Our community needs to challenge the narrative that says white academic spaces are inherently better for Black children.
Sidney and I met on the school van the morning of our first day as 6th graders. It was rare for me to find another West African in our city, let alone another Nigerian my age, but her fathers’ heavily accented farewells were a dead giveaway . “Igbo” I asked the stranger, “Yoruba” she replied. From that day on, Sidney and I would be each other’s familiar face in the strange place we called school. As we awaited our first day tour guides, we joked about how much we stuck out in our new environment. We were the only black girls we’d seen on the campus so far and the staring was confirmation of that. Still, we couldn’t help but to notice how different this campus was in comparison to the ones we were used to. With its plush student lounges marked with signs that read “No Teachers Allowed”, floor to ceiling mahogany lockers and indoor tennis court, this campus was more than we could’ve imagined.
Throughout the day, we listened to the administrators rave about this being their most diverse year. We didn’t feel like 5 Black girls out of 48 was some huge accomplishments, but given that private schools in Pittsburgh were notorious for being “virtually all white”, (having a white student population of over 90%), we could sorta see where the excitement stemmed from. That day would be a turning point for the both of us, kicking off a series of events that would change the course of our lives forever. I’m grateful that I survived the hallways of my prestigious pseudo-prison. I wish the same could be said for my best friend, Sidney.
It took about 2 weeks for the harsh reality of our new environment to set in. There was no real transition for us out of our inner city schools, which were both majority Black and majority low income. Little did we know private schools in America had long maintained their top tier status by excluding both populations. And even decades after ushering white families through the era of forced integration, these schools had neither the resources nor the regard for Black students. One afternoon, we were chased down by a cafeteria employee accusing Sidney and I of not paying for our meals. With no receipts and no security cameras to vouch for us, we quietly followed the lady back to the cafeteria where another worker recalled ringing us out.
Disappointed by the lack of scandal, our accuser sent us on our way with our shame. Our classmates, in an attempt to unpack the situation, concluded that we were new (aka Black) and on scholarship (aka poor) and that that justified the worker’s suspicion. “I’m not on scholarship!” Sidney snapped. We both were, but I could see how embarrassed Sidney was by the assertion that because we received financial assistance, we would need to steal food.
By the time we reached the 8th grade, Sidney’s brand of mean girl had become a campus favorite. She slowly embraced the “resident black bitch” title she’d earned around campus and whatever people thought of her, they knew better than to say it to her face. I knew Sidney was playing a role and I didn’t judge her for it, we had been stripped of our innocence the moment we entered an environment where our differences were used to demean us. Being subjected to the intentional micro aggressions of our classmates and educators was just the price we paid for “making it out”. And being publicly paraded around as diversity initiatives in front of donors and board members got old quick.
That, along with being told we were too sensitive every time a classmate blurted out the N word and constantly being reminded that parent donations were the only reason we were there in the first place. Every day was a constant reminder that we were unwanted and unwelcome, that it was pity affording us the opportunity to learn alongside the daughters of the city’s elite and we should express our gratitude a little more quietly.
Things very quickly fell apart as we both entered the 9th grade. I opted to add cutting to my self-destructive repertoire of anorexia, Sidney added marijuana and adderall to hers. The year took us on vastly different journeys but taught us a common lesson: Black girls don’t get to be victims. Now we experienced first hand what’s been well documented throughout history, adults generally see Black girls as less innocent. But I was totally unprepared for Mrs. Schneider, a woman who had accused me of cheating 4 times in one school year despite my failing chemistry perfectly fine on my own.
Assigned an element from the periodic table, we were required to present an informative poster board to the class. I placed my poster board in the chem lab before homeroom, only to discover at the start of 4th period that my poster had vanished. “Let me guess, you don’t have it, do you?” she asked sarcastically while watching me frantically search the stack of posters in the back of the class. “I was with her when she brought it”, one of my classmates chimed in, “Yeah it had pennies on it, right Arah” another added. Mrs. Schneider instructed everyone to be quiet and ordered me to the guidance counselor. I knew there was no way my word would be taken over hers. I was given detention off of the mere mention of copied homework. Without photographic evidence of my poster, I was doomed.
That day, I received my first ever suspension. Mrs. Schneider smirked as the principal chastised me on the severity of my alleged actions. Before I could retreat to the lounge and lick my wounds, Mrs. Schneider snapped, demanding justification for my one day suspension. Unable to hide her hatred of me any longer, she lamented about how there was a reason I couldn’t afford to attend the school, that I was academically incapable of keeping up with my peers and had the grades to prove it. Not a single person in the room came to my defense in a room full of adults.
I returned from my suspension only to see my poster board on display in the student lounge, a cleaning person found it shoved behind a supply cabinet in Mrs. Schneider’s room. There was no apology, there was no recanting of the publicly made accusations, the suspension remained on my record, and I was given a C for the assignment. There was no amount of wrong that a white woman could commit that would warrant an apology to a black girl like me.
I still remember the day the police came to our house asking to take a look at our computer. Apparently someone had been sending death threats to a few of the popular girls in our class, Sidney included, and their parents had contacted the local authorities. The Oregon Trail was all the cops were going to find on our outdated hand-me down desktop, and I was quickly ruled out as a suspect. But the mood on campus had noticeably shifted, you could smell the suspicion in the air. Everything was about mental health, suicide prevention, recognizing depression, stress management and supporting friends through difficult times.
As the rogue AOL AIM account continued to send threats of razor blades in baked goods, the accusations continued to fly. Rumor had it a couple of the goth girls were behind the threats and the school spared no expense providing round the clock mental health professionals and counselors to help us all process through the ongoing situation. No matter what, we were to remain open minded and understanding of whoever was behind the account, remembering that she was still one of us, and it was our duty to show compassion. She may have been a criminal, but she was just as much a victim.
That all changed when the real mastermind behind the account was revealed. There were no counselors or mental health workers that day, just two uniformed police officers accompanied by the school Headmistress, entering homeroom to inform Sidney that she was under arrest for making terroristic threats. As the dust settled, we had some group discussions about the incident and Sidney’s role in it all. There were no affirming words or calls for unconditional support, only tears from her former friends recanting how unhinged Sidney had always been. Sidney was no victim. Despite the parents pursuing criminal charges, Sidney was let off with community service and rezoned to one of the worst performing high schools in the state, banned from campus forever.
I watched how Sidney was discarded and forgotten by the same people who just recently preached forgiveness. But when it was revealed to be Sidney, the “resident Black bitch” all sympathies were out the window. She was entertainment for them, she was that “pop of color” white people love so much, a pet for the prestigious or the quintessential Black friend, but she was never anything more than that to them. This was her proof.
It took Sidney and the rest of us years to perfect our disguises so I wasn’t surprised that she was having a hard time acclimating to the outside world. I knew she had developed a serious drug habit and was apparently dodging her parents efforts to send her back to Nigeria for school, but when I heard she had gone missing I was overcome with guilt. On June 10, 2004, the body of a young woman found deceased in the river was identified as Sidney. No foul play was suspected and the coroner ruled her death the result of an accidental drug overdose. Truth be told, our beloved institution killed my friend way before she lost her life. Every year I watch black parents in my hometown brag about their children’s admissions to my alma mater and I can’t help but to feel frustrated. Knowing most Black communities lack the resources and the funding to offer their children MacBooks and gourmet lunch menus, it’s either the public sector or the private one. And the private one comes with a host of challenges that shouldn’t be dismissed.
I’m one of the fortunate ones who didn’t succumb to the psychological beatings we endured over the years, I know many more who weren’t so fortunate. It’s not always the big things that chip away at your sense of self worth, it’s being paraded around so rich white people can see who their donations purchased, being treated like a charity case, being the go to for all of white America’s diversity initiatives and then shoved back on the shelf. As a parent myself, I understand the importance of placing a child in an environment that will challenge and develop them, but what happens when the best place for your child academically is the worst place for them both socially and mentally? Does anyone step in to repair the damage these white institutions inflict on black children?
I tell Sidney’s story to combat the idea that whatever doesn’t kill Black girls makes them stronger. Our community needs to challenge the narrative that says white academic spaces are inherently better for Black children, snap out of whatever programming has conditioned us to believe that white educators have our children’s best interest at heart and acknowledge that children cannot be appropriately educated in spaces where they’re pitied and deemed expendable.
Sidney never got to be the graduate of one of the country’s top all-girl prep academies. She didn’t have her Ivy League acceptance letters plastered all over social media for everyone to celebrate. She was discarded, and twice at that. Once by them and again by us, therein lies the tragedy. For every Black private school grad who beats the odds, in the streets and in the classroom, there are girls like Sidney who lose both battles and both stories need to be told. Both stories give an in-depth look at the plight of Black girls in America and calls upon our community to recognize their fragility and protect them, because not every Black girl survives private school.