Listening to Students of Color

Summer 2003

From the database of the Independent School Survey1 — with information about 37,000 students, 12,000 of whom are students of color — we know that there are significant differences by race in terms of the perceptions and overall quality of experience of students of color in independent schools. While the attitudes of all students track in similar patterns (e.g., white students and students of color generally agree that their school supports academic achievement, provides equal opportunities for boys and girls, and has a commitment to moral values and character development), white students have a more uniformly shared perspective than do students of color regarding the overall quality of their schools and their own success in school.

There are a lot of factors at play here, of course. But, as we look to improve the experiences of students of color in schools, it's not a bad idea to start by letting current students of color speak for themselves — and for adults to listen and carefully evaluate their school's role in shaping these students' experiences. As that happens, we'll know what is working, and learn how to build upon that success for a better future, not only for students of color, but for all students.

In this spirit, I put out a call to schools for students of color to share their experiences. What follows are excerpts from the many powerful and moving responses I received.
  • I wasn't sure how the white kids would react to me. I wasn't sure if I would be able to make friends. I wasn't sure if I would be able to compete academically. I've learned that there is more to the word "diversity" than meets the eye. It isn't just white or black. There's a lot of gray area to work with. In learning that lesson, it helped me adapt to the environment, the rigorous academic work, and helped me become a better person for the most part.
  • I will always be angry. That first year, I would sit at my homework desk and refuse to do homework because I would wonder, "Why should I participate in a school that perpetuates the oppression of millions of lives?" … I release the caged tiger, writing a song or poem, like catharsis, because when you feel voiceless, words set in ink are empowering. Even though I wish this school did not exist and there were equal learning opportunities for everyone, I am thankful for the opportunity to grasp an understanding of the ruling class and further my education, so that I may help out other communities as well as this one.
  • I've been leading two lives since I was 14: the person I am at home, and the person I am at school. In the classroom, I've become accustomed to the way every single person turns and looks at me whenever anyone mentions China, Taiwan, or the rest of Asia. In school, we are expected to question, to speak out, to be independent thinkers, while at home the bottom line is respect, and authority is never challenged.
  • Race is not a big factor here. You are accepted no matter what race you are. On the other hand, there are not many students in the upper school who are African American. Although there is no form of discrimination here, being such a minority is still difficult.
  • I can say, without doubt, that I cannot picture myself attending high school anywhere else. The pressures of high school life can be overwhelming; however, the atmosphere here is extremely welcoming and unbiased. … The classroom agenda always involves a period of discussion where teachers try to approach all points of view. This allows for every student of different races and beliefs to voice his or her opinion.
  • Generally my experience at an independent school has been bearable; however, I feel excluded and categorized. Many times I feel as if I am the advocate for the black race at my school, and anything I do is a reflection on all people of my ethnicity.
  • I have been fortunate enough to have never faced any kind of racist situation at my school. However, recently I have come to realize that the lack of diversity, especially within the faculty, at my school needs to be addressed. While I honestly love my school and believe that they have tried, I find it a little hard to believe that there hasn't been more than one qualified teacher of color that has applied for a job here. I like attending this school, and I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to do so, but I just wish that the administration and the board of trustees knew how important it is for the future of the school to improve on the diversity within the faculty, because I honestly believe that there will be more diversity in the student body when there is more diversity within the faculty and not just within the cleaning staff.
  • I am biracial. My mother is white and my father is black. Along with being biracial, I am Jewish. At my school, I have found it very easy to fit in and have the same opportunity as anyone else.... I have had friends come up to me and say that they wish their school were as diverse as mine. Teachers and students at this school have learned to appreciate difference and look at students from the inside out.
  • Sometimes, I don't feel as if I'm different. In fact, a lot of the times there is no difference between me and other students at my school. But sometimes I feel as if I'm being watched because I'm a student of color. But when I feel like this, I just try to be myself, because there is no way I can be perceived as something bad if I stay true to myself. I feel as if God has put me in this school for a reason, and as long as I'm being myself, I'll have no reason to complain.
  • Sometimes they're racist without even knowing it. Today, a friend told me, "You're my favorite black person." She didn't even realize she was being racist.  I don't worry about it any more because they're not trying to be mean or anything. They just don't know any better. The two or three good white friends I have here wouldn't do that.
  • As an Asian American in my community, I am granted the invaluable respect that I know is not ubiquitous within all schools in our country. Rarely do I hear jokes based on race, and, even when I do, they come across in a joking rather than an insulting manner. When traveling, I sometimes hear the occasional racial slur hurled by some careless soul. However, I am never really affected by such experiences, because the insulting party eventually becomes the target of public attention, not me.
  • I enjoy being biracial at my school, but I sometimes feel that there is no "comfort zone" for me. I also feel that certain teachers are extra nice to me so that they can be sure that people know that they accept minorities. I know that my friends who are also minorities like our school, but, at the same time, they go through situations that make them feel oppressed.
  • I am a Pakistani student. I have never felt like an outsider in the school I go to. I have never felt as if I was actually different. I feel I am a very lucky person, especially after September 11. I was so afraid of everything, but going to this school took that fear away. Everyone cared so much about me that I was not scared anymore.
  • Overall, I have rarely found that being a student of color is a problem. Luckily, the people at my school are very accepting; however, I would hope that in the future more of an effort is made towards educating people about different cultures on a consistent level. I have found that because most of the independent schools teach a core history curriculum of "white history" (American and European), students of color feel that their cultures are sometimes neglected.
This year, the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS) undertook diversity training for its own staff, hiring a consulting firm that utilizes the "appreciative inquiry" (AI) format. It's an approach some independent schools are now using successfully for many different types of professional development exercises: board retreats, team-building, strategic planning, and diversity training. The essence of the approach is to forsake the old way of assessing strengths and weaknesses, what AI calls the "deficit discourse," since it inevitably wastes time and energy on subjects sometimes better left alone. NAIS's old "MAP" approach (the Multicultural Assessment Plan) to examining the diversity climate at a school clearly lost favor because of its insistence on a deficit discourse: "Let's surface the myriad ways in which our school is racist, excoriate ourselves in some cathartic bloodletting, and then move on happily to a new place." The problem was that often the bloodletting left too many too weak to move forward with much enthusiasm. AI's approach is to ask, "What works here as an institution and what examples do you have of collective action for the common good? Once we know that, how can we adapt those attitudes and approaches to the diversity agenda?"

It seems to me that this AI approach — this emphasis on appreciative inquiry — can be applied to our efforts to improve the experiences of students of color. Independent school educators have a great deal of knowledge regarding every aspect of education. Still, we have much to learn from students, particularly students of color whose experiences don't always match our intent. By listening to them, we'll learn a great deal about what works and what doesn't, and, more to the point, have the opportunity to build a better learning environment for all.


1. For information on the Independent School Survey, go to the Independent School Association of the Central States website,