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 I’ve also worked with my fellow Black classmates to revamp a seemingly outdated and somewhat culturally-insensitive curriculum—a series of student/faculty meetings were arranged, viewpoints shared, and consensus was reached.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

  • 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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