Your Family Celebrated You, So No Diploma For You!

Hafsah Abdul-Rahman is a 2023 graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Girls.

Like all schools, the Philadelphia High School for Girls (also known as Girls High), has traditions, norms and rules just like any institution. They exist for the school day and they also exist for graduations.

For the 2023 graduates, as with previous graduating classes, rules were said to them concerning audience decorum. The graduates were told to:

Tell your families no cheering, shouting, or clapping when you walk across the stage to accept your diploma.

When it was Ms. Abdul-Rahman’s turn to collect her diploma, and that of her sister Aisha—a victim of gun violence, she smiled and performed the Griddy as she moved across the stage. When she met her principal Lisa Mesi on stage to receive her diploma, it wasn’t given to her. What was given to Ms. Abdul-Rahman was this response:

You’re not getting your diploma because you made the crowd chuckle.

The moment, originally one of pride and happiness, was made into a moment of humiliation and embarrassment.

One could argue that Abdul-Rahman knew the rules (and she did), yet she chose to violate it and therefore received a consequence. But another argument can be made—that the principal should have exercised discretion to not let a procedural correction become the story as oppose to the graduates remaining the story.

Abdul-Rahman wasn’t the only victim.

Saleemah Burch simply flipped her hair while making an acknowledgement to the audience (more than likely to her family in attendance) and her diploma was withheld from the principal. Ms. Burch too got a response from Ms. Mesi:

I’m sorry, I love you so much, but one of your family members clapped.

Both ladies received their diplomas after the ceremony and their mothers received a phone call of apology from the assistant superintendent who oversees Girl’s High.

In response, the School District of Philadelphia released a statement to the Philadelphia Inquirer:

During Friday’s Girls’ High graduation, the school administration chose to give a few graduates their diplomas directly after graduation versus on the stage due to the school’s graduation guidelines. The district does not condone the withholding of earned diplomas based on family members cheering for their graduates. We apologize to all the families and graduates who were impacted and are further looking into this matter to avoid it happening in the future.”

Graduations are times where students and their families have the opportunity for celebration and release. School can be a place where young people are introduced to a world of knowledge, purpose and friendships that set them on the course of success. However, the K-12 experience, particularly for Black children and families, can be stressful, painful and discouraging due to systemic racism and navigating a white institutional space.

Such experiences may in fact pass generational trauma from grandparent to parent to child.

Graduations mark the period of accomplishment over the adversity. Students and families share in the struggles and challenges that culminate in the accomplishment of receiving a diploma. Of course, families will scream and cheer as their students express their happiness and or relief during their moment in the sun.

With that said, I understand how some can hijack a ceremony. I’ve attended ceremonies where some, parents especially, forget there are other parents in attendance who want to hear their child’s name called or who’d like to cheer for their child. Certainly, a tiny number of parents can be over the top in their glee and forget about the community they are a part of. It can be disrespectful. I get that. However, those displays aren’t rooted in anything other than happiness and excitement for their children.

The same is true for students who walk, dance, jump, griddy, two-step, or improvise across the stage to receive their diploma.

I don’t believe Principal Mesi is a horrible person because she withheld diplomas from Ms. Burch and Ms. Abdul-Rahman. I’ve been an educator long enough to know that principals too have people they answer to. The decision to quell parental excitement at that graduation could have come down from someone with a higher paygrade and fear could have driven Mesi’s decisions in those moments.

… Likewise, Mesi could be guilt of staunchly defending white institutional norms.

But what bothered me more was comments made by Girls High alumnus Dana Carter, who’s known for speaking up for marginalized students as a member of Racial Justice Organizing. She agreed with the Mesi and school administration. Carter, while saying she wouldn’t have embarrassed the ladies, said:

“I am so sorry that child had a rough year… But this is the school she picked. We’ve got to stop giving our babies outs.

When we don’t hold them to standards or hold them accountable for what they do, then they will continue to do whatever they want out in these streets.”

Giving a child the diploma, they earned on stage isn’t a handout. It’s what they’ve earned. Failing to love them is what will make them continue to do whatever they want out in these streets.

Unfortunately, some Black folk are culturally conditioned to equate moments or expressions of Black joy (in all its forms) as unprofessional, flippant, and nonceremonial; as nothing representative of the level of seriousness and sacredness deemed appropriate for Eurocentric led institutional rites of passage, like a graduation ceremony.

This posture unsurprisingly speaks to the social structure’s hatred of Black expression (unless commodified for profit). It also speaks to the compromise of said expression by those conditioned Black folks in exchange for inclusion in a society that continues to oppress them: the desire to be treated as human because we’ve been treated as anything else but human.

Some of us attempt to work out a salvation that is not afforded to us by and large by sacrificing each other and ourselves.

Are rules meant to be followed? Yes. Can those in positions of authority use their discretion as an arbiter of executing judgment? Yes. As an educator, I do so daily as many other educators do. Both Ms. Burch and Ms. Abdul-Rahman didn’t exercise the best discretion as a result of limits placed on Black expression. Ms. Mesi didn’t exercise the best discretion either. For that, she was temporarily removed from her position.

The lesson? Stop limiting Black expression during a happy occasion like a graduation. Or else, you may have to contend with Black suspicion and wrath.


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