One of the eight black students in Blair's 403-student Magnet Program tells it like it is
It's only in the hall that I can finally relax, part of an amorphous, blue jean-clad mass, practically indistinguishable in the comforting blur. The bell rings, signaling the start of sixth period, and we scramble for our respective doors.
Inside the classroom is a different story. The class is Research Design, a requirement for all magnet juniors. Chatting animatedly in the room are ten white students, seven Asian students and one Hispanic student. And then there's me. Reasonably similar to my classmates in nearly all ways except for the one that seems to matter most: my skin color.
It's not the first time I've been the only black student in one of my classes, nor do I delude myself to think it will be the last. The odds aren't exactly stacked in my favor—the junior magnet class is 53 percent white, 42 percent Asian, three percent Hispanic and two percent black. After almost three years in the Magnet, being of a darker complexion than all of my classmates has become a familiar feeling.
Unfortunately, increased familiarity does not mean increased ease.
As an eighth grader newly accepted into the Magnet, I nearly declined the invitation. After attending magnet middle and elementary schools, the prospect of spending another four years as a dark-skinned island was almost enough to repel me entirely. But in the end, the idea of receiving what was advertised to me as "a private school education for a public school cost" won me over. I sentenced myself to four years as the literal black sheep of the magnet class of 2003.
Magnet middle and elementary school backgrounds also influenced the high school decisions of many other minority students in the Magnet and in CAP, as well. In their cases, though, magnet backgrounds eased concerns about being in the racial minority.
Magnet senior David Chachere cites his magnet elementary and middle school experiences as factors in his decision to attend the largely white and Asian Blair Magnet Program. "I've never been in a predominantly black school atmosphere," says Chachere. However, he wasn't prepared to be one of only two black students in a class of 107. "I was completely shocked at how few [black students] there were," recalls Chachere of the start of his magnet career.
Nearly all magnet and CAP minorities agree that feelings of isolation begin to dissipate as they grow more familiar with their differently colored peers. However, every so often, an innocent or not-so-innocent comment, question or action on the part of a non-minority classmate can bring those differences back to center stage.
"We have racial quotas in the Magnet, don't we?" a classmate asked me during my sophomore year, directly following an argument regarding a project we were working on together. I don't remember answering. Most likely I shot him the look of mild disdain he deserved and turned back to my paper.
Though I doubt he anticipated that I'd be asking myself the same question repeatedly throughout the rest of my high school career, the intent of his question was obvious: he wished to create uncertainty in my mind as to whether I'd been invited to the program because of my actual merit or simply to help the program meet a minimum percentage of minority students. He succeeded, although I'd known since before starting high school that neither program looked at race as a factor when considering applicants.
Even Blair faculty members can make race a problem for minority magnet and CAP students, albeit inadvertently. Junior Selam Wubu, an African-American magnet student, was "pissed off" by a run-in she had with an administrator during her exams. When Wubu arrived at school for an eighth period semester exam, the administrator refused to allow her into the building. "She kept saying, ‘Eighth period exams only,' without even asking if I had an eighth period or not," recalls Wubu. "Then she didn't believe me, and she made me show her my schedule."
For magnet and CAP students, classes that are not program requirements must be scheduled around those that are. Due to scheduling constraints, these classes are often dominated by magnet and CAP students and are, again, primarily white and Asian. So, as in magnet classes, I often find myself the sole minority in my other classes, as well.
For me, the most frustrating part of being a minority in a majority-dominated class is the imagined responsibility of representing an entire demographic group on my own. Many minority CAP and magnet students report feeling a similar burden and a similar frustration.
Chachere, on the other hand, is a staunch believer in steadfastly representing only one viewpoint: his own. He believes that it is impossible for one student to represent the myriad of opinions held by an entire racial group. "Minorities are people," he says emphatically. "One black person is not just the same as another."
As a freshman who struggled occasionally in one particular class, I found myself wondering constantly what my classmates would surmise to be the underlying cause of my performance—my innate mental capabilities and hard work or my skin color. As a result, I have become very private about my schoolwork, for fear of feeding undesirable stereotypes.
Again, Chachere disagrees. He does not believe that academic potential has any correlation with the amount of melanin in one's skin and wants be judged as himself, not a representative of an entire race. If he does poorly in a class, he explains, "I want to do bad because I'm doing bad, not because I'm black. I want to fail as David Chachere. First and foremost, I want to be me."
It was not until the second semester of my sophomore year that I had a black classmate in a magnet class. For a while, our relationship was based almost entirely around a joke we cracked frequently about our plight, wherein we referred to ourselves as "two chocolate chips in a sugar cookie."
Some students shy away from their fellow magnet and CAP minorities, feeling that consorting among them will affect teachers' perceptions of them. Junior Sebastian Galeano-Villa, a Hispanic magnet student, makes an effort to demonstrate his ability and willingness to get along with all types of people. He explains, "You don't want [teachers] to think you only know how to get along with people like yourself."
Nearly all minority magnet and CAP students report feeling distanced from their same-race peers outside of their programs. CAP senior Kory Vargas-Caro, who is Hispanic, believes that this separation results in the strengthening of bonds between minorities within programs. "Feeling that distance from the outside world for so long caused me to really seek relationships with other CAP Hispanics," he says.
But for some students, years of separation from that "outside world" can take their toll. Many of sophomore CAP student Maya Jackson's friends are not in CAP, and she says they can detect the influence years of magnet programs have had on her. An African American, she has become familiar with the terms "sellout" and "whitewashed" and admits that the labels may be accurate in describing her. "When I'm with my black friends, I don't feel black enough!" she sputters. "They tell me things like, ‘My white friends are blacker than you.'" She then concedes, "I guess I have a hint of whitewashedness."
Like Jackson, I often wonder whether I am gradually losing touch with my identity, whether, in a predominantly minority school setting, I would be considered "not black enough." In any event, I cannot worry about the racial profiles that I fail to match. Like Chachere, I choose instead to set my own standards as an individual. First and foremost, I want to be me.
Shannon Sanders. Shannon is stumbling through life as a Magnet senior. She's an aspiring obstetrician, who hopes to live in NYC and somehow blend seamlessly into the masses of chicness after graduating from Columbia University. She's a sort-of member of Blair's Model UN club, takes dance lessons, ... More »