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Black at Benilde: Black students at the elite private school recommend enrolling elsewhere

City Pages

City Pages

I. The Minority Tax

The civil unrest that engulfed blocks of south Minneapolis after the killing of George Floyd spilled down Lake Street as far west as Calhoun Commons, a strip mall near the city’s border with St. Louis Park. Businesses in that pocket of the western shore of Bde Maka Ska had their windows smashed.

Just two miles away, in St. Louis Park, was Benilde-St. Margaret’s, a private Catholic School whose Black students were watching the destruction with mounting anxiety.

For several days, students waited for the school to say something. In the wake of Floyd’s death, institutions and corporations raced to denounce police brutality and systemic racism. Minneapolis Public Schools canceled its $1.1 million contract with the Minneapolis Police Department. And even though it was summer break, individual teachers emailed their students to lend a caring ear. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, however, was very quiet.

About a week later, the school posted an Instagram picture of one of its Black graduates, Noah Layton, of the class of 2020. He’s standing at a lectern in a red and black graduation gown, looking starry-eyed, as if gazing off into a promising future. His portrait is overlaid with the prayer, “We give you thanks for the spirit of peace that calms our mind and stills our life.”

Whatever point Benilde meant to make with the photo was lost on its subject.

Cristina Marier

Cristina Marier Susan Du

“This is gross,” Layton wrote on his own Instagram. “For me to be used in a post like this, without even addressing the issues in our own city, without asking if they can use my picture, is tone deaf.”

Layton had long been a quiet critic of the school’s tendency to pose Black kids as props in advertisements that were far more diverse than the overwhelmingly white student body. Being tokenized for stock images was such a common annoyance among students of color that when a small group organized a food drive on campus following the riots, they preemptively insisted the school not photograph them for self-promoting social media.

The use of his image was the least of Layton’s concerns. After years of withholding his true feelings about what it was like to be Black at Benilde St.-Margaret’s, this was the last straw.

“I went to BSM knowing it was a means to an end,” he continued on Instagram. “To get a good education I had to endure four years of uncomfortable conversations with classmates, watching gross treatment of my fellow students of color, and empty comments from administration.”

Layton was referring to a slew of tribulations that minorities endured at the school—implicit exclusion, explicit mockery, dehumanizing curricula, and preferential discipline. Besides the glaring racial scandals that rocked the school some years, the routine, everyday alienation of students who failed to fit the standard mold was often passive-aggressive, plausibly deniable, and difficult to codify. His post was an attempt to start unraveling those experiences.

In response, Black alumni created an Instagram called BlackatBenilde, a catalog of anecdotes anonymously submitted by students past and present. They detailed prolific use of the N-word, white theater students donning brownface to portray people of color in musicals like West Side Story and Thoroughly Modern Millie, and classes in which students practiced rhetorical strategies by debating the pros and cons of gay marriage, interracial adoption, slavery, and ethnic cleansing, as if these subjects had only theoretical significance to students.

Some of the stories were hyper-specific, occasionally sparking long discussion threads among others who’d witnessed the same events from different angles.

A Queer at Benilde page soon followed, detailing the oft-hostile experiences of LGBT students in a school that censors coming-out stories from the Knight Errant student newspaper, which City Pages covered in 2010.

Other “Blackat” Instagram pages were created for the Twin Cities private schools Blake and Breck. Often mentioned in the same breath as Benilde, they charge more than $30,000 per student annually, and would also be considered “racially isolated” under state law if the term applied to white schools.

All three private schools made public declarations acknowledging their students’ outpouring of stories. They laid out plans to improve the schools’ climates.

In early June, Benilde-St. Margaret’s President Adam Ehrmantraut wrote, “Clearly, our society has been steeped in crushing, race-based discrimination for centuries, and schools must be places of progress. Make no mistake, black lives do matter.... The personal messages outlining specific experiences go to my very soul, and have sparked an honest reassessment of what we are doing and what we need to do better.”

Layton is heading to New York’s Columbia University this fall. In high school he was involved with varsity football, basketball, speech, and a capella. Benilde was a small pond that presented opportunities for him to be as big a fish as he wanted.

Yet as a captain on the football team his senior year, underclassmen subordinates stared at him blankly when he told them to pick up after themselves in the locker room, only obeying when white co-captains gave the same order.

Among many Black alumni, there’s a growing belief that Benilde-St. Margaret’s is no school for their children, nor any children in search of a worldly education. Layton wouldn’t recommend it.

“There’s that minority tax you have to pay in certain places like that,” he says. “It’s a good opportunity academically and athletically, but there are just certain things you have to be wary of, that will happen when you go there.”

Noah Layton

Noah Layton

II. House of Glass

Benilde St.-Margaret’s is a combined junior and senior high of about 1,100 students, an amalgamation of what used to be separate boys’ and girls’ Catholic schools. Full tuition costs about $15,000 per year, making it far more affordable than Blake and Breck, and academically speaking, one of the best returns on investment in private education.

Nevertheless, the student body’s affluence is a world removed from the hard-knock reality of neighboring Minneapolis Public Schools. Each morning at Benilde, the parking lot fills with Jeeps, Mercedes, and other luxury cars. Every student is handed a Mac laptop, theirs to take home and use for the duration of the school year.

And while most Catholic schools mandate uniforms, Benilde St.-Margaret’s does not. The brands worn in the hallways are another status symbol by which students stratify themselves into a hierarchy. In some past years everyone wore preppy clothes, and looked like J. Crew models. When fashion trended casual, they’d shell out for Lululemon leggings and Nike Air Force 1s.

Since 2000, Benilde has undergone aggressive capital campaigns to renovate the school. Parents and alumni, many of whom donate thousands of dollars each year on top of tuition, raised $30 million for a new junior high and a palatial athletic complex including an artificial turf stadium, gatehouse, racetrack, and baseball fields. Recently, they gave $8 million to construct three ultra-modern science labs and a performing arts amphitheater.

This year, the school was also approved for a loan up to $5 million from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, intended to help small businesses weather the COVID-19 economic downturn.

Teachers are non-unionized, at-will employees. None of the school’s current educators are Black, although some Black staff are employed in maintenance, traffic control, and “diversity.”

Obasi Lewis

Obasi Lewis

According to graduates from the 1990s, some things have changed. Some things have not.

Togba Norris, an actor working in New York who gradated in the class of 1993, lived in north Minneapolis while attending Benilde.

His family immigrated from Liberia, initially settling in Hopkins at a time when there was very little diversity in that suburb, then moving to Minneapolis. Norris’s parents didn’t want him to grow up fearing people who looked like him. At the same time, Minneapolis was rough in the 1990s. Wary that trouble might find Norris in public school, they enrolled him at Ascension, a north Minneapolis Catholic K-8 school.

Norris says his parents scrimped and saved to afford Benilde’s tuition, working multiple jobs and taking out loans. He qualified for some financial assistance, and earned the remainder of his tuition cleaning classrooms for work study. As Norris boarded a bus back to North after school, he’d watch kids loading jet skis into their trucks to go down to the lakes. For families of modest means considering Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Norris says there’s a stunning level of privilege on parade.

“But going to Benilde—even though there was all of the emotional baggage and damage that came along with it—we as minorities, as immigrants, saw it as an opportunity for advancement that I wouldn’t be able to get in the Minneapolis Public School system,” he said.

He was educated in more ways than one. Benilde was where Norris started coming out of the closet at 17. Athletes checked him into lockers. He heard all the slurs, both racist and homophobic, said to his face.

One day he was invited to a friend’s house to rehearse for a school play. She’d been nervous about introducing him to her father, and Norris could tell by the older man’s body language that he wasn’t really welcome. The friend had mentioned Norris was gay ahead of the visit in order to defuse possible misunderstandings, but at one point in their conversation he joked about marrying her because she was such a nice person. The father got up and left the room. The next moment, the mother hurried out of the kitchen and ushered them out the door.

Tamera Chatham

Tamera Chatham

“I wanted to have a good impression of the years that I spent there,” Norris says. “It was my high school experience and everything, but it did have a way of destroying people’s self-esteem.”

Discovering the BlackatBenilde Instagram verified his own complicated feelings about the school, so he showed it to his friend Juliet Muller, another 1993 graduate who now lives in Chicago. The feed was a revelation that nearly 30 years after her own dismal experience at Benilde as a Korean adoptee of white parents, faculty and staff still haven’t created an environment where differences thrive.

Muller recalls one time in her freshman year, when she chatted with a group of students she didn’t know well in the cafeteria. When lunch ended and the group dispersed, someone gave her a pat on the back. She thought little of it until she discovered, later in the day, a piece of paper taped to her shirt. There were many words scrawled there, but she only remembers one: “Sumo.” She recalls the humiliation, as well as the isolating realization that plenty of students had seen her walking around and said nothing.

In AP English her senior year, Muller was picked to debate the positive side of interracial adoption while a white girl presented the perspective that children like her suffered from a deficient upbringing. Despite the teacher’s disclaimer that debate positions did not necessarily reflect anyone’s personal opinions, it was an agonizingly awkward experience.

Years later, Muller says Benilde was little more than a negative experience she learned to rise above.

“There are lots of kids out there that need to have a voice. It’s a tricky time because you’re upon adulthood, and yet I get that, ‘Is anybody listening to me?’ type of feeling. And I can see in these many students who have posted their stories that they’re not being heard,” Muller says.

“I can’t speak highly of Benilde, and I can’t recommend anybody send their child there because of my experience there, and what I understand continues to this day.”

III. Whiteout

The creator of the BlackatBenilde Instagram is Obasi Lewis, class of 2016. The first post is his own story. As a junior in cross country, he was the only Black runner on his team. As their bus headed back to school one evening following a meet, students erupted in a song, repeating the N-word over and over.

It was a song from the 2007 “glockumentary” Gangsta Rap, which had recently resurged in a popular Vine. The movie was a parody, the song a call-and-response debate over use of the N-word in the Black community.

It was obvious to Lewis that none of his teammates—nor the adult coaches who remained silent—understood the complexity of that word’s usage. For several surreal minutes he found himself stuck on a bus, surrounded by white kids chanting the N-word. He promptly quit the team, but didn’t tell his parents about the incident because they would have removed him from the school, and he didn’t want to start over somewhere else a year before graduation.

Recently Lewis’s older sister has been considering private education for his niece. He recommended against Benilde-St. Margaret’s, pointing to the manifold stories of indignity and condescension that poured into the BlackatBenilde Instagram after his.

In 2012, teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood-watch vigilante in Florida, giving birth to the Black Lives Matter movement. Benilde alumni who spoke with City Pages recalled that after some students tried to coordinate a day for everyone to wear black in support, administration made a special announcement to shut it down. Later that fall, students counter-protesting Black Lives Matter got away with a “whiteout” in the student section of a football game, where kids wore white to express that “all lives matter,” the usual refrain used to dismiss the numerous deadly encounters between unarmed Black people and American police.

Other football dress-up themes included “yacht club and trophy wives,” and “finance bros and hoes.”

BlackatBenilde anecdotes from recent years include “African American” cafeteria meals served during Black History Month featuring fried chicken and watermelon. Girls on the dance team, coordinating “flesh tone” tights, whispering about the dark-skinned Black girl throwing off their color scheme. Trucks bearing Confederate flags. Snapchats taken of people on service trips to north Minneapolis filled with monkey emojis.

“We want them to make actionable changes to the curriculum, to the culture, to the way they train their faculty and staff to respond to these incidents so that students have a better experience at BSM, specifically minority students, but really all students,” Lewis says. “There are issues they might face later in life, and issues that will come up in a college classroom.”

Benilde St.-Margaret’s President Adam Ehrmantraut responded to the BlackatBenilde Instagram promising to invite students, parents, and alumni to listening sessions on school culture, and reminding everyone to observe the school motto, “Let love be sincere.” A month passed. The school released no further information.

Lewis emailed Ehrmantraut and Principal Susan Skinner, asking for an update, and offering the assistance of a large group of Black alumni.

“We believe that the proposed listening and engagement sessions discussed in your first public statement are an important first step in true allyship to students and alumni of color,” he wrote. “If you would like to engage in a dialogue with us, please let us know of next steps.”

A dozen former students signed their names.

Another month passed. Ehrmantraut and Skinner never responded.

Meanwhile, the two did reply to the emails of concerned alumni whose families donate large sums of money, promising to involve them in the listening sessions to come. These donors requested anonymity, for fear students currently enrolled at Benilde will face retaliation if they speak critically of the school.

Ehrmantraut’s office agreed to, then pulled out of an interview with City Pages, saying he and Skinner needed to focus on developing protocols for reopening school in a COVID fall.

In an email, Ehrmantraut said Benilde had contracted with an expert to facilitate listening sessions in late August through October. Following these, the school will design a comprehensive plan to recruit and retain employees of color, improve school climate, and change the curriculum.

“As a community we strive to elevate student voices and offer an abundance of support and grace,” he wrote. “At BSM, we espouse to welcome everyone as if they were Christ; our thoughts and actions must live up to those words.”

He did not answer why families of color should choose Benilde-St. Margaret’s, and declined to take further questions.

IV. “Let Love Be Sincere”

Morgan Bettin-Coleman, a 2017 valedictorian, recalls that in her junior year, a white girl circulated a Snapchat photo of her white boyfriend with the strings of his hoodie cinched tight, captioned, “Hang the n—s.” Many students celebrated its daring. For Bettin-Coleman, it was the moment the school’s latent anti-Black atmosphere crossed into explicit white supremacy, something that had been passed down. She felt strongly that the administration should do something about it.

She and a fellow leader of the Black student organization visited Principal Skinner’s office. They said that while they didn’t expect to be told details of another student’s discipline, the author of the Snapchat clearly had not been suspended from school nor barred from playing hockey games. She hadn’t apologized, and as far as anyone could tell, suffered no consequences.

Bettin-Coleman says nothing came of the meeting because Skinner suddenly began to cry. Watching quietly, she felt confused, suspecting the tears were a performative act to engender sympathy.

In comments on the BlackatBenilde posts, and in rebuttals to Knight Errant coverage of the Black student experience, white students and alumni have occasionally argued that Benilde-St. Margaret’s has no culture problem because they themselves had a phenomenal time.

“That totally encompasses what it was like to be white at Benilde, to have no recognition of what students of color were going through,” Bettin-Coleman says.

“I don’t really see [the school] improving anytime soon. It doesn’t seem like something they’re seeking to do, especially because there are so many white students who are supportive of Benilde’s environment that they will value that feedback more, and utilize it to maintain how they are.”

Cristina Marier is a 2018 Benilde graduate who now attends Drake University, studying law, politics, and society.

She says shortly after President Donald Trump’s election, white hockey players grouped near the doors of the cafeteria stopped her on the way in. One told her she wasn’t allowed. Thinking it was no more than a bit of everyday bullying, she pushed through.

Later that lunch period, the hockey players’ table started chanting, “Build the wall, build the wall!” Some Latino students at the next table stood up and ran out.

Afterward, administration said there would be workshops to address the outburst, but Marier never learned who was invited to participate and what happened.

Marier was born in Nicaragua, and spoke primarily Spanish up until the fourth grade. The language barrier caused her to fall behind in her Minneapolis middle school, so her parents enrolled her at BSM for high school to catch up.

She started in remedial classes—which were occupied almost entirely by other kids of color—and stayed in them even after she began to feel stultified and unchallenged. She asked to be transferred to a regular math class and was told there was no room.

Marier has two younger brothers. Neither attends Benilde-St. Margaret’s because she was so unhappy there. Student social media channels teemed with racist memes, she says, and teachers told her to lower her dreams of attending law school and becoming an immigration lawyer. “I remember crying at school for legit a straight month, like something would happen every single day. At a certain point it just became too much. I didn’t want to go to school.”

Taylor Sudduth, also class of 2018, says Benilde’s curriculum was woefully lacking in the history and literature of nonwhite Americans. To learn about her culture, she had to choose Black subjects for independent book reports and biography projects. Other students may have found her presentations tiring, but she considered them opportunities to remediate an otherwise Eurocentric education.

She says classmates inquired whether she received financial aid, and some teachers—the ones who avoided eye contact and spoke to her only to the extent they had to—were clearly tense around Black people.

The school also had a dress code that banned political clothing, Sudduth recalls. It didn’t seem to apply to white students sporting Trump gear, yet teachers would repeatedly ask her throughout the day to lose her Black Lives Matter sweatshirt. She parried those orders, she says, because no one could ever rationalize why it was in violation, and she didn’t want to be seen as someone who’d back down.

Back home, when her parents would ask about her day, she’d say she hated defending herself all the time and beg to be transferred somewhere else, like De La Salle, a Minneapolis Catholic school with a multicultural student body.

Her parents wanted her to tough it out. They viewed Benilde-St. Margaret’s as preparation for a world of born privilege, bought influence, and doors that opened for the well-connected. In high school, she thought that was unfair. Now that she’s older, she better understands their point of view, and feels that if she survived Benilde, she could survive anything.

Private schools aren’t beholden to Gov. Tim Walz’s COVID-19 orders. While Minneapolis Public Schools plan to start school online this fall with plans for gradual expansion of in-person classes, Benilde and other private schools will reopen right away, while offering an online option for families who don’t want to chance catching the virus. These schools are reportedly seeing a spike in interest as public school parents weigh the risks and benefits of indefinite distance learning.

Sudduth cautions families of color to consider Benilde-St. Margaret’s carefully.

She was a senior when Ehrmantraut became president of Benilde. One of the first things he did was have lunches with students to learn about school climate. She told him what it was like for her. He asked what he could do to help.

“From what I’m reading, that conversation kind of came and went, and nothing really happened with that,” she says.