I have four children.
My older two children are biracial, and my younger two are white. Race — and class — in America are primary conversations in our home.
My oldest son Trey is entering his senior year. He is handsome. He is highly aware. He is a student athlete, club leader, active volunteer, and an Advanced Placement student.
As Trey enters the final stretch of his high school career, I am reminded of the first day of his freshman year. The high school pulls out all the stops for freshmen — marching band, welcome banners, cheer team, gifts, games, and lots of school spirit. It is intended to be a warm welcome that begins the year well.
Having experienced this rite of passage with my daughter, I called Trey from work to hear how it went. With excitement and anticipation, I enthusiastically asked: “HOW WAS THE FIRST DAY?!”
“Terrible,” was his defeated response.
“What?” I asked, shocked. “What does that mean?”
He sighed. “I’m the only person of color in all of my Honors classes — the only one.”
In a school like Trey’s, it would be easy to assume this can’t be the case. The school is 47% non-white. So how could he be the only one?
Welcome to the United States of America and the world of Honors and Advanced Placement classes.
As the school attempts to address this gross inequity of access, Trey was asked to submit a personal statement for the faculty that reflects his experience as a student of color in Advanced Placement classes.
I share an excerpt from that statement as we approach a new school year and are inundated with media coverage of extremist white supremacy.
I ask that you read this as a window into the impact of systemic white supremacy from the perspective of a high school student.
I ask that you read this in understanding that his experience is not unique.
Schools, corporations, social clubs, spiritual communities, family gatherings, block parties, and seemingly benign gathering spaces are built on white supremacy.
Don’t be one of them.
The Black Student’s Survival Guide to AP Classes
For all you first time minority honor and AP students, this will probably be the most white people that you’ve ever seen in one room. While the floods of rosy cheeks and straight hair are going to be intimidating and unnerving, you’re going to have to get used to it. Because believe me, they aren’t going anywhere. Ever.
It’s more than likely that when you cross the threshold of whiteness, you’ll see cliques forming. Like ants around a loose Cheeto. Cliques that usually consist of Birkenstock sandals, Lululemon leggings, Sperrys with long white Nike socks, and Northface bookbags.
It’s also more than likely that once you enter black solitary confinement, the seats that make up the front layer of the classroom have already been taken up by the enthusiastic white girls who can’t wait to go over the syllabus and find out what color binder divider goes with the “current unit” section.
It’s a relief because you definitely don’t want to be a blatant reminder to everyone that you’re on a lonely island surrounded by 21 other great white sharks. So you meander around the bundles of khaki shorts and American Eagle jeans to a snug corner against the window, behind the first layer of white kids, or if you’re lucky enough, the second.
Now that you’ve found your seat, you should know that you no longer represent just yourself in class; you represent your entire race. Fair or unfair, when you walk in late, your entire race walks in late. When you forget to read, your whole race forgets to read. When you are singled out in front of the whole class for being late or not doing the homework, I promise you’ll feel less like a dumb kid, and more like the dumb black kid that they knew you out to be.
They file you into the cabinet of blackness that they were preparing for, but couldn’t until you gave them an appropriate reason. And once you do, they slam the drawer and that’s where you stay for the rest of the year. You’re not just another student. You’re a student who has to do twice as much to get half the credit.
Part of these improbable expectations also come from white people’s inability to notice you and your skin tone when it’s important, as well as direct all of their attention to you when you want it the least. When topics of race come up in these AP classes, often you will feel like you have to be the voice of reason and educate white people on everything.
They’ll say stupid stuff that will infuriate you, and your teacher will likely do nothing about it because they’re usually just as ignorant. The most difficult part of this confrontation is when you challenge the ideas of a particularly small-minded student, and then a classroom of flagrantly upset eyes shifts to you and you’re quickly reminded of your blackness. It’s intimidating. And you might feel as small and isolated as you ever have. But this is your moment of truth. This is when you can choose to cower to the intimidation or stand alone, strongly, because you refuse to tolerate covert or overt racism.
While it will be lonely and maybe terrifying, it’s crucial you make it abundantly clear that your intellectual power is superior to their racial dominance. As often as you feel enraged about the insensitivity of your white counterparts, it gets tiresome having the same conversations about race when you know you’ve repeated yourself dozens of times. It gets exasperating when the whole class notifies you with quick head shifts that it’s finally your time to speak, because a subject comes up pertaining to you.
Remember, you’re not the designated race educator in the classroom, nor should you have to be. So when a question about the Industrial Revolution or FDR’s New Deal comes up, assert your intelligence there as well. Nothing will rattle a smart white kid more than when you prove them wrong on something other than race. When you represent yourself as a complete intellectual, you win.
Because despite their best subtle and not-so-subtle efforts, your white classmates and teachers have been unable to tune out your powerful black mind, while you have been able to rearrange power in a way that will scare the shit out of them.