Gone are the days (if they ever existed) where parents could consider their job done when they deliver their child to a “good” school. Often times, though the school has excellent academics, there are factors that diminish its effectiveness in bringing that excellence to, and out of, the Black child.
Unfortunately, the task falls on the parent to be aware of and combat these factors in order to maximize the child’s school experience. Such factors as cultural/community dissonance, racialized treatment and double standards of expectation, and socioeconomic disparity exist in the private school setting and take their toll on the psyches and lives of Black students. (“racialized”, a term I borrow from Janice E. Hale’s must read, Learning While Black, means essentially coming from race-based bias.) I could write a book about each one of these factors…and many books, like Learning While Black, have been written. But let’s get to the crux of the matter:
At predominantly White private affluent schools, our children struggle to fit in meaningfully and to reach their full academic potential.Any Black parent paying attention knows this. But we have not been proactive about addressing these realities. The much publicized “Achievement Gap” speaks for itself, especially since it cannot be blamed on inner-city life or poor school conditions when referring to middle-class Black children in predominantly White affluent schools. Yet, the gap in academic Achievement is found between Black Middle class students and their White counterparts.(Perry, Steele, Hilliard III,2003,7) A look at some of the factors that impact our so-called “privileged” children may give us clues as to why this gap exists.
Our children tend to bring with them socio-cultural backgrounds that are often at odds with the private school culture. An easy example of this kind of culture clash is the lunchtime behavior of a group of Black 10th and 11th grade girls at my children’s school. There are only a handful of Black kids in our upper-school. Of them, my daughter and her friends, who total about 5or 6 in number, sit together, usually in the cafeteria, at lunch. Often they are talking and laughing like everybody else. but on occasion, they get loud and boisterous. Also, often in connection with the loud laughter, they are teasing and playfully criticizing each other. Sometimes playful teasing by the entire group is directed at one or two of the girls in the group. Or the group is refereeing this kind of banter between two of the girls. Many of us Black folks are familiar with this kind of interaction. We Black adults know that it is usually harmless and if we are present, tell them to “hush” or quiet down. But this behavior is often shocking and disturbing to the greater White community at our school. Both white teachers and students have expressed discomfort with it. It intimidates them and I suspect, brings out their fears of the violence and danger that they associate with the presence of Black people. Some White students fear that the teasing will be directed at them. Because the girls are a conspicuous group, their togetherness is viewed as self-segregating and pressure has been asserted by teachers and students to change or cease this behavior.
Most of these Black girls have grown up in this predominantly White school environment. And though they are generally comfortable, they have experienced a considerable amount of isolation from the greater White community through the years. They are presently benefiting from the rare occurrence of a relatively large number of like-aged Black girls at the school. They have come together in comfort and camaraderie. Several of their parents have expressed to me how valuable this group of friends has been to their daughters’ positive view of the school and their social situations. The negative pressure placed on these Black girls from the greater school community, which serves to keep the school environment safely within the confines of the greater school culture, also serves to diminish the social experience and sense of belonging for this group of Black girls.
Racialized Treatment and Double Standards
The school’s reaction to this group of girls, often subtle, often not, illustrates another detrimental factor for Black kids in this setting. Private school cultures have an undercurrent of racial treatment and expectation that hinders our children’s sense of belonging and thus their achievement. Even when our children do behave like the majority children, their behavior is often perceived differently than their White counterparts. The cafeteria in my previous example is always full of all-White groups of girls (and boys, for that matter). Some are boisterous, or exhibiting other conspicuous behavior: group goggling at the opposite sex; sudden outbursts; or boys rough-housing, for example. But none of this behavior is considered exclusionary or potentially dangerous. More importantly, it is considered normal, while the Black girls’ behavior is considered “other.”
Few parents of Black boys have not experienced this differential treatment in connection with their sons. My best example of this is an occurrence on the basketball court of a middle school that my child attended. At the end of a game, a Black boy chided his White opponent after he bested him in the game. The White boy hit the Black boy. A teacher appeared and questioned them. The White boy spoke up first and offered the fact that the Black boy was teasing him and bragging about winning as a justification for hitting him. The teacher told the Black boy that his behavior was inappropriate and unsportsmanlike. But the teacher did not discipline the White boy at all. Again, this White student and teacher exhibit the pervasive undercurrent of fear and the perception that words from a Black boy are more harmful/threatening than actual physical violence on the part of a White boy.
These double standards of treatment and expectation show up in the classroom, too. And when they do, they can be disastrous. The truly scary reality is that often academic difficulties that teachers might attribute to a Black student because of a lack of interest, poor attitude (this is a favorite), lack of preparation, or just plain lack of ability are a result of cloudy race-based perceptions and self-fulfilled expectations on the teacher’s part. An encounter I had with my daughter’s Spanish teacher illustrates this point. This well meaning teacher worked “very hard” with my daughter a few times after school on a particularly difficult language concept, but my daughter still got a C on the test. As an explanation for the poor grade, the teacher told me that she felt my daughter had learned all that she was capable of learning. It boggled my mind how quickly she came to this particular conclusion, and how it allowed her to let herself off the hook since the “problem”, as she saw it, was not a teaching ability issue, but a learning capacity issue. Very often, (I believe) teachers are unaware of how non-objective they are.
We, as parents, often accept the teacher’s assessment unquestioned because they are the expert. And thereby, we contribute to the undeserved labeling of our own children. My daughter finished that Spanish class that year. She then decided that Spanish was “not for her” and discontinued the study of languages all together. If you accuse a child of having a bad attitude long enough, he is sure to develop one! And if you assume that a student cannot learn, you won’t teach her and she won’t.
Most of us Black parents, certainly most of our children, who are schooled in these environments, can recount situation after situation like this. I do not intend by my examples to single out the school my children attend. Because of my family’s frequent relocations, my children have attended many different private schools (collectively, 15, to be exact), located literally throughout the country from east to west and in between. Of these 15 schools, 14 are predominantly White affluent schools. These kind of incidences occurred frequently in every single one of them…colleges included. My examples draw from all of them. And I have to say that our present school seems to be one of the most committed to and doing the most about, issues of race and barriors to improved diversity. Still, examples abound everywhere.
Some of the difficulties we face as Blacks in the White school setting are socioeconomic. The social discomfort we feel often stems from our feeling that everybody in the school is rich except us. The reality is that “middle class” does tend to mean something different for Black families than for White families. In the vast majority of black families considered middle class, both parents are working in order to maintain that status. (Hale,2001,25)There is less disposable income and less job autonomy. So keeping up with the White Jones is not the same for black families. This reality puts enormous pressure on Black families at these private schools. The non-tuition expenses at school are draining. The social expenses are even more so. The realization of socioeconomic differences is felt by children, even the very young. So beginning early on in the Black child’s school experience, notions of belonging and feelings of being “other” are amplified in this way.
Also, there can be a real difference in academic resource availability. You just have to go to a science fair in these schools to appreciate the academic impact of socioeconomic disparity. Often, Black families do not have the access to resources in any way comparable to those of a wealthy family with generations of college and advanced degrees. The parent-“assisted” science projects that appear at these fairs are just short of professional. How does a student with two blue collar working parents compete with that? Even two professional parents have difficulty from a time perspective! This translates to grade disparity based on socioeconomics and very clear frustrations about fairness and worth for the Black student, who is smart enough to perceive what is going on.
We Black parents at predominantly white affluent schools know all of this. My hope by laying all of this out in this way is to perhaps let parents think of these issues in less personal, more global terms. You are not crazy, your child is not paranoid, or overly sensitive or less able. We and our children (all of the Black children) are dealing with profound issues that other children in our schools are not. We need to face this reality. And if we want to increase their chances for success and improve their rates of success, there are specific things we need to do.
(Originally posted February 18, 2005)