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 I’ve also worked with my fellow Black classmates to revamp a seemingly outdated and somewhat culturally-insensitive curriculum—a series of student/faculty meetings were arranged, viewpoints shared, and consensus was reached.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.