The Perils Of Sending Black Children To Predominantly White Schools

January 26, 2015  |  

I have spent my life, living, working, loving and hating in largely Black enclaves. The one exception is the four years of my middle school, which was spent in a racially-mixed, but predominantly White, school in the Kensington section of Philadelphia.

My presence at the school was by chance. My neighborhood middle school, which served a predominantely Black, Hispanic and new immigrant Asian population, was severely overcrowded and underfunded. At the same time, the School District of Philadelphia, which was trying to mitigate the severity of a 40-year-old school desegregation case, decided that it would kill two birds with one stone by bussing a bunch of Black kids out of North Philly into White areas. According to the Philadelphia Public Notebook, at the height of the voluntary busing program, “some 14,000 students were bused to schools outside their neighborhoods to improve the schools’ racial diversity.” I was one of those pioneers who got the privilege to wake up extra early in the morning just to take a nearly hour-long bus ride in search of more equitable education opportunities.

While interacting with Hispanics and other new immigrants was nothing new to me, this was my first time actually meeting a bunch of White people, who weren’t just teachers or representatives from some government agencies. Needless to say, that I was excited about the new experience of meeting new kinds of people, particularly in their own spaces. And as I rode the yellow bus on my first day of school through this foreign neighborhood, I had all sorts of burning questions about the mysterious ways of White folks. Did they all live in big houses with live-in maids like on the the television show, Mr. Belvedere”? Did they really eat pumpkin pie during holiday meals instead of sweet potato pie? Did they skateboard and really say words like “gnarly” and “totally rad?” I would find the answers to those questions and more when the yellow bus finally stopped and dropped us off in front of Webster Middle School.

As I piled off the bus with the rest of the elementary school-aged Black and Hispanic kids, the first thing I noticed was that the neighborhood didn’t look that much different than the one we came from. Sure the streets were nicer and much cleaner and there were actual trees along the curb line. But the White people didn’t look as refined as the White people I’d seen on television. For one, they lived in rowhouses, just like we did in North Philly, and said weird phrases like “youse guys.” The boys were more obsessed with street hockey and the Philadelphia Flyers than anything having to do with skateboarding. While the girls were into dodging plume clouds of Aqua Net and mimicking hair bands. Plus, just about the entire student body smoked cigarettes. Fourth grader, fifth grader, sixth grader, didn’t matter. White kids were pulling out whole packs of Marlboros and chain smoking them up right outside of the school’s front entrance. In short, these White people were kind of rough.

In spite of White people being nothing like I had imagined them to be, it was still a different world than where I came from. And it would get even more different during my first gym class. The teacher, who was handing out assigned seats on the gym floor, told me to take a squat across from a White girl with a brownish-blonde mullet and the stench of a half-smoked Marlboro Light on her clothes. We stared at each other briefly before she smiled and waved at me. Of course, I smiled and waved back. And when she asked for my name, I told her that too before inquiring about hers. It was Dani.

“Hi Dani,” I said grinning from ear to ear. We sat quietly for a few moments, staring and smiling at each other. I thought for sure that I had made a new friend and had already begun daydreaming about all the fun girlfriend things we were going to do together. She was going to teach me who “youse” was and I going to introduce her to some real pie. But then, in the most sincerest of tones my new friend asked me, “Why don’t you go back to Africa, Black monkey?”

I was stunned. For one, she was still wearing that same warm smile she had when she asked me my name. And secondly, while I had heard of such racism in those old Civil Rights movies, which used to come on the local PBS station, I truly thought those days were over. Mom never once mentioned the possibility of racism; she just told me to behave and not embarrass her in front of the teachers. And Mr. Belvedere damn sure never said anything about it neither. In all the planning and rehearsing I had done that morning before school to prepare me for my close encounter with the pale kind, I had no idea of what I would do in event someone said something racist.

Still, I wasn’t no punk. So I said the first thing that came to my mind: “Shut up, b**ch! Why don’t you go back to the North Pole.” Because I was 11-years-old and from North Philly (hence the familiarity with cursing a person out with ease) and the North Pole was the whitest place I could think of. She laughed and shook her head at the ridiculousness of my comeback. And so did some of the other White kids, who had been listening and mocking me also nearby. I however shrank a bit into myself…

That incident came across my mind after reading the story of the little brown skin girl who too was also forced to shrink after facing similar degradation. According to the Grio, Tomeka Fisher was left speechless when she recorded a video of her 4-year-old daughter Londyn crying her little eyes out after being told by her class mates that they didn’t want to be her friend because they didn’t like Black people. If you can stomach it, you can watch the heart-wrenching video here. Fisher had also posted the video to her Facebook page with the caption: “My 4-year-old is crying her heart out, and so am I. I don’t know what to do or say.”

Nor would I. Already scarred by the Africa incident, among others, I probably wouldn’t handle that entire situation very well. And to be totally honest, I probably wouldn’t even allow my kid to be put into that situation in the first place. And not that I’m blaming Fisher for any of this at all. Just like my mom, and so many other Black parents who have steered their children towards more “diverse” educational experiences, the end goal is to better position our children so they have a greater chance in a society, which is still deeply rooted in White supremacy. With that said, how better of a position can we really be putting our children in if it makes them feel ashamed of their color and accomplices to their own oppression?

After the Africa incident, things at Webster got better. And I actually started to make friends with some of my other White classmates. I found out that in spite of our differences, we also had some things in common, like our love for “Mr. Belvedere.” However our friendships were definitely on their cultural terms. I couldn’t even sway them with a slice of grandmas homemade sweet potato pie. And I often felt like I had to overcompensate when I was around them. I had even gotten to the point that I was rocking the “Stairway to Heaven” bangs and talking about “youse” people. Although I had lots of White friends, culturally I felt isolated. And after a while, I started hanging out more with the bussed-in Black kids at lunch and recess. They too felt some kind of way about their new friends…

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