We Can All Learn From the NJ Prep School Student Who Spoke Out Against Racism and Sexism

Though her stunt cost her the class presidency, Maya Peterson will be remembered for being unafraid to address real issues affecting students of color.

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Maya Peterson’s Instagram photo that cost her her student body presidency at the Lawrenceville School in New Jersey

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I might be Maya Peterson’s biggest fan. Don’t know her name just yet? You should. She’s the prep school graduate everyone’s buzzing about for her bold, if a bit misguided, way of tackling sexism and racism at her New Jersey high school. 

Maya, a black-Latina lesbian, was elected class president at the very elite and very white Lawrenceville School, the most expensive boarding school in America. She ran on a platform that catered to minority students and underclassmen. She was the school’s first black female president and its first lesbian president, too.

Maya’s term abruptly ended in March when she posted a picture on Instagram mocking some of her classmates. She dressed up like the white boys at her school while holding a hockey stick and wearing an entitled glare. The caption had the hashtags #romney2016, #confederate and #peakedinhighschool.

“You’re the student body president, and you’re mocking and blatantly insulting a large group of the school’s male population,” one commenter wrote in response to the picture.

Maya’s response was epic: “Yes, I am making a mockery of the right-wing, confederate-flag hanging, openly misogynistic Lawrentians,” she wrote. “If that’s a large portion of the school’s male population, then I think the issue is not with my bringing attention to it in a lighthearted way, but rather why no one has brought attention to it before ... ”

Welp.

This is why I like her. She got into a position of power and—unlike so many politicians who swear they’re about change and making a difference but who, once they’re elected, get stifled by the status quo—used her voice to address something that mattered to her and the people who elected her. It’s what we all wish we could do in our corner of the world but so few of us actually do. It’s admirable. And while I may have bursts of “DILLIGAF” now in my mid-30s, I certainly didn’t have it at Maya’s age of 17.

Her election represents the school’s—and, in many ways, America’s—colorful changing face. As we’ve seen this play out on a national scale with our actual president, change—coming in the (threatening) form of a nonwhite and/or female person in charge—doesn’t always go over so well in places where there’s a long tradition of white, conservative men being in power.

I was a prep school student, too—though my school wasn’t nearly as elite or expensive. The racism and sense of entitlement of some—not all—wealthy white students and of administrators who don’t know what to do with black kids is, unfortunately, part of the deal with sending your black child to a predominantly white school.

I was a kid who noticed all those things and went home and talked about all those things. I also had parents who, like many black parents would, I think, hit me with the “You’re not there to be liked or be comfortable; you’re there to learn” line.

They never, ever said it, but there was the double dose of “Do you know what it cost/How much I’ve sacrificed for you to be there?” I wasn’t supposed to be there to change anything; I was there to graduate ... with honors. That’s it. And I did that (minus the honors). All those school issues, I left for someone else to deal with. Not being so outspoken then might be why I am now. Maybe I’m making up for lost time. Hmmm.

Unfortunately, Maya’s Instagram stunt cost her the presidency. The school’s administration and several students didn’t find it so funny, and Maya, in retrospect, admitted that it wasn’t the best move.

“I’m not saying what I did was right,” she told BuzzFeed. “But it wasn’t racist. I was just calling those guys exactly what they are.”

She went too far. However, I'm sure that, as a confident, outspoken young woman who doesn’t back down and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, she’ll go far in life. Now that she’s receiving so much media attention, I can’t wait to see what she uses this even bigger platform to say next.

Demetria L. Lucas is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life and the upcoming Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love. Follow her on Twitter.

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