Over the past few weeks, a number of news stories have brought the question of privilege in academic settings to the forefront of the national conversation. The news that over 50 people, including actors Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, had been charged in an alleged scheme to bribe or trick college admissions officials to help their children get into elite colleges, served to highlight the many legal ways parents of privilege help their children gain admission to high-ranking schools. (Think SAT tutoring, supporting extra-curricular activities, or simply living in a zip code with “good” public schools.) Barely a week later, a bombshell report from The New York Times found that Stuyvesant High School, a selective public high school in New York City, admitted only seven Black students out of 895 available spots in its incoming freshman class. Across the city, only 10 percent of students admitted to similarly selective public schools were people of color, says the Times, while 70 percent of the city’s public school students are non-white.
Of course, while these reports made waves nationally, these revelations weren't news to students of color, who constantly have to reckon with this type of privilege in these spaces. “If you’re a college graduate of color, it’s likely none of this is surprising because you’ve lived it. But the fact that it’s not a surprise doesn’t make it less frustrating or hurtful,” Joi Childs wrote in an op-ed about the alleged college admissions scam for Bustle.
These national news stories rightfully shed light on the students of color who are denied access to these spaces, offering a potential path to reconciliation. But what happens when you are one of the few students of color who do get access? Bustle asked women of color who attended elite high schools to share their experiences, and what they would change if they could do it all over again.
“My mom worked in the Chicago public school system for 20 years, as did my grandmother, who was a principal. So they knew how to navigate the Chicago public school system. I knew early on that I wanted to go to a selective enrollment school because I’d be provided with more opportunities and resources, and especially to get into a better college, because if I just went to a school in my neighborhood, my chances might not have been the same.
“I went to a school on the south side of Chicago, in not the best area, but the school was completely gated. It was kind of like a small college campus. I went to school with mostly African American and Latino students. You had to test into this school, you couldn’t go there just because you were in the neighborhood, so everyone wanted to be there. My experience was pretty good. I got great exposure. I felt prepared for college.
I met a lot of people that were just seeing Black people or people of color for the first time. It was as much a shock for me as it was for them.
“I think it’s important to know that Chicago is extremely racially segregated. I grew up with Black and brown people my entire life. So going to this selective enrollment school was in my comfort zone. But then I went to college at a predominantly white institution (PWI), and that was a big shock for me. I had never really gone to school with other people outside of my race. I met a lot of people that were just seeing Black people or people of color for the first time. It was as much a shock for me as it was for them. It was an adjustment but I’m glad I did it, because I was able to make friendships and relationships with people outside of my race.
“My little brother is in eighth grade now, and my parents want him to go to the same school that I did. I would absolutely do it again. I gained lifelong friends, I learned a lot, and I was able to do it all in my community. I just had to test in. But I feel extremely privileged and blessed to have that opportunity, because there was a high school closer to my house, but I wouldn’t have been awarded the same opportunities, or given those same resources."
“I went to a public high school where you have to test to get in. They accept like the top 500 scores. I went because I couldn’t afford to go to a private school, and it was one of the top college prep schools in the country. If you look up any of the stats of the high school I went to, it’s majority white. But if you look at the regular public high school right next door, it’s majority Latinx, Asian, and Black. They threatened that on us, in a weird way. They’d say ours was a tough school, and if you don’t like it, you can leave. It’s so weird to go to a school that is so white and then be threatened, essentially, with going to a public school.
“Part of the reason I left this school after a year and a half was that, on my first day of sophomore year, my dad passed away. I went to school anyway and told my teachers what was happening, and said I wouldn’t be in school for the next week or so, and asked if they could give me my homework. What stood out to me about that experience was that I had one teacher who spent the period making Grim Reaper jokes in Latin. I had another teacher who asked me what kind of relationship I had with my dad — he said, 'I just want to know how much sympathy to give you.' I think about that a lot when it comes to my students now. What it’s like to have a teacher who has no sympathy for you. Who doesn’t see you as a full person.
There was no going home and seeing people who looked like me.
“I was kind of troublesome after that incident, but they couldn’t just kick me out, so the department paid for me to go to a private school. I ended up going to a school that was also very white, that was rough for other reasons. There was a sort of liberal colorblindness. Like we got taught out of The People’s History of the United States, but it made me think like, 'We are just all white'. I was unable to feel represented or feel like I was seen for who I was.
"I was gay, and I went to a Catholic school before I went to high school, so I was already bad at making friends because I was like, 'I have to not say this'. With my second school, when I did start to make friends, it was weird — no one ever brought up race. I think I was just willing to accept the colorblindness, to ignore it. I ended up going to a predominantly white college in Vermont because of it, and that’s when I really realized the otherness, because there was no escaping it. There was no going home and seeing people who looked like me. I shaved my head my first week of college and it started to grow back as an afro, which I had never dealt with before. It was a moment where I was like, I am not white.
"I knew I was a person of color, but I felt like this was the first time I’d faced it. It was like seeing the rest of the iceberg for me. And it made me really angry. I couldn’t go into the regular workplace after that. You know how they say microaggressions build up as trauma in the brain? It was like that. It was someone pointing out all the trauma I had hidden.
“If I could do it again, I would have gone to a different college, but I think high school was a good learning experience for me. It was weird, but it was important for me to understand what high school is. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that even if these kids do get into these schools, you have to offer them support structures, and teachers who are also Black. You can't just put them in a PWI and say alright, cool, you’re here."
"My freshman year of high school, I went to a regular public school. But for sophomore year, my parents came across this school in Washington, DC, where you had to apply, even though it was publicly funded. What was attractive about the school was it was super different — no sports teams, but I didn’t have to be in a traditional classroom every day. It was a small school, at the time only around 300 students. It was thrilling for me to get to go to a school that had this communal feel. And then academically, they were on the map nationally for the graduation rate, going to college and staying in college, as well as getting to take college courses while there.
"Because it was only 300 students, there was a community vibe. You didn’t know everyone personally, but the administration really focused on making sure you were really the right 'fit.' The student body really respected each other and really knew we belonged to this same community.
Maybe I would have been more as confident as a young adult if I had been around more Black people.
"The school had a very diverse administration, so I don’t feel like I was ever targeted or treated differently as a Black student, because we had a significant amount of Black teachers. But from the social aspect, I definitely will say the Black kids hung with the Black kids, and the white kids hung with the white kids. The Asian students all hung out together. There was still a level of separation between the students.
"I ended up not going right to college, I went right into the workforce. But being 18 and going right into the workforce, I felt a lot of the same thing. We all worked together, but, professionally, I leaned heavily on the other Black people in the office.
"Going to this school did give me a heightened awareness of different cultures, despite this kind of separation. We want to be around what’s comfortable to us, which is sometimes our own culture. Coming into the workforce and especially a not-so-diverse workforce, I had insecurities as one of the only minorities in the room. But I was still able to be successful as one of the few and only Black people.
"If I did it all over again, I’d want to go to a predominantly Black high school. I don’t know if this is how I feel as a woman today in Black America, and the issues we’re seeing as Black people, but maybe I would have been more as confident as a young adult if I had been around more Black people. Maybe If I had more connectedness, I would have embraced my Blackness and been more confident in my Blackness."
"I attended four private institutions, some in the south, one in Maryland. The first school was a prestigious school in North Carolina, which at the time was one of the top 10 private schools in the United States. I was applying for first grade. The admissions officer talked to my mother about how they were looking for diverse candidates, but I didn't get one of the six open spots. One of my mom’s friends, her son was already in the school and found out that all six students were white. So my mom called the admissions officer several times a day for weeks until they made a new space for me in the school.
"I left that school for a boarding high school, and the application process was very much like applying to college. I took an entrance exam, wrote a bunch of essays, had an interview. I was 13. The boarding school was in Baltimore, Maryland, which is a predominantly Black city. That school actually did a decent job at diversity. There were a little over 100 of us in my class and six of us were Black. That sounds terrible, but compared to my experience at other schools, I felt more seen in other ways.
Even though I was doing well in classes, there was an assumption made about my capabilities as a Black person.
"One of the things about being a person of color in these spaces is like you don't have permission to kind of like goof off or be funny in the classroom the way that your white counterparts do. There was this one girl who would constantly cause a ruckus, and one time she started screaming in class because her computer caught fire. It was funny, but I remember thinking that if that had happened to me, the class would think that it was my fault somehow. I had a bunch of friends who would sneak off campus, and they’d try to get me to go with them, and I would always say no. It was always to do harmless things like go to the movies, but I just felt like if I got caught, the consequences would be more dire.
"It was definitely the idea of working twice as hard for half. I was always a very good student, and got straight A’s and everything. Sometimes my teachers would joke if I got below a 96 on something. But there was definitely a tone that they expected more from me. I was also one of the few Black students that wasn’t on scholarship, and there was definitely a difference in treatment. Some teachers had the attitude like, you have to work harder to be here because you’re not paying. In North Carolina, I was never considered one of the smart students in class. But when I went up north, people would comment like, 'Oh, Kat’s so smart'. Even though I was doing well in classes, there was an assumption made about my capabilities as a Black person.
"In a really sad way, being in a predominantly white environment with these ridiculous expectations for my academics really helped me succeed in college. I had a few friends in college who were from inner city Baltimore, and they didn’t have the resources, or the experience of being the only Black person in a class, and that adjustment was terribly difficult for them. But I was comfortable with being stared at and dealing with these negative expectations in some ways.
"I’m in grad school now and I help tutor high schoolers for their college applications. I totally acknowledge that I’m perpetuating the privilege of these students. When I applied to college, even though I had the same socioeconomic background as these kids, my parents expected me to do my essays myself. It’s a big shame because I never work with students who are people of color.
"But if I had a kid, I would send them to a private school. I would send them to an all-girls school, particularly, if I could afford it. Absolutely."
"Before high school, I was close friends with all the smart kids, and they pushed me to join this school they were going to. It’s not an easy program to get into, but once you do the International Baccalaureate (IB) program, if you finish with top grades, you basically get your first year of university off. I was also excited about making new friends in a different part of the city. It took me about an hour to commute, and an hour back. I was also just honored that I got to be a part of it as a Black girl, too.
"The first thing that students do is look for people who look like them in their student body. I think I noticed three other Black kids in my grade. That was in grade nine. There was no representation, even on the pamphlets for the IB program, there was just the one Black kid on it. There were no Black teachers. You couldn’t talk to someone who looked like you and knew how it was.
"Teachers would definitely have their favorites, and if students didn’t look like them, you’d have a harder time. As one of the only Black girls in the program, I got a lot of discouragement from staying on in the program. They would say, I don’t think this is for you, I just don’t think you really want to do this.
When Black people break barriers and we break down these stereotypes, it grants us more space to talk about things.
"I didn’t finish the program. I left because it was too much to commute. It was such a huge toll on my family. I went to grade 11 in a new school. But I felt like if I would have gotten the push, maybe I would have stayed in. But they kept telling me this isn’t for you.
"I decided to go to a Catholic school that was closer to my house. There were no Black teachers there, either, and once again, you don’t have any representation, you can’t talk to a guidance counselor that looks like you. But it was easier because there were more Black kids in class.
"I think back on it and I actually would enroll myself in it again. Because when I would tell my family that I was in this elite high school, they would ask me if I could teach their kids, because they wanted better for their kids, too. When Black people break barriers and we break down these stereotypes, it grants us more space to talk about things. Because I went through that, I can talk now about my experience of being a Black student in a predominantly white high school. The fact that I made it in proves that I should have been there."