The Outlook

This isn't for the sensitive

Blackness and Education

What happens to a person’s racial identity when they attend private school? How many black points do you lose when you jump the lane and decide to attend school with the rich white kids who’s parents own things larger than homes and cars? Depending upon who you ask, you might actually lose your soul or at least cease to be black.

Many parents want to get their kids out of failing public schools and into prestigious private schools because they worry their children won’t be able to get into good colleges and they in turn worry how that will effect their lives. Meanwhile, it seems the only thing other parents are worried about is how “black” (or not black) their child will seem if they are afforded the same opportunity.

In a recent issue of The Crisis (a magazine published by the NAACP) I found an article on black parents who are weighing the pros and cons of sending their children to private school. We’re introduced to a handful of families including a mother who makes an hour-long commute so that her child can attend a specific public school. She says,

“I think it was a hard-fought battle back in the 19th century when freed slaves were the first to demand free and public education to all people, and it was a long-fought battle to get those schools integrated. I thought it would just be like a snub to our ancestors.”

This same mother attended a private school herself and the article suggests that her poor experience with private school also influences her choice.

I attended a prestigious private school, myself. I begged my mom not to send me there and she promised me that if at the end of 2 years I still hated the school, she would allow me to re-enroll at my public school. After 2 weeks, I was in love with the school. I’ve had some amazing experiences and some of my closest friends I met there. I don’t begrudge a parent’s right to choose where their child is educated. What I do wonder about is letting one’s own experiences color their expectations for someone else. While I would love it if my child(ren) wanted to go to my high school alma mater I wouldn’t force them. In the same vein, I don’t think it’s fair for this mother to not allow her child to experience private schooling because she had a bad experience.

What really stands out to me, though, is the emphasis on the question about how a child deals with their blackness in a predominantly white setting. One family has a child prodigy and though they can’t afford to send their children to private school they also note that

the school’s lack of socio-economic diversity prompted them to question whether the institution’s values matched their own.

There’s also the couple who visited private schools searching for one to send their 3 children to who say some of their visits,

“also reinforced when I saw the Black students with ‘the look.’ It really looked like a part of their soul was missing. It’s a look I’ve seen, like, ‘I’m here, but I’m kind of not.’ I see that as a price to pay.”

There’s this idea floating around that being black in a predominantly white setting automatically means you lose some blackness. I know because I hear it in the way people ask questions about my time in private schooling (both high school and college). I can’t define blackness. Most people can’t define blackness. So if we can’t define it, at what point are we capable of determining someone is losing it?

I ran into my fair share of black students who obviously didn’t identify as “black” — not in a stereotypical way, not in a conventional way, not in any way. They avoided us so we avoided them. Many of them had, in fact, gone to private school — but then again, so had I so was the culprit really schooling?

Maybe it was — who’s to say — but the end of it is that we shouldn’t automatically assume that sending a black child to a predominantly white environment will somehow strip them of their blackness. It’s like assuming that if your son spends a lot of time with girls, he will cease to be male (as some people do assume) or that if your wife spends a lot of time with single people she will cease to be married. None of these things are true.

This article is careful never to spell out these assumptions. There’s a constant reference to “diversity” which is a lot of hogwash if you ask me. My experience is that black folks have long been skeptical of other black folks who go to private school because, as the stereotype goes, we become stuffy and stuck up; we forget where we’re from; and we look down our noses at everyone. It’s funny how a stereotyped group can often become the stereotypers.

I don’t see anything wrong with wanting to send your child to a good school. Sometimes a good school is public and sometimes it’s private. I know all parents want what’s best for their kids but I would hope that stereotypes, presumptions and personal fears wouldn’t effect those wants.

Anyway… it’s hard to escape a predominantly white setting in America — it’s just the world we live in.

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January 23, 2010 - Posted by | News | , ,

4 Comments »

  1. I once had a teacher tell me that I should not have gone to a “white” school because I missed out on learning about my heritage. I politely told him that I was very well versed on who I am and whose I am because those are things taught to me at home. I think this is another instance where we place too much responsbility on the school system, whether black or white, public or private. Our children are a product of their TOTAL environment. A parent’s focus should be on making sure their child gets the best education and making sure they are emotionally and socially prepared to deal with the world. Those lessons are taught in the school system as well as at home. Some kids that I know that went to “black” schools have difficulties adjusting in certain situations because they have never been exposed to other cultures and often hold the same types of stereotypes against other groups as are held against us.

    Comment by LaKesha Womack | January 25, 2010

  2. You’re right on black folks who immerse themselves in blackness to a fault. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of who you are and wanting to be around people like you, but don’t screw yourself over trying to “prove” your blackness to somebody.

    I know that criticisms I recieve about being “too” white come from that person’s own issues, not mine, almost every time it happens. As a people we gotta move past this, it’s ridiculous.

    Comment by ASmith | January 25, 2010

  3. In general, I’ll say this: One is the loneliest number.

    I’m pro private schools IF they are racially mixed. Same goes for public schools. It’s a diverse world, and I think people are better equipped to relate well with others, and appreciate their own roots and how they look if they are around people who look like them and share the same culture, as well as that of others.

    Comment by Kit (Keep It Trill) | February 5, 2010

  4. I didn’t know you had another blog until now–I’ll be following. :-)

    I went to private (Catholic) high school and I currently go to a private (Catholic) university, and I’d agree with KIT that the makeup of the school matters more to me than whether it’s private or not (btw I’m not Catholic). A Chicago Catholic school is a lot different than the whitebread university I currently attend, and since the class under mine came in with so many Black kids (that doesn’t necessarily mean diversity, but the South Side is very Black/White, with a few Hispanics thrown in), my high school was nowhere near lily-White (and there was reasonable SES diversity as well). Now that I think about it, I’m positive there were more Black students in my high school of 1500 than at my university of 8000 undergrads. Wow.

    Comment by Jasmin | May 7, 2010


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