Times of Privilege and Pain: An Unfiltered Recollection of My Experiences at a PWI
Updated: Apr 10, 2021
As I reflect back upon my eighth-grade self, I always wonder what went through my conscience as I made the decision to apply for private schools. Was it the display of diverse students on the brochure that appealed to me? Was it the idealistic dreams of fancy school functions and pretty school uniforms? Regardless of such, today I’m a senior at a private boarding school in Dallas. Nowadays, I don’t question my choice at all, but I find that my experiences have become a reality check for the explicit normalizing of educational racism.
Here’s a little context for what my school’s student population looks like: in the class of 2021, there are around 120 students alone. Of that, it would be a safe estimate to say that 25-30 students identify as BIPOC, of which over 2/3 of us identify as AAPI. The rest of the grades in the high school division also look like this. With only 4-5 Black and Latina students in each grade, the “diversity quota” is still mostly filled by Asians.
The classroom setting reflects these numbers as well: the average size of a class is around 12 students, 15 at most. In most of my classes, 9-10 of those students identify as white, Sometimes, I may be the only Asian student there, and on many occasions, my Black and Latina peers are regrettably nowhere to be seen.
Now obviously, I can’t speak for every Predominantly White Institution(PWI), but it’s times like these that I really experience the meaning of privilege first-hand. It goes without saying that I most definitely acknowledge my own privilege in even attending a private school, but I oftentimes find myself questioning the value of my classroom experiences. With the nature of my classes built the way they are, discussions and curriculums lend themselves to microaggressions and exclusivity. There’s one vivid example that always comes up when I think of privilege in the classroom setting – a girl, confused by our text explaining British colonialism in the Caribbean, asked what the word “abolition” means. I’d like to think she meant no harm with her question and was genuinely confused about the concept, but it wouldn’t be as big of a concern if this wasn’t asked in a sophomore-level English class. So who is to blame for such ignorance – my school, or the students?
In my opinion, both are to blame. Our history teachers are all white identifying. There are only about two teachers (both of which have left) that have purposefully altered their history curriculums to include a day or two of teaching the BIPOC experience in context. This isn’t even enough to cover the historical extent of such a dense topic, but the effort to do so is what matters. In terms of our English department, only one teacher is black, and her curriculum is the only one that makes a concerted effort to teach texts of BIPOC authors. The rest of the teachers do an adequate job of teaching minority literature, but I’ve realized that oftentimes, they still depend on my peers and me to do simple things like pronouncing a name, explaining the intent behind an author’s narrative, and sharing our cultural connections to the text we read.
As for the students, we are in school to learn. We are there to enrich our knowledge and learn the experiences of others, but an actual difference can’t be made unless we pay attention to the coursework taught to us. More often than not, my white peers shy away from engaging with class discussions and text analysis unless absolutely necessary. Like many of my teachers, they depend on their BIPOC peers to explain concepts surrounding minority history or literature – it’s as if they fear being judged for their contributions, or they feel as though it’s not their place to speak.
Outside of the classroom, unfortunately, the same issues arise. Like I’ve mentioned, I live in a boarding community comprised of around 90 girls from all over the world, many of which are from China. I’m an ABC. There’s a clear distinction here – we both have the same heritage and can speak the same languages, but our lived experiences are extremely different. Apparently, it’s still convenient to lump us all together as the same. I had a long-term sub once that I talked to once before my sophomore year winter break. She asked if I was going anywhere, to which I simply replied, “Home.” Her immediate assumptions, without even knowing I’m a boarder, allows her to conclude that I’m going home to China, and she tells me to take pictures of food and the city I live in to show my class once we come back. Of course, I politely correct her that I’m from Houston, and she apologizes profusely, claiming she didn’t mean any harm with her words and her assumptions were incorrect. Her implicit biases wanted her to believe I’m an international student – that I’m different. A big misunderstanding could have simply been solved had she just asked where “home” was.
Within our boarding department, it’s even more disheartening to see microaggressions within a place we’re meant to call home. We have “dorm moms” that live with us 24/7 and help us with everyday tasks, just like a normal mom would. However, a clear power dynamic exists as they dictate rules and guidelines. For example, last year, they enforced a rule in which we weren’t allowed to speak any language other than English in public spaces because they felt as though we were “talking bad” about them and thought other students would feel excluded by our conversations – this is verbatim what they told us while presenting. The rule was only repealed after my peers and I brought this issue to light with our head administrator. However, to this day, their Eurocentric standards of living continue to ostracize us and make us feel foreign in our own living spaces. They still bring in the same health staff to lecture us on showering every day to become “less dirty,” which we apparently don’t do at home. They still pry into personal conversations that aren’t in English to investigate if we’re talking about them.
I love my school and the person I’ve become in navigating through my own experiences, but in those regards, I believe my school can do better. They can stop the normalization of microaggressions and implicit bias that my BIPOC peers face almost every single day. Yet, they choose to continue tokenizing us, only seeing our purpose as smiling children on brochures and pamphlets. They have the power and resources to make our learning spaces safe and inclusive. Yet, the same racist, ignorant staff are still going strong for this upcoming school year. I wish for change, but the question of when it will ever happen remains unanswerable for the near future.