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St. Ignatius leaders vow to address racism after student protest

"The basis of all of this is just ignorance. . . . A lot of these things are micro-aggressions. They're things that aren't big enough to go to the administration about, but things that make us feel uncomfortable," said Ignatius student Laura Modunkwu. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Originally published on May 12, 2016 . . .

A group of minority students at St. Ignatius College Prep — one of the city’s most exclusive private schools — held a silent protest last week in the school cafeteria that has sparked a wider conversation among students, alumni and school administrators.

About 40 students dressed in black gathered at a long table to eat lunch in silence last Friday. Their goal, according to one online post, was to “reject the deeply embedded and shameful culture of oppression” at the school.

Most of the students were black. Other minorities joined, too. Several white students ate with them in support. The protesters also delivered a letter detailing grievances to school administrators — but a draft of the letter was leaked, and became the object of online mockery.

On Monday morning, an intercom announcement interrupted first period as Principal Brianna Latko addressed the situation, according to several students.

Latko reminded students that they are called to be men and women for others and should stand in solidarity with, and listen to, each other. She then led the school in a prayer.

Protesters, many from the group BOSS — Black Organization of Successful Students — began a social media campaign encouraging students and alumni to weigh in with experiences they had at St. Ignatius. Suggested hashtags included #beingPOCatignatius. (POC being short for “person of color.”) The hashtags ‪#‎beingblackatignatius and‬ ‪#‎beinglatinaatignatius‬ were also used.

Tweets included: “When they serve fried chicken at lunch and you get it and people laugh” and “When you’re expected to give a course on black hair every time you get braids.” Another offered: “Remember when my friend was portrayed as the stereotypical “angry black woman” any time she vocalized her opinion on ANYTHING?”

Several students said this week they appreciated the school’s swift response, which also included a message from Latko and the school president, the Rev. Michael Caruso, posted to the school’s website.

It read, in part: “The school leadership will be meeting with the students who authored the letter at the end of this week, and we are already in discussion with some students and other members of the Saint Ignatius College Prep community. It is the school’s intent to work on addressing these issues in a manner that is consistent with our Catholic, Jesuit values.”

The school, at 1076 W. Roosevelt Rd., is run by the Jesuits.

Michael Levesque, a senior headed to the University of Michigan, said in a social media post that students of color “experience racism, ignorance and continual hatred.”

Yet nearly all minority students who criticized the school on matters of race also had glowing words to share. “St. Ignatius is a magical place where students can realize their own beauty and intelligence. So when I see or hear all the explicit racism mixed with ignorance on a daily basis, it breaks my heart,” Levesque posted on social media.

On Wednesday afternoon, after the final bell, several students shared their thoughts outside the school.

Joia McKinney and Paula West, both freshmen, said they were proud of the dignity used to convey their message. “It’s important we didn’t do anything over the top,” McKinney said.

Others suggested the problem is exacerbated by a disconnect in class and privilege that exists among segments of the student body.

“The basis of all of this is just ignorance,” said senior Laura Modunkwu, 19.

“Some white students make fun of BOSS in a mocking way: ‘Can I be a part? Can I join? Can I be president?’ A lot of these things are micro-aggressions. They’re things that aren’t big enough to go to the administration about, but things that make us feel uncomfortable,” Modunkwu said.

Several students said they had heard the N-word used in the hallway by white students, mostly in a mis-appropriated, non-malicious and joking manner. One African-American student petitioned a teacher not to use the word in class. “The student said, ‘I understand this happened in history but it makes me feel uncomfortable because there are kids in the class who think it’s OK to use it outside that context,” Modunkwu recalled.

Former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said he can relate to the protesters but also would attend Ignatius again. | File photo
Former Cook County Board President Todd Stroger said he can relate to the protesters but also would attend Ignatius again. | File photo

Todd Stroger, former Cook County Board president and a 1981 Ignatius graduate, said using the N-word in an instructional setting is appropriate.

“I kind of relate it to when the Jewish people talk about the Holocaust, they say: ‘Never Forget.’ I think this is kind of the same instance for African-Americans in America,” he said.

“But you get some people who are trying to be smart alecks, and some people who are so naive and immature they don’t get it,” Stroger said.

Stroger stopped short of saying he experienced racism at the school. “There will always be people who are insensitive. … There was always somebody who would say something out of bounds, just trying to get your goat.”

“But I’d go back to high school at St. Ignatius in a heartbeat, if my wife would let me,” he added.