Over the weekend, The New York Times ran a poignant story about minority kids attending elite private schools in New York. Their experience of being socially excluded stayed with them the entire time they were there. One African-American child balked at his white schoolmates’ inquiry if he would be going on the $1300 school trip to the Bahamas, responding:
“How do I get you to understand that going to the Bahamas is unimaginable for my family…My family has never taken a vacation.”
An Asian-American teen commented on the impact of “polite indifference” from his privileged white counterparts:
“You can do a lot of psychological damage to people by ignoring them for an extended period of time. For, like, four years.”
The article was full of agonizing anecdotes like this, based on experiences that have inspired several films, one of them “Prep School Negro.” The filmmaker, African-American Andre Robert Lee, talks about his own years at private school, which led him to distance himself from his “poor, urban past,” including his family. He also remarks on the psychic effect of his choice to sever his roots:
“I lost a major connection with my family, and I lost an understanding of what true intimacy and connection with people is.”
That is a steep price to pay for a good education. And after reading the article, I had to ask myself: is it worth it?
Being Middle-Class at an Upper-Class Private School
I went to a K-12 private school on the east coast, very much like the schools described in the article. My experience was nowhere near as extreme as that of the kids’ in the story, but the emotional takeaway was similar.
My mother taught at my school, so my tuition was free — the only way I could have gone there. Most of my peers vacationed at family homes in the Bahamas, Vail, or Nantucket. We lived in a rental house on the outskirts of the tony hamlet in which the school was situated. My family was highly-educated and possessed of a certain breeding — “to the Manor born,” as my mother used to say. But the manor had been lost a few generations back.
My parents worked in helping professions, while my friends’ parents were bankers and owned things. I never quite felt that I fit in and I remember the sting of being asked what my father did for a living during the two years he was unemployed, and being greeted with knowing snickers when I turned red and mumbled that he was a “consultant.”
The “color” at the school came from a few inner-city kids on sports scholarships. One of them, Chuck, was a soft-spoken African-American boy whose father worked as a janitor at a not-so-nice town nearby. I remember one day during art class, when the teacher busted his chops for his failure to produce work when he was a talented artist.
Later he confided in me that he was failing most of his classes. I was stunned. I worked my ass off every semester to stay on the Honor Roll, and my parents made sure I worked my ass off, so I would get into a good college. To me, getting a report card without “Headmaster’s List” stamped across the front was the most shameful thing I could imagine.
“But, why?” I asked. “You’re so smart.”
He just shrugged, an embarrassed smile on his face.
It never dawned on me that he might be failing because the net result of showing up everyday at a school where he felt like an outcast was making him depressed.
One Saturday morning, I wore up to the shrill ring of my Princess Phone. Who was calling so early on a weekend?
It was Chuck, his voice so quiet and tentative I had to ask him to repeat his question several times. By the time it was audible, I could almost feel his embarrassment seeping through the phone.
“Will you go with me?” he asked.
Long pause. We went to a snooty school in a blue-blood town. White kids could play basketball with black kids, but not date them. And to be honest? My status as a middle-class kid was hard enough; I wasn’t going to take myself down another notch by going out with a poor, minority kid.
“I’m sorry,” I said, in a precursor to perhaps the most insensitive thing I could have said next.” I just don’t think of you that way.”
Chuck didn’t come back the next year — although not because I wouldn’t go out with him. He failed every class and lost his scholarship.
At the time I thought his academic failure was going to ruin his life. But after reading the article this weekend it occurred to me that maybe leaving our school saved it.
Does Diversity Work Better at Progressive Schools?
My daughter goes to a progressive school that is perhaps the most inclusive in our city. Thirty per cent of the students are on financial aid and of those 30%, half come from families on the poverty level.
Community, social justice, acceptance of difference — these are values the school staff pumps into the ether. And while all kids appear to be created equal on the school yard, and at lunch time, off-campus is a different story. The poor Latino parents sit among themselves at class parties, looking slightly uncomfortable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen them at the annual fundraiser.
And I have to own my own part in this: my discomfort around my white privilege often overrides my desire to make these families feel included.
One Latino family is the exception: the parents are from Argentina, and have money. They have the kind of birthday parties typically given by white parents: kids splashing in a tiled pool; caterers bustling inside the state-of-the-art kitchen.
The one poor Latino kid who has broken through the social barrier is a girl named Jennifer (interesting that her parents gave her a white name), who has become the BFF to Daisy, the girl with the most social klout at school. Daisy had been Franny’s BFF the year before, and Franny was devastated to be jilted. In all her diatribes about how “mean” and “obnoxious” Jennifer is, however, Franny has never once slammed her because of her ethnicity.
Money Buys Privilege
The popularity of the rich Argentinian family at Franny’s school underscores the real obstacle to genuine inclusion of minorities at private schools: it’s about money, not color.
Money buys privilege. Money moves people up the social ladder, regardless of where they started out in life. But what is the psychological ramification of departing one’s social class? As the Prep School Negro filmmaker pointed out, moving up in life often comes with the price of betraying one’s family and culture.
This phenomenon was one of the things that brought down my first marriage. My in-laws were richer than God and only associated with others in their social bracket. I felt embarrassed that they were the ones buying us houses and taking us on yacht trips while my family had nothing monetary to contribute; but I also felt guilty for the increasing distance between my family-of-origin and me. I felt, in some ways, that I was betraying them.
At the few events attended by both my in-laws and my family, I felt deeply ashamed by my in-laws’ insatiable need to let my parents know they were the biggest roosters in the barn.
I’ll never forget when my former mother-in-law was 45 minutes late to my parents’ house, the first time they met. She had been shopping, and handed me a papier-mache rooster (a symbol of her own Alpha roosterhood, perhaps?) when she entered the living room. She looked around, glancing at the platter of deviled eggs typically served at Southern homes when “company” is expected.
“Oh,” she said, her voice dripping with condescension. “Are we having a party?”
I could feel the internal jaw-dropping of each of my family members. I wanted to crawl under the piano. Instead, I laughed nervously and changed the subject.
When my ex-husband and I met, I thought that he wanted to get out from under the burden of doing “all the right things.” And I wanted to have a more reasonable perspective of money, rather than feeling “good people” didn’t care about acquiring it. So it seemed that we would balance each other out, and in the beginning, I think we did.
But as time went on, my in-laws’ values, much of which focussed on paying as little taxes as possible and aggressively pursuing “important people,” overshadowed those instilled in me by my parents: empathy, democracy, and the belief that people matter more than things. My ex-husband gravitated back to what was familiar to him, and so did I.
Is it Possible to Move Up and Hold On to Where You Came From?
Acceptance into this rarefied world amounted, for me, to a Devil’s Bargain: I felt that I couldn’t truly be myself and because of this, I didn’t feel authentically connected to anyone. Perhaps if I my ex had really wanted a more meaningful life, or if I hadn’t cared so much about pleasing my in-laws, things might have been different. For my chidren’s sake, I wish that they had.
I found myself reflecting on the Times piece a lot the past couple days. A Facebook friend commented that a working-class white kid she knew had a terrible time navigating the social waters at his prep school and never really recovered psychologically. She wondered if he would have been better off at a public school with kids from his own background.
So I’m curious to hear from you, readers:
Did you go to schools with kids of a “higher” social class and if so, what was that experience like?
If you went to school with kids of a “lower” social class, did you hang out with them?
If your kids go to private school now, do they have friends from a lower economic bracket?
What a rich topic. I have biracial kids whose father went to private school. He didn’t abandon or alienate his family of origin, but he is certainly a different person when he is with them. He has exclusively dated white women since he was in college, myself included. I grew up in a tiny rural community where status was decided more by athletic ability than economic status. Since I possessed neither, I did not do well in that environment and lived my life waiting for the opportunity to leave. I am far more distanced from my family than my ex-husband is.
My children attend a public school and socialize with a diverse group of people. Because of his disability, my eldest child has spent time with children with very diverse backgrounds and capabilities. His best friend happens to be a boy who is Vietnamese, adopted by a lesbian couple. I don’t think we have issues with cultivating cultural diversity in their lives, but I do think we are sort of rare. We do have friends from the economic spectrum as well, although I must admit those parents who have a lot more money than us make me incredibly uncomfortable. I’m very aware of the moms who drag my children into their kids’ lives to “enrich” it. I don’t want my boys to be anyone’s token black friend (or token poor friend either). I don’t encourage those friendships unless there seems to be a natural spark between the kids.
EJ — OMG — I’d never thought about some people courting children of color to enrich their own children’s lives! Wow. There are a lot of things that make inclusion difficult…sports was a big thing at my school too.
I would also add that the private school my ex-husband was attended by mostly black peers, so it isn’t exactly an apples to apples comparison
I DO socialize with people trying really hard to do the right thing. It gets lost in translation sometimes, I think.
(To continue – because the post button disappeared for me as this got longer):
We had about two black kids per grade. I can only think of one mixed race girl–who was gorgeous and outgoing–who really seemed part of the social fabric, although I don’t remember her dating anyone. I felt like I didn’t belong, so I can’t imagine how most of black kids felt. We had almost no Hispanic kids (but the few there were rich and beautiful) and about one Asian kid, oddly enough.
What struck me about that article was the fact that so many seemed to feel that the kids were complaining–when I just got the sense they were talking about something that needs discussion!
Going to a fancy private school on the westside, I saw a lot of this. It was very clear that it was about money. My family wasn’t very wealthy then, didn’t live in a super westside, rich side of town, and I could feel, if not alienation, then a certain type of snubbing. It was definitely far worse for the poorer kids, many of whom happened to be african american.
My daughter now goes to private school on the westside, but her experience is very different. There are some very wealthy families there but they don’t flaunt it. At school activities, I’ve never noticed any sort of segregation of any kind. But I think that’s very rare, and mostly a product of the school having an additional criteria for entrance beyond money. The parents and kids tend to bond over the thing that brought them to the school, rather than social status.
Such a great read. I went to one of those schools for half my life, then told my parents enough. Being one of the only Jews there, it just didn’t work socially for me, and it wasn’t about the money. We had that. But now, my parents lost everything in the market and that was devastating for them. They went from upper to low, but kept friends and actually gained more friends and support and when my last husband left me with nothing, after living a very nice life and having to look under couch cushions for pennies and beg for work and sell everything I owned it put life into perspective. Now that I have a job and can teach my children that privilege comes with hard work and not money but with what is on the inside, I think that not having that privilege is a blessing.
There is so much to comment on this article. don’t forget, there is also the stigma that attaches to the kids whose parents are single moms who rely on the wealthier ex-partners to pay for their childs schooling, like i do. certainly, if i hadn’t received my expensive car as part of the separation settlement, my daughter, who is at a very expensive preschool in ct, would have been looked down upon. it is definitely about wealth in her school. although i do have an expensive car (which i can barely afford), it is the smallest car in the pick up line – full of SUVs and oversized car with nannies chauffering these priviledged kids around.
that being said, i do believe in starting a foundation of education as early as possible, and that is truly the reason why my four year old is in private school v daycare. but it is so very hard when you know that you can’t really afford it …
I hear you, Milla! My ex’s parents pay for my son’s $100,000 boarding school. I spent $5000 this year going parent weekends and had to tell my son I couldn’t afford to go to the last one — he was bummed. And it’s weird at those parent weekends seeing entire families coming (thousands of dollars between airfare, hotel, and rental car) while ALSO being able to afford to send their kid on the $3000 European field trip. Surreal!
It’s jarring going from one end of the social spectrum to another, but, you’re right, Lee, it is a good opportunity to teach kids about working for what they have rather than assuming they’ll have money coming to them. Because, as your experience shows, the money might not always be there.
I think the people who thought the kids were complaining are probably uncomfortable admitting their own privilege.
The Private School Lady/Mia Johnstone says
Pauline this is a great article. I work with a lot of private schools but not many independent ones. I often wonder what happens to the kids that are not “culturally” inclined that are given free rides to the elite schools that otherwise couldnt go. Thank you!
My kids’ father is black hispanic. I’m white hispanic. They go to a very small catholic school. The majority of the student body is very wealthy hispanics. Ethnicity wise my kids fit in perfectly fine. Economically they don’t. Not by a long shot. Is it an issue? At this point in time, no it is not. My kids are REALLY social beings. They started at the school in the PK3 class and moved along with their friends. There is only one class per grade. There are uncomfortable moments. My son is complaining for instance he’s the only kid that doesn’t get anything from the Scholastic Book Club order sheet every month. That hurts. Especially as its books, something I value deeply and he enjoys more than anything else. But I just can’t afford it right now. The school does this annual uniform exchange. You bring in your used but good condition uniforms and you get to pick uniforms for free. Take as many as you’d like, bring as many as you’d like. Those uniform exchanges are lifesavers for me. And yet I know there are families who will contribute but refuse to take anything used. This year, an American Girl store opened. My boyfriend got a job there. My daughter’s friends are already starting to brag about their new dolls and their trips to the store. My daughter looks at the catalog and tries to find the cheapest items and ask if we can get those maybe. I imagine this will get trickier and trickier as they get older. All I can hope to do is instill a sense of value and appreciation.
I went to a very small public school in a very small logging town. There were no private schools, and I could not imagine any of my classmates (even the wealthier ones) attending any such thing. They were the stuff of teen romance novels, not the ‘real world.’ My class had very poor kids, middle-class kids, and kids whose families maybe had a little bit more than you’d think, but no uber-rich kids. There wasn’t anyone like that in town, even. The school was so small that everyone integrated with everyone — we didn’t have many minority kids, but the Latino boys tended to be excellent in sports (and everyone thought the Latina girls were the prettiest, so they were always popular). I have a feeling that had it been a larger school, and more wealth diversity, it would have been a different story. But since so many of the kids in my class were pretty much in the same economic boat, we didn’t notice ‘class structure.’ The poorer kids (and I was one of them, for a time) didn’t really have it much harder than the rest of the kids since there weren’t any class trips to exotic locations. The only way you could tell if someone had money or not was if they wore real Keds or fake ones, and what they had for lunch. It helped me to grow up not really noticing or caring who had money and who doesn’t — sometimes an asset, sometimes not.
(this is not to say it was idyllic — there were horrible cliques and some of the kids were extremely cruel — but that had more to do with being assholes or having assholes for parents, not really related to class or ethnicity)
Lisa Thomson says
I grew up going to public school. There were all classes there but predominantly white. My children went to public school. I never considered private school for my children. I’ve never bought into it being far superior to public. In Education as in life, you get what you put in. Interesting post, Pauline.
That’s interesting, Lisa…I always expected my kids would go to private school because I did but I have so many mixed feelings about it because of how status-oriented the schools in my city are, except for the one my daughter goes to. All my cousins went to public school, however, and most of them are more monetarily successful than I am, so there you go!
I agree it’s what you put into it, but I do think certain environments can really breed successful people. My private school, which was very focused on getting into Ivy League schools, fostered (oddly enough) a lot of people who were very successful in the arts.
My college roommates went to an IB program at a public magnet school, and were incredibly well-educated. I would GLADLY send my daughter to a program like that, but it’s pretty cutthroat to get into anything in these parts. (My daughter scored in the top 1% of testing and got into our third-choice program–and that’s just elementary school.)
Just Me With . . . says
Lost a long comment. It’s a subject near and dear to my heart. Thanks for posting this.
Just Me With . . . says
I made such sacrifices so that my kids could go to their current schools, but they are still left out of much of the social part. Sometimes I think God gave me twins so my girls would not have to be the only black kid at things.
I hear you, Roxanne. Belonging…it’s such a basic need.
Pauline — I chuckled when reading the “Oh,” she said, her voice dripping with condescension. “Are we having a party?”
The sublety would have gone right over my mothers head. I’m quite certain she would have smiled brightly and responded in her soft, southern accent with something along the lines of “It’s so nice to meet you, do come in and please make yourself at home. Would you care for a glass of iced tea?” It simply never would have occurred to her that a guest in her home would intentionally be rude.
Just Me With . . . says
Yesterday my daughter told me that her friends (and classmates) said they aren’t allowed to come to our neighborhood.
So painful for your daughter and you. The parents of those kids are jerks!!
Interesting post! Economically I am satisfied with my 2nd grader’s public school, but he came home and said “mom, everyone wants to vote for Romney, so Obama is going to lose!”
It will be interesting to see the ramifications of attending a conservative mostly white school.
I’m obviously behind on these articles. I’m reading them months after they came out because I’m struggling between buying a house or sending my boys to private school. We can’t afford to do both. We live in the San Fernando Valley, CA and so our choice of neighborhood is Woodland Hills. My daughter went to the public high school there, the best non-charter public school…which is now charter.
The problem is that despite being in a good neighborhood & it being one of the best schools in the region it still doesn’t compare to the private schools. And it ticks me off that we have a school system so screwed up that it makes you pick between paying for a house or paying for school. If we buy a house, we could possibly still afford the tuition but absolutely none of the extras. So, do we send our kids to public schools where they won’t get the education they deserve? But where they will have the same if not more luxuries when compared to their classmates or do we send them to private? Where they will get a better education but where they may feel less than…
Our public education system has to be overhauled. I didn’t like Romney at all, but he got me when he brought the “Private School Voucher” idea to the table. If public schools had to compete for enrollment numbers like private schools do it would sure cause them to do an overhaul.
The school situation is Los Angeles is nuts. Many kids who are enrolled in private schools are there only because there are grandparents who can afford to pay all or part of the tuition. And, yes, no one should have to settle for lackluster education because they don’t have the money for an insanely priced private school. But, unfortunately, that’s the world we live in now.
I’m obviously late reading these articles. I’m just now coming across them as I research the benefits & pitfalls of kids from working class families in private schools.
I’m trying to decide between buying a house in a good neighborhood or sending my boys to private schools. If we buy a house, we could possibly afford 2 tuitions at Catholic school. The extras would then be most certainly out of the question. I abhor the fact that I have to choose between one or the other. Ideally, I would buy a house in the neighborhood of my choice with full confidence in the public school. Or, I would have more than enough money for both, a house and a good education for my kids. Unfortunately, here in the suburbs of Los Angeles the thought of a good public education is almost laughable. The 3 closest school districts that I would trust my kids to are South Pasadena Unified, San Marino Unified & Las Virgenes Unified Schools…All neighborhoods out of our price range.
I didn’t like Romney one bit, but he got me with his “School Voucher” proposal, an idea that each kid would get a voucher and take it to either the private or public school of their choice. In this way, public schools would be forced to compete for enrollment numbers. Imagine being able to tour a public school like you do private schools. It’s a disgrace to our nation that the public education system is so broken. It’s a horrible choice, a nice house in a nice neighborhood or a good education. I feel like a failure for not being able to provide both.
So, here I sit reading article after article, debating: What will serve my kids better, growing up in a house with a yard & a dog or getting a quality education.
It’s imprecise to say I went to school with ‘rich white kids.’ Most at my school were upper middle class, a smaller number were from the upper crust. The only “social class awareness” I saw in the upper middles was that they knew they were not wealthy. They really weren’t conscious of having more money than any working class. Having a second home, or going to the Bahamas for spring break, was pretty ordinary to them, it wasn’t something they’d brag about — it’d be like me bragging that I had two pairs of shoes, just silly. The wealthy kids knew better than to cop an “I’m rich” attitude with the upper middles, because they were in the minority.
I don’t think it’s good to reinforce a social class inferiority complex. I never believed those kids had any significant privilege over me — I was healthy, well-clothed and fed, I got Christmas and birthday presents, I got private tutoring at home — from my mother. I didn’t disrespect my mother by worrying about cosmetic preppy luxuries, I had everything that counted. Since I was an honors student, I was allowed a stereo — the ‘rich white kids’ had to come to my room to play their rock music albums on my cheap record player.
I remember the New York Jewish kid who only socialized with the black scholarship students. But I had close ‘rich white’ friends. Bigots are emotionally defective. There are enough healthy people for me not to worry about a bunch of rejects. Bigots are like air pollution, I recoil from the bad smell.
Social class consciousness is just psychology. Even before I went to prep school, I figured out that If a rich person lost all their money in the stock market, nothing would change in my life. So I didn’t envy them. You don’t have to feel anxiety. You choose to, or you’re taught to, but you don’t have to.
Canaan, thank you for your comment. I certainly don’t want to reinforce a social class inferiority complex, but I do think there is a lot of snobbery at these schools (having gone to one myself) that can keep kids of different social classes from interacting and can have a negative impact on kids from lower classes. That was certainly my experience, and I’m white. It sounds like you always had a health self-concept and had honed your critical thinking skills from a young age to realize that the only difference between you and the rich kids was money, which could go away at any time. For those kids who don’t have this kind of native self-esteem, being a lower-middle-class or middle-class kid mixing with predominantly upper-middle-class or middle-class kids, can be painful.