Saturday, July 31, 2010

Privilege: Clueless in Philadelphia

In my last post, I mentioned feeling envious of the black scholarship kids at Germantown Friends School because of their tight, warm, easy bond with one another.

Obviously, that was an outsider's view of their experience--not because what I observed wasn't true, but because it was virtually all I knew about them.

We were, all of us, part of a great racial experiment.  I sort of knew about it.  They lived it.  The Community Scholars Program at GFS in Philadelphia was formed in response to the bombing of black churches in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1963.  I knew about the bombings, about the Civil Rights Movement, but being in the camp of the "good guys" was actually an opportunity not to think about race.  The Quakers were helping to solve the problem, right?  Now I wonder what life at Germantown Friends was like from the point of view of the black kids.

To get there, I have to peel back the layers of what prevented me from really seeing them:

  • I wasn't really sure who the Community Scholars were. (In some ways, this was a good thing.) They just started showing up, but I figured that there were suddenly a lot more black/brown faces around simply because it was the 1970's.  We had the Beatles, we had hashish, we had black kids. At least one girl in my class had a doctor father, so I figured that at least some kids had the means to pay full tuition.
  • I rarely, if ever, asked myself how their home lives were different from mine.  So my grandparents had a black chauffeur.  Big deal.
  • When I almost got thrown out of school after 9th grade (not attending class or doing homework tends to draw that kind of reaction) I felt fortunate not to be a scholarship student:  think of the pressure!  
  • I had no clue how much my parents paid each year for the privilege of having a daughter who cut class. 
  • I enjoyed friendships with mostly male CS students.  They met me on my ground, which meant that they didn't act 'different' or talk 'different', so I assumed they didn't think differently than I did about their school experience...nor did it occur to me that they might talk differently among their families.
  • I never entered the house of any of the black or otherwise CS kids;  We kept our friendships within the (white) vocabulary of the school community.  
  • GFS didn't prepare us for an influx of kids whose grandparents had worked at menial jobs for our grandparents.  Our understanding of their lives was a vacuum, which we filled with data from our known world.  
  • I believed that to talk about race, even to other white people, was bad manners.  Much better to pretend we were all the same.  
  • I had no idea how competitive the scholarships were.  Didn't the parents just walk up to Dee Bristol at the switchboard in the front hall and ask when the next opening was?
Maybe it's human nature to assume that someone who shows up on your turf and acts like you also thinks like you.  Maybe that's part of what creates the illusion that race is no longer a major issue in post-Obama America...Does participation in the culture of a dominant community (in this case, a prep school) require suppression of the less-dominant culture?  Why is that?  At least GFS made the attempt to bring together two very different American worlds.  


Catherine Stine said...

I very much admire the school's objectives. And the fact that they never moved out of Germantown. Some of the most creative students were from that scholarship group. Think of Tony incredible drawings, for one. Kudos to the urban Quakers of Philly. May they continue to do visionary acts, despite certain difficulties involved.

HelenQP said...

Yeah, the CS program is a good thing. I remember feeling very smug that the school didn't make the move to the suburbs! Now a lot of other private schools have jumped on the bandwagon, but GFS was definitely in the forefront.