Q&A: Lutalo Jones, Meley Akpa, Kathryn Schmechel, and Naomi Wilson talk about African American representation at SPA

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Noor Qureishy

Senior Kathryn Schmechel hopes that SPA will continue to honor its students of color. “Continuing efforts of authentic diversity and continuing to honor authentic diversity is really important, because there are not that many of us,” she said. Pictured above: senior Kathryn Schmechel, ninth grader Naomi Wilson, senior Meley Akpa, and senior Lutalo Jones.

Noor Qureishy and Diane Huang

Senior Lutalo Jones, Meley Akpa, Kathryn Schmechel, and ninth grader Naomi Wilson discuss how they feel African American students are represented at St. Paul Academy and Summit School.

How do you think SPA, as a school, approaches its African American students? Do you think people at this school or the school in general have ever treated you differently because of your race?

LutaloIt’s important that we are treated differently because we are a minority within our school and with that in mind, it is important that our school does reach out to those that are inherently different to be able to have them find a space where they can relate to the people around them. Even though there’s a really small percentage of those people to relate to, but it’s still something.

NaomiMy dad was part of the class that had the first African American [student] and this was when he was in Kindergarten…he wasn’t treated that much differently compared to how he was treated at other schools and he felt that just the overall atmosphere of the school is very accepting. And that hasn’t changed that much, in fact the school has [become] even more accepting because there’s the other minorities that have joined the school.

I’m half African and I’m half American but I’m not culturally African American, I’m culturally African and American.”

— senior Meley Akpa

KathrynI don’t think that I have really been treated poorly because I’m black. I think I’m treated differently sometimes.

We’re often gone to in especially history discussions about the civil rights movement or about race or different things because — at least I am sometimes seen as I have more knowledge because I’m black, but I think they’re doing it to be positive and affirming and sometimes it can be that way but sometimes it’s like ‘I don’t know everything either.’ But I don’t think I’ve been treated purposively poorly because I’m black.

MeleyA lot of people expect you — just because you are black, to know everything about African American culture.

During black history month, when all the quizzes were going around…every single person was like ‘how do you not know all the answers to this’ and ‘you should know this right now’ and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t [know].’  

Lutalo: Yeah, I got that a lot too..that’s a lot of pressure, like do you know everything about white culture?

MeleyEspecially because a lot of people just assume — this is just for me, personally, but everyone assumes that I have African American culture, which I don’t.

I’m half African and I’m half American but I’m not culturally African American, I’m culturally African and American.

It’s confusing because it’s two completely different cultures than African American culture and people just label me as African American just because I’m mixed.

Do you feel that black culture or African American culture is represented here at SPA the way it is in the larger community?

Lutalo: No, because for that culture to be represented in the way that it would be in perhaps a public school [we would need] a majority or like a larger percentage of black students attending. Those people are what create that culture so it’s as prevalent as it is within us, but for it to be what you consider established within the infrastructure of our school, you’d need more people.

Certain people may not even realize that what they’re saying is problematic, even when they’re trying really hard for it not to be.”

— senior Kathryn Schmechel

NaomiIt’s probably because our school is so diverse — at least compared to the middle school I went to, because I know that I had kind of a similar experience to yours, [with] how people assumed that I knew everything about the civil rights movement and just all this history.

Here, where there’s more diversity, I’m not treated like that as much, but that might be because I’m very mixed.

Have you noticed any microaggressions or even overt racism at SPA, either directed at you or around you?

Kathryn: I’m in History of Race, and a lot of the conversations we have can be simultaneously important and good for everybody to be there but also can be kind of  frustrating because as one of the relatively few people of color actually in that class, we come at the perspectives of the conversations from a lot of different ways from just the more intellectual or analytical ways that people are sometimes approaching what we’re reading about.

So, I guess that’s one example where people in the class are doing their best not to offend, but at the same time come at it from a mindset where they don’t always even realize what they’re saying…certain people may not even realize that what they’re saying is problematic, even when they’re trying really hard for it not to be.

Do you think your race affects how you approach your history class or how you interact within your history class?

Lutalo: Sometimes, and sometimes not… I’m a pretty active person already, I think it’s definitely more prevalent for people who are relatively quiet in class and who wait for when they feel is the right opportunity [to talk]. During discussions, I’m usually just always in it so it’s not easy for them to be able to say like ‘oh, so what do you think Lutalo?’ because I’m already saying it.

When you’re one person, that’s one opinion speaking for an entire race and that’s not going to ever be able to represent anyone in a [good] way. ”

— senior Lutalo Jones

But I have definitely heard from my peers a lot of that — and it’s not only just black students, but it’s anyone that is part of a certain minority group…it really just becomes a problem where students believe that someone of that race is the spokesperson of that race.

That becomes really difficult, because that’s a lot of pressure to put on one person, and it’s not something that everyone will — like if you’re surrounded by a multi-populace of people of your same race, it’s a lot easier to have multiple opinions. But when you’re one person, that’s one opinion speaking for an entire race and that’s not going to ever be able to represent anyone in a [good] way.  

Meley: I’m exactly the opposite, Lutalo, I’m a very quiet person…during history discussions I would talk maybe three times at the most. Especially during conversations with race, if I hadn’t spoken at all, people would all — or maybe they didn’t look at me, but I just felt really pressured to speak up during those moments especially.

Naomi: With World History…I don’t feel that pressure but I understand that if there was a class and there’s a unit about the civil rights movement there would probably be a different atmosphere.

Here, where there’s more diversity, I’m not treated [differently] as much, but that might be because I’m very mixed.”

— ninth grader Naomi Wilson

Do you think the way African American students are represented or treated at SPA has changed in the past year, since the election cycle began? Have you noticed any changes?

KathrynI don’t feel like it’s been specific to black students. I feel like there’s been a more general trend of how we’ve changed the way we interact with each other, or how people have changed the ways they interact with people of color in different…historically oppressed groups at our school. But, I don’t feel like the treatment has been specifically like ‘I’m going to change the way I interact with you as a black person because of the election.’ I haven’t seen that as much specifically.

What I will say though, is after the Philando Castille shooting, it seemed like there was a lot more energy of wanting to talk to black peers or wanting to have conversations with them, and empathize with them just because all of a sudden — the police shootings, I think, really struck a new chord because it was more close to home.

In what ways do you think SPA needs to improve when it comes to African American students?

KathrynThe school’s already doing this — but just continuing efforts of authentic diversity and continuing to honor authentic diversity is really important, because there are not that many of us.

And, I think that there’s something to be said, certainly, about having unique perspectives around the table not only for other people to learn from them, but for us to have a community [where] we feel supported by each other too. So, I think that continuing those efforts of diversity is something that the school can for sure do.

It can only get better when it starts feeling just like it’s home for everyone. Not that this isn’t home for us, but it can be even more so.”

— senior Lutalo Jones

Lutalo: Maybe it’s not something that will happen any time soon, but when it gets to the point that we can see people with multiple ethnic backgrounds in this space and it’s not weird — like a surprise to see those people around you — African Americans, or any other race really.

But once that becomes a little bit more normalized, and it’s not a token — I don’t want to say token, because I know that we’re not token students, but it definitely feels that way sometimes — and it can only get better when it starts feeling just like it’s home for everyone. Not that this isn’t home for us, but it can be even more so.

How many African Americans are in the senior class?

Meley: There’s only four in our grade, there’s only four — like when you think of that, that’s hardly anything.

Lutalo: There’s one hundred and twelve people in our grade, and four are African Americans. And some grades have one and some have none.

MeleyThey have hardly any [African American students in the Middle School], but in the [Upper] School, I think Ms. Karen Dye does a good job of making sure [there are more].

Lutalo: The Lower School is doing a great job, and that’s what’s really going to affect it, because it’s the bringing up of those students [that’s important], not necessarily only just letting them in whenever.

Kathryn and I were really lucky to have that experience of pretty much growing up in the SPA community, we’ve seen it through since Kindergarten.

There’s only four [African American students] in our grade…when you think of that, that’s hardly anything.”

— senior Meley Akpa

Has that affected your experience outside of the [SPA] community?

LutaloWho I am now isn’t always necessarily accepted by the black community that I am often exposed to. But it’s not about not being accepted by those people, it’s about the people that are accepting me, and so i really hold on to that and just find the people that I really do enjoy being around. And they’re amazing people, so that’s where I find these lovely people to spend time with.

Any other closing statements?

NaomiMe personally, being mixed and also a minority, I really enjoy hanging around other minorities. I’m a part of MSA [Muslims Students Alliance] and I really enjoy hanging out with them, and I also like talking to people of other grades. So, that’s how being mixed and African American has influenced me in this school.