Graduation, a traditionally celebratory rite of passage, has also been a harsh awakening to heightened racial and cultural tensions for a number of minority millennial students.
Across the country, students have taken to social media to describe incidents of police brutality, profiling and backlash against cultural clothing displays — actions that, for those students, dampened an otherwise joyous occasion.
Homewood Flossmoor High School, Taiylar Ball, a National Honor Society member and poet, was banned from her senior prom and nearly missed her graduation after performing a poem filled with references to cultural pride at her school’s annual senior showcase.
The poem, addressed to black girls, expressed the importance of their beauty and the struggle of being a black woman in America after suffering from complexion issues herself.
“Dear Black girls your mind is filled with self hate, and emotion but let me tell you brown girl, you are one of a kind…love yourself cus they don’t…there is power in your melanin…Dear Black man, brothers, n***a? Kim K wearing you like an accessory, be conscious black man…”
Classmates at the suburban Chicago high school gave her a standing ovation. The administration was less pleased.
“I was able to finish my performance which is why I didn't know that I was in trouble when I got off stage. In the video everyone is singing, they are clapping," Ball told NBC news. "So I'm thinking oh my God everybody loved my poem. Then the principal brought me into the hallway and asked, were these words approved.”
The final version had not been approved. Ball received a call from the school stating she would be unable to attend prom and they would talk more about graduation.
In a statement to NBC News, Homewood Flossmoor High School stated: “Unfortunately due to this being a student discipline issue, we are not able to comment specifically regarding this student. However — as is done annually for this event — all students who perform in the senior talent show are provided the rules and guidelines for the event and are required to audition two weeks prior to the show.”
Ball believes the whole situation could have been handled better.
“They could have celebrated the poem and used it as a learning opportunity," she said. "They need to learn cultural competence. The black community shouldn’t still feel like we are the bottom of the totem pole."
Graduation represents a “culmination of an often challenging situation” said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University.
“Despite its obvious values, (a college education) will not protect graduates from racism and discrimination,” he said.
Pew Research Center poll found that half of Americans say racism is a big problem in society — up from 26 percent six years ago.
The class of 2016 is no exception.
Nyree Holmes, an African American National Merit Scholar and AP student from Cosumnes Oaks High School in Sacramento, California, was escorted out of his graduation by police for wearing a traditional African kente cloth representing his cultural heritage.
Valedictorian, Andrew Jones, was denied the opportunity to walk with his graduating class at Amite High School in Louisiana after he violated the school’s dress code by refusing to shave off his beard that he grew throughout high school. Despite earning a 4.0 grade point average, Jones was stopped and asked to remove his gown as the graduation continued.
And the incidents go on and on.
Neal said that he is not surprised.
“The realities of race that exist in the so-called ‘real world’ are often intimately connected to the lives of marginalized students, even during the season when they are celebrating their achievements with family and friends,” he said.
At the University of Maryland, College Park campus police were accused of using excessive force against minority students during gathering just days after graduation. Two students were arrested.
The university’s president, Wallace Loh, in an email addressed the issue of racial bias.
“This incident compels us to confront the reality that African-Americans, and other persons of color, experience bias and unequal treatment in everyday life,” he wrote.
Brittney Hunter, a student at the university, who did not attend the event that night but is a resident of the on-campus apartment, was one of the students arrested.
University of Maryland Police Department had “no further comment or answers” until the conclusion of the full investigation.
“It has affected my mental stability,” Hunter told NBC News. “I now have a fear of even the sight of police officers.”
Hunter’s family was not informed that she had been detained during the 19 hours she was in the corrections facility.
“They were in fear for their daughter,” she said.
The backlash on social media was swift.
University of Maryland officials say the investigation could take up to a month.
Hunter, an accounting major who expects to graduate in 2017 worries that this incident and pending legal case will have a lasting effect.
“I fear filling out an application and putting a check in the box that asked have you ever been arrested.”
She has reason to worry according to research by sociologist Devah Pager, who wrote "Marked: Race, Crime and Finding Work in an Era of Mass Incarceration." In the book, Pager found that the stigma of a criminal record caused a long standing stereotype on black men in particular.
The study focused on the likelihood that an applicant would be called back for a job interview by grouping black and white applicants that presented themselves with previous criminal convictions and those who did not have a criminal record. Based on the findings, whites without criminal records were more likely to get a second interview, 34 percent, than blacks with a criminal record, 5 percent.
Blacks without a criminal record were called back less likely than whites that did have a criminal record.
“Being black in America today is just about the same as having a felony conviction in terms of one’s chance of finding a job," Pager wrote.
That’s one of the reasons why minority millennials worry about racially motivated, graduation-related arrests.
University of Maryland officials in a statement said the school is looking for a “culture of inclusive excellence, where everyone feels a sense of belonging and security," following the May graduation weekend incident.
A nice start, Neal said, but more needs to be done.
“Conversation must get past affirming rhetoric and become effective campus policy that acts as both deterrent for such acts and a challenge to the status quo on many of these campuses,” Neal said.
Ball, who received a full ride to the Florida agricultural and Mechanical University, believes her situation serves as an example high schools and colleges to get the ball rolling for diverse rhetoric.
“I definitely feel like there needs to be more black representation in the media, black representation in administration, black representation is everything. Just keep educating yourself,” she said.
"Racism is not just something that is in a textbook," said Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University. #BlackLivesMatters, unrest and increasing protest across the nation are coming at a "formative time for students development" to learn and recognize how racial discrimination will affect their lives.