I finished my last brick and mortar day of my junior year in high school on Friday, March 13, 2020. My classmates and I joked about getting a free two weeks off of school and that we would be back before we knew it. Each day we all watched the news become more bleak. I started to get used to a life online.
Then on May 5, my dad called to tell me that my 97-year-old aunt Billie had died that morning. Grief over Zoom is something we are all learning together, something so unheard of; being together while apart. I attended her funeral via FaceTime to hear her eulogy given by my grandfather and watch the family that could attend stand six feet apart. Tears ran down my face and I felt like I was a little closer to my family. I had to end the call to immediately join my statistics synchronous learning session.
As a Black student in a predominantly white and wealthy institution I am not often able to relate to the home lives of my classmates, which became much more apparent during quarantine. As stay-at-home orders began to get pushed farther out, I saw more and more of my classmates retreating to their lake houses to have a relaxing and secluded quarantine. I sat in my home watching the coronavirus become less of an extra long spring break. I was forced to watch it creep closer, as more relatives and family friends began to contract and succumb to this seemingly uncontrollable illness.
For teenagers, any minor inconvenience seems world ending. Watching not only my community at large but my nuclear family feel the weight of this pandemic, while my classmates continued to complain about missing prom, was eye-opening.
Being a Black teenager is difficult to navigate while at a PWI. I have gone to predominantly white schools since third grade, so I have learned how to be Black in the classroom.
Most Black people have seen the photos of six-year-old Ruby Bridges, who is 32 years younger than my Aunt Billie, being escorted by the National Guard as she made the brave steps to integrate historically white William Frantz Elementary School. Ruby Bridges was the only Black student in her first-grade class. This is an experience Black students in private schools today know all too well.
During a pandemic where school has gone virtual I thought that issues of race and class would subside, but I was very wrong. As COVID-19 cases rose, more news outlets started to report that in many cities the majority of cases were concentrated in Black and brown neighborhoods.
These statistics started being discussed in class without any regard for Black students. Often, when Black issues are brought up, teachers forget that Black students are living the reality they are debating. It was never brought up that Black and Brown people make up the majority of the nation’s essential workers — from food and agriculture to commercial and service industries, according to the Economic Policy Institute. This makes them extremely susceptible to COVID-19. In predominantly white schools, Black and brown people are put in a box for white students to pity without giving context to why they are in the box in the first place.
By June, as school was winding down Black students like me were confronted with one of the most difficult dilemmas. Cities across the country were protesting for our lives but in these majority white spaces of our classrooms we were expected to continue to work like normal. Watching videos of people that look like us and our family members dying solely because of their skin color, while writing analytical essays. To my surprise Black Lives Matter started to be posted by non-Black people on social media, which urged my usually complicit white classmates to half heartedly post a black screen.
Now as protests die down, these classmates quickly returned to regularly scheduled programming. They are still posting from their lake houses, that they can’t wait for 2020 to be over and for everything to go back to normal, but for BIPOC students the normal is abuse and daily normalized racism.
All of these experiences of myself and other Black students stems from the fact that American integration was rushed and unorganized. It has created a dangerous and toxic environment for Black students in predominantly white schools. Schools never did the work to educate white children on their privilege, but threw Black children into the lion’s den and told them to just be quiet and everything would be alright.
The violence and overt hatred Ruby Bridges experienced in 1960 has devolved for today’s Black students to passive racism and calculated exclusivity. While Brown v. Board of Education decided that separate cannot be equal, Black children are still being abused — but now from the same classroom as white children. Black students make up a total of 9.3% of most private school populations, according to a study from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA using federal data from 2015. When Black students are underrepresented in the student body, faculty and administration there will always be anti-Blackness ingrained in the social and academic culture of the school.