Growing up in a household that fostered learning and valued school, I was positioned for academic success and became that high achiever from an early age. But I was also a Black student in a public school system, which meant that my performance was tracked closely.
So I also became the “good statistic”—the statistic that’s supposed to defy the other statistics.
I have never been more aware of my race than I was when I went to school. I was a high-ranking Black girl, someone who bumped up the test score averages and became an example of diversity in upper-level classes.
In high school I became hyper aware of my isolation as one of the only Black students in AP and honor-level classes. Going back to elementary school where my reading and math scores placed me in an advanced group, I reflect now and realize how many White classmates were clustered with me in those advanced lessons—and how few of my Black classmates joined me.
The biggest difference between elementary, middle and high school was not the degree of tracking but my awareness of it all. In elementary school, it was all on paper or through my parents. They were the ones understanding this divide, trying not to make a big deal out of it, just encouraging me to do my best.
My awareness started around middle school, and it wasn’t just me who noticed the difference—it was everyone around me as well. Students around me would groan when I asked yet another question in algebra class (which I took early in middle school) and they always seemed surprised that I consistently got A’s.
This awareness became all the more heightened throughout high school. Granted, I did not have many classes with other Black students. But the few I did, it wasn’t in my nature to change my usual style in the classroom. Raising my hand constantly for questions, clarifying points or doing all the homework that was assigned to me—that’s just how I rolled in school because I have a horrible guilt complex and actually could not just “forget” about an assignment.
But these actions received more than a few sideways glances from other Black students. My desire to actively participate was taken as a sign that I was sucking up to the teacher. I was displaying a sense of “Whiteness” in the classroom by making my presence known, something that earned me the label of “Oreo.”
When I transitioned to my predominantly White classes I felt the isolation tenfold, having to prove myself and show why I actually did deserve a spot in the class while also feeling the eyes on the back of my head every time race was brought up, knowing they were casually glancing at one of the two or three Black kids sitting there.
The isolation was incredibly real and inescapable.
I know I’m lucky. My encouragement from my parents and competition with my older sister to prove to her that I could beat her scores or grades pushed me to work for myself. I tried my hardest to maintain the mindset that doing well in school was something that is beneficial to me in the future. I knew I wanted to learn for myself, not for the school and not to defy their statistics.
But others aren’t as lucky. They see how schools are systematically designed to fail minority students. The system tells Black students, in overt and subtle ways, they will never be as smart or educated as their White classmates.
Moving on to a demanding liberal arts school, one that prides itself on its racial and economic diversity, has its pros and cons. And as much turmoil comes in a setting of diversity, I no longer feel that isolation. Maybe it’s because no one here is tracked. Probably because when you go to a school where nearly half of students identify as students of color, the notion of racially identifiable classes just doesn’t exist.
Mostly it’s hard to feel racially isolated when everyone here seems to value the academic effort and curiosity that left me so pigeonholed as a teenager in middle school and high school.
The deal was sealed for me when I realized that at the beginning of basically every class, professors like to say, “There is no such thing as stupid questions, just stupid answers.” Finally.