I was 6 years old when I was first thrown into the bubble that is private school. My parents just wanted me to get a safe and great education. I had no idea what this experience would entail, but nothing fazed me. I just thought I could go in and make friends just like I did at my old school, which was racially diverse. It was like everyone there was family to me. But private school was way different than that.
The feeling of being isolated at this new school first hit me when I saw that there were only seven other girls who looked like me out of my class of about 100 students. In a way, it was quite isolating because I had come from an environment where I wasn’t in the minority, but it didn’t affect me too much.
It really started to affect me emotionally when I began to make friends. The feeling of being an outsider at this school began to appear when I wanted to invite my white friends to my house. Every time my mother would invite them over, they simply say that we lived “too far away” and “not close enough to Buckhead.”
I live in South Fulton, and they thought of this part of town as “the hood” or “ghetto” even though my house looked just like theirs and I lived in an upper middle class suburban neighborhood comparable to their same homes in Buckhead. But, it didn’t matter to them. The more invites I would send out, the more of that same response we would get from them.
This might’ve seemed like a small thing but it started to make me feel a bit lonely being a child of color.
The next year in second grade, I was starting to feel less like an outsider, and I was happy because I began to feel like a member of their school community. But just when I would feel like I belonged, something would come along and put me back in my place. It started when one of my white friends at the time was having a sleepover for her birthday. Being only 7 years old, I asked if I was invited, and she replied, “Sorry, you’re just not my kind of people.”
It wasn’t obvious to me what she meant when she said that. I just thought she didn’t want to be my friend anymore or didn’t have space for me at her party. I made excuses for it. It still pains me that my mother had to explain to her 7-year-old daughter that the person who she thought was her friend didn’t want her at her house because she was Black, plain and simple.
This seemingly small moment that happened in second grade still affects me to this day because it’s honestly quite telling of my environment and the families in it.
As I got older, I began to be labeled by school administration. They told my parents and me that I was an angry child and a lone wolf who didn’t work well with others. I was branded as the “angry black girl” at 10 years old, and this branding and demonization of me and other Black female students still continues to this day.
I also became the target of a white music teacher. She was known to be harder on Black students, and I was constantly harassed by her. Any time I would try out for a play or talent show, she would throw me in the back of every school production and give the same white girl the lead.
She even went as far as to embarrass me in front of the entire school when I was in fourth grade, and I started crying on stage because some kids were making fun of me. Needless to say, my mother went straight to the school administration and I was given an apology, but the teacher still works at the school and other Black students said that they’ve received the same treatment from her, even though it’s more toned down now.
My classmates became bolder once middle school came around. They began to make racially insensitive jokes. During a group project last year, a classmate of mine pulled up her hoodie and joked she was a member of the KKK. I reported her to the teacher, but I never got as much as an apology from her.
People would ask certain black students for “N-word passes” and accused our one Black affinity group (where we came together to speak about our struggles as minorities at our school) of racially segregating our school, and they would joke about having their own white affinity group.
I became even more outspoken about pretty much everything, especially considering that Donald Trump became president almost two years before I started middle school. Trump spoke of deporting Mexicans and calling Black and brown people criminals and rapists and our countries “sh**holes.” He spread so much hate and still does.
But his words began to rile up my white classmates. After that election, a flame was set off in me, and I wanted to speak out on important issues all the time, especially in history class. In seventh and eighth grade, I liked to raise important questions during discussions, and my teachers, who were both white men, would get super annoyed. But if a white girl raised a similar question, she would be praised for bringing up such a good point.
It was, and is, an ongoing cycle, and I know it’s not just me. Teachers would get annoyed with some of the other Black women for being outspoken as well. It’s almost like they wanted us to to just stay quiet. It began to take a toll on my confidence.
I felt like my voice wasn’t valid and meant nothing to my school community.
Now we’re in 2020. This fall, I’m a freshman in high school, and because of the Black Lives Matter movement, more students in these PWIs have started to speak out on their struggles of being Black in these institutions. Instagram pages have been made to highlight these important stories and experiences.
Those old feelings of depression and brokenness stuck out to me and made me rethink my experience during these past few years. I wondered how my school administration would react to seeing their students feel this pain. Seeing this uprising made me feel like change was coming and this year was going to be way different than the past eight years of my life.
But it might’ve gotten worse.
In July, I tried out to be a cheerleader. I’ve been doing dance since I was 3, so I was excited to use my dance skills to learn a new sport and try something outside of my comfort zone for my freshman year. But that wasn’t the case. I knew what I was getting myself into when I decided to try out for my school’s cheer program.
The program has been quite infamous over the years, from the team almost doing a routine to a remix of “Strange Fruit” (a song literally about the lynching of Black people), which was cut only because another Black cheerleader was extremely offended (around this time, the N-word had been written on the mirror of the locker room). Also, the team doesn’t feature many girls of color except maybe one or two Black or Asian girls on one team.
But I was confident and willing to take the chance. I worked with an instructor to perfect my skills, and I was ready to complete my tryouts and hopefully receive some positive results. But that wasn’t the case. The night after tryouts, I checked the roster to find out that the team I tried out for didn’t include me. In fact, it turned out to be an all-white cheer team. I was crushed. This was my final straw at this school. I felt that all my hopes and dreams to be a part of this school community were crushed. All these years of isolation had taken a toll, and this was my breaking point.
Of course, my parents were extremely angry about this, and so was I. I told myself that this wouldn’t break me and this is the least important thing happening right now. But I couldn’t hold it in anymore. Eight years of this pain leading up to this moment took a huge toll on me, and I finally lost it. I cried my eyes out like I never had before.
I’ve had enough of this pain, and I know my fellow Black peers have as well. This ongoing cycle has broken us down, snatched our confidence, and torn us to shreds. And we’re tired of it.
Going to a PWI was never going to be easy. I knew this, of course, but I never expected it to feel this lonely. My parents pay a lot for me to go to this school and be a member of this community.
But it doesn’t feel like I’m part of their community.
It feels like I can go to their school and be in their classes, but I will never be a part of their school community. You are simply just a tourist on their island. This is an awful ideology, reminiscent of the times of segregation in the 1950s. It’s just that now Black students can legally go to the same schools as white students. For Black students like me, it’s an endless cycle, and we’re exhausted.
Students of color at PWIs, you and I both know that change isn’t going to come immediately. For some of these schools, it took them years and even decades to address the racial pandemic within these institutions. Now is our time to speak out and pressure our schools to change their guidelines and honor codes so that the next set of students who come to these schools won’t have to go through these same struggles.
Forced performative activism, vague statements, and the white savior crap aren’t going to cut it anymore. We are human beings and we belong here, whether you like it or not. We shouldn’t have to fade into the background and stay silent about our struggles.
We aren’t going to settle for this abuse anymore; we are tired of being silent. We shouldn’t have to assimilate or stay silent to receive basic respect. We shouldn’t have to leave these schools battered and broken anymore. We aren’t just tourists in these places.
We are members of these communities, and we shouldn’t have to take the pain anymore.
Editor’s Note: In the interest of fairness, the author reached out to Lovett School Director of Communications Courtney Fowler to extend an opportunity for the school to respond to this piece. Ms. Fowler shared this excerpt of a letter from Lovett Head of School Meredyth Cole sent to students on Thursday: “This spring and summer, The Lovett School has consciously focused on work to ensure that all Black students and families at Lovett feel supported and can thrive. Where many Black students have succeeded, too many have not enjoyed a full and rich experience at our school. That is a past failure but will not be Lovett’s future reality. Please read our action steps here.”