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Being Non-White in NYC's Majority-White Private School System

Natalie Peña

March 25th, 2019


When I was nine and in my public elementary school, being Latina was never a problem, either because of how young we all were or because there wasn’t a single white kid in my grade. It also never caused any problems when I was eleven and in the public school I spent sixth and seventh grade in, even though there were definitely more white kids than there were in my old school. Nothing ever happened to make me feel different, so I felt just the same as everyone else – maybe my skin was a bit darker than some of the other kids, but it didn’t cause anything. I never had to care.


When I was thirteen and transferred to the same school I’m in now – a small, progressive private school in the Greenwich Village – all of a sudden I had to care.


What threw me off at first was that the diversity I had been promised was nowhere to be found. As I entered my eighth grade homeroom classroom for the very first time, the “diverse community” I had read about in the school website’s mission statement stared back at me: two black boys, one black girl, five Asian girls, and a sea of white kids.


But it was fine. Everyone was friendly, a few girls told me they liked my outfit, and I didn’t eat lunch alone, like I was scared I would have to. Overall, a good first day of school.


It didn’t take long, however, for little things to start happening. Most people assumed I was Mexican, and were surprised when I told them I wasn’t. Girls liked my skin tone, and told me they “loved my tan” even when it was in the middle of February and I hadn’t been to anywhere warm in months. When I stumbled to finish a sentence one time, a boy laughed and joked it was because I “didn’t grow up speaking English”; another student told me he didn’t think I spoke any English, just Spanish, when I first came to the school


My speaking Spanish was a repeated problem. Kids in my grade were really shocked that I knew Spanish, as if they had never met anyone who spoke it before. They would come up to me and ask me to speak it to them, and they didn’t understand why I was taking Spanish, instead of French or Mandarin. I said it was because my parents wanted me to improve my Spanish because I wasn’t fluent. When I explained that I grew up speaking both Spanish and English, but somewhere along the line I refused to speak Spanish back to my mother, which resulted in my current situation of being able to understand it perfectly but having trouble speaking and writing the language, they would end the conversation with “but, you are fluent.”


Like I did with most of the other comments, I didn’t mind at first. I knew they weren’t trying to be rude, and I would have never used the word racist to describe any of those comments (it was at this school that I heard the word “micro-aggression” for the first time, and it was also here that I first needed to use it to describe something I had experienced), but after a while it started to get really annoying. Even now, I have to step out of the room or walk away from my friends if I’m speaking to my mother on the phone in Spanish. Staying means having people whisper in my ear how they love it when I speak Spanish, or how beautiful it sounds, or how they can’t understand what I’m saying – all while, in the other ear, my mom’s asking what time I’ll be getting on the train.


Social interactions aside, being one of few students of color in a school can be incredibly stressful when, more often than not, we find ourselves to be the only non-white person in the classroom. Especially in classes like History and Literature where the subject of race comes up in the book being read or the time period being studied, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed with the weight of feeling like you’re forced to represent your entire race, because in that moment? That’s exactly what’s happening.


You can see it in the way all the white students’ heads will turn towards the Black student when discussing slavery, or the Hispanic/Latino student when discussing immigration, as if they expect them to know everything there is to know about their people’s history. The irony in this pops out when you consider that students often have to take electives to learn about minorities’ histories, because the information taught in history classes tends to be Eurocentric. For years, I thought there weren’t any Latinos in America until the major waves of immigration to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th century, because whenever I learned about American history in the four schools I’ve been to that taught it, the place and effect of Latinos in America were never mentioned. It was only in the beginning of my sophomore year in high school when, through a late-night Netflix binge that led to me stumbling across John Leguizamo’s Latin History for Morons, I learned that not only have Latinos been in America for a very long time, they’ve helped fight in every single American war. Of course I didn’t know that ten-thousand Latinos had fought in the American Revolution, and twenty-thousand in the Civil War – how could I, if the place that was supposed to be teaching me…just wasn’t?


It’s very easy to disassociate oneself when issues like these pop up, very easy to think it’s just that one school, just those few racist people when hearing stories like these. But speak to students of color across multiple different schools, and you’ll find that they are not alone in their struggles.


“Absolutely, I can write a whole book,” Lorissa, a black fifteen-year-old enrolled in Leman Manhattan Preparatory School, said when asked if she has experienced racism at her private school. “Everyone wants to touch your [hair] like it’s a petting zoo. I was giving a Black History Month presentation and in the audience some of my white peers were snickering and disrespecting the things we were saying in the presentation like it was the funniest thing ever. Also in my old [private] school, VCS, I was banned from attending an overseas trip because my Snapchats made white parents uncomfortable and [they] didn’t want their child to room with me. However, at the same time, white students would do illegal shit, but this one black girl’s Snapchat posts (me) were the biggest issue. Okay, go off I guess.”


“I feel like we are almost always in some ways isolated or treated differently because of our race,” M, a South Asian fifteen-year-old who attends a private school in Chelsea, added.

“When I was in fourth grade I had a friend tell me that some of the white boys were saying that my lips were really big and I looked weird,” RM, an African-American sixteen-year-old who previously attended a private school in the Greenwich Village, shared.

Diversity also proves to be a common issue throughout all private schools (though it appears that public schools are facing a similar issue) – minorities only make up 28% of the school’s student population in all the private schools in the entire state of New York.

After asking a sixteen-year-old African American student who attends Grace Church School if his school claims to be diverse/politically correct (PC), he responded: “Yes, but their attempts to become a PC school are invisible to the students. One-tenth of my grade at Grace are POC [people of color] and we don’t have much of a voice.”


When I asked the rest of the students I spoke to the same question, everyone said yes, but when I asked if they felt their school actually was diverse, everyone said no.


“They like to make up diversity talking about ‘different financial statuses’ but to be honest, we all know that they [just] say these extra things,” Lorissa said.


“While we may have more black kids in our grade than some other private schools (I’ve learned from talking to other kids),” said Gabrielle, a fifteen-year-old student at Poly Prep Country Day School, “the generalized standard of better than the worst situation isn't sufficient enough.”


Students also pointed out how the socioeconomic makeup of their schools is intrinsically linked to their racial demographics. “It’s absolutely no secret that the POC in schools like mine are also the poor kids as well. It reflects the economic makeup of America and the admissions teams know it, so they try to pick and choose the smartest, most pamphlet-worthy kids when they distribute financial aid,” M pointed out.


“I feel like [my school had] made efforts in the past to improve the diversity and some faculty members have made an effort to make people of color who do attend the school to feel more comfortable, but at the end of the day it’s a predominately white private school,” RM said.


When asked if their school responded to incidents of racism inside the building properly, everyone said no.


“No I don’t think they do. There are a lot more instances of racism at my school that the administration chooses to ignore. I think that’s mainly because they don’t understand how stuff like this affects POC students’ comfortability,” the student who attends Grace Church School said.


M shared, “White kids who have no problem making jokes about immigration, the hood, terrorism, or saying the n-word in songs all of a sudden feel the need to pretend to care about social justice in classes or around POC in a ‘social justice warrior’ school. [They] have gotten very good at saying social justice bullshit in class discussions, and then going back to being annoying offensive outside.”


“They want to pretend to be woke but then be racist behind your back,” Lorissa added.


But these experiences, while egregious and disappointing, don’t make us regret attending our schools.


“I have a great opportunity to better my future and I wouldn’t squander it just because ignorant white people say ignorant shit,” the Grace Church School student said.


“I also acknowledge the privilege I have in even going to a school like Poly in the first place so while the reality of the Poly board has been exposed (extremely disappointing),” Gabrielle said, in reference to the Blackface incident at Poly, “it doesn't change the opportunities I’ve been provided with.”


“I realized that I wouldn't be nearly as aware as I am without these interactions and I’ve learned to be stronger in certain situations,” Lorissa shared.


“I think I got a great education,” RM said. “I learned a lot from my teachers, I learned a lot from my peers, I met some of my best friends there, and I wouldn’t change this experience for the world.”


My hyper-liberal school has all the affinity groups, diversity days and school-wide assemblies they need to maintain the facade of an actually-diverse, PC school, but they – along with the other private schools – are still lacking the simple things that have been repeatedly asked for, the things the few students of color need to maintain a sense of self and security in these environments: actual diversity, and genuine consequences for the ignorant students that are racist.


The moments where these schools’ administrations listen to the stories and experiences of their students of color needs to extend beyond the length of their diversity days and the period of time allotted for affinity groups and clubs. Those moments need to extend beyond the student-led sit ins and lock ins, beyond the time of public outrage and media attention. Students of color need to be listened to, period.

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