The Only Black Kid in Class? Here's Why it Happens

Posted by Liz Dwyer

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"I don't even see you as black." That's number 10 on Buzzfeed's incredible list of "27 Things You Had to Deal With as the Only Black Kid in Your Class," a list that's struck such a nerve across social media that Boston Globe political reporter Wesley Lowery tweeted about the reaction, "Buzzfeed has just won black Twitter."

Indeed, prominent political analyst and writer Zerlina Maxwell retweeted the list, adding the note, "THIS IS MY LIFE." And all across social media, black folks are commenting, "my biography," "story of my life," and "legit, my whole K-12 experience."

As a former only black kid in most of my classes—gym class, other black kids, AP physics, no other black kids—I can absolutely relate to most of the list.

Number two: "People told you you 'sounded white.'" Check.

Number seven, "People asked you things like: 'Do black people tan?'" Check.

Number 13: "There was that awkward moment in history class when you reached the topic of slavery and everyone turned to you." Check.

And of course, Number 25 accompanied with an image from the Unamused Black Girl Tumblr has the church saying amen: "When college acceptance letters came out, people started whispering...

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Double check on that one.

But while the list adds a moment of levity to my educational experiences—many of which were quite emotionally and psychologically difficult and can be classified as racial microaggressions—what the list doesn't address is why black students end up being the only one in their classes.

Sure, some black people who can relate to this list may have been the only black person in their town or suburb. But what's more likely is that they can relate because their parents put them in a private school, or they were put on the college track at a public school. Black children simply aren't being classified as gifted—it shouldn't need to be said, but psychologists say giftedness is a trait represented equally across all racial backgrounds—or tracked—you can also call it "ability grouping"—into honors or advanced placement classes. Meaning if you make it through, you're one of the lucky exceptions.

And as much as I chuckle over this list, it's also a little sad to know that not much has changed since the time I was in school.

My 12-year-old son is a sixth grader at a gifted and talented magnet middle school in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and like I was, he's the only black student in his classes. As is the case in most school districts, you have to either pass the district's gifted test to get into the program or you have to score in the advanced range on the state standardized tests.  

Last year a report from the Schott Foundation found that in New York City children from low income families were less likely to even be tested for gifted programs. And in New York City as in so many places, "low income" is merely polite code language for "black and Latino." The foundation's president John Jackson said what's happening in our schools is like "testing black, brown, and students of any race or ethnicity living in poverty, on their swimming abilities while also knowingly relegating them to pools where the water has been drained."

I've had many conversations with my son about how, thanks to America's Apartheid-style education system, his black peers in Los Angeles, a city where in 2011 only 40 percent of black males graduated from high school, aren't likely to be in class with him because, as Dr. Camika Royal says, this is what our education system is designed to do. Because of the racial divisions in our schools, unless my son ends up going to Morehouse College, this is going to be his education reality from here on out.

Like countless black parents across America I have to do what I can to equip my son so he can thrive in an environment where he frequently feels unwelcome—or at the very least, like a fish out of water. And when I go home tonight, I'll be sharing this list with him so he knows that although he's the only black kid in his classes, he's not alone in being the only one.

Image via Laesquinalatina Tumblr