Being a Black Child in a Suburban School

The top is a photo of a black child in Jim Crow America. The child is on a bike with a "colored" sign representing Jim Crow times. A modern day Black child drinks from a water fountain. The caption reads Jim Crow is illegal, but the school system is still unequal.

A recent article describes how Black children in suburban schools’ face disproportionate expulsion, denial from advanced classes, lack of support from teachers and other forms of discrimination. This article came right after a black girl, who was told by the school dance instructor that her skin was too dark to perform, sued the Kansas school district. Yes, the Kansas school district, the same district that was sued in Brown v. Board of Education. These stories may be surprising to some, but not to me.  I grew up in a suburban, all-girls, private school and I can relate to everything that these black students in the article went through.

I know how it feels to be treated like an oddity. I know how it feels to be the only Black girl at the school dances and to never be asked out or danced with because of it. I know how it feels to have teachers and other students assume you’re stupid. Subtle things in that suburban environment will eat away at you every day. Things like teachers who tell white students who earn high grades, how naturally gifted, bright and intelligent they are. Yet with me, the black girl, when I earned high grades, I would get told “you’re a hard, little worker.”  There’s nothing wrong with working hard, but I was a normal teenager, I didn’t work any harder than other students. Yet, I never got the respect that my white peers did from teachers. I may not have been a genius, but neither were my white peers, but no one ever told me that I was smart. Of course, there were also the systemic disadvantages, like not being promoted to advanced classes.

In 8th grade,  everyone was required to study Latin, but in high school, it was an elective. In high school, Latin was considered prestigious because it enhanced your college application and helped with the verbal portion of the SAT because so many English words have Latin roots, such as the words elucidate, malefactor and acquiesce. The high school Latin classes were also situated at our brother school, so all the girls who qualified for the high school Latin classes were eager to take them to learn, to gain an edge on their college applications and to flirt. In order to qualify for the high school Latin classes, you had to earn at least a B+ average in middle school Latin. I earned an A average in Latin. I loved Latin and  I was well above the threshold for qualifying for high school Latin. Of course, I wanted to take the class in high school. Yet, when it came time to pick our classes for high school, my Latin teacher and academic adviser decided that they didn’t think I could handle the pressures of Latin in high school. Apparently, high school Latin at the boy’s school, in addition to taking Spanish class, would be too much for me. Plus, I wouldn’t have an extra study hall. So, they decided not to recommend that I pursue Latin. What they didn’t know was that my mother was very close with the high school Latin instructor at the boy’s school. She reached out to him and told him about my predicament. The Latin instructor  sent an email to the head of the middle school, advocating on my behalf.  In addition, my mother threatened to get the school principal involved, if they didn’t allow me to take the class. So, I was allowed to take the class.

I took the Latin class and I was the only black student. I still have the letter that the high school Latin teacher sent to my parents, stating that I earned a 90% on the final exam, 15 percentage points above the average.

This was a traumatizing experience for me. Not the final exam, not the long hours of studying, but the discrimination. I am grateful that the Latin instructor at the boy’s school advocated for me and I actually grew to greatly respect him. He was a great teacher and person. But, the fact that he even had to advocate for me in the first place was beyond hurtful. Why did it take another white man to vouch for my capability and intelligence, just to get into a class that my white peers were presumed to be worthy of?

This type of discrimination is not unique. It’s pervasive and damaging because after a while, when teachers constantly imply that you’re inferior, stupid and don’t belong in that school, you may begin to believe it yourself. It’s a real concept, it’s called stereotype threat. This is part of the reason why I’m considering homeschooling my children, if I ever have any. I can’t leave them to the mercy of the policymakers in the city public schools, who want to pull funding and force students to learn in overcrowded classrooms. I can’t subject my children to going to predominately white, suburban, private schools where they’re treated like an ‘other’ constantly either.

Sometimes, being a black kid in school is just hard and my heart really goes out to the youngsters. It’s like there is no place for us, sometimes.