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My Experience With Racism In Private Schools Black In The Suburbs

I'm Cleveland Lewis and in this episode of Black In The Suburbs, I explain what my experience in a private high school was like. Racism is certainly not gone, but it's not how it used to be. Racism persists because those who can change the issue censor and ignore it.  Check out my blog at http://www.thesocialblog.org Instagram: blkintheburbs

I grew up in an upper-middle-class lifestyle, about an hour, or two, north of NYC. Our house lies on the border of two neighboring counties. I lived in one city district, but a different school district. Which meant that I couldn’t go to the school in the city I lived in. And the school district I lived in, had low graduation rates and poor education standards. So, my parents put my brothers and me in a private Catholic school from pre-k to 12th grade. After 12 years in private school, this is what I’ve learned. From the teachers ignoring racism to the students endorsing it, here’s how racism circulates private school.

Let’s Start With The Teachers

The teachers act as if they’re oblivious to what the students say and do. I can’t say I’ve ever heard a teacher say anything blatantly racist — though my Harry Potter theology teacher once said: “Obama and those liberals are ruining the country.” But, while they don’t participate in the racism, they ignore it thus, allowing and enabling it. Here are a few examples when teachers and faculty ignored blatant racism, therefore showing how racism circulates private school.

  1. A student made a “White Power” poster, and the teacher hung it in the hallway.
  2. A student wrote “racist propaganda” on Black History Month poster, and no one cares.
  3. A dean censored my senior quote, which expressed my experience at school.

Just from reading the beginning of these three examples, it is evident that the school chooses to ignore the racism, thus, allowing and therefore enabling it. Journalist and author, Ibram X. Kendi explains this concept best. He describes how allowing bigotry is just as racist as other discriminatory actions. And this is the most essential point I’m trying to get across. The teachers’ allowance of discrimination explains how racism circulates private school. Keep reading below, and I’ll explain those three incidents in more detail.


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My Most Racist Experiences

When I explain my experience through high school, it is vastly different from how the non-minority students experienced it. Most non-minority students met some of their closest friends at school, but I always felt like I didn’t belong to anyone. There were other Black students, but I rarely — if ever — had classes with them. These experiences explain why I always felt like an outlier and how racism circulates private schools.

I can vividly remember my senior art class, it was some time during February— Black History Month. The art teacher had planned a project to celebrate and honor Black History Month, and I was honestly impressed. The whole month, every time I stepped into that classroom, it seemed like something was hanging in the air as if it were just a matter of time before someone made a racist comment, and I would have to defend myself. Plainly enough, the day and the remark came.

It was the day we were finishing up the project, and a girl stood up:

“I’m making mine a ‘White Power’ poster!” she exclaimed.

“Um, why?” asked the teacher.

“Because like if there’s a Black History Month, like why isn’t there a white history month?” replied the student.

And the teacher said nothing to the student.

With the teacher leaving the girl’s question unanswered, she was essentially giving in and letting her express her “white power,” which is was just a blatantly obvious way for her to express her disapproval of black history. This example is indicative of the concept that when you allow racism, you enable it, and therefore, you are racist.

If you were wondering, yes, that “White Power” poster was hung up in our main hallway along with the “Black History Month” posters. And for weeks, the deans, teachers, and principles, walked past it, and yet it hung. Now, you may choose to argue that the poster was allowed because of freedom of speech and if you did think that, bravo, you’re a free thinker. Unfortunately, that was not the case — let me explain why the poster was grossly discriminatory and hypocritical.

This next instance took place towards the middle of the senior year, we were taking pictures and submitting senior quotes for the yearbook. The due date for senior quotes came quickly, so the night before, I looked up quotes online, and after several hours, I found the PERFECT one. Another black student at a different high school had used it, and it perfectly captured my four years — no, my past 12 years of private school.  

My senior quote submission read as: “Anything is possible when you sound Caucasian on the phone.”

Later that week — after I submitted it — I got called down to the dean’s office. I curiously, and slightly nervously, walked in and sat down. She — the dean — started off, “I get where you’re coming from, but we can’t allow this in the yearbook,” she said. I nodded my head and said, “OK,” — as I’d always been taught to — and I submitted a different generic motivational quote.

Now, I understand how someone could take this quote the wrong way, but that shouldn’t matter because if the school truly endorsed freedom of speech, then there is no reason it should have been censored. There were no curse words, no blasphemy, nothing hurtful, just a short quote that wholly described white privilege and my experience at school. Yet it was censored.

The last example of the allowance of racism takes place during Black History Month as well. Another African American student designed an awesome poster honoring all the young black men who’ve unnecessarily died, and all the Black activists and heroes. It was honestly a really cool poster. I walked into the lunchroom — where the poster was hung — and saw a student run up to it. I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but when I sat down with my friends, they said he had written “racist propaganda” on the poster.

It didn’t hit me until later, just how racist it was of him to write that. He was essentially claiming that the poster— honoring black history— was racist towards white people. Whether he was being facetious or not, I don’t know, but either way, it was a tactic to express his white superiority.

After the incident, and the teachers found out who wrote it, nothing happened. He was called to the dean’s office, but he was never put in detention, not one punishment at all. This, yet again, exemplifies that the teachers are pushing racism “under the rug.”

Looking at these contrasting situations, I believe they capture the essence of how racism circulates in private school. While it is not run with a racist mindset, it is undoubtedly set on ignoring and censoring it.

The racism in my private school was definitely not unique, nor was it the worst, but it was unquestionably eye-opening.

At my high school, racism circulated because no one wanted to talk about it. This is much like how racism works throughout the entire world. It’s similar to a societal response:

Something racist happens, the news reports it, people act as if it never happened or call it “fake news,” and thus, the cycle repeats. This is why racism circulates the entire world. We need to encourage conversations about racism. It should not be “controversial” to talk about race. I urge you to have a peaceful conversation about something “controversial.”

One conversation at a time, we can normalize essential topics and change the world.

Posted by:Cleveland Lewis III

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