Segregation and the intraracial divide

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Interviewer: So you were usually the only person of color?

Oprah: The only one.

Interviewer: And this was throughout high school?

Oprah: And then I was the only black girl in my classes, and was usually the only

black girl on my sports teams… Then as tracking went on, I just became the only

black girl in my classes and those were the people I was around all the time. So then as a result of that, I was always around white people, even on my sports teams. Like I played tennis, I was the only black girl. I played volleyball, I was the only black girl.
Oprah lived in an affluent neighborhood of a Long Island suburb. Her neighborhood, however, was nearby to a largely black enclave; many of the black students at her school lived in the “black part of town” while she lived in the mostly white section. Oprah reported that the racial and ethnic composition of her high school was about 20% black and Latino. At graduation, she did not have one black friend. Her entire peer group was white and Asian.

Malik’s high school experience was akin to that of Oprah. He, too, grew up in a wealthy area where he and his two brothers were used to be the only black students in their neighborhood and schools. Throughout school, Malik was the only black student in the Gifted and Talented Program. The only time he had contact with other black students was in gym or art class.

Malik: I would say probably like 12 white kids, two Asians and me so I was the only black kid.

Interviewer: You were the only black kid in Gifted and Talented?

Malik: Yeah, yeah, which is really rare because I began to notice that every year there was only like one black kid in Gifted and Talented.

Interviewer: So, okay, so you were the only black kid in all your classes in high school?

Malik: Oh, yeah, and you know, in middle school and most of elementary school.

Interviewer: So that was an interesting experience for you, huh? What was that like?

Malik: I mean there was definitely times where I felt different. Like I remember specifically one time when I was in seventh grade there was this girl like who would sit behind me and she would like sharpen her pencil like in one of those like little sharpeners. And I had like longer hair and she would like dump the pencil shavings like in my hair…The only time I would see another African American would be when I was in like art class or in my gym class, you know. So it was weird because like I always felt more tension between myself and other African Americans than I felt with non-African American because I guess, you know, most African American students in majority white schools or situations kind of stick together.
Middle school was an especially painful time for Malik. He told me that he “blocked” out most of these kinds of painful episodes. He stated: It’s funny because I guess I’ve kind of blocked out most of it so I guess it was pretty bad, I don’t know. I just, I definitely had, like sixth, seventh and eighth grades were definitely tough years.” Malik estimated his high school to be about seven percent black at the time of his graduation. Being black in such a white space, proved to be quite a tiring experience for most of the black respondents who attended integrated high schools. They felt shunned or left out by other black students who were not in their classes or on their sports teams. Moreover, several respondents reiterated the difficulties of having to sit in class day after day with people who did not understand them or get to know them as individuals.

In her commentary, Oprah stated: “In general, everyone I was around was white which was hard. It was a little rough.” She felt that she missed out on dating in high school because her friends were all white. The black men at her school did not find her attractive because she was not part of a black peer group. And, her white girlfriends could not empathize with her situation of being a racial minority; they knew little about her culture or daily struggles. Oprah described how surprised one of her best friends was to learn that her hair was straightened:

“I remember my girlfriend from home didn’t know until like our senior year in college, I mean in high school, that I permed my hair, and she was like, it’s like I don’t know you, and I’m like, of course, it’s not my natural hair texture, black people don’t have hair like this and she was amazed. So I think a lot of people think, so I don’t know, I guess those kind of questions [are hard].
Devon, although insistent that he liked high school and did not feel any social isolation because of his skin color, reluctantly admitted that he wished there had been more racial diversity within the student body. The other black students in his grade were not enrolled in honors or advanced placement classes.

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