Thursday, May 20, 2010

Reactions to "The Prep School Negro"

At the end of March, I went to see the movie "The Prep School Negro."

I'd wanted to see it for a while, for a couple of different reasons.

One is that I was a white charity kid at a prestigious girls' prep school.

One is that Andre Robert Lee grew up in Philadelphia, and the Philadelphia area is where I've lived most of my adult life and which I identify as home. His prep school is in "my" part of town, literally within walking distance of where I most recently lived in Philly. I used to work in the part of town where he grew up, and so did Beloved Wife.

Another is that I have found myself doing a lot of professional work around issues of poor African-Americans and education, and around issues of the "culture" of class. The movie trailer talks both about Lee's "golden ticket," and his sister's sense of losing him to another culture -- powerful stuff, with familiar echoes for me personally and professionally.

Yet another is that I'm now a Quaker, the school that Lee went to is a Quaker school, and I have this "thing" about talking about class issues in Quakerism. Class is present all the time in, and is an important part of, my experience as a Friend; I am determined to keep talking about class issues in our Religious Society; and work we do as Friends about class and race in general is not about "other people" -- it's about us, and it's about me specifically, not just my past life, but my here and now life.

So, there were lots of threads that drew me.

But most of all, what drew me was the intersection of class and race. I knew Lee's experience would have been different from mine. But I also wanted to know what might be the same.

I think I wanted to know, what might I see in Lee's experience that would help me make sense of mine?

I don't talk about my high school much. I don't feel any school pride. Until about a year and a half ago, I kept in touch with exactly one person I'd gone to high school with. I got an excellent education there, and it stood me in good stead, and I'm grateful for that. But I had a horrible time in so many ways, and in so many ways I hated it.

Some of that was about class. Some of that was about homophobia, although I didn't know it then. A lot of it was about girl-on-girl bullying.

So I had hoped that watching Lee's movie would help me figure some stuff out -- about my high school experience, about talking with Friends about class and race and education.

What did I find out?

Yes, there's a lot in this movie that resonates with my teen self. I didn't talk right, either, and I sure didn't dress/look right. I had to figure out where to sit for lunch, in a way completely different from and yet eerily similar to the way the kids of color in this movie did. I was both ashamed of and proud of my parents. I didn't know who the other kids were who might be "like me"/"community scholars." There are other things that were completely different for me, other things that were so much the same.

I realize this was already blindingly obvious, but I never realized it until I saw the PSN and talked with folks there, including Andre Robert Lee: I discovered that I'm ashamed. Ashamed that I went to a privileged prep school, and ashamed that I never fit in there. Both at the same time.

But I also discovered this movie is a lot more tender and gentle, and about a ton less bitter, than I feel about my own experience. Lee, and the other folks in PSN, are a lot more open and honest about how mixed their experience is/was. The good and the bad. Me, I try to hide both.

So what I walked away with is something one of the women there said to Lee during discussion: "We didn't talk about this [then], and this is our experience, and we need to."

We need to talk about it.

I need to talk about high school. I need to talk about being a charity kid going to a prep school. (We didn't have open euphemisms for charity kids like "community scholars"; it was a big secret if you were on financial aid, although you could certainly guess about some of us -- my family's car, for example, was a dead giveaway.) I need to talk about my class background, and about my life as a mixed-class person, and what that's like and how it plays out in my life now. I need to talk more openly about my teenage years and my high school experience.

But here's the big thing:

It's certainly occurred to me a number of times over the years to go back to my high school and talk about homophobia and the particular challenges facing LGBTQ teens.

But never once, until I saw PSN and heard folks talk there, did it occur to me to go back to my high school and talk about class.

Not once.

I mentioned this to Andre, in part because I was so shocked at myself.

Meeting and talking with Andre was like meeting a long-lost cousin in some ways. We had a brief, but really good, talk. Our experience is not the same, but there's some important stuff we share. And Andre's one of the only people I've ever talked to who I know gets it about my high school experience.

It's really, really important for white kids who went to prep schools on charity to start talking about our experiences. This is part of who we are. The good, the bad, the mixed. The stuff that was horrible. The joys we never would have had otherwise. All of the ordinary, everyday stuff that was neither here nor there.

Race and class are intertwined in US society, but they're not 100% the same. We can't expect our sisters and brothers of color to be the only ones who do the work of unpacking the class issues around this, and we can't ride their coat-tails, either. We can partner with them, and I'm pretty excited about that. And I'm thrilled that Andre thinks it's a good idea for white folks to use "The Prep School Negro" as a springboard to talk about our own experiences with our own "golden tickets."

Lee asked us a couple of things before we saw the film. One was, What did you think when you first heard the title, "The Prep School Negro"? How about now, after? Two was, the same with the content -- what did you see? Third was, what's one word that describes your reaction?

My word: Big-hearted.

If you're not sure you want to see this movie because you think it might make you too uncomfortable, I urge you to go see it. You might laugh, you might cry, you will very likely appreciate it, and I'm 90% sure your heart will be glad you went.

Click here for "The Prep School Negro" website.
Click here for "The Prep School Negro" on Facebook.


earthfreak (Pam) said...


thanks for posting this. I haven't even processed my experience with it. I went to school with Andre (two years ahead), on a scholarship, but as a poor(ish) white kid, not a "community scholar" - It was a great school, and I'm glad I went there, but like you I'm very glad people are finally "talking about it" - I felt like I had no tools at all at the time, not to deal with the white kids who went to europe or aspen every time they had a vacation, and not with the black kids who spoke a language I didn't understand and which scared me at the time (which now seems embarassingly silly)

Judy said...

Stasa, wow, yes

"It's certainly occurred to me a number of times over the years to go back to my high school and talk about homophobia and the particular challenges facing LGBTQ teens.

"But never once, until I saw PSN and heard folks talk there, did it occur to me to go back to my high school and talk about class."

Ouch. My experience exactly. Is it because class the sea we swim in? Is it because we blessedly have models for holding the conversation about LGBT teens in schools?

Thanks for the movie reference. I'll have to look for it.

I grew up in a mixed class immigrant household - my dad grew up working class in a big city, my mom grew up professional class in a rural town. Only in the last few years have I become aware of how much class played into my parents' conflicts with each other and in my own inner conflicts. Sending me to prep school was not a conflict for my parents - my dad was Jewish, from a culture that highly values education (yes, there are working class Jews!). But I do carry an inner conflict with me out of that difficult cultural shock, as you described - shame and thankfulness at the same time for having been there.

And now I'm a Quaker in a New England college town, and class is the elephant in the room we don't talk about.

Oh yes, and there are a couple of EFI affiliated Friends churches in the Salvadoran community a short ride away on the subway. I'm starting to visit with them. Lots of differences we don't talk about here: language, theology, race, and yes, class. We live by and large insulated from each other in our parallel universes.

Most Quakers don't even start to talk about race and class. Most Friends who do start the process of examination and reflection stay stuck there. How can we midwife Friends' transformation?

staśa said...

Thank you both so much for your comments. I hope to post a "real" reply soon.

staśa said...

Pam, you're welcome, and thank you.

So, at your GFS (my school's initials were also GFS), what's the difference between being a white kid on financial aid and being a community scholar - ?

It sounds like we were all in HS right around the same time -- I graduated in 1986.

I didn't know what Aspen was when I got to HS. I'd never been skiing (still haven't), I'd never been on an airplane, all those things.

I don't remember there being any poor Black kids at my school. I lived in Baltimore City, and the school was in the suburbs, so it's not like there weren't any low-income Black families there to reach out to.

And we were in the 'burbs. You couldn't take the bus to my school, for example; public transit didn't go there.

I've often wondered if my experience would have been different, and how, if I'd gone to the Friends School in Baltimore instead. Sometimes I still do. I think I might have been slightly less odd-out, but of course, there's no way to really know that. :)

staśa said...

Judy, thank you.

I think for me, it's because I have learned that my sexual orientation isn't something to be ashamed of -- although I admit to being afraid in some ways to go back to my high school as an out lesbian -- but class, for me, is still permeated with shame.

And the work I've done so far with Friends hasn't changed that much. We're conditioned that talking about money is shameful; but economic accessibility is something I feel like I bring up all the time in my Meetings. (And other groups I'm part of. Especially social-justice ones.) Needing mobility accessibility isn't shameful; but I still have that shame to combat around financial accessibility -- even when I'm not talking about my own situation.

So I could think about going back to my high school to talk about homophobia in part b/c there's dialog around it, in part b/c I'm personally not at all ashamed to be queer, and in part b/c I'm able to feel righteous rage over being bullied for being thought to be a lesbian. (Like any of us knew what that meant.)

But I feel both shame and righteous rage over being bullied for being poor, or just plain class-different. Wrong hair, wrong clothes, wrong glasses, wrong shoes, etc. Wrong values.

I grew up in a neighborhood with plenty of working class and professional Jews. :)

In my family, there was no conflict over getting a good education -- just over the best way to do so.

"Most Quakers don't even start to talk about race and class. Most Friends who do start the process of examination and reflection stay stuck there. How can we midwife Friends' transformation?"

I've been thinking about this today especially, b/c today would have been Bonnie Tinker's birthday.

In the Quaker communities we both were part of, Bonnie was another person who was always willing to talk frankly about class; and even when I disagreed with her, or she irritated me mightily in how she insisted we should handle something, I was always grateful to know she had my back -- when she was there, I always knew she would be thinking about this stuff, too, and would confront it, too.

So, there are Friends who are working on this. Bonnie was one. George Lakey is one. There's a workshop he's offered for several years at FGC Gathering on Quakers and Class, which he's offering again this summer, and which he might offer in other contexts such as Pendle Hill. Jeanne Burns blogs about this, and started two different email discussion groups a few years back about Quakers and class; I left both email groups after a while, b/c I didn't feel like there was room enough for me and my experience, and b/c I was tired enough of defending my experience to middle- and upper-class Friends without also proving I'm working-class "enough" to yet other Friends. *shrug*

I do know individual Friends, as well as Meetings, who actively tackle race issues. Some do it more gracefully than others. But I know almost none who see tackling class as part of their Meeting's work or ministry. That doesn't mean they aren't out there; it just means I don't know about them.

I think the basic way to midwife this among Friends is the same as for anything else: Be in community with each other. Talk about our experiences. Don't pretend class isn't an issue. Share the truth of our lives. Worship together. Keep talking about it. Keep being honest.

Thanks for your comment!

bedawyn said...

I wish I'd known this during the one or two years we were at Bryn Mawr together. I had all sorts of conflicted feelings about all these lovely prep school women who surrounded me; I don't think it ever occurred to me that any of them might NOT have been wealthy. The very very few other Mawrters I knew who weren't wealthy seemed to have badges proclaiming their disadvantaged status in ways I could never click with, since I was only poor and not desperately poor.

I wish I could say something more insightful than that, but nope. :-) Thank you for discussing this issue, though.

staśa said...

bedawyn, thanks for your comment; I really appreciate it.

I know I didn't have many useful tools then for talking about class, and that my attempts to talk about it were pretty stumbling. Also, if I remember rightly, you were a year behind me the first the time I was at Bryn Mawr; when we overlapped, I was pretty overwhelmed by being sick and by coping with sexual assault the fall of my sophomore year. So you may well have tried to have conversations with me, and if you did, I don't know how well I was able to be with you in them. I'm sorry for that missed opportunity.

I'm having some really, really interesting experiences right now with my high school around bullying and sexual orientation -- 25 years later. Wow. I posted the letter I wrote as part of the "Write Your Principal" Project; I got a phone call today from the Head of School, about which I will post more soon. So maybe, maybe, more work can happen soon about class -- because I sure never thought it could happen around lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer issues.