What are the social, emotional, and cultural costs of an elite education for a young student of color? Andre Robert Lee’s documentary, The Prep School Negro, illuminates the filmmaker’s journey from a tough neighborhood in Philly to one of the most prestigious prep schools in the nation. The education he received–all expenses paid–was top notch, but there were other prices to be paid when it came to his identity–his relationship with his family, and the pressure of fitting into two very different worlds. The film allows Lee to reflect on his past, as a family emergency necessitates him coming to terms with his present.

Woven throughout his poignant personal narrative are the voices of current prep school students of color who, Lee finds, are navigating the same rocky roads that he did decades ago. Both low income and affluent students of color express anxiety, as the former feel uncomfortable having classmates over to their houses, while the latter find trouble fitting in with the few other students of color at their school.   Students work to explore their racial identity, dealing with both intense white privilege at school, and the pressure of being “Black enough” at home.  Additionally, along with the amazing educational opportunities, some face an underlying sense of guilt associated with receiving an invitation into this world while others are left behind.  For Lee and the students he profiles, and those of us who also identify as “prep school negroes,” an elite education can contribute a great deal to both challenges faced and success achieved.

The documentary raises big questions about race, class, and education. What factors go into the decision to send a child of color to a prep school? What can elite schools do to foster dialogue and create change, rather than give lip service to diversity? How are parents, siblings, and those in the community who don’t have access to a prep school education impacted by the experiences of the prep school student of color? While Lee is in the process of completing the extended version of the film, the educational version has toured to hundreds of schools which includes curriculum guides and workshops that allow the art to inspire action.

You can find more information at www.theprepschoolnegro.org.

What are your thoughts on the challenges and benefits of a prep school education for students of color?

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  • LRS23

    It is sad to think that just a few hundred years ago, our ancestors were whipped, killed and banned from learning to read and write. But now, Blackness is often framed in terms of academic inferiority, and those who succeed are either “different,” from other Blacks or are not considered authentically Black. The legacies of slavery and jim crow are still with us….

  • SouthernGirl

    Is the issue about race or about class?
    Based on the preview, the issue seems to be the difference between the Black kids who were there only because of a scholarship and the the rich kids who were there because their parents paid for them to be there. I’m all for scholarships, please don’t misunderstand me. My point is that I think that so many times we confuse race with class. If we say that there is no difference between the two then we are assuming that ALL Blacks are poor, and we are no better than the whites who lump us all together with the lower or negative side of our race. (All black children are bastards, all black men are thugs, all black women are loose.) I refuse to go along with any of that!

    There are some Black kids in prep schools whose parents are “lawyers and doctors” and other pofessionals. The clip mentioned that the white kids had parents who were lawyers and doctors while the Black kids had parents who were working several jobs just to make ends meet. That just sounds to me like the issue is more class than race.

    I’ll definitely watch the film to see if there was more to it than what was seen in the preview.

    • Nic

      I agree with you @Southerngirl. B/c the experience IS invariably different if the economic/class divide doesn’t exist. Not to say that you aren’t cognizant of being a different color than your classmates, or that your race doesn’t come up but it’s not as big a deal when everything else about your life is the same. I personally feel more equipped to deal with a lot of situations b/c I’m just so USED to being the only, and I recognize when I’m being marginalized even if it’s subtle and I’m comfortable speaking up about it. I’m not afraid of or intimidated by white people and I’m not afraid of rich people. A lot of people are.

      I went to private school K-12 and I lived in the same neighborhood as a lot of my classmates, went to the same church with others, and had the same advantages as a child that they did. And yet I was raised to be very aware of my parents roots in the deep south, and remain acutely aware of the role that race plays in my life and what people went through in the not so distant past so that I can have these opportunities.

      I do think my experience would have been different if I’d felt like a total foreigner. If I’d sounded different from my classmates or lived someplace different. I do remember one new kid who joined my class in high school who clearly DID think that I was a scholarship kid who lived in some unmentionable place. I called him out for making stupid and racist assumptions and he turned bright red. But I realize that I was able to do that b/c I felt and knew that I belonged there. It was my place.

      I did get exposed to black kids through occasional visits to a black church and other black activities, and yes, went through the same headache of not sounding right to them or knowing too many “white” things (my musical tastes were always for R&B and soul but I knew pop, rock, and alternative b/c it’s what my friends listened to).
      I would be interesting to see someone examine the other side.

      It is very possibly to raise well-adjusted kids who are very comfortable with their black identities even if they grow up as the only or part of a very small minority.
      I totally appreciated the black community at my college (still small be comparable to national percentages of black people) but I do think that my comfort level in environments that matter (work and school for example) is heightened because of how I was raised. I’m not self-conscious or insecure when I’m the only black person in the room, and based on my career path, I’ve frequently been the only black person for “miles.”