded by the status quo. One submission to Black Ivy Stories captures this twisted reality — an anonymous poster who identifies themselves as a Princeton student from the class of 2018 recounts how another student tried to defend slavery. During a discussion on economics, the poster claims, “this guy verbatim said to me, ‘slavery is a utility maximizing system because the utility of slaves doesn’t count in that system.’ He’s also a Rhodes Scholar.”
A spokesperson for Princeton tells Mic that they’re aware of Black Ivy Stories, and that they flag reports of incidents like this to their Office of Diversity and Inclusion and other university officials. “We understand sharing such experiences is not always an easy thing to do,” they wrote in an email. “We hope to create a space that members of our community can converse about difficult topics such as these.”
Professors are also accused of horrific instances of racism. A poster who identifies themselves as a Yale student from the class of 2022 alleges a horrendous and very public incident: “One day, my older white male professor asked me to execute a task in front of the class. I did so without error, and the difference in ability between me and my peers was readily apparent, leading the professor to ‘jokingly’ remark: ‘You should watch out for this guy — you should lynch him.’ This happened twice.” Yale declined to comment on this incident.
Dozens of other posts allege that elite universities continuously favor professors infamous among students for racist, sexist, and elitist remarks by granting tenure primarily for the work they produce rather than their capabilities as instructors. This continuity of anti-Blackness at elite colleges contributes to imposter syndrome — to which BIPOC are particularly prone — in Black students. It also makes them feel inherently “other’d,” which can tarnish their college experiences.
“If you find someone who hasn’t experienced imposter syndrome as a BIPOC student in the Ivy League, let me know, I want to meet them!” Washington laughs.
“The long-term goal is just to make sure that these experiences are not continuous throughout every Black student’s experience,” the platform’s founder tells Mic, “because we do get a lot of stories that are very similar, because these things happen all over the country and across so many different institutions. That’s our goal — to make the experiences for the Black students that come after us better.”
A few months after the launch of Black Ivy Stories, in fall of 2020, a group of students at Brown released Burn Brown Book, an homage to 2005’s crowning cinematic jewel Mean Girls. But instead of high school students roasting each other, the creators of the “disorientation” PDF guide want to burn an opponent much larger: Brown University.
“There’s a double entendre there in the Burn Brown Book,” co-creator Nöell Cousins, who graduated from Brown this past May, tells Mic. “The ‘Burn Book’ represents this iconic, savage, 1990s/2000s energy that we really wanted to channel. It’s very femme, which is also really cool and exciting. I think a lot of the aesthetics of organizing and activism has been super masculine — and not cute.”
And femme it is. The Burn Brown Book’s landing page is bright pink with a lyrical, inclusive welcome for the reader: “Welcome to all of the girls, gays, queers, theys, and those who identify in other ways!!! ✨”
But don’t let the book’s cheery greetings fool you. The digital manifesto spends 175 pages detailing the university’s historical complicity in capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Paying the city of Providence “voluntary payments” that amount to far less than what it would have owed in property taxes despite being the city’s largest landowner; doing too little to financially support a low-income high school next door; serving as a funnel to the “managerial class” that maintains hierarchy over Black and brown workers — these are all ways in which Brown helps to uphold oppressive social and economic systems, according to the book.
To understand the purpose of the book, however, you don’t have to look further than its name. “The second part of the double entendre implies the abolitionist orientation. The ‘burn’ of the Burn Brown Book is to literally burn Brown — abolish it,” Cousins explains.
Abolishing Brown, she acknowledges, may seem like a difficult task. But when she talks about abolition what she means is divorcing the university from Brown Corporation, the school’s private owners and central governing board. CEOs, venture capitalists, and financiers make up a significant part of the board, and they have historically held influence over a broad range of campus decision-making, from budgets to student admissions.
There are a few tangible ways to start untangling this unjust system, Cousins asserts. For one, the university could restore its land and capital to the city or state government — really, “any democratic institution,” she says. Abolition could also mean worker ownership. The ultimate goal, she argues, is to vest economic and political power within the working class, Black, and brown people of Providence.
While the Burn Brown Book tactically explains how abolition can happen, it doesn’t dive into the why it must happen. But for Cousins, the answer is clear: “Capitalism really sucks,” she says, “and it’s leading to a bunch of problems that aren’t getting better: climate crisis, COVID pandemic, genocidal indifference, economic depression, and police violence.”
The university, she argues, is unable to survive without capitalism; in a world where capitalism doesn’t exist, Brown doesn’t exist. But the very existence of Brown Corporation perpetuates the inextricable link between power and wealth, which is harmful when you think about how a socioeconomically homogenous board wields power to create the university’s ideologies and culture.
“[Brown is] superficially very liberal, but there’s so much old money,” Cousins says. “So, there’s just this dynamic where people quietly critique or don’t really say much but have a lot of feelings about it.”
Amanda Moreno, a senior at Brown, believes many of the university’s problems stem from this wealth. “Just because there’s not a lot of low-income students, everyone assumes that you’re from this background, or they assume you’ve always had food on the table, never worrying about these things,” she explains. “And, that’s just not everyone.”
Moreno is Black and low-income — an identity that starkly contrasts Brown’s white and wealthy majority. According to data collected by the New York Times, the median family income at Brown is $204,200, the highest among the Ivy League; 19% of its student body is from the top 1%, while 70% are from the top 20%.
That sort of stratospheric wealth has long been tied to exclusive clubs and events, on and off campus. Take the Marty Granoff Dinners. For years, the events were a lavish tradition for the children of 1 percenters who study at Brown University. Invitations to the exclusive dinners were extended by the university’s Advancement Office. During these semesterly events, restaurant tabs could rack up $9,000 and career-defining networking opportunities lay ahead, thanks to the wealthy and influential alumni in attendance, according to a 2019 Providence Journal exposé.
Brian Clark, Brown’s director of news and editorial development, tells Mic that the central Brown administration wasn’t aware of the Advancement Office’s assistance until it received inquiries from the Journal’s student reporters. The university’s administration swiftly notified the Advancement Office that staff should not assist with personal events, and Brown says it does not believe the dinners have occured since 2018.
For Moreno, events like the Granoff Dinners showed exactly who elite universities like Brown were made for. “The university was built for that. It was built to encourage, make sure these people get to the top.”
Uche Onwunaka, a first year med student in Brown’s eight-year medical school program, wholly agrees. She was a Minority Peer Counselor under Brown’s Residential Peer Leader, working to support the university’s BIPOC first-year students during the 2016 presidential election.
Onwunaka was frustrated by Brown’s lack of support for both her residents and her cohort of peer leaders, whom she notes were mostly BIPOC. She says that the signs for gender-inclusive bathrooms were ripped down, racial slurs were written in the rooms of residential peer leaders, and rampant anti-Blackness came from within Brown’s Center for Students of Color. Onwunaka says these instances forced her to contend with the ways Brown perpetuates all those bad -isms. “Being here, you’re not in a bubble from the world. The problems from the world are very much here and present, and they hit you a little harder.” When asked about Onwunaka's allegations, Clark said he had no reason to dispute them, but also couldn't confirm the incidents.
Make no mistake — alongside the quiet and not-so-quiet conservatives, liberalism has always lived at Brown, too. Brown’s past and present are alive with student activism and political organizing, punctuated by the 1968 walkout and several large-scale student protests during the latter half of the 20th century. Works like the Burn Brown Book and people like Cousins, Moreno, and Onwunaka continue this legacy and cultivate the campus’s progressive culture.
For Cousins, a speech from Black women during the 1968 walkout captures the battle between quiet conservatism and vocal activism on campus:
We were refined enough, timid enough, and conservative enough to be Brown students. After all this you were sure that we would blend right in and be silently grateful that we were here at all. But we are tired of being tokens and nothing else. We are tired of fighting against an oppressive environment. We are beginning to wonder why we came here.
“I think there’s this way that it’s not meant for us, it was never meant for us,” she tells Mic. “It’s odd that we’re looking for acceptance here, to thrive here.”
But where do students, professors, and administrators at the Ivies go from here?
For Washington and Black Ivy Stories’s founder, it starts with a simple acknowledgement. “Your ‘traditional’ — heavy, heavy air quotes — student, the student that people picture when they think of the Ivy League,” Washington says, “doesn’t have to worry about a billion other factors that you just do as a Black student.” The platform’s founder agrees, noting that this “traditional” student is white and wealthy.
Cousins, Moreno, and Onwunaka all say that their critiques of Brown have supplied some internal debate. Can they criticize the very universities that will give them top-notch degrees, secured livelihoods, and the exclusive honor to wear pink on Wednesdays? That give them a glimpse of what it’s like to sit at the most exclusive table in the cafeteria and reign at the top of the food chain?
If we’ve learned anything from Mean Girls, it’s that the answer is a resounding yes. After all, it’s only a matter of time before all things hierarchical, elitist, and Plastic come to a bus-crashing end.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated Brown did not respond to Onwunaka's allegations. That was incorrect, and the article has been updated to note the university's response.