4.7 million students in the U.S. were enrolled in private schools in fall of 2019. In comparison, nearly 50 million students attended public schools. Of this population of private school students, just 9 percent identified as Black, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The experience of students of color at private schools in the Bay Area is a unique one. Families usually choose to send their students to private school in order to put a stronger focus on their academic experience, but these schools tend to be overwhelmingly white. It can be isolating, especially in smaller schools with just one or two students of color.
Alex Scott is a current freshman at American University who recently graduated from Bentley School, an Oakland private school, where they were one of only a few Black students. They attended private schools their entire life, which they considered an incredibly beneficial academic experience, but rough in terms of finding people with a similar life experience. They explained that attending predominantly white schools, especially those with a mostly upper-class student population, caused damage to their self-esteem. Scott became self-conscious in school. “I’d be one of the only Black people in class,” Scott said. “I always felt like the odd one out in my friend groups.”
Scott struggled with being singled out, never growing accustomed to scenarios in class such as being the only Black person during discussions that surrounded topics such as slavery, police brutality, and racial violence. This put an immense amount of stress and pressure on them — they’d sometimes be treated like a delegate for their entire racial group. Once, when a non-Black teacher used a racial slur in front of their class, they felt “an indescribable frustration having to sit there and listen to a white teacher explain history and your culture incorrectly, while battling the anxiety of becoming the spokesperson of your community if you decide to intervene,” Scott said.
Reflecting on their high school years, Scott believes they missed out on a key aspect: experimentation.
“For one, I think I’d definitely have more Black friends and friends of color,” Scott said. “Just that one factor would have changed my entire high school experience in ways I probably don’t even know … I would’ve experimented with my hair more.” Scott refrained from style variety in high school, fearing that if they tried something new, and someone commented anything less than positive, they’d begin to dislike their own hair. Now, Scott feels their hair is the main aspect that they love about themself.
It was hard to venture outside of the box, when Scott already felt disconnected from other members of their community. “I think if I had gone to a public school it would’ve been easier for me to find other people that I can truly connect with deeper than race,” Scott said. “There weren’t many people who understood my neurodivergence, or people who I could have affinity with in terms of gender and sexual identity. There were queer people at my high school, but even then, intersectionality matters and the feeling of displacement was still present, even in club meetings.”
This feeling of singularity is difficult to navigate. A current freshman at Maybeck High School, Maissa Zairi went to public school her entire life until this school year. Having been used to seeing ethnic diversity at school all throughout her life, the student population being largely white completely threw her off when she arrived in the first couple of months. “It kind of singled me out in a way … Being one of only three mixed kids in the freshman class makes me feel uncomfortable.”
Zairi recounted how people have denied her identity, claiming she didn’t “look Black” when she described her ethnicity. “If I did go to a public school, I think I would definitely feel more comfortable talking about these kinds of things with others, but right now I’m a little closed off about it.”
“There are … times where I feel conflicted about my Black identity because it’s hard to have a solid understanding of who I am when I’m surrounded by people of vastly different backgrounds for the majority of my day,” said Mason Jones, a sophomore at The College Preparatory School. “I’m almost always the singular or one of two Black students in history and English classes which can make things tough. Especially since this year in my history and English classes, we’ve been discussing the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Black literature from the Harlem Renaissance. At the end of the day, this is unfortunately something I’m used to.”
However, some schools have made an effort to incorporate affinity spaces. Damiana Harper, a junior at Lick-Wilmerding High School in San Francisco, finds them crucial in creating a place to connect with others. “The affinity spaces are a place (where) I do not have to pretend whatsoever which is relieving for everyone there, which oftentimes makes them a lot of fun.” She added that the affinity spaces are well-funded. Lick-Wilmerding also hosts Family Networks, run by student clubs such as the Black Student Union to connect families with similar cultural backgrounds within the high school community.
These spaces for communities with less representation at school are used by students to connect with each other and find cohorts. Scott had difficulty connecting with others.
“My social experience was pretty negative. I made a few really good friends but overall it took me a long time to find people who I truly connected with,” they said. “There were a lot of people who I really liked but our cultural differences always seemed to stand out to me.”