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Peers, Power, and Privilege

Peers, Power, and Privilege

By Lauren G. Mednick

I vividly remember standing at the door of my classroom on the first day in my new school, a highly regarded urban magnet school. I was 8 years old, and I looked around at my classmates — they were so different from those at my old private school where everyone had pretty much looked like me. Here were kids with a wide variety of skin colors, hairstyles, and clothes. I wanted to throw myself into the classroom and become friends with them all!

Unfortunately, it did not turn out that way. There were confusing barriers. I remember one day on the playground walking over to a group of black girls and watching them play a hand game that was unfamiliar to me and listening to them talk, using many words that I did not understand. I hovered for a while, hoping that someone would invite me in, but I felt awkward and invisible and slowly walked over to the other side of the playground where a group of mostly white kids were playing games that I did know.

Gradually my circle of friends (all girls) coalesced and included four white girls, one biracial (Puerto Rican/white) girl, one black girl (often teased by other black kids, who called her an "oreo"), and a child from India. What I did not realize at the time was that they were all from middle class families. Our families lived in similar neighborhoods; our parents became friends. For the kids, it translated into frequent play dates and carpools to gymnastics and soccer, places where I never saw my classmates from low-income families.

I enjoyed my schooling, but at some level, I always felt troubled by the racial divisions in my elementary and secondary schools and the fact that teachers did not seem to be concerned about them. These unsettled questions and the desire to help out in the schools led me to volunteer as a teaching assistant in a similar magnet elementary school throughout high school and college. I became aware of the gap between the rhetoric and reality of "desegregated" schools. I heard administrators and teachers congratulate themselves on having achieved a "balanced" and "diverse" population in their school. In contrast to my childhood experiences, they seemed to assume that all they had to do was to put children together and integration would magically happen because, after all, young children are "colorblind." I saw attempts to "keep white families in the schools" with enrichment programs and "gifted and talented" classes. While these initiatives satisfied some parents, they widened the racial and social class divisions among the children.

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