With the rise of the Black middle class, an increasing number of Black families are choosing to enroll their sons and daughters into the country’s elite preparatory schools, providing access to powerful networks, unique experiences, and quality education. Much has been documented about the collective experience of minority students at majority schools, particularly at the university level, as it relates to student achievement, self-esteem, mentorship and racism.

Although there is merit to the studies done on minority students at majority-White educational institutions, as a prep school alumna I can also attest to the fact that we don’t all suffer from cultural inferiority complexes. I’ve gone to swimming class in the middle of the day and rocked a fro for the rest of the afternoon without incident. I’ve engaged White male classmates on conversations about the similarities between Jewish and Black cultures. I’ve also worked with my fellow Black classmates to revamp a seemingly outdated and somewhat culturally-insensitive curriculum—a series of student/faculty meetings were arranged, viewpoints shared, and consensus was reached. I’m not sure that I would’ve honed half of those communication skills, particularly at a cross-cultural level, had it not been for the unique challenges of being “the other.”

Young Black women navigate through the choppy waters of race, sex, and sometimes class, during these developmental high school years as prep school students. But prep school provided me with an amazing training ground where I could confront the varied realities of “the real world,” as I’ve come to understand it. High school is an important time in young adulthood. As a transitional period, teens self-identify more than younger children, thereby carving out an individual social identity. As such, high school is tumultuous, competitive and, at times, hierarchical, particularly in the prep school setting where success matters.

Prep schools are no different than most “normal” American high schools in that gossip is whispered, social groups are formed, sex is had, and typical teenage craziness ensues. Money, however, is a game changer—and in a small school, you know whose family has it. My classmates were predominantly Jewish, wealthy, and, although liberal, sheltered, making “the Black tables” in the back of the cafeteria all the more noticeable. Collectively, there were 10 people of color in my senior class—all of whom were Black. Six of us were women.

It’s an interesting thing when your parents send you to school with a bunch of White kids but don’t want you to date interracially. Mirroring today’s alleged man “problem” in the African American community, few Black girls at my school opted to engage the White guys outside of platonic relationships. Then again, none of them really stepped to us, either. Many of the brothers, meanwhile, flirted and carried on in casual sexual relationships with White female students. As I’ve gotten older, Black male friends from school have corroborated that there was an initial thrill of being with a “paid-ass white girl.” The thrill, they say, eventually faded.

The same seemed to be true of other-area prep schools, with more and more ebony and ivory pairs walking the manicured lawns of the academic elite. Dutifully, many of my Black female peers practiced their very best “good Black girl” routines, instilled in us by our parents. Our roles were simple: attend, get good grades, go to college, get good grades, get a career. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200.

And this is how we were treated in the classroom as well. Teachers doted on our wit, delighted in our intellect, praised our achievements, and sent us along—while some would jokingly(?) tell us to keep an eye on one of the Black guys who wasn’t doing as well. And, in some cases, perhaps the expectation was that the fellas wouldn’t do as well. Still, this was our cross to bear. Before I had even gotten to college and learned of the expression, we were “lifting as we climb.”

At parties, we were sought out. We knew the dances. The songs. “Please make sure you come to my mitzvah, because I heard you were absolutely hilarious at last weekend’s.” We were cultural tutors, laughing at the novices while they cheered us for our novelty. This was exchange. We thought it to be a fair trade.

In the end, prep school forced us all to think about the way in which we would engage the world—passively, or aggressively. While we were always knew that we were different from the people with whom we went to school, we also understood that “difference” is not inherently bad, or less valuable. Indeed, prep school teaches Black women to actively creative their own spaces, and take ownership of any box someone else may try to put you in.

  • Alexandra

    I’ve never attended a prep school, but this sounds like my days in Catholic school.

  • Danah

    UUUUMMM did you go to my school or what?

  • http://designsdellight.com design

    There are merits to public schools ( i.e. private schools in England) but I do not thisnkk they are the best form of education, I think that I would not send myl kids on the education I received simply because I think home education is the best form of education going. I think prep school are too establishment and teach conformity too much.

    Plus there is always that elitist bent which is too dangerous to allow your kid to be around.

  • http://designsdellight.com design

    There are merits to public schools ( i.e. private schools in England) but I do not thisnkk they are the best form of education, I think that I would not send myl kids on the education I received simply because I think home education is the best form of education going. I think prep school are too establishment and teach conformity too much.

    Plus there is always that elitist bent which is too dangerous to allow your kid to be around.

  • Shak

    I went to prep-school and this is the most honest representation of that experience that I have ever read, and although it’s been almost 15 years since I graduated, I felt like I was back on campus all over again. Anytime someone asks me about that experience, the word ‘interesting’ always comes to mind. I had to laugh at the various scenarios mentioned that come with being the only ‘other’ in the room (kind of like my life in corporate America now, lol!).

  • MissMelly

    My family couldn’t afford prep school, but I was fortunate enough to attend one of the best public high schools in the country. Nevertheless, I can more than relate to this article.

  • AR

    As a current “black female prep school student,” I love this article!
    Although my school is predominately white, rather than predominately Jewish, I can definately relate to being a “good black girl” and a “cultural tutor” at dances.
    As one of six African-American students in a grade of around 65-75 (another of the six being my sister), I have had many conversations with peers centering around such questions as “Can you teach me how to dougiecrankdatsouljaboigetsilly?”; Can I touch your hair?” (I wear mine natural.) and, my personal favorite, “Do black people wear sunscreen/Can black people get sunburn?”
    Although my peers’ questions, constant need to feel my hair, and often unintentional insensitivity to black issues can get pretty annoying, I have only experienced a few small instances of unintended racism, mostly due to sheer ignorance. In order to put an end to at least some of this ignorance, I started a multicultural awareness club this year at my school.
    I may not be insanely popular go to many parties–I’ve always been somewhat of a goody-two-shoes–but I’ve found good friends and have always embraced the title of “good black girl”; my sister and I have always been popular with teachers and administrators. It’s good to know these titles are only temporary and we know that our hard work now is just a spring-board to bigger and better things in college and beyond! :)

  • Silver

    Having attened a prep school I can see some similarities to my personal expierences. I found however the hardest or rather the most fustrating thing to deal with was with my Black friends outside of school. Suddenly I wasn’t Black enough. Even though I was daily reminded that I was Black while in school by the many White faces in the classroom where I may have been one of three Black faces and at times in discussions asked to speak for Blacks on any given topic esp hip hop. But outside of the walls that enforced my “Blackness” to some how where supposed to be my brothers and sisters decided I had magically became a “White girl.”

  • WoW

    I did not attend a prep school, just a very affluent Northern Cali High School, and I found that it was easier to just be me at the all white/azn/arab/indian school. Maybe that is just the Cali way. When I went to an all black middle class school, I was depressed. There was no room for being expressive. No room to discuss anything that is not deemed black. It was suffocating. My saving grace was that I knew I was different from them and refused to conform to their ways. I was relieved when I moved to Cali and to a school that just let me be.

  • Honey Saki

    Perfect description of the experience. I attended a Quaker Middle School, a NYC public JH( in a low income area) a Waldorf HS, and then a HBCU(Howard). I must say a very interesting experience. I think it was well rounded for the most part. I think that its important for people to experience cross cultural learning environments to gain the different perspectives of human experiences. Great article!

  • Honeysuckle

    Although I respect the author’s recollection of her prep school experience and have experienced some similar stories, I have to say that I disagree with her conclusion that “Indeed, prep school teaches Black women to actively creative their own spaces, and take ownership of any box someone else may try to put you in.” That may be the case for SOME prep schools but not at all for those prep schools that vigorously try to shove minorities (black women specifically) into boxes and react violently when said minorities try to carve out their own space or even just assert their presence.

    I attended a prep school that was your quintessential “my father’s the trustee” prep school. It was one of those psuedoliberal schools where the kids claim they are socially progressive but are not at all in reality. I’ve had many arguments (not discussions) on explaining why all black people dont benefit from welfare and affirmative action and on why dressing up as black people is offensive. (the list is LONG)

    yes prep school’s come in many varieties but the one I attended and the ones my black female friends attended were very similar: predominately white, old money, some closeted and a quite a few very openly conservative students with faculty who often perpetuated the ignorance that ran rampant throughout the school.

    Please if your going to talk about your experience, talk about YOUR experience and not give a general commentary on prep schools for minority women. Although education and networks is something that prep schools almost guarantee, social experiences vary greatly. I felt this article slightly belittled/trivialized the experiences of black women in those schools who did not have a similar sentiment about their prepschool experience. We are often told to stop being bitter and see the glass half full and be grateful that we were even able to attend such elite institutions but i find it detrimental to not address the very real reality for many minority women in these prep schools; that some of these these institutions are stifling and not at all conducive to fostering a healthy self esteem in black women (minorites in general) . Yes the schools make you actively take a role in fighting to assert your self worth but I know many minority women who seem to still be struggling with the negative aftermath of that fight, truly reminiscent of some kind of acute post traumatic stress disorder.

  • Baron K Perryman

    i went to prep school back in the early 70′s as a full ride scholarship student. i was always odd person out (only black female in my class my freshman yr….the school usually recruited the brothers because of their alleged athletic prowess :)) coming from the ‘hood, i was definitely getting an education on a lot of different levels (luckily, most of my classmates were at least tolerant of my ‘fro and other ethnic differences) i don’t think that i’d be the *me* i am today without that exposure.it definitely helped me to learn how to walk like a lioness in this world :)

  • http://teachermrw.com teachermrw

    This is an excellent testimony of one woman’s prep school experience. As a prep school teacher of color, I can relate in many respects to what the author wrote, because her experience is what I observe on a daily basis at the prep school where I teach.

    BTW: I didn’t get the impression that the author was saying that *her* experience is *the* prep school experience for every Black female. Quite the contrary. However, I do think that any Black female who has attended a prep school is able to identify with the author’s exposé on many levels.

  • Joyful

    I went to an all girls Catholic high school, which is similar enough to prep school I think.. And my experience was nothing like this. Not that the few black girls who were there were some how blended in, we definitely stood out but not in a bad way. Like another poster said the bigger problem was really from interacting with black kids outside of school. Suddenly we were not “real” black kids, not black enough … because we all know speaking properly is a sign that you think you’re better than everyone else.
    Honestly I think I am the woman I am because of my high school. But maybe I’m just one of the lucky ones.

  • KtC

    As a former prep school girl myself, I must admit I loved reading this article. My experience is something I wouldn’t trade for the world (the good, the bad, the confusing, and the annoying). If anyone is looking for a good and interesting read on the Black female prep experience check out Black Ice by Lorene Cary.

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