Over the weekend, I stumbled across a story in The New York Times “Admitted, but Left Out” about Black students who attend or did attend elite, mostly white private schools in New York City. Unsurprisingly, the article took on a familiar refrain, documenting the awkwardness and difficulty that students of color can encounter when they don’t match up neatly with the dominant race, and often the culture and class level, of their peers.
It’s a downside of private education that I’ve often heard discussed and worried over, mostly by Black parents who want the best education — often perceived not to be a public one or in a predominately Black environment — for their kids. Even when the kids hail from Black families that are staunchly middle-class or even affluent, those parents still wonder specifically how their Black kid will manage, it being a given that they won’t quite fit.
It’s a worthy concern, as demonstrated by the Times article. A lot of kids face adversity and culture shock that thus far there hasn’t been a way conceived to fully prepare them for. It’s important to acknowledge their stories and work on ways to help the schools and students adapt better to diversity. But there’s another side to the story too, a much less dramatic or controversial one, which is why I’m assuming it’s not so often told.
I’m one of those Black kids who went to what some might consider an elite prep school. It wasn’t in New York, but Maryland, and as far as the elite ranking of prep schools goes, mine probably fell midway on the list. My parents were lured to send me there by its proximity to our house and the promise of its 100 percent graduation and college attendance rate.
We had a campus, not a building, but no one was delivered to it via helicopter, or to my knowledge, a personal driver, which can be a non-eyebrow raising occurrence at the most elite schools. Most of my classmates didn’t have nationally notable surnames like say a few students at our rival school Sidwell Friends where Chelsea Clinton earned her diploma and the Obama girls are currently educated. My schoolmates did include the offspring of a high–ranking government officials and notable local businessmen, but mostly it was the spawn of two-parent households where both degreed parents worked hard, got paid well, and sacrificed a bit to shell out around $17k (adjusted for inflation) a year for their kid, often more than one, to attend.
I showed up at my school in 1991 as a 12-year-old eighth grader. Until then, I’d attended mostly Black private schools. I lived in a Black neighborhood, went to a Black church. At my new school, my class — around 30 kids and at the time, the largest in school history — was the first with a significantly “of color” population, about one-third of the class, the same as the students mentioned in the Times story. Both the senior and junior class that year had one Black student each. I don’t recall any other “of color” students among them to add to the diversity.
At the new school, it wasn’t so much the white that was the issue, it was the freedom. There was no asking to go to the bathroom, just get up and go. There were breaks and free periods where students could just roam anywhere we wanted to on campus and as long as we weren’t destructive, no teachers bothered us. It sounds like a free-for-all — and it seemed like one initially coming from a place where students were treated more like inmates — but it was just differently structured, not poorly structured. And I came to prefer it for the obvious reason that I liked the freedom.
In the classroom, I was encouraged to explore and express, create and challenge and critique constructively as opposed to the way of my previous schools, being told what to think and how to think it and when to regurgitate. That created a bit of a cultural clash between my parents and I. At school I was expected to question and argue. At home, my Mississippi-bred daddy didn’t appreciate the “back talk”, but eventually learned to alternately live with it or turn me over to my mother to manage. (The other big conflict was the affection I picked up for alt-rock like Jewel, Alanis Morisette, Oasis and Green Day, all of which sounded like white noise to my bred-on-Motown parents. At least hip-hop had a distinguishable beat. My father nearly stroked out when I put a poster of white boys on my wall. My mother wanted to torch my Jewel CD, which I played every morning and as loud as possible.)
Antagonizing experiences with my white classmates don’t really stand out so much. Admittedly, that could be my memory’s sentimental way of reflecting on my formative years. But even after a few days of mental probing (and a long talk with my best friend who attended middle and high school with me) we can only recall a few moments from those 5 years that were unduly troubling beyond normal teenage stuff.
There was the Middle Eastern girl who only dated Black guys, affected a stereotypically Black accent and dropped “N-bombs” freely, but honest to Hova she really didn’t mean any harm by it, and immediately stopped when she was called out. There was the time when a kid a grade below me showed up to school — we didn’t have uniforms — wearing his father’s KKK belt buckle and explained, “I don’t have a problem with Black people, only with n***ers.” Either the headmaster or Dean of Students promptly asked him to remove it.
There were many awkward conversations — as reflected in the larger world. Like the time the LAPD cops that beat the crap out of Rodney King were acquitted and some of my non-Black classmates didn’t understand why the Black kids were so upset. A history teacher gathered the entire class together for a teachable moment, which somehow descended into an argument over which was worse: the Holocaust or slavery? When the O.J. Simpson verdict came, a bunch of students were gathered around the TV. The reactions — either “WTF?” or “Hallelujah!” — were divided by race. I don’t recall any teacher — they were all white — broaching that one. Racial profiling of Black men especially was as big a subject then as it is now, and my poli-sci teacher attempted to justify it by explaining something like, “If you worked at 7-11 and if every time someone with a green hair, purple gloves and yellow pants came in, they robbed the store, isn’t it justifiable to profile people with green hair, purple gloves and yellow pants as potential criminals?” He completely missed the idea that you skin color isn’t a removable accessory. Oh, and there was the female teacher who stumbled into a bunch of Black girls playing double-dutch during our free period and remarked fondly at our “natural rhythm.” She was corrected that it was cultural, not genetic.
Most of the other stuff was harmless, like the time a bunch of us, of all colors, were sitting around talking about everything and nothing and a male classmate became shocked — shocked! — to discover that Black people don’t wash their hair daily. He wanted to know why not and I explained. Since he felt comfortable enough to pry, I asked him, “What’s up with white people and washcloths? Why just the soap, dude?” He assured me that they used them. I remember difficult conversations (read: heated arguments) about the choice of music for the school dances with the Black kids demanding more hip-hop and R&B. (And yes, we got our way.) That’s about as salacious as I can recall.
My experience wasn’t perfect. And I’m sure if you started asking around to other students who attended my school, you might find unfortunate tales of woe similar to those often told about Black kids being educated in white environments. Perspectives do matter. And from mine, being Black at a predominately white school wasn’t so bad.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of “A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life” (Atria) in stores now. Follow her on Twitter @abelleinbk